An end-of-year drink at the house of some friends. Our hosts - Nacho and Sandra - are a young couple with two small children, Carla and Tomás. The telephone rings. Sandra picks up the receiver, listens for a moment, grimaces and hangs up. The caller, she tells us, said he was: “Colonel Roberto Ordoñez of the Zetas”. He claimed to have four-year-old Carla in his “possession” and wanted a million dollars for her return. Happily, both children were playing in the garden under their parents’ watchful eyes.
The Zetas are the most feared and violent criminal gang in Mexico, a drug cartel with a lucrative sideline in kidnapping for ransom. “We’re used to the threats,” Sandra explained. The couple, well-known artists, are back home only for the holidays. They now live in the United States which has an open-door policy for people of exceptional ability - their talents having made them targets in their own land. Even on this short visit - they are in town for just a few days - the criminals know they are here and have their local telephone number. Tomorrow the family leaves for the coast, and by the time anyone reads this, they will be safely back across the border. Countless less well-known Mexicans have also fled their homes, if not to the United States then elsewhere in the country so as to escape the seemingly ineluctable criminalisation of their town or neighbourhood.
The wave of violence currently sweeping Mexico reaches virtually every part of the Republic, but it is centred on the northern states - notably those sharing a frontier with the United States.
Proceso - Mexico’s premier investigative journal - runs regular in-depth reports on the drug cartels, or ‘narcos’. Its 26 September edition - largely dedicated to drug trafficking - includes a headline: “Where the Narco rules”. The place: Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua; a border town with a credible claim to be the world’s most dangerous city.
The story focuses on a press photographer from local newspaper El Diario sent to cover yet another murder, this time in a shopping centre two blocks from the newspaper office where he works. A grey car riddled with bullet holes stands in the parking lot, its wind-screen and side-windows shattered. Inside, slumped against the steering wheel, is 21-year-old Luis Carlos Santiago, an apprentice journalist from the same newspaper. He is the second reporter from El Diario to be murdered - the first being Armando Rodriguez who, a year earlier, was gunned down outside his house while taking his daughter to school.
Journalism is a risky business in northern Mexico - but then so is almost any other way of life: on the day of Santiago’s murder, twenty-four others were also slaughtered, including two whole families machine-gunned in their homes.
A three-way war is under way for control of Ciudad Juarez between the army and two rival drug cartels; and anyone who gets in the way is likely to be killed. The scale and bloodiness of the war are spine-chilling. Media reports are common of weddings, festivals and parties being interrupted by the arrival of hit-men carrying sacks of severed heads that they roll out onto the dance floor. In 2010 alone, Ciudad Juarez suffered over 3,000 drug-related murders. Almost a quarter of a million people are believed to have fled the city and its environs. Even the mayor, José Reyes Ferriz, lives in Texas. On Independence day (September 15th) only the police and the military showed up for the public ceremony; and the traditional cry of Viva Mexico rang out from the Town Hall into a space emptied by fear, and by threats from mobsters.
Violence in the eastern state of Tamaulipas receives less coverage than Chihuahua, but it may be even more lethal and widespread. Stories emerge of as many as 200 deaths in a single encounter; of stretches of road strewn with the corpses of men, women and children; of piles of bodies thrown into ditches. Most reports are unofficial and reach the outside world in the form of anonymous blogs, private letters, and verbal accounts made by people who have left. Few are willing to speak up publicly. No records are kept of murders. No one knows where many of the bodies of the slain end up, only that they are not in official graveyards. Politicians, police, journalists, and local bureaucrats are said to be in the pay of drug traffickers. Informers are everywhere, ready to report attempts to clean up or to dispute authority over the area. Government employees in rural ministries can work solely during daylight hours and via main highways. Travel on secondary roads is foolhardy. The local press has been silenced.
Abasolo, a small town 100 km north west of Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, lost its mayor in August. He simply disappeared. So too the mayor of the little town of Cruillas. In Hidalgo the mayor was assassinated, his replacement has been warned against entering his office, and the Gulf Cartel has imposed a curfew on the inhabitants. A growing number of towns and villages lack a police force - the previous officers having all resigned or fled.
Tamaulipas has many of the characteristics of a criminal dictatorship, the difference being that control is disputed by the Zetas and their rivals the Gulf Cartel. In effect, no one is in charge, unless it be Thanatos, the god of death.
Michoacan and Sinaloa are two ‘drug’ states not adjacent to the US border. Drug-running in the former is in the hands of the Michoacán Family, La Familia. Cartel chief, Nazario Moreno González - El Chayo - was reportedly shot dead by troops in December 2010 after a street battle that for two days virtually closed down the state capital, Morelia. If El Chayo is truly dead, then he has undoubtedly already been replaced by another member of the gang. Like the Lernaean Hydra, decapitation merely produces more heads. Perhaps more than any other figure of the Mexican underworld, El Chayo reflected the strange nether world of the drug barons, a world in which conventional values are reversed yet remain recognisably of the same order, like a photographic negative. He famously published a magazine, Pensamientos (Thoughts), which he used as a vehicle to set out a personal credo in words that could be mistaken for those of a passionate evangelist. Here is an extract from one of his pieces:
Brothers in Christ, Mexicans, Michoacanos, fellow tropicals, we have so much in common: a humble birth, a harsh childhood, hard labour, little leisure, troubled dreams... Everything we do springs from this..... I dreamed of being someone, of fighting for my loved ones, so that everyone in future would enjoy all the things that I lacked in the days when injustice made me tremble with frustrated rage... - thanks be to god that my dreams haven’t changed and now form part of my reality... - and from there I have come to an evangelistic, militant Christianity that the Crusaders would have recognised.
Easy though it may be to dismiss this as the self-justifying ramble of a criminal, the expression of outrage at the social and economic injustices of a deeply unequal country is something with which many Mexicans will sympathise. Sinaloa is the home of the cartel of the same name, and headquarters of Mexico’s most famous drug baron - Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo. Since his escape from a federal prison in 2001, El Chapo has become something of a Robin Hood figure, a glamorous anti-hero with a reputation for daring and for generosity towards the poor. Countless articles have been written about him, as well as at least one book - Malcolm Beith’s, The Last Narco. He is reputed to have a vast and complex network of legitimate as well as illegitimate business, with up to 150,000 people in his employ. In 2009, he made the Forbes list of world’s richest people, an accolade that drew a furious response from Mexican president Felipe Calderón who claimed that the magazine was glorifying criminality. Ever since El Chapo’s jail break, both the previous government and the present one claim to have devoted substantial resources to recapturing him. With the enormous wealth at his command, El Chapo can probably bribe his way out of trouble. He can also, without doubt, fight his way out: all the cartels are known to be equipped with modern weaponry imported - largely - from the United States, but also from other supposedly ‘respectable’ countries like Germany.
Alone among the cartel leaders, El Chapo appears to have a significant section of the general public on his side, not least because many see him as an enemy of the feared Zetas and with a greater chance of bringing them to heel than the federal government.
He is not, however, the only cartel chief to capture the public imagination. Several are celebrated in popular songs - or corridos - composed, performed and recorded by professional groups. It is not uncommon for a drug lord to commission a corrido and, for obvious reasons, no one dares decline. Nor is it wise for local radio stations to refuse to broadcast such songs - despite official attempts to ban them from the airwaves.
There is a sense in some quarters that the drug cartels, especially those able to project a social conscience (however distorted), may be winning the battle for public opinion.
Almost immediately on taking office in December 2006, President Calderón launched a crackdown against the cartels, using the military rather than the police as the main instrument of attack. Part of the rationale for this offensive lay in the increasing bloodshed wrought by the gangs themselves as they fought each other for control over drug supplies and trade routes to the United States. Pressure is also likely to have come from the US administration for Mexico to clean up its act, though Mexicans point out that the US is the world’s largest market for illegal drugs, and that a ‘clean-up’ will be unlikely to work unless something is done to restrict demand.
In any case, while Calderón’s anti-drugs war has claimed some successes, notably the capture or killing of several prominent narcos, the overall level of conflict has increased alarmingly. Since Calderón’s campaign began, over thirty thousand drug-related murders have been recorded, with the number of deaths steadily increasing. A further ten thousand people have been reported as missing - though the number of these is likely to be much larger. Reforma newspaper runs a macabre ‘Execution Metre’, an annual “organised crime” death count presented in graphic format. It shows a rise in “executions” every year since 2006, with steep increases over the last two years. Latest official figures for 2010 give a total of 15, 273 executions, making it the most violent year in the country’s peacetime history.
Many interpret these figures as evidence that the government’s war against the cartels is failing; and there are suspicions, too, that some of the leaders - El Chapo being one - are enjoying government protection. Conspiracy theories abound, with some ministers such as Genaro García Luna, Minister of Public Security, suffering repeated press barrages for his alleged links with mobsters. The distrust of government, however, is not based on hard evidence. It stems from a failure of authority to deal with the savagery that prevails in so many Mexican states, from a sense of living in a country where criminality wins out over the law, from a feeling of powerlessness feeding a suspicion that the government itself is a participant in the lawlessness, both through the corruption of ministers and its tactic of responding to violence with violence, so that citizens can hardly tell the difference between the behaviour of the official and the unofficial armed forces.
If anything seems clear in this chaos of brutality, religiosity and perverse idealism, it is that President Calderon’s war against the cartels is about a lot more than the drug trade.
What drives men to extremism
Unlike the leaders of revolutionary groups such as the Zapatistas, or the kidnappers of national politician Diego Fernández de Cevallos who left a well-written if tortuous justification of their action, the narcos come from the poor and marginalised classes who, a century after the Mexican Revolution, continue to account for over half of the country’s 110 million people. For everyone, from top to bottom of the cartel hierarchies - the petty traders, couriers and hit-men, the marijuana and poppy growers, as well the bosses and their wives and mistresses - the drug trade provides a path out of poverty and access to a life-style unobtainable, indeed not even thinkable, in the world of so-called legitimate activity. Here lies the challenge not just to Mexico, but to a wider world.
Capitalism has proved over time to be a prime force for the creation of wealth. By the same token, it has shown a tendency to concentrate that wealth in relatively few hands, particularly in the neo-liberal version that holds sway in a large part of the west. Extremes of inequality can produce in people who are marginalised by the economic or political system a belief that they no longer have a stake in ‘society’, that the prevailing order is one of injustice and cruelty from which they can expect nothing positive, and that their only recourse is to hold it in contempt. This effect may well lie at the heart of Mexico’s problem; and it also offers a warning that no country can afford to ignore.
In the words of Isaiah Berlin:
Men will suffer for centuries in societies whose structure is made stable by the accumulation and retention of all necessary power in the hands of some one class. Ferment begins only when this order breaks down for some reason... Lack of adequate status, humiliation of the parents, and the sense of injury and indignation of the children are what drives men to social and political extremism.
Mexico’s drug war represents a challenge not just to Mexico but to the west. The turmoil has already spilled into the United States and possibly also to the country’s southern neighbours, Guatemala and El Salvador. Europe, too, has recently become a target market for the Mexican cartels.
In the end, this is a war about fundamental human justice in almost every conceivable sense of that phrase. The solution, if there is one, will require an international response; solidarity with Mexico as the country struggles to find a path to peace, and maybe something more - recognition that neither peace nor justice can be achieved while so many millions of our fellow human beings lack the wherewithal to live a dignified life. Four hundred and fifty years ago, in 1562, the great French essayist Montaigne heard the message in Paris from the lips some of the first South Americans to cross the Atlantic.
....(the visitors) noted that though there were some men among us of great wealth, many were ragged, half-starved beggars; and they found it strange that people who suffered such injustice did not rise up and take the rich by the throat or set fire to their houses.
That may well be what the cartels are about.