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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

The Plague Spreads North

Until Black Thursday, Aguascalientes was immune to such violence. Nestled high on Mexico's central rocky plateau some 300 miles north of Mexico City, the city and the state had remained a haven of relative stability and prosperity. As recently as 2004, the University of London published a study that ranked Aguascalientes "as one of the only few [Mexican] states that has a well-functioning judicial system." An earlier survey ranked Aguascalientes first in terms of confidence in the judicial system, and indicated that it had the lowest levels of corruption in the country. Business flowed into the state. Aguascalientes' skilled labor attracted some $4.3 billion in foreign direct investment from companies like Nissan, Bosch, and Texas Instruments. Its colonial heritage, baroque-inspired architecture, and prodigious hot springs made it a tourist magnet.

It did not last. Eventually, the drug gangs arrived in Aguascalientes, attracted by its tranquility and promise of a good place to hide. While most of the rest of the country was already staked out by warring drug gangs, Aguascalientes was still up for grabs. The local police were ill-prepared for what came next.

Los Zetas arrived in Aguascalientes and plunged the city into violence with alarming speed. By August 2007, six months after "Black Thursday," 11 Aguascalientes police officers had been murdered. One of the victims was a deputy police chief who was shot, execution style, in the nearby town of Pabellón de Arteaga while he was eating in a restaurant. After the attack, Mexican media speculated that he was killed in reprisal for the drug-related arrests of seven suspected gunmen several weeks earlier.

In early 2008, a wave of kidnappings spread across the state targeting the children of prominent businessmen. By this time, Los Zetas had perfected the art. Kidnapping, especially in wealthy and relatively drug-free states, can be a more immediate source of liquid funds than trafficking in drugs. In May 2008, Nicolás Martínez Reyes, the son of a wine distributor, was kidnapped from El Pescador del Pargo, a busy seafood restaurant in downtown Aguascalientes where he was dining with a group of friends. Martínez Reyes was held for 35 days. His kidnappers tortured him and cut off one of his fingers before his father agreed to pay the ransom.

The police and the public have tried to stand up to the gangs in Aguascalientes, but with little success. Take the example of Gerardo Medrano Ibarra, who ran a family-owned trucking business called Frio Express. Launched in 1980, the Medranos built a two-truck delivery shop into a large shipping business shuttling perishables like meat, strawberries, and prepackaged guacamole between Mexico City and Laredo, Texas, with a fleet of several dozen Freightliner and Volvo tractor trailers. Medrano's business boomed after the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force in 1994. His trucks moved quickly in and out of the United States because they were certified through the U.S. Customs and Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, a voluntary government-business program that pre-screens cargo for bombs and other contraband. In the spring of 2008, Medrano Ibarra received a distress call from one of his drivers traveling north. The driver said that he was attacked in the city of Guadalajara by an unknown assailant who cracked open the doors of the trailer, inserted a load of drugs, and instructed the driver to keep going to Laredo. Medrano Ibarra told the driver to unhook the trailer and turn back. He did so, abandoning the trailer and the drugs on the side of the road. Within days, Medrano Ibarra was receiving threatening telephone calls from a gang of drug traffickers thought to be Los Zetas. They made it clear that Medrano Ibarra would allow the future transit of narcotics to the United States in his trucks. He reported the calls to the police, but they were powerless to prevent what came next.

On July 2, 2008, as he was leaving his suburban home in his gray Volvo, Medrano Ibarra noticed that he was being followed by three SUVs. When he failed to lose his pursuers in the maze of city streets, he made a U-turn over the median of the busy Avenida Miguel de la Madrid east of downtown Aguascalientes, jumped out of his moving car, and tried to flee on foot. Two gunmen opened fire. Medrano Ibarra was killed on the spot, just ten feet from a police post. No one came to his aid; the killers got away. Federal forces arrived on the scene an hour later. In August 2008, state authorities arrested six suspects, including two women, all members of Los Zetas, and charged them with the kidnapping of Martínez Reyes and the murder of Medrano Ibarra.

By early 2009, Aguascalientes had become a terrifying place to live in. Awash in unsold drug inventory due to stepped-up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border, a local retail market has sprung up. Indeed, the city now has one of the highest rates of drug abuse among youth in all of Mexico. Home invasions and assaults by drug addicts have skyrocketed.

Not surprisingly, the police find themselves regularly overpowered by the criminals, who have become increasingly brazen in bringing the fight to the state. In December 2009, some 40 gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons and threw grenades at a police station in San Francisco de los Romo, a small town ten miles north of Aguascalientes. The mayor was inside at the time, attending a security meeting. After a ten-minute firefight, the attackers climbed into their SUVs and drove away, leaving two officers dead and three wounded.

Private Security Enters the Drug Wars

With the police strained and outgunned, the crisis created an opening for a motley group of private security companies and armed bands that offer services not only to wealthy individuals and companies, but also to local governments and municipalities. In 2008, the municipal president of Aguascalientes hired the State Police Intelligence Corps (CIPOL) to help combat the increasing violence. Founded in 2005 in the state of Chihuahua by one-time local politician and public security chief Raúl Grajeda Domínguez and Jesús Manuel García Salcido, the former head of Chihuahua's municipal police, CIPOL has a murky, quasi-governmental status. Despite its ties to the Chihuahua state government, CIPOL behaves like a private police force, even driving its own distinctive red-and-white patrol cruisers. When CIPOL arrived in Aguascalientes, García Salcido quickly was appointed by the mayor as the municipal chief of police. His tenure was short. In August 2009, he was arrested by agents from the federal attorney general's Office for the Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO) for supposed ties to drug cartels. Charges that CIPOL overcharged Aguascalientes for equipment, including the purchase of a helicopter, were also raised. His trial is pending.

While CIPOL operates in the open, other extra-judicial groups prefer to remain in the shadows. In May 2009, Mexico's Milenio Diario newspaper interviewed the leader of a secretive outfit called El Grupo ("The Group"), whose existence until then had never been confirmed. El Grupo was set up to hunt down and punish kidnappers who prey on the wealthy. In lieu of state protection, vigilante justice has an understandable appeal, but the hefty fees make this little more than a tool of the wealthy and powerful. The Mexican government avows no knowledge of the group, but the Milenio Diario interview disclosed that the entity was established 12 years ago and now has the ability to carry out investigations, capture suspects, and conduct interrogations.

Outside of Aguascalientes, ordinary Mexicans have tried peaceful tactics as a way of standing up to violence. In May 2009, an armed group kidnapped a 17-year-old Mormon youth, Erick Le Barón, in the town of Galeana in the state of Chihuahua, and demanded a $1 million ransom. It was the eleventh kidnapping the Mormons had endured in just eight months. (The community, which numbers some 1,000 members, was perceived as relatively well off, which made it a target.) They decided to push back. Led by Erick's outspoken older brother, Benjamin, they marched to Galeana's central square and demanded that the state authorities find and free Erick. The Mormons were joined in their public protest by local Mennonites, another religious group that has suffered from extortion and violence. Together, several thousand people spent the night protesting on the square. They publicly declared that they would not pay the ransom. Erick was released several days later, without any money being paid. But such examples of public bravery are rare and their outcome far from certain. Two months later, Benjamin was taken from the home he shared with his wife and five children, along with his brother-in-law. They were both shot and killed.

Leading from the Top

What is President Calderón to do? If Mexico's drug wars have their origins in Colombia, perhaps part of the solution might come from there as well. Though the Colombian government beheaded the Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s by arresting the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers and assassinating Escobar, the hydra simply grew, spawning hundreds of smaller organizations, penetrating deeper into and corrupting more profoundly the Colombian government and bureaucracy.

The Cali cocaine cartel, for example, penetrated deep into the country's economy, taking ownership stakes in legitimate businesses, including the National Coffee Corporation and the professional soccer team, América de Cali. Troublesome legislators, law enforcement, and judges were bought off, threatened, or killed. Meanwhile, Colombia's guerilla and paramilitary groups—such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the United Self Defense (AUC)—became the main suppliers of heroin and controlled the farming of coca, which provides the base material for cocaine production.

The way out of that nation's morass appeared in 2000, when the Colombian government implemented measures designed to isolate and cripple the influence of the guerillas and the cartels. It passed a draconian "disengagement" decree, which gave authorities the power to dismiss any police officer or soldier for alleged corruption without the need of legal proceedings. Over the next seven years, hundreds of persons in the police and the military were discharged over suspected links to criminal groups. The decree was rolled back in 2008 by Colombia's Constitutional Court, which ruled that all discretionary dismissals of military personnel must be substantiated. But, by then, the policy had already had its salutary effect, purging the armed forces of corrupt officials and implanting a culture of professionalism.

The government also centralized its police command, retrained the police and the military in anti-narcotics tactics, and increased their salaries—removing the temptation to take petty bribes. The extra funds for these initiatives came from a "peace premium," essentially a tax on businesses and the wealthy to finance the fight against armed groups. Though controversial, the past two Colombian governments have supported this legislation. The results have been encouraging. In 2000, Colombia reported 3,000 kidnappings. By 2008, the number dropped to 600. Cases of extortion shrank from 2,000 in 2004 to 830 in 2007.

Indeed, some of Calderón's recent initiatives are remarkably similar to Colombia's approach to stemming its rampant cartels. He has tasked Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna with implementing plans for a sweeping police reform. Luna, a stocky 41-year old with short cropped hair, introduced rigorous new standards for testing new police hires and screening officers already on the force, and carried out arrests of federal, state, and municipal officers. In June 2007, some 284 federal police officers were purged, but this was just the tip of the iceberg. The following year saw more high-profile arrests: Fernando Rivera Hernández, deputy director of intelligence at the attorney general's organized crime unit, SIEDO, and the acting federal police chief, Gerardo Garay Cadena. Both were accused of ties to drug gangs. The attorney general's office charged that Rivera Hernández received large cash bribes from the Beltrán Leyva cartel in exchange for tipping them off about upcoming federal drug raids.

According to a November 2009 account in the Los Angeles Times, Mexican cadets and veteran cops are now "forced to bare their credit card and bank accounts, submit to polygraph tests and even reveal their family members to screeners to prove they have no shady connections." A new piece of legislation, called the General Law of the National System of Public Security, proposed by Calderón and passed in January 2009, imposes a prison sentence of up to eight years for hiring police officers with dubious backgrounds and has created a National Register of Public Security Personnel. All the while, the federal forces have grown, swelling by 30 percent, from 25,000 to 32,000 personnel, in one year. Luna is now reportedly pushing for the elimination of the country's 2,022 municipal police agencies, with the intention of folding them into the state police forces, which would (in theory) have greater oversight of training and tactics. The fact that this step is highly controversial and would likely require an amendment to the Mexican constitution shows how high the stakes are.

Help from Washington?

Despite the proximity to the United States, the Obama administration has been providing only modest support to its southern neighbor. Mexico will largely have to make do with $1.4 billion in funds over three years appropriated under the so-called Merida Initiative, a program launched by President George W. Bush aimed at buttressing border, maritime, and air control from the U.S. southern border to Panama. But some officials are concerned that this will not be nearly enough.

In October 2009, former drug czar McCaffrey told Congress that Merida, was "a drop in the bucket." "The stakes in Mexico are enormous," McCaffrey said. "We cannot afford to have a narco-state as our neighbor... It is not inconceivable that the violent, warring collection of criminal drug cartels could overwhelm the institutions of the state and establish de facto control over broad regions of Mexico... [The Mexican government] is not confronting dangerous criminality—it is fighting for survival against narco-terrorism." Indeed, most of the Merida funds earmarked for Mexico have yet to find their way there. Instead, they have ended up funding American defense and security contractors—who have refused to disclose how they are being used in the drug interdiction program.

In the end, as in most democracies, it falls to the public to call for change. And the Mexican electorate, caught in the cross-fire and terrorized by the rising tide of violence, is now openly challenging Calderón to fix the problem. In one week this February, the president twice traveled to Ciudad Juárez, after gunmen sealed off a street in this city on the U.S.-Mexico border and opened fire on a house where high school students were having a party. Fifteen people were killed, and at least a dozen wounded. Ciudad Juárez's mayor, José Reyes Ferris, told the press that police officers could ascertain no motive for the crime, that the victims were innocent civilians, and that the gunmen may have been acting on mistaken information.

This was too much even for Ciudad Juárez, where the murder rate has been reported at 165 deaths per 100,000 residents—nearly four times higher than in Baghdad. Angry crowds spilled out onto the streets and lashed out at the president. "I told them that I understood perfectly the discomfort, irritation, and incomprehension," Calderón said later. "I promised the parents...to give a new meaning to this fight, to join together the different levels of government, law enforcement, civil society...to face this challenge we have yet to overcome." Just what the nature of this action—or indeed how effective it will be—remains to be seen. But the Mexican people are losing their patience.

Tomas Kellner and Francesco Pipitone are senior directors at Kroll Associates. Kellner previously spent eight years as staff writer at Forbes magazine, writing investigative articles focusing on government program abuse and fraud in the corporate and non-profit sectors. Pipitone formerly worked for Mexico's Ministry of the Interior, the Office of the President of the Republic, and the National Human Rights Commission as an analyst on numerous political and social issues.

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