Narco violence in Mexico: Eight theses and many questions

In the last three years, Mexico has descended into a spiral of uncontrollable and unimaginable violence as a result of President Felipe Calderon's decision to launch a war against drug cartels at the behest of the US.   Paco Ignacio Taibo II seeks answers to the question as to how it all happened and how this nightmare can be ended.

MORE than three years ago, the man who directs the destinies of our nation from Los Pinos [the presidential residence] declared war against the Mexican drug cartels. Since then, we Mexicans have given - according to official statistics - more than 31,000 lives to the war, with countless injured. Several large cities (Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Monterrey, Tampico, Morelia, Culiacan, Mazatlan) live in fear and in virtual states of siege. Some regions have become abandoned, rural areas are a no man's land, federal highways impassable. Seventeen states of the Republic are living crises of epic insecurity. Thousands of complaints have been lodged to human rights commissions (and those are the ones that are made public, as fear [of reporting violations] prevents us from knowing more than the tip of the iceberg) for rape, kidnapping, blackmail, illegal raids, robberies and all kinds of abuse produced by the police forces, the Army and, to a lesser extent, the Navy. Urban neighbourhoods and industrial areas are no longer visited by tax assessors or health inspectors, because the drug cartels are the state.

How did we get here? How can this inertia be stopped before Mexico vanishes amid the fear and terror of a holocaust full of cut-off heads, and shootouts where innocent citizens are collateral damage? In Mexico, a place where police bust through doors during home raids and steal the cheese on the table, with jails where the mafia rules and there is systematic torture, where official statements of advances and successes are made that not even the children of the great urban bourgeoisie buy? Mexico, where factories and shops close down, and mothers are murdered for protesting the murders of their daughters?

First. Calderon negotiated the launching of this war with President Bush, not with the then newly-arrived Obama. And he agreed in terms of a package deal with absurd conditions. The drug war has never been, nor should it be, a Mexican war. It was, and is, an essentially American war generated by increased consumption of drugs on a global scale in the United States. Thus, the Mexican proposal should not have gone beyond an offer to support a war that should take place in the land of the gringos by fighting the distribution networks, financial structures, and through border control. In their territory, not ours. But it didn't happen that way. In three years there have been little more than a half-dozen major operations on [the US] side of the border, while we witnessed the unleashing of the bloodiest confrontations we Mexicans have experienced since the Cristero War [of 1926-29].

Images. I was able to uncover, through reading local newspapers in Acapulco, the reported previous occupations of most of the 15 men who were recently found beheaded. Two teenagers, a carwasher, a garbage truck driver, a mechanic, two jobless men, a local policeman, and three construction workers. They represent the infantry of the Acapulco Cartel massacred by the Chapo Guzman Group (according to notes found at the site) for control of the town square.

Second. It took the Calderon government a year to ask the US for control of weapons trafficking. Since that time the government hasn't received any response. According to official numbers, close to 50,000 weapons (careful with these official numbers: who counted them?), ammunition, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns have entered Mexico, giving the mafias firepower superior to that of the armed forces. Today any narco lord's flunkie can continue to buy ammunition for an AK-47 in a hardware store in Houston. Bullets that kill Mexicans are happily sold in the US.

Third. Before starting a war - and we don't need to read Sun Tzu or Friedrich Engels to know - the state should conduct solid intelligence work. Who are the traffickers? Where are they? What are their ties? What is their financial structure like? A thousand and one questions needed to be answered. Today, we know that when Calderon started the war against the narcos, all or much of the intelligence apparatus of the Mexican state was controlled by factions of the drug gangs themselves. By using anti-narcotic officials at the highest levels, they conducted operations against rival gangs, stirring a hornet's nest of revenge that seems to be without end. How many policemen were working for the enemy? Agency directors, organised crime units, SIEDO, AFI commanders, deputy attorneys-general... To date, the Mexican government still does not know or does not want to know. To date, state intelligence is infiltrated, distorted, and fragmented. It is (as can be determined from their own press statements) absolutely incoherent.

Fourth.The judicial system is corrupted. It has been that way for many many years. There are officials from the Attorney-General's office who have been discredited, corrupt judges, absolute ineptitude when there is no declared complicity with the crime.One can't go to war with such a structure. How many criminals have been let go in the past three years?How many have received insufficient sentences when compared to the magnitude of their crimes? Pepe Reveles said the other day in a roundtable that those who handed over the corpses to El Pozolero (and we are talking about more than 100 dead people) would be set free soon because the Attorney-General could only charge them with possession of weapons and drugs due to a badly carried out investigation.A cancerous chaos reigns, as has customarily reigned in the Mexican justice system, a paradise of accidents and coincidences. We live in a territory with a backlog of investigations, disorganised files, no scientific evidence, lack of a national fingerprint bank, nonexistent gathering of information from all the policing agencies in the country. How many times have we read in the news that a person under arrest had recently been in jail? Who let him out?

Fifth. In the Torreon prison, the director tortured the prisoners. In another prison, gangs were given permission to go out at night to execute rivals. There have been massive jailbreaks at 10 other prisons. There are complaints about the control and the privileges granted to the mafia in all prisons, including high-security installations. More than a dozen prison directors have been dismissed in recent months. Has the internal situation changed? Without prior purification of the prison system, you cannot go to war.

Images. The most frightening of anecdotes: In Torreon a man is stopped at a red light. When the light turns green, the car in front of him stops without reason. He wants to lay on the horn, but resists the urge. These are not times for honking. The road is backed up. The light cycles through and turns red again. The man decides to get out of his car and kindly ask the men in the stalled car if there is any way he could be of assistance. The driver of the stalled car shows him a gun and hands him 200 pesos. 'You seem like a good guy. I just lost a bet with this jerk' (pointing to his co-pilot, who, smiling, shows off an Uzi).

'If you had honked, I would have shot you. Today is your lucky day, pal.' The car takes off. The kind man just stands there in a cold sweat.

Packages of money

Sixth. Conan Doyle, in the voice of Sherlock Holmes, used to say that when the story was unclear, 'follow the money'; one must follow the money, the financial trail. Narco trafficking, like the smuggling of alcohol in the US during the Prohibition era, or car theft in Mexico, is a criminal business, it follows the rules of a semi-visible market, it has investments, is subject to production and distribution.A portion of the money, millions and millions of dollars, will commonly be moved in packets of green bills wrapped up in newspapers and in Samsonite suitcases. But the other portion, perhaps the most important, becomes investments, houses, luxury automobiles, office buildings, hotels, stores, restaurants.

During the time of Caro Quintero, a district of Ciudad Juarez, jokingly called Disneyland, was full of extravagant mansions: Cinderella's castle, California-style mansions, cheap materials reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights, Buddhist pagodas.Everyone in the city knew that it was narco territory. Money is visible. What about the routes, routes that come down from the US - are they not too? The SAT [Tax Administration Service] is very worried about charging taxes to any gringo who is not careful. Is it not possible to detect the millions that come down from the other side of the border? The Mexican government has put in place thousands of banking obstacles to movement of funds by citizens, but has not opened a macro-investigation regarding the banking operations that are related to the large sums of money of the mafias. Have chequebooks, bank account information, fingerprints, tracks not been found in the hundreds of seizures, searches, and detentions? Why is this never talked about? Why has the Mexican government not asked the US financial operations to block the flow of money going to narco trafficking? You cannot go to war without a solid financial investigation and a bilateral agreement with the US to block the narco dollars.

Images. A Santander Bank manager had been telling his regional boss for two years that he was receiving money from an unknown source. He was told: 'Money is money.'

Seventh. An Army convoy in La Laguna heads toward a high-security prison: they are transporting an important prisoner. Unfamiliar with the area, they have a local police patrol heading up the front and another in back. When they reach a traffic light, the local patrol stops. He flashes his lights three times and then zooms away at 100 miles per hour. The officer at the back does the same in reverse. From the alleys, gunmen emerge and engage in a shootout against the military. The patrolmen have yet to reappear in public, nor have the local officials, who have vanished into the big information black hole that is Calderon's war.

Between Monterrey and Tampico a convoy of rental trucks returning from a job are diverted by police to a gap, a rural road. At the end of the road a group of Zetas (gang members) armed with machine guns are waiting. The drivers are tortured and robbed.

Today, we know from the statements of those under witness protection that for years police chiefs played escort to drug transport runs and protected narco bosses. But it is not only the chiefs; many other police officers have acted in collaboration with, abetted, informed, and protected the drug bosses. The state has supplied the foot soldiers. One in three drug-related arrests - you can read it every day in the newspapers - is a police officer or former police or military man. Years ago in Tijuana I asked a newspaper editor why a dozen policemen had been shot in a clash between rival gangs. He replied that it is cheaper to hire a cop than to train a hitman. How is it possible that the Mexican (and US) Army has trained an entire body of military elites that then passed en masse to form the essence of Los Zetas? If we Mexicans knew, if we knew  that  crime  was  committed  by the  police  in  thousands  of  cases, how could the Mexican state not know?

Is it possible to hide the fact when someone's salary goes from $1,500 a month to $25,000? How many hours of economic research could a policeman endure before it is discovered that he owns six houses in subdivisions throughout the state of Mexico? Isn't there anyone in Mexico who can interpret a polygraph test? Or does the Mexican government not dare to use it at the risk of demonstrating that the majority of its agents lie? The majority? Ten percent? Ninety percent? Does a polygraph machine even exist in any police agency anywhere in the country? Or was it sold off to buy soft drinks and snacks at the nearest gas station?

Everything is born of a police service whose morals are perverted. And this is old Mexican history, which reaches its highest level during the 'German' times. The hitch is impunity. Mexicans know that historically the police and the Army are not a force for maintaining order, but rather a quasi-legal criminal force. Knowing what the Calderon government should have known (we cannot assume that the stupidity has stretched to the bounds of absurdity)? How could one dare to launch a war against the drug bosses with human resources like these? It was not only a war that one could not win, but one could not begin it without first purging the police force. But how do we clean up the police force without at the same time transforming the repressive nature of the Mexican state? A retired general once told me that he had no doubt there were still hundreds of honest captains and majors in the Army, but they were not the decision makers. You cannot stage a war against narco trafficking with this quality of human resources. There is no possibility at all of changing the situation while the dominant moral in law enforcement is the one we see today.

Images. Any citizen with a cellphone can record them: On the road from Tampico to Matamoros, moving convoys of four or five black vans, with the spray-painted initials CG, the Gulf Cartel.

Companies that charge for protection

Eighth. Today the Narco is not only a dozen armed groups that control one of the most important economic activities of the country. They are companies that charge for protection, for example to all Cancun merchants. They control all street vendors in Monterrey. They represent justice in entire zones of Michoacan where La Familia represses abusive husbands and harmful debtors (read the notes of Arturo Cano in La Jornada). They are the controllers on federal roads that charge tolls. They are the ones that offer (and deliver) protection to a restaurateur in Ciudad Juarez if he pays, and no more health inspectors or Treasury requirements. They are the controllers of the largest human trafficking and kidnapping network on the planet. They are the ones who offer gainful employment to thousands of youths in border gangs. They are in large part our country, a new state. A state that replaces another state based on abuse and corruption.

In Chihuahua, a roadside mechanic pays the narco 200 pesos a week for the use of the sidewalk where previously he would pay a 300-peso bribe to the police. Two of a kind. Why should a capo be in prison if the one who committed electoral fraud and robbed the nation of their destiny is not, and neither is the one who with the modest salary of a government employee bought three castles in France? As long as the Mexican government cannot guarantee its citizens an honest relationship, you cannot fight a war on drugs.

Images. Some children in a picture on the front page of La Jornada show a sign that reads: 'Dear Kings, we do not want Calderon's war.'But it's not enough not to want it, we must stop it. So that means, before anything else, solving, among others, the eight problems that are presented here. 

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a celebrated Mexican writer, historian and political analyst. This article originally appeared in La Jornada (15 January 2011). The above, translated from the Spanish by Sandy Juarez and Jason Wallach, is reproduced from the Toward Freedom website (

*Third World Resurgence No. 249, May 2011, pp 34-36