Mexico: The casualties of war

Behind the bloody headlines of Mexico’s war on drugs, creeping militarism and corruption is silencing public dissent. Government policy failures are leading to social breakdown, writes Siobhan McGuirk with Maria Felix

February 8, 2011
12 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

At four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, the usually busy streets of Xoxocotla, a small indigenous town half an hour south of Cuernavaca, should not be falling quiet. Taco stands are folding down their tarpaulin walls; the medical centre, overrun with patients in the morning, sits empty. Schoolchildren are going home after a half-day of classes.

‘My customers told me to have packages ready by five o’clock,’ explains Doña Juarez, from her small tortilla stall. ‘I usually work until seven but because of the curfew, a lot of people won’t leave their house after six tonight.’ From her apron pocket, she pulls out the well-thumbed, unevenly typed letter that was handed out to her daughter at school a week earlier. The open letter to the people of Xoxocotla, reads, ‘Anyone seen in the bars and streets associated with our enemies will be in danger. We do not want our beautiful village to suffer, but we must defend our business, as a market stall trader would, from out-of-town competition.’

The paper has been frantically shared between neighbours and plastered over town. It is signed with a rubber-stamped ‘CPS’, the acronym of Cartel del Pacífico Sur, a new gang fighting for control of Morelos state after the death of former cartel boss Arturo Beltran-Leyva in December 2009. They are known for their young members and bloody exhibitions. As well as burning down houses, CPS have claimed responsibility for a string of high-profile murders, with El Ponchis, their 14-year-old assassin arrested in Cuernavaca at the end of 2010, confessing to a string of homicides.

Guillermo Martinez is not convinced CPS wrote the letter. People have been coming to his photocopying shop with it all week, he says, and though they will act on it, many doubt its authenticity. ‘It’s signed CPS but I don’t believe they are behind it. Perhaps it is another game from the politicians.’

The following day is 20 November 2010, an important date for the government. The 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution will mark the culmination of the year-long, state‑sponsored bicentennial celebrations, also commemorating 200 years of independence. The government has spent more than $230million (£148million) decking the country in red, white and green, a sum three in five people are unhappy with, according to a poll by the daily newspaper Reforma. Guillermo Martinez is one of them. ‘The government have planned a big parade and some people here were planning a counter-march,’ he explains. ‘We still face real problems and poverty after 100 years of this so-called equality and they are trying to hide it all.’

Officials claim that the celebrations will be targeted by drug cartels, justifying a heavy presence of armed guards nationwide. Martinez is sceptical, but knows any attempt to disrupt the local parade will be severely dealt with. ‘If you make a curfew and blame it on the cartels, you can control the people, bring in the military and silence dissent, all without losing support,’ he says.

Creeping militarisation

The United States has waged its ‘war on drugs’ since the 1970s, spending an estimated $1 trillion on prohibition and military aid to participating source countries. The Mexican industry developed as 1990s crackdowns on Caribbean trading routes forced Colombian suppliers to find new roads into the US. Mexican traffickers paid in product quickly recognised the huge profits marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine produced. It is impossible to gauge exactly how much the trade is now worth, with estimates ranging from $13 to $48 billion a year. Ninety per cent of the cocaine that enters the US now comes through Mexico.

President Filipe Calderon announced his brutal approach to narcotrafico on 11 December 2006, just two weeks into his six-year term, sending 6,500 troops to Michoacán to counter drug-related crime. His right-wing National Action Party (PAN) had weathered six months of fraud allegations after winning the election by just 0.5 percent. The Federal Electoral Institute refused to hold a national recount, despite acknowledging irregularities at polling stations around the country. The ruling led a million people to rally in the capital, in support of closest rival López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), as Calderon was sworn in.

The unpopular new president brought the military onside on his first day in office, ordering a 35 per cent pay rise for the federal police and armed forces. He found another ally in US president George Bush, who supported Calderon’s militarised approach with $1.4 billion over three years, through the Merida Initiative. The Mexican government spends a further $7 billion on the initiative each year. According to the BBC it has 50,000 armed federal officers patrolling the country.

The violent consequences of the initiative are well‑documented. International news channels have pored over decapitations posted on YouTube, bodies hung from bridges and countless bloody sieges. Security analysts explain that new gangs are fighting over turf vacated by the death or arrest of rival bosses, allowing the government to argue that the rising bloodshed proves larger, organised groups are losing power. In 2009, a bullish Calderon told journalists, ‘We will win – and of course there will be many problems meanwhile.’

According to the government-run National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), these problems include soldiers raping women, indiscriminately firing their weapons and using torture during interrogation. The CNDH’s 2007 report recommended the army be pulled out of anti-narcotic operations, but fears surrounding military involvement had been aired previously. The original Merida Initiative funding bill stipulated that ‘all cases of Mexican soldiers accused of human rights violations be referred to civilian courts’. The US Congress dropped the requirement after ‘vocal opposition’ from Mexico. Subsequently, of the 4,600 human rights abuse complaints received by the CNDH since 2007, military courts have sentenced just one officer (Human Rights Watch, quoting the Mexico defence secretary’s office SEDENA).

Local journalists’ reports suggest that many complaints are linked to coordinated crackdowns on political opponents. The International Civil Commission on Human Rights (CCIODH) has also documented drug-related fabricated evidence being used to justify the violent detention of indigenous rights and anti-privatisation activists, as well as Zapatista community leaders.

Xoxocotla was subjected to military raids in late 2008, when activists set up road-blocks along the Alpuyeca-Jojutla motorway. They were demonstrating in solidarity with teachers striking in Cuernavaca and against the proposed sale of a municipal aquifer to private housing developers.

After 11 days of disruption, on 8 October 2008, the governor of Morelos, Marco Adame, ordered more than 1,500 state and paramilitary federal police to break the barricades. When a group of officers became trapped between blockades, effectively held captive by the protesters, the national defence secretary sent more than 500 troops to intervene, in tanks, trucks and helicopters. Alarmed when the army surrounded their town, the activists dismantled the blockades, only for troops to swarm in, firing tear gas and illegally searching houses. Several independent media sources reported that dozens were beaten or detained and police checkpoints remained in place for more than a week, searching everyone entering and leaving the town.

Yet the story was a side note in national papers and absent from international newswires. As heavily armed police convoys roll through towns on a daily basis, and checkpoints are accepted as necessary measures, bloody purges have become unremarkable.

The oppression is more than symbolic. During the swine flu panic, the president decreed a ‘state of emergency’, sanctioning martial law and banning public gatherings. Laws passed during this period allowing the federal police to intercept all private communications, including email and phone, received a forcibly muted response.

Corruption, complicity and losing faith

‘There are four issues in this “war”,’ explains Miguel, an ex-civil servant who now works as a teacher. ‘The US is the consumer. They need to address their demand and stop blaming the suppliers,’ he says, echoing the sentiments of most Mexicans. ‘Secondly, they need to stop guns coming into Mexico,’ he adds, citing a recent Washington Post investigation into cross-border gun trafficking. It found that 35,000 guns recovered from crime scenes and traced through the Project Gunrunner tracking system were bought over the border.

‘We need to do something about poverty,’ continues Miguel. ‘Trafficking should not be the only job prospect for young people.’ Angry now, he concludes, ‘But the hardest thing to change, maybe impossible, is corruption. Everyone takes money from the cartels.’

The government initially argued that federal police involvement was necessary due to high levels of corruption in local forces. Yet in August 2010, 4,600 federal officers, one tenth of the force, were sacked on suspected corruption charges. Once trusted by the public, their reputation is now tarnished. Paulina, a Cuernavaca student, saw military trucks delivering marijuana to a small-scale dealer. ‘Only a bit of what is seized is destroyed,’ she says. The cartels have simply bought new moles.

The secretary of public security is pushing a recruitment drive in response, again offering higher wages and using better background checks. Yet corruption is deeply rooted. Well-paid officials also take bribes. Noe Ramirez Mandujano, formerly Mexico’s highest-ranking anti-narcotics official, was arrested shortly after leaving office, in November 2008. He sold information to traffickers for $450,000 per month.

Calderon claims that Operacion Limpieza, which investigated Mandujano, is ‘fighting corruption among Mexican authorities, risking everything to clean house’. Yet he refuses to repeal an unpopular law that provides immunity from criminal charges to all elected officials, including mayors, legislators and politicians. The daily newspaper Reforma, meanwhile, continues to publish evidence that cartels not only have commanders on their payrolls but also access to US intelligence data only available to senior officials.

Placed in the crossfire

While the war on drugs has raged, Mexico has been hit by the worldwide financial crisis. Calderon’s neoliberal policies have failed to protect the poor. According to research published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) wages have risen just 17 per cent under the current administration while purchasing power has fallen by half. Twenty-five percent of the population lives on the minimum daily wage of 57 pesos (£2.50) while funding cuts to rural employment initiatives have left more than 12 million people without regular income.

Narcos do not hesitate to take advantage of cheap, often desperate, labour. Carmen, a secretary from Monterrey, confides that her 16-year-old son was offered 4,000 pesos per week to become a sicario – an assassin. ‘I replied, “Okay, just leave me enough to pay for your coffin,”’ she says. Yet few people working for gangs get rich. ‘You have enough money for the day and to send your kids to private school,’ says Clara, a former cocaine dealer, ‘but don’t think you become rich. Only big bosses do that.’ Most accept small sums as runners or lookouts. Others become tied to organised crime through the sex industry, the black market or by simply refusing to co-operate with the police, often in exchange for their life.

The official death toll of the drugs war passed 30,000 in December. When the news broke, former attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora sought to reassure horrified commentators. ‘Ninety per cent of the dead are involved in the drug trade. Only four per cent are innocent bystanders,’ he claimed. For many Mexicans, the distinction has become meaningless.

The government also cites 120,000 drugs-related arrests as proof of the offensive’s success. Yet according to US embassy cables published on Wikileaks, just two percent of arrests lead to convictions in Ciudad Juarez, the so-called ‘murder capital of the world’.

Rapidly rising drug addiction is yet another unforeseen consequence of the war. With border crossing increasingly difficult, gangs have turned to internal markets to unload supplies. Last year the public security secretary, Genaro Garcia Luna, told the Mexican Congress that inhalable cocaine use had tripled over two years, yet now there is no initiative funding for educational campaigns or addiction treatment. People are anyway wary of existing rehabilitation clinics. Rumours circulate that they are run by cartels, used to protect associates and recruit new members. More than a dozen have become bloody crime scenes, stormed by armed commandos.

As crime rates soar and fears of extortion, armed robbery and kidnapping increase, wealthier families are installing high-tech security systems and moving into guarded compounds. Private security is one of the few industries booming in the country. Information from Wikileaks revealed that former under-secretary of the interior Geronimo Gutierrez recently conceded, ‘[The war] is damaging Mexico’s reputation, hurting foreign investment, and leading to a sense of government impotence.’

Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) is battling to regain public trust, spending millions on adverts that valorise police officers by mixing bicentennial imagery of heroic revolutionary wars with modern military scenes. Police squads are visiting schools to familiarise children with their armed guardians. Parades of officers wielding automatic weapons atop armoured trucks cruise through towns like Xoxocotla, flanked by fluffy, waving mascots.

Yet, although the 2012 election looms large, no one is offering alternatives. Opposition parties cannot challenge Calderon’s drugs war policies because they have none of their own. The favourite, Revolutionary and Institutional Party (PRI) presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, is instead making headlines for his marriage to Angélica Rivero, one of Mexico’s biggest soap opera actresses. His politics are not being scrutinised. It seems that all the politicians have left to offer is celebrity escapism. For an embattled population in a hopeless situation, it could well be an attractive option.

Names have been changed upon request


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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