Inside Mexico’s maze of mirrors

Mexico’s government has led a five-year war against organized crime that has turned parts of the country into sites of atrocious violence, claimed more than 40,000 lives, and generated heated debate over its priorities and preferences. With elections on the horizon, has the time come to correct the errors of this strategy, or is the lobby for war too strong?
Carlos Antonio Flores Pérez
12 October 2011

It is surprising, to say the least, to find an OECD member country suffering such levels of organized criminal violence as Mexico does, a nation which a decade ago was supposedly welcoming a new era of freedom and progress after the electoral defeat of one of the oldest authoritarian regimes in the world.

Images of the carnage have travelled the globe: beheadings, maimed corpses, brutal tortures, massive clandestine graves which together have generated a mountain of dead bodies. In only four years, the toll of murders supposedly related to organized crime exceeds 40,000.

Besides many members of criminal groups slaughtered by their rivals, this figure includes a candidate for state governor, several municipal majors and security force officers of different ranks. Civilians who did not have anything to do with the conflict, and only had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – leading to their death at the hands of one of the rival factions, including the armed forces - count for up to 10 per cent of the total.

The fight against organized crime has been the priority of Felipe Calderón’s government since it started. However, almost five years on, the violence is unrelenting, and the country has grown tired of an apparently never-ending war and its maze of mirrors, where few things are what they first seem to be.


Nick Morris/Demotix images. All rights reserved.

History and El Chapo

Organized crime is an old issue in Mexico. The most powerful groups have traditionally been involved in drug trafficking – mostly for export to the United States – and, because of the specific features of Mexico’s political regime, grew to power under the aegis of state officials who protected them on the basis of a relationship of collusion and extortion.

The Mexican state kept these criminal groups under control through mechanisms that had little to do with the rule of law, but rested instead on the security institutions’ brutality and the centralized political control of an authoritarian regime. The victory of an opposition party in the presidential elections of 2000 altered the working arrangements of this system, making the interactions between public officials and criminals more unstable, but without eliminating the high-ranking corruption that had enabled organized crime to operate across the length and breadth of the country, and to become one of the largest and most powerful set of criminal networks around the world.

After 2000, and the rise to power of President Vicente Fox, the new political landscape was characterized by disputes between the federal government and the states, which were governed by clashing political parties. The result was a reduced capacity to enforce the law – hampered by lack of agreement and coordination, and by pervasive corruption – that on this occasion could not be substituted by the old trick of exerting control through the political loyalty of governors and mayors to the president. The executive became just one more contender in the political arena, and no longer decisive for a politician’s career advancement.

Meanwhile, criminal organizations sought to seize control over routes and territories under the sway of their rivals. In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, the Gulf cartel, then led by Osiel Cárdenas – who is now in prison in the United States – enrolled army special forces deserters, who then became Los Zetas, one of the most sophisticated organizations when it comes to the use of violence. Los Zetas evolved from being Cárdenas’ personal guard, to become a paramilitary group which is now present in most of the country’s territory, and is fighting even their former associates. Cárdenas used them to maintain his hegemony over the north east of Mexico, and especially to fight groups from the Pacific coastal region of Sinaloa, who wanted to operate in Nuevo Laredo – the most important border crossing for ground-transported goods in Mexico – while not wanting to pay him for using this route.

Towards 2003, these Sinaloan groups were led by Joaquín Guzmán, also known as El Chapo (meaning “shorty”), a man who escaped from a high security prison in December, 2000. El Chapo realigned around himself the remnants of the old Amado Carrillo organization (called the Juárez cartel), with the exception of Amado’s brother Vicente, with whom El Chapo broke violently and is now struggling to sweep him out from Ciudad Juárez, the bloodiest killing zone in the entire country.

Indeed, almost every corner plagued by organized criminal violence on the map of Mexico is witness to El Chapo fighting against another organization. This has been the case in Baja California, where it disputed control with the Arellano Félix ring; in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, where it has allied with the Gulf cartel against Los Zetas; and in Morelos and Guerrero, where it fights the remnants of the Beltrán Leyva cartel – a former ally.

Incredibly, notwithstanding this nationwide presence, El Chapo has still not been recaptured by the Mexican security forces and their American advisers, who work together under the Mérida Initiative. The contrast with the Colombian experience is unavoidable: it took only one year for Pablo Escobar, having escaped from the jail of Envigado, to be hunted down by local forces guided by US intelligence.

The problem is that arresting El Chapo might not exactly be one of the Mexican government’s priorities. Indeed, the fight against drug organizations appears quite inequitable. Whereas the Sinaloan group is responsible for around 45 per cent of drug trafficking, the number of their members arrested (941) until January 2010 represented less than two per cent of the whole (53,174). The harshest fight has been mostly against Sinaloa’s rivals, and this inequality has not only been noted by analysts, but also by criminals, who openly accuse the federal government and other authorities of protecting El Chapo. In a country in which some of the anti-drugs czars have even been arrested for shielding drug traffickers, this would not be surprising.


Omar Franco Perez Reyes/Demotix image. All rights reserved. 

Suspicions look north

What comes as a major surprise, however, is evidence appearing to show that the good will toward the Sinaloa cartel, or at best, the incapacity to prosecute its associates, might not be limited to Mexico.

For instance, in June 2009, the Justice Department (DOJ) of the United States asked a federal judge to throw out drug charges against Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese businessman and naturalized Mexican, who was found to own 205 million US dollars in cash, seized in his Mexico City house, and which were purportedly obtained by selling pseudoephedrine in order to manufacture methamphetamines for the Sinaloa cartel.

The federal attorney’s failure to find supporting evidence – a witness recanted on his former statements, and some others refused to testify – resulted in a rather unusual turn of events. Despite the well-known problems of the Mexican justice system, the prosecutors worked on behalf of Ye Gon’s extradition to Mexico, where, they said, the authorities had a stronger case against him. Ye Gon had formerly stated that the millions in cash seized at his house were remnants of illegal funding for the ruling party PAN’s political campaigns. The extradition to Mexico has already been granted and, in this country, relatives of Ye Gon have obtained the protection of a federal court, which has dismissed any charges of organized crime, drug trafficking and money laundering against them.

Another case emerged in April 2006, when a DC-9 jet transporting 5.7 tons of cocaine landed in a southeastern state of Mexico. The drugs belonged to the Sinaloa cartel. An investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that the plane had been bought with money laundered in Wachovia Bank, part of Wells Fargo. Signs that Wachovia was not complying with money laundering laws appeared as early as 2005-2006, when an officer of the bank’s British branch discovered that certain crucial documents were missing, pointing in turn to massive illegal money transfers involving Mexican currency exchanges.

Between 2004 and 2007, Wachovia had processed 378 billion US dollars which had been sent from those Mexican casas de cambio, but did not fulfil the proofs of legitimate origin imposed by anti-money laundering laws. More than likely, this was blood-soaked money. The bank was punished by the Justice Department. However, the fine was for 50 million US dollars, less than two per cent of the bank’s profits for 2009 of 12.3 billion dollars. No one went to jail, and by the end of the affair, a cost-benefit analysis would seem to have been quite favourable for the bank. Antonio María Costa, former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, once declared that drugs money might be the only liquid investment capital in the context of a global economic crisis.

During his ongoing trial before an American court, Vicente Zambada, the extradited son of Ismael Zambada, aka El Mayo, the other most powerful baron within the Sinaloa cartel, appeared to confirm the suspicions raised in these cases. He alleged that along with other high-ranking members of the organization, he had cut deals to operate as DEA informers, providing the organization with information about their rivals and obtaining de facto permission for their trafficking business.

Other cases in Mexico’s drugs war point to a different kind of problem. Despite the purported friendship and cooperation between the United States and Mexico, unilateral actions by the former have been implemented without any empathy for the disastrous effects they might have on the other side of the border. One outstanding example are the pitiful results of Operation Fast and Furious, in which US officials – apparently even high-ranking ones from the DEA, the DOJ and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – authorized a gunrunning sting which ended in a mess after allowing around 2,000 assault weapons into Mexico for use by drug traffickers’ associates. The ATF operatives lost track of the weapons, and one of them was used to murder a US officer in San Luis Potosí.

Running out of time

Despite the arrest of almost 40 kingpins, Mexico’s drug trafficking and violence has been relentless. The Mexican government has declared itself open to dialogue with civil society, and willing to discuss alternative strategies  - even if it is not willing to adopt them. It insists on continuing the same strategy, whose principal axis is the role of the security forces in fighting and dismantling organized crime. However, after almost five years, no organization has been fully dismantled, and their splits and schisms have certainly not rendered them less violent.

The justice system seems unable to tackle the high political echelons that have historically played a key role in Mexican drug trafficking, and all the most resonant cases in this regard have been dismissed by the courts. Even the purges process of some institutions, such as the Federal Attorney’s Office (PGR), seem as desirable as they are late, with implementation taking place five years after Calderón’s campaign began.

After these years of fighting, which have not generated any results other than a long list of drug seizures, people arrested and an impressive death-toll, Mexican society seems much less supportive of the struggle. In January 2007, 48 per cent of people surveyed considered the fight to be a success of the federal government, against 23 per cent who believed the opposite. In September 2010, 58 per cent responded that the fight had been a failure, and only 22 per cent regarded it as successful. The trend in 2011 might well be worse.

The presidential election is due next year, and none of the aspirants for now wants to risk making a strong statement that would distance them from the fight against drug trafficking, and incur the wrath of the United States. However, it is very likely that none of them feel comfortable with the scenarios depicted by the strategists currently in charge: that the same warpath should be followed for the next 7 to 10 years before the effort can be expected to generate positive results, no matter how blurred the definition of these outcomes.

The PAN and the opposition, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, seem to have opted for even harsher measures. They are promoting a bill to reform the National Security Law which seems to violate some basic premises of democracy and republicanism: it virtually perpetuates the use of armed forces for public security issues, allowing for the federal executive to decide on their deployment and control what they do, generating a possibly permanent state of emergency. The potential negative effects on human rights are clear.

Ignoring the roots

Left-wing parties, meanwhile, reject the militarization of the country and claim to have a much broader conception of human security. However, they have not been able yet to generate an integral, alternative strategy which combines the goals of social inclusion with the unavoidable need to cope with paramilitary organized crime, which is in de facto control of several regions of the country, and will not give up on their criminal businesses – including extortion and kidnap – just because the government shows some good will.

At the same time, these left-wing groups have pointed to issues that are worth noting: in the long term, no security strategy can be successful if the current trends in socio-economic polarization and impoverishment continue, no matter how many security officers Mexico has and how well-trained they are. Responding to this might require important changes in the economic model adopted since the 1980s, and the revival of basic conceptions of a welfare state, instead of a police state.

However, one of the actors that seems most reluctant to change is the United States, where an acrimonious debate on the role of the state is ongoing. Wikileaks has shown the efforts of the Bush administration to back up the Calderón government during the hard times that followed the contested election victory of 2006. And it is doubtful that Washington feels much more comfortable with the idea of a left-wing victory in 2012.

Instead, Washington appears  aware that the time available to pursue the same style of cooperation might be shrinking, even if the next Mexican administration remains interested in combating organized crime. The United States seems to be pushing forward such cooperation as far as it can go, with the aim of committing the next government to the goals they are interested in even before it is elected. Washington has announced it will increase its role in the Mexican fight against organized crime, sending CIA operatives and civilian military officers, as well as deploying private security contractors.

The slips and enigmas in recent US activities suggest that there is little reason to believe this enhanced role will reassure Mexico. In all likelihood, the emphasis on traditional security operations will continue, with less interest in the political and socio-economic transformations which are essential to ensure the effects of security measures are sustainable, but which might also affect major US commercial interests, and NAFTA’s biggest winners. After all, are these not also the big winners in the current strategy against drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico?

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