Buenos Aires Times

opinion and analysis LONG READ - Dark days in Mexico

Mexico continues to bear the scars of drug violence and corruption

A repugnant tsunami of corruption, extortion, disappearances and barbarous murder continues to roil Mexico and the United States' 'War on Drugs' only exacerbates the problem.

Monday 11 December, 2017
Members of police forces and investigators guard a crime scene where six people were machine-gunned by unknown men at a business in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state on December 6, 2017.
Members of police forces and investigators guard a crime scene where six people were machine-gunned by unknown men at a business in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state on December 6, 2017. Foto:AFP-HERIKA MARTINEZ

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In the sanguinary annals of Mexico the year 2017 will figure prominently, after deadly earthquakes in Oaxaca and Mexico City and voracious hurricanes wreaked havoc across the nation.

The Mexican people amply demonstrated their resilience and solidarity when hundreds of thousands rallied in the earthquakes’ immediate aftermath to dig through collapsed buildings with their bare hands, improvising tools to rescue their trapped compatriots.

Now comes reconstruction. In 1985, Mexico City was rebuilt after the worst quake in its history killed tens of thousands and destroyed a large part of the metropolis. The city will be rebuilt again. But all the while another more pernicious disaster continues to assail Mexico. And unlike reconstruction, which will be a piece of cake by comparison, there’s hardly any prospect of relief in sight.

Drug violence continues to scar Mexico.

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As a consequence of the prohibition of recreational drugs in the United States and the failed so-called ‘War on Drugs,’ a repugnant tsunami of corruption, extortion, disappearances and barbarous murder has been roiling Mexico for decades.

The United States has not learnt any lessons from its prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s, which – for the very same market-driven reasons which are causing havoc in Mexico – led to a rise of identical corruption and violence, and the foundation of immensely rich criminal organisations which still hold sway in the United States today.
Blindness to the futility of prohibition can be explained by the enormous global business the anti-drug establishment has become, with its millions of law enforcement, judicial and prison personnel on the payroll and civilian support businesses whose livelihoods depend on the continuing illegality of drugs. 

The 'War on Drugs' has created a perfect example of the law of supply and demand. Drugs have become immeasurably more valuable as supply is restricted and, in lockstep with rising demand in the US, the Mexican drug trade has morphed into a trillion-dollar industry.

In Mexico, the drug trade floats in a sea of pervasive corruption inherited from Spain’s extractive colonial dominion, which entrenched the paradigm of paying tribute to power. The country’s elites descend from kleptocratic colonialists whose sole intention was to get rich quick. Money is still the be-all-and-end-all for their descendants who, despite the numerous revolutions intended to displace them, still control Mexico. 

They are as rapacious as ever. Transparency International’s recent report on corruption shows that paying of bribes in order to access basic public services is more common in Mexico than any other country in Latin America. Corruption flourishes. Even officials with just a modicum of power exploit every opportunity for reward and do so with impunity, with the Judiciary and the police all in on the same rotten game. The 2017 ‘Global Impunity Index’ (A report by the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice and the University of the Americas Puebla) revealed that only seven out of every 100 crimes committed in Mexico are reported to authorities, the lowest rate in Latin America.

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Dawn arises in Mexico City.

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Mexico has two federal police forces, 31 state police forces (and two for the federal district) and an estimated 1,600 municipal police forces, all of whom work in isolation as independent fiefdoms.

According to Transparency International and the Causa en Común NGO the lack of a central police command has created a fertile breeding ground for unchecked corruption. Over 70 percent of Mexican law enforcement officials are on the take from drug cartels, aside from their traditional sideline police businesses of extortion, abduction and assassination.

Exacerbating the impunity the Mexican police enjoy the weakness of institutions. Whenever there is a change of president, state governor or even local mayor it’s a case of “out with the old and in with the new.” 

Even minor officials and the humblest workers appointed by the old regime are replaced by the protégés of the new who – with an eye on the clock as it ticks away until the time they’ll be back on the street again, after the next boss installs their own people – solicit bribes (a “mordida,” loosely translated as “bite” in Spanish) to perform their functions and embezzle as much as they can. 

At the highest levels of the federal government (foreign affairs excepted) there are no professional classes of impartial, independent civil servants. Corrupt politicians and officials have no fear of denouncement. If a job does not depend on political patronage it will most likely depend on one of Mexico’s powerful and incorrigibly corrupt unions, which have so far resisted half-hearted attempts to reform themselves. 

Perhaps the most egregious example of union abuse is Mexico’s teachers’ union which perpetrates a system in which teaching posts are purchased from a retiring incumbent regardless of the purchaser’s qualifications, which in most cases are completely lacking. With untrained and unqualified teachers at the helm, a paucity of facilities and scant resources available, public education in Mexico is abysmal. Millions of its unskilled graduates end up joining the drug trade, one of the few available paths out of poverty providing they can live long enough to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

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Guerrero State on Mexico’s Pacific coast leads the statistics showing the worst standards of education and social services, corruption and numbers of murders in the country by a long chalk.

Acapulco, Guerrero’s largest city, once the jewell in Mexico’s tourism crown when the world’s jetset, Hollywood stars and hordes of European royalty flocked there in droves during the 1950s and 1960s, has today become the most deadly place in Mexico.

Named after a violent anti-Spanish rebel and Mexico’s second president (although Vicente Guerrero was assassinated after only nine months in office), Guerrero unsurprisingly means “Warrior” and since pre-Colombian times the state has always been considered to be Mexico’s own version of the Wild West.

The Aztecs never fully gained control Guerrero as the local Yope people were incredibly ferocious. The Spanish couldn’t subdue them either but ultimately the Yope, in return for autonomy, allowed the Spanish to build a port in Acapulco’s natural harbour. The city became the base for the ‘Manila Galleons,’ which sailed to Spain’s Philippine colony for over 250 years and by the 16th century, Acapulco became a thriving slave-trading centre.

Once the slaves entered the gold and silver mines, they were worked to death in chains without ever returning to the surface. The inhumane conditions led to periodic revolts and over the centuries many slaves escaped and married Yope women and formed armed communities to protect themselves in the Southern Sierra Madre Mountains, sowing the seeds for the lawlessness that has typified Guerrero for 500 years. 

Guerrilla groups are still active in Guerrero’s Sierra Madre although news of their bloodthirsty activities of late has been overshadowed by the cartels with whom they are now allied. Acapulco offers the richest pickings in the narco world because it is close to vast poppy fields in the Sierra Madre and ideally located as a transhipment point for drugs to the United States drugs from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. 

I know a little of Acapulco having lived there for three years in the mid-1990s. The nadir of my time there was when a bloody human ear was delivered to my front door in a small box. My first thought was to call the police but I was advised by my housekeeper to call the landlady Miranda who lived next door first.

Miranda was far from surprised. “Oh, that’ll be Jesús García’s ear [name changed], his family has been waiting to be contacted by his kidnappers,” she said. “They’ve got Jesus’ address wrong, his house is two doors down the street from you.”

Jesús, who was the manager of Acapulco’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, had been kidnapped on his way to work the day before. Miranda explained that sending a body part to victims’ families in order to hurry-up payment of the ransom is customary practice.

“I hope you didn’t call the police,” Miranda said, before explaining that calling the police to your house for any reason would result, at the very least, with them removing as “evidence” computers, TVs, refrigerator, washing machine, microwave and anything else that takes their fancy.

At worst, she said, you’ll be taken away too. The police have the power to detain material witnesses for 72 hours, whom they habitually shake down for some money to be going on with.

Miranda came and took the ear down to his family, but it was to no avail. Three days later the local newspaper carried graphic photos of Jesús’ corpse. It had been dumped in broad daylight on La Condesa, Acapulco’s most popular beach. Perhaps Coca-Cola did not want to pay a ransom or tried to negotiate a lesser sum. Either way, something had snapped the kidnappers’ patience and Jesús was dog meat.

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With its teeming millions, privacy is a rare commodity in Mexico. Yet it’s a fact that mutilated, decapitated bodies can be left in broad daylight at popular spots and no-one, not a single soul, ever sees a thing. A prudent blindness afflicts all and sundry, as was evidenced in 2011 during a conference of state prosecutors in Veracruz on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast.

One day, 35 tortured, decapitated bodies (24 men, 11 women) were dumped from a truck on to the steps of a busy shopping mall near the prosecutors’ conference centre. It was a demonstration of the impunity the drug cartels generally enjoy, given they own the police and judges having corrupted them with lavish payments and other insalubrious benefits over many years. No-one was ever arrested for the corpse-dumping despite there being many witnesses

The Veracruz incident is just one instance from the decades-long wave of indiscriminate violence that has afflicted Sinaloa, Baja California, Colima, Jalisco, Yucatán and the states adjoining the US border, where thousands have been kidnapped and tortured to death or killed outright. Many victims are even killed in cases of mistaken identity, such as in 2013 when Jalisco New Generation cartel operatives raped and burnt alive a 10-year-old girl whom they wrongly believed was a rival's daughter.

Jesús García’s demise was over 20 years ago. The troubles in Acapulco today are nothing new. All that has changed is that the precariousness of life in Acapulco has grown markedly (as it has in the rest of Mexico too) thanks to cartel turf. Guerrero, however, did enjoy two decades of relative peace from 1970 on, after a violent repression that followed a surge of turf war killings. Drug prices had started to rise spectacularly after US president Richard Nixon declared the first futile war on drugs. The caciques (local political chiefs) and the Mexico City tycoons who’d invested in hotels all along Acapulco Bay wanted the violence curbed or the pot of gold the tourists represented would be for naught (as has finally come to pass).

A leading cacique, Rubén Figueroa Figueroa, was elected governor in 1975 and over a six year period his hit-squads of heavies (mostly off-duty policemen) systematically disappeared every troublesome campesino (rural peasant) leader, social activist, drug dealer, kidnapper and ne’er-do-well they could lay their hands on. The bodies were interred in mass graves in the mountains or in road constructions. It has been commonplace in Guerrero for decades that when the highways are washed-out in the rainy season, the remains of the governor’s victims are unearthed.  But such stories are rarely, if never, reported.

In what has proved to have been the eye of the storm, Acapulco and Guerrero’s larger towns entered a 20-plus-year period of more-or-less peaceful times. When I lived there in the 1990s order was still being maintained, although venturing into the hinterland was dangerous. There were still occasional kidnappings and murders in Acapulco but most were relatively safe.

But then everything truly went to hell in a basket in 2007 when president Felipe Calderón, under intense pressure from the US – which rather than curtailing demand for drugs in their own country perversely prefers to suppress production in producing states – launched his own national version of the War on Drugs, which would have horrendous effects on the Mexican nation.

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 In this May 15, 2017 file photo, people take photos of slain journalist Javier Valdez, co-founder of the newspaper Riodoce and a legendary chronicler of drug-trafficking in Sinaloa state, in Culiacan, Mexico. 

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President Calderón’s approach enjoyed initial successes with the interdiction and elimination of poppy fields in 2007, but all this eventually did was cause the price of drugs and their production to skyrocket. In the process an immense criminal hydra was created, with new cartels rushing to join the lucrative fray. The more vigorously the president prosecuted his war on drugs, the more vicious and bloody the struggle to control them became. Today, hundreds of thousands of people have been injured or killed all over Mexico.

To understand why Acapulco has become so dystopic you have to look back over 500 years to the formidable warrior and emperor Moctezuma II, who expanded the Aztec empire. Moctezuma took conquistador Hernán Cortésto be the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, whom legend foretold would return to Mexico and bring about its downfall (which is what happened despite Cortes not actually being Quetzalcoatl). But in the end, neither Moctezuma in his pre-conquistador heyday nor the Spanish would ever completely conquer Guerrero. 

The state’s rebelliousness and scant regard for authority endured through Acapulco’s 250 years as the base of Spain’s Manila Galleons trade with their colony in the Philippines and its role as a leading slave trade centre the modern legacy of which are armed to the teeth, implacably cruel guerrilla groups which rule the Sierra Madre Mountains. Since the 16th century, the guerrillas have lived through grinding poverty and inequality. Latterly they’ve evolved into the main providers of marijuana and raw heroin to the cartels.

In the late 1990s, Acapulco’s then-governor Rubén Figueroa Alcocer went after the guerrilla groups and their campesino supporters but new technology bought him down. In what is now known as the 'Aguas Blancas Massacre,' on the governor’s orders the police summarily executed 17 protesting campesinos and wounded 21 more, all of which was recorded on video and sent to the Mexico City media. A huge scandal ensued.

The governor escaped prosecution and none of the police were ever punished, although two of the officers involved in the massacre were later captured by the slaughtered campesinos’ aggrieved relatives. They left the officers’ heads in the governor’s letterbox. The decapitated, flayed bodies were found soon after on Caleta Beach. It elicited no more than a page three note in the local rag, Sol de Acapulco.

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Today, drug cartels perpetrate their mayhem virtually unhindered throughout Mexico, particularly in Acapulco where they are aided and abetted by Mexico’s multitudinous law enforcement agencies, bent politicians and judges, who have all fallen under the thrall of the cartels’ wherewithal to corrupt. If the lure of money does not do the trick cartels routinely offer officials a Hobson’s choice of “Plata o Plomo,” a terrifying choice take the money (plata, or “silver”) and do what we want or the bullet (plomo, or “lead”).

Just how completely corrupt and reprehensible the Mexican law enforcement authorities have become was made even more publicly evident by the 2014 mass kidnapping and probable murder and incineration of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero.

The mayor (who reportedly ordered the kidnapping), local police (who reportedly did the actual kidnapping and handed the victims over to the Guerreros Unidos cartel), federal police (who reportedly watched the kidnapping but did nothing) and the investigating local and federal judicial authorities (who have reportedly obfuscated and impeded independent forensic investigations) were all on the payroll of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who for reasons still yet to be explained apparently executed the students and incinerated their bodies in a rubbish dump.

Apart from their corrosive ability to undermine state institutions with their filthy lucre, Mexico’s druglords operate in a primal world where compassion and humanity count for nothing. Sadism is employed as a public spectacle in keeping with their Aztec antecedents. 

Perhaps the cruellest Mexican drug lord of all was the late, and not lamented, Nazario "El Más Loco" González, the leader of the shadowy Knights Templar cartel who controlled Acapulco for a decade before he was shot by federal police officers in the pay of the Guerreros Unidos cartel in 2014. El Más Loco forged his fearsome reputation by having errant employees and his competitors impaled through the anus on steel rods, and then slowly roasted them to death in a barbeque pit.

Seven Guerrero journalists who printed stories El Más Loco didn’t like ended-up in his barbeque pit, contributing to the grim toll of the 104 media workers who have been assassinated since 2000. Such figures have earned Mexico the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist.

Outside observers might think that the capture of Sinaloa cartel druglord Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ (‘Shorty’) Guzmán and his extradition to the United States is a sign the Mexican authorities are finally getting the upper hand. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

El Chapo’s main rivals (Rafael Caro Quintero, ex-policeman Rubén ‘El Mencho’ Oseguera Cervantes and Ismael ‘Mayo’ Zambada) are simply paying the authorities more he was willing to pay to be left alone. Hence the Sinaload druglord became a target, while his competitors continued their operations unmolested, albeit at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to officials. A similar arrangement prevailed in the 1990s and 2000s when El Chapo paid the then-head of the Mexican DEA US$5 million a month to be left alone. The DEA went after the Tijuana Cartel while El Chapo’s operation freely grew into the multi-billion dollar enterprise it is today.

El Chapo’s 15-year heyday has been called the “Pax Sinaloa” by drug-war chronicler Don Winslow, as there was comparatively little violence, but today El Chapo’s recent capture – whilst partially decapitating the hydra – has led to the balkanisation of Mexico as new leadership contenders fight for control. And when the Mexican DEA chief suborned by El Chapo reached compulsory retirement age his successor was a Tijuana Cartel man who promptly mounted a raid on his predecessor’s enormous mansion in Mexico City’s exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec neighbourhood.

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Mexico’s incomparable beaches and natural features, unique cuisine and historical monuments have given it the largest tourism market in the world. The police know they can make more money extorting profitable tourism businesses and hotels than trying to shake-down individual tourists so most visitors enjoy their holidays unmolested.

While not directly targeted by the drug violence, tourists do run the risk of ending-up as collateral damage. As happened in the “Christine Disco Massacre’ in Puerto Vallarta when six tourists died and many more injured when 35 heavily armed men led by an El Chapo henchman, Héctor “El Güero” Palma Salazar stormed the disco and sprayed a hail of bullets into the vicinity of El Chapo’s rivals, the Arellano Félix brothers, who were guzzling champagne at a table next to the dance floor.

It was later revealed El Güero’s hired muscle were off-duty federal police officers, but not that that fact, or even the massacre itself, was ever reported in the local press. The authorities did not want anything published that would put tourists off coming to Puerto Vallarta.

Drug-trade corruption and violence will never be eradicated in Mexico while drugs remain illegal in the United States. But there is some hope of relief from institutional corruption, as sea-change social networks help to drag corruption into the light by increasing public awareness of information, in turn motivating citizens to demand change.

This important development means – as Carolina Barros said in her October 7 Buenos Aires Times column ‘Mexico’s earthquakes aren’t only seismic, they’re political too’ – that there’s growing contempt for the rotten-to-the-core oligarchs who rule Mexico. 

Barros, for example, observed that “the rapid and organised public reflexes (especially among the millennials) in the rescue of victims after both earthquakes exposed the inefficiency and corruption of the political and ruling classes especially when it emerged that over 2,000 of the buildings damaged or destroyed had been constructed in the ensuing real-estate boom after the 1985 killer quake when anti-seismic regulations and controls were supposedly in place. The thermometer of rage peaked when it became known that all the work inspection registers kept in the Urban and Housing Development Department had conveniently disappeared with the earthquake.”

As far as relief from drug-related corruption and violence is concerned, that will remain an insuperable conundrum while US drug policy is set by ignorant, fear-mongering demagogues who hypocritically wallow in alcohol taxes and distillers’ campaign financing. Legislators there are wilfully blind to the inconsistency of their anti-drug policies as they demonise and criminalise recreational drug users and feed a vicious spiral of social dislocation and despair, not only in their own country but across the globe, and no more so than in Mexico.

Despite growing state-level legalisation of marijuana in the US the prospects for reform at the federal level are practically nil given the political heft of the millions whose livelihoods depend on the illegality of drugs and their venal puppets such as US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in just one recent example is cracking-down on marijuana to ensure Republican campaign contributors from the private prison sector continue to get the human fodder they need to populate their businesses.

The dire consequences of drug abuse, including death, should not be minimised but the potential for harm is not a reason to ban them outright. Otherwise alcohol should be completely banned too given how it ruins lives and causes many deaths. Fatty and sugary food abuse often results in grave medical problems and death by causing obesity, diabetes and coronary disease too, as well as cars because some drivers drive recklessly with fatal consequences. But both are legal.

In the modern age of individual responsibility Western societies allow their citizens to make choices, often fatal, on the basis that abuse by a few should not disqualify the majority of responsible, moderate users. So why this logic is not applied to recreational drug use? It can only be explained by political expediency and the maintenance of the lifestyles of the millions of workers whose jobs depend on the illegality of drugs. In short, an absolute nonsense.

The Mexican Senate legalised medical marijuana in June this year and President Enrique Peña Nieto is talking of completely legalising marijuana, which many see will be a first step toward complete legalisation. In this Peña Nieto is fully supported by a former president, Vicente Fox, who sees recreational drugs, quite correctly, as education and health issues which should be managed in the same way as alcohol, harmful foods, driving etc.

Of course, legalising drugs in Mexico is not a magic bullet. That would not reduce their value as they’ll remain more valuable than gold as long as they’re illegal in the US, but at least the Mexican police would not be able to extort and maltreat recreational drug users as they routinely do now. That would be a small step in the right direction.

In the meantime Mexico is between a rock and a hard place. The harder the US pressures them to clamp down on drugs, the worse the mayhem will get and this, in turn, explains Mexico’s parlous situation, the most egregious and perverted display of market forces at work in the world today. It’s a sad but inescapable conclusion that while recreational drugs remain illegal in the US, Mexico’s troubles will continue.

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