From June 30, 2011
By Tim Padgett
You will hear the voice of my memories stronger than the voice of my death — that is, if death ever had a voice.
— Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
This is how Mexican investigators believe gangsters murdered business student Juan Francisco Sicilia: Two of his friends had been assaulted in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, by a pair of policemen moonlighting as muggers for the Pacífico Sur drug cartel.
The friends reported the criminal cops, who panicked and asked their mafia bosses for help. On March 27, eight Pacífico Sur thugs, including a crazed psychopath called El Pelón (Baldy), abducted the two accusers, as well as Juan Francisco and four other buddies, from a bar.
They were bound with packing tape, tortured in a safe house and suffocated to death. Their bodies were found the next day outside the city.
Both the cops and the killers likely expected the massacre to go unnoticed: in Mexico, gangland homicides have claimed nearly 40,000 lives in the past five years, up from less than 7,000 from 2001 to 2005. But Juan Francisco was not destined to be a statistic.
He was the son of Javier Sicilia, one of the nation's best-known authors and poets, who has turned the young man's murder into a national movement of outrage over the unchecked violence of drug cartels, known as los narcos, and the government's inability to put an end to their reign of terror.
With the rallying cry "Estamos hasta la madre!" (a Mexican colloquialism that means "We've had it up to here!"), Sicilia has helped organize large protest marches in Cuernavaca, Mexico City and more than 30 other towns. In June he led a bus caravan to the border city of Juárez, where 3,200 were killed last year — a murder rate of more than 200 per 100,000 residents, which makes it the most dangerous city not just in Mexico but the world — and where hundreds of families met Sicilia holding pictures of slain relatives.
Sicilia has at least achieved some poignant literary symbolism. In one of Mexico's most celebrated novels, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, the victims of murder clamor for rule of law in their lawless land, and the poet hears those voices now. "We're finally articulating names for the drug war's dead," Sicilia tells me. "We're letting their voices rise above ours and be more than just numbers and abstractions in this demoniacal tragedy."
Mexico's national horror story is often told as a gangster epic full of lurid detail of the lives and deaths of drug kingpins. Or it's reduced to dry figures: the cartels make $30 billion a year, equal to the economy of a midsize Central American nation, moving marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the U.S. At home they earn extra from activities like kidnapping, a crime that's up 317% in Mexico since 2005.
Protests led by a bereaved poet are giving the tragedy a human face, as are the heroic acts of civilians like teacher Martha Rivera, who in late May became an Internet star because of a YouTube video showing her calming her kindergarten class as hit men executed five people with assault rifles outside her school in the northern city of Monterrey.
For 22 years, I've covered the rise of Mexico's drug gangs, charting their evolution from trafficking mules for Colombian cartels to the dominant players of the narcotics trade in the western hemisphere.
They've morphed from mafiosi who once killed only one another — I remember the national trauma when a Roman Catholic cardinal was caught in their cross fire in 1993 — into monsters who routinely slaughter innocents.
Last August, Los Zetas, a bloodthirsty gang led by former army commandos, executed 72 migrant workers on a ranch in northern Tamaulipas state just because they couldn't pay the extortion money the gangsters demanded.
The violence is so pervasive, so constant, that only the most egregious episodes remain in the memory. Like last year's massacre of 15 teenagers at a Juárez party by narcos who mistook them for rivals. Or the eight people killed in 2008, when thugs tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in western Michoacán, President Felipe Calderón's home state.
Or what happened in 2009 after Mexican marines killed drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva: his gunmen went to southern Tabasco state, to the funeral of a marine killed in the shoot-out, and gunned down the man's mother and three relatives.
On June 23, Calderón started a formal dialogue with victims' groups designed to lead to the kind of police, judicial and social reforms Mexico desperately needs. Inside Mexico City's Chapúltepec Castle, Sicilia and Calderón butted heads, but they know they are in this together. "I join your outcry," said Calderón. "I'm willing to make changes."
A Criminal InsurgencyIt has been more than four years since Calderón started a military campaign against spiraling drug savagery, backed by a $1.5 billion pledge of U.S. aid. The cartels — there are at least six major gangs and several smaller outfits — reacted by unleashing a wave of violence, fighting for turf. Calderón insists this shows the gangs are rattled, but his critics say his strategy has often made matters worse. Drug lords are now engaged in an arms race, firing everything from assault rifles to rocket-propelled grenades at the army, police, rival gangsters and any civilians who get in their way.
The military has scored some victories, taking out the leaders of a few cartels, but even those successes usually spawn new, more vicious power struggles. The carnage now threatens the fledgling democracy and growing economy of one of the U.S.'s most important trade and security partners. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has gone so far as to describe the cartels as a criminal "insurgency" that seeks not to overthrow the Mexican government but rather to keep it under its blood-soaked thumb.
The U.S. helped create this beast. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans consume $65 billion worth of illegal drugs annually, roughly what they spend on higher education, and most of those drugs are either produced in Mexico or transit through it.
The U.S. is also a primary source of the weapons the cartels use to unleash their mayhem: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimates that 70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years were smuggled from north of the border. "The current flow of weapons," Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhán, charged last year, "provides the drug syndicates with their firepower."
Calderón's war against the cartels may have been poorly thought through, but a succession of U.S. Presidents has pursued equally ineffectual policies. Since President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs" 40 years ago this summer, Washington has opted for a sweeping policy of incarcerating drug offenders at home and eradicating drug sources abroad.
The Obama Administration has begun to balance law enforcement with more drug-rehab-oriented policies that reduce demand, but it dismisses the recent suggestion of several Latin American leaders to legalize arguably less harmful drugs like marijuana. Such a move might put a serious crimp in drug-cartel finances, but the White House says it would "make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe." However the legalization debate goes, the U.S. could at the very least do more to help Mexico develop modern investigative police forces in addition to sending high-tech helicopters to Calderón's army.
Mexicans don't hold out much hope for constructive help from their northern neighbor. They realize that making their communities safe again means pressuring their politicians to get serious for once about the rule of law — about ensuring that powerful criminals and the officials who protect them are brought to justice in a timely way in a legal system that has a broad measure of public confidence.
That is far from the case now. The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.
There are plenty of examples of governments that have driven out, or at least greatly diminished, once dominant criminal gangs. Perhaps the most appropriate example is Colombia, where powerful cartels have been cut down in the past two decades thanks largely to the professionalization of the police and judiciary. Calderón himself knows his military campaign is not enough.
In May he repeated his long-term goal of "judicial institutions that Mexico has too long lacked and without which the advance of criminals is understandable — and a future for Mexico is incomprehensible."
But the time for lofty rhetoric is long past. Measured in lives claimed, the level of violence in Mexico now surpasses that in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And the drug lords are engaged in a macabre competition to ratchet up the gore. Groups like the Zetas are fond of posting Internet videos of the prolonged torture and murder of their enemies.
One top investigator tells me that the cartels wage bidding wars for the services of the best butchers and surgeons to perform beheadings of murdered rivals. The craniums are triumphantly displayed in town plazas like Halloween decorations.
Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in Juárez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen.
It isn't just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot's license, for example, you're useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs. A few years ago in Culiacán — the capital of northern Sinaloa state, the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking — I arrived at the scene of the murder of pilot Manuel López, 29, just as paramedics loaded his bullet-riddled body into an ambulance. Gunmen had shredded him and his Jeep Sahara in front of his home and relatives — who told me, in tear-stained shock, that they had no idea he was airlifting drugs.
A Slaughter of Innocents
I've seen too many scenes like that. But even the most hardened souls were shaken by the discovery in recent weeks of fosas, or mass graves, in several locations across northern Mexico. So far, close to 500 corpses have been recovered.
Many were innocent victims, ordinary Mexicans grabbed at roadblocks erected by gunmen who shake them down and then, in many cases, murder them. Perhaps most depressing of all is the fact that the culprits include policemen: 17 cops were recently arrested in connection with massacres in Tamaulipas. In fact, police in Mexico, who are usually miserably paid and poorly trained, often join up precisely because the force is a recruiting pool for the cartels.
Human-rights advocates say the fosas recall the killing fields of the Balkans in the 1990s or Central America in the 1980s. "I think the world should be as worried about what's happening here as they are about what's happening in North Africa," says Carlos García, president of the human rights commission in the northern desert state of Durango, where seven mass graves have been found, many in middle-class neighborhoods or near schools.
When I arrived with forensics officials last month at a newly located fosa in the eponymous state capital, I thought we'd gotten bad directions: the site was the backyard garden of a house in the upper-crust Jardines de Durango neighborhood. State officials wouldn't permit me a records search to identify the property's owner because they feared it could get them — and the records clerks — killed.
One of those buried in Durango may be Victor Camacho, or so his family believes. They're among some 350 families who've come to the state attorney general's compound to offer DNA samples, hoping to identify a relative among the 238 corpses exhumed there so far. Camacho, a successful tortilla-restaurant owner in Torreón, northeast of Durango, was 39 when thugs nabbed him off the street in broad daylight three years ago, in front of his wife.
Despite the fear that criminal spies known as halcones, or hawks, were listening in on us — "We don't know who's friend or enemy around here anymore," a Durango official says — Camacho's son Victor Jr., 24, wanted to talk. "Anybody can be caught in this now," he told me, "and we're tired of being quiet about it."
While Victor Jr.'s mother wept softly behind us, covering her nose from the stench of decomposing bodies arriving at refrigerated trailers nearby, he spoke of having to leave law school to support her and his two sisters after his father vanished.
A fierce turf battle is raging in Torreón between the Zetas and Mexico's most powerful narco-group, the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquín Guzmán, known as Chapo (Shorty). "Every part of your life is affected," said Victor Jr. "Economically, morally, physically, you live with a daily fear of losing your family, your livelihood, everything. And the authorities don't raise a hand."
Putting the Economy at Risk
Mexican authorities are prey themselves, sometimes because they are in the pay of a cartel, but sometimes because they refuse to be co-opted. That seems to be the case with Minerva Bautista, who until last summer was the security director in Michoacán, which is also the base of a bizarre "narco-Evangelical" cartel, La Familia. After I interviewed Bautista in April 2010 — she had just laid out stricter police recruitment guidelines in defiance of La Familia — I started to walk her to her car.
A Mexican journalist gently stopped me. "She's a target now," he whispered. A few days later, Bautista's SUV was ambushed by gunmen who fired 2,700 high-caliber rounds at the vehicle. Miraculously, she survived; her two bodyguards were killed.
Despite the high-profile successes of Calderón's campaign — it has since killed or captured La Familia's top leaders, for example, including Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. El Mas Loco (The Craziest One), who wrote his own "bible" — most Mexicans feel abandoned by law enforcement in this conflict. Perhaps the most painful stop during Sicilia's recent bus caravan was the northern city of Chihuahua. Marisela Escobedo's 16-year-old daughter Rubí was murdered in 2008 by a member of the Zetas, Sergio Barraza.
He confessed, but judges acquitted him for lack of convincing evidence, a chronic problem in Mexico. Critics said the judges feared reprisal. A higher court convicted Barraza last year. By then, however, he was on the lam.
Infuriated, Escobedo stood vigil for weeks last year on the steps of the Chihuahua state government palace to protest. Just before Christmas, a gunman chased her down and shot her. The murder was caught on a security camera, but no one has been arrested. Escobedo's terrified family is seeking asylum in the U.S. "We want to be as courageous as Marisela," a relative, who asks not to be identified, tells me. "But how can we not feel that it gets you nothing in the end?"
Not surprisingly, this is all taking a political and economic as well as human toll. Mexico is far from being a failed state. Traditionally an inward-looking economy, it started to open to the world in the 1980s, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, wrote trade pacts with 42 other countries and is now Latin America's biggest importer and exporter.
After a sharp contraction following the financial crisis, it enjoyed one of the fastest economic recoveries among Latin American countries last year, growing 5.5%. Mexico is not a BRIC — the now ubiquitous acronym for top emerging markets Brazil, Russia, India and China, coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill. But it is part of O'Neill's latest catchy acronym, MIST, which brings together up-and-coming economies Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.
The unchecked violence could undermine all that. In Tamaulipas, the Zetas are, in effect, the law; they're the top suspects in last year's assassination of gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre. In once booming Juárez, from where thousands have fled across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, the commercial tax base has shrunk 40% since 2008, and many business owners refuse to pay taxes since they already fork over extortion "tolls."
Drug violence also harrows Monterrey, long Mexico's business capital, where kindergarten teacher Rivera soothed her students amid gunfire and where victims have been found hanging from bridges and overpasses. Commuters in Monterrey can find themselves trapped between roadblocks during rush hour, at the mercy of gangsters who storm through the paralyzed traffic to steal money or cars at gunpoint.
The gangsters' impact on civil society is just as significant. Garish music and fashion celebrating the drug lords are popular. Almost 70 Mexican journalists have been murdered by the gangs since 2007 — most recently Veracruz newspaper editor Miguel Angel López, 55, gunned down with his wife and son on June 20. Many in the media now self-censor their drug coverage. The Catholic Church, too, has been linked to the cartels: Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, known as El Verdugo (the Executioner), funded construction of a chapel in his home state of Hidalgo, complete with his name on a bronze plaque.
Solving the Problem of Impunity
Can Mexico pull itself out of this living hell? Much depends on its ability to modernize the police and judicial system. As part of Calderón's reform package, federal and state courts are beginning to conduct oral trials, in which lawyers have to argue before the bench rather than simply push papers across a clerk's desk. It is hoped that the change will force police and prosecutors to improve their methods of gathering and presenting evidence. Mexico's Congress is considering Calderón's proposal to incorporate all the police into a more unified national network, similar to the one Colombia reconstituted to great effect in the 1990s.
The belief is that a centralized police force will be better able to weed out corrupt members and ensure a coordinated offensive against the Hydra-like cartels. In April lawmakers passed a bill granting new powers and resources for money-laundering investigations: it's aimed at the web of corrupt politicians and businessmen who abet the cartels. And in early June, Calderón pushed through a change in Mexico's criminal-appeals system that makes it harder for the accused to frivolously block or delay prosecutions.
The harder task is changing a culture that was centuries in the making. "Mexico's biggest problem," says Sicilia's lawyer, Julio Hernández, "is still the problem that leads to all its other problems: impunity." Mexico's lawlessness is often thought to be a legacy of the Spanish conquistadors, who were more interested in pillaging than policing and who left the country with the warped sense that law enforcement is a private rather than a public concern.
That civic negligence was a boon for the drug mafias that emerged after World War II. Their brutality was regulated only by the venal, authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for 71 years and was the cartels' tacit partner. When Calderón's National Action Party toppled the PRI in 2000, the cartels splintered and embarked on an orgy of violence that spawned soulless killing machines.
Tackling them will take a sustained commitment by governments on both sides of the border. But for all the horror, there are some reasons for hope. The homicide rate in Juárez is down this year. And the military recently arrested Jesús "El Negro" Radilla, the alleged leader of the gang that murdered Juan Francisco Sicilia and his friends. Juan Bosco, the police director in Morelos state, which includes Cuernavaca, was also collared for his alleged ties to the Pacífico Sur cartel.
That is not enough for Javier Sicilia, who had hoped to watch his son receive a business degree this month. Known to readers for his Catholic mysticism, he has given up writing poetry. "They choked it out of me when they choked Juanelo," he tells me.
He's thrown himself fully into his movement against the drug gangs. "I'm doing this," he says, "because I believe it's the dead who are going to lead Mexico to the light." If so, his son, and the countless others in pictures being held up across Mexico, will not have died in vain.