George W. Grayson (email@example.com), an associate scholar at FPRI, teaches at the College of William & Mary. Penn State University just published his latest book, Mexican Messiah: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a biography of Mexico’s self-proclaimed “legitimate president.” This Enote is based on a longer article to be published by the Foreign Policy Association.
Next week, Mexican President Felipe Calderón will meet with his Canadian and U.S. counterparts in a “Security and Prosperity Partnership” summit, to be held August 20–21 in Montebello, Quebec. Trade and immigration are on the agenda, but the spotlight will be on what assistance President Bush will offer Calderón in his fight against extremely brutal drug organizations. The Miami Herald recently reported that the U.S. and Mexico were near agreement on a $700 million anti-narcotics assistance package modeled after the 2000 Plan Colombia, which included technology, training, and equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters.
In his race for the presidency last year, Calderón, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), emphasized creating jobs, combating poverty, and fighting crime. By the time he took office, his number-one priority had become curbing the activities of the powerful cartels involved in the production, distribution, and exportation of drugs. During the five months between his victory and his swearing-in, drug-related violence had taken the lives of more than 1,000 people. By mid-August 2007 there were 1,539 such deaths for this year to date.
The murders often bear the mark of mafia-style executions. In one attack last year, gunmen crashed into the seedy Sol y Sombra nightclub in Uruapan, fired shots into the air, ordered the patrons to lie down, and then lobbed five human heads onto the dance floor. They left a note hailing their act as “divine justice,” carried out on behalf of “the family,” a reference to the Michoacan Family, a shady group linked to the Gulf Cartel, which vies for transit routes and the ever-larger domestic market with the Sinaloa Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel (also known as the Arellano Felix Organization—AFO).
The highly publicized cruelty sparked fear within the population and seemed to prove that wrongdoers could act with impunity. Indeed, the government seemed to have lost control over portions of the country, including the Tierra Caliente, a mountainous zone contiguous to the “Golden Triangle,” a drug-producing Mecca in the Sierra Madre where the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango intersect, and cities along the U.S.-Mexican border where cartel thugs carve up judges, police officers, and journalists who incur their wrath. Bodies have been wrapped in garbage bags, heads spiked on the fence outside of a government office, and headless bodies discovered in luxury hotel rooms in Acapulco.
Until the 1990s, criminal organizations depended largely on protection from the police and their political allies in the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Local law-enforcement chiefs in league with PRI politicians long allocated the plazas—that is, areas and corridors where the gangs held sway. The capos paid tribute to local officials, who passed a portion of the loot upward through the chain of command. The direction of the flow reversed in the 1970s, when the Mexican army became the dominant force in combating drug activities. This forced the drug capos to negotiate with upper-echelon officials.
By the late 1990s, this regime-renegade reciprocal relationship paved the way for Mexico to export an estimated 90 percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States. It acquired the cocaine from Colombia and southern Andean nations. Mexican processors and growers also supplied a robust share of the heroin distributed in America. For decades, Mexico has been the largest foreign distributor of marijuana; now it is an increasingly significant producer and supplier of methamphetamine and other “designer drugs” for its northern neighbor.
This rising influx of illegal substances accompanied by deaths and kidnappings prompted alerts from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, which in September 2006 warned U.S. citizens “to exercise extreme caution.” In Nuevo Laredo, the major portal for legal bilateral commerce and a key front in inter-cartel clashes, a fearless new police chief was killed just nine hours after assuming his duties. In the aftermath, federal troops and police seized control of the city. Fifty people perished in ensuing gun battles.
In addition to working closely with Washington, Calderón has signed an accord with Central American nations to cooperate in the struggle against gangs, crime, and drug activities, which are increasingly global in scope (University of Miami Professor Bruce Bagley, citing Interpol reports, states that Russian mafias are operating in Mexico, especially in the Tijuana-San Diego corridor). Meanwhile, the chilling effects of narco-violence have limited the media’s coverage of drug-related crime.
The capos have so terrorized or suborned substantial numbers of the two federal police forces—the Federal Agency of Investigations and the Federal Preventative Police—that Calderón is lobbying Congress to replace them with a single, highly professional organization modeled on European agencies. He also wants to invest states with jurisdiction over drug-related crimes, which are now a federal responsibility. The overwhelming majority of the nation’s 31 governors endorse these initiatives, but legislators have been slow to act, citing the possibility of human rights abuses.
In the absence of reliable civilian law-enforcement agencies, the chief executive has been forced to depend on Mexico’s armed forces, which, while not free from corruption, are less contaminated that the more than 1,660 federal, state, local, and quasi-private police agencies. Calderón’s first challenge was to mend relations between the presidency and the army, which were strained under his predecessor, Vicente Fox. During his first address to the nation, he emphasized austerity, but promised to increase the security budget. In February he announced a 45 percent pay raise for the Mexican army, which contrasted with his taking a 10 percent salary cut and abolishing pensions for future Mexican presidents. One of the goals of the increased compensation was to reduce the shocking level of desertions—100,000 soldiers between 2000 and 2006, which provided some recruits for the cartels.
Calderón has also been more interested than Fox in extraditing drug kingpins. Just seven weeks after taking office, he handed fifteen suspects over to U.S. authorities. The most infamous of the group was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who ran the Gulf Cartel from his well-appointed cell at La Palma prison since his arrest in 2003. The White House singled him out for special treatment in 2001 under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which empowers the government to freeze the assets of those who do business with drug lords and their families.
Three others extradited potentates appeared on the Bush administration’s kingpin list, including a top lieutenant of Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is the blood enemy of the Gulf Cartel. Authorities claim that Guzman forged a pact with Sinaloa drug barons, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza. Known as “The Federation,” the alliance is engaged in a bloody turf war with the Gulf and Tijuana cartels.
In July 2007, Mexico requested the extradition of Zhenli Ye Gon, an affluent Chinese-Mexican businessman. Earlier in the year U.S. law-enforcement agencies learned that Ye Gon had $227 million in cash, seven high-powered rifles, and equipment to make amphetamine pills in his posh Mexico City home. This wealth presumably came from the importation of pseudoephedrine, which is used to manufacture methamphetamine, known on the street as ’’ice.’’ His import volume exceeded two to three times the country’s legitimate needs. Even though authorities had issued a warrant for Ye Gon, he managed to receive shipments, market chemicals to the cartels, and travel to the U.S. at will. It appears likely that U.S. authorities will try him on drug trafficking and money laundering charges before granting extradition.
Calderón has highlighted his determination to “take back the country from criminals.” In contrast to Fox, he has sent large contingents of federal police and troops to combat the lawlessness. He has also dispatched units to more areas of the country, generally without notifying mayors or governors in advance.
Unlike Fox’s administration, Calderón’s does not shy from publicly chastising the U.S. for inadequate assistance to Mexico. Mexico receives only $40 million per year for its anti-drug ventures, compared with the $600 million sent to Colombia. In June 2007, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, Mexico’s top law officer, called Washington “cynical” for focusing on Mexico’s role in the drug problem while failing to reduce U.S. demand for illegal drugs. He called lax U.S. gun-control laws “absurd.”
Assigning the armed forces to undertake civilian functions has sparked human rights abuses. In June 2007, soldiers at a checkpoint in Sinaloa state fired more than a dozen shots into an automobile, killing two unarmed women and three children. The Defense Ministry subsequently arrested three officers and 16 troops who would be put on trial, but NGOs fear that trying the accused in a military court will yield either exoneration or light punishments. Still, 83 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by Reforma applauded the use of military force.
The venality of the police present the president with no alternative but to deploy military units. Calderón will have to face up to major challenges of reforming the corrupt police, the ineffective and cumbersome judicial system, and the inadequate and poorly run prison system if he is to achieve any long-term success in his battle against drug traffickers and drug violence. In light of Mexico’s divided Congress, in which PAN enjoys only a plurality of seats, such reforms will require all of the political skills that the chief executive can muster.
The production of drugs in Mexico began in the nineteenth century, if not earlier. Prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. fostered the rise and consolidation of organized crime in Mexico along the border as “rum-runners” through the early 1930s. That experience further prepared them to engage in the drug trade, especially in the 1940s.
By the 1970s and until his death in 1997 (while undergoing plastic surgery), the most important drug baron was Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who headed the Juarez Cartel. The Juarez Cartel, along with Tijuana/AFO, was a pioneer in forging the Colombian connection. Carrillo Fuentes’s demise impelled the decline of the Juarez Cartel, opening the way for the ascent of the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels in the latter 1990s. The Juarez Cartel, now headed by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, has never recovered from Vicente’s brother’s death.
Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo headed the large and growing Sinaloa Cartel before his conviction for drug trafficking, bribery and illegal possession of weapons. While incarcerated, Felix Gallardo managed his lucrative empire via mobile phone until he was transferred to a new maximum security prison in the 1990s. Esparragoza Moreno, a Talleyrand-type negotiator within the underground, convened a meeting of the principal capos to distribute plazas and maintain order. Luis Hector Palma Salazar and Guzman Loera took the reins of the Sinaloa operation. Felix Gallardo’s nephews , the Arellano Felix brothers, eventually assumed control of the Tijuana Cartel.
Thus, Guzmán Loera rose to the top of one of the country’s most important cartels. In the 1980s, he developed alternative drug routes through Central America to thwart Mexican radar systems and spearheaded the use of sophisticated tunnels to shuttle cocaine under the border. El Chapo runs his smuggling business much like a multinational corporation. In 1993 he was arrested in Guatemala and charged with the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo at Guadalajara airport that year. The official version of the incidents holds that the prelate, garbed in civilian clothing and riding in a large black limousine, was mistaken for a drug kingpin.
Public outrage forced federal authorities to go after the drug barons, and Guzman was incarcerated. Nevertheless, from prison he kept in contact with his lieutenants, the Beltran Leyva brothers. A few days before his scheduled extradition to the U.S., El Chapo broke out of the prison. The warden and 30 guards were implicated in the escape. He was rearrested, but again managed to escape in January 2001, in back of a laundry truck. His thriving cartel does business throughout Mexico, along the Southwest border, in the western and midwestern U.S., as well as in Central America. The organization purchases cocaine from the remnants of the Cali and Medellin cartels for sale in the U.S. The organization also stores and distributes Mexican marijuana and Mexican and Southeast Asian heroin.
Rather than treat El Chapo as a lawbreaker, his neighbors venerate him for the thousands of jobs created by poppy cultivation and the kingpin’s largesse. “They see him as a hero,” observed Santiago Vasconcelos, deputy attorney general. He has become a folk hero, extolled in ballads known as corridos.
He sleeps at times in homes, at times in tents
Radio and rifle at the foot of the bed
Sometimes his roof is a cave.
The Milenio (Michoacan), Jalisco (Guadalajara), Sonora (Sonora), and Colima (Colima) cartels have become branches of the Sinaloa Cartel.
In the aftermath of Cardinal Posadas’ murder, then-president Carlos Salinas cracked down on the Sinaloa Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel/AFO, but turned a blind eye to the operations of the Gulf Cartel, which Garcia Abrego headed. Salinas’ successor, President Ernesto Zedillo Abrego, extradited Garcia Abrego to the U.S., and the leadership wound up in the hands of the ruthless Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. The January 2007 extradition of Cárdenas to the U.S. sparked a battle among would-be successors. One of them is Eduardo “el Coss” Costilla Sanchez; another is Osiel’s brother Antonio Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén; and even more powerful is Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano Lazcano, a leader of Los Zetas, which have grown in a few years from three dozen ex-soldiers to an elite force of up to 2,000 former troops, police or navy personnel.
Many of these young men have received instruction in intelligence and high-powered weaponry, and some even belonged to U.S.-trained Special Air Mobile Force Groups. Los Zetas work with brutal Central American gangs and former death squads from Guatemala and are believed to operate in most of Mexico.
Meanwhile, elements of the Sinaloa Cartel stepped up their poaching on traditional Gulf Cartel territory, using hit men known as Gente Nueva to fight a proxy war against Los Zetas.
Three of ten children of the Arellano Felix family—Benjamin, Ramon, and Francisco Javier—dedicated themselves to smuggling before entering the drug trade. Benjamin evolved to become chief strategist of Tijuana/AFO; and Ramon directed the violence against their foes. From good Tijuana families, they recruited swaggering “Narco Juniors” who were dispatched to torture, dismember, and assassinate targeted individuals and send clear messages to those who attempted to utilize the Mexicali/Tijuana corridor without paying the transit tax demanded by the AFO.
The AFO was considered the most violent of the Mexican crime families, extending its tentacles from Tijuana to the streets of San Diego. It maintained well-trained forces, described by the Mexican officials as paramilitary in nature, including international mercenaries as advisors, trainers and members.
Earlier in this decade, authorities captured the top figures in the AFO. These setbacks thrust the two university-educated members of the family—Eduardo, a medical doctor, and his sister Enedina, an accountant—into the leadership of what appears to be a debilitated cartel. It apparently faces difficulties acquiring cocaine from Colombia through its network that extended from the Guatemalan-Chiapas border through western states to Tijuana. With fewer opportunities to dispatch drugs to the United States, the AFO has undertaken kidnappings, extortion, and other locally-focused felonies. It has also cultivated contacts with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, as well as criminal organizations in Peru, Venezuela, and the United States.
Rumors abound that the cartel lords have reacted to the government’s no-nonsense approach by negotiating a truce and allocating territories. Proceso magazine reported on August 13 that key players have agreed that the Sinaloa Cartel will hold sway over Mexico City and the northern part of the country, with the exceptions of Tijuana and Nuevo Leon. The Gulf Cartel would dominate Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Zacatecas, and parts of Quintana Roo, Coahuila, Michoacan, and Guerrero. The Juarez and Milenio cartels, satellites of the Sinaloa organization, would control Mexico State and Jalisco. A mid-year decrease in violent murders lends credence to the alleged pact.
As evidenced in Operation Condor, until the 1980s the Mexican state had the capability to limit, when necessary, the scope of organized crime. The president was the apex of an iron triangle consisting of the PRI, which was synonymous with the government, on one side, and an economy dominated by the state on the other. In return for payments, criminals enjoyed the protection of local police, with whom they usually maintained a civil relationship. If violence got out of hand in a municipality, the governor would call local officials on the carpet and, if needed, send in the state judicial police. If matters got out of hand in a state, the state executive would receive a phone call from the secretary of government or even from the president. Loyal to the PRI, the armed forces buttressed the president’s top-down control. But a medley of factors — civilians being killed in the October 1968 “Tlatelolco Massacre,” economic crises, inaction after the 1985 Mexico City earthquakes, blatant corruption, market liberalization, and the decline of unions, peasant leagues and other “corporatist” groups—has weakened the once-hegemonic PRI.
Observers warn about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. Indeed, there are similarities between the two countries in terms of murders, drug flows, gangs, and capos. The PRI’s authoritarian regime provided an orderly framework to manage corruption and set limits on violence. The decline of the control mechanisms exercised by a dominant party and mounting pluralism has weakened the Mexican state vis-à-vis the cartels. But Mexico has neither the guerrilla nor paramilitary forces that afflict Colombia. Although the Gulf Cartel employs Los Zetas, Mexico’s criminal organizations have steered clear of the People’s Popular Army and other small rebel groups, lest they precipitate even more military assistance from Washington to Mexico. Also, the involvement of Colombia’s illegal armed actors in the drug trade fuels its extensive internal conflict and differentiates Colombia from Mexico. Several other factors make it premature to analogize Mexico to Colombia:
Can Calderón take back his country from the drug cartels and reduce the flow of narcotics into the U.S.? There are several approaches that he and Washington can pursue towards the criminal syndicates.
First, Calderón can continue the war on drugs. We must be realistic, however, on what can be done. The likelihood of complete success is remote in view of the enormous amount of money involved in the production, shipment, and distribution of illegal substances. Narco-dollars contaminate everyone they touch, including U.S. federal officials and local law-enforcement officers. So deeply engrained is corruption in Mexico’s legal system that the creation of a professional, honest, national police force is a pipedream. Continued reliance on the military to pursue the drug lords is a recipe to broaden corruption within the armed forces, an institution that has traditionally enjoyed a high level of public esteem.
While the current drive against organized crime will lead to the arrest of third- and fourth-tier gangsters, the top dogs will be increasingly difficult to capture because of the decentralization that is underway within the main narcotics gangs. With the resources at their disposal, these cartelitos will have little difficulty acquiring protection either from the police or from the ranks of the tens of thousands of army deserters and veterans. When the army raised the monthly salary for soldiers to about $1,100 per month earlier this year, the cartels promptly doubled that amount as the standard pay for its own "troops." Reports have surfaced that the cartels are relying even more heavily on thousands of “Gatekeepers” (Guardianes) to transport upwards of 80 percent of the drugs from Mexico into the U.S.
Even as the government uses force against the narco-traffickers, it must improve its intelligence capability and “follow the money,” as is now being done in the Ye Gon case. In Mexico, a customer paying cash can purchase anything from airplanes to armored vehicles without presenting credible documents. The banking system must also be persuaded by the government to report large deposits. If, by chance, fortune smiled on Calderón and he successfully curbed drug activities, an international Cucaracha effect would take place-with Asian, Middle East, and Russian suppliers replacing the Mexican distributors. Meanwhile, Mexican mobsters would devote more attention to cultivating the local market even as they diversified into kidnappings, murders-for-hire, and bank robberies, as is now taking place in Tijuana.
Second, the U.S. must focus on the demand side with education and treatment. It seems hypocritical to blame Mexico for the influx of drugs into the U.S. when Americans generate most of the demand. Only when Washington places as much weight on curtailing consumption as it does on reducing supply will progress take place. Drugs are an international challenge, and attacking demand requires much greater attention to prevention, education, and treatment, especially in prisons where small-time drug dealers go behind bars as amateurs only to emerge years later as hardened professionals. The abject failure of the U.S. War on Drugs argues strongly for the decriminalization of the possession and sale of small quantities of controlled substances.
Both Mexico City and Washington may also need to consider the unthinkable: decriminalization. In off-the-record conversations, a large number of well-known politicians from across the spectrum endorse decriminalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use by adults. Many also believe in treating addiction to cocaine and heroin as a health concern rather than a criminal action, thus permitting addicts to obtain controlled substances with doctors’ prescriptions. Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska and a dark horse contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has publicly expressed these views.
Some elected officials go even further. In 1999 New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson became the highest elected official to advocate the legalization of drugs. “Control it, regulate it, tax it,” Johnson said of recreational drugs. A Republican, he said the nation’s war on drugs has been a multibillion-dollar failure that throws too many people in prison. By at least one estimate, the U.S. spends $40 billion each year trying to intercept drug flows and arrest drug dealers and users.
But despite all the federal and local law enforcement efforts, only about 5–15 percent of the illegal drugs coming into the U.S. are actually seized. The rest of the drugs feed a $200 billion a year illicit business that caters to an estimated 13 million Americans each month. The Rand Corp. has found that treatment is far more cost-effective than interdiction in reducing the use of cocaine.
In 2006, the Fox administration moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of the most popular illegal drugs, in order to “reduc[e] opportunities for police corruption and harassment in their interaction with ordinary citizens,” as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance put it. Washington nonetheless came out strongly against the measure, which Mexico’s Congress ultimately shelved.
Third, Mexico must try to forge an effective national law enforcement agency. The vast majority of Washington’s international anti-narcotics spending goes to Latin America and the Caribbean, where thousands of U.S. troops are annually deployed in support of the drug war, operating ground-based radar, flying monitoring aircraft, providing operation and intelligence support, and training host-nation security forces. Despite this militarization and the massive funding for Washington’s drug war, illegal drugs still flood the U.S. In fact, the Mexican crackdown has driven down U.S. cocaine consumption by 16 percent even as the price of the drug has jumped from $95 to $ 119 per ounce and its purity has declined.
Any Mexican version of a Plan Colombia must therefore involve realizing what may be the “Impossible Dream”: forging a national law-enforcement agency that prizes professionalism over pay-offs. Mexico has more than 1,600 police agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. As noted earlier, it has two national forces: the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI), created in 2001, and the Federal Preventative Police (PFP), established in 1998. Soon after his swearing-in, Calderón placed both institutions under the command of Secretary of Public Security Garcia Luna. Concerns over rampant corruption prompted Garcia Luna to relieve 284 high officials of the PFP and AFI of their commands. He reported that the suspended officers would be vetted for corruption and ties to the cartels and their ruthless gangs of enforcers. Detractors doubt the assertion that the suspended officers were replaced with agents who have been extensively screened for their integrity. The lack of confidence in the police has spurred the president to enlist citizens in his “Let’s Clean up Mexico” gambit, including drug-testing in schools and inviting citizens to use e-mail and cell phones to report illegal activities.
To improve the quality of the PFP, Calderón proposed in December 2006 to incorporate 7,500 soldiers and 2,500 marines into its ranks for three months. This initiative has foundered on opposition from military personnel, who claim that such a move would harm their salaries, benefits, opportunities for promotion, and reputations. Thus, only 600 soldiers and 50 marines have been assigned to the federal police agency.
Meanwhile, the president has created a military Corps of Support Forces (Cuerpo de Fuerzas de Apoyo) under his control. This unit will have neither special quarters nor a unique uniform. Rather, several dozen or several hundred of its members may be mobilized to carry out specific assignments after which they will return to their regular duties.
None of these approaches may work to everyone’s satisfaction. But for the U.S, as for Mexico, there are no other options. The alternative is to see America’s neighbor and a crucial energy supplier engulfed in a chaos of crime and corruption.
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On November 15th at the FPRI annual dinner Fouad Ajami was presented with the Seventh Annual Benjamin Franklin Public Service Award. The event was attended by over 360 people.
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