Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Chronicle Review: Mexico's Drug War Three Perspectives

By Philip Smith
I recall traveling by bus (one second-class standby was Flecha Amarilla -- the passengers used to joke that the rickety line's motto was "Better dead than late")

 through the southern Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca in the 1980s and being stopped regularly at military checkpoints replete with prominently displayed signs announcing they were part of the Mexican government's Permanent Campaign Against Drug Trafficking. The signs were bilingual, one supposes for the edification of any passing Americans, so that they would know Mexico was hard at work doing our government's bidding in the war on drugs.

The soldiers would order everyone off the bus, then randomly inspect luggage. Afterwards, everyone would trudge back onto the bus, and off we'd go, past a last sign proclaiming, "Thank you for your cooperation in the permanent campaign against drug trafficking." I never saw the soldiers actually find anything.

Funny thing about those checkpoints -- they never moved. Year after year, there they were in the same places. Of course, everyone in the area, including the dope growers up in the mountains and the traffickers who moved the weed, knew exactly where they were and simply went around them or paid the local military commander to look the other way when a load needed to pass.

But those checkpoints were there, and the Mexican government could point to them and say, "Look, we're doing our part." That Potemkin village-style "war on drugs" worked for Mexico for many years. In the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, observers would note sardonically that Mexico was not suppressing the drug trade so much as managing it.

Of course, it helped that Mexico was then under the venerable grip of "the perfect dictatorship," the one-party rule of the PRI that had governed the country more or less since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1919.

The lines of authority were clear, PRI officialdom was happy to take traffickers' bribes and keep a semblance of order in the underworld, and those bundles of pot trickling down out of the mountains became a roaring river of reefer flowing to the insatiable north.
While government complicity kept the trade running smoothly -- with the occasional high-profile bust of a "kingpin" or two when the heat from Washington grew too intense --
A handful of what sophisticated Mexicans would consider country bumpkins from the mountainous western state of Sinaloa were creating the drug trafficking arrangements that evolved into the terrifying killing machines we today know as the cartels (although they are not really cartels in the normal sense of the word, as Ioan Grillo takes the time to explain, tracing the use back to descriptions of Colombian drug traffickers in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo was a fresh memory).

Back then, one man, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, was the undisputed godfather of the Mexican drug trade. To avoid unnecessary strife, he and his lieutenants divvied up the plazas, or franchises for a particular smuggling location, among themselves, creating the Tijuana cartel (the Arrellano Felix brothers), the Sinaloa cartel ("El Chapo" Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers), the Juarez cartel (Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies," and family), and the Gulf Cartel (Osiel Cardenas). Business was good.
Profits from pot were plentiful, and in the 1980s, a new revenue stream, Colombian cocaine, only added to the permanent fiesta.

Yes, there were drug killings back then. You don't rise to the top of a ruthless Mexican drug trafficking outfit by being an overly nice guy. But the violence was minimal compared to the bloodletting that has gone on since 2008, when, under pressure from President Calderon's all-out offensive against them, the cartels turned on each other in a bloody fratricidal struggle, as well as going to war against the police and the military.
The killing continues to this day, as does the flow of drugs north and cash and guns south.

And the alarm bells are ringing across the land, thus this spate of books. Former California state intelligence analyst Sylvia Longmire, veteran British-born Latin America reporter Ioan Grillo, and Canadian journalist and author Jerry Langton all describe the evolution of the cartels from their humble Sinaloa roots to their positions today as hugely wealthy, murderously violent drug trafficking organizations with a global reach, although they all bring different perspectives into play.
There are three countries in North America, and it's as if each one gets a book here. Langton is Canadian, and Gangland has Canadian concerns and connections; in Cartel, Longmire seems to speak to and from the perspective of US law enforcement and national security; while, with El Narco, Grillo seems to be most in tune with the realities on the ground in Mexico.
While all three have their strengths -- Langton, for example, follows the blow-by-blow of the cartel wars in a way that really helps you make sense of those occasional blips about gangland killings that appear in the American media -- if I had to choose only one, it would be Grillo and El Narco.

Grillo has spent years working in Mexico, and it shows. He feels more attuned to Mexican culture, although Langton provides some excellent historical background, and his book is the most interested in the broader social phenomena surrounding Mexico's drug wars.
Grillo takes the reader into the world of the narcocorridos, the border ballads celebrating the exploits of the traffickers, and their singers, quite a few of whom have been killed for their efforts. He also explores Santa Muerte, the peculiarly Mexican church (or cult, depending on whom you ask), favored by the poor, the delinquent, and the dopers.

Our authors disagree on just exactly what the cartels are. For Langton, they are essentially just frighteningly overgrown criminal gangs; for Grillo, they are a "criminal insurgency;" for Longmire, she of the national security optics, they are closer to terrorists, of whom she cites Al Qaeda and Colombia's FARC in the same breath.

I don't know that I can buy either the criminal insurgency or the terrorist appellation, though. Both insurgency and terrorism imply political, or, more precisely, ideological goals. While the cartels can be said to have political goals, such as putting a paid-off politician in a powerful post, those goals are merely means to the cartels' real ends: making money.
Unlike the FARC, who have a strong (if fraying at the edges) revolutionary socialist platform, or Al Qaeda types, with their Islamic fundamentalist credos, as far as anyone can tell, Shorty Guzman could care less about anything other than making money.

Which is not to say the cartels aren't scary as hell. They are an insurgency in so far as they represent a serious challenge to the Mexican state's monopoly on the use of force. And they do. These guys are heavily armed, thanks in part to "straw buyer" weapons purchased in the US, some of them have police or military training (the Zetas in particular have proven to be a paramilitarized menace even to the Mexican armed forces), and they are capable of acts of exemplary savagery. They are also known to roll through cities in convoys dozens of vehicles long, all full of heavily-armed men, in brazen displays of power.

Grillo notes a key turning point: the effort to arrest Gulf cartel head Osiel Cardenas in 2004, a couple of years after he formed the Zetas out of former US-trained elite anti-drug troops. In the good old days of Mexico's "war on drugs," the occasional arrest was understood as part of the game and took place in an almost gentlemanly fashion, at least at the top. But Cardenas didn't go down like that. Instead, his Zetas engaged the military in a day-long running gun battle, viciously defending their chief against the odds until his capture, and continuing to attack even as the military fled with its captive to a local airport and then back to Mexico City. Now, that's what you call a challenge to the state's monopoly on force.

And that was just the beginning. Now, you can go to web sites like El Blog del Narco and read about almost daily pitched battles between narcos and soldiers. And narcos and police. And narcos and narcos. And police and soldiers. And federal police and state police. There is truly multi-sided mayhem going on.

So, what is to be done about it all? None of the authors are very optimistic that anything will turn this around anytime soon. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be unanimity among them that reforming the hopelessly corrupt, complicit, and outgunned Mexican police forces is high on the agenda. A single national police force may be an answer, but that will take years, if it ever happens at all.

Longmire in particular argues for smarter and more law enforcement on both sides of the border, but concedes that it's unlikely to make much difference. In the end, even she suggests that maybe we should think about legalizing marijuana. Grillo suggests that, too, noting that the cartels are making billions a year on Mexican brick weed. All of them note the utter futility of trying to eradicate the trade.

But while Longmire and Grillo talk about legalizing weed, Langton correctly points out that that's a long shot, and even if you legalize marijuana, that still leaves cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy for the cartels to traffic and grow rich off of.

None of them directly confront the fundamental root cause of the problem: drug prohibition. The cartels are the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition, created by the mad policymakers of Washington and their hunch-backed global anti-drug bureaucracy assistants in Vienna ("Yeesssss, master") and energized by an unending flow of black market dollars. Langton is right -- legalizing marijuana isn't going to do the job by itself, even if it does attack one cartel revenue stream (though that is not an argument against legalizing it).

At this point, even legalizing everything will not make the cartels vanish. They are now too wealthy, too well-established. They've diversified into extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes. They own businesses. They are integrating. Still, ending drug prohibition would take substantial wind out of their sails, much as ending alcohol Prohibition severely weakened, but did not kill off, the US mob. That may be the best we can hope for.

Or, barring that, Langton mentions another possibility, one not spoken much of aloud these days, but one that is being quietly murmured as the PRI appears set to retake the presidency after the July elections. Mexico can either continue down the path of the drug wars and hope the violence subsides, as with the crack epidemic in the US in the 1980s, he writes, "or they can go back to collaborating with the cartels, allowing them to keep the peace in their own way."


  1. It was the summer of 1995...I was 19. I met a girl name "Alexis from Texas". I was going to school in Austin. This girl totally suduced me into driving to McAllen Tx. Lots of Xanax and sex...hotel ... They take my car and filled it with??? Supposedly 500 lbs of sexy mesh pretendica marijuana. I was paid 50 an elbow aka I made $500. It was the second check point once your in the US. We got a hotel paid by them and the next morning they returned my car. I still remember the German Shepherd 100 yards in a cage. College books in the back window and my lackadaisical attitude succeeded. Wow, I can't believe I did that. By my gringo ass managed with a little help from Xanax . Crazy shit!!

  2. Good analysis. I just finished reading Grillo's and Longmire's book. And I will stay with Grillo too However, I'm confident that Grillo defined the cartels as "criminal paramilitary groups" rather than as a "criminal insurgencies."

  3. A well written piece that digs a little deeper into the sea of blood and money. With 40 billion dollars available for the cartels to profit , the greed doesn't allow them to work together.

  4. Why do i feel like this article is bias and its aiming to show a different view continuously on only blaming the Mexican side, how about you go a litte back and also explore the topic on who helped el pri win and stay in power so long (a country north of Mexico helped lalot) why did the Colombian cocaine went to Mexico after us took down escobar and after that the production skyrocketed, its easy to follow peoples views but to really understand this problem you must uncover the roots.and that means uncovering dirt. Is time to show the second side of the coin the north side of it not just the south.

    legalized marijuana.
    It went for several years
    and did not work.

    The consumption of drugs increased by 30 % :-(

  6. it would be great to legalize drugs but nobody pays attention to the bigger picture. If profits are lost through legalization, what heights will kidnappings reach? if they are doing this just to break even now imagine if it becomes their full time job.

  7. @12:35

    500 lbs @ 50 a lb = $25,000. i think you are a liar

    ~~~el spaceio~~~

  8. My issue is Mexico and the huge lack of law and order there. Personal use drugs are legal,since Fox,so much for that argumant,Car jacks,kidnapping,extortion,graft, are bigger issues. When the idiot Narcos finally get their pecking order sorted out, the other daily crimes will still be there. If there could be a general upgrade of law Enforcement in Mexico, and prosecution,a gift from heaven. PAN or PRI this general upgrade is the key.

  9. Had the chance to hear Longmire speak and it was less than impressive. She comes off as nothing more than a narco war groupie and stated that only a small fraction of the cartel's profits come from marijuana and legalizing it won't help. I honestly feel I knew more than her about what's going on and it ain't event my job!

  10. but if you legalize marijuana and regulate cocain and heroin thenn the cartels will lose billions a year meaning they cant get rich meaning they get weaker meaning they would be easier to over trow >:)

  11. 50 lb x 500 is got ripped buddy....!

  12. "The fundamental root cause of the problem" is not "drug prohibition." Drugs are smuggled through every country in the world, but only in a few places, including Mexico, does smuggling cause this level of violence.
    The "fundamental root cause" of the drug violence in Mexico was the willingness of the PRI to allow the cartels to operate with impunity, as long as they paid their due to the PRI.
    When the PRI lost power, the cartels figured the deal was off and the PAN sees itself as too pure to make such dirty deals. (And the PRI waits in the wings to return to power, a return driven in large part by the drug violence.)

  13. "A handful of what sophisticated Mexicans would consider country bumpkins from the mountainous western state of Sinaloa..." How do you say, in Spanish, "country bumpkin?"

  14. @ anon March 15, 2012 12:35 AM,I dont mean to knock your story,but you got the math wrong...500 Lbs at $50?I am no Pythagoras but wouldnt that be $25,000?

  15. I've read IOAN GRILLO's El Narco and thought it was pretty top notch. I just digested Charles Bowden's EL SICARIO....I though it was pretty legit, but to any of you real narco' this for real, or just some pinchi vato bullshiting?? Reminded me a lot of The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, which I personally thought was full of too many embellishments. I use to think that Roy DeMeo and his crew were hardcore until I started reading about these sicaio's, but an interesting read none the less about the Gambino way of making people " Do the Houdini" is 'Murder Machine' by Gene Mustain.

    A book I read a year ago was pretty good called 'Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez' by Howard Campbell

    'Drug Wars: Narco Warfare in the 21st Century' by Rusty Fleming was OK

    1. Druglord by Terrance Poppa is a good one, it's about Pablo Acosta taking over the Ojinga plaza right before Amado Carrillo took over and founded the CDJ.

    2. Murder Machine, one of my favorites for sure. Underboss is the bio of Sammy the bull Gravano is another good one.

  16. I'm currently reading "AMEXICA: War Along the
    Borderline" by Ed Vulliamy (Fahrah,Straus & Giroux, 2010).

    This book seems to complement the reviewed ones because of its focus on human factors concerning the narco cartel --- their evolution and morphing into what they are today and may evolve into the future. The book is mainly focused on issues pertaining about 100 miles south and north of the US -Mexico border.


  17. I'm not sure the violence will go down when/if the PRI party takes charge of Mexico, it seems that a lot of the violence is being fueled by the local drug market and the kidnappings or extortions that come with it. It would be interesting to see how much control the middle and high level members/leadership have over the low level cells.

  18. legalizing or de-criminalizing should not be done with the hope of reducing consumption. the only thing to be gained is a reduction in the bad unintended frankenstein monster aspects. the gateway drug arguement only exists if entry level stoners have to associate with the same criminals that sell the other stuff. when the stoners can buy away from that element another benefit would be less contact with the drugs now on the other side of the criminal gateway. the pot is not the gateway, the criminal element is the gateway.

  19. "the criminal element is the gateway"

    You've said it all.

  20. You don´t hear a lot of talk from Mexican politicians about legalization. Resulting lower prices for drugs, once legal, would also reduce flows of foreign currency into Mexico. Tourism income as a source is falling and so are, marginally, remittances of US dollars into Mexico from illegals working in the US.



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