12/23/2010 01:13 PM
The Mexican Drug War
A Nation Descends into Violence
By Mathieu von Rohr
Pictures Photo Gallery: Mexico at War - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International
The Mexican government has been using the army to fight the nation's drug cartels for about four years. It isn't working. Some critics say the army is part of the problem, even if the occasional mission removes a kingpin. But President Felipe Calder√≥n has no one else to trust.
Ivana Garc√*a didn't flee when two headless bodies were found in front of the city hall, nor did she leave when a body without arms or legs was hanging above a downtown square.
But when fighting erupted on the street in front of her house, when mercenaries working for the drug cartels began firing their Kalashnikovs from armored vehicles, and when house-to-house skirmishes went on for hours, as if Ciudad Mier were a town in Afghanistan, not bordering the United States, she had no choice but to flee. In fact, almost the entire population, about 6,000 people, left Ciudad Mier. When they realized there was no one to protect them -- no government, no army -- they packed their belongings and left their homes.
Ciudad Mier used to be an inconspicuous Mexican municipality on the Rio Grande River, consisting of a colonial center and a few rectangular blocks of houses. Now it is known throughout the country as a ghost town -- one of those symbolic places that exist all over Mexico. Each of these towns can tell the story of a nation descending into violence.
Horrific, but Commonplace
One of them is Ciudad Ju√°rez, where more than 3,000 murders were committed this year alone, making it the most violent city in the world. Criminals battle each other in broad daylight in the resort town of Acapulco. In the village of Praxedis, a 20-year-old woman became police chief because no one else dared to accept the job. On a ranch in northern Mexico, a 77-year-old man shot and killed four of the gunmen who had been sent to kill him, only to be murdered by the rest. He was celebrated as a hero.
Horrific news reports have become commonplace in Mexico. Some 29,000 people have died in drug wars within the past four years, and this year the number of killings doubled to about 12,000. An astonishing 98 percent of the crimes committed in Mexico remain unpunished.
It has been four years since President Felipe Calder√≥n came to office promising to defeat the cartels, multibillion-dollar organizations that supply the United States, the world's largest drug market, with cocaine, crystal meth, heroin and marijuana.
Calder√≥n mobilized 45,000 soldiers and federal police officers for his campaign. There was no one else he could trust, including local police forces and governors. The army is his only reliable tool.
There have certainly been many spectacular arrests. Famous drug kingpins were arrested or killed, including the leader of the "La Familia" cartel, who died earlier this month. But have these successes weakened the drug cartels? There are few indications that this is the case.
At first, many citizens saw the violent excesses as the beginning of a necessary evil. Recent opinion polls, however, show that a majority now opposes the government's strategy. The newspapers are filled with reports of kidnappings, blackmail and beheadings. There are blogs that specialize in publishing photos of severed limbs taken with mobile phones.
It is easy to picture the savagery with which this war is being waged. But it is more difficult to understand why the violence doesn't stop, what its causes are and what can be done about it.
Could the legalization of drugs be the answer, as some experts suggest? Or maybe more border controls? Would a new national police force and a reform of the government solve the problem? Or is it best to simply leave the cartels alone, which for years was the government's policy?
These are the questions that Mexico is asking itself in 2010, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of its war of independence. The filmmaker Luis Estrada has given his native country a bitter film for its anniversary: "El Infierno" (Hell). It is the portrait of a world consisting of nothing but narcos, whores and corruption.
"We have a national problem, and it's called impunity," says Estrada, a soft-spoken man with glasses and a gray beard. "People who break the law aren't punished. That's why many believe that honesty doesn't pay. We Mexicans are in hell, that's for sure. I just don't know which pit of hell it is at the moment."
A Ghost-Town Census
It is a hot day in late November, and Ivana Garc√*a has screwed up the courage to return to Ciudad Mier for the first time since she left. She walks through the abandoned streets of the town that was once hers, a 34-year-old woman in jeans, wearing gold-plated earrings and carrying a plastic purse. The army has hired her to count the number of people still living in the town, but there are few left to count.
They offered her 700 pesos, or ‚ā¨42 ($55) a week. She was afraid to take the job, but she needed the money to pay the exorbitant rent for her apartment in Ciudad Alem√°n, the next town, where she now lives.
Garc√*a and two other young women walk from house to house, knocking on doors that no one opens. The few people they encounter couldn't afford to leave or are very old. The questionnaires the women have brought along in clear plastic binders include questions about income and the remaining residents' opinions about safety. They represent the government's clumsy attempt to demonstrate that it still exists.
Two dozen soldiers follow the women, on foot and in pickup trucks armed with machine guns, securing the streets. Most of the houses they pass are riddled with bullet holes. Starving dogs slink across the dirt roads.
Some 400 people still live in a refugee camp in the next town. They have been there for more than four weeks, and most do not want to return to Ciudad Mier. They say that when the army withdraws, in a few weeks or months, the whole thing will start again.
'Some States Remind Me of Afghanistan'
Ciudad Mier is in the northwestern panhandle of the state of Tamaulipas, a narrow strip of land bordering Texas. It is one of the areas some experts compare to failed states.
One expert, Edgardo Buscaglia, who specializes in drug-related organized crime, is currently working in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In a telephone interview, he said he had stopped using the expression "Colombianization" to describe what's happening in Mexico. "There are now areas in some states that remind me of what I see here in Afghanistan," he said. Narcos, or drug dealers, control about 12 percent of Mexican territory, according to some estimates.
There are no longer any police officers or mayors in large sections of Tamaulipas and the northern part of Nuevo Le√≥n, two states in northeastern Mexico. They were either killed or have fled, and now the narcos operate checkpoints on the streets.
The two drug cartels that are at war in Tamaulipas were allies until a year ago: The Gulf cartel and its paramilitary arm, the Zetas. Here, the term drug war isn't just a metaphor for a series of gang murders, as it is in Ciudad Ju√°rez. Instead, it describes a level of almost military violence between cartels, which send armies of adolescent "sicarios," or killers, into battle, often better equipped than soldiers in the Mexican army.
A Code of Silence
The mayor of Ciudad Mier, a perfumed man who wears his shirt open at the chest, is standing in the town hall. He says he cannot give an interview, or else -- and he runs his finger across the neck of this reporter to demonstrate what could happen to him if he did.
The citizens of his town want to talk, but they also want to remain anonymous. There has always been drug smuggling here, they say, and the Zetas have always been in power. In a town where there was hardly any work for young men, the drug lords were able to entice recruits with the promise of fast money, cocaine and the prettiest girls.
Their villas, built in the ornamental narco style, with gilded railings and decorative columns, are still standing. The owners fled when the Zetas broke with the Gulf Cartel, and today they live in the United States or in Mexico City.
There was a victory parade of sorts when the Gulf Cartel captured the town on Feb. 22. A motorcade of 60 SUVs and pickup trucks carrying heavily armed fighters drove into the streets of Ciudad Mier.
They killed five police officers that had worked for the Zetas, beheaded a police chief and a female drug dealer, and laid out the remains on the village square. After that, say local residents, the new gangs were friendly. Unlike the Zetas, they said hello to people on the street.
But the fighting wasn't over yet. In mid-October, Ivana Garc√*a found a dead Zeta fighter on the street. She had never seen the man. He must have been a mercenary from somewhere else, she thought, a young man wearing brown trousers and with a muscular torso. He was lying in a pool of blood.
On Nov. 2, the Zetas returned, driving 40 heavily armored SUVs with gun barrels poking out of their sides. The ensuing battle wore on for days and nights, killing many, and leading to the departure of residents and the arrival of the army.
The soldiers stalking along behind Garc√*a as she walks through Ciudad Mier hold their rifles at the ready, as if someone could shoot at them at any moment. They storm suspicious-looking houses. The hooded commander says that he doesn't know whether all of the bandits were driven out. The government of Tamaulipas claims the town is now safe and has called upon the local population to return to their homes. By the end of her first day of work, Garc√*a has counted six inhabited houses.
'Narco Saints,' Money and Girls
Almost no other business in the world is as lucrative as the drug trade. The United Nations estimates that $72 billion (‚ā¨55 billion) worth of drugs are sold each year. Cocaine is the most profitable of all drugs. Cocaine paste costs $800 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in Colombia, and in Chicago a buyer pays $100 a gram. The price goes up by 12,400 percent along the way. Mexican cartels smuggle an estimated 192 tons to the United States each year.
There are seven drug cartels in Mexico. While alliances often change, almost all the groups have their origins in Sinaloa, a state on Mexico's west coast known as the birthplace of the narcos. The area is home to Joaqu√*n Guzm√°n, also called El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel. He's the world's most glamorous drug lord, as evidenced by the fact that Forbes includes him on its list of the wealthiest people in the world. (No one, however, has access to his bank statements.)
Culiac√°n, the capital of Sinaloa, is the Rotterdam of the cocaine trade, the place where prices are set. It lies between the Pacific Ocean and the green hills of the Sierra, where farmers grow marijuana and opium poppies. It is a friendly-looking city of 600,000 with whitewashed homes, though Culiac√°n has the second-highest murder rate in the country.
For the past two years, El Chapo has been battling his former allies, the Beltr√°n Leyva brothers. It is a war of kings, and when author Elmer Mendoza tells the story, it sounds like a Greek tragedy. Mendoza, 61, is a bearded, soft-spoken man born in Culiac√°n, where his crime novels are set. He portrays this world so realistically that some accuse him of being a narco author.
"I've been hearing their legends since I was a child," he says. "These people had bigger houses and the most beautiful girls, and sometimes songs were even written in their honor." There is a folk hero in Sinaloa, Jes√ļs Malverde, who is known as the "narco saint," a Robin Hood who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Many believe that El Chapo is his revenant, a hero of the people.
Mendoza says that what is happening to his country is terrible. "But as an author, I admire people who do extraordinary things. Isn't there something epic about bringing a shipment of cocaine from Medell√*n to Los Angeles?"