Thousands more die as Mexico’s drug wars rage out of control

Despite a crackdown by the Mexican president, crime syndicates’ hold on local authorities has left the central government with no hope of exerting control

By Jo Tuckman and Ed Vulliamy  /  THE GUARDIAN , MEXICO CITY AND LONDON

Fri, Mar 26, 2010 - Page 9

With more than 2,000 people killed across Mexico since the new year, this year is shaping up to overtake the record 6,500 drug-related murders last year, which topped the toll of more than 5,000 in 2008. The killings have happened despite an offensive against the cartels involving tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police launched in December 2006 by Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

“We will not take even one step back in the face of those who want to see Mexico on its knees and without a future,” Calderon said on Sunday.

However, such expressions of presidential determination do little to counter the impression that the authorities are unable to deal with the killings, which are marked by ever more inventive cruelty and savage perversion.

And a snap visit on Tuesday by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a sign of how concerned the US is getting about the spiraling violence just over its southern border.

International coverage has focused on the relentless violence in Ciudad Juarez, which has turned that city just across the border from El Paso, Texas, into the deadliest in the world, with 191 murders per 100,000 citizens. But this is a complex and multi-faceted series of regional conflicts involving at least six organized crime groups that use corruption as well as firepower to control territories.

“The federal government is too weak to control the state governments, so it is crazy to think they can control organized crime in those states,” says Samuel Gonzalez, a former drug czar turned critic of Calderon’s military-led strategy.

Gonzalez says it is illusory to hope the war will burn itself out through the emergence of a single, clearly dominant cartel.

“Every organized crime group has some degree of protection from local authorities that makes it impossible that one can gain [national] hegemony,” he says.

Much of the violence has been between the Sinaloa cartel — led by the country’s most famous trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — and its rivals, who are vying for control of cocaine trafficking corridors across Mexico. The killing is also associated with growing cartel interest in other criminal activities, from the growing domestic drugs market to kidnapping, arms dealing and people smuggling.

Some of the most vicious recent violence has been in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. The Gulf cartel and its military wing, the Zetas, had assumed terrifying and absolute control over the busiest commercial stretch of frontier in the world. A pax mafiosa — the mafia’s peace — briefly reigned between the two gangs, with commercial and civic life subjugated by an omnipotent extortion racket.

However, over the past month, an internecine battle inside the Gulf cartel has exploded. According to reports from Reynosa, the epicenter of the fighting, 200 people were killed over three weeks late last month and early this month.

In Reynosa, at least eight journalists have been kidnapped in recent weeks. Two were visiting reporters from Mexico City who were later released and are now too frightened to talk about their ordeal. One other was found tortured to death and five are still missing.

Information from a journalist who must remain nameless for her own safety described armored cars cruising through Reynosa marked CDG — Cartel del Golfo — or else with the letters XX to indicate the Zetas.

After one reported gunbattle in Reynosa, the Gulf cartel hung a so-called narco-mensaje, or narco-message, from a bridge. It read: “Reynosa is a safe city. Nothing is happening or will happen. Keep living your lives as normal. We are part of Tamaulipas and we will not mess with civilians. CDG.”

The Mexican government has sent in crack units of the marines, but with little obvious success. A crime reporter from the city said he was on his way to cover a shoot-out last Thursday when traffickers called his mobile phone to warn him not to publish anything.

“They know everything about you. I don’t know how they do, but they do,” the reporter said. “If you publish anything about them they don’t like, or somebody in the government who is protecting them, then you are going to regret it, big time.”

The following day there were five gunbattles across the city, and on Saturday there were a further three. Of these, only one was referred to by the state government Web site, which promises reliable information in the vacuum about the violence. Local news outlets decided against publishing government promises to improve security after warnings from the traffickers. They self-censor complaints of abuses by the army for fear of angering the third force also battling for control of Tamaulipas.

Meanwhile, the axis of the conflict in Juarez is the attempt by El Chapo to muscle in on the turf traditionally controlled by the Juarez cartel.

In the urban nightmare of Juarez, amid closed factories and abandoned homes, the pyramids of narco-cartel power have collapsed into a state of criminal anarchy. Here gangs fight a ruthless war for the local plaza, or dealing turf. Municipal and state police forces are infested by corruption, forming mini-cartels of their own.

The role of the army in Juarez has also been called to account by a Chihuahua state human rights official, Gustavo de la Rosa, who accuses the military of playing a part in “social cleansing,” as most of the killings claim addicts and former users massacred at the city’s rehab centers.

“The difference between Juarez and Tamaulipas is that in Juarez the state still has a degree of formal presence, however incompetent,” says Edgardo Buscaglia, who specializes in comparing worldwide trends in organized crime. “In Tamaulipas the state is absent. It is like Afghanistan.”