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The Mexico drug war: Bodies for billions

Written By Ivan Kolev on Monday, January 16, 2012 | 7:00 PM

To understand the drug war, accept that it's impossible to keep track of all its players. Accept that there are no white hats or black hats. There's only grey. Fog.

There is, however, agreement among experts about when war was declared: In late 2004 in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, 10 minutes from Laredo, Texas.

The Sinaloa wanted this golden smuggling route.

Every year, more than 5 million cars, 1.5 million commercial trucks and 3.8 million pedestrians cross northbound from Mexico into the United States here, bringing with them a ton of hidden narcotics.

In 2004, Nuevo Laredo was controlled by the Gulf cartel, which was just as old and Corleone-esque as Sinaloa.

For help defending their turf, the Gulf hired a group of former Mexican special forces soldiers who called themselves Zetas after the federal police code for high-ranking officers, "Z1."

The Sinaloa clan hired their own protection, a gang named Los Negros led by a blond-haired, blue-eyed American from Laredo. The man's cohorts called him La Barbie.

The Zetas battled Los Negros with tactics befitting an elite military. They fired automatic weapons, launched RPGs and grenades. They shot at each other for more than a year. Local gangs jumped in. Civilians dropped.

Emboldened by their Nuevo Laredo victory, the Zetas formed their own cartel. As they went after other cartels throughout Mexico, the Zetas honed a reputation for sickening brutality, seeming to kill just because they can. They have been blamed for setting fire to a casino killing 52 people, shooting dead 72 migrants on a Tamaulipas farm in 2010, murdering and tossing into mass graves women and children and killing bloggers. In April 2011, the bodies of 190 people, some of them migrant workers, were found in a mass grave in the desert of Tamaulipas.

Officials say the Zetas have lobbed grenades into celebrating crowds and blown up a pipeline that sent "rivers of fire" into residential streets. They have terrorized cities that once seemed untouchable by the violence, including the port city of Veracruz and Mexico's richest city, Monterrey, home to many international companies.

As the Zetas enacted their terror, that blond-haired, blue-eyed American leading Los Negros got angrier. La Barbie was Edgar Valdez, a Texas high school football star who worked his way into the Mexican underworld as a pot dealer. In 2005, the Dallas Morning News reported on a video showing four bound and bloody men, suspected to be Zetas, being interrogated off camera by a man believed to be Valdez.

A pistol comes into the frame, goes off and one of the men slumps. The video went viral. People around the globe started asking what was really going on in Mexico.

Journalist Ioan Grillo has been to more murder scenes than he can recall. His new book, "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," includes interviews with hit men, gang members, government and law enforcement officials and people caught in the crossfire.

Grillo repeatedly returns to a single idea. Wars occur because people cannot feed their families. They happen because groups of people feel unimportant, disenfranchised, angry and broke. They want a piece of life. It only takes a few people with particularly hollow morals, capable of shutting off or suppressing guilt, to convince many that killing and dying in spectacular ways is tantamount to glory.

Jihadist groups, kamikaze squadrons, American street gangs, cartels. Their members were all kids at one point. Grillo writes that he has seen teenagers show up at murder scenes showing no grief. It has become routine. They pick up shell casings scattered on the ground and debate whether they've been fired from AK47s or M4s.

There are very few counselors in Mexico to help, and there is very little quality education outside the circles of the comparatively privileged few, he wrote.

Why wouldn't a kid take 50 pesos to be a lookout, or 1,000 pesos to kill someone?

"I would love to see more money spent on these concerns," Grillo said, "than on more military helicopters and soldiers gunning it out with the cartels."

Fighting back

After he was elected president in 2006, the PAN's Felipe Calderon took a page out of his predecessor's playbook and declared war on the cartels. He had the Mexican military fan out across the country and fired hundreds of corrupt police officers. He even disarmed an entire town, saying that most of its police force was working for the cartels.

Plenty of narcos were arrested, and some extradited to the United States, but many thousands of people died. They included cartel members, police and civilians who were caught in the middle of a gruesome war.

Calderon and President George W. Bush reached an unprecedented agreement to fight the cartels. The Merida Initiative (named after the Mexican city where the two met) included a U.S. pledge of $1.5 billion between 2008 and 2010. President Obama requested millions more for 2011 for the program. The program provides aircraft, inspection tools and other sophisticated drug-detecting technology to the Mexicans. It also funds drug counseling and prison rehabilitation programs.

To fight corruption, the United States has also pledged to give money to help train police in Mexico.

For its part, the Mexican government has passed legislation aimed at bolstering its judicial system, and in October 2010, Calderon formally requested a total reshaping of the police force in Mexico. The reform he proposed would create unified state police forces and eliminate municipal police, who federal officials have said are very susceptible to corruption because of their low salaries.

Observers say Calderon underestimated how many police and other law enforcement officers were on the cartels' payroll when he came to power. As of March 2008, 150,000 soldiers had deserted. Traffickers, experts say, spent the Fox administration hunkering down, ingratiating themselves to communities, buying food and paying for medical bills, offering restless young people a sense of identity and hard cash.

And as Grillo has written, many people didn't trust the police and the soldiers as they once did. Authorities were accused of widespread human rights abuses while on anti-cartel missions. Jose Luis Soberanes, president of the Mexican Human Rights Commission, testified in 2008 that his office had received complaints that police and soldiers had entered towns to rape and torture and kill, including shooting dead two women and three children in Sinaloa state.

The cartels had become Robin Hood to many, similar to Colombia kingpin Escobar. In his impoverished Medellin, Escobar built a soccer field and a school. He died in a gunbattle with agents in 1993. At the church Escobar built, some Colombians still come to worship him like a saint.

A Barbie, a fox and some piggies

"La Barbie" was arrested in August 2010 in Mexico, and smiled as he was paraded in front of the press. The green Ralph Lauren polo shirt he wore inspired an international fashion trend.

Calderon's administration trumpets his arrest and others, and vows to keep fighting the cartels. But the president is a lame duck. Term limits prohibit him from running again in 2012.

Many expect the PRI, Mexico's founding party that ruled for seven decades, to return to power in July's elections.

Whoever wins the election will have to answer a critical question: whether to appease the cartels and try to negotiate with them or continue the all-out assault that Calderon launched.

Negotiating with traffickers played a role in Colombia, where religious figures and former guerillas led the talks, experts said.

But they also stress that Mexico is not Colombia, and this is not the late 1980s. Crime syndicates operate differently. Key players on both sides of the border have considerations unlike those during the Colombian crisis. Mexico, they contend, is far less likely to welcome close foreign involvement than Colombia did.

A solution also cannot come from only one side of the border. Former President Fox and other experienced leaders in Latin America have advocated legalizing the consumption of marijuana, saying it would cut the value of the cartels' product. In 2011, the U.N.'s Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included Fox, recommended that governments experiment with drug legalization, especially marijuana.

Last fall, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, said he thought the drug war violence had become so dire that U.S. troops could be sent into Mexico. Drug trafficking in Mexico, he and others have said, fuels criminal organizations around the globe and feeds human and arms trafficking.

Perry had barely finished his thought before being pounced on by critics, many within his own party and especially his opponents: How would a limping U.S. economy pay for that? The United States was already involved in two wars.

Mexico has historically been highly averse to allowing a foreign force to fight on its soil, experts said. The idea of Team America swooping into its sovereign neighbor is offensive to many Mexicans. Consider the country's national anthem, written after the 1840s Mexican-American War in which Mexico lost half its territory.

If some enemy outlander should dare

to profane your ground with his sole,

think, oh beloved Fatherland, that heaven has given you a soldier in every son

In 2009, the group Los Tigres del Norte were banned from performing a popular song titled "La Granja" at an awards ceremony in Mexico City.

The lyrics blast the Mexican government's strategy against the cartels, a "Fox" who came to break plates on a farm. The animals got out "to create a big mess."

The lyrics also suggest that America, Mexico's No. 1 drug customer, is just as dirty.

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