Monday, July 19, 2010

Bordering on Afghanistan

Mexico is beginning to look a lot like Afghanistan, which is bringing that war a lot closer to the home of the gringos. But it didn't happen yesterday, and it won't change manana. (Image left used without the permission of REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic; indulgence prayed for.)

Voice of America reported in 2009, "Representative Loretta Sanchez from California noted that Mexico has now deployed forty-five thousand troops [in the drug war] -- around the same number as the United States has in Afghanistan."

Back in 2006, NPR was telling us, Mexico's Drug Wars Leave Rising Death Toll:
Mexican and U.S. officials are meeting Thursday in Laredo, Texas, to discuss concerns about growing drug violence in Mexico. U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza has advised U.S. citizens to exercise extreme caution when traveling in Mexico because of "the rising level of brutal violence."

More than 1,500 people have died in narcotics-related killings this year alone. In recent months, dozens of people have been beheaded and tortured as cartels across Mexico fight for the lucrative drug-trafficking routes into the United States.

The state of Michoacan, best known outside of Mexico as the place where monarch butterflies winter, has the highest number of people killed — 400 so far this year. Mexican intelligence officials estimate that at least 65,000 people in Michoacan live off the drug trade in some way.
The New Yorker carried a piece in 2008 which tried to go a bit deeper than the usual newsbites we are fed. You should read it all; Guambat dare not copy the whole thing.

Letter from Mexico
Days of the Dead, The new narcocultura, by Alma Guillermoprieto
In Sinaloa, Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a reporter, columnist, and editor for the scrappy local newspaper Río Doce, is an exception to the general indifference.

Having for years made it his business to know a great deal about drug issues, he is a mandatory stop for Mexican and foreign journalists trying to figure out the Culiacán drug scene. Valdez is about forty, stocky, swarthy, and graying, but there is something of the cocky teen-ager in his manner. We had lunch on a scorching Culiacán afternoon, and he recited with studied weariness the stages of his home state’s emergence as the crucible of Mexico’s drug crisis.

It was in the late nineteenth century, he said, that the opium harvest first became visible, encouraged by the arrival of Chinese immigrants who had come to build a railroad. There was, he added, the long-standing local use of marijuana, particularly by Mexican soldiers, who got through the useless hours of patrol and guard duty with the help of a spliff or two. There was the almost certainly apocryphal—but nevertheless widely believed—story that during the Second World War the United States urged Sinaloa to boost its (illegal) production of opium in order to meet the medical needs of G.I.s wounded in combat.

There was, for real, the gigantic marijuana boom in the nineteen-sixties, fuelled by demand in the United States. And, Valdez noted, there was the notable decline in illegal crop harvests in the late seventies, as the result of a series of violent and ambitious assaults on growers carried out by the Mexican federal police with the support of the Mexican Army, and with the energetic encouragement of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

“That was when the drug trade really began to expand,” Valdez said. “Because the few traffickers who remained here were killed, but all the rest of them emigrated. Now they’re all over the country.”

Forty years after Operación Intercepción—which was followed by Operación Cooperación, Operación Cóndor, and other drug-war initiatives—as much as thirty per cent of Mexico’s arable land is suspected of being under cultivation for clandestine crops, drug violence in Sinaloa has taken a quantitatively different turn, and the Sinaloa traffickers have generated entire dynasties of criminals who are at war in nearly every one of Mexico’s thirty-one states, as well as Mexico City.

The exiles who left Sinaloa for Tijuana, Guadalajara, and Ciudad Juárez in the nineteen-seventies included members of the Arellano Félix family; a bold operator called Joaquín Guzmán; and a schemer with a talent for international relations, Amado Carrillo.

They and their elders spent the next two decades collaborating with Colombia’s drug kings on clandestine routes for delivering cocaine and marijuana to the United States. Beginning in the mid-nineties, after Pablo Escobar was killed and his main rivals were arrested, the Mexican associates assumed their rightful position in the global drug economy.

The main access points to what is by far the largest market for drugs in the world are, after all, in Mexico. By the turn of the millennium, Mexico was exporting heroin and marijuana, transporting the majority of Colombian cocaine, and collaborating with Chinese traders in the production and export of methamphetamines. The Sinaloa traffickers, who had not necessarily remained friends, controlled access to all the major border points, with the exception of the ones in the Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas. Those, the government believes, were the domain of Osiel Cárdenas, a particularly violent local trafficker.

With its key border cities of Nuevo Laredo (on the other side of the Rio Grande from Laredo) and Matamoros (across from Brownsville), the state of Tamaulipas is a coveted prize that Osiel Cárdenas’s former associates now control. They are, for the most part, ex-members of an élite Army anti-narcotics unit, operating under the code name los Zetas, and they have drastically upped the ante on all forms of violence; the practice of beheading their victims is one of their signal contributions to the drug trade.

What is certain is that the campaign that has filled Mexican life with daily news of vicious crime—torture, kidnappings, beheadings—is being fought by Chapo Guzmán against his former allies. These include, first of all, the Beltrán Leyva family, which allegedly ordered the murder of Edgar and which, it was reported last week, may have infiltrated the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. But Guzmán is also locked in combat with the remaining members of the Arellano Félix drug clan, in Tijuana; with the brother of the plastic-surgery victim Amado Carrillo; and, above all, with the heirs of the Gulf Coast empire created by the extradited Osiel Cárdenas. The fight is over drug routes, particularly those that end in Tamaulipas and serve as access points to the United States, and over profitable illicit local businesses like prostitution and the smuggling of illegal immigrants. Included in the territorial bounty is the right to control an unknown number of the police and the military—cops and commanders both—who moonlight as the traffickers’ henchmen.

Felipe Calderón, a member by family tradition of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), took over as his party’s second President of the current era in December of 2006, following seventy years of uncontested rule by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI.

Calderón’s election was contested, and he was perceived by much of the electorate as a weak leader. The need to overcome this impression may have been a factor in his decision, almost immediately upon taking office, to involve the military in renewed combat against the drug trade—a fight that his predecessor, Vicente Fox, had less visibly pursued.

Troops are now deployed across the country, resulting in mounting tension between the local security forces and the federal troops. Quite a few high-level arrests have been made, but drug crimes have increased wherever the troops patrol, a consequence of what several people I talked to described as “stirring up the chicken coop.” A certain nostalgia for the days when the PRI was in charge and the drug traffickers knew their place would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago, but it has encouraged old PRI-istas to believe that the party can return to power in the 2012 elections.

In large part, though, it was the PRI’s defeat — or, rather, the long-withheld recognition of its defeat — and the dawn of real electoral politics that led to what appears to be the drug trade’s thorough infiltration of the political parties.

This last according to a PRIista whom I shall call Héctor, who enjoyed a long and successful national career before retiring to his home state. In the old days, much of the money for what was essentially a ceremonial presentation of the candidate to his subjects came from the vast coffers of the one-party state. Modern media campaigns put an end to all that.

“Thanks to the television stations, our campaign needs multiplied,” Héctor explained. “A congressman’s electoral campaign can now run to sixteen, seventeen million dollars.” Where is such money to come from? Informed opinion has it that each of the major drug groups now has ties to significant numbers of politicians in its party of choice, if not to the party itself.

As for the current military offensive, Héctor gave a little snort of disgust. “When you see what amounts to a military parade in these towns, in which the Army is trooping along on the main avenue while on the side streets people are killing each other . . . when I see how these people”—the traffickers—“are climbing up right into the very beard of the state, I think, Holy fuck! This country could really collapse!”

There remains the problem of corruption. Several new vetting agencies, Monterrubio said, will conduct ongoing polygraph tests and background checks on all law-enforcement personnel. In the old days, there was a de-facto agreement between the government and the traffickers that the traffickers would kill each other among themselves. “But now,” Monterrubio said, “the traffickers have realized that they can use the murders to send a message through the media. It’s narco-terror.”

“In the end, it’s all absurd,” Froylán Enciso, a friend of mine who is a historian specializing in the drug trade, remarked the other day. “The class solidarity between the troops and the growers is far greater than the soldiers’ need to obey orders.

Read more:
As said above, you should read the whole story. Get the goods on the guys and their hoods.

But, to get a taste of the culture of Mexico you probably don't know, be sure to read the part about Enriqueta Romero Romero, known as Queta, or Quetita, her shrine of the Holy Death, and her scrawny little plastic La Santa Muerte.

Now this is a small extraction from an article posted over 3 years ago, in May 2007, by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs:

Mexico’s Drug War: A Society at Risk – Soldiers versus Narco-Soldiers
Today, Mexico is a country dangerously devoid of any security; a country which cannot defend itself against a pathological danger that has rendered its citizens completely vulnerable to what is little better than a state within a state. Along with the endemic corruption is an unacceptable level of domestic and imported crime and a surge of weapons for which a deeply complicit Washington shamefacedly does little better than shrugs its hands.

A January 29 article in the Mexican daily Reforma found that between 2001 and November 2006, a total of 99,767 members of the armed forces deserted, of which 88,889 were from army units. This means that, on average, 46 soldiers deserted every day from the Mexican army.

It is also important to note that the military salaries for troops as well as non-commissioned officers is low, while the annual budget for the entire armed forces is estimated to be a modest $3.1 billion. The question remains as to how a military with no direct external enemies manages to spend even this relatively modest budget.

More mysterious and less transparent than the regular Mexican military are Los Zetas. Little is known about the members of the “military wing” of various drug cartels, in part in order to spare the Mexican military of the embarrassment that scores of former special forces have been lured into being criminals for much higher wages. It is known that Los Zetas are more often than not former members of the Mexican Special Air Mobile Group.

Despite some successes as a result of the military’s crackdown operations, Mexican drug cartels do not appear to be visibly shaken as the violence at their hands continues to rage.

In 2006, over 4,000 were killed in Mexico in drug-related violence. So far this year, according to various unofficial Mexican newspaper accounts, between 900 and 1000 people have fallen.

On May 16 alone, over 30 people died across the country in cartel-related violence in the bloodiest day since Calderón took office. A shootout that day between the Mexican police and drug hitmen (it is unclear if they were Zetas) left 15 suspected criminals dead, along with five policemen and two civilians. The firefight took place on a ranch in the state of Sonora, around 100km from the border with Arizona.
Now, to November 2008: Mexico's Spreading Drug Violence
Mexico's economy is slowing. But one sector is doing a brisk business -- the funeral industry near the U.S. border (Reuters).

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began his offensive against drug cartels and organized criminals in December 2006, drug-related killings have escalated, as has the need for undertakers.

He has deployed over thirty thousand soldiers across the country, purged several police forces of corrupt members, and pushed a judicial reform package through Congress. But the violence has only mounted.

More than four thousand people have died in drug-related violence this year, up from more than 2,500 deaths in 2007. The escalation is so great that drug gangs are widely suspected of causing the plane crash in early November that killed the interior minister

The drug cartels' infiltration of the police, judiciary, and political parties has severely compromised the government's ability to fight the drug cartels, some experts say.

"International drug cartels pose an extraordinary threat both here and abroad," said U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in September 2008. Mexico's drug gangs could be a greater threat to the United States than global terrorism, adds John P. Sullivan of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

Calderon has sought U.S. assistance to tackle the problem. A new aid package known as the Merida Initiative (PDF) will provide $400 million in equipment and communications systems this year, with plans for further funding in the next two years. Some Mexican and U.S. analysts criticize the package for its focus on equipment rather than training and institution building. Others note that the package does not address how to reduce U.S. drug demand.

In early 2009 the Voice of America reported Growing Drug Violence Shakes Mexico, Threatens to Spill Into US
More than six thousand people died last year in Mexico's drug wars. So far this year the violence has only gotten worse. More than one thousand people have already been killed.

Police have become common targets, especially in border cities in northern Mexico.

American officials recently announced results from an operation aimed at Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, which also sends drugs to Canada. They announced hundreds of arrests in the United States and the seizure of twenty-three tons of drugs.

And, this week, President Obama nominated the police chief from Seattle as the new director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Around the same time, McClatchey news reported on all the talk but not any action, Drug violence pushes Mexico to top of U.S. security concerns:
The administration announced Tuesday that it's sending more federal agents and high-tech equipment to the U.S.-Mexican border in an attempt to blunt violence in both countries. One aim is to stanch the flow of U.S. weapons into Mexico, which Mexican officials say is fueling the drug wars.

"This issue requires immediate action," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Tuesday. "We are guided by two very clear objectives. First, we are going to do everything we can to prevent the violence in Mexico from spilling over across the border. And second, we will do all in our power to help (Mexican) President (Felipe) Calderon crack down on these drug cartels."

Omitted from the steps, which build on programs begun under the Bush administration, is the deployment of 1,000 additional National Guard troops requested by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

Perry and Brewer praised the White House announcement, but reiterated their requests for National Guard troops to back up border agents and local law enforcement agencies.

The dispatching of more customs, border and federal firearms agents to the border comes on the eve of a string of high-level U.S. visits to Mexico, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and Thursday. She'll be followed next week by Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, and later in April by Obama.

Clinton's talks also will focus on the global economic crisis and a long-running dispute over the entry of Mexican trucks into the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

It's the drug violence that's dominated headlines and captured U.S. political attention, however.
Guambat reckons it's hard not to notice the headlines, like these from today:

Mexico car bomb: 'Colombianization' of Mexico nearly complete
A well-orchestrated car bomb exploded in Ciudad Juarez late Thursday, across from El Paso, Texas, killing at least three and sparking panic among the Mexican population. It is the first known use of a car bomb against authorities and the local population, and marks a troubling new level of violence as traffickers seeking to control the drug trade battle one another and Mexican authorities.
Drug Gang Suspected in Mexico Party Massacre
The gunmen, who struck around 1:30 a.m., were traveling in a convoy of eight cars, witnesses told local media. Without warning they entered the party and began firing indiscriminately before escaping.

“They shot anything that moved,” according to a local police source quoted in the newspaper El Norte.

Among the dead were five women. Although the vast majority of the nearly 25,000 people killed since President Felipe Calderón began his attack on drug gangs in December 2006 have been men, women have increasingly become targets.

The police said that 18 people were wounded in the birthday party attack.

Meanwhile, Inside Mexico's Drug War, Americans Allege Abuse
Two Americans were driving back to El Paso, Texas, last December after an afternoon across the border in Ciudad Juárez. A few blocks from the border, they were surrounded by Mexican army trucks and pulled from their Dodge Ram.

Two soldiers later testified that they drove the two Americans to a military compound on the outskirts of town, questioned them briefly, then turned them over to civilian authorities. The Americans were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

Those two men — Shohn Huckabee, 23 years old, and Carlos Quijas, 36 — are being held in a Ciudad Juárez jail. They tell a different story about what happened that night. They say Mexican soldiers planted the marijuana in their truck. When they arrived at the military base, they say, they were blindfolded, tied up, hit with rifle butts, shocked with electricity and threatened with death.

Mr. Huckabee says he was subjected to similar tactics. "I believe what was done to me was torture," he said in an interview. "When I did not answer their questions, they shocked me with a wire that was in my hands. My whole body froze up. The pain went from bearable to a point where I couldn't even talk."

Mexican prosecutors say the two men were caught red-handed. Two soldiers involved in their arrest testified at their trial that they counted 99 packages of marijuana in the suitcases, weighing more than 100 pounds.

Messrs. Huckabee and Quijas say they've never been involved with drugs and would never have tried to cross the border with two suitcases of marijuana. During their trial, they produced three witnesses who testified that they saw soldiers put suitcases into Mr. Huckabee's truck.

The army previously has dismissed complaints of abuse as the work of people allied with drug traffickers who want to drive soldiers out of Ciudad Juárez. "Many times they make human-rights complaints because they want to limit our capacity for action and besmirch the institution," said Brigadier Gen. Jesús Hernández Pérez, commander of the 4th Artillery Regiment, in an interview late last year.
The article contains much more detail of the incident. It won't make you want to vacation in Mexico.

There's just so much more that could be said, and there are plenty of people with other agendas to do so.
For Guambat, he's just sad. He really likes Mexico and its people. He's going to retire back into his burrow now and mix up a jug of Margaritas.



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