Mexican Drug War

RSS Feed for this category

Chronicle Book Review: "Our Lost Border" and "The Fight to Save Juarez"

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, eds. (2013, Arte Publico Press, 290 pp., $19.95 PB)

The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico's Drug War, Ricardo Ainslie (2013, University of Texas Press, 282 pp., $25.00 HB)

More than six years after then President Felipe Calderon unleashed the Mexican military to wage war against the country's wealthy, powerful, and murderous drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- Calderon is gone, but the unprecedented violence unleashed by his campaign continues largely unabated. The new administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto is claiming some successes, but lauding the fact that the killings are now going on a rate of only a thousand or so a month is more a sign of how far things still have to go than have far we have come.

While talking a good game about how his administration is going to pursue a different path from that of his predecessor, Pena Nieto has in fact largely maintained Calderon's policies. The military is still out in the field fighting cartel gunmen, the government still shouts out with pride whenever it captures a top capo (and it has captured three in the past six weeks), and Pena Nieto's plan for a national gendarmerie to replace the soldiers is busily vanishing before our eyes.

Rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, it still looks much like the same old Mexican drug war, even if it isn't garnering the attention north of the border that it did last year. The reason for that lack of attention now may not be nefarious. Last year was a presidential election year in both countries. For the US electorate, that meant the border and the Mexican drug war was an issue; for the Mexicans, the drug war came to define Calderon's tenure. Now, the elections are over and attention (at least north of the border) has turned elsewhere.

But for the people who actually live on the border, the issue isn't going away. And even if the violence, the corruption, and the criminality miraculously vanished tomorrow, the scars -- physical and psychological -- remain. Too many people have died, too many communities have been devastated, too many decapitated heads have been left in too many places. Local economies have been devastated, long-time cross-border ties, familial and otherwise, disrupted.

At best, one can say that Rio Grande Valley Mexican border towns like Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have already been through the worst of the conflagration -- like a forest after a wild fire, most of the combustible fuel is gone. The scores have largely been settled on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande: The Sinaloa Cartel has severely weakened its rival Juarez Cartel, the Zetas have nearly eliminated the Gulf Cartel. While only a couple of years ago, Juarez and the other valley cities were ground zero for the Mexican drug war, the fire has moved on, to place like Michoacan, Durango, and Chihuaha City.(Although, after these recent captures of cartel leaders, things could flare up again as rival underlings scramble to replace them and rival cartels scramble to take advantage.)

In The Fight to Save Juarez, psychoanalyst and multi-media documentarian Ricardo Ainslie details life in El Paso's sister city during the worst of the cartel violence, relying on a quite impressive series of interviews with then Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, human rights workers, state and federal government officials, cartel gun molls, and ordinary citizens. Ainslie provides a smart, detailed, and fascinating look at a city devastated by anarchic violence and the winking complicity that accompanied it.

One of his most striking achievements is to narrate the outbreak of war between the Juarez Cartel and the encroaching Sinaloans, and to locate the opening of hostilities squarely in the ranks of the Juarez municipal police. Ainslie makes painfully clear how corrupted the department was, with a high proportion of its membership doing double duty as La Linea, the strong-armed enforcers and executioners for the Juarez Cartel. It was those guys who were targeted by the Sinaloa Cartel, first with exemplary executions, then with invitations to switch sides, then with more executions of those police who refused their offer. And the gang war was on.

Ainslie deftly navigates the intricacies of state (not so much, thanks to a corrupted Chihuahua governor), local, and federal efforts to do something about the savagery and about the police department. The bloodletting in Juarez, already festering in the national imagination, became Mexico's issue number one after the massacre of neighborhood youth at a party in Villas de Salvarcar by cartel gun men, and Ainslie was there as Calderon and his ministers were forced to come to Juarez and take the heat for the results of their policies.

Ainslie brings nuance and subtlety to his reporting, illuminating political rivalries and the interplay of different levels of government, as well as the human suffering and economic disruptions involved. The Fight to Save Juarez clears away much of the murkiness surrounding what went on in Juarez during those bloody years beginning in 2008, and places the struggle there in the context of a society where just about everyone is complicit in one way or another in the gravy train that is the Mexican drug trade.

What Ainslie does not do is question drug prohibition. For him, drug prohibition is simply a given, and the answers to Mexico's problems with prohibition-related violence and corruption must come from somewhere other than reevaluating the drug laws. That said, his reporting is still a valuable contribution to understanding the realities of Mexico's drug war.

Similarly, the essays in Our Lost Border generally do not question drug prohibition. What they do do, with uneven degrees of success, is bring life in a war zone home at a very personal level. Whether is it Richard Mora lamenting the loss of the Tijuana of his youth or Diego Osorno writing about the wholesale abandonment of a Rio Grande Valley town to warring cartel factions in "The Battle for Ciudad Mier," these Mexican and Mexican-American writers describe a cherished past vanquished by a bloody, horrifying present.

And Our Lost Border is bilingual, the essays appearing in both Spanish and English. That is appropriate and even symbolic; Mexico's drug war isn't just Mexico's. As Americans, we own it, too, and for border Mexican-Americans or even as Anglos with cross-border ties, this isn't about violence in a distant land, this is about the binational community, friends, and family.

Neither of these books even pretends to be an anti-prohibitionist manifesto. But that's okay. They both help us achieve a richer, deeper understanding of what is going on on the border in the name of the drug war. We can draw our own conclusions.

Mexico's New Drug War Looks Like the Old Drug War

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto came into office in December vowing to break with his predecessor's reliance on the Mexican military to fight the so-called drug cartels. He said he wanted to concentrate on lowering crime and increasing public security instead of making high-profile busts or killings of cartel leaders, and he said he would create a militarized national police force to replace the military in drug fighting.

But Pena Nieto announced last week that the new militarized national police force has been shrunk from 40,000 to 5,000, with his government citing concerns from civil society that the initiative should go through the legislature. And his administration clarified that only 1,400 members had so far been recruited, and the "national gendarmarie" would not take the field until July 2014.

Meanwhile, even though the government has been touting a 20% reduction in the number of drug war killings, the blood-letting continues at the rate of about a thousand dead a month, and the military continues to be deeply involved. The number of dead in Mexico's drug war since Felipe Calderon called in the military six years ago is now somewhere north of 80,000, with additional tens of thousands "disappeared."

And while the government has said it was shifting its focus from going after cartel leaders to reducing crime, it has scored three major victories against cartel capos in the last six weeks. Authorities detained Zetas cartel kingpin Miguel Angel Trevino, alias "Z-40," on July 15, followed by Gulf cartel leader Mario Ramirez Trevino on August 17, and over the weekend, they managed to roll up "Ugly Betty," otherwise known as Alberto Carillo Fuentes, the head of the battered Juarez Cartel.

The Juarez Cartel had fought, and apparently lost, a nasty turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel, but remains a player in the country's drug trade. While the capture of leaders of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Juarez Cartel are significant, critics worry that their removal from the playing field will result in more violence as underlings fight to replace them.

The Mexican public is demonstrating mixed feelings over Pena Nieto's version of the drug war. According to an El Universal poll conducted last week, almost half thought that drug war violence had increased. Some 49% of respondents said it had, up nine points from February, while only 25% thought security had improved and another 25% thought things were about the same.

Still, only 34% said they thought Pena Nieto's strategy had made the country less safe, down from the 53% recorded in May 2012, during the last months of the Calderon presidency. And 59% said they had seen evidence of a new strategy, compared to 24% saying they saw no difference.

When it comes to restoring order and public safety, Mexicans were split on how to do it. Only 10% wanted more arrests and trials of cartel bosses, while 24% wanted to see the cartels smashed, and 27% said the priority should be to lower the violence.

Mexico

Mexican Cartels Not in "Over 1,000 US Cities," Washington Post Report Finds

The refrain that Mexican drug cartels "now maintain a presence in over 1,000 cities" has been widely heard ever since the claim was first made in a 2011 report by the now defunct National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC). But the Washington Post reported Sunday that it isn't true.

The US-Mexico border. The cartels are mainly on the other side of the fence. (wikimedia.org)
The figure is "misleading at best," law enforcement sources and drug policy analysts told the Post. The number was arrived by asking law enforcement agencies to self-report and not based on documented criminal cases involving Mexico's drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels.

DEA and Justice Department officials speaking off the record told the Post they didn't believe the numbers.

"It's not a DEA number," said a DEA official who requested anonymity. "We don't want to be attached to this number at all."

"I heard that they just cold-called people in different towns, as many as they could, and said, 'Do you have any Mexicans involved in drugs? And they would say, 'Yeah, sure,' " a Justice Department official told the Post, also anonymously.

The Post also interviewed police chiefs in towns with supposed cartel presence who said they were surprised to be included in the list of cities penetrated by the cartels. "That's news to me," Middleton, NH police chief Randy Sobel told the Post. Corinth, MS, police chief David Lancaster told the Post. "I have no knowledge of that."

Drug policy and drug trafficking analysts also scoffed at the number.

"They say there are Mexicans operating here and they must be part of a Mexican drug organization," said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland professor and former co-director of the Rand Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center. "These numbers are mythical, and they keep getting reinforced by the echo chamber."

"Washington loves mythical numbers," former longtime Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) official John Carnevale told the Post. "Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it's wrong."

The analysts said the claim was part of pattern in the drug war of promoting questionable statistics to justify drug enforcement budgets.

"At a time when agency budgets are being cut, you want to demonstrate that you are protecting the public from a menace," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug- and policing-policy reform group. "If you say there are Mexican henchmen in 1,000 cities, you don't want to cut their budget."

The unjustifiably high number also resulted from definitional problems with the NDIC's effort.

"These definitions are interchangeable and indistinguishable," said Peter Andreas, a Brown University professor whose book "Smuggler Nation" was recently reviewed here. "This is a particularly egregious example of a pattern that unfortunately has not gotten a lot of scrutiny."

The "1,000 cities" canard isn't the only cartel myth widely circulating. For years, law enforcement in the Western US has claimed that Mexican cartels are behind large-scale marijuana grows in national forests and other public lands.Then, in January of this year, ONDCP was forced to admit there was no evidence of cartel involvement in such marijuana grows.

"Based on our intelligence, which includes thousands of cell phone numbers and wiretaps, we haven't been able to connect anyone to a major cartel," Tommy Lanier, head of ONDCP's National Marijuana Initiative, admitted to the Los Angeles Times in January.

He said law enforcement had long mislabeled marijuana grown on public land as "cartel grows" because Mexican nationals had been arrested in some cases and because raising the cartel threat was good for getting federal funding.

But Lanier's admission hasn't stopped local law enforcement from trying to play the cartel card. At least three have done so just this month: Police in San Luis Obispo, California said a marijuana grow there was "associated with Mexican drug cartels" even though no one has been arrested. Police in Grass Valley, California, warned of an "illegal Mexican cartel grow." And, police in Cedar City, Utah, said that marijuana grows on public lands were "big business for the Mexican drug cartels that operate them."

Leahy Blocks Release of Some Mexican Drug War Aid

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, last week blocked the release of $95 million in funds destined to help Mexico prosecute its war on drugs, saying neither the US nor the Mexican governments had shown they had a clear strategy for moving forward.

Sen. Patrick Leahy
The money was appropriated as part of the Merida Initiative, a Bush-era plan to support the Mexican government's crackdown on the country's violent and powerful drug cartels. The Merida Initiative was a $1.4 billion, multi-year foreign assistance program, but it has had no appreciable impact on either the violence or the drug trade there.

"The whole things looks like coughing up money with no accountability," a Leahy aide told CQ Roll Call.

Leahy had originally blocked a $229 million State Department request for Plan Merida funding last fall, but the committee released $134 million in April after receiving a 2 ½ page explanation from State. The committee held up the remaining $95 million pending further information from the US and Mexican governments, but neither government had responded by last week, so last Thursday, Leahy reconfirmed the hold on the funds and called on both governments to define a joint strategy that could succeed.

"We received less than three pages of explanation," said the Leahy aide. "Senator Leahy does not sign away a quarter of a billion dollars just like that."

In addition to concerns over the lack of strategic vision, Leahy also has raised alarms about increasing human rights violations as the Mexican government handed a larger role to the military and about the issue of coordination and consultation. His aide said that lack of a clear difference in vision under new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto also contributed.

Washington, DC
United States

Cartel Violence Flares in Western Mexican State

The Mexican government may have scored a victory earlier this month with the arrest of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the leader of the violent and powerful Zetas drug trafficking organization, but nobody told the Knights Templar, another drug trafficking organization based in the western Mexican state of Michoacan. They have been involved in recent violence there that has left dozens dead, including a Mexican vice-admiral.

(wikimedia.org)
Michoacan is a key state in the Mexican drug business. Precursor chemicals and cocaine from South America flow through the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas, while the state is also known for methamphetamine production and marijuana cultivation.

Last week, the Knights unleashed a wave of attacks on federal police in the state, resulting in the deaths of 20 cartel members and two federal police officers. Another 15 federal police officers were wounded. Those attacks took place last Tuesday, when the Interior Ministry reported that federal police around the state were subjected to "pre-planned" ambushes carried out by "individuals with large arms hidden in the hills."

"In all the cases, authorities repelled the aggressions to return order to the areas," the statement said.

Those attacks came just a day after a bloody clash in the Western Michoacan city of Los Reyes that pitted members of a local "self-defense" group against cartel gunmen.  The self-defense group was marching to city hall to protest the presence of the Knights Templar when gunmen opened fire on them, killing five and wounding seven.

Rising violence in Michoacan in recent weeks and months has inspired both the formation of the local "self defense" groups and the insertion of thousands of federal soldiers and police into the state in May at the behest of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Local citizens complain that, in addition to their drug trafficking activities, the Knights have engaged in a broad campaign of extortion, rape, and murder of common citizens, while Pena Nieto views their presence as a threat to his efforts to turn attention away from the drug wars and to Mexico's economic development.

The violence did end with the Tuesday ambushes. Two days later, three more federal police were killed and six wounded in another ambush, this one near the state's southern border with Guerrero. The following days, the bodies of four people were found hanging at the entrance to El Limon de La Luna, where some of the worst clashes between the Knights and unhappy locals have taken place. Before the arrival of the military in May, dozens of people had died in clashes between the Knights and the "self-defense" groups.

On Sunday, the Knights Templar gunned down Vice Admiral Carlos Miguel Salazar, one of Mexico's highest ranking Navy officers, and a bodyguard. Salazar's vehicle was traveling on a main highway, but was forced to detour onto an unpaved road after pro-Knights demonstrators holding signs saying "Federales Out" blocked the highway.

The vice admiral did not appear to be deliberately targeted, but his marked vehicle became a target of opportunity once it was forced onto the back roads. On Monday, Mexican authorities announced they had arrested three Knights in the killings.

Mexico

Chronicle Book Review: Smuggler Nation

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, by Peter Andreas (2013, Oxford University Press, 454 pp., $29.95 HB)

Wow. With Smuggler Nation, Brown University political science professor Peter Andreas has hit the ball out of the park -- or over the border. This book should be required reading for not only for people interested in we got to our current mess in the war on drugs, but also for anyone interested in American history in general, and the twinned growth of illicit commerce and the ever-increasing policing resources designed to thwart it in particular.

What makes Smuggler Nation so essential for people primarily interested in drug policy is the manner in which it situates drug prohibition and efforts to suppress the drug trade within the larger historical context of state efforts to control -- or prohibit -- trade. The war on drugs (or at least its interdiction component) didn't drop on us out of the sky, but was built upon already existing national-level efforts to enforce proscriptions on free trade, dating back to Jefferson's abortive ban on US ships trading with any foreign nations, the more successful, but still long-lasting and highly contentious effort to ban the slave trade, and Prohibition-era border enforcement.

Andreas shows that, going back to colonial times, smuggling and illicit commerce played a crucial role in the creation and expansion of the American economy, and, indeed, in the anti-British sentiment that led the way to the American Revolution in the first place. Whether it was enriching Providence and Boston merchants in the triangular slave trade, stealing intellectual property from England at the start of the Industrial Age, selling American cattle to hungry British troops stationed in Canada during the War of 1812, allying with the smuggler-pirate Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans in that same war, selling contraband whiskey to Indians, smuggling guns into Mexico (in the 1840s, in addition to now) -- the list goes on and on -- smuggling and illicit commerce was, and continues to be, part and parcel of the American story.

Andreas also show that those efforts to control unsanctioned commerce led directly -- and continue to lead directly -- to ever larger, more expansive, more expensive, and  more unintended consequence-generating law enforcement efforts to suppress it. We saw it with the early growth of the US Navy to combat tax evading smugglers, and how those efforts rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade. We saw it with the expansion of drug war interdiction efforts in the 1980s, where blockading the Caribbean route for Colombian cocaine rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade, and helped provoke the metastasis of what had been largely low-key, local Mexican smuggling networks into the Frankenstein monster drug cartels of today.

We can see that at work today in the current debate over the immigration reform bill working its way through Congress. House Majority Leader Boehner thought he could sell the bill to his conservative caucus by agreeing to expansive provisions to "regain control of the border" or "secure the border" by spending billions of dollars and adding 20,000 more federal agents along the Mexican border. (Nevermind that even that's not likely to be enough to satisfy Boehner's caucus, some of whom might support the bill but others of which have charmingly compared Mexican immigrants to dogs and asserted that those DREAM Act kids are mostly drug mules.)

There were 3,000 border agents in the early 1990s, 7,000 by the late 1990s, and there are 20,000 right now. The immigration bill would double that number again. As Andreas, relying on the historical record, notes, that is unlikely to stop drug smuggling or people-smuggling (there are much deeper driving forces to such phenomenon than law enforcement), but merely to divert it or reroute it, to corrupt enforcers, and to inspire the smugglers to come up with new technologies to get around it and gain entrée into Fortress America.

Andreas also makes an important point about "the threat" of transnational organized crime. That's pretty much just a fancy way of saying smuggling, he asserts, and it is nothing new. As he shows throughout Smuggler Nation, trade in contraband has been part of global trade since, well, forever. And now, given the rapid expansion of global commerce in recent decades, it would be surprising if contraband trade isn't expanding, too. It is, he argues, but possibly at a slower rate than the expansion of licit global trade. All of the hulaballoo over "the menace" of illicit trade is overdone, he dares to suggest.

Andreas is an academic who specialized in the US-Mexico border in his early career, and his publisher, Oxford University Press, is an academic press, but his writing is quite accessible to the lay reader. Smuggler Nation is chock full of great lost stories from American history, stories that hold serious lessons for us today as we struggle against the behemoth that our prohibition industry has become. Smuggler Nation will help explain how we got here, and you'll learn plenty and have lots of fun along the way.  This book needs to be on your bookshelf, and well-worn at that.

Chronicle Book Review Essay: Murder and Mayhem in Mexico

The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created, by George Grayson and Samuel Logan (2013, Transaction Publishers, 338 pp., $34.95HB)

Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside the Mexican Drug War, by the Fugitive Reporters of Blog del Narco (2012, Feral House, 389 pp., $24.95 PB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/executioners-men-200px.jpg
With the capture this week of Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, "Z-40," Mexico's most notorious drug cartel is front page news around the world. Originally composed of highly trained Mexican armed forces personnel gone over to the dark side, the Zetas served as praetorian guards for the Gulf Cartel of Osiel Cardenas Guillen -- his enforcers and hitmen -- before turning on their erstwhile employers after Cardenas' 2004 arrest and striking out on their own.

Now, the Zetas are locked in a murderous struggle with the Sinaloa Cartel of El Chapo Guzman for domination of Mexico's multi-billion dollar drug smuggling industry. Other players -- the Tijuana cartel of the Arrellano Felixes, the Juarez cartel of the Carillos Fuentes, the battened down remnants of the Gulf cartel, the former Sinaloa cartel allies the Beltran Leyvas, the Familia Michoacana and its successor, the Knights Templars -- have seen their fortunes wax and wane, but mainly wane, in the multisided battle that pits the cartels not only against each other, but against the Mexican state. (Never mind for now that the war also pits various elements of the state against each other in service to the cartels.) The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel have emerged on top, but they are standing on heaps of bloodied, broken bodies.

Some 80,000 people have been killed in the Mexican drug wars since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in late 2006 and tens of thousands more have gone missing. Many of them are undoubtedly spending eternity in the unmarked (and rarely remarked upon) narcofosas (narco-graves) that dot the Mexican countryside. Those mass burial grounds are occasionally uncovered, with hazard-suited workers bringing up 10 bodies, 30 bodies, 100 bodies at a time. Many, if not most, of those mass graves are the work of the Zetas.

In The Executioner's Men, named for Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the head of the Zetas for eight years until he was gunned down by Mexican marines last year, College of William and Mary Mexico drug war scholar George Grayson and coauthor Samuel Logan tell the sobering story of the group's origins, its bloody-minded rise to prominence among the country's competing cartels, and its steady expansion, both geographically into Central America and entrepreneurially into human smuggling, extortion, and other rackets. It is a highly researched and detailed account of one of the most sadistic criminal organizations on the planet.

The Mexican drug war has generated an extensive literature, much of which has been previously reviewed in these pages, but The Executioner's Men stands out as a truly magisterial study of an organized crime group. With its (sometimes mind-boggling) naming of names and its contextualization of events, Grayson and Logan's work will for years to come remain a crucial sourcebook for students of the Zetas and Mexico's drug wars in general. Except they're going to have to update it -- it was written before the killing of El Exterminador Lazcano Lazcano, and now his immediate successor has been removed from the field of play, too.

Will the arrest of Z-40 mark the end of an era for the Zetas? Grayson suggested as much in post-arrest interviews this week, saying he thought they would decline into a number of squabbling factions. Others are not so sanguine, predicting lethal struggles for power among Zeta lieutenants and Sinaloa cartel moves to take advantage of the disarray in their rivals' ranks. Only time will tell, and we await the next edition of The Executioner's Men to make sense of what will be going down.

If The Executioner's Men is scholarly and erudite, Dying for the Truth is something entirely different, but equally powerful, if not more so. It reprints verbatim (in English and Spanish on alternating pages) a year in the life of the Blog del Narco, a Mexican web site that appeared late in the last decade to chronicle the drug war stories it claimed the mainstream Mexican press was too terrified to cover. (There is some controversy over this and other claims made by Blog del Narco lead author "Lucy," who has fled Mexico in the wake of the killings of two of her collaborators and the disappearance of another. Here is Bernd Debusmann Jr.'s take on it.)

The Mexican press had and has reason to be frightened; the country is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists. At least 84 reporters have been killed since 2000 and another 20 or so have simply vanished, according to Mexican human rights sources. Many -- though by no means all -- have been killed by the narcos for paying too much attention to them and their doings.

Blog del Narco (which I followed online during 2010, the year covered in the book) said it would provide the coverage missing from the mainstream press, and whether or not it cribbed material from other outlets, it also presented much information that would otherwise have never have seen the light of day. Its blogging format allowed anonymous contributors to post items, which in turn allowed the cartels to use it as a medium for sending messages. Too often, those messages were sent via horrifying videos or photos. If they were designed to terrify, it works.  (This, too, has raised questions about just what Blog del Narco was trying to accomplish.)

If it were a work of literary artifice, Dying for the Truth would be wildly and stunningly successful. Like JG Ballard doing bad acid after a three-day meth bender, the anonymous contributors drag readers through a nightmarish and surrealistic Grand Guignol via a multimedia mix of torture/execution videos, interrogation transcripts (almost always followed by the execution of the prisoners by heavily armed masked men in paramilitary garb), gruesome atrocity exhibition photos (skinned faces sewn onto soccer balls, anyone?), charts and graphs, and the day-by-day killings, bombings, shootouts and busts that constitute Mexico's drug wars.

But unfortunately, Dying for the Truth is no work of inventive fiction. It is all too real, as are the dismembered, disemboweled, and decapitated victims whose remains it displays. WARNING: DO NOT BUY OR EVEN LOOK AT THIS BOOK IF YOU CANNOT TOLERATE HORRORIFIC IMAGERY. This is deeply, deeply disturbing stuff. I watched some of those videos when they first appeared on Blog del Narco, and they will haunt me for as long as I live.

Warnings aside, Dying for the Truth serves purposes beyond spreading narco-messages and scaring the hell out of people. Once you get past (or block out) the imagery, you have a fairly comprehensive narrative of a bloody year in Mexico's bloody drug wars. Those killings that may appear senseless when they sporadically show up in US media accounts -- 13 handcuffed bodies found on the roadside here, a row of human heads sitting in a park there, a pile of dismembered body parts over there -- take on a certain savage logic when chronicled as tit-for-tat responses in an ongoing battle between amoral killers.

Drug prohibition cannot be blamed for the sadistic savagery of Mexico's drug wars. At the risk of sounding like a pop psychology pontificator (and suffering the "national character" fallacy), I would suggest there is something in the Mexican national character at play here. It is a society founded by two competing bloody theocracies, the human-sacrificing Aztecs on one hand and the "Cross and Sword" Spanish Catholics on the other. It's the country of Posada's famous skeletons and the candy skulls of Day of the Dead. It's the country where the statues of Christ in the Catholic cathedrals are the bloodiest and most wounded anywhere. It's the country where tabloids like !Alarma! have specialized for decades in displaying dead and battered bodies. Add in lots of booze and cocaine, multi-billion dollar stakes, ruthless military training, deep-rooted corruption and brutality, and here we are.

That said, while there may be something in the Mexican psyche that has turned these cartel wars into the stuff that would give Syrian jihadis the heebie-jeebies, it is of course drug prohibition that has provided the oxygen that allows such evil to flourish. Given the spread of the cartels into other economic spheres, even if we were to legalize everything tomorrow, this nightmare isn't going away easily. But that would be a good start.

Mexico

Guest Commentary: Capture of Zeta Boss Not Likely to Stem Bloodshed or Flow of Drugs

(Bernd Debusmann Jr. has lived and worked in his native Mexico for the last two years, most of it as a full-time freelancer for Reuters TV, also contributing to Fox Latino. Previously he worked as a reporter in New York City and as a freelance producer for the Reuters Latin American Television Desk in Washington DC, during which time he dealt with many drug trafficking stories. During 2010 and 2011 he authored the weekly Mexico Drug War Update published by this newsletter, available in our Mexican Drug War archive section.)

On Monday, July 16th, Mexican marines captured Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the leader of Mexico’s notorious Zetas criminal organization, just outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, along with his bodyguard, an accountant, some $2 million in cash and eight weapons. How much difference will his capture make on the flow of drugs to the United States? Probably not much.

Trevino Morales, widely known as Z-40, is the most important criminal figure captured or killed so far during the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, and is widely regarded as one of the most powerful, violent and high-profile violent drug traffickers in the country, having previously served as a regional “plaza” boss in Nuevo Laredo and Veracruz and second-in-command of the organization under his predecessor, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano.

Aside from being a key player in the Mexico-US drug trade and other illicit businesses, Trevino is thought to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Mexicans as well as foreign migrants. (He has so far been charged with the kidnapping and murder of 265 north-bound migrants in the San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010 and 2011.)

But what effect will his arrest have on Washington's war on drugs? The unfortunate answer is that it is unlikely to mean much in the long term. History shows that men like Trevino are quickly replaceable, and that business goes on.

His predecessor, Heriberto Lazcano, was gunned down in a firefight with the marines in October 2012, only to be replaced by Trevino. Lazcano's predecessor, Rogelio Gonzalez Pizaña, was arrested in October 2004, just two years after the founder and first leader of the Zetas, Arturo Guzman Decena, was killed in a gun battle with the Mexican army in the city of Matamoros.

Despite being repeatedly decapitated, the organization continued to grow and become more powerful, eventually splitting off from its Gulf Cartel bosses and becoming an independent entity in 2010.

In terms of stemming the flow of drugs to the United States, Trevino's arrest is unlikely to have any positive effect. In a videotaped 2011 interrogation of Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar, an army deserter and one of the original Zetas, Aguilar revealed that the Zetas' drug trafficking business is managed by personnel dedicated only to that task.

There is no reason to believe that Trevino's arrest will have any more effect on that apparatus than the arrest of previous bosses. Did the death of Pablo Escobar and the arrest of the heads of the Cali Cartel stem the flow of cocaine from Colombia? No. Did all the kingpins killed or captured under the administration of Calderon (and before) make a difference on the flow of drugs across the Mexican border? No, and neither will Trevino's.

Trevino's arrest, however, is likely to have a significantly negative impact on the level of violence in Mexico. Pena Nieto came into office with a promise to stem the bloodshed, but the events of the last few years have shown that the death or arrest of high-level criminals often unleashes a wave of violence as their underlings fight among themselves, as was the case after the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in 2009.

The Mexican military has been asked by its government to become very good at decapitating cartels, and they have. But it hasn't made much difference.

In the months before his arrest, Trevino seems to have consolidated his power over the organization, which had experienced factional infighting in 2010 and 2011. While it is likely that Trevino's brother Alejandro (Z-42) will take the reins of the organization, it remains to be seen whether his leadership will be disputed by other high-ranking Zetas, or whether the organization will fragment without a strong leader.

Another possibility is that -- sensing a moment of weakness -- the Zeta's enemies, such as the Sinaloa Cartel under Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and the Gulf Cartel, will make a concerted effort to control the city of Nuevo Laredo, long considered the "Crown Jewel" of the Mexican drug trafficking landscape. Previous efforts to wrestle control of the city from the Zetas were extremely bloody, drawn-out affairs.

This isn't to say that Trevino should have been ignored. He is a ruthlessly efficient criminal with blood on his hands. But the triumphant congratulations on the capture from Mexican and US officials may be premature.

The fact of the matter is that a military-focused strategy, or a strategy focused on individuals, is unlikely to have any long-term positive effect in Mexico's Drug War.

As long as Americans want to buy a commodity which the Mexican cartels can supply, they will continue to exist, and violence will inevitably follow as a consequence of disputes in a very profitable, unregulated industry. Any change will have to come from a combination of law enforcement and more sensible drug laws in the United States focusing on demand reduction.

Nuevo Laredo
Mexico

Will Mexico Cartel Leader's Capture Reduce Violence or Drug Abuse?

The leader of Mexico's brutal Zetas organization has been captured in northern Mexico, authorities announced. According to the Associated Press:

Trevino Morales, 40, was captured by Mexican Marines who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash on a dirt road in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. The truck was halted by a Marine helicopter and Trevino Morales was taken into custody along with a bodyguard and an accountant and eight guns, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters.
 

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/miguel-angel-trevino-morales.jpg
Trevino Morales (state.gov)
The US State Dept. had offered up to $5 million for help in capturing him.

The report is mainly about the facts of the capture, and of Morales and the Zetas. There's one expert quote, about Morales:

"He is the most sadistic drug capo in Mexico," said George Grayson, a professor of Latin American politics at the College of William and Mary and an expert on the Zetas cartel. "He delights in inflicting torture and pain. He deserves to be in the lowest rungs of hell."
 

Grayson's take on Morales is easy to accept, if one has read any articles about the Mexican drug wars of the past several years. In fact there are reports I wish I'd never read. That said, I wish the reporter had sought some expert quotes about whether capturing a kingpin like Morales is likely to reduce drug trafficking or availability or abuse; and whether it could reduce the violence.

The answer to the first question is decidedly "no." The Zetas will continue doing business and/or will splinter into rival factions doing business and/or other drug trafficking organizations will get the business. This is what has always happened previously.

Looking at the second question, the backdrop is that illegal drug trafficking exists because of prohibition. Absent drug prohibition laws, the trade and the vast revenues it currently generates would mostly reside in the licit economy, not encouraging violence in the trade. All that would be left in the underground is a sliver from "gray market" activity, smuggling to evade taxation and so forth.

Mexico's drug wars have reached the height of violence they have in recent years, in part because of the escalation of anti-cartel activity -- such as the capture of cartel leaders like Morales. It's had the effect of producing many localized drug trafficking groups, fighting many more wars than was the case before. The current weakness of the government in terms of keeping a lid of crime is also a factor. The aggressive escalation of anti-cartel activity undertook by the administration of former Pres. Enrique Calderon came at a time when the government was least able to minimize the unintended consequences of such a program, which made it even worse.

Does that mean that Morales's capture will necessarily provoke yet more violence? It might, but that depends on which way Mexico goes. One of the truisms of prohibition is that tolerating the prohibited activity can sometimes reduce the violence associated with the prohibited activity. One cartel can be replaced by a less violent one, if the government quietly allows that to happen.

So Mexico has some choices to make. But it would be better to expand the set of choices by considering international legalization systems, as Latin American leadership is currently pressing for a discussion of.

Mexico to Rein In US Agencies in Drug War

In a sharp break with the policies of his predecessor, recently installed Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is moving to restrict the open relationships US law enforcement, intelligence, and security agencies have developed with their Mexican counterparts as the two countries attempt to repress violent and powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels.

The US-Mexico border (wikipedia.org)
The move was hinted at broadly in the Washington Post Sunday and confirmed by the Associated Press Monday. The AP cited deputy foreign secretary for North American affairs Sergio Alcocer as saying that all US law enforcement contacts with Mexican agencies will go through "a single window," the Mexican Interior Ministry.

Mexico has had a historically prickly relationship with US drug law enforcers, but under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose term ended in December, US law enforcement and security cooperation with Mexican agencies expanded dramatically. The DEA, as well as the FBI, CIA, and Border Patrol, had agents working directly with units of the Mexican Federal Police, the army, and the navy.

US law enforcement and security agencies worked closely with their Mexican counterparts on a strategy that aimed at arresting or killing top cartel figures, and managed to eliminate dozens of them, but at the same time, prohibition-related violence only mounted, with the death toll somewhere above 70,000 during Calderon's six-year term. The incoming Pena Nieto administration has previously signaled that it wants to shift away from high-profile target strategy to one centered on crime prevention.

The Pena Nieto administration also represents a reversion to governance by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had famously ruled Mexico as "the perfect dictatorship" for most of the 20th Century before falling to conservative National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate Vicente Fox in 2000. Like Fox, Calderon ran under the PAN banner and cultivated closer relations with the US, especially on drug enforcement, than the PRI ever had. The PRI's relationships with US drug enforcers could be characterized as one of mutual suspicion and distrust, with occasional bouts of cooperation.

As the Washington Post reported, high-ranking incoming PRI officials who met with US DEA, CIA, FBI, and other security representatives in December were stunned and "remained stone-faced as they learned for the first time just how entwined the two countries had become during the battle against narco-traffickers, and how, in the process, the United States had been given near-complete entree to Mexico's territory and the secrets of its citizens."

Now, the Pena Nieto government is moving to get a better grip on the assistance it gets from its neighbor to the north. It was in the interest of Mexico to do so, Alcocer said. "The issue before is that there was a lack of coordination because there was not a single entity in the Mexican government that was coordinating all the efforts," he told the AP. "Nobody knew what was going on."

The DEA and other agencies declined comment, leaving it the State Department, which said it looks forward to "continued close cooperation" with Mexico. President Obama flies to Mexico City Thursday for a meeting with Pena Nieto, whose administration says it wants to expand its bilateral agenda with the US beyond drugs and immigration, as well as shift from dramatic law enforcement actions to crime prevention and public safety.

"For us the security theme is one of our top priorities, but it's not the only one," Alcocer said. "The relationship has issues such as the economy and trade, advanced manufacturing, infrastructure, energy."

Mexico City
Mexico

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School

StopTheDrugWar Video Archive