By Lynn Herrmann
Facing heavy criticism over his handling of the country’s drug war, Mexico President Felipe Calderon’s popularity has plummeted, is widely seen as losing the presidential election in July, and now needs a major event to boost his party’s popularity.
While mainstream media in the U.S. focuses on sensational aspects of the drug war in Mexico, a closer look at behind-the-scenes political machinations suggests forthcoming embarrassments for both countries.
Seemingly, many Mexicans favor action against the country’s powerful criminal syndicate, yet Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) faces a difficult task in holding control of the government, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - the party dominating Mexico politics during most of the 20th century - is now considered the feasible alternative.
As drug-related violence in Mexico slowly seeps across the U.S. border, despite the administration’s best attempts at downplaying it, so to does drug cartel influence currently dominating the Latin American country’s political structure.
In the first three quarters of 2011, drug violence was blamed for almost 13,000 deaths in Mexico, and if last quarter averages continued trending of the first three, the country was on track to surpass 17,000 killings. Currently, 2010 was the deadliest year on record, with 15,273 drug-related murders.
Since December 2006, when Calderon came into power - succeeding Vicente Fox, also of the PAN - through September 2011, there have been at least 47,515 people murdered due to drug-related violence.
These have not been your run-of-the-mill killings, by any stretch of the imagination. The horrors include, but have not been limited to, beheadings, hangings from busy overpasses, masses of bodies dumped on busy city streets, charred bodies in burned- out vehicles, and bold attacks in broad daylight, each event surpassing the previous in gruesomeness. Among the dead are women, men, politicians and law enforcement.
In the Spanish newspaper El Pais, former foreign minister Jorge Casteneda wrote, “Mexico has paid an enormous price: almost 50,000 dead, almost $50 billion in additional security costs, ever more numerous human rights violations, (and) a great discrediting of the country to the world,” CNN reports.
Among Mexico’s cartels, referred to as transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) by the DEA, the two most powerful are the Sinaloa and Los Zetas, with two major groupings having formed around them. A common Mexican TCO expression, “plato o plomo” best describes the separate workings of these two groups, according to Stratfor.
Simply put, the phrase translates into “silver or lead,” meaning one’s cooperation with the cartels is forced by bribe or bullet.
The Sinaloa cartel is believed to have been formed by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera. Guzman, now leader of the Sinaloa, is the country’s most powerful drug lord.
Among the possibilities for a last-minute political miracle for Calderon and PAN (an “October surprise” in U.S. political-speak) is the capture of Guzman. In addition to being the most powerful drug lord, Guzman is reportedly also the richest of the cartel leaders.
Most of the reasoning behind such a ploy would be Calderon and PAN’s popularity regaining positive ground.
In an apparent lead-in to such a move, the Mexican government recently announced a corruption investigation involving three former governors of the country. The probe includes Tomás Yarrington Ruvalcaba, former governor of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005, his successor, Eugenio Hernández, and Manuel Cavazos Lerma.
If mainstream media were truly interested in sensationalism, there would be ample pursuit down this particular avenue.
While governor of Tamaulipas, the northern state bordering south Texas, Yarrington - who forged a working relationship with Texas politicians - was allegedly under the influence of Los Zetas, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit notes.
A raid by federal agents at the home of Antonio Peña Arguelles earlier this month in San Antonio’ north side came as the result of an informant describing “Antonio Peña Arguelles as a conduit between Mexican politicians, in particular Tomas Yarrington, and Zeta (drug cartel) members Miguel Treviño Morales and Heriberto Lazcano,” according to an agent, the San Antonio Express News reports.
It is widely believed Lazcano heads Los Zetas while Treviño Morales, with five murder warrants against him in the U.S., is the group’s No. 2 man.
The federal affidavit alleges Peña Arguelles, a legal resident from Mexico, channeled millions of dollars from Los Zetas to Yarrington and other elected officials. In an interview last week with Animal Politico, Yarrington denied the charges, stating, “It’s false. Absolutely false. I never had anything to do with that.”
Yarrington’s ties with the Texas political machine should come as no surprise, given the fact Tamaulipas borders Texas, separated by just a thin band known as the Rio Grande River.
Yarrington was at Texas Governor Rick Perry’s swearing into office for his first full term in 2003. Prior to that, the Tamaulipas governor was a recipient of a Texas Senate resolution honoring him.
Then, in Perry’s State of the State pontification in 2005, Hernández was in attendance, receiving mention in the speech. According to MySA, a Perry spokeswoman said the invitations were offered as the result of “a professional relationship in the capacities as border governors.”
Fence or no fence.
Even closer was the relationship between Yarrington and President George W. Bush, a relationship apparently developed when junior was governor of Texas. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times quoted Bush as saying, “Tomás is terrific, worked with him a lot.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, authored the Senate resolution honoring Yarrington, and the two began working together when Yarrington was mayor of Matamoros - from 1993 to 1995 - just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Lucio’s hometown.
Ben Wright, Lucio’s press secretary, said, “It would be incumbent upon him to maintain a professional relationship with ... the political leadership and business leadership of local towns,” MySA reports.
Mexico’s drug cartels operate on bribery, a basic principle no different than that conducted by those within its government, starting with the local cop in the smallest village, and is well-known to anyone who has spent time traveling through or lives in the country.
The Sinaloa cartel has, Stratfor notes, “had police and military officers, politicians, journalists and judges on their payroll for years and even decades.” As such, it has created a complex web of assets. Once on the payroll, the inevitable blackmail begins, should one decide to stop cooperating.
Also on its payroll are those involved with intelligence gathering, conducted on the street level by lookouts known as “halcones,” or “falcons.” These halcones have designated areas of responsibility and their job entails providing early warnings of rival cartel or law enforcement activities to their drug lords.
In addition to these low-level halcones, upper-level halcones include high-ranking officials who warn cartel leaders of planned government operations against them. These early warnings help cartels protect their leadership as well as shipments.
Entanglement with the cartels thus becomes a lifetime commitment, unless one would rather face the possibility of arrest or even political or financial ruin if caught trying to break free of the web.
It should be worth considering the flip-side to the plato o plomo concept. Not only are many of the politicians and other elected officials on the take, but their ability to keep the TCO’s divided into several groups can actually help determine bribe rates.
It goes without saying this is no small-time commitment, as it involves both the Mexican and U.S. governments. Noe Ramirez Mandujano, Mexico’s former drug czar, was arrested and charged in 2008 for accepting $450,000 per month from Zambada and, at the time, the Sinaloa-alligned Beltran Leyva brothers.
As both governments look for fall guys in the war on drugs, insurance comes into play. As in CYA. Were a leading cartel leader to be concerned over his being killed, rather than being captured, there would likely be produced a document incriminating the powerful who were a part of the cartel payroll.
And while Mexico’s government would likely politicize any arrest of a cartel leader, all parties attempting to use such a move to their advantage, even as they try downplaying any connection to the cartels, the trump card for the cartels is called political ruin.
While we’re focused on Mexico’s drug on wars, anyone with even a remote interest in politics knows all too well how powerful a drug that is.
Calderon is doing his delicate dance with the cartels and at the same time attempting to avoid an overdose on political power. One could safely surmise this applies to the north side of the fence as well.