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The Plague of Mexico's Drug Wars

Inside the drug wars quickly consuming a nation.

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 1:19 PM EDT

[This report appears in the Spring 2010 issue of World Policy Journal and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine. This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.]

AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico—Just before noon on February 15, 2007, four municipal police officers in Aguascalientes, the picturesque capital of the central Mexican state bearing the same name, were called to a mundane road accident. An overturned, black Chevy Suburban with out-of-state license plates was blocking traffic on the quiet Boulevard John Paul II that runs through the city's sleepy western suburbs.

When local police commander Juan José Navarro Rincón and his three colleagues arrived, they saw two men who did not appear to be hurt, removing AK-47 assault rifles and police uniforms from the crashed vehicle to a white Nissan sport utility vehicle (SUV) parked nearby. Navarro Rincón called for reinforcements. He was about to arrest the pair when two other cars came to an abrupt stop just up the road. Three gunmen climbed out and opened fire with automatic weapons. Navarro Rincón was killed instantly. Three other officers also died.

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The killings, dubbed "Black Thursday" by the local press, were the first shootings of police officers in Aguascalientes by drug gangs. Until then, Aguascalientes had been a quiet place, immune to the violence that was raging in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere in the country. The firefight sparked a manhunt throughout the state's rocky plateaus, involving some five dozen federal police patrol cars and a military helicopter. Later that day, with the gunmen and the drivers of the escape vehicles captured and in police custody, Aguascalientes State Attorney Xavier González Fisher tried to reassure the rattled public. He told the media that the burst of violence was an isolated incident. "Aguascalientes is quiet, is at peace... this does not happen every day." For a long time, his words might have served as an accurate description of the state of affairs in Aguascalientes. But the incident was a telltale mark that the bloody, corrosive nexus of drugs, crime, and corruption growing malignantly along the Mexico-U.S. border has metastasized to regions previously immune to this cancer.

The Drug War Moves North

In some respects, the Mexican problem is the result of Colombia's successful war on the Cali and Medellín drug cartels in the 1990s. Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the notorious leader of the Medellín Cartel, was gunned down by police commandos in 1993. Brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, who formed and ran the Cali Cartel, were captured in 1995, and later extradited to the United States to serve 30-year prison sentences. Although the Cali and Medellín cartels continued to operate, the removal of their leaders weakened them and created an opening for Mexican organized crime groups, such as the Guadalajara Cartel led by Miguel "El Padrino" ("the Godfather") Ángel Félix Gallardo and his successors, to seize control of the lucrative North American drug trade.

The Guadalajara Cartel and similar groups had traditionally moved the Colombian drugs north. Félix Gallardo cultivated friendships with politicians, businessmen, and journalists, as well as with other drug lords. Distributing power and spoils, he built a nationwide trafficking network whose members rarely resorted to violence. Under Félix Gallardo's system, territories were carved out for local chieftains, and whenever another group needed access to his region, a tribute was paid. Though he was captured by the Mexican government in 1989, Félix Gallardo remained in charge, orchestrating meetings and dividing territory from prison. It was ultimately a failing effort. With the Guadalajara Cartel's ringleader locked up and the Colombians under attack, others started developing their own drug operations from scratch—covering transportation, warehousing, and, eventually, the sale of the product itself.

Barry R. McCaffrey, former director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified before the Senate that the "Colombians paid the Mexican trafficking organizations $1,500 to $2,000 for each kilogram of cocaine smuggled to the United States." But during the 1990s, as a more chaotic arrangement began to take shape, the Colombian and Mexican trafficking groups established a new deal allowing the Mexicans to receive a percentage of the cocaine in each shipment as payment for their transportation services. "This ‘payment-in-product' agreement enabled Mexican organizations to become involved in the wholesale distribution of cocaine in the United States," McCaffrey observed. This also ended the Colombians' monopoly and set the stage for the war that followed.

As the Mexican cartels expanded their control over the drug supply chain, revenues exploded. There are no precise historical figures describing the size of the business. But, by any account, there was an enormous amount of money to be made. In 2002, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft described the size of the U.S. drug market, reporting that Americans spent $62.9 billion on drugs in 2000. More than half ($36.1 billion), was spent on cocaine—of which an estimated 90 percent transits through Mexico. In 2009, the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center estimated that Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations generated somewhere in the range of $17 billion to $38 billion annually in gross wholesale proceeds from drug sales in the United States. By comparison, Google's worldwide revenue in 2009 was $23.6 billion.

As earnings shot up, so did violence. Starting in the mid-1990s, drug gangs in Mexico grew more independent and began fighting for more control and larger territories. A decades-long war, which has claimed some 20,000 lives so far, broke out between Félix Gallardo's lieutenant, Joaquín "El Chapo" ("Shorty") Guzmán, currently Mexico's most wanted person, and rival drug lords. Gone was Félix Gallardo's divide-and-conquer approach, replaced by intimidation, brazen violence, and the executions of officials and anyone else who dared stand in the way. By 2004, the war had reached a simmer: the first mass graves started to appear in Mexico, and newspapers carried accounts of gruesome killings involving beheadings and acid. In the border town of Nuevo Laredo, more than 100 people were murdered from January to August, 2005.

President Vicente Fox had taken a relatively soft approach to combating the violence, but all that changed when President Felipe Calderón took office on December 1, 2006. Within weeks, some 6,500 troops were dispatched to the state of Michoacán (along the country's mid-Pacific coast) to curtail drug violence. It was of little avail. McCaffrey testified in 2009 that "squad-sized units of the police and [Mexican] army have been tortured, murdered, and their decapitated bodies publicly left on display." Media accounts appeared describing instances where police auctioned their loyalty to the highest bidder. Today, some 45,000 Mexican troops—about a quarter of the standing army—are engaged in a domestic war with drug cartels, which shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

Rise of the New Cartels

Amid such seemingly indiscriminate violence, it's critical to understand who is fighting whom, and to have a little history of the major players today. The Mexican drug wars have seen the rise of two dominant cartels, which have elevated indiscriminate violence and coercion to levels previously unimaginable. The Sinaloa gang is the country's largest cartel, based on the volume of drugs it moves. It grew out of the coastal state of Sinaloa, once known for its poppy fields and opium gum produced by Chinese immigrants. Now it is produced by hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos. The Sinaloa Cartel operates up Mexico's Pacific coast and along the U.S. border—from Tijuana in the west, to Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo in the east. Since a different chief, or capo (the Mexican cartels have adopted the same terminology as their mafia counterparts), controls each territory, the Sinaloa Cartel has also become known as "The Federation." But at the top of the chain sits Félix Gallardo's former lieutenant, "El Chapo" Guzmán; Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $1 billion. The U.S. government is offering a $5 million reward for his capture.

The second group is the Gulf Cartel, founded in the 1970s in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, along the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Cartel grew dramatically during the chaos of the early 1990s, expanding its territory and moving from drug trafficking into direct sales, while engaging in a host of other nefarious rackets. The growth inevitably brought them into conflict with "El Chapo" Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel. But while the Sinaloa Cartel tried to maintain the veneer of a legitimate business enterprise, the Gulf Cartel burnished a bloody, violent image.

At its core was Los Zetas, originally a small group of deserters from the Mexican Special Forces, hired in 2000 by the Gulf Cartel's former leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, to serve as his bodyguards. But Los Zetas was not content to run merely security. Following the capture of Cárdenas Guillén in 2003 by Mexican authorities (sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. federal court in Feburary 2010), Los Zetas started to branch off from the cartel and began independently building capacity in the drug trade and violent crime in general, engaging in kidnapping, extortion, and killings.

In a short time, it had evolved into an armed group with some 1,200 members, both men and women, capable of deploying significant fighting forces across Mexico. A 2008 government raid on the Gulf Cartel seized a cache of anti-armor weapons, cluster grenades, anti-aircraft missiles, armored HUMVEES, and even chemical protective suits. Los Zetas has also developed ties with American and other foreign criminal and paramilitary groups. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Zetas is now connected to U.S. gangs and has a presence in Dallas, Houston, and other American cities.

Today, it is not clear who runs the Gulf Cartel; but Los Zetas appears to play an important role. Though most experts seem to ascribe a unique decentralized structure to the cartel, in 2009, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control named Cárdenas Guillén's brother, Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cárdenas Guillén, and Jorge Eduardo "El Coss" Costilla Sánchez as the nominal leaders.

Much of the current violence in Mexico can be attributed to a war raging between the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, among other smaller participants. The war erupted in 2003 over control of the city of Nuevo Laredo, the home of Los Zetas and the country's largest inland port, just across the Rio Grande from Texas. It provoked a wave of violence that is still cresting today. As the war ticked up in intensity, powerful groups pacified by "El Chapo" Guzmán, such as the Tijuana and Juárez Cartels, re-emerged along the U.S.-Mexican border. The truce between the Sinaloa and Juárez was shattered when Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentés, a Juárez leader, was gunned down in the city of Culiacán, in Guzmán's home state of Sinaloa in 2004.

Perhaps the most ominous rift was the departure of Arturo "El Barbas" Beltrán Leyva and his brothers, former allies of Guzmán, from under the Sinaloa umbrella. They allied themselves with Los Zetas with the idea of forming a new cartel. Matters escalated when Alfredo "El Mochomo" ("Red Ant") Beltrán Leyva was arrested in 2008. The Beltrán Leyva family blamed the Sinaloa Cartel and reportedly ordered the killing of Guzmán's 22-year old son, Édgar Guzmán López, in a Culiacán shopping mall. And the seemingly endless cycle of violence continues unabated. No one is keeping an official score, but according to the prominent Mexican newspaper Reforma, there were 6,587 drug-related murders in 2009 in Mexico, up from 5,207 in 2008 and 2,275 in 2007. During January and February 2010, there were more than 1,500 executions according to Reforma. At this pace, Mexico may end this year with 9,000 drug-related murders.

Indeed, the question lingers: just who is in charge across broad stretches of Mexico? On December 16, 2009, Mexican Navy special forces killed "El Barbas" Beltrán Leyva in a raid. Though apparently a big law enforcement success, the aftermath highlighted Los Zetas' loyalty, brazenness, and brutality—and the difficulty of curtailing the ability of drug gangs to wage this war. The Navy lost one man, Ensign Melquisedet Ángulo Córdova, in the raid on Beltrán Leyva. President Calderón hailed Ángulo Córdova as a hero and gave him a state funeral. But hours after he was laid to rest, gunmen went to his grieving family's home, killing his mother, two sisters, brother, and aunt as they slept. Only one sister survived the attack.

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