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Plata o Plomo
The Consequences of Political Reform
The Drug War Can’t Be Won
Notes and References
Support for the war on drugs continues to decline every year for numerous reasons, but there is one aspect of this debate that desperately needs more attention:
America’s drug policy has caused an absolute humanitarian disaster south of our border.
There’s only one way to solve this crisis -- we have to end the drug war. Oddly enough, Donald Trump once forcefully supported this concept. Twenty-seven years ago at a luncheon hosted by The Miami Herald, Donald Trump said, “You have to legalize drugs to win that war.” He also blamed the politicians who didn’t have the “guts” to make such a decision. Oh, how the times have changed.
In June of this year, President Trump sent this tweet:
He presumably cited a study by the International Institute for Strategic Study that recognized Mexico’s 23,000 “intentional homicides” in 2016 as the second highest in the world only behind Syria. However, that’s not an entirely accurate assessment because that study doesn’t factor population size. Hence, that group subsequently unpublished the study. Nonetheless, what’s happening in Mexico is clearly a catastrophe.
Supporters of the drug war never seem to recognize that every successful enforcement operation inevitably leads to more violence and insecurity in this region of the world. Despite the capture of El Chapo, the Sinaloa cartel is still believed to be the most dominant trafficking organization in the country.
To fully understand Mexico’s rising homicide rate, we first have to be aware of the Sinaloa Cartel’s structure. It’s not a typical hierarchal organization. Instead, the Sinaloa Cartel can best be described as a group of several cartels aligned under one organization. That’s why this cartel is also known as “the Federation.”
As a result of the extradition El Chapo and the capture a few other key Sinaloa leaders, a power vacuum emerged. This is similar to our country’s attempts at regime change in the Middle East that have led to the rise of militarized rebel groups, such as ISIS.
There are now ten different groups within the cartel battling for control of this powerful organization. In turn, rival organizations, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, have taken advantage of the infighting to wage warfare in key trafficking regions once dominated by the Sinaloa Cartel.
This shake-up of the underworld’s power structure has been particularly brutal along the border. Tijuana used to be a stronghold for the Sinaloa Cartel. However, the drug war’s effect is quite visible in this city (population 1.7 million) where last year there were a record-high 910 homicides. (For a point of reference, Chicago, which has a population of 2.7 million, had the highest number of murders last year in the U.S. with 781.) This year’s homicide rate in Tijuana is on pace to surpass last year’s.
At times, drug cartel violence has mirrored the warfare in the Middle East, such as what happened in Fallujah in 2004 when four Blackwater contractors were murdered and hanged from a bridge. Likewise, on June 30th, the Sinaloa Cartel publicly threatened the Jalisco New Generation Cartel by placing a banner with a human skull hanging from a bridge at a busy intersection in Tijuana. This type of public display of cartel propaganda is known as a “narcomanta.”
Such a heinous act would have been an international news spectacle if it occurred 10 miles north in San Diego. However, this was the 10th narcomanta in the area this year (not all with corpses attached) in which gangs have threatened rival criminal groups and public officials. In other words, this kind of gangster terrorism has become normalized. Then again, a similar narcomanta from last year did receive some news coverage in the U.S., but the primary reason is that a dead body slipped from the banner and crashed through a driver’s windshield.
American consumers spend over $100 billion each year on illegal drugs and Mexico’s cartels are the prime beneficiaries of this black market. As a result, the drug trade has collectively made these criminals more powerful than the Mexican government.
In an interview with Breitbart News, Ted Cruz pointed to the need for the U.S. government to seek out and coordinate with incorruptible Mexican officials. That oversimplified view doesn’t recognize the full context of this problem because Mexico’s corruption isn’t fueled entirely by greed.
There is a well-known expression in Latin America, “Plata o Plomo,” which literally means silver or lead. Government officials are threatened by drug traffickers to either take the bribe money or a bullet. Federal judges had essentially been off-limits for cartel hitmen until October of last year. That’s when Vicente Antonio Bermúdez Zacarías, the federal judge who was handling El Chapo’s extradition case, was murdered in broad daylight while jogging.
According to the human rights NGO, Justice in Mexico, only two other judges had been murdered previously in the country’s history. Lawyers, on the other hand, are much more vulnerable. Since 2012, fifteen attorneys have been executed by criminals in the centrally-located state of Morelos, which has been plagued by gang violence.
Police officers, who make an average of $1.73 per hour and aren’t equipped to match up against these criminals, routinely face these kinds of threats. As a matter of fact, there are multiple examples of entire city police forces that have quit due to threats from drug trafficking organizations.
One particular account of a cartel shakedown was quite enlightening. Some Mexican media outlets published transcripts of an encounter with Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka “El Mencho,” the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. El Mencho identified himself and ordered the officer, “Relax your people or I will break your mother.” The officer immediately replied, “That’s it, sir, we’re going now.”
This rare clip of audio not only captured a verifiable glimpse into the plata o plomo dynamic, it also provided one of the few pieces of evidence that linked directly to El Mencho. He leads the fastest rising crime organization in the world, which was originally a part of the Sinaloa Cartel. Very little is known about this man who has kept such a low profile that he is described as a “ghost.” Ironically, what we do know is that he managed to get a job as a police officer in Mexico after being deported from the U.S. after serving a three-year prison sentence for heroin.
Although the leader prefers to maintain a low profile, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel conducts itself in a brazen manner. At times, this group has literally placed the cartel’s logo on their bags of cocaine. To be clear, several drug trafficking organizations brand their products with abstract names, but none of them use the actual name of their organization.
A shipment of drugs with a scorpion logo. (Not associated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.)
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel has also engaged in high-profile warfare against the government. Some cartels rely more upon the “plata,” but this group seemingly prefers the use of fear through the “plomo.” They’re able to do so because they have an estimated budget of $120 million for weaponry; that’s a similar level to Al Qaeda’s budget.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel committed the single deadliest attack against a police force in the country’s history in 2015. It was a roadside ambush that killed 15 officers. (This was comparable to the attacks by insurgent groups in Iraq.) One month later, their members used a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to shoot down a military helicopter.
This “plata o plomo” dynamic can even apply to how the cartel has increased its membership numbers. Two training camps were discovered in Jalisco in July of this year in which the cartel’s methods were akin to human trafficking. New “recruits” responded to misleading job ads posted by the cartel.
The unsuspecting victims traveled to these sites thinking they’d receive paid training for legal work in private security. However, upon arrival, they were held against their will and forced to begin training to work for the cartel. The authorities who discovered this site also found human remains of the few people who tried to escape.
The cartels can obviously prey upon the poor and powerless. However, even high-level publicly elected politicians are vulnerable to plata o plomo. There are several astounding statistics, but arguably the most troubling is the fact that over 80 mayors in Mexico have been murdered in the last eleven years!
A video was released this August which showed the mayor of Mazatepec, Jorge Toledo Bustamante, being threatened at gunpoint. The gunmen, who were reportedly members of Los Rojos, ordered him to pay 5 million pesos ($282,000 US). In addition, they demanded that one of their accomplices be appointed to a position within the local police force.
This incident took place two years ago, but Bustamante didn’t report the crime until recently because he feared that local officials may be corrupt and that the gang would follow through on its threat. That certainly was a valid fear as, one year later, Los Rojos murdered the mayor of Temixco (from a city 20 miles northeast of Mazatepec). Gisela Mota was the victim. She had been the first female mayor of Temixco, and had just completed her first day in office.
In general, state governors are statistically much less likely than mayors to be murdered by the cartels, but their family members are in a position of danger. Take Cesar Duarte for example. He was a member of Mexico’s most powerful political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). He is also the former Governor of Chihuahua, yet two of his nephews were murdered by the cartels in the months after he was elected.
Carlos Arturo Quintana, the leader of one of Chihuahua’s most violent gangs, took full advantage of that leverage and received an unimaginable level of political protection. Quintana, aka “El 80,” is the head of La Linea, which is the enforcement wing of the Juarez Cartel. Remarkably, Carlos Arturo Quintana had been on the FBI’s most wanted list, yet he had no pending arrest warrants in Mexico. El 80 wasn’t even living in the shadows; he was a local political power broker and regularly attended city hall meetings. In fact, Cesar Duarte’s administration once falsely claimed that El 80 had been captured and imprisoned.
Nonetheless, El 80’s name slipped into the international news in March of this year in relation to the assassination of a newspaper reporter, Miroslava Breach, who was the third journalist executed in Mexico that month. It read, “Bye loudmouth. Your governor is next. (Signed) El 80.” Breach, who was shot and killed in front of her child, gave unflattering coverage of El 80’s mother-in-law, Silvia Mariscal Estrada, who was a mayoral candidate with the PRI.
El 80 was the primary suspect in this case, but it appears that a rival gang used him as a distraction. According to the local prosecutors, leaders of “La Gente Nueva,” which is affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, ordered the murder of Miroslava Breach. She had also reported about another former mayoral candidate, Juan Salazar Ochoa, who is reportedly linked with their gang.
On paper, there are no laws limiting the freedom of the press in Mexico. However, these acts of violence clearly have a chilling effect on the flow of information and perpetuate the cycle of organized crime. The American press has recently focused on the recent journalist slayings, and deservedly so, but the dangers faced by reporters in Mexico are very far ranging and downright unimaginable for the average American.
In the U.S., the words “fake news” is a loaded phrase that packs many different interpretations. Americans generally have a strong distrust for many news outlets due to vast corporate conflicts of interest, not the impression that a reporter is under the threat of violence. Mexicans, on the other hand, have a far more cynical view of the media because they know that a high percentage of reporters are compromised.
Yes, the plata o plomo dynamic is also a part of journalism. Various drug trafficking organizations have been known to keep news reporters on their payroll. For instance, records show that the Beltran Leyva Cartel had a budget of $136,000 per month allocated to bribes for journalists.(1)
In that scenario, they act as unofficial PR workers by censoring details of various crimes or highlighting the actions of rival organizations. One particular example includes a video showing a prominent news executive accepting bribes from a leader of the Knights Templar cartel. The executive and a reporter coached their criminal accomplice on how to properly gain positive media coverage.
With that said, most cartels rely upon violence, instead of bribes, to cultivate their media agenda. As a result, Mexico is the third most dangerous country in the world for journalism, behind Syria and Afghanistan, according to Reporters Without Borders. A recent survey found that 60% of journalists in Mexico have faced some form of a threat.
As for actualized acts of violence, the British human rights group, Article 19, found that 426 journalists had been victims of violence in 2016. Here’s the worst part: only 0.25% of those cases resulted in a conviction! That means that there’s no room for debate--Mexico’s government allows criminals to operate with impunity.
Despite these risks, Javier Valdez, one of Mexico’s most internationally-recognized journalists, set up shop in a hotbed of cartel activity. He founded a weekly newspaper, Ríodoce, in the capital of Sinaloa and has boldly written multiple books about Mexico’s narco crime. His newspaper actively covers issues of organized crime and drug trafficking. That is a particularly dangerous line of work and, case in point, gang members once threw a grenade into the office building of Ríodoce as a warning.
Valdez earned a well-deserved reputation for brave journalism, but even he had acknowledged censoring stories at times due to death threats. He told Fox News about the invisible barriers in his profession. “You have to know the rules – how the gangs or police or a local politician here or there will respond to a certain story – but those rules can change quickly,” said Valdez.
In hindsight, those words are remarkably chilling as Valdez’s aggressive brand of journalism ultimately cost him his life. He was dragged out of his car and shot twelve times in broad daylight on May 15th of this year, one block from Ríodoce’s office building.
Many people suspect that a particular article about the internal war of the Sinaloa Cartel led to his death. Valdez’s article included an interview with Damaso Lopez Nunez, aka El Licenciado. Before his time as a high-level leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Licenciado actually had a lengthy bureaucratic background with police work and corrections. In fact, he was in charge of security at the prison (Puente Grande) from where El Chapo escaped in 2001.
El Licenciado was considered by many to be the heir to the throne after El Chapo’s capture. However, his faction and many others have been battling for that role. In particular, El Licenciado had been warring with El Chapo’s sons, Ivan and Alfredo aka “Los Chapitos.”
That animosity came across during his interview with Ríodoce in which he had some unflattering words for El Chapo’s sons. However, few people were able to read the print version of that article because members of Los Chapitos’ crew literally purchased every copy of the day’s newspaper to censor the details from the public. Again, that one article was presumably the catalyst behind Valdez’s murder.
Javier Valdez was the sixth reporter killed in Mexico this year. Only hours after his murder, another shooting took place in the neighboring state of Jalisco. The two people who were targeted were Sonia Cordova, a news executive for Semanario Costeno, and her son, Jonathan Rodriguez Cordova, who worked as a reporter for the newspaper. Sonia Cordova survived with injuries, but her son died at the scene of the crime.
With so many high-profile murders in such a short period of time, it prompted Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, to make a public statement. He promised to provide protection for journalists, but there’s no reason to believe this was more than empty rhetoric. A few days later, the owner of a local TV station in Michoacán, Salvador Adame, was kidnapped by a group of armed men.
Adame’s burnt corpse was discovered a month later due to information provided by a member of the Knights Templar Cartel. However, in a shameless PR move, the Attorney General of Michoacán insisted that Adame’s murder was for “personal reasons,” unrelated to his profession. That’s not unusual as it is basically standard operating procedure for Mexico’s government officials to deny any connection with organized crime when journalists are assassinated.
The conditions for journalists are so dire that many newspapers have discontinued reporting on crime. However, any form of investigative journalism in Mexico is dangerous. Hence, a few weeks after the murder of Miroslava Breach, the director of Norte de Ciudad Juarez announced that the company would no longer print news of any kind.
Some NGOs have come to the conclusion that reporting on government corruption is more dangerous crime coverage. Although that may be technically accurate, countless corrupt public officials are intricately linked with organized crime and both entities have similar interests. Therefore, in many ways, reporting on crime and politics is one in the same.
Government protection for journalists in Mexico is essentially a moot point when the government has routinely acted with aggression towards the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported about two incidents that perfectly illustrates this point. In January of this year, there were massive protests against the rising gasoline prices issued by the government. This was a well-covered story, but there were eight reporters from Coahuila and another twelve in Baja California who were actually assaulted, threatened or detained by the police while reporting on these protests.
Candido Rios Vazquez, a veteran newspaper reporter from the narco-dominated state of Veracruz, had faced so many threats over the years from local government officials, including a former mayor, that he decided to enter into a federal government protection program four years ago. That protection proved to be futile as he was killed in a drive-by shooting this August, thus making him the ninth journalist murdered this year.
Juan Carlos Hernandez Rios was the tenth and final Mexican journalist murdered this year (as of publication). He had continued to work despite multiple death threats from corrupt local police and elected officials. Fully aware of associated risks, Rios published a video of two police officers who named fellow officers with allegations of corruption involving the area’s criminals. A few days later, those two police whistleblowers were discovered dead and Rios was subsequently executed soon afterward.
To be fair, it’s an impossible task for the Mexican government to provide adequate protection for every journalist in the country. However, it is also clear that the Mexican government has allowed criminals to target them with impunity. So how has the United States responded?
Texas Monthly profiled a former Mexican journalist, Miguel Lopez Solana, who fled to the U.S. in 2012 after his father, mother, and brother were killed in their home. While working as a reporter, he was once illegally detained by federal police who delivered him to a member of Los Zetas. Solana was then threatened at gunpoint while he was also in the plain view of local police officers. Even after moving to an entirely new city, the threats continued and Solana fled the country after his home was ransacked by intruders. In the end, it took five years, but Solana and his wife have been granted political asylum in the U.S.
Martín Méndez Pineda, on the other hand, wasn’t as fortunate. He was a reporter for a newspaper in Acapulco, which has the second-highest murder rate in the world. Pineda fled to the U.S. in February of this year, but his plight wasn’t a direct result of cartel terrorism. Instead, he was the victim of a Mexican military unit deployed in his town for anti-drug operations. Pineda captured images of the military assaulting and arresting a man after a traffic accident. Despite being threatened by these military officers, Pineda published that story.
Afterward, armed men showed up at his home and threatened his life. Pineda subsequently quit his job and moved from town to town, and across the country to no avail. Everywhere he went he continued being threatened. Unfortunately, Pineda wasn’t able to find safe haven in the U.S. Understandably, the legal immigration process can be lengthy, but authorities initially determined that he truly had a “credible fear” back in Mexico. However, he would have been forced to remain in an immigrant detention center until his status was formalized. Consequently, Pineda decided to return to Mexico this May despite the security risks.
The drug war has helped to create a culture of ubiquitous corruption. Granted, this isn’t a problem that is unique to Mexico. The IMF once estimated that corruption extracts $1.5 to $2 trillion annually from the global economy. This is also an issue that is difficult to approximate, but Mexico is far from the worst offender. The NGO Transparency International ranked Mexico as the 53rd most corrupt nation out of 176. (The U.S. needs a lot of improvement as well. It is ranked the 18th least corrupt.)
The Mexican economic elite had been robbing their citizens long before Nixon launched the war on drugs. In fact, institutionalized corruption was literally written into the laws with a system known as “fuero.” That system provides elected officials with immunity from prosecution while serving in office. The immunity can be overturned, but that decision has to go through a process much like impeachment.
No political party has benefitted from this system as much as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose candidates won every presidential election from 1929 to 2000. One particular quote from one of the PRI’s former leaders, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, may have perfectly captured the sense of entitlement that accompanies these positions of power. “A politician who is poor is a poor politician,” said Gonzalez.
The PRI took back the reigns in 2012 with the election of the current President, Enrique Peña Nieto. A few scandals seem to indicate that Nieto is following in the tradition of the party. It was revealed that Nieto’s campaign used office space rent-free on property owned by a government contractor that received lucrative deals from his administration. However, that pales in comparison to the reports of a $10 million bribe that one of Nieto’s aides allegedly received from the Brazilian oil company, Odebrecht, in exchange for a contract at one of Mexico’s refineries.
That particular scandal deviated from ones of the past. In other words, Mexico’s politicians have been notoriously corrupt in ways that benefitted Mexico’s economic elite, not foreign companies. The most fitting example of this pilfering of the public’s money took place during the administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1992).
Salinas, who literally solicited $25 million campaign donations from Mexico’s top businessmen, repaid his allies exponentially. Numerous government monopolies were privatized and sold at bargain prices to his donors, in particular, Carlos Slim. He’s now one of the richest men in the world (over $50 billion).
This massive transfer of wealth was similar to what happened in Russian with the shift towards crony capitalism after the fall of communism. Like Russia, the ties between the Salinas administration and organized crime were deep. The brother of President Salinas, Raúl, had accumulated over a quarter billion in his Mexican and Swiss bank accounts. That’s not including the 123 hundred properties that he owned. A great deal of that wealth was extracted from public funds, but he also made a fortune from providing protection for the Mexican cartels. In fact, his greed was so insatiable that he was nicknamed “the bloodsucker” by one cartel.(2)
Without a doubt, accepting payoffs from criminals often goes hand in hand with public officials ripping off the taxpayers. Albeit, both scenarios can be mutually exclusive. Therefore, we can’t blame all of Mexico’s corruption on America’s drug war. However, we must acknowledge the drug war’s role in this current problem.
With that subject in mind, let’s reexamine the message left at Miroslava Breach’s murder scene. It read, “Bye loudmouth. Your governor is next. (Signed) El 80.” It appears that the message was left by a rival of El 80, but it did highlight the between organized crime and politics. It’s well known that El 80 was linked with Cesar Duarte, the former Governor of the border state Chihuahua. Whereas, the current Governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral of the National Action Party (PAN), has aggressively targeted El 80.
Cesar Duarte coincidentally became an official fugitive of justice one week after that murder. He fled the country by way of El Paso, TX because he’s accused of embezzling 80 billion pesos ($4 billion) of government funds, among other accusations of corruption. In fairness, Duarte shouldn’t be singled out because such extensive fraud requires a network of cronies. However, Cesar Duarte exemplifies how one form of corruption (cartel protection) usually leads to several others that bleed the taxpayers.
This year, a government report was released finding that Mexico’s state governments couldn’t account for 98 billion pesos ($5.5 billion) of federal money that was intended for infrastructure, social programs, etc. Needless to say, those public funds are desperately needed for the masses in a country with limited upward mobility. Furthermore, this theft sets in motion the cycle of extreme poverty that pushes so many people into a life of crime.
It’s no coincidence that Veracruz was the state with the most missing funds (28 billion pesos or $1.6 billion) from that report. Like Cesar Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte (no relation to Cesar), he was a fugitive of justice and is now in jail in Mexico awaiting charges of corruption and drug trafficking.
This corruption problem hasn’t been ignored by the American media. In fact, The Los Angeles Times printed a story in March profiling ten former Governors of Mexico who are either under investigation, in prison, or on the run. The former Governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, was notably absent from that report. During Moreira’s six years as the governor, the state government’s debt increased from $27 million to $2.8 billion. And it’s widely believed that he pilfered much of that money for himself and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Moreira left office in 2011 and became the head of the PRI. He was an instrumental force in helping the current President, Enrique Peña Nieto, to victory. However, Moreira resigned from the party and moved to Spain amid rumors of scandals.
One scandal, “Monexgate,” unfolded in the Mexican newspapers days after the election. Journalists showed that Nieto’s party, the PRI, received substantial campaign contributions from a key member of the Juarez Cartel via pre-paid debit cards through a company called Monex. However, the scandal never materialized into criminal proceedings.
While in Spain, Moreira’s ties to a different cartel became public information. After all, Coahuila is a sought-after region for drug trafficking as it borders Texas and Moreira reportedly received $2 million per month in protection money from the Los Zetas cartel. U.S. authorities eventually confiscated tens of millions of dollars and charged some of Moreira’s associates with money laundering.
Spanish authorities subsequently arrested Moreira last year for money laundering, but he only spent eight days in jail. Despite the obvious appearance of impropriety, President Nieto intervened on his behalf and used diplomatic resources to have Moreira released and the charges dropped.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government still has its sights set on Moreira. In May of this year, the U.S. Treasury Department found that Moreira’s wife and sister-in-law had deposited over $62 million in offshore accounts. Nonetheless, Moreira, who returned last year to Mexico, is still living as a free man. As a matter of fact, he says that he’s considering running for office again in 2018. That would have to happen after the current Governor of Coahuila leaves office. And he happens to be Humberto Moreira’s brother, Roberto, who also is accused of accepting bribes from Los Zetas.
Suffice it to say, corruption has always been an issue, but such blatant conduct has clearly been exacerbated by America’s drug war. When drug money affects the politics at every level (city, state, federal, and executive), it’s safe to say that Mexico is officially a “narco-state.”
The Consequences of Political Reform
Much like the power vacuum created by El Chapo’s extradition, the latest election cycle has also led to rampant gangland murders. It’s a bitter truth, but disrupting the continuity of corruption has often been a source of cartel warfare.
Two political scientists, Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley, collected the statistics of drug-related deaths from 1995 to 2006. They found that the violence was higher in regions where the local government was controlled by a party different from the presidency. This has been particularly noticeable in recent years in the states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz where the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had held these offices for the last 86 years.
From 1999 to 2005, Tomás Yarrington was the governor of Tamaulipas, which shares a 230-mile border with south Texas. After leaving office, he reportedly negotiated a truce between the Gulf Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Cartel by providing safe passage for cocaine exports in Veracruz. In exchange, he reportedly received millions of dollars in bribes for this deal.
At that time, Fidel Herrera Beltrán was the Governor of Veracruz and he also allegedly accepted millions of dollars from the cartels for protection. What did this backroom deal accomplish? These political connections minimized the inter-cartel violence in both states for many years. However, by providing the cartels with safe passage for drug trafficking, it opened the door to numerous other forms of crime for the cartels.
This period of relatively low inter-cartel warfare ended in early 2010 when the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, disbanded from their organization. This breakup coincidentally took place during an election year in Tamaulipas. Hence, Los Zetas reportedly sent a $5 million bribe to the front-runner candidate for the governor of Tamaulipas, Rodolfo Torre. However, Torre refused to meet with them and didn’t accept the bribe. One week before the election, he was killed during an ambush in broad daylight with a full motorcade of protection.
This brutal gang war between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel still hasn’t been settled, but Los Zetas has been the more dominant group. Thus, the cartel wars were obviously the main topic during the gubernatorial elections of 2016. In turn, that led to pleas for change from the voters and a victory for Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca of the National Action Party (PAN) in Tamaulipas.
Unfortunately, as far as elections are concerned, the people of Mexico are often damned if they do or damned if they don’t. In this instance, the “reform” candidate, Cabeza de Vaca, had 951 million pesos ($52 million) of undisclosed wealth before the election, according to El Financiero (Bloomberg). He also is accused of having links with the Gulf Cartel.
Again, this gang war has been long-running, but it has intensified in the aftermath of the election. The conditions in Tamaulipas have, at times, looked like a full-fledged war zone. The hardest-hit area has been the border town, Reynosa. That city has been the site of literal firefights in which Mexico’s marines have fought with the cartels.
Over 70 fires resulted in the destruction of four buildings in one such battle in April. That was mainly caused by a common cartel warfare tactic, i.e. creating barricades with hijacked vehicles and setting them on fire, thus temporarily blocking their opponents from entering their turf. Two weeks later, the city’s authorities warned residents to not leave their homes and they had to shut down schools in order to avoid casualties from cartel violence.
The situation hasn’t been better in Veracruz. The warfare escalated dramatically in 2011, beyond the Gulf/Zetas conflict, when the Jalisco New Generation Cartel expanded into this state. They announced their presence in September of 2011 by dumping 35 bodies under an overpass near a shopping mall. They left a narcomanta claiming that the victims were Zetas.
As a reminder, Javier Duarte (who was mentioned earlier) was recently extradited back to Mexico to face corruption and drug trafficking charges. He was the Governor of Veracruz at the time of this mass killing and he made a controversial statement afterward. Duarte tweeted that the murder of 35 people was regrettable, but those same people chose to dedicate themselves to extorting, kidnapping and killing.
First of all, it turned out that most of the victims were not criminals. A group of investigative journalist later found that 28 of the 35 victims had no ties to organized crime. Simply put, those victims were used as props to boost their narco propaganda.
Secondly, Duarte was seemingly siding with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which represented a turnabout from his predecessor, Fidel Herrera Beltrán. To be specific, Fidel Herrera Beltrán accepted a $12 million bribe from Los Zetas, according to testimony in a U.S. court by an accountant for the cartel. Likewise, several members of Beltrán’s administration, who are now in the witness protection program, have detailed his links with Los Zetas, including lucrative government contracts that helped with money laundering.
A high-level member of Los Zetas also alleged that Javier Duarte had a similar relationship with their cartel before the Governor switched to an alliance with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Obviously, no politician has the power to stop a gang war, but they can allow these criminals to operate with impunity. Thus, in 2012, the year following that 35-person massacre, Veracruz reached a record level of homicides.
Veracruz’s homicide reached a new record high last year. That’s when Veracruz’s political situation was in limbo after Duarte resigned and fled the country. Simply put, the atrocities have been unspeakable. In a recent discovery in March of this year, 252 bodies were found in Veracruz. The only two people who have been identified are a young, ambitious state investigator and his secretary. Days later, another mass grave with 47 bodies was discovered.
Again, Javier Duarte will eventually face trial for his crimes. However, his predecessor, Fidel Herrera Beltrán, has never been charged with a crime despite a mountain of evidence and a listing on Forbes’s Top Ten Corrupt Officials in Mexico. On the other hand, Tomás Yarrington, who reportedly negotiated a truce with the Gulf Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Cartel, was indicted by the U.S. and the Mexican government for charges related to drug trafficking and money laundering.
Tomás Yarrington had been on the run for five years until he was captured this April in Italy. Yarrington’s successor in Tamaulipas, Eugenio Hernández Flores, was also indicted by the U.S. government in 2015 on similar charges of corruption related to drug trafficking, but he wasn’t been indicted in Mexico until October of 2017.
The Drug War Can't Be Won
President Nieto has publicly criticized the previous administration’s “Kingpin strategy” of targeting the leaders of the most powerful organizations. The Kingpin strategy is unpopular in Mexico because it is a major contributing factor in the country’s cartel violence. However, despite the softer rhetoric, the Nieto administration has seemingly taken the same approach.
Can you guess how many of the top 122 criminals have been detained during the current administration? The National Commissioner of Security announced this year that 107 of the highest-priority criminals had been killed or captured. Conversely, if the U.S. government had such a success rate, you can rest assured that it would be mentioned around the clock on all major news networks.
Regardless, Mexico remains the third largest producer of opium in the world, behind Myanmar and Afghanistan. Likewise, Mexico is one of the top manufacturers of methamphetamine and it is the main conduit for cocaine by way of South America. The only drug with a production drop-off has been marijuana, which is a result of legalization and decriminalization in the U.S., parts of Latin America, and Europe.
Mexico’s history has shown that the downfall of a cartel is really in name only. These groups splinter into separate organizations. That will likely happen with the Sinaloa Cartel at some point in the future, but it won’t affect the overall production and distribution of illegal drugs.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Loera Guzman after being extradited to the U.S. (ICE)
In a symbolic example, the security chief of the state of Michoacán publicly announced last year that every organized crime group had been eliminated from their state. One day later, a new cartel, La Familia Nueva, announced its presence with a series of narcomantas displayed throughout the state.
On the other hand, a “bottom-up” strategy of targeting middle to low-level gangsters wouldn’t be effective either. There simply aren’t enough prisons to incarcerate them all. For every drug trafficker who is put behind bars, there are always several more criminals eager to take their place in the supply chain.
Furthermore, Mexico’s attempts at incarceration and rehabilitation have also been an abysmal failure. In many prisons, the inmates unofficially run the facilities. A government report estimated that 65% of the country’s state prisons are controlled by organized crime groups.
Last year, investigators revealed that the prison in Piedras Negras (bordering Eagle Pass, TX) served as an unofficial kill site for Los Zetas. Remarkably, as many as 150 people were murdered and incinerated by the cartel in that prison. Bear in mind, these victims weren’t inmates of the prison. They were members of the community who had been taken by the cartel to the prison. Many of them were presumably victims of extortion/kidnapping.
Clearly, the cartel operated with impunity at this prison. Their gang leaders within the prison were allowed to wear bulletproof vests and security guard uniforms, in addition to driving around in customized vehicles. In fact, the same prison once let 132 inmates escape through an underground tunnel.
Likewise, a video surfaced in May of this year with an inmate at the Puente Grande maximum-security prison in Jalisco boasting, “I’m the one who gives orders here. Ask for whatever you want, I’ll give it to you.” That inmate, José Luis Gutiérrez Valencia, aka Don Chelo, is a prominent member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The video showed him leading an alcohol-fueled party in which he barked out song requests to a band performing songs for him and his fellow inmates.
Evidence of such excess was revealed in the aftermath of a brutal prison riot last year that resulted in 49 deaths. There were mini-bars, aquariums, and saunas in the Topo Chico facility in Monterrey. In other words, things aren’t much different on the inside than on the outside. The cartel bosses live in luxury while non-gang members awaiting trial are routinely extorted for basic amenities.
Multiple prison riots have been in the news lately as well. A particularly gruesome riot occurred on July 6th in Acapulco that left 28 dead, including four beheadings. This was on the same day that John Kelly, the former head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was visiting the same state, Guerrero. One month earlier, a riot at the border town Ciudad Victoria (Tamaulipas) resulted in seven dead and thirteen people injured. It should be noted that instead of using shanks and knives, the inmates used automatic weapons in a gun battle with the guards that lasted hours.
That same prison in Ciudad Victoria was the site of a well-publicized escape by 29 inmates in March. They left via underground tunnels, reminiscent of El Chapo’s infamous escape from the maximum-security Puente Grande prison in 2015. As a matter of fact, five high-level members of the Sinaloa Cartel escaped two weeks earlier from a prison in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. One of those men is the son of the presumed de facto leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Nonetheless, the Attorney General’s Office essentially provided cover during its public announcement of this escape; Zambada’s full name wasn’t provided and his mugshot was blurred.
Even if the drug war were to end today, there would still be street crime and gangs in the far-distant future. However, these issues would be on a dramatically smaller scale. Mexico’s street gangs could never ascend to the level of an organized crime outfit without the massive profits from illegal drugs to pay for the necessary weaponry, hitmen, political protection, etc.
By the same token, drug money evokes a vicious cycle of rampant criminality that goes far beyond drug trafficking. In other words, Mexico’s cartels are diversified criminal organizations that don’t limit themselves to drug smuggling. Petroleum theft is a major problem in several countries benefitting crime and terrorist organizations, particularly ISIS. This crime has also rapidly expanded into the most lucrative non-drug-related illegal racket in Mexico. Fuel thieves or “huachicoleros” tap into pipelines and then sell the fuel at highly discounted rates in the black market. Much of this fuel is sold on the backs of trucks in small water jugs.
A large portion is also sold to directly to gas station owners. This has always been a problem for the Mexican government, but it used to be on a much smaller scale. However, this illegal activity has increased by over 2,000% in the last ten years after the cartels became the primary participants. Most huachicoleros are either working directly for the cartels or independently while paying extortion fees.
Every day, roughly 20,000 barrels are stolen from Mexico’s state-owned oil company, PEMEX. This crime resulted in $1.5 billion in losses for the company last year, a sizeable blow to public funding. Fuel theft occurs in various parts of the country, but an area with numerous pipelines known as the “Red Triangle” is where most of this crime occurs. The Red Triangle is in the state of Puebla, which hadn’t historically been a hotbed of cartel activity until this black market expanded. Now, cartel violence is on the rise even though this area is not a focal point for drug trafficking.
A few cartels are competing for control of this flourishing illegal trade, i.e. Los Zetas, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas is the leading crime group with roughly 40% of the illegal market share. In fact, an ally of Los Zetas, the Meza Flores drug gang, once owned a major gasoline distribution company that received government contracts. Therefore, it appears that Los Zetas actually double-dipped with their criminal endeavors by developing a sophisticated money laundering network that actually sold stolen fuel back to the government.
In response to the fuel theft crisis, approximately 2,000 troops from the Mexican military have been deployed in key regions. Their presence hasn’t decreased the number of barrels stolen, but it has led to several armed conflicts with the huachicoleros. While the Mexican government dedicates massive resources to protect its oil reserves, the average Mexican citizen has to fend for themselves against the terror inflicted by the cartels.
After battling to establish territory, several cartels view many other crimes as the spoils of war, such as rape, murder-for-hire, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, etc. Arguably no cartel terrorizes the residents of its territory more than Los Zetas. The DEA once described them as “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent” cartel.
This cartel has a militaristic culture and structure. In fact, it was the first cartel to consistently recruit former members of the military and that has to do with the roots of the organization. Most of the original Zetas had been part of an elite Mexican special forces unit, GAFE, which was known for committing mass atrocities against citizens in their own country.
Ironically, the formation of Los Zetas came about indirectly from America’s intervention in the drug war. The first members of Los Zetas created their organization not long after receiving counternarcotics training in Fort Benning, GA. The training was through the infamous School of the Americas program, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
As mentioned earlier, Los Zetas began in 1997 as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel. However, the group branched out on their own and rival cartels took note of their modus operandi. Los Zetas raised the bar for the requisite standard of violence that is necessary to protect a cartel’s business model. Eventually, all major cartels began hiring former government-trained killers.
As a result, warfare has been unleashed upon the citizens of Mexico. ProPublica published a heartbreaking piece, “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” which fully demonstrated the savagery of this cartel. Back in March of 2011, the DEA notified Mexican government officials about a criminal informant connected with Los Zetas and that information was subsequently leaked to the cartel.
In response, Los Zetas rampaged upon the rural city of Allende searching for this person. Entire homes were reduced to rubble and they killed an unknown number of people with estimates ranging from 60 to 300, including women and children. Despite being bombarded with 911 calls, no one from the government came to the rescue. Even in the aftermath of such a tragedy, the state’s governor, Rubén Moreira (mentioned earlier), conducted a tepid investigation that has yet to produce a single murder charge.
Two months later, Los Zetas committed a similar atrocity in northern Guatemala. There were 27 deaths in what was the worst massacre to occur in their country since its 36-year civil war ended in 1996. (Over 200,000 people died with 93% of the murders attributed to U.S. supported government or paramilitary forces.)
One by one, this group of 27 unarmed, peasant farmers were tortured and murdered. Twenty-five of the victims were beheaded. These people were day laborers who had no involvement in drug trafficking. Unfortunately, they worked on a cattle ranch owned by Otto Salguero, who Los Zetas say had stolen a large shipment of cocaine.
One of the leaders of this massacre, Hugo Álvaro Gómez Vásquez, is a Guatemalan national. In fact, he had been part of a notorious U.S. trained special forces group in Guatemala, Kaibiles, which was known for committing numerous war crimes. Gómez Vásquez was one of several former Kaibiles whom Los Zetas successfully recruited. As a result of this strategy, the cartel began expanding their territory into Guatemala in the early 2000s and eventually eliminated one of the country’s top drug trafficking organizations, Los Leones. Los Zetas power grab was significant enough that they actually made credible death threats in 2009 to then-President Alvaro Colom.
Back home in Mexico, the fact that members of Los Zetas have operated with such impunity has enabled their extortion business to flourish. As a result, Tamaulipas is the kidnapping capital of the country. However, the cartel is involved in this crime across the country. After failing to make “quota” payments, the cartel once set a casino fire in Monterrey that killed 52 people. Afterward, the former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón publicly criticized the U.S. government for not reducing the demand for drugs that is driving this terrorism.
Another extortion-related massacre was covered in the American press this year. Twelve people were wounded and five people were killed, including one American college student, at a nightclub shooting in January. Members of Los Zetas were responsible for this tragedy in touristy Playa Del Carmen. Afterward, the club owner acknowledged that he had refused to pay Los Zetas because he had already given extortion money to the Gulf Cartel and Los Pelones.
All of Mexico’s cartels profit from extortion, some more than others. This vicious crime is particularly visible in Acapulco, which has had Mexico’s highest murder rate for the last two years. Consequently, tourism has declined tremendously in this Pacific resort city that used to be a magnet for A-list celebrities. And, this violence isn’t entirely mutual combat among gangsters as an estimated 150 business owners have been killed in Acapulco since January of 2016.
Make no mistake, extortion isn’t a crime that only the wealthy have to deal with. Practically every profession, from taco vendors to poor farmers, are victims of this crime. In particular, union-controlled, working-class jobs, such as cab drivers and teachers, have been heavily infiltrated by organized crime. The threat has been so severe that 140 schools in Acapulco were once closed due to extortion and kidnapping threats.
Essentially, no one is immune from this exploitation in a cartel-dominated region. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Media Center conducted a poll and found that more than 1,000 priests had been victims of cartel extortion. One of the most horrific revelations about this type of crime came about when a mass grave of 193 bodies was discovered in 2011 in San Fernando. The victims were migrants from Central America who were en route to the U.S. Alarmingly, these people were delivered to Los Zetas by the local police. Ultimately, the cartel killed whoever couldn’t pay the ransom or refused to work as a drug mule. Notably, another mass grave of 72 migrants, in connection with Los Zetas, was also discovered in San Fernando one year earlier.
Stories like those explain why most victims of extortion don’t bother to report these crimes to the police. After all, many police officers are on the cartels’ payroll, either as informants or in some cases actively participating in organized crime. As a result, Mexico is in a position where the rule of law truly doesn’t exist. If that sounds inflammatory, take note of a study conducted by the Monterrey Institute of Technology. It found that 98.5% of all crime in Mexico goes unpunished!
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel attempted to capitalize on Los Zetas’ reputation as extortionists. They formed an enforcement unit known as the “Mata Zetas” or Zeta Killers and branded themselves as the protectors of the working class. They promised to “cleanse” the country of the rape, murder, and extortion committed by Los Zetas. With that said, other cartels have tried to assert the “good guy” persona, but it has always been a farce.
There are several examples of the Jalisco New Generation’s acts of “cleansing.” Look no further than the murder of five employees of a car dealership in Villahermosa. A narcomanta with the message, “The Zetas cleanup has already begun,” was left at the scene of this horrific crime in which three of the victims were decapitated and dismembered. Worst of all, the leader of this group forced its members to literally eat portions of their victims’ bodies; the purpose was to make their hitmen more ruthless and bloodthirsty.
That attack took place in the southeastern Gulf-Coast state of Tabasco, which isn’t known as a Jalisco New Generation stronghold. However, the cartel is much more dominant in western Mexico and rapidly gaining power in Tijuana where they reportedly extort doctors for up to 10,000 pesos ($571) per month. Two doctors in Tijuana have recently been murdered, including the sister of an ESPN commentator. Hence, some authorities believe these deaths were ordered by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
A study by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights came to a particularly distressing conclusion. That group found that over 281,000 people in Mexico have been “internally displaced” since 2011. In other words, those people are domestic refugees in their own country. This is clearly the result of direct threats from the cartels or indirect threats from cartel turf wars.
A particularly traumatic example occurred in 2013 while the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Cartel were at war. According to estimates by a human rights NGO, as many as 25,000 residents of Sinaloa were literally evacuated from their homes by armed gunmen. Those gang members burned down houses and warned onlookers to leave, otherwise, they would be killed or forced to work for the cartel.
In response to this chaos, several citizen-led vigilante or “self-defense” groups have been formed throughout Mexico due to the government’s inability to provide basic security. The documentary film, “Cartel Land,” covered one such group in Michoacán which eventually helped to topple the Knights Templar Cartel three years ago.
That may seem like positive news at first glance, but this group, along with other self-defense forces, have been infiltrated and funded by rival cartels. Also, several of these groups have acted in lawless ways similar to the gangs they oppose. However, that is the sad state of affairs in certain parts of Mexico where so many people, at times, have to make unbelievable choices for survival.
A small gold-mining town, Mezcala, had been the location of two warring gangs, Los Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos. Both groups had operated under the Beltran-Leyva Cartel. However, the Beltran-Leyva Cartel rapidly lost power after splitting from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2009. In turn, that led Los Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos into an ongoing conflict.
This particular town, Mezcala, has been ground zero of gang warfare because the city’s main highway reaches both Mexico City and the mountainous regions of Guerrero, which is one of the top opium-producing regions in the country. Also, the city’s gold miners had become a lucrative source of extortion money. Los Guerreros Unidos had taken control of Mezcala and literally forced homeowners along the main street to house their members. Understandably, that street was known by the locals as “The Street of Terror.”
But for now, there is newfound security in Mezcala due to a self-defense group that has been in the news lately. This “community police” force consists of local residents who have reportedly been able push the gangs out of their town. They now have armed checkpoints and inspections for all drivers entering their town.
With a clear domestic security problem, the former President Vicente Fox made the decision in 2005 to enlist the military in domestic counternarcotics operations. Something needed to be done to stabilize the country, but that was not the correct move. However, in his defense, Fox was in a no-win situation. The only way to solve this problem is if the United States ends the war on drugs and Fox obviously had no say in that matter, even though he often vocalized this position.
Like his predecessor Fox, Felipe Calderón was a member of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). After entering office in 2006, Calderón immediately branded himself as tough on crime and publicly declared his country’s “war on drugs.” He significantly increased this militarized approach and, at face value, Calderón’s decision looked like a very aggressive anti-drug strategy.
However, it would be remiss to not mention the suspected links between Calderón’s administration and the Sinaloa Cartel. One of Mexico’s most trusted journalists Anabel Hernández, the author of Narcoland, has thoroughly addressed this issue and provided many details linking Calderón and his predecessor Vicente Fox with the Sinaloa Cartel. Likewise, NPR compiled arrest data and proved that Sinaloa Cartel members faced only a small percentage of the country’s arrests even though that group has been the largest cartel.
Anyhow, needless to say, Mexico hasn’t been stabilized by adding the military into its anti-drug operations. Last year, Mexico’s Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda admitted that this decision was a mistake. Simply put, the military is trained for warfare, not law enforcement.
Mexican troops at a random checkpoint. (Wikimedia Commons - Homan05)
Over ten years after declaring the war on drugs, the military intervention clearly hasn’t brought peace to this country. In fact, May marked the month of the highest murder rate in 20 years. There were an estimated 80,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in the first ten years after Calderón’s decision to militarize the drug war. That’s not including the 30,000 people who have “disappeared.” Presumably, the majority of those people are missing for reasons related directly or indirectly to the drug war.
Mass killings continue at an astounding rate. For example, fourteen people died on July 5th in the border state of Chihuahua. There was a two-hour shootout between the military and members of La Linea (affiliated with the Juarez Cartel). Afterward, Oscar Aparicio Avendaño, the state security commissioner told the media, “…and there weren’t civilians (emphasis added) around, that’s why there wasn’t collateral damage. All the dead and detained had heavy weapons and tactical equipment such as bulletproof vests. They are all members of criminal groups.”
Obviously, it’s great news if innocent bystanders aren’t injured in one of these mass shootings. Likewise, few people will shed a tear at the thought of a cartel member being killed. However, it sets a terrible precedent if the government can murder its own citizens with impunity as long as the dead have been labeled as drug traffickers. As the saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
With that thought in mind, let’s review two different examples of political strategy. The international community has widely condemned the “war on drugs” in the Philippines, which has led to over 8,000 deaths through extrajudicial murders committed by government enforcers. President Rodrigo Duterte has been egregious with his support for these deaths.
In contrast, the only reason that Mexico’s leaders haven’t faced the same wave of criticism is that they’ve been more diplomatic. Hence, the softer rhetoric disguises the atrocious human rights record of the Mexican government.
Now, roughly 52,000 soldiers are conducting law enforcement activities throughout the country and these troops are rarely held accountable for their actions. By establishing an unofficial police state, the Mexican people have seen their constitutional rights eroded. Human rights violations have increased by over 1,000% since 2006 when the military was deployed for domestic anti-drug operations.
The sheer brutality of this abuse is truly startling. Amnesty International published a study last year showing that rape is often used by police and military officials to gain confessions. That study detailed several horrific examples. In particular, one woman was forced to sign a confession after being raped by six police officers and receiving brutal torture, including electroshocks to her genitals. Her torture was confirmed by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, but none of the officers were charged with a crime.
This kind of galling lack of accountability is par for the course. Despite a high number of sexual assault allegations, Amnesty International received written confirmation from the Army that not a single soldier had been suspended from service over the previous five-year period.
Extrajudicial murders by the police and military are also routine in Mexico because these enforcers rarely face criminal charges. To be specific, the National Human Rights Commission received 5,541 complaints of torture from 2012 to 2016. However, that information has led to only 29 convictions in court.
A video released this May showed a Mexican soldier executing a fuel thief after the man was detained. He was facedown with his hands clasped over his head. Keep in mind, this video went public while the Congress of Mexico was debating a new Internal Security Bill that would give more authority to the military and provide less transparency for civilians to investigate crimes such as this one. Nonetheless, the PRI is trying to fast-track this bill through Congress.
At times, U.S. government officials have made public statements denouncing the atrocities committed by the Mexican military. However, actions speak louder than words. The United States has provided $2.5 billion of military aid to Mexico since 2008 through a counternarcotics program known as the Merida Initiative. To say the least, that’s a poor decision when there’s a blurry line separating the government from the cartels.
With that said, there is a line of thinking that Mexico’s military is the only suitable counternarcotics force because their members are less susceptible to coercion than the local police. There’s some truth to that, but that theory ignores the fact that the military is very susceptible to bribes. In many cases, high-level military officials have been just as corrupt.
Look no further than what reportedly happened on August 27, 2012 in the state of Jalisco. What we know for a fact is that the Mexican Navy engaged in a clash with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in the city of Zapopan. Six members of the cartel and three federal agents were killed during this exchange. In the aftermath, the cartel began burning vehicles throughout the state as a display of force.
Here’s where the controversy lies. El Universal reported that the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, El Mencho, had been captured by Mexico’s Navy. However, El Mencho was in custody for only two hours because then-governor of Jalisco, Emilio González Márquez of the PAN Party, negotiated with high-level Navy officials to have him released immediately. El Universal, along with other national and local news outlets, confirmed privately with multiple federal officials that this capture/release took place. On the contrary, González Márquez declined to comment and federal officials publicly denied that this incident ever occurred.
Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka “El Mencho” (DEA)
Few people in the U.S. are aware of that incident, but a very different event made international news in 2014 when 43 students disappeared in Iguala. They had commandeered a set of buses to travel to Mexico City to a political protest. It was an event to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in which over 300 students had been killed by the police and military.
Instead of bringing the students to jail for the stolen buses, the police delivered the students to a local gang, Los Guerreros Unidos. The gang was acting in a murder-for-hire capacity and the Mayor of Iguala faces charges for ordering this massacre. At least, that’s the official story and it resulted in countless international news stories.
The government obtained several testimonies for that official version through methods of torture, such as electroshock to the testicles. On the other hand, Mexico’s famous journalist Anabel Hernández has a different version of the events that provides more context.
Hernández believes that the students were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and became casualties of the drug war. Hernández asserts that the students unknowingly commandeered buses that were secretly loaded with heroin. Her research shows that state and federal police, along with the military (the 27th Infantry Battalion) were actively tracking these students.
To be brief, Anabel Hernández’s version in which police and military officials participated in this massacre makes much more sense than the official version. First and foremost, two months after this tragedy, members of Los Guerreros Unidos were arrested on drug charges in the U.S. Their method of delivery was storing heroin and cocaine on passenger buses that traveled from Mexico to Chicago.
Furthermore, a series of revelations makes it very clear that the federal government has suppressed this investigation to make it look as though corruption was limited to the local level. As a matter of fact, recent reports show that the federal government of Mexico used spyware to monitor the journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers who investigated this massacre. News like this is part of why Anabel Hernández travels at all times with two bodyguards.
It’s now known that the leader of Los Guerreros Unidos, Sidronio Casarrubias, had a notebook confiscated during his arrest. It contained names and phone numbers of various city, state, and federal government officials, including the current head of the investigative wing of the Attorney General’s Office, Omar Hamid Garcia Harfuch. However, this notebook was never submitted into evidence.
More proof of a cover-up continues to pile up. Last month, Animal Politico reported that the Attorney General’s Office had been told by Sidronio Casarrubias that his brother, Alfredo, is in the Army. The Attorney General’s Office also heard from multiple sources that his brother Alfredo, a captain of the Mexican Army’s Infantry, is known by the name of “El Militar” and is an integral member of Los Guerreros Unidos. However, the prosecutor publicly claimed there wasn’t a single piece of evidence connecting the military with this massacre.
In addition, a public records search by Animal Politico to find more details about Alfredo Casarrubias was denied by the Army. Bear in mind, these reports by Animal Politico were published just weeks after a judge released seven alleged hitmen of Los Guerreros Unidos from jail.
As of today, the 43 students’ bodies have yet to be found. However, another 130 unrelated bodies have been discovered in this area. Unfortunately, these kinds of mass grave discoveries are rather common. An estimated 1,075 hidden graves have been discovered in Mexico since 2009.
Obviously, all of Mexico’s problems can’t be blamed on the U.S. government. Many of these issues existed, to a lesser degree, before America launched its war on drugs. However, the current issues are insurmountable under the current conditions. There’s no way to reasonably conclude that this issues surrounding organized crime can be eliminated with America’s drug laws still in place.
As American citizens, we have to recognize that the decisions by our government bears responsibility for a great deal of the damage that has occurred in Mexico. Likewise, many of these same problems are present in the U.S. as a result of the drug war, albeit, on a much smaller scale.
The cartels have the resources to corrupt an entire government, establish unofficial territorial boundaries, normalize sadistic violence, disintegrate the rule of law, censor newspapers, affect elections, break out of prison, commit mass atrocities, and hold an entire country hostage. Mexico’s government is beyond reform and its citizens will never have a chance for a peaceful, fully-functioning society until the U.S. ends its war on drugs.
Make no mistake, the usage of illegal drugs undoubtedly brings about a certain level of harm to a society. However, it’s even more obvious that criminalizing these drugs has had very little effect on the actual demand. Furthermore, the impact of the war on the drugs is exponentially more harmful than the actual drugs. That’s why so many people refer to the war on drugs as a failure. However, it’s not just a failure; the drug war is a human catastrophe. Therefore, the U.S. government owes it to not only its own citizens, and to the rest of the world, to end this senseless tragedy.
Admittedly, this is emotionally-difficult material to read. However, the issues highlighted in this book need to be brought to light. Otherwise, there will never be change. With that in mind, please feel free to share any portion or this entire free ebook.
Black market violence and drug money corruption are visible worldwide, but Latin America has been hardest hit by these issues. The direct consequences of the drug war are most severe in Mexico due to its proximity to the U.S., i.e. the most lucrative black market for illegal drugs.
Black market violence is also quite prevalent within the borders of the United States. In the weekend before this ebook was published, thirty-two people were shot in Chicago with four fatalities. The drug trade is the common thread among most of the city’s homicides. Chicago’s police estimate that 75-80% of the murders are committed by gang members. And a significant portion of that violence is, in one way or another, related to controlling the illegal drug market.
This book was meant to highlight a few very important aspects of the drug war debate. However, there are numerous reasons for ending the war on drugs and the first volume of my book series Rackets, The Drug War: A Trillion Dollar Con Game, makes a strong case. That book goes into great detail about why drug laws need to be reversed, but more important, it fully exposes the false pretenses that have kept this disastrous policy in place for decades.
Notes and References
The appropriate sources are hyperlinked within the text of this book. Unfortunately for English-only readers, many of the articles are from Spanish-language news sources. However, Google Translate is a nice resource to use for reading any of those articles.
(1) Anabel Hernandez. Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. London: Verso. 2013. Print. P 281
(2) Charles Bowden. Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print. P 226, 237, 239