A hornet's nest for Obama

Mexico

Miguel doesn't sleep well these days. It's not his conscience - in his view, it was quite reasonable to kill the man who shot him in the head.

"I was taught to return a favour," he says. "It was a small sin."

Miguel is not his real name, but the one he has chosen for the purposes of interview. He wants to be filmed in shadow, which is a shame because it means we cannot show how his brow is distorted by an acute dent in the left temple where the bullet entered, and a wider, shallow one where it exited on the right. He says he was shot by a member of a rival drug cartel, who was owed US$250,000 by Miguel's boss. After 32 days in a coma, Miguel emerged to take his revenge.

His restless nights are the product of a more general anxiety. Now might be a good time to retire, he thinks, but it's hard to change career at this stage because if your enemies don't get you, then your friends will.

"You can change your phone number but your friends know how to find you," he says. "I can't let them down, because we're the same, we're family and you have to respect your family."

Miguel lives in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, the state at the centre of Mexico's spiralling drug wars. In early December, the bodies of 13 men turned up at the side of a country road, their hands tied with rope, gunshots in the head and the back. They are believed to have worked for one of the drug cartels whose turf war is tearing Mexico apart. Such killings are an everyday occurrence all over the country, most commonly along the drug routes leading to the US border.

In the past year, nearly 5,400 people have been killed in drug-related murders, more than doubling the previous year's total. Many were de capitated. Others had their tongues cut out. The cartels, which have been weakened by war, are now turning to kidnap, extortion and other forms of organised crime.

"The spiral of violence is a sign of ungovernability which may lead to anarchy," admitted President Felipe Calderón in early December. American pundits have warned that Mexico may become a failed state.

For 70 years, Mexico was governed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, which accommodated the drug business. Politicians were paid, drug traffickers plied their trade and violence remained under control. But when Calderón came to power in 2006, he decided to take on the cartels, which were growing more powerful as they were squeezed out of Colombia and pushed north.

"Calderón poked a hornet's nest with a big stick, but he made no preparations for the consequences," says Mario ópez Valdez, a PRI senator for Sinaloa. "Now the angry hornets are out, but no one's wearing protective clothing."

José - again, a pseudonym - drives around Tierra Blanca, the middle-class residential area of Culiacán where the drug traffickers used to live. He likes to show off his huge 4x4 Chevrolet Avalanche, which he drives while drinking beer and talking on the mobile phone to a string of girlfriends. Apparently high on cocaine, he talks at machine-gun pace in narco-slang, somewhat alarmingly taking his hands off the wheel to point out the sights to visitors.

"That's where El Mochomo was betrayed," he says, indicating a house where one of the most famous drug traffickers, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, was arrested in January. Graffiti on the garage door reads: "I love you, Mochomo, I miss you, your girl loves you."

José and Miguel work for the Sinaloa cartel, members of which are believed to have turned Beltrán Leyva over to the authorities as they battled to gain new and more profitable trafficking routes. In response, the Beltrán Leyva cartel murdered the son of the Sinaloa cartel's fugitive leader, Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo, which translates as "Shorty".

"That was when the war began," says José. He is sorry to see the streets so quiet, after years in which they pulsated with luxury vehicles and extravagant parties. Many houses are empty, their drug-trafficker owners having quietly removed themselves to the countryside, where they are less likely to be killed.

At the shrine to Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, a trio of guitar, harmonica and singer are playing a narcocorrido, a praise-song to the drug cartels. As drugs are the foundation of Culiacán's wealth, and the present war is bad for business, it is a lament:

Tierra Blanca, you seem so sad now.

Your streets are deserted,

No longer humming with the latest cars,

Nor with the roar of the machine-gun.

Jesús Malverde is a Robin Hood-type figure, a bandit who was hanged by the Mexican authorities in 1909. Once a simple folk hero, he is now worshipped by those who have become rich on narco-profits. At his shrine, plaques in the name of the Beltrán Leyva family, among others, bear legends such as: "Thank you for safeguarding our journey from Sinaloa to California."

Drugs are now deeply embedded in Mexican culture, while corruption runs through the bureaucracy and the security forces. As the violence increases, President-elect Barack Obama may find that he has to deal with war not just far away in Iraq and Afghanistan, but right on his border.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special