Mexico at War

— Dan La Botz

MEXICO IS AT war. The drug war has become all the news this fall: Real war. Bloody war. With bombings, massacres and body counts.

Other important things are taking place, of course. The Mexican Supreme Court has just upheld the right of the Federal District to legalize abortion, a significant victory for women. The left is fighting against the privatization of the petroleum industry. Teachers are marching and striking against the government's new Alliance for Quality Education which they call a sham. The miners fight on heroically with strikes and work stoppages against the attempts of Grupo Mexico and the government to destroy their union.

Those struggles are, perhaps, in the long run, all more important and more interesting to many of us. But the war is driving them into the background, as bloody bombings, massacres and kidnappings take the foreground.

Carlos Slim, Mexico's richest man and an important political figure as well, has criticized the American arms dealers for selling weapons into Mexico. The United States with its "war on drugs" is everywhere in this mess: as drug market, as gun merchant, and as foreign power sticking its military nuzzle into Mexico's business (as well as Colombia's and Bolivia's, of course).

So far the United States has mostly prevented the war between the Mexican cartels and the Mexican government from spilling across the U.S. border, but that's one of the great fears at Homeland Security and in the state and local police forces.

To give a chilling example of what's happening in Mexico today: Like something out of Iraq, explosions in the central plaza of Morelia, Michoacan, hometown of President Felipe Calderón, killed eight and injured 110 at the independence celebration on midnight of September 15.

The central plaza was crowded with flag-waving crowds for Mexican Independence Day (September 16) waiting to give the traditional Grito or shout of "Long Live Mexico!" Instead they experienced a horrifying blast that left the bloody bodies of dead and dying men, women and children scattered across the paving stones.

The two hand grenades thrown were believed to have been launched by members of a drug cartel. The Morelia blast represents a new stage in the drug war. As Governor Leonel Godoy told the press, "Technically, this is a terrorist act. We have no doubt that we're facing a terrorist attempt."

Until now, civilians had been mostly killed in crossfire; now apparently they are the targets. Mexico begins to look like Colombia where drug gangs also used terror attacks against civilians.

Then there are the massacres. Just three days before the Morelia explosions, 24 bodies were found in the State of Mexico, bound, gagged and shot in the head. Those executions, the largest massacre so far, were also casualties of the drug war. Large scale massacres, however, are no more horrifying than the several beheadings: heads rolled into bars, heads sent to government authorities.

Then too there are kidnappings, lots of them. During the first five months of 2008 Mexico experienced 323 kidnappings, that is, 2.1 per day or 64.6 per month. Since 1994 there have been 8,416, according to Mexican authorities. Many are surrounded by great drama and end in terrible tragedy. Alejandro Martí, founder of a chain of sporting goods stores and health clubs, paid the ransom for his 14-year-old kidnapped son, but he was killed anyway, his body found stuffed in the trunk of a car - not an uncommon end to such a story.

So far this year, 3800 people have been killed in the drug wars, with almost a thousand in Ciudad Juarez alone. More than 450 of those killed have been police officers. Fifty in Tijuana in one week. With incidents and numbers like these war dominates the headlines, fills the TV news, and has become the center of government policy.

Origins of the Current Crisis

The current violence has its origins in the "democratic transition." When Vicente Fox of the National Action Party became president in 2000, ending over 70 years of rule by Institutional Revolutionary Party - the "perfect dictatorship," as Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa once called it - Mexico's transition touched everything. Old systems of patronage and protection were shaken up, from Congress, to the unions, to the drug dealers.

At the same time Fox and his successor Calderón, with pressure and support from the United States, undertook a campaign that resulted in the arrest of some of the drug lords, but that only exacerbated the violence. The killing or arrest of leaders of the Arellano Felix organization created a partial power vacuum which others moved to fill, and the war was on.

In the most recent phase, the Gulf Cartel demonstrated its logistical capability by having banners hung in cities all over the north of the country accusing the government of siding with its rivals. Who knows whether this is the truth or merely propaganda?

The Gulf Cartel has its own mercenary army of hired killers known as the Zetas, who were once part of the Mexican Air Force Special Forces group, but went over to the other side. Trained by the United States, Israel and France in rapid deployment, surveillance, intelligence and communications. They use high-powered weapons and experience reveals they are more proficient and better armed than the police.

The Zetas, and groups such as La Flor which specializes in kidnapping, sometimes work for the cartels but can also become independent organizations capable of carrying out their own crimes. So far the cartels have remained the multinational corporations and the Zetas their hired security forces, but that could change.

In some parts of the country people have responded to the crime wave with linchamientos, vigilante violence in which crowds viciously beat suspected drug dealers, kidnappers or killers.

Political Pressure

The rise in crime and violence has brought increased political pressure on the Calderón government. For example, Alfredo Harp Helu, former head of Banamex and one of Mexico's richest men, took out a full-page advertisement in August reading: "A change is urgently needed. Civil society is becoming impotent. Let us unite to ask the authorities to fight crime and protect personal safety."

Citizen's groups have also developed at the national level such as Mexico United Against Crime headed by María Elena Morena, and Enough is Enough (¡Basta Ya!) led by José Antonio Ortega. "Once again police officers are implicated in kidnappings and other serious crimes and we get disgusting excuses and lies from cabinet officials and prosecutors and phony concern and empty promises from governors and politicians," said Ortega.

These groups have held demonstrations and national protest marches to pressure the government. Some upper- and middle-class groups demand that Mexico, which like Europe has no death penalty, restore it to deal with the drug violence.

Responding to the crisis and the pressure, Mexican President Felipe Calderón turned the regular meeting of the National Council on Public Safety on August 21 into a major political event, as the nation's leaders adopted a National Pact for Safety, Justice and Legality. The president promised to launch "a frontal war on crime."

The Council, made up of representatives of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the Federal government, the country's 31 governors, the head of the Federal District, and members of civil society, religious groups and labor unions, did its duty. It heard the president apologize for his government's failure so far to stop the wave of killings and kidnappings and listened to him lay out a crime-fighting plan.

Calderón, flanked by his Secretary of the Interior (Gobernación) Juan Camilo Mouriño Terrazo, Attorney General (PGR) Eduardo Medina Mora, and Secretary of Public Safety (SSP) Genaro García Luna called for greater coordination between federal and local authorities in a fight against organized crime, kidnapping and money laundering. The pact's 75 specific measures include the purging of corrupt police officers and a call for life sentences for kidnappers.

The president promised to protect citizens and prosecute criminals using all of the technical and logistical skill and armaments necessary to do so. Guillermo Ortiz Mayagoitia, president of the Mexican Supreme Court, promised that in carrying out the war against crime, Mexicans' rights would be protected. But is the "frontal assault on crime" really credible?

Mexican authorities on public safety issues such as Pablo Mansalvo and Elena Azaola called the National Pact a lot of media hype, saying that it offered nothing new. Human Rights activists such as Miguel Concha, director of the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Center for Human Rights, said that the pact was "worrisome" because it did not put more emphasis on the protection of human rights. He suggested that the President should have consulted Human Rights activists.

Others argued that the presence at the Council meeting of union leaders such as Elba Esther Gordillo of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) and Carlos Romero Deschamps of the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM) and of governors such as Mario Marín of Puebla and Ulises Ruiz of Oaxaca, all of whom have been accused of undemocratic practices, corruption, violence and various sorts of law-breaking, undermined the legitimacy of the Council and the Pact.

Obrador: Not Security but Society

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, former head of the Federal District and current president of the so-called Legitimate Government of Mexico and most prominent spokesman of Mexico's left, has argued that the solution to the serious public safety problem would not be found in more severe penalties or police measures, but rather by economic reforms that guaranteed education and jobs to Mexico's people.

"Mexico is passing through a great crisis of public safety in the midst of social decomposition which has been aggravated by the economic policies being imposed by the government," said López Obrador. He described the government's policies as "anti-popular y entreguista," that is to say, bad for the people and a sellout of Mexico to foreign powers. He may be right, in the big picture and in the long run, but does anyone care? The problem is that the Mexican people want the drug war won now.

President Calderón has deployed 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 Federal police troops, principally to northern states, to fight the war. For a while his mobilization of the military made him quite popular, even though it brought in its wake a series of civil rights and human rights violations of all sorts. But now it's not even clear that he's winning the war, and his popularity is declining.

Winning the war won't be easy.  Throughout Mexico's drug wars over the last several years, top Army Generals and high-up officers of the Mexican Federal Police as well as scores of local police officials have been revealed to be working with the narcos. Mexico's 1,600 police forces seem all to be corrupt. Officers have been found involved in making drug deals, murder, and kidnapping. The government has purged hundreds of police from numerous federal, state and local forces, but without much success. Now they are purging again.

The new ambassador of France to Mexico put the matter clearly to Calderón: Do something about crime or foreign investors may become reluctant to put their money into Mexico. Events like the recent bombing in Morelia are also sure to drive away North American tourists. The public, already outraged, wants a solution.

Calderón's attempt to lead and win the war seems to be failing. López Obrador's leftist movement appears to be irrelevant to this most urgent of matters.

The times demand a "strongman" and soon Mexican bankers and industrialists and the middle classes will demand one too. And when such a figure appears, he will not only deal with the drug lords - he will also carry the war to the miners, to the teachers, and to the political opposition.

ATC 137, November-December 2008

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