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Report from US-Mexico border about the cartel wars whose connections go right up to the president

The Mexican government put an end to reports that 25,000 people have been killed in the last four years of Mexico's drug wars. The correct figure, they insist, is 28,000. Last month the candidate for election in Tamulipas State, on the US border, was killed in broad daylight by Los Narcos (narcotraficantes - ie drug traffickers. On 18th of August 2010 the body of a mayor (from the governing National Action Party- aka PAN) Edelmiro Cavazos, was found dumped by the roadside; blindfolded with his hands bound behind his back. Despite this the government of President Felipe Calderón is busy assuring anybody who can be bothered to listen that there is no narco-terrorism in Mexico.

For as long as there has been a market for illegal drugs (or, to put it another way; for as long as the idiotic policy of drug prohibition continues) Mexico has had and will have drug cartels. The 'War on Drugs' that the USA has pointlessly fought since before Nixon's time (although it was Reagan that helped push it to genocidal levels) has done exactly nothing to stem the flow of drugs from South America into that most prized of markets, the USA. The amount of cocaine, heroin and marijuana imported has steadily increased year upon year alongside the body count.

Whereas in the early decades of the cocaine boom profit was a question of production (hence the power of the Colombian cartels), now it has become a question of supply. And with a 2000 mile long US-Mexico border, Mexico's cartels have profited handsomely from this fact of political geography. El Chapo Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel (Mexico's largest), is reckoned (by no less an authority than Forbes.com) to be one of the richest men in Mexico, having trafficked somewhere in the region of $20 billion or so in the last decade alone.

There are many cartels in Mexico, with their roots in regional and familial allegiances. The largest of these are the La Familia Michoacana, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, Los Negros, the Oaxaca Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel and Los Zetas. Their interactions are byzantine in complexity - consisting of a never ending series of shifting alliances, betrayals, splits and mergers. Entire municipalities, regions and states have fallen under the control of the narcos. Mexico is used to corruption, and during the 70 years of the rule of the oxymoronically named 'Institutional Revolutionary Party' (PRI) a cosy relationship of mutual palm-greasing and back-scratching ensured that cartel bosses and politicians alike lived like kings, their children went to the best schools in the US and Mexico, and the money was laundered no questions asked through multinational banks (CityBank being the most infamous).

Then, in 2000, the catholic, conservative National Action Party won the elections, ending three generations of PRIsta rule; promising and end to Mexico's corruption. They stole the Zapatista's slogan 'Ya Basta!' (Enough!) for their election campaign. Despite an almost flawless continuation in policy (in a nutshell - f*ck the poor), the changing of the guard of Mexican politics disturbed the balance of gentlemen's agreements between cartel and government. The long-established dons of the Mexican drug world, the Gulf Cartel, began to lose power to the Sinaloa cartel in the early 2000s.

Shortly after his 'election' Mexican president Felipe Calderon began dramatically escalating the military's presence throughout  Mexico. Since then an additional 10,000 troops have been poured into the states bordering the US. As students of recent history (or those with enough time on their hands to re-read back issues of SchNEWS) are no doubt aware, Felipe Calderon gained power back in 2006 by rigging the election a la Bush 2000. His final total, after plenty of vote-stuffing, ballot rigging and plain old intimidation, was 50.1% of the vote. Calderon has never enjoyed anything like a secure mandate to govern, and, in place of popularity or any such old fashioned notions such as 'the will of the people' Calderon has resorted to the military to prove that he and he alone is the boss of Mexico.

Then, in 2008, Calderon, decided to launch 'The Merida Initiative', as it is officially known, although it is referred to by everybody else as 'Plan Mexico'- the bastard son of Plan Colombia. Whereas the street level presence of the military was once a perverse feature of life in Chiapas (as part of the government's low intensity war against the Zapatistas) now army APCs and Humvees operate in all of the states of the North. It goes without saying that the resort to a military solution has the full and unconditional backing of the USA, under Obama as under Bush. To date the U.S. has given $1.3 billion in military and judicial aid to Mexico.

The result of Mexico's war on drugs has been a social, political and economic disaster. As independent analysts point out, there is no plan, no strategy, to this drug war. If one thousand soldiers failed to have any impact on the power of the cartels or the flow of drugs through the smuggling routes, the government ups the number by another thousand.

Meanwhile, in recent years a new saint has made it into the Mexican pantheon; 'Santisima Muerte' or 'the great lady-saint of Death'. Her arrival has been swift, and her acceptance widespread despite the horror of the authorities and (especially) the catholic church, who view her as a diabolic, pagan idol. As the saint of death she is invoked by those for whom death is a part of their lives. Santisima Muerte is especially revered by the Narcos, who have dedicated not only shrines but entire churches to her. The rise of La Santisima parallels the rise of the Narcos, having grown in ascendance in the second half of the 21st century, with the inauguration of Plan Merida/Mexico.

It was been said (admittedly mostly by racists) about Muslims that “they worship death as we (the west) worship life”. Although almost entirely nonsense, it does contain a grain of truth. For when people witness so much death  that it becomes normalised, people, being superstitious by nature, try to make sense of this through ritual and symbolism. Hence, with the death toll from the narco wars fast approaching 30,000 (some 6000 in Ciudad Juarez alone), Norteños (Northern Mexicans) have integrated Lady Death into their daily lives, covering their towns with murals and their bodies with tattoos featuring La Santisima. The wounds of the drug wars have cut deep into the daily life of Mexico.

Whereas the flow of drugs to the US continues unabated, entire cities have been reduced to ghost towns. The markets of Matamoros, Cuidad Juarez and other major Mexican cities are now virtually deserted. Whereas once these cities were as accustomed to using dollars alongside Mexican pesos due to the flow of tourists, bargain hunters and expats, this has become a thing of the past. Whereas once the border towns were used by (for better and for worse) the annual drunken migration of 'Los Springbreak' (US college kids exploiting Mexico's more relaxed legal drinking age), this has come to an almost complete halt.

The Mexican government has bitten off much more than it can chew. The cartels are more numerous, better armed and better trained than the government. They can afford to pay their soldiers much more than the government can. A raid on one of the Gulf Cartel's safe houses in Reynosa, Tamulipas, back in November 2008, revealed what may be one of the biggest weapons busts anywhere. 540 assault rifles, over 500,000 rounds of ammunition,150 grenades, 14 sticks of dynamite, 98 fragmentation grenades, 67 bullet proof vests, seven Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles and a Light Anti-Tank rocket. There are countries that aren't that well armed. And that was just one safe house.

Los Zetas, by far the most ferocious and notorious of Mexico's cartels, were formed from elite Mexican special forces operatives, trained at the USA's School of the Americas (which also trained Nicuragua's Contras, and is presumably down the road from the school that trained Bin Laden's Afghan Mujahadeen). Los Zetas were originally the elite mercenary force of the Gulf Cartel, who used their training in urban terror tactics to drive out other, less ruthless drug lords. As is often the case (and had the leaders of the Gulf Cartel read their Machiavelli they would have seen this coming) Los Zetas quickly realised that being Mexico's most badass gangsters meant that they didn't need the protection of their former masters, and instead went to war with them.

As a mirror to the escalation of Calderon's militarisation, Los Zetas in turn upped the ante several notches. As well as killing rival gangsters, Los Zetas make a point of targeting civilians close to the narcos. Family members are fair game for kidnapping, torturing and killing in order to sent a message. Los Zetas have been known to video the torture of their victims, and then post these on youtube. It has become a relatively common sight on the streets of Nuevo Leon, Cuidad Juarez and Matamoros to see piles of bodies, sometimes a dozen or more, hands tied behind their backs and shot in the head, with the letter Z drawn in blood across their torsos. Needless to say, the other cartels have been quick to copy these terror tactics.

A milestone in narco-terrorism was passed a month ago, on July 17th 2010, when a car bomb exploded in Cuidad Juarez. In a level of sophistication that would make Al Qaeda blanche, the narcos took a body (believed to be that of a local mechanic) and dressed him in a policeman's uniform. They arranged his body to look as if he had been recently attacked. When the police arrived at the scene the narcos exploded 10 kilograms of C4 explosive, killing 3 police and injuring 15. The attack can be seen here (not for the faint hearted): www.youtube.com/watchv=5CItXmyWbOg&has_verified=1 . The carbomb came with a warning, written in graffiti next to the bomb site, "What occurred will continue to happen to the authorities that carry on supporting El Chapo."

And here lies the heart of the matter. For reasons perhaps known only to him, Calderon's war on drugs is in fact a war on all cartels except the Sinaloa Cartel of El Chapo. While it's by no means new that entire police departments are under the control of the narcos, at the Federal level, the level of the president and the army, the strategy is to annihilate all rivals so that El Chapo's outfit owns the monopoly of Mexico's drug trade. Given the presence of some 45,000 troops and hundreds of military checkpoints, either the army is completely incompetent or directly involved in the drug war. Edgar Roman, Director of Cuidad Juarez's Channel 44 explains thus: "When you're out on the streets of Juarez and you hear constantly from people that are eyewitnesses, relatives of victims, they're saying prior to the killings the army was here. They left here, and armed men came and killed somebody."

The military is used to traffic drugs across the country, and is used to eliminate the Sinaloa Cartel's rivals. Where rival Narcos control the police, the army is sent in to disarm them, leaving the cartels at the mercy of El Chapo and his men. It's often hard to tell where the government ends and the Narcos begin. When, as is often the case, police and/or military personnel and vehicles have been caught smuggling or escorting drug shipments, the Mexican government's PR machine has been quick to point out that these are merely gunmen in police uniforms (which is, in a very literal sense, true). It is as if the Iraq war is being fought to a Latin rhythm.

The situation in Mexico now has become so bad than even some human rights workers are hoping for a return days of the PRI, when although there was crime, it was at least organised crime. The savagery of Mexico’s drug wars is threatening the very fabric of civil society itself. Just as the police work for the narcos, so the narcos are happy to return the favour. When lawyers, human rights workers and grassroots activists get noticed by the government for demanding such basic rights as sanitation, fair wages and fair trials, there is the ever present danger that instead of the police showing up to arrest them,  the narcos will pay an unannounced visit. And when that happens there is no recourse to lawyers, and only so much that public outrage can do to groups that are completely unaccountable. And even for those activists lucky enough to escape unharmed, a frightening and unforgettable lesson has been learned: “leave well alone”.

The narco wars seem to have completely blind-sided Mexico's most famous champions of social justice, the Zapatistas. Having fought a hard and bitter struggle against the Mexican government and neoliberal capitalism for 16 years, there has been little in the way of a public response to this latest and most deadly threat to daily life in Mexico. This is partly a question of focus - simultaneously defending indigenous communities, fighting for the freedom of political prisoners, and organising a parallel ground-up democratic consensus is tall order for any organisation. It may also be a question of discretion being the better part of valour - the Zapatistas have an armed wing, the EZLN, which fields an unknown number of guerrillas deep in the jungles of Chiapas, who act as a deterrent of last resort against any military attack on the Zapatistas' autonomous communities (there have been no overt military actions by the Zapatistas since at least 1995). But, almost certainly, the EZLN is militarily no match for the savage power of the cartels. The Zapatistas function as a movement and as an inspiration, but, were they to find themselves in armed conflict with the narcos the result would be bloody and most probably terminal to the Zapatistas. Fortunately, the EZLN has not made the Faustian pact with the drug trade that destroyed the credibility of the Colombian revolutionaries, the FARC. But if the Zapatistas don’t face up to his latest and bloodiest chapter of recent Mexican history, they risk being consigned to the history of the last century instead of being active participants in Mexico's ongoing struggle for justice and dignity.

There is 1 comment on this story...
Added By: WHINSEC public affairs officer - 12th January 2012 @ 2:42 PM
(Added on 3rd September 2010 at 19:32)
I know even our friends think the Zetas trained at the SOA, but I know from having talked with one of their instructors that those special forces officers actually trained for a time at Fort Bragg. The real question is, so what? What does whatever short training period they got from the U.S. have to do with their moral failure of becoming outlaws? I always thought we held the individual responsible for his behavior.
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