Dr Gareth A. Jones
Media headlines suggest that Mexico has descended into a spiral of drugs-related violence that has prompted assessments of a failed state, with possibly regional implications. As President Felipe Calderón put it in 2009, ‘organized crime is in search of territorial control, there will be a war with no quarter given because there is no possibility of living with the drugs cartel (el narco ). There is no turning back; it is them or us.’ The escalation of violence prompted the US Department of Defense’s 2008 Joint Operating Environment assessment to observe that:
In particular, the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.
The report continued:
In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico … Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.
By some accounts, intervention might not come soon enough. A nightmare scenario (envisaged by Sullivan and Elkus, 2008) predicts, ‘A lawless Mexico will be a perfect staging ground for terrorists seeking to operate in North America. American policy-makers must act to protect our southern flank.’ It is a view shared by a range of private security consultancies and blogs, which endorse the thesis that ‘third-phase cartels’, no longer limited to regional power bases, may associate with ‘third-generation gangs’ that have shifted from turf-based affiliations to transnational networks, with the potential to conduct ‘fourth generation warfare’. Noting, for example, US Southern Command estimates that Central America has around 70,000 gang members, and that both transnational gangs and drugs-trafficking organizations (DTOs) share cell-like structures, it is argued that such organizations may be attractive to the militant Islamist al-Qa’ida (Base) organization, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, or anti-capitalist groups looking for ‘plug and go’ networks to extend their cause.
‘Failed state’ discussion has mostly been met with disdain in Mexico. Nevertheless, a recent survey revealed that one in seven residents of Ciudad Juárez would be willing to invite the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the UN to provide security and nearly six out of 10 would accept their presence nation-wide. For the US Administration, Mexico has risen up the security agenda. As recently as 2007, Mexico ranked 12th on the recipient list for funding through US foreign operations programmes. Mexico was deemed capable of financing its own anti-DTO initiatives and to require only occasional technical assistance and training in counter-insurgency measures. That view has changed. In 2010 rumours persisted that US Joint Special Operations Command had already approved a decision for Special Forces to operate covertly in Mexico to capture or eliminate DTO ‘kingpins’. Publicly, the Mérida Initiative, begun in 2008, commits the USA to funding a series of regional security measures covering Mexico and Central America. To date, Mexico has been the largest recipient of the US $1,400m. package: the 2010 budgetary request for anti-drugs and security assistance to Mexico was $485.6m.
This essay departs from the temptation to interpret the ‘war on drugs’ from a US and military perspective, to predict the future and to offer only pessimistic readings of the present situation. Instead, it considers how the ‘war’ has been shaped by the structure of the drugs industry and the Mexican state’s response. The essay notes how the political legitimacy of past regimes motivated but also undermined present-day control efforts. It considers how the Manichean ‘them or us’ approach reduces multiple conflicts to an idea of the state as the counterpoint to DTOs, implicitly calling upon society to enjoin an endeavor to save the nation. Yet, contrary to the rhetoric, the state is not ‘under siege’ from DTOs bent on its destruction. The DTOs need the state. Rather, the ‘war’ is about resisting the attempts of DTOs to regain a presence within the state that they held during the 1980s and 1990s, under circumstances today in which a different political class is competing for power and the state itself is increasingly decentralized and democratic.
The Spiral of Violence
Media reports present us continuously with images of dead bodies and blood-stained streets, with claims that the northern Mexican cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are today’s equivalent of Colombia’s Cali or Medellín, and with accounts of personal tragedies and fear. In fact, if considered against levels of violence during the period from 1910 through the 1930s, or with Colombia or parts of Central America at any point over the preceding 30 years, Mexico in 2010 was not more violent, nor was it the ‘most violent’ country in the region. It was the case that Mexico was more violent than the USA, but many US cities, for example New Orleans and Detroit, had higher murder rates than those recorded both in Mexico generally and in most major Mexican cities in particular. It is important therefore to understand levels and trends for data on violence and to appreciate their unevenness.
A frequently cited headline figure in early 2011 was the death of more than 34,550 people since the announcement of a ‘war on drugs’ in Mexico in late 2006. This figure, for the new category of ‘drugs-related violence’, was initially estimated by national newspapers but was subsequently confirmed by the Mexican Government. Since 2006 there appeared to have been a dramatic increase from 2,200 drugs-related murders to 2,725 in 2007, over 6,800 in 2008, 9,614 in 2009 and to 15,273 in 2010. Put another way, the ‘war on drugs’ claimed almost four times as many lives in 2010 as, officially, there were civilians killed in Iraq. The number of deaths in cities such as Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, Culiacán and, especially, Ciudad Juárez (also known simply as Juárez) gave credence to the rhetoric of ‘war’. In 2008 about 1,600 people were killed in Juárez, a figure that rose to 2,575 in 2009 and to 2,738 in 2010, pushing the homicide rate for the city to 191 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. The five-fold increase in drugs-related violence between 2007 and 2011 has been significant enough to affect the national homicide rate which has risen sharply since 2007. According to the office of the Attorney General, the murder rate was around 14 per 100,000 in 2006–07 but rose to 28 per 100,000 in 2008. Drugs-related deaths that accounted for almost 10% of homicides in the early 2000s increased to account for one-quarter of homicides in 2007–08 and more than one-third in the following year.
In most circumstances, data on homicide are considered to be reasonably accurate—murder rarely goes unreported. Yet the data for Mexico are open to interpretation for a variety of reasons. The Mexican statistical agency (INEGI), for example, measures homicide on the basis of collated death certificates and is thus prone to under-report homicide data in cases where the cause is not established or a body is not produced. Given the proficiency of DTOs at disposing of bodies using acid baths and mass graves, the absence of ‘disappearances’ from the data is a significant shortfall. The popularization of the term ‘drugs-related’ is also problematic. ‘Drugs-related’ was rarely used until about 2000, yet DTOs were responsible for murders during the 1990s and before—victims were mostly shippers (transportistas ) who had lost consignments or distributors unable to pay for advances—with a figure of 1,000 per year suggested by one source. Defining a homicide in plain sight or one of the infamous decapitations as a ‘narcoejecución’ might be straightforward, but not all cases are so clear-cut. The National Security System uses three separate categories of ‘drugs-related’ killing: executions that relate to inter- or intra-DTO rivalry; confrontation that mostly relates to DTO violence involving the public; and aggression that relates to the involvement of security forces. Unsurprsingly, although all figures are high, discrepancies between data cited by different government agencies, by media and non-governmental organizations can account for as much as one-half the number of deaths attributed to the ‘war’. Suspicion abounds that it suits the Government to categorize as many deaths as possible as ‘drugs-related’ to bolster legitimacy for the ‘war’ or to claim that it is winning. As one source commented, before 2000 Mexico did not have a ‘narrative’ around which to discuss tackling the DTOs: the ‘war on drugs’ has provided that narrative.
The Rise of the Narco
To understand the rise of the DTO, we must appreciate changes to the commodity chains for drugs and to the relative importance of Mexico. Although the focus of attention has been the trade in cocaine, the earliest significant DTOs, dating from the 1960s and 1970s, were involved in the production and/or shipment of marijuana and black tar heroin, with Mexican DTOs supplying about one-third of all heroin and marijuana entering the USA by 1991. The shift to cocaine, from the late 1970s, was an extension of these operations and was already significant by the 1980s. In 1991 about 350 metric tons of cocaine was already passing through Mexico. Since then, cocaine has grown in relative importance to DTO operations, with current shipments through Mexico estimated at over 1,000 tons and worth perhaps as much as US $38,000m. However, it is the impact of cocaine on DTO business practices and relations with the state that we must understand if we want to appreciate the path to ‘war’.
The precursor to these changes was the development of relations between Colombian traffickers and the early Mexican DTOs during the 1970s, when it is alleged that Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, a Honduran national, linked Alberto Sicilia Falcón, a Cuban émigré and head of drugs-smuggling through Tijuana, to the Cali-based DTO of Benjamín Herrera Zuleta. Sicilia Falcón’s operation was soon challenged by the emerging DTO of Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, which began to link the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango and Jalisco, becoming known as the Guadalajara DTO, and by the Gulf DTO of Juan García Abrego, which became involved with the Cali DTO from around the mid-1980s. Before their involvement with cocaine, these DTOs shipped marijuana and black tar heroin in one direction and took advantage of high tariffs to ‘import’ a variety of consumer goods in the other. The DTO structures were based on strong family links and ties to regions, restricted by relations with farms and intermediary suppliers, and dependent on specific border crossing points where bribery could be arranged. Cocaine, however, would transform these thin networks into complex structures with transnational reach, more diversified business interests and, most important of all, closer links with the state.
The Mexican DTOs offered their Colombian counterparts a number of advantages over the service provided by transportistas operating air or maritime routes from Peru or through Venezuela and the Caribbean. In addition to air and maritime routes, both via the west coast and the Gulf of Mexico, Mexican DTOs could provide access to tested mechanisms for crossing the land border. Critically, Mexican DTOs could switch transit routes and means quickly according to the anti-drugs operations of either the Mexican or US state, and reduce risks by having products in transit for shorter periods. Above all, however, Mexico offered opportunities for net bulk access to US markets. The high value to weight ratio of cocaine made it worthwhile to maximize the number of shipments, but Mexican DTOs began to use larger shipments; although a single interdiction might lose millions of dollars, the value of the larger loads would more than compensate. Stockpiling drugs ready for large shipments became a key component of the Mexican model. Offering reliability, frequency and bulk access, the main DTOs could charge higher fees—as much as one-half of a shipment’s value—as well as operate as ‘price makers’, using their capacity to either flood or restrict the market in the short run and increase profit margins.
The arrangements between Mexican and Colombian DTOs have not remained stable over time. Mexican DTOs have tended to operate with a variety of Colombian DTOs. The Juárez DTO of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, for example, had strong links with Rodríguez Orejuela of Cali, as well as with the Ochoa brothers in Medellín, while Osiel Cárdenas, who took over the Gulf DTO from García Abrego, also built connections with Cali traffickers, despite being in competition with the Juárez DTO. More recently, it was revealed that, although in conflict with each other, both the Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva DTOs (an off-shoot of the Sinaloa DTO and named after the five brothers who founded it) had developed and maintained ties with the Norte del Valle DTO of Colombia. It is important to grasp the fluidity with which Mexican DTOs have approached alliances with other drugs suppliers and with each other.
Despite the perceived shift of power away from Colombian DTOs to their Mexican counterparts, the latter do not appear to have become involved with the refinement and shipping of cocaine out of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. They have, however, diversified their operations and geographical presence in other ways, notably increasing their presence in Central America since the late 1990s. This strategy is logical for a number of reasons. First, the shift to cocaine allowed Mexican DTOs to extend their geographical reach from a local area to the region in order to secure imports. Expanding into Guatemala and Honduras provided more opportunities to diversify drugs routes, particularly given the relative power of Mexican DTOs compared with those in both countries. Second, it seems likely that the Mexican DTOs identified Guatemalan and Honduran political structures as being susceptible to infiltration and corruption, especially in areas such as Petén and San Marcos in Guatemala. The regional presence of Mexican DTOs has been vital to their survival in the past five years, as the Mexican state has prosecuted a ‘war’. It is now estimated that one-third of the drugs consignments controlled by the Mexican DTOs arrive into Guatemala and Honduras from where ‘lieutenants’ can decide whether to route through or around Mexico to get shipments in to the USA.
Perhaps the most significant impact of DTOs’ involvement in cocaine was the change it made to their relationships with the Mexican state. Alberto Sicilia Falcón later claimed that his DTO was protected by the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), the agency tasked from 1947 with ensuring the internal security of Mexico, which, in practice, meant the suppression of left-wing movements. Sicilia identified as his principal contact Miguel Nazar Haro, allegedly the head of a secret group called the White Brigade during the ‘dirty war’, DFS deputy director from 1978–82 and subsequently director. Nazar Haro was an important player in a close group of politicians headed by two key figures, Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios and Manuel Bartlett. Gutiérrez Barrios joined the DFS in 1952, becoming its director during 1964–70, before entering politics formally, serving in a variety of elected posts, including as Governor of Veracruz (1986–88). Bartlett rose through the ranks of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), becoming Secretary of the Interior between 1982 and 1988. Crucially, despite shifts in ideology and personality during the final decades of its 70-year rule, which lasted until 2000, this camarilla (cabal) has always remained near the center of power. Under the so-called ‘new broom’ of President Carlos Salinas (1988–94), Gutiérrez Barrios was appointed Secretary of the Interior and Bartlett Secretary of Public Education, before the latter became Governor of the state of Puebla. Nor has the camarilla disappeared with the death of Gutiérrez Barrios in 2000 and the decline of Bartlett, a federal senator between 2000–06: rather, it has recreated itself around another generation, headed by Manlio Fabio Beltrones, who has served as Under-Secretary of the Interior (1988–91), as Governor of Sonora (1991–97) and as a senator.
The key point is that under the tutelage of Gutiérrez Barrios the DFS became a ‘state within a state’, negotiating with DTOs and protecting the political system. For the most part, the arrangement established with DTOs was the same as that applied to groups involved in other forms of organized crime or to leading trade union officials: keep certain activities away from public scrutiny, do not become involved in politics and provide funds or favours when requested. DTOs were encouraged to divide Mexico into plazas (territories), within which organizations would avoid each other or cooperate. In return, the state offered the ‘guarantee’ of protection and sometimes more. In the mid-1980s, for example, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) discovered interior ministry and army personnel working at a 220-acre ranch in Chihuahua used for growing marijuana and owned by Rafael Caro Quintero. Some DTO heads were even issued with DFS identification cards by José Antonio Zorilla Pérez, Nazar Haro’s successor, making them all but ‘untouchable’ within the criminal justice system. The line between the state and the DTOs was even more blurred by kinship arrangements. When Rodolfo Sánchez Duarte, the son of the Sinaloa Governor Leopoldo Sánchez Celis, was killed in 1990, allegedly on the orders of DTO head Héctor ‘El Güero’ Palma Salazar in retaliation for the killing of his wife and children at the behest of Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, it was noted that Félix Gallardo was godfather to Rodolfo Sánchez. With these connections in place, the DTOs were akin to textbook cartels.
Control of the press was vital to the protection of DTOs and the maintenance of the PRI’s rule. The scandal that forced the dissolution of the DFS in 1985 illustrates this symbiosis. In 1984 the respected journalist Manuel Buendía was shot outside his office in Mexico City. The director of the DFS, Zorrilla Pérez, was initially instructed to head the investigation to find Buendía’s killers but was himself arrested in 1989, along with the suspect, a DFS agent called Juan Rafael Moro Ávila, and was sentenced to prison, eventually serving 19 years. Most accept, however, that Moro Ávila and Zorilla Pérez were scapegoats. One theory is that the decision to kill Buendía was taken at the behest of another camarilla member, the Secretary of Defence, Juan Arévalo Gardoqui (1982–88). Arévalo Gardoqui may have been keen for Buendía not to file his latest story—the offer by leading DTOs to provide the Government with funds in order to avert the need to seek IMF assistance after Mexico announced its inability to pay debt interest in November 1982. Moro Ávila’s accomplice in the murder was alleged to have been an agent of military intelligence, although he was never formally identified. Mexico’s Secretary of Planning and the Budget at the time of the debt crisis was Carlos Salinas, who did indeed manage to avoid IMF intervention. As President, Salinas announced the arrest of Moro Ávila on national Freedom of the Press Day.
The truth about the killing of Buendía and the link with the DFS notwithstanding, the period from 1985 to about 1990 marked a critical juncture in state-DTO relations. At the moment when Mexican DTO involvement in the trafficking of cocaine was growing, the mechanism to negotiate protection with the state shifted to rely less on the mediation of the security apparatus. This link would remain. According to the DEA, four of the five Attorney-Generals that served during the administration of Carlos Salinas had links with DTOs, and the Procuraduría de Justicia Federal (PFJ, Judicial Police) and the successor to the DFS, the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN), were widely regarded as being compromised. However, DTOs now felt able to make deals direct with secretaries of state, including, according to the DEA, those responsible for key portfolios such as transportation and agriculture. The quid pro quo in these arrangements would not be loyalty-protection but funding-enrichment. Cash-rich DTOs used ‘shell’ companies and financed the acquisition of equity in privatized enterprises, as well as the enormous number of state concessions and infrastructure programmes. Seminal to this argument is the allegation that the President’s brother, Raúl Salinas, developed business relations with García Abrego of the Gulf DTO, as well as with individuals accused of money-laundering for the DTO, notably the fugitive President of the Banco Unión, Carlos Cabal Peniche. Despite only receiving a government salary, Raúl Salinas had bank accounts and real estate worth hundreds of millions of US dollars. The change in DTO-state relations may have extended to the PRI’s presidential candidate for the 1994 election, Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was murdered during the electoral campaign. Some years after the assassination, a senior source in the PRI claimed that the Tijuana DTO might have found out about an agreement made by Colosio’s team to favor the Sinaloa DTO once in office.
Carlos Salinas’s successor as President, Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000), distanced his administration from Gutiérrez Barrios and Bartlett. Lacking a personal power base, his strategy was to rely on a balance of technocrats, mostly former secretaries of state and directors of agencies in the Salinas administration, and politicians linked with the Atlacomulco group. Headed by the patriarch Carlos Hank González, this group had been engrained in the political structure of Mexico since the 1960s. Hank had served as Governor of the state of Mexico, Regent of Mexico City (akin to mayor), Secretary of Tourism and Secretary of Agriculture. His power, however, extended to business interests in real estate, gasoline stations, construction, an airline, shipping, sport and gambling, and banking in Mexico and the USA. These interests have been the subject of investigations in the USA by the DEA, the FBI, the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Federal Reserve Board, which have also examined the role of Hank’s children, most notoriously his eldest son, who also served one term as Mayor of Tijuana. It is possible that Hank had links with more than one DTO. Members of the Atlacomulco group rose to prominence during Zedillo’s presidency: notably, Emilio Chuayffet, a former Governor of the state of Mexico, was appointed Secretary of the Interior, while Arturo Montiel served as a senior official at the Secretariat of State for the Interior and later as Governor of the state of Mexico. Roberto Madrazo, former Governor of Tabasco and a ‘rising star’ of the PRI at that time, was also a member of the Hank group and also a close ally of Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a protégé of Gutiérrez Barrios. Many doubt if President Zedillo, commanding a fragile legitimacy, was able to keep in check powerful interest groups.
The PRI’s loss of the presidency in 2000 to the candidate of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party), Vicente Fox, was widely celebrated, but the aftermath of his election had serious implications for the DTOs. In one version of events, popular in Washington, ‘drugs-related’ violence is an unintended consequence of democracy, although, as oftentimes stated, this idea lacks analytical traction. There are four dimensions to the way in which democratization has changed DTO-state relations and been partly responsible for violence. First, the loss of electoral power for the PRI, and with it access to business opportunities and corruption channels, put pressure on lower level party officials who now lacked the means to maintain the loyalty of matones (thugs), in some cases integrated into police forces, which therefore threatened the careful management of crime. In the second half of the 1990s, at the same time as the PRI began to recognize its loss of power, people began to notice an increase in street crime, car theft and abduction. Crime, moreover, became less predictable and possibly more violent. Small-scale criminals would see opportunities for working for shippers and dealers or undertaking theft, extortion and kidnap at the behest of DTOs that used organized crime to raise capital for involvement in the drugs trade.
Second, democracy increased the number of actors with whom DTOs had to deal, and who were, in turn, freer of central control. Previously, a mayor or governor would be closely monitored from the center, reports from madrinas (informants) going back to the Secretariat of State for the Interior, the PRI and, if required, the President. If deemed necessary, action could be taken. The decline of the PRI meant that the monitoring system collapsed, although one interviewee suggested that Vicente Fox would still receive reports from the provinces but gave them little attention. Third, democracy raised the price for political co-operation. Politicians were now in a position to make deals with one DTO over another. Accusations were made in this regard against former Governors such as Francisco Labastida (Sinaloa) and Manlio Fabio Beltrones, while in May 2010 Mario Villanueva, Governor of Quintana Roo in 1993–99, became the first former Governor to be extradited to the USA on charges of illicit gain from the drugs trade. Villanueva had been Mayor of Cancún, a city synonymous with money-laundering and where five of the last seven mayors have been arrested for connections with DTOs.
The case of Cancún’s recent Mayor, Gregorio Sánchez, illustrates the fourth dimension, known as narco-democracia (‘narco-democracy’). Sánchez was arrested in May 2010, shortly before elections to the governorship of Quintana Roo, for which he was the candidate of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD, Party of the Democratic Revolution) and ahead in the polls. The judge who issued the arrest warrant had been involved in the arrests in 2009 of 10 mayors in the state of Michoacán, all from the PRD and PRI, on the eve of elections. Charges were subsequently withdrawn, fueling the suspicion that an association with drugs was being used as ‘mud’ to ‘dirty’ opposition candidates and justify the presence of the army during elections. One interesting response from the PRI during the lead-up to the July 2009 mid-term congressional elections and the July 2010 gubernatorial polls was its representation of itself as the party of ‘stability’, a barely veiled suggestion that it could broker deals with the main DTOs.
The PAN and the ‘War on Drugs’
The DTOs therefore emerged from a radical restructuring of politics and the state; they did not suddenly expand to take on a stable state. As the PAN replaced the PRI in government, reaccommodating the DTOs in a new political bargain was impossible. President Vicente Fox and his successor from December 2006, Felipe Calderón (also of the PAN), headed administrations that lacked the means and motivation to broker deals with the DTOs. However, Fox and Calderón had to control the DTOs without the guaranteed loyalty of agencies within the state, notably those involved with intelligence-gathering, policing and criminal prosecution. Both were, thus, confronted with the problem of having to conduct a profound reform of the state as part of the ‘war on drugs’, rather than in preparation for such a conflict.
Particular concerns were municipal and state police forces, widely criticized for their lack of professional training and co-ordination. Reforming the municipal police in all 2,438 municipalities, many of which were controlled by mayors from opposition parties, was a daunting task. Instead, the National Programme for the Control of Drugs 2000–06 envisaged the use of federal police agents and the army in conventional policing roles. In 2005 Operation Secure Mexico began in the states of Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Baja California, with army units and federal agents replacing municipal police. The move received a hostile reaction in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, when federal agents were shot at by municipal police before the 700-strong force was made to stand down. This approach continued under Calderón, who disarmed 2,300 police officers in Tijuana, Baja California, and deployed federal police and the army to the city. More subtly, Calderón has also extended an approach adopted by President Zedillo by installing military officers in police roles, allocating senior posts to those with experience of anti-drugs operations. The appointment in 2008 of Gen. Javier del Real Magallanes, a former chief of the intelligence section of the armed forces and head of anti-drugs operations for north-east Mexico, as Under-Secretary of Police Strategy and Intelligence in the Secretariat of State for Public Security was regarded as particularly significant.
While relying on federal agencies, both Fox and Calderón had to cope with the knowledge that these same forces are compromised by links with DTOs. In a move that was more than a little suggestive of political expediency, six months after taking office President Calderón removed 284 federal police commanders, including the commanders of federal police agencies in all 31 states and the Federal District of Mexico, on grounds of corruption. Unlike at the local level, nationally neither Fox nor Calderón have had much option but to undertake reform. Fox created the Secretariat of State for Public Security to improve co-ordination between the security and justice systems, and a new federal agency for criminal investigation, the Agencia Federal de Investigación (AFI), to replace the much discredited PJF. Under Calderón, the powers of the federal agencies have been expanded, with provision made for the use of wire-taps, searches without a warrant and the confiscation of property from people convicted of serious crime. Calderón also sought to coordinate efforts by placing the public security police (Policía Federal Preventiva, PFP) and the AFI under a single command. In 2005, however, a report by the office of the Attorney-General had indicated that 1,500 of 7,000 AFI agents were under investigation for criminal activity and that 457 were facing charges, including for the illegal detention and disappearance of DTO members. In 2009 Calderón was forced to replace the AFI with a ‘new’ federal police agency, the Policía Federal Ministerial, although it subsequently recruited former AFI personnel, and the PFP became the Policía Federal. New officers are trained at a special college in San Luis Potosi, with US advisers, screened for drugs use, and are subject to background financial checks and obliged to take polygraph tests at regular intervals.
In the circumstances, it is not surprising that President Calderón has made extensive use of the military. What marks the Calderón approach as different from those of his predecessors, however, is the scale of deployment and the almost constant mobilization of units in parts of the country. Less than two weeks after taking office, Calderón launched Operation Michoacán, involving agents from the AFI, 5,300 troops and special forces. By 2009 48,750 army personnel were assigned to more than 20 anti-drugs operations. Approximately one-third of the army was on drugs-related duty at any time, with a 2008 study by the Secretary of National Defence predicting that mobilization might need to be long-term. This is not a scenario that pleases all senior officers. Concerns have been expressed at the use of the military for internal security, at problems of desertion and at the rising number of human rights cases levelled at the army.
Winning the War?
If the ‘war on drugs’ is about ‘them or us’, which side is winning? Most assessments are ambivalent. First, considering the number of people detained on drugs-related charges, this figure has amounted to about 12,000 per year between 2000 and 2006, but rose to 36,332 arrests in 2009. The Government argues that these arrests are significant in number and disrupt DTO operations. Critics suggest that most of those apprehended are small-scale dealers or shippers rather than high-level bosses or those involved in money-laundering. Not for nothing are DTO leaders known colloquially as cucarachas (cockroaches), able to scuttle away from trouble. However, even the impact of high-profile arrests may be short-term. A recent DEA poster proclaimed successes against the Tijuana DTO, with ‘arrested’ stamped over photographs of seven of the nine leading members, including Javier and Eduardo Arellano Félix. Shortly afterwards a new poster was issued with photographs of a different 10 ‘most wanted’ members of the organization.
One significant achievement concerns extradition. In the past an arrested DTO head could be assured of remaining in Mexico and in communication with the organization. Major bosses such as Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero and Osiel Cárdenas have all managed their organizations from Mexican prisons. In late 2005, however, the Mexican Supreme Court overturned a prohibition on extraditing fugitives who could face the death penalty. Extraditions quickly followed, 41 in 2005, reaching 107 in 2009. DTO leaders dislike prison life in the USA, unable to see family, to communicate with lieutenants or to arrange the protection of fellow DTO inmates. Retribution has been dramatic. Although denied as being sabotage, an airplane crash in Mexico City in November 2008, in which the Secretary of the Interior, Juan Camilo Mouriño, and all others on board were killed, is claimed privately to have been the work of DTOs. Also in the aircraft was José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, formerly Assistant Attorney-General for International Affairs and Assistant Attorney-General at the federal agency charged with investigating organized crime, who was responsible for arranging the extradition of 15 major traffickers in January 2006.
A second gauge relates to interdiction of drugs or their means of production in Mexico. The Calderón Government claimed that in the first years of the ‘war’ 33,019 farms for the cultivation of opium poppy were seized and 777 laboratories for processing cocaine and/or methamphetamine were destroyed. The numbers represent an increase on previous years, but critics have noted the definitional difficulties with the description ‘farms’ and that laboratories can be reassembled at other locations within days. Between 2006 and 2010 the Mexican military claimed to have seized 22 metric tons of cocaine, which would represent about 3% of the total quantity of cocaine being transported through Mexico to the USA, as well as 337 kg of opium paste and 233 kg of heroin. Although DEA and police reports in the USA have indicated an increase in street prices for cocaine, suggesting difficulties of supply, this may be due to production difficulties in Colombia. Indeed, the interdiction of cocaine has declined on the US side by almost one-half since 2006, whereas that of heroin has trebled since 2005. This might support the US Department of Justice’s claim, in its report National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 , that Mexican DTOs may be switching back to heroin as the export of choice. Whether this assessment is accurate, or justifies being considered a success, is difficult to judge.
A third indicator relates to claims that increased levels of ‘drugs-related’ violence are the result of DTO infighting (as arrests and interdiction mount) or inter-DTO conflicts during which the DTOs might fight each other to a standstill. Both theories have some merit. Although a process that began during the 1990s, when pacts with the state braked down, it seems as if the DTOs have become more violent both against the state and against other DTOs as a means to preserve territorial control and to extend into zones controlled by others. To these ends, the ‘war’ has accelerated and diversified the emergence of new violent actors. First, several paramilitary groups, either linked with one DTO or acting as mercenaries, have been established. The best known of these are the Zetas, formed by Arturo Guzmán Decena from a group of around 30 members of the air unit of the special forces, supported with recruitment from Guatemalan special forces (Kaibiles ). Initially under the command of the Gulf DTO, the Zetas used their military training to mount sophisticated attacks, oftentimes using high-powered weaponry and combined with a ruthless exhibitionism of violence. In counterpart, the Negros and Pelones have operated on behalf of the Sinaloa DTO, most famously in the attempted takeover of Nuevo Laredo in 2005, although the Negros may have since shifted allegiance to the Beltrán Leyva DTO or become independent under the direction of Edgar Valdez Villareal (known as La Barbie) before his arrest in August 2010.
A second dimension to drugs-related violence is the use of gangs, including groups from the USA and Central America. The most substantive example is the Juárez DTO’s use of La Línea, a paramilitary group reported to draw upon the 7,000 members of the Aztecas gang based in both Juárez and El Paso. Reports also suggest that the Sinaloa DTO has employed members of the Mexicles (Partido Revolucionario Mexicano) and Artistas Asesinos (AA). The Mexicles were formed in the US prison system, first in Texas with affiliation across the south-west, with membership estimates ranging from 1,200–14,000, while the AA is believed to have around 600 members. The Tijuana DTO has used individuals from La Eme gang in the US state of California to conduct attacks in Mexico and the USA. There have been some reports of members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a gang that originated in the US city of Los Angeles but subsequently spread to other parts of North and Central America, being used as enforcers to attack rival gangs. Some doubt these claims, however, pointing to DTO convention to avoid permanent associations with groups with untested loyalties, and especially untrained, drugs-using young men.
The argument that increasing levels of violence indicate the break-up of the DTOs requires some caution. A brief history of DTOs reveals a propensity to fragment and realign. In the 1990s the Guadalajara DTO divided into the Tijuana and Sinaloa DTOs, after which the Sinaloa DTO headed by Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán split, with the Beltrán Leyva brothers forming their own DTO. The Beltrán Leyva DTO subsequently associated with the Juárez and Tijuana DTOs, although these were in conflict, and grew rapidly in just two years until elder brother Arturo was killed in December 2009. The Juárez DTO survived the death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes in 1997, in part through maintaining a family line, as well as through Juan José Esparragoza Moreno’s use of his Guadalajara DTO connections to broker a pact with the Sinaloa DTO and to draw upon support from the Caro Quintero Sonora DTO, which reformed around brothers Miguel and Jorge after lead figure Rafael was extradited to the USA. The arrangement between the Juárez, Sinaloa and Sonora DTOs is sometimes referred to as The Federation. The massive upsurge in murder in Ciudad Juárez from 2007, however, was largely attributed to the attempt by the Sinaloa DTO to take the city from the Juárez DTO. An equally fragile arrangement may have been negotiated by Esparragoza between the Juárez DTO and the Zetas, the latter having seemed to gain some control over the Gulf DTO, with reports suggesting that in 2008–09 the Zetas might have supplanted Osiel Cárdenas, and then splitting from the Gulf DTO and becoming its rival. Subsequent reports signaled the dissolution of the Zetas, as original members were killed or captured, only for indications in 2010 to suggest a split in the organization, with a new group, the New Zetas Organization, emerging, acting as both a paramilitary group and a DTO, and with links to a revived Beltrán Leyva DTO.
Finally, the Tijuana DTO declined after the arrests of Benjamín and Eduardo Arellano Félix and the 2002 death of Ramón Arellano Félix, but subsequently reappeared, despite having fewer links with other organizations. After a power battle between Eduardo, Javier, Francisco and Enedina Arellano Félix, Eduardo and Enedina emerged as the new heads of the DTO, and when Javier and Eduardo were arrested, Enedina took control, passing responsibilities to her son Luis Fernando Sánchez Arellano. A 2008 split with former lieutenant Teodoro García Simenthal did not so much weaken the Tijuana DTO as necessitate the promotion of cell leaders. García Simenthal’s arrest in January 2010 removed a rival who had formed links with another new and important DTO, Familia Michoacana, which has attempted to consolidate control of Michoacán and Guerrero, supported initially by the Gulf DTO and Zetas, although currently a rival of the latter, amid rumours of links to the Sinaloa DTO.
The ‘war on drugs’ declared by President Calderón in 2006 added a narrative thread to a conflict that had been under way for more than a decade and which has its origins in the 1980s. Then, a shift by DTOs into cocaine necessitated changes to their organization and practice, which coincided with political changes that resulted in a more complicated state structure. As the PRI lost its apparently hegemonic grip on politics, as a group of politicians tied to the state security apparatus competed with politicians with business interests, as the state apparatus itself decentralized and the media became less controlled, so a space opened for DTOs to become more autonomous. More and larger DTOs emerged, although not to challenge the state, as interests remained largely coterminous. Beholden to groups in the PRI for stability, President Zedillo had limited scope to act decisively against the DTOs. His successors had little room for manoeuvre, as the organs of the state were unreliable allies in tackling the DTOs, prompting recourse to the military, Mexico’s most trusted public institution.
Without falling for the simple assessment that Mexico risks becoming a failed state, one can conclude that the ‘war on drugs’ is an attempt to reassert the role of the state. On assuming the presidency in December 2006, Calderón inherited a country in which the reach of government, even in the arenas of ‘public security’, did not stretch nation-wide. In October 2006 the Secretariat of State for Public Security recognized that no part of Mexico was immune from the drugs trade, and two years later Calderón claimed that there were perhaps as many as 2,204 ‘zones of impunity’ where, aside from an army presence, DTOs operated under limited constraint. A year later the President announced that the Government was regaining control, leaving no more than 233 areas in which DTO influence exceeded that of the state, although a 2009 report by the Secretariat of State for Public Security identified 353 such municipalities. Although most Mexicans are unlikely to be victims of the state’s attempts to reassert itself, through the military or through aggressive policing, and most support the intent, the consequences do play out in daily life that is ever more uncertain (Castillo and Jones, 2009).