The Mexican Drug Wars

By Ron Shirtliff | 2012-10-01 12:00:00

Canadians are aware that a terrible war with unspeakable atrocities is going on between the Mexican state and the drug cartels, and also between no fewer than eight rival drug gangs fighting for territory and control of the supply of cocaine and other drugs to the lucrative American market. We know of 50,000 drug violence deaths since 2006. What we may not know is that while this is not a serious threat to tourists, it is a threat to many Mexicans and maybe to the Mexican state itself. And this threat has roots in Mexico’s democratic deficit, in turn a product of its colorful history of a love/hate relationship with authority. On one side it’s a nation with a great majority of practicing and mostly conservative Roman Catholics, willing subjects to absolute authority; on the flip side its people have sought freedom and justice through repeated revolutions against established authority.

Mexico is not a product of one great revolution safely set in the remote past. Instead the state is the product of three major and many minor uprisings, and has two more simmering on the back burner today: In 1994, Chiapas, an impoverished and neglected southern state, went into full rebellion under Subcomandante Marcos leading the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, demanding control of their own land. Under the banner of Zapata, a national hero and the colorful agrarian leader of the 1910 revolution against despotism, the modern Zapatistas hoped to spark another national revolt. They failed in that objective, but the southern state, though overwhelmed by trickery and military force, has not been subdued and remains a powerful moral and media presence in Mexico and beyond, especially among the marginalized indigenous population. Many Mexicans believe that the revolution for real social justice is yet to come.

The other current revolution is less idealistic. Mexican drug lords have succeeded in flouting the machinery of state for their own profit, moving narcotics estimated at up to $49 billion annually from South and Central America to their final destinations in the US and Canada. Even this cynical battle stirs the public imagination because of the perception of compromised and incompetent authorities.

Eight cartels competing

The criminal forces are complex, with eight cartels struggling against the authority of the state and competing violently against each other for a chunk of that multi-billion dollar pie. The Sinaloa Cartel stands out as one of the oldest and largest, and some refer to it as primarily a political organization covering its illegal trade through ‘connections’. Los Zetas, a dissident offspring dominated by ex-soldiers, is more crudely violent in its efforts to wrench control from its parent. Some cartels find allies in bribed mayors and local police chiefs, but these officials then become targets of competing cartels.

Immigrant groups from Central America are co-opted by drug gangs and held for ransom, in some cases becoming mass victims, mutilated to intimidate other potential recruits of a competing cartel. Most of this violence takes place in just the few areas of this large country that are essential to the trade, while life goes on as usual in most of the land. Still, fear is widespread, especially among minor officials who are bribed, or forced, to choose sides..

The essential Mexican problem, which is a democratic dilemma, is illustrated in the following tableau of humble obedience counterposed with a glorious—hopefully ongoing—revolution, birthing and rebirthing a just society.

When Pope Benedict visited the faithful in the conservative Mexican city of Guanajuato in March 2012, he could not have avoided viewing a large socialist-realist inspired statue, El Pipila, that overlooks the city. This was the meeting of two icons of a basic contradiction that defines part of the Mexican psyche— the tension between the order offered by humble religious faith, and the necessity of rebellion to counter the abuses that humility invites.

Located in the mountainous geographic centre of Mexico, Guanajuato is a small city of 140,000, capital of a state of the same name. It is home of a vital university as well as the annual Cervantes International Festival. Because of its history as a focus of the 1810 Revolution of Independence against Spain, it is also a magnet for Mexican history buffs. Many of them seek to keep alive the spirit of that first great revolution against an imperial authority that had endured 300 years after the conquest.

In colonial times the city was one of the jewels in the Spanish crown, providing a significant portion of the silver and gold that led to the magnificent rise and eventual fall of Spanish power in an earlier version of what now might be dubbed the Dutch (oil) disease. The great empire became dependent on the bullion wrenched from the earth by local indigenous workers (whose working life expectations may have been as little as four years, some estimate).

At that time, in Mexico, after almost three centuries of colonization, only persons born in Spain were eligible for office in Mexico. The independence revolution was led by Criollos, a class of persons of Spanish blood but born in the country. The resentment of these educated disenfranchised persons was visceral and when it erupted the resulting violence was extreme on both sides.

Father Hidalgo’s head

On his visit this year, Pope Benedict was below the towering statue of El Pipila, which celebrates heroic action in the first major engagement of that revolution against European overlords in 1810. Under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, led by Father Miguel Hidalgo, an indigenous peasant army with little more than outrage and farm tools swarmed into Guanajuato. There they laid siege to the authorities and the local establishment citizenry, who sought refuge in a giant fortified granary. In the subsequent standoff, one husky young miner, El Pipila, was able to carry a large flat rock on his back to shield himself from enemy fire long enough to burn out the granary door. The subsequent slaughter was complete. Later, there were reverses in the war. The then excommunicated Father Hidalgo’s head was hung in a cage from the granary eaves, but the forces he unleashed were ultimately triumphant. Elements of that encounter have informed several revolutions over the past 200 years, and continue to play out in modern Mexico.

The Church, hoping to reconcile these forces in its favor, is trying to find a way to get Father Hidalgo, the primary revolutionary hero of a very Catholic country, posthumously out of hell, where by doctrine all excommunicated persons are certain to go for eternity.

So the Pope, the focus of faith, humility, and authority, pontificates below El Pipila, the revolutionary. What he might have found most disturbing about the huge torch bearer, erected in 1939, is the inscription, which reads _A?n Hay Otras Alhondigas Por Incendiar_—“There are still other establishment fortifications to burn.” It is not a direct challenge to the authority of church or of state but the inscription is unconventional in glorifying not just one safely distant founding revolution, but the continuing revolution.

Between the Pope and El Pipila, the Mexican psyche is caught in the desire for the quiet comfort of humble faith in authority and the desire for a revolutionary grasp of justice. Neither desire is likely to be quickly satisfied by the slow and tedious processes of democracy.

The Independence Revolution was not the last. Some fifty years later, the Mexicans were forced to revolt again, this time against newly assertive French overlords. After a short democratic interregnum, Porfiro Diaz—a hero of the war against the French—led yet another military rebellion, and in 1877 seized the presidency. Though a modernizer, he used violence and corruption to hold control for 33 years until 1910, when another popular revolution turfed him and his corporatists out. A new constitution restricted presidents to one term of six years. Out of the new chaos emerged in 1929 a party, catching the spirit of the times, calling itself the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Despite the new constitution the PRI managed to hold power 70 years, until finally losing an election in 2000.

The president, the patron

That successful PRI was not a political party as we like them, but a vast organization that managed the election of a president who would then rule (for a fixed six-year term) from a position of near absolute power. In return for support of the organization that elected him, the president distributed patronage to key supporters, from judges down to local mayors and garbage collectors,. He had the crucial power to select the PRI candidate for the next six-year presidential term. The system worked to keep the revolutionary party in power until built-up resentment elected a rival from a conservative and Catholic group, the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000.

That revolution at the polls thrust Mexico into a new democracy as a new century began. But as a democracy it was seriously hobbled by having no tradition of political parties in which leaders were responsible to party members, let alone accountable to the electorate. Mexicans were long schooled in political patronage and the resulting social and economic injustices. The ratio of relative wealth is extreme: Mexico is home to more billionaires than Saudi Arabia; over 76% of the population in the southern states live under the poverty line; family incomes are contracting, reputedly by 12% in the past two years. Understandably, some Mexicans yearn for another glorious revolution, a quick fix to their problems.

In 2006 the second PAN president, Felipe Calderón, decided it was necessary to break the well-established corruption cycle by using the army to take on the drug lords. This became the central focus of his presidency. He met with some successes, but 50,000 deaths, including 5,000 disappearances and assassinations of local mayors, did not look like success to the public.

Key crime figures remain at large, like the elusive billionaire—and alleged head of the Sinaloa cartel—El Chapo (Shorty) Guzmán, 10th among Mexican billionaires and 55th in the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful men. Experts argue that Guzmán’s cartel is a political organization, favoring the political option before bloodshed, but resorting to force when “fixing” fails.

In contrast, the Zetas cartel was created by army deserters, who joined, then broke, from Sinaloa, and now seek dominance over it. The Zetas are suspected to be the most violent of the major cartels; it is believed that the 49 headless, handless bodies discovered in May were the work of the Zetas. Most casualties are members of cartels, young recruits in the battle for control of drug routes.

Six other identified cartels struggle to control the same trade, resulting in more complications and deaths. And all this with some impunity; most crimes go unpunished in Mexico, despite a prison population rivaling the US in perecentage terms.

I can’t believe that Calderón’s war on the cartels was wrong, but the results so far are disastrous. Picking off some local cartel leaders led to more intense turf wars and more public slaughters. The top men remain at large.

On July 1 Mexicans voted to reject the war on the cartels, dumped PAN, and returned to power the PRI, which claims to be reformed. Apparently the supermarket food vouchers the PRI distributed before the election were not seen as inappropriate bribes to voters.

It is possible that Mexican drug lords, confronting the imperfect state, wrap themselves in El Pipila’s popular revolutionary cloak. In fact the Government has had to publicly plead with the media establishment not to glorify the colorful drug lords, and in turn the warlords target and kill journalists who criticize them. In Mexico it is dangerous even to report on the activities of the drug cartels. The human rights commission says 81 journalists have been killed and 16 kidnapped since 2000. El Mañana recently announced it would no longer cover narco-traffic violence after the paper was targeted by two grenade attacks on its offices. One cartel or another was unhappy with the paper’s coverage. Various other newspapers have adopted the same “no hear, no see, no tell” policies but usually without announcing their self-imposed censorship, and perhaps after negotiations with the local cartels. Even careless bloggers have been assassinated.

In the drug trafficking areas no Mexican is free of the threat. Fourteen mayors were killed in 2010. In February, 30 prison inmates escaped after murdering, with the assistance of guards, 44 members of a rival criminal ring. It was just one prison break among many, including bold ambushes of military units transferring captives from an insecure prison to a more secure one.

Chillingly, in his campaign the incoming PRI president, Enrique Peña Nieto, offered no solution to the problem with the cartels, limiting himself to criticizing the failures of the incumbent. Many hope that he will not buy a truce by surrendering more sovereignty.

However, the public’s desire for order and justice was not satisfied when suddenly this August, authorities reported that seven men already in custody “confessed” to the killing of five journalists in separate incidents. The public has no great faith in the competence or even the honesty of the authorities.

There are drug-pushing gangs in Canada and similar criminal organizations in most countries. They corrupt and intimidate governments and local officials to some degree, depending on the relative monetary value of their illegal activities. Mexican drug lords deal in billions of dollars in a poor country long accustomed to patronage; there is a generous supply of drugs from the south and a rich market of hungry addicts in the US.

The US War on Drugs

The unending US “War on Drugs” assures a good price for an illegal product and a lot of employment for police and other enforcers. As a result, drug gangs have big money to buy the loyalty of local agents and arrange the deaths of local officials and to corrupt more senior ones. They have easy access to deadly assault weapons and can call on the rebellious spirit of thousands of impoverished citizens to be their foot soldiers for money and glory. The rival war lords are virtually states within a state. They are a new, hidden establishment, built on a foundation of corruption.

Stop criminalizing drug use!

What is the solution? President Calderón had joined with other Latin American presidents to call on the US to stop criminalizing drug use and end the policies that have ensured that smuggled drugs command premium prices. He also called on the US to restrain the easy access to powerful assault weapons that enter Mexico and empower the drug lords to face off, not only with the local constabularies, but even, in some instances, with Mexican army units. This situation received some US press interest only when an American secret agent was targeted and killed by US weapons on a Mexican highway, but the story soon lost traction. Controlling the US National Rifle Association may be as difficult as defeating the cartels. Calderón’s frontal attack has resulted in much publicized arrests of minor narco leaders, but the kingpins are still at large, and the internecine struggle is as destructive as ever.

Built on bribery and thuggery—but also political savvy, capitalizing on the history, the hopes, and the weaknesses of the society—the cartels have been able to take on a modern industrial democratic state, and the bets are still open as to the outcome of the conflict. I suspect that the solution is not likely to be found in faith and obedience, nor in rebellion against authority, but rather in determined building of complex democratic and social institutions.

As for the standoff between the state and the well-established cartels, we might agree with El Pipila that, “There are still other establishment fortifications to burn.” We hope that the Mexicans collectively manage to identify the right ones and develop the institutions that can diminish and control them.

Ron Shirtliff is an editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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