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

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)

 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad