Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Beheadings, torture, shootings uploaded to YouTube – the “war on drugs” has ravaged Mexico. But as the US considers treating the cartels as terrorist threats, the one solution it won’t consider is decriminalisation.

Mexico's drug war: the victim of an apparent drug-related execution in Acapulco in February 2012. Photo: Getty

The bald, middle-aged man slumps against the wall in the yard. The blood from his companion’s head splatters his shirtless chest. He looks to his left, at the headless corpse lying next to him. The chainsaw continues to roar. The bald man rests his head against the wall once again. He awaits his turn.

The horrors of Mexico’s drug war, which has raged since December 2006 and the start of President Felipe Calderón’s administration, know no bounds. More than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since, and there is no sign of the bloodshed diminishing. In 2006, shortly before Calderón deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to combat the violence, a group of armed thugs rolled five heads on to the dance floor of a nightclub in central Mexico as a warning; by 2007 and 2008, beheadings had become commonplace.
 
In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football. Dozens of mass graves were discovered throughout the Latin American nation last year, many of them in Tamaulipas, a north-eastern state notorious for its hazy fug of lawlessness and for the terror tactics of Los Zetas, a group of former paramilitaries who now run their own drug trafficking syndicate.
 
Videos of some of the atrocities have been disseminated over the internet. In the most recent one, described above, members of the Sinaloa cartel are put to death.
 
In Mexico, and in other countries such as Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan, the war against drug trafficking and organised crime is a fight for social and political progress – 12 years ago, Mexico became a full-fledged multiparty democracy, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was ousted from 71 years of uninterrupted rule. It is also a battle to root out official corruption that for decades – in some cases, centuries – has allowed drug trafficking and other illicit activity to flourish. The violence will not end soon; even Mexican officials admit that it is unlikely the bloodshed will ebb for another six years or so, and the Mexican electorate is largely in favour of state execution for drug traffickers (polls show that about 70 per cent of Mexicans want the death penalty reinstated for narcos, as traffickers are commonly known). In July, the PRI was re-elected democratically, in spite of critics’ fears that it would again turn a blind eye to organised crime.
 
The drug war is also a war between rival cartels fighting for control over lucrative smuggling routes while trying to maintain their structure as the authorities crack down. The war between the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas – and that of the authorities against them – is a game-changer in a long, grinding process of attempting to manage drug trafficking and consumption, one that has cost US taxpayers $1trn since it was launched in 1971 by the then president, Richard Nixon.
 
The Sinaloa cartel – led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, son of an opium farmer from the mountains in the north-western state of Sinaloa – has expanded in recent years to become the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the world. Under the reign of El Chapo (meaning “shorty”), the cartel has reversed the previous business arrangement with Colombian cocaine producers, which shipped the product through the Caribbean until a law-enforcement crackdown in the 1980s made Mexico a more attractive option. The Sinaloa cartel now buys cocaine from the Colombian cartels and takes full responsibility for distribution.
 
The Sinaloa cartel produces its own marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine; it imports chemical precursors used to make methamphetamine from Asian nations such as India, Thailand and China. The authorities have spotted Sinaloa cartel operatives and scouts (conejos, or rabbits, in Spanish) on every continent; the Australian authorities believe the cartel is responsible for delivering as much as 500 kilogrammes of cocaine a month on to their shores.
 
In the spirit of globalisation, it is thought, El Chapo has bought properties in eastern Europe and throughout Latin America in an effort to launder his dirty money. In 2010 the US-based Wachovia Bank admitted to having handled $378bn for Mexican currency-exchange houses between 2004 and 2007, roughly $13bn of which was confirmed to belong to the Sinaloa cartel. (The US department of justice slapped sanctions of $160m on the bank for “wilfully failing to maintain an anti-money laundering programme”.)
 
Last month, executives of Britain’s HSBC confessed that a large portion of $7bn transferred by its Mexican subsidiaries into the bank’s US operation between 2007 and 2008 probably belonged to Mexican drug cartels. “In hindsight,” said David Bagley, head of compliance at HSBC, just before resigning in front of a US Senate investigative committee, “I think we all sometimes allowed a focus on what was lawful and compliant rather than what should have been best practices.”
 
“Forget hindsight,” admonished Senator Carl Levin. “Is there any way that should have been allowed to happen?” The obvious answer is no, but the Sinaloa cartel is big business and has exploited loopholes in the global banking system on unprecedented levels. Some officials warn that mafias such as the Sinaloa operation have capitalised on the global financial crisis in ways we have yet fully to understand. “The illiquidity associated with the banking crisis, the reluctance of banks to lend money to one another . . . offered a golden opportunity to criminal institutions,” Antonio Maria Costa, the former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in April. “The penetration of the financial sector by criminal money has been so widespread that it would probably be more correct to say that it was not the mafia trying to penetrate the banking system, but it was the banking sector which was actively looking for capital – including criminal money . . .”
 
The new guard of the Mexican drug trade are Los Zetas. Originally a tight-knit paramilitary-style unit of deserters from the Mexican army special forces, they have formed independent gangs – consisting of perhaps thousands of members – that have metastasised throughout Mexico and central America in recent years, and have seized on any business opportunity that has come their way. The Zetas gangs engage in CD and DVD piracy, human trafficking and extortion. Anyone with a weapon, tattoos and a crew cut can call himself a Zeta and immediately instil a sense of terror.
Their modus operandi: enter a small town, behead a local business owner and declare the territory theirs. It was members of Los Zetas who indiscriminately massacred 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in August 2010; it was members of Los Zetas who were responsible for the killing of a US special agent in the state of San Luis Potosí in February 2011. There are worrying signs that, in the cartel’s new incarnation, these gangs are consolidating. Last December, in an arrest operation spanning four north-eastern Mexican states, the security services seized nearly 1,500 radios and the same quantity of mobile phones belonging to the cartel; clearly, it had a communications network in place. In the past year, several leading Zetas have been captured or killed in far-flung parts of Mexico, evidence that they were trying to instil order in branches of the cartel operating in those parts.
 

Power, corruption and lies

 

More than $1m US dollars and more than 41 Million Mexican pesos seized from Zetas in June 2012. Photo: Getty
 
Though the Mexican drug cartels have long been considered a threat to US national security, rarely has aggressive action to counter their growth been such a popular option. In Washington, calls to designate the cartels as terrorist groups have ratcheted up. On 13 October 2011, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman for Florida and the chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, declared that “we must stop looking at the drug cartels today solely from a law-enforcement perspective and consider designating these narco-trafficking networks as foreign terrorist organisations”. She added: “It seems that our sworn enemy Iran sees a potential kindred spirit in the drug cartels in Mexico.”
 
On the same day, in written testimony to Congress entitled “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere: Next Steps for US Policy”, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing, Daniel L Glaser, highlighted the problem of the drug cartels and mentioned El Chapo by name.
 
The view that there is a link between the cartels and terrorism (some expressions of this are unabashedly hyperbolic, especially the attempts to label alternative Mexican faiths a “spiritual insurgency”, in line with the theories of the US Army War College’s Steven Metz) has grown amid several topical developments as well as vastly improved US-Mexican co-operation in the drug war. The two countries – Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the US – have a long, often troubled history with regard to security and intelligence-sharing.
 
Asa Hutchinson, the former head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), still refuses to acknowledge that anyone besides the Mexican authorities is to blame for the failure to combat drug trafficking. “The culture of corruption that has developed in Mexico, the failure of the rule of law in Mexico, is one of the largest contributing factors to the violence we see today,” he says. “Mexico has allowed itself to be a major transit and source country. They resisted US help. In 1985, Kiki Camarena, a wonderful DEA agent, was tortured and murdered in Guadalajara, and there was a massive manhunt for the perpetrators, and Mexico [took the position] that we were infringing on their sovereignty. They have resisted any US assistance ever since. The cartels have operated with impunity, and that is not the fault of the United States.”
 
The DEA still works in Mexico, though Camarena’s ghost haunts its collective memory. In 1997, Mexico’s anti-drug tsar General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested for alleged links to the Juárez cartel. He was eventually sentenced to a total of 71 years in prison.
 
There have been setbacks during the outgoing Calderón administration, too. In 2008, two officials from Siedo, Mexico’s special organised crime unit, were arrested for being in the pockets of the Beltrán Leyva cartel. And in December that year, an army major assigned as one of Calderón’s bodyguards, Arturo González Rodríguez, was arrested and charged with feeding the cartels intelligence for $100,000 a month.
 
The allegations of corruption have hindered counter-drug operations: the Mexican military has had to fend off both credible accusations and propaganda disseminated by the cartels. While General Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy was stationed in Sinaloa and was in charge of local counter-drug operations, narco-mantas – banners made by drug traffickers – accusing him of protecting El Chapo were frequently found at crime scenes. Eddy insists that he fought the good fight. “Never did I make a pact! Never!” he told me, slamming his fist on his desk. “Others, I don’t know,” he added, quietly.
 
In January this year, General Manuel de Jesús Aviña was arrested and charged with ordering killings and torture and engaging in drug trafficking while stationed in the northern Chihuahua state. The Calderón administration had almost made it through its six-year term without a senior army officer being linked to traffickers. But since then, four other generals have been detained for alleged links to the cartels, including one who had served as defence attaché at the Mexican embassy in Washington, DC.
 
There have been allegations against US officials, too, and the ensuing questions of trust have complicated intelligence-sharing. “We’re in the business of collecting information,” the DEA’s then chief of intelligence, Anthony Placido, told me in 2010. “The problem with trying to share it is that we have to make sure we don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. We have to make sure our foreign partners are trustworthy.”
Human rights abuses – children and innocent adults have been gunned down by the Mexican military and there have been allegations of torture and rape – have raised eyebrows at the state department, which has issued several scathing reports on Mexico during the Calderón administration. (The state department has also commended the country for making some much-needed improvements.) “Human rights are stupid,” a former Mexican general told me.
 

The next insurgency?

 
Diplomats continue to stress that US-Mexican relations, not to mention co-operation in the drug war, can survive the setbacks. “At 35,000 feet, the muscle tone and the strategic direction of the US-Mexican relationship are fantastic,” Mexico’s ambassador to the US, Arturo Saru­khan, told me late last year. “In many ways it’s like a Dickensian tale of two cities – it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. If you look at the formal diplomatic traction and relationship, it has never been better. But if you look at public perception on both sides of the border, [that] would seem to be thousands of miles from where the relationship is.”
 
So, co-operation has continued to increase with little opposition, as has US funding for the counter-drug Mérida Initiative, which was introduced in 2008 and will eventually channel $1.6bn in anti-drug assistance to Mexico and, to a lesser extent, central America. Through Mérida, Mexico has received Black Hawk helicopters and X-ray scanners for customs posts, as well as assistance in professionalising the police and training in the justice sector.
 
Last year, the Pentagon began flying drones over Mexican airspace in an attempt to gather intelligence on drug trafficking suspects. There was little public dissent. Global Hawk drones have been deployed; flying as high as 60,000 feet overhead, they are able to survey 105,000 square miles in a day. A second counter-drug operations centre, where US and Mexican agencies work together in the fight against drugs, has been opened in Mexico City. US military experts regularly visit the Mexican capital to consult with the security services and offer strategic advice. The DEA has a dozen offices in the country, out of which its agents now operate in a purely advisory capacity. In January, the new CIA director general, David Pet­raeus, the advocate and implementor of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq known as COIN, visited Mexico City and met with the national security adviser and the head of Mexico’s spy agency, CISEN.
 
Calderón, who will step down in December, has repeatedly urged Washington to halt the flow of guns and cash from drug sales into Mexico (estimates of how many guns used in drug-related crimes in Mexico come from the US vary, but it is believed that Americans supply most of them). On the US side, however, there has been little in response aside from rhetoric. A new Mexican president – Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI – was elected on 1 July, and has pledged to continue the fight against organised crime. Despite his promises, it is likely he will face suspicion from Washington because of his party’s long-standing “blind-eye” attitude to organised crime.
 

Move on, please

 
The question now is whether the US state department will take the step of designating the cartels as terrorist organisations. It has already done so with the Farc in Colombia. If Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are categorised as such, the US would probably have more jurisdiction to increase co-operation with Mexico. Barack Obama’s signing of the National Defence Authorisation Act on 31 December could also allow US nationals suspected of narcoterrorism to be detained indefinitely.
 
What is unlikely to happen, however, is any move towards drug legalisation. Advocates of the policy, who grew optimistic with Obama’s election and the appointment of R Gil Kerlik­owske as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (Kerlikowske has repeatedly said that drug consumption must be treated as a health rather than a criminal issue), continue to be marginalised.
 
A growing number of former Latin American leaders – and even some current ones, such as the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina – have begun to push for discussion of a fresh approach to the drug problem. Calderón, to his credit, took the risk of publicly acknowledging mounting calls for a debate on a change of counter-drug strategy; he decriminalised the possession of small quantities of almost every drug during his presidency.
American politicians are much more cautious. California, which has historically led the way on progressive laws, voted against the legalisation of marijuana in November 2010. Lacking support, the idea has been dropped from the ballot in this year’s election. The conventional wisdom is that if California doesn’t legalise it, no one in the United States will.
 
As for Mexico, the future remains unclear. Police reforms, which officials hope will instil a measure of trust in the authorities and allow state forces to maintain a semblance of security without having to resort to using the military, are slogging their way through a gridlocked congress. Peña Nieto has also proposed the creation of a national gendarmerie under civilian control. Judicial reforms, which introduced trial by jury in some Mexican states for the first time, have been enacted. However, most Mexican officials concede that it will be impossible to eradicate the drug problem entirely. Their best hope is to make Mexico so difficult for drug traffickers to navigate that they are forced to go elsewhere. Some hope indeed. 
 
Malcolm Beith is the author of “The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord” (Penguin, £9.99)