By Vera H-C Chan
The mass dumping of headless bodies administers a shock to Mexico, long numbed by a death count of nearly 50,000 brought on by president Felipe Calderon's war against the crime cartels. By the time his tenure ends this December, six years after his declaration, that number will likely surpass 60,000.
What kind of headway has the country made since 2006? Of the seven major cartels, some have vanished, but smaller syndicates have scrambled into the vacuum. The two largest—Sinaloa and Los Zetas—remain in power and at each other's throats. A beefed-up federal force has supplanted Mexico's underpaid, poorly treated, corrupt police force, but corruption persists, and journalists are being killed.
The U.S. has been guarding its borders closely against violence, although the demand for drugs hasn't deviated much since 2006. Nor have the American gangsters who facilitate the network. Worse, the barbarism—with notes taken from the al-Qaida playbook—has escalated.
Mexico crime site
Mother's Day massacre in Mexico—49 to 70: The corpses, mostly men, were dumped Sunday on a highway in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon, about 75 miles outside Texas. The corpses's heads, hands, and feet had been chopped off. First reports estimated there were 49 headless bodies, but the count may actually be closer to 70; the actual number won't be known until the body parts are untangled.
According to Borderland Beat, these deaths resulted from a power struggle between the two largest drug cartels and were reportedly timed for Mother's Day, May 10 in Mexico—and a day when some mothers marched to protest the government's failure to stop the killings.
Los Zetas retaliated against the butchering spree by Sinaloas and its newest ally, the Gulf Cartel. The Gulf Cartel has been fighting with the Zetas since 2010 for Nuevo Leon turf. (Mexico has 32 states, and Nuevo Leon borders Texas.) Years ago, the Zetas were the gunmen for the Gulf Cartel.
Los Zetas signature at dumping site
The message behind the mutilations: The inhumanity amounts to near genocide. Heads have been thrown into nightclubs and one victim's face was skinned and sewn onto a football. There's been a resurgence in beheadings, thanks to cartel leaders inspired by al-Qaida execution videos. Every cut sends a message, and the extreme violence is intended to cow an embattled nation.
If a tongue is cut out it means the victim has talked too much. A person who has given up any information on a cartel, no matter how minuscule, has his finger cut off and put into his mouth upon his death. This is because a traitor is known as a "dedo"—a finger... If you are castrated it means that either you have slept with a cartel member's woman or you have, in the case of a government official, police or the military, become too boastful about battling the cartels. Severed arms mean you stole from your consignment of illegal goods or skimmed profits. Severed legs mean that you tried to walk away from the cartel. Decapitation, however, is something altogether different. It is a statement of raw power, a warning to all, like the public executions of old. In other words, "we rule here." These are just a few of the symbolic "messages" the cartels use. (Spring 2012, Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Reports)
A study on leadership decapitation highlights its barbaric effectiveness, at least within a military context:
Taking hostages and ritually beheading them has emerged as a popular terrorist tactic for radical groups... Terrorists hope to strike fear into the populace, in order to influence political decisions and weaken the resolve of nations and individuals who might support the global war on terrorism. Their actions also have tremendous cultural and symbolic significance for their audience, which includes other insurgents, potential recruits, and local citizens. (June 2005, Terrorist Beheadings: Cultural and Strategic Implications).
Mexico's elite police force
The death count is stabilizing, but the violence will spread. The murder rate is "stabilizing," according to Jorge Castaneda, foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003.
It has pretty much leveled off at about 1,000 drug-linked executions a month—about 12,000 per year. All very high levels, but it is no longer growing. (May 14, MSNBC)
InSight Crime, however, has taken the mass murders as a sign of expansion.
The recent incidents in Nuevo Laredo, Jalisco, and Cadereyta also promise a return of the use of mass body dumps for targeting enemies... Prior to this recent batch of incidents, however, mass killings and subsequent displays of the dead had been rare. In addition to delivering a substantial upward jolt to Mexico's murder rate, the regular appearance of scores of dead bodies also magnifies the fear and insecurity among the public. (May 13, InSight Crime).
How does America contribute to Mexico's problems? Americans continue to buy the drugs that Mexicans are making, says Castaneda.
There is no indication that there has been any decrease in overall drug consumption in the U.S. The Americans point to some decline in powder cocaine but an increase in marijuana, methamphetamines, etc. Those come from Mexico also. (May 14, MSNBC)
The U.S. also supplies weapons to the south. Prison and street gangs—pandillas—facilitate the network to move drugs throughout the United States, notably in places such as Reno/Sparks, Nevada, and Birmingham, Alabama.
Mexico's success despite the cartels. Mexican officials have defended against many claims, from the Pentagon and CIA warning the country could become a "failed state" to worries about it disintegrating into civil war. Yet Mexico has had a stronger economic recovery since 2009, its GDP rates rose 3.9%, and more of its citizens returned to Mexico than migrated to the United States. The 2011 homicide rate (37,110) marks the steady increase over the past five years, but Pew points out that's "only slightly higher" than 1997 (35,341)—cold comfort. And people still visit—a record 22.7 million traveled to Mexico. (The U.S. Department of State details the areas to avoid in a February 2012 advisory).
Mexico's presidential candidates
The solutions: Suggested solutions range from legalizing drugs—and diminishing the profit motive—to transferring returning soldiers to the border and along smuggling routes, relieving the Mexican military and allowing them to focus inland. Mexico holds its presidential election this July, so change is coming—but some observers aren't impressed with any of the candidates' proposed crime platforms.