This past Thursday someone in the Mexican resort town of Acapulco left the city a Valentine’s Day gift no one would ever want to receive – a severed head found in a plain, gray suitcase. The body, which was discovered sans head sometime later that day, was accompanied by a teacher’s ID card – presumably that of […]
This past Thursday someone in the Mexican resort town of Acapulco left the city a Valentine’s Day gift no one would ever want to receive – a severed head found in a plain, gray suitcase. The body, which was discovered sans head sometime later that day, was accompanied by a teacher’s ID card – presumably that of the headless corpse it was found alongside – and a narcomensaje, a message left by the man’s killers.
In nearly any other country in the world such a grisly find would be page-one news and would no doubt lead local radio and TV newscasts. The country would be riveted for days or weeks as police investigated, tracked down and eventually brought to justice the perpetrator of this heinous crime. In every country, that is, except Mexico.
The grim truth is that crimes like this have become so commonplace across wide swathes of Mexico that they are often relegated to newspaper back pages if they are covered at all. In some parts of Mexico drug-related violence doesn’t even make the news – so intimidated by gangsters are many members of local media that they have stopped publishing or broadcasting any details of the drug war whatsoever. Indeed, to do so is to sign one’s own death warrant.
As proof of this, consider that since the drug war began in 2006, more than 100 journalists have been killed or “disappeared” by Mexico’s warring cartels – making Mexico more dangerous for working journalists than even Afghanistan. In the Mexican border town of Juarez the city’s newspaper even published a front-page plea to the cartels asking them to inform the newspaper what they wanted the newspaper’s journalists to do in order to avoid being assassinated.
While horrible, these deaths are only a drop in the proverbial bucket. Altogether, federal officials in Mexico estimate that more than 47,000 people have been murdered since the killing began, begging the question – just what on Earth is going on across our southern border?
Setting the stage for the violence
The grim tragedy that is modern Mexico stems from two developments in the late 1990s and the early 2000s that set the stage for the current bout of violence. The first was the effective shutting down of direct drug smuggling routes from Colombia into the United States. Originally, it was Colombian organizations, such as the infamous Medellín cartel led by the late Pablo Escobar, that were the world’s premier drug-smuggling operations. Colombian drugs, principally cocaine, flowed into the U.S. and Western Europe nearly unimpeded for many years until growing violence, particularly in the U.S., led to a crackdown on smuggling in the mid-1980s.
As part of this effort, U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, intelligence and law enforcement assets were coordinated in an all-out effort to shut down Caribbean smuggling routes wherein light aircraft or ships were sent directly from Colombia to reception points in the U.S. Southeast – most notably southern Florida. This effort, combined with an assistance package provided to the Colombian government by the U.S. government, known as Plan Colombia, greatly reduced the direct flow of drugs from that country into the United States.
Colombian drug runners, under pressure from within and without by Uncle Sam and seeing its ability to independently ship drugs to the United States choked off by a concerted U.S. effort against them, in turn made a deal with Mexican gangsters to hand off responsibility for delivery into the United States to Mexican smugglers – who had the advantage of a long, poorly-patrolled, porous border and literally centuries of experience smuggling illicit goods into the American Southwest. As a consequence, while Colombia remains the primary source of cocaine coming into the U.S., Mexican cartels have come to dominate the business of actually delivering it due to their control of strategic smuggling territory along the U.S.-Mexican border.
It is control of these lucrative cross-border smuggling routes that form the crux of the current conflict in Mexico. As is typical with most black markets the very illegality of the drug trade attracts violent criminals – as any resident of inner-city America can attest – but for violence to spiral out of control as it has in Mexico requires the presence of a deeply dysfunctional state that has been compromised by the criminal groups it is trying to combat. Since Mexico democratized in 2000 with the electoral defeat of the long-ruling PRI party, that is exactly what Mexico has become.
To see why, one has to first understand that the PRI, or the Institutional Revolutionary Party, ruled Mexico as a one-party state for approximately 70 years. However, in many respects this was not an ideological party that focused on a distinct policy program, such as Chavez’s neo-socialist rule in contemporary Venezuela. Instead, Mexico’s PRI was at best a left-leaning nationalist party that focused mostly on retaining its own power, wealth, and privilege. As part of this goal the PRI incorporated or co-opted most major organizations in the country into a corporatist political system where everyone, from labor unions to industrialists, received some form of representation under the aegis of PRI, one-party rule.
Organized crime, being a major source of power and influence, was not left out, though its incorporation into the PRI-dominated political system was done covertly through the mundane mechanisms of bribery and corruption. At no time, however, did the cartels actually call the shots under this arrangement. The Mexican government, meaning the PRI, was still, to use a mob term, capo di tutti capi – or the boss of all bosses.
Indeed, as is related by British journalist Ioan Grillo’s seminal book on the history of Mexico’s drug war, the Mexican state was until relatively recently capable of cracking down on organized crime whenever it wished. For most of the era of PRI rule the formula was that so long as violence didn’t get too bad, the PRI got its cut and the U.S. government didn’t complain too loudly for too long, then the Mexican government, meaning the PRI, was content to do relatively little to combat the drug trade. It wasn’t, quite simply, a problem that Mexico’s rulers bothered themselves about.
Democratization in the late 1990s and early 2000s fundamentally changed this cozy arrangement that had long existed between organized crime and the Mexican state. Now, both politicians and bureaucrats are unsure of both their tenure and fortune in the new arena of competitive democratic politics. As a result, cracking down on crime becomes a sure vote-getter during national elections for politicians looking to win or retain office.
At the same time, however, politicians and bureaucrats lower down the chain at the local level are still confronted with the riches offered by cooperating with organized crime – which becomes even more attractive given the insecurity of their hold on office that democratization has caused. The mentality is to take while the getting, so to speak, is good.
The effect on the Mexican body politic is akin to a combination of paralysis and cancer. At the top, the Mexican government orders crackdowns against the mobs, but the mobs have so corrupted local and regional governments that doing so becomes impossible. Instead, local and regional police forces have become integrated, via corruption, into the forces of competing cartels. In many places these corrupted police forces are actually used by one mafia outfit against another as they battle for control of those all-important cross-border smuggling routes. The state, in other words, has effectively become, at the local level, both a tool and a prize of the criminal enterprise that wins control of its area.
Seeing this, federal troops and law enforcement have been called in by the central government to break the power of the cartels, but this has merely exposed these forces to the same corrupting pressure that has ruined the ability of local and regional governments in Mexico to stem cartel power. As a glaring example of this, consider that the core of individuals that make up one of the most feared and powerful of Mexico’s gangs – the Zetas – were originally members of Mexico’s elite Special Forces. They were recruited by mobsters to serve the leader of the Gulf Cartel – the organization that controls drug smuggling into Texas – but have since used their military training to break away from their erstwhile mafia bosses to carve out their own criminal empire.
Today, Mexico’s narcotics traffickers not only bribe and co-opt the police and military, but also openly recruit the young and poor by posting banners in urban slums that promise a salary, a new home, a new truck and even family benefits for those who join them – something Mexico’s poorly-paid and poorly-trained police forces simply cannot hope to match. According to some estimates, Mexico’s drug cartels make so much money from the trafficking of narcotics that they could easily triple the annual pay of every police officer in the country. Once recruited, these armies of young men are provided weapons and training, and then organized into quasi-paramilitary cells that use complex tactics and advanced weaponry to fight both the law and each other.
As a result there are areas of northern Mexico that are effectively ruled by one cartel or another or by no one at all – a situation that is deeply disturbing to many here in the U.S. It has even led some to suggest, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that what Mexico faces is not simply crime run amok, but a criminal insurgency that threatens the stability and sovereignty of our hugely important southern neighbor and our own national security.
Unfortunately, given the current political climate in the United States, there is likely very little that can be done beyond a further militarization of Mexico’s drug war and Washington’s increasing involvement in it. This is because the ultimate cause of Mexico’s burgeoning criminal insurgency does not lie in Mexico itself, but across the border in the United States. It is the nearly insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, despite decades of anti-drug policing, that prompts violent competition over Mexican smuggling routes in the first place. So long as that lucrative black market exists, criminals will take advantage of it.
Second, smuggling over the U.S.-Mexico border is a two-way street, and it is the steady flow of high-quality U.S. weaponry into Mexico that keeps the drug cartels armed well enough to challenge even the central government for control of Mexican territory. From handguns to assault rifles, Mexico’s cartels spend millions purchasing weapons and ammunition across the border for use against their competitors both inside and outside of the Mexican government. Indeed, Mexican authorities claim that they have seized nearly 70,000 weapons from cartel gunmen that can ultimately be traced back to the United States. Given the power of the U.S. gun lobby to stave off regulation even in the face of school massacres here in America, staunching the flood of weapons heading south through increased gun regulation and stepped-up law enforcement looks even less likely to happen than the end of U.S. drug prohibition.
So, American money and American arms fuel a bloody criminal insurgency south of the border that has wreaked untold horror across Mexico. Tens of thousands have died, and the violence has not yet abated after six years of unrelenting Narco terror. Whatever happens next, the old truism about Mexico’s relations with America: ¡Pobre México! ¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos! (Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!) remains as true today as it ever was. Drug abuse may be an American problem, but it is Mexico that is increasingly paying for it.