A Lucrative War

Ben Ehrenreich

  • BuyThe Last Narco: Hunting El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord by Malcolm Beith
    Penguin, 261 pp, £9.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 14 104839 0

On 15 September, the eve of Mexico’s bicentenary, President Felipe Calderón threw the country a $3 billion birthday party. An hour before midnight, he took the tricoloured flag from his honour guard, stepped onto the balcony of the Palacio Nacional and delivered the traditional Independence Day grito: a long succession of vivas echoing those of the soon-to-be-martyred priest Miguel Hidalgo at the beginning of Mexico’s 11-year war with Spain in 1810. It was an impressive piece of stagecraft, but the most memorable part of the night was the fireworks show, the rockets bursting from behind the cathedral and filling the sky as if the city itself were in flames.

Calderón’s big bash might not have been such a good idea. The last centenary fell just before the outbreak of the revolution that toppled the kleptocratic regime of Porfirio Díaz and marked the beginning of a decade of civil war. Mexico is now suffering levels of inequality not seen since Díaz’s time, and some of the worst violence since the revolutionary era. The border city of Ciudad Juárez – the site of the first major battle against Díaz’s troops – took no chances: it cancelled its independence celebrations, as did more than a dozen other towns and cities.

There have been more than 2000 killings in Juárez so far this year. On 24 August, the day the city announced the cancellation, 12 people were killed in violence allegedly related to organised crime: more than a quarter of that day’s national total (if you don’t count the 72 Central and South American migrants found dead in the north-eastern state of Tamaulipas, executed en masse by their kidnappers). Nationwide, in a single three-week period, the mayor of the Tamaulipas town of Santiago was found dead, his body showing signs of torture (six police officers including the mayor’s bodyguard were subsequently arrested); four decapitated corpses were hung from a bridge in Cuernavaca; 27 unidentified men said to be members of a cartel known as the Zetas were killed in a shoot-out with the army in Ciudad Mier, also in Tamaulipas; eight ‘presumed sicarios’, or hitmen, were killed in a 13-hour gun battle with the army in northern Veracruz; eight people died after Molotov cocktails were thrown into a bar in Cancún; soldiers at a checkpoint in the northern city of Monterrey opened fire on a carload of civilians, killing a 52-year-old man and his teenage son and injuring five others; two headless and limbless corpses were found outside a children’s museum in the capital of the south-eastern state of Guerrero; and another mayor was assassinated when gunmen interrupted a meeting in the town hall of El Naranjo, San Luis Potosí. Hundreds more died less spectacularly.

The violence is dizzying, all the more so because so little light has been shed on it by the press, either in Mexico or abroad. Most accounts stick to the official narrative: the bloodshed is simply the result of heightened competition between drug cartels for control of profitable smuggling routes, and of the military battling it out with the bad guys. The dead are generally identified only as ‘pistoleros’ or ‘sicarios’; their killers as ‘armed commandos’. The most basic facts are left unspecified: body counts, names, places, dates. When the 27 alleged Zetas were killed by the army in early September, some early reports placed the shoot out in Tamaulipas, others in the neighbouring state of Nuevo León. Even in high-profile incidents such as the arrest of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a senior cartel figure better known as ‘La Barbie’, there are conflicting accounts: Valdez was either arrested just outside Mexico City or in a small town in Guerrero; he was either detained after a gunfight that lasted more than an hour and involved more than a thousand policemen, or he voluntarily turned himself in and asked to be delivered to the US witness protection programme. (Whatever happened, when Valdez was paraded in handcuffs before the press, there was a sly smile on his face.) The government, the opposition, the cartels and the various factions within all of them spread disinformation as a matter of policy, which means that political gossip tends to revolve around who stands to profit from which distortion. To make things more complicated, there is a great deal at stake for Mexico’s powerful neighbour to the north. The two most pernicious strands of contemporary American politics – nativism and the all-encompassing discourse of ‘security’ – feed into the notion that Mexico is slipping into anarchy.

Horrific though it is, the violence is neither inexplicable nor entirely senseless. It is the result of a struggle over drug distribution in which a remarkable number of players have come to have a deep investment: not only the narcos, but their ostensible opponents on both sides of the international border and of the hazier divide separating legality from criminality. Drugs are an old business in Mexico. Farmers in the remote high sierra of the western state of Sinaloa have been growing opium poppies since the late 19th century – and marijuana long before that – but smuggling did not become a viable enterprise until the US created an illicit market by regulating the use of opiates in 1914. Then, as now, drugs flowed one way: north. The American appetite for forbidden intoxicants grew quickly in the second half of the last century. As the US market expanded, so did the smuggling industry that serviced it. Until the early 1970s the smugglers were subordinate to the local politicians and military and police commanders under whose protection they were permitted to operate, and who in turn took their place in a chain of command that rose all the way to the presidency.

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[*] Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (Nation Books, 320 pp, £15.99, April, 978 1 56858 449 2).