Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

A Nation Descends into Violence

Thursday, December 23, 2010 |

By Mathieu von Rohr
Spiegel Online International

The small Mexican border town of Ciudad Mier resembles a ghost town a month after warring cartels in Mexico's northern Tamaulipas state made the streets dangerous. The Mexican army has moved in to secure the city, but some residents fear the cartels could return as soon as the soldiers leave.

The Mexican government has been using the army to fight the nation's drug cartels for about four years. It isn't working. Some critics say the army is part of the problem, even if the occasional mission removes a kingpin. But President Felipe Calderón has no one else to trust.

Ivana García didn't flee when two headless bodies were found in front of the city hall, nor did she leave when a body without arms or legs was hanging above a downtown square.

But when fighting erupted on the street in front of her house, when mercenaries working for the drug cartels began firing their Kalashnikovs from armored vehicles, and when house-to-house skirmishes went on for hours, as if Ciudad Mier were a town in Afghanistan, not bordering the United States, she had no choice but to flee. In fact, almost the entire population, about 6,000 people, left Ciudad Mier. When they realized there was no one to protect them -- no government, no army -- they packed their belongings and left their homes.

Ciudad Mier used to be an inconspicuous Mexican municipality on the Rio Grande River, consisting of a colonial center and a few rectangular blocks of houses. Now it is known throughout the country as a ghost town -- one of those symbolic places that exist all over Mexico. Each of these towns can tell the story of a nation descending into violence.

Horrific, but Commonplace
One of them is Ciudad Juárez, where more than 3,000 murders were committed this year alone, making it the most violent city in the world. Criminals battle each other in broad daylight in the resort town of Acapulco. In the village of Praxedis, a 20-year-old woman became police chief because no one else dared to accept the job. On a ranch in northern Mexico, a 77-year-old man shot and killed four of the gunmen who had been sent to kill him, only to be murdered by the rest. He was celebrated as a hero.

Horrific news reports have become commonplace in Mexico. Some 29,000 people have died in drug wars within the past four years, and this year the number of killings doubled to about 12,000. An astonishing 98 percent of the crimes committed in Mexico remain unpunished.

It has been four years since President Felipe Calderón came to office promising to defeat the cartels, multibillion-dollar organizations that supply the United States, the world's largest drug market, with cocaine, crystal meth, heroin and marijuana.

Calderón mobilized 45,000 soldiers and federal police officers for his campaign. There was no one else he could trust, including local police forces and governors. The army is his only reliable tool.

There have certainly been many spectacular arrests. Famous drug kingpins were arrested or killed, including the leader of the "La Familia" cartel, who died earlier this month. But have these successes weakened the drug cartels? There are few indications that this is the case.

At first, many citizens saw the violent excesses as the beginning of a necessary evil. Recent opinion polls, however, show that a majority now opposes the government's strategy. The newspapers are filled with reports of kidnappings, blackmail and beheadings. There are blogs that specialize in publishing photos of severed limbs taken with mobile phones.

It is easy to picture the savagery with which this war is being waged. But it is more difficult to understand why the violence doesn't stop, what its causes are and what can be done about it.

Could the legalization of drugs be the answer, as some experts suggest? Or maybe more border controls? Would a new national police force and a reform of the government solve the problem? Or is it best to simply leave the cartels alone, which for years was the government's policy?

These are the questions that Mexico is asking itself in 2010, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of its war of independence. The filmmaker Luis Estrada has given his native country a bitter film for its anniversary: "El Infierno" (Hell). It is the portrait of a world consisting of nothing but narcos, whores and corruption.

"We have a national problem, and it's called impunity," says Estrada, a soft-spoken man with glasses and a gray beard. "People who break the law aren't punished. That's why many believe that honesty doesn't pay. We Mexicans are in hell, that's for sure. I just don't know which pit of hell it is at the moment."

A Ghost-Town Census
It is a hot day in late November, and Ivana García has screwed up the courage to return to Ciudad Mier for the first time since she left. She walks through the abandoned streets of the town that was once hers, a 34-year-old woman in jeans, wearing gold-plated earrings and carrying a plastic purse. The army has hired her to count the number of people still living in the town, but there are few left to count.

They offered her 700 pesos, or €42 ($55) a week. She was afraid to take the job, but she needed the money to pay the exorbitant rent for her apartment in Ciudad Alemán, the next town, where she now lives.

García and two other young women walk from house to house, knocking on doors that no one opens. The few people they encounter couldn't afford to leave or are very old. The questionnaires the women have brought along in clear plastic binders include questions about income and the remaining residents' opinions about safety. They represent the government's clumsy attempt to demonstrate that it still exists.
Two dozen soldiers follow the women, on foot and in pickup trucks armed with machine guns, securing the streets. Most of the houses they pass are riddled with bullet holes. Starving dogs slink across the dirt roads.

Some 400 people still live in a refugee camp in the next town. They have been there for more than four weeks, and most do not want to return to Ciudad Mier. They say that when the army withdraws, in a few weeks or months, the whole thing will start again.

Part 2: 'Some States Remind Me of Afghanistan'
Ciudad Mier is in the northwestern panhandle of the state of Tamaulipas, a narrow strip of land bordering Texas. It is one of the areas some experts compare to failed states.

One expert, Edgardo Buscaglia, who specializes in drug-related organized crime, is currently working in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In a telephone interview, he said he had stopped using the expression "Colombianization" to describe what's happening in Mexico. "There are now areas in some states that remind me of what I see here in Afghanistan," he said. Narcos, or drug dealers, control about 12 percent of Mexican territory, according to some estimates.

There are no longer any police officers or mayors in large sections of Tamaulipas and the northern part of Nuevo León, two states in northeastern Mexico. They were either killed or have fled, and now the narcos operate checkpoints on the streets.

The two drug cartels that are at war in Tamaulipas were allies until a year ago: The Gulf cartel and its paramilitary arm, the Zetas. Here, the term drug war isn't just a metaphor for a series of gang murders, as it is in Ciudad Juárez. Instead, it describes a level of almost military violence between cartels, which send armies of adolescent "sicarios," or killers, into battle, often better equipped than soldiers in the Mexican army.

A Code of Silence
The mayor of Ciudad Mier, a perfumed man who wears his shirt open at the chest, is standing in the town hall. He says he cannot give an interview, or else -- and he runs his finger across the neck of this reporter to demonstrate what could happen to him if he did.

The citizens of his town want to talk, but they also want to remain anonymous. There has always been drug smuggling here, they say, and the Zetas have always been in power. In a town where there was hardly any work for young men, the drug lords were able to entice recruits with the promise of fast money, cocaine and the prettiest girls.

Their villas, built in the ornamental narco style, with gilded railings and decorative columns, are still standing. The owners fled when the Zetas broke with the Gulf Cartel, and today they live in the United States or in Mexico City.

There was a victory parade of sorts when the Gulf Cartel captured the town on Feb. 22. A motorcade of 60 SUVs and pickup trucks carrying heavily armed fighters drove into the streets of Ciudad Mier.

They killed five police officers that had worked for the Zetas, beheaded a police chief and a female drug dealer, and laid out the remains on the village square. After that, say local residents, the new gangs were friendly. Unlike the Zetas, they said hello to people on the street.

But the fighting wasn't over yet. In mid-October, Ivana García found a dead Zeta fighter on the street. She had never seen the man. He must have been a mercenary from somewhere else, she thought, a young man wearing brown trousers and with a muscular torso. He was lying in a pool of blood.

On Nov. 2, the Zetas returned, driving 40 heavily armored SUVs with gun barrels poking out of their sides. The ensuing battle wore on for days and nights, killing many, and leading to the departure of residents and the arrival of the army.

The soldiers stalking along behind García as she walks through Ciudad Mier hold their rifles at the ready, as if someone could shoot at them at any moment. They storm suspicious-looking houses. The hooded commander says that he doesn't know whether all of the bandits were driven out. The government of Tamaulipas claims the town is now safe and has called upon the local population to return to their homes. By the end of her first day of work, García has counted six inhabited houses.

'Narco Saints,' Money and Girls
Almost no other business in the world is as lucrative as the drug trade. The United Nations estimates that $72 billion (€55 billion) worth of drugs are sold each year. Cocaine is the most profitable of all drugs. Cocaine paste costs $800 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in Colombia, and in Chicago a buyer pays $100 a gram. The price goes up by 12,400 percent along the way. Mexican cartels smuggle an estimated 192 tons to the United States each year.

There are seven drug cartels in Mexico. While alliances often change, almost all the groups have their origins in Sinaloa, a state on Mexico's west coast known as the birthplace of the narcos. The area is home to Joaquín Guzmán, also called El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel. He's the world's most glamorous drug lord, as evidenced by the fact that Forbes includes him on its list of the wealthiest people in the world. (No one, however, has access to his bank statements.)

Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, is the Rotterdam of the cocaine trade, the place where prices are set. It lies between the Pacific Ocean and the green hills of the Sierra, where farmers grow marijuana and opium poppies. It is a friendly-looking city of 600,000 with whitewashed homes, though Culiacán has the second-highest murder rate in the country.

For the past two years, El Chapo has been battling his former allies, the Beltrán Leyva brothers. It is a war of kings, and when author Elmer Mendoza tells the story, it sounds like a Greek tragedy. Mendoza, 61, is a bearded, soft-spoken man born in Culiacán, where his crime novels are set. He portrays this world so realistically that some accuse him of being a narco author.

"I've been hearing their legends since I was a child," he says. "These people had bigger houses and the most beautiful girls, and sometimes songs were even written in their honor." There is a folk hero in Sinaloa, Jesús Malverde, who is known as the "narco saint," a Robin Hood who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Many believe that El Chapo is his revenant, a hero of the people.

Mendoza says that what is happening to his country is terrible. "But as an author, I admire people who do extraordinary things. Isn't there something epic about bringing a shipment of cocaine from Medellín to Los Angeles?"

Culiacán, Ground Zero
The gang war that originated in Culiacán and eventually engulfed half the country began on Jan. 21, 2008, when the army arrested the drug lord Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, known as El Mochomo, in a simple house in the Tierra Blanca neighborhood.

Did El Chapo tip off the army? Convinced that he did, the Beltrán Leyva brothers brought Zeta mercenaries into the city and began killing everyone who worked for him, including police officers, judges, politicians and journalists.

These people had believed that El Chapo would protect them, but then the Zetas shot and killed one of his sons in a shopping center parking lot. "People began to doubt their hero. They were afraid," says Mendoza. "Isn't that beautiful, from a purely literary point of view?"

The author stands in the cemetery of Culiacán, the narcos' final resting place. The graveyard is a city of marble and domed mausoleums known as Jardines del Humaya. It's the size of several football fields, and it continues to grow.

They're all buried here, side-by-side -- the drug lords and their rivals, their children and the 18-year-old killers who, at the end of their brief lives, were at least able to afford some measure of splendor. The larger than life-sized portraits of young men with hard features hang in giant, 10-meter-tall mausoleums, next to pictures of their girlfriends and their weapons.

Nowhere in Culiacán is the power of the drug cartels as palpable as it is here. This is their temple city, and anyone who desecrates their graves can expect to receive death threats from the scouts and guards before long.

Part 3: The Absent Government
Why isn't El Chapo, the most powerful of all drug lords, in prison? He's been living in a secret location for years. Is the government incompetent, or is it protecting a cartel? Many credible people believe the government has an agreement with the drug lord. Some believe that it is trying to solve the violence problem by handing over the drug trade to one cartel.

In a recently published book, investigative journalists Anabel Hernández claims that former President Vicente Fox allowed El Chapo to escape from a maximum security prison in 2001 in return for a payment of $20 million. According to Hernandez, the Calderón government knows his whereabouts, but instead of arresting him it is eliminating his enemies.

There are many rumors and conspiracy theories in Mexico. What is perhaps most remarkable about them is what people believe their government to be capable of. They have little faith in federal institutions, which are weak. Mexico has been a real democracy only for the last 10 years, after being controlled for 70 years by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI protected organized crime, but also held it in check.

President Calderón declared war on the cartels, but he lacked the necessary tools. The police are corrupt at almost every level, and in some communities they're identical with the ruling cartel, which helps to explain why so many municipal officers are murdered. The justice system is also viewed as corrupt. There are no independent prosecutors, and charges are never brought in many cases, because they are handled poorly or because defendants buy their way out.

The army is the only institution that Calderón can trust, although the story of Ciudad Mier reveals how ineffective it is. Soldiers can occupy a territory, but they cannot investigate or penetrate the structures of a cartel. According to security consultant Alberto Islas, a cartel is like a logistics company with a military arm. Instead of scrutinizing the structures, the government becomes embroiled in skirmishes with 18-year-old foot soldiers.

A 'Decapitation Strategy'
The government has hardly any functioning investigative agencies. Mexico receives key information from US government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Americans provide the army with information on the whereabouts of drug lords, allowing the Mexican soldiers to capture or kill them. This "decapitation strategy" produces reports of successes, but no real success. The cartels quickly replace their leaders.

The massive deployment of the military also poses a threat to society. Throughout Mexico, soldiers have been accused of hundreds of cases of human rights violations and torture, even murder. Critics say the large number of military operations is responsible for the violence in the first place, because it has destroyed equilibriums and triggered turf wars across the country.

The army cannot solve Mexico's real problems -- poverty, lack of education and weak government. Most experts agree on how Mexico ought to liberate itself. The only question is whether anyone has the political power to do it.

The country is a long way from being a stable democratic society, says Luís Astorga, a social scientist in Mexico City. The biggest challenge, according to Astorga, is to create a constitutional state strong enough to resist the power and money of the cartels. This requires nonpartisan political will; but Astorga says representatives of the three major parties all have their hands in the drug business.

Astorga says he does not believe the government is cooperating with a cartel. But as long as there are no independent judges, he believes, there will always be rumors and speculation.

Many yearn for simple solutions; they believe in a return to the days when the cartels were allowed to do as they pleased. Even some high-level politicians say privately that the problem is drug consumption in the United States, and that it's time to legalize marijuana. But the cartels are involved in up to 22 other types of crimes as well, including film piracy, human trafficking and extortion.

Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution in Washington says that bringing in the army was unavoidable, but that what is important now is to finally develop a functioning police force. Mexico does have plans for a national police reform, but they are making slow progress.

Edgardo Buscaglia, the expert on drug-related crime, and his team studied 17 countries that have successfully fought organized crime. He says that all of them took the same four important steps.

First, says Buscaglia, comes a reform of the judicial system. Second, laws are needed to fight corruption in politics, because 70 percent of all election campaigns in the country are partially financed with drug money.

Third, Mexico must investigate the flow of funds from the drug trade into the economy. According to Buscaglia, 78 percent of the Mexican economy has ties to the drug cartels.

Finally, social programs are needed for young people, as the Colombian city of Medellín has demonstrated. Such programs are meant to turn young people's attention away from a life working for the cartels -- a life that can end quickly.

Taking Back Mexico, With PowerPoint
There are many ideas, but who is there to implement them?

Javier Treviño, the lieutenant governor of Nuevo León, has a plan that consists of a large number of PowerPoint slides. He wants to eliminate violence in Monterrey, the city where he lives, and in the surrounding state.

Treviño, a short man with a moustache and glasses, speaks English with an American accent. He studied at Harvard, then worked as a diplomat and later in private industry, before he entered politics. He's one of the few people in Mexico who have not lost faith in the ability of politics to shape the country.

Perhaps it is also a question of honor for Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest city. Located in the northeastern part of the country, 140 kilometers (88 miles) south of the US border and surrounded by mountains on three sides, Monterrey resembles an American city, with its glass and marble office towers. Many of the country's most important companies are headquartered there.

It came as a shock to the city's affluent citizens when, at the beginning of the year, members of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel suddenly started shooting each other on their streets. The battle being waged in Ciudad Mier had moved to the middle of Monterrey, an economic center that was always immune to chaos elsewhere in Mexico. Many of the wealthy left town, or even the country -- including the publisher of the country's most important newspaper, La Reforma, who fled to Dallas.

Treviño is proud of the 29 slides in his presentation, which he shows to every visitor. His plan includes all the elements the think tanks have deemed necessary: social programs and reforms of the judiciary and the criminal code. The state of Nuevo León has also established a statewide police force that it hopes will finally be clean and effective. The officers will be required to take regular lie-detector tests. They will be paid well enough to end their dependence on bribes; they will receive scholarships for their children.

Nuevo León is to become a model for all of Mexico, says Treviño. It sounds like an effective plan. And who knows? It might even work. Once it is implemented, there might be at least one state in Mexico with a functioning police force. Treviño wants to make a start by strengthening institutions and society, and what better place to launch such an effort than Monterrey, the most advanced city in the country?

He continues clicking through his slides. The next one shows the country's highway network. Two of the five main highways in the north are colored dark red, which means that they are safe for travel. The goal for 2011, says Treviño, is to make the three other highways safe as well.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan



Ciudad Mier is a border town known for drug smuggling, but Monterrey, to the southwest, has a business community and highrises. The bodies of two young men lie in a public park after being shot to death by unidentified assailants in the municipality of Apodaca on the outskirts of Monterrey, Dec. 1, 2010.

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A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug traffickers are escorted to freedom by members of the Mexican army in Sabinas Hidalgo, north of Monterrey.



Jardines de Humaya is a well-known cemetery in Culiacan, in Sinaloa, where many of the country's most prominent drug traffickers are buried. Each day workers build new mausoleums of vast proportions, some costing over $100,000. They resemble small houses, and some have air conditioning units and TVs inside, or even stairs leading to a second floor.

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3 Borderland Beat Comments:

''lito 'brito said...

yes and Mier had one of the Last old time custom bootmakers ..Don Cuco..

http://doncucosboots.com/index.htm

these narcos culeros especially the Z have totally destroyed any little tourist trade these little towns used to have ..

.thanks a lot great heroes of the people...

and why is there no big news about the army retaking Mier ...no big shootout...i guess the z just got away ...

Anonymous said...

Yes there is something "Epic" about bringing cocaine all the way from Medellin to Los Angeles. It's called the "Epic of Death" and who doesn't want to participate in that sport??

All the white cocaine should be the color red to represent all the blood that was spilled to get it here. And if you choose to call this "heroic," I'm sure the crack heads won't mind.

ajulio said...

that's what pisses me off the most about felipe "dubya" calderon, is that he does'nt revise mexico's judicial system. not much has changed except more dead people. the problem is impunity. only 2% of the crimes committed are punished? WTF? that does'nt sound true to me but if the number is anywhere close to this figure, than the mexican government should be in complete shame. that is a disgrace to the country of mexico and it's people.

too much apathy is existing in the upper echelon of mexico's governing party. they just don't seem to give a shit or they are incompetent and lazy to make any serious changes.

instead, felipe calderon took the "dubya" approach and declared an all out war with all the cartels in mexico...but without any serious punishment to the criminals. this guy reminds me of george bush. he knows how to sell a war but his strategy lacks any intelligence or common sense. he's a simpleton.

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