The Narco Wars: Mexico’s Youngest Assassins
For many of Mexico’s youths, a job with a narco-cartel is the only job they can find—and the only one they may ever get.
By: Jana Schroeder
Homeland Security Today
According to the Mexican government, most of the 30,000-plus deaths occurring since President Felipe Calderón took office four years ago and began the war against the drug cartels can be attributed to rivalries between criminal organizations. Their violence continues to be part of daily life in many areas of Mexico. The mutilated, tortured bodies found on city streets, in remote mountain areas, in trash dumps and hung from freeway overpasses have become painfully commonplace. The only factor that varies is the exact daily count.
The intensity of this violence is clearly unprecedented in Mexico. Perhaps worst of all, it is intended to terrorize citizens, to challenge the government and to make it clear who has the power to act with impunity.
“We mostly hear about marginalized youth in the cities,” added Astorga, who teaches at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM). “But there are large numbers of young people in rural areas who are involved in growing marijuana and opium poppies, in packaging drugs, for example, and they are also the hired assassins in those parts of the country.”
As concern mounted last year over the increasing numbers of young people with nothing motivating for them on the horizon, a new term was coined in Mexico: “ninis,” an abbreviation in Spanish for young people who are not studying or working, “ni estudian, ni trabajan.”
In the first week of 2011, Calderón’s administration acknowledged that only one in every three young people entering the economically active population found formal employment during the first four years of his current term, which began in 2006. Another third found work in the country’s “informal sector,” and the other third remained unemployed, according to reports in the national press.
Organized crime analyst Jose Luis Piñeyro, who teaches at Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, told Homeland Security Today, “The most obvious change I see is that those being recruited as hit men or hired assassins are young people—very young people—who are unemployed and poor or drug addicts. They’re not professional assassins, and they don’t have particular knowledge of how to use weapons.” He added: “They’re disposable, they’re recyclable. They’re hired for an average of US $500 to $650 a month to kill an unlimited number of people or to carry out other acts of violence. Ten years ago, a hired assassin charged US $12,000 to $13,000 to kill just one person. So you could say that hiring assassins has become cheaper for drug traffickers.”
But no one in Mexico was prepared for the news in December 2010, when a 14-year-old nicknamed “El Ponchis” was arrested in Cuernavaca, Morelos, trying to take a flight to San Diego after appearing in a gruesome video on YouTube. He is believed to have been recruited by the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and told reporters he had participated in four beheadings. When asked how and why he could do such a thing, he said he was drugged and threatened with death if he did not participate.
The mass killing brought attention to a not-so-new problem. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) revealed that reports of such kidnappings go back to at least 2007. And the numbers are astounding. According to the commission’s figures, 10,000 migrants were kidnapped between April and September 2010. In general, these crimes have not been investigated, and whereabouts of most of the kidnapped migrants are unknown.
The kidnappings target the thousands of Central Americans who travel through southern Mexico, hanging on to the sides and tops of northbound freight trains with the hope of reaching the United States. But as characterized in the Mexican press, many migrants find themselves living their worst nightmare long before they reach the American dream.
The story of one migrant who managed to escape, a Honduran man named Eimar, was told in El Excelsior newspaper. He said he was forced off the train and taken to a safe house where there were more than 200 other migrants. They were beaten and sometimes tortured to force them to call family members already living in the United States and demand ransoms of US $2,000 to $4,000 each.
Los Zetas are reportedly the main organized crime group controlling the traffic of Central Americans migrating to the US, and it is estimated this criminal activity brings in millions of dollars in profits. The chairman of CNDH, Raúl Plascencia Villanueva, was quoted in La Jornada newspaper in January saying that in many cases there is evidence of police officers and immigration agents participating in “apparent collusion with criminals.”
Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest, directs a shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, for migrants who come through on the freight trains. He reported receiving death threats from members of Los Zetas, who demanded he turn over migrants who escaped from a mass kidnapping in December along one of the most dangerous stretches of the train route through southern Mexico.
The Calderón administration recently has taken some key drug lords out of the picture through arrests and killings, but some experts fear these high-profile actions actually have led to more violence.
Erubiel Tirado, a security analyst at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, told Homeland Security Today that “when a drug capo is killed, there’s a fight to see who will take his place,” and unfortunately the new leaders tend to be “more cruel, younger within the criminal scale of ranks, more violent, less strategic, more primitive.” Also, the organization tends to divide into “smaller groups more dynamic, more agile, more difficult to detect.”
Some Mexicans believe the November 2010 killing of Antonio “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen, who became the leader of the Gulf Cartel after his brother was extradited to the United States, amplified the power of rival group Los Zetas, who ridiculed his death in banners hung from pedestrian bridges.
Crime analyst Piñeyro said removing leaders from drug cartels has been “a favorite tactic” of the Calderón administration, based on the assumption that it will break up larger drug cartels into “mini-cartels” and diminish the level of violence. “But it has led to more violence between groups and also more violence against the State,” he argued.
“This tactic has been used for many years in Mexico,” he added. “Some say it is copying the fight against organized crime waged in the US during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It was claimed that they did away with national-level mafias, leaving only small regional groups.” But he called the tactic a “bad imitation” that is bound to fail, since the two situations are not comparable.
According to UNAM’s Astorga, Mexico’s drug cartels have split but then formed new coalitions with other splintered groups without losing any of their strength. He said he hasn’t seen any “fragmentation” that would imply a diminishing of power. And he added that no single drug gang has managed to impose itself over the others, so the violent turf battles have continued.
More helicopters or financial aid won’t make the difference
Astorga also emphasized to Homeland Security Today that all the major political factions in Mexico are responsible for the current crisis. He said all one has to do is map out the routes used to transport drugs across the country: Mark the ports where cocaine enters the country, the areas where marijuana, opium poppies and methamphetamine are produced and, of course, highlight the border region where the drugs enter the United States. Then, he said, if one verifies the political parties currently in office in the municipal governments in all of these areas, one will see that illegal drugs “necessarily cross municipalities governed by the PAN [National Action Party], PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] and PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party].”
This implies that what he called “political co-responsibility” is something not assumed by the country’s major political parties. Instead, some political factions attempt to pin all the blame on Calderón’s administration, even though they are unable to propose any significant alternatives to the federal government’s failed drug war strategies.
The three major political parties, PRI, PAN and PRD, all deny that tentacles of organized crime have extended into their organizations. “Because if they assume the opposite view, that there are always links between political power and drug trafficking, then they would have to reveal those within their ranks—and they know who they are—who provide protection in one way or another to certain groups in specific regions,” Astorga explained.
“But they’re not going to do this until the violence reaches the political and business elite,” he added. “If it reaches members of the business elite, they can pressure the political class to act responsibly. But as long as this doesn’t happen—and we’ve seen this in Italy, for example, and in Colombia—there’s no joining of efforts among those groups that have a leadership role in society.”
Astorga’s viewpoint coincides with that of Edgardo Buscaglia, an international organized crime expert, who told Homeland Security Today “There is a natural way of getting rid of this problem, and unfortunately it requires the same pain of the mother and father in [Ciudad] Juárez who lose a kid because he or she is assassinated by organized crime. The same thing those parents feel has to be felt by the top business and political elite in Mexico.”
He pointed to the 2003 bombing of an exclusive club, El Nogal, in Bogota, Colombia, with a toll of 36 deaths: “When the political class and the business elite in Colombia realized that the monster they created was actually eating them away, they went from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.” In Mexico, Buscaglia said, “no amount of money coming from the US” can take the place of political stakeholders “making the decision to change the rules of the game.”
Security analyst Jorge Chabat reflected society’s exasperation in his December opinion essay in El Universal newspaper: “Why didn’t La Barbie, who is a US citizen, go to that country to torture and kill like in Mexico? Because he knew that doing it there would have consequences, but here it wouldn’t.”
Chabat was referring to Edgar Valdez Villarreal, who maintained his nickname “La Barbie” from his days playing football at a Texas high school and was arrested near Mexico City in August 2010. He had fled to Mexico to escape arrest in 1998 and moved up quickly through the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, known for his brutality and ruthlessness. He was placed in charge of the cartel’s hit men. After the cartel leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, was killed by Mexican Marines in December 2009, “La Barbie” engaged in a brutal fight with Beltrán Leyva’s brother Hector for control of the gang.
Chabat, a researcher at the Mexico City think tank Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, wrote: “Criminals don’t believe the government (at any level) will punish them for their crimes, while citizens do believe that criminals will carry out their threats (and they do). That’s why citizens don’t denounce crimes, that’s why citizens are afraid of criminals, and that’s why criminals are not afraid of the government.”
Focus on youth
At the end of 2010, the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, emphasized the need for the Mexican government to take actions aimed at breaking the link between youth and organized crime. “If young people find an incentive in education or in the world of work, they will be the ones to increasingly distance themselves from organized crime,” she said.
There is no single place where actions are needed more urgently than in Ciudad Juárez, the border city neighboring El Paso, Texas. For the third consecutive year, Ciudad Juárez was ranked the world’s most violent city, with 3,111 murders last year, up from 2,658 murders in 2009. The vast majority of the murders are believed to be linked to organized crime.
In early 2010 the Calderón government promised a package of 160 social projects in Ciudad Juárez in response to the claim by residents that their city has been tragically neglected by the federal government. The package was modeled after a successful program in the historically violent Colombian city of Medellin. It included improvements to schools, hospitals, day care centers, parks, sports fields and streets. But according to the prestigious weekly Proceso, there was “no mention of decreasing the number of murders, nothing about arresting the killers and putting them in prison.”
Nearly a year later, the results of these social programs, as reported by the political weekly magazine, are expensive facilities with “too much cement and very little social content.” Specifically, the new projects are “not accompanied by youth integration programs, citizen participation or services for victims.”
With a seemingly endless supply of youth waiting in line to become more disposable triggermen in exchange for a gangster’s paycheck, many in Mexico believe the only genuine long-term solution is to replace empty political promises with real economic and social changes that will create legitimate opportunities for the country’s youth. HST
Los Zetas change the playing field
Los Zetas are believed to operate in 17 Mexican states and the group is viewed by some as the most violent, brutal drug gang in Mexico. It has the distinction of bringing two new elements into Mexico’s criminal world, according UNAM’s Astorga. The original Zetas were members of the Army’s elite Airborne Special Forces Group who were invited by drug kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen (currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States) to constitute the paramilitary army of the Gulf Cartel. Before deserting the Army, they received extensive training in counterinsurgency, psychological warfare and the use of powerful weapons and explosives.
According to Astorga, the appearance of Los Zetas on the drug trafficking scene in Mexico “made it necessary for rival organizations to enter into a similar logic” in order to compete. They moved away from the more traditional groups of hit men to groups “with better training, more-powerful and longer-range weapons and structured as paramilitary groups.”
The second new element attributed to Los Zetas was the diversification of criminal activities, with a more mafia-style tendency, especially including kidnappings, extortion, human and arms trafficking and even the production and sale of pirated compact discs and digital video discs. Los Zetas are certainly not the only drug gang in Mexico involved in these criminal activities, but they are perhaps the most notorious, together with La Familia Michoacana, which some analysts say was influenced and possibly trained by Los Zetas.
Los Zetas split from the Gulf Cartel and are now in a bitter rivalry with their former bosses, especially over control of the Tamaulipas border region with the United States. One of this drug gang’s main bastions is the San Fernando municipality in Tamaulipas, where it reportedly controls all businesses, together with those in the surrounding municipalities. The national press has cited sources claiming the Zetas even charge mafia-style “protection fees” from those who buy and sell sorghum. The San Fernando region used to be outstanding for its grain production and also important for commercial fishing in nearby Laguna Madre, but now it is better known as a place where inhabitants abandon their properties in response to threats and violence.
Another state in which Los Zetas have extended their brutal control is Zacatecas, where gang members reportedly established their presence in more than half the municipalities. The extent of the deterioration in this state was apparent in May 2009, when a Los Zetas commando broke out 53 fellow gang members from the Cieneguillas prison.