The first strike came on December 11, 2006, ten days after he assumed office, when Calderón sent 6,500 ground troops and masked federal police snaking up mountain roads into the heart of Michoacán’s drug country, where Los Zetas and La Familia, former allies, had been locked in murderous combat. Weeks later, Calderón flew into a military base to salute the troops, donning a soldier’s cap and army jacket—a drastic break with the strict separation between civilian and military leadership in effect since the 1940s. “New pages of glory will be written,” he told them. “I instruct you to persevere until victory is achieved. . . . We will give no truce or quarter to the enemies of Mexico.”
Calderón rapidly spread the offensive, opening up one front after another. Seven thousand troops rolled into Acapulco, 3,300 federal police and soldiers marched into Tijuana—numbers far greater than Fox had committed—and soon roughly 50,000 men were in the field, including almost the entire federal police force and much of the military.
The offensive achieved some quick results. Federal agents stormed a Mexico City safe house and confiscated $207 million of meth money, the biggest cash bust in history. Mexican marines seized more than 23.5 metric tons of cocaine, the biggest coke bust in history. Calderón’s men also arrested thousands of suspected traffickers. Most were low-level hoods, but some kingpins were taken off the board as well. Several of these, to the great satisfaction of the northern neighbor, were extradited to the U.S., including top target Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, putting an end, it was hoped, to his running the Gulf Cartel from his Mexican jail cell. True, the confiscations added up to only a tiny fraction of cartel profits, and most of the arrested personnel were released without being prosecuted. But all in all, Calderón had come on like gangbusters. Yes, critics complained that, after his first half year in office, the violence on Mexico’s streets still exceeded Fox-era levels. Then that changed too.
In August 2007, the Gulf Cartel and Sinaloa-Juárez Federation agreed to a ceasefire. Each had underestimated the other. Both had suffered heavy casualties. Warfare had been bad for business. Their respective contacts in Colombia were beginning to wonder about the Mexicans’ reliability. With victory nowhere in sight, the Sinaloan high command (El Chapo & Company) and its field commanders El Barbas and La Barbie, reluctantly decided to call off their invasion and seek a rapprochement with the Gulf Cartel and its Zeta army. At a peace summit in Monterrey the two mafias agreed to stop massacring each other and to respect the facts on the ground. The Gulf Cartel would keep northeastern Mexico, including Nuevo Laredo, as well as the eastern state of Veracruz; the Sinaloa-Juárez Federation would keep their old western territories including Acapulco; and in other domains they agreed to co-exist. Arturo Beltrán Leyva was made the Sinaloan point man to keep the peace with the Zetas’ Heriberto Lazcano. The killings began to subside in the ensuing months, and although 2007 finished with 2,500 drug-related murders, more than in 2006, the death rate was trending down. As Ioan Grillo notes, after Calderón’s first year in office, his war looked “pretty damn good.”
Then, at the beginning of 2008, Mexico exploded. For the remainder of Calderón’s sexenio, the war he had started would expand and intensify, quantitatively and qualitatively, and become incredibly convoluted. There would be no trench warfare, no great set-piece battles between contending armies, no clear lines of demarcation between—or within—one side and the other. Instead, in a deadly dialectic, the war on narcos would exacerbate the war between narcos, which in turn would bring on an escalation of the war on narcos. The cartels fissured into fragments, which came together in new alignments; allies became enemies, foes mutated into friends. Government forces fought one another as furiously as they did the narcos. The lines between combatants and civilians blurred, disappeared. At times it seemed a war of all against all. It also grew steadily more monstrous. The mound of corpses and body parts rose to epochal proportions. The roughly seventy thousand who died—more often than not in grotesque and grisly ways—put the carnage level on a par with that of the Cristero War and the Mexican Revolution itself. Hell really had broken loose.
Sorting the geography of this nightmarish calamity into tidy theaters of war is all but impossible. Territorial borders became as mutable as the boundaries of combatants. Battlegrounds could shuttle abruptly from blood-drenched killing field to relatively pacific landscape. Yet a geographical approach—focusing on the trajectories of violence in the western, eastern, and central states of the northern borderland regions—provides a rudimentary way to get a grip on the main lines of conflict. What follows will be a fairly high-altitude flyover of the Boschian terrain below, though it also will descend to limn the horrors, drawing on the host of accounts eyewitnessed at ground level that were written by brave and resourceful reporters (those who lived to tell their tales).
From our elevated vantage point above the maelstrom of murder it seems clear that the major trigger of renewed warfare in 2008 was the truce that had terminated warfare in 2007. The peace treaty had given responsibility for keeping things peaceful to each cartel’s military wing. So assiduously did they live up to their responsibilities that both the respective field commanders—Arturo Beltrán Leyva of Los Negros and Heriberto Lazcano of Los Zetas—decided to strike out on their own, cutting out their respective cartel bosses, and entering into a business arrangement with each other. The effect of these formerly mortal enemies reconstituting themselves as commercial accomplices was to redraw the map of Mexico’s organized drug trafficking. Their respective cartel superiors, however, declined to accept this new state of affairs, and went to war with their respective former subordinates.
Hostilities broke out almost immediately in the west, driven as much by personal vendettas as by the underlying commercial logic.
Victory over the Zetas—or at least having battled the ferocious enforcers to a draw—went to Arturo Beltrán Leyva’s head. El Barbas (the Beard), and even more so his brother Alfredo, were often seen and photographed with his top security man, Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, attending glamorous parties. Their flamboyant lifestyle seems to have grated on the more low-key El Chapo rather as, back in the 1980s, the flashy carryings-on in New York City of the publicity-hungry Mafia boss John Gotti had ruffled the elegant feathers of Big Paulie Castellano, a more conservative capo, who believed bosses should be neither seen nor heard. So when on January 21, 2008, Alfredo was arrested in Culiacán, it was commonly believed that El Chapo had tipped off federal authorities as to his whereabouts.
This conviction was strengthened when El Chapo failed to help Alfredo win his freedom, in marked contrast to Los Zetas’ Lazcano, who immediately provided his new buddy Arturo with his most trusted attorney. El Chapo’s unhelpfulness, some surmised, might also have been aimed at currying favor with the authorities, in order to win the release of one of his sons from a maximum-security prison in the State of Mexico. And, indeed, said son was sprung a few months later, on April 11. A few weeks after that, on May 9, the Beltrán Leyva clan—presumably having drawn their own conclusions about the timing of events—sent a fifteen-man hit squad to kill El Chapo’s other son, Édgar, a twenty-two-year-old university student. He and two friends were riddled with five hundred bullets in the parking lot of a Culiacán mall.
Buoyed by their growing link with the Zetas, the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO), as the brothers styled themselves, now broke with The Federation and, accompanied by their trusty sidekick La Barbie, declared full-scale war on the Sinaloa Cartel. The ensuing battles were the more vicious for being fratricidal—the rivals having worked and fought alongside each together for decades—and for being centered in their common homeland, every inch of which was known to both sides. Massacre followed massacre, cut-up corpses piled high, and by year’s end Sinaloa alone had tallied 1,162 homicides.
2009 proved to be more of the same until December, when DEA agents tracked Beltrán Leyva to a high-end apartment block in Cuernavaca, and then gave the address to Mexican marines, an elite force that had trained with the U.S. Northern Command. Two hundred marines surrounded and shot up the building while a helicopter hovered overhead, and Arturo and his band fired back and lobbed grenades. After two hours, the marines stormed the apartment and killed all the occupants. Then they stripped Beltrán Leyva’s body, covered the corpse with his money and jewelry, and snapped away, creating a state-issued photographic version of the narcomensajes. Later the remains were entombed in a two-story mausoleum in the Humaya Gardens, a unique (not to say bizarre) cemetery on the southern edge of Culiacán, that had become Narcoland’s favorite final resting place.21
No sooner was the Beltrán Leyva Organization decapitated than two rival factions sprang up in its place, one led by Arturo’s former right-hand man La Barbie and the other by his brother, Héctor Beltrán Leyva. They now lit into one another. It was La Barbie and his Los Negros versus Héctor Beltrán Leyva assisted by Los Zetas. Bodies piled up, videotapes of torture sessions were exchanged, and in August 2010 four decapitated bodies were hung from a bridge in Cuernavaca, along with a message on a banner (a narcomanta) guaranteeing a similar fate to anyone who helped Valdez. It was just then that the DEA traced La Barbie (by tracking his cell phones) to a rural house near Mexico City, where on August 30, 2010, he was arrested by federal police. (Some say La Barbie gave himself up, feeling safer in the custody of the federal government than on the run from Héctor and his Zetas). With the BLO bereft of both Beard and Barbie, local warlords began battling to seize control of its lucrative territories. The war in the west now spilled over from Mexico’s northwest to its center and south, with bloodbaths breaking out in a dozen different states.
A similar trajectory played out in the east.
Gulfos v. Zetas
The first cracks in the Gulf-Zeta partnership appeared in 2007, after the Gulf Cartel leaders made peace with their Sinaloan counterparts, a move the Zetas saw as a sellout. Over the next two years, the Zetas began expanding their own operations, spreading down the eastern coast, setting up loosely networked cells in small towns, villages, and barrios. Many Zetas had been born poor country boys, and now they recruited thousands more of their ilk. By 2010, the Zetas were estimated to have more than ten thousand soldiers adept at military-style strategizing and fond of sadistic violence.
Early in 2010, long-standing tensions escalated into open warfare. Zetas began attacking Gulf operatives wherever they found them and taking over their turf. The Gulf Cartel allied with their old Sinaloan rivals and fought back, engulfing the northeastern region in violence. The first clash between these partners-turned-combatants came in Reynosa in the state of Tamaulipas. Fighting expanded to Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and other municipalities along the Tamaulipas-Texas border, and then into neighboring states of Nuevo León and Veracruz. Calderón dispatched more troops, but Los Zetas fought off army units and rival cartel hit-squads alike, using heavy-caliber machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Some battles lasted for hours, paralyzing entire downtowns, leaving behind a war-ravaged cityscape of burned-out businesses. The body count soared. In 2009 the federal government had reported 90 drug-related murders in Tamaulipas; in 2010 the figure was 1,209, a substantial portion of the nationwide total of 15,000 dead.
The impact of all this mortality was greater than the simple numbers suggested, as it included the largest single instance of mass murder to date. San Fernando was a town in Tamaulipas, where the strategic north-south Federal Highway 101 intersected a network of dozens of local roads and trails that led off to various frontier cities, making it a critical node in the Zetas’ drug-smuggling operation. (Zeta dominance of San Fernando included control of the local police force, nearly half of which was on the cartel’s payroll.) Naturally such a strategic location was repeatedly targeted by Gulf Cartel forces, which after one foray “strung the bodies of fallen Zetas and their associates from light poles.”
In what appears to have been a hyper-cautious (not to say paranoid) response, Los Zetas began not merely stopping trucks and buses heading north on 101—they had been doing that already as part of their expanded extortion and kidnapping initiatives, which preyed on Central and South American migrants heading north toward an illicit river crossing into the U.S.—but now they dragged off people whom they suspected had been sent by Los Golfos or by their allies in Michoacán and Durango (the La Familia and Sinaloa Cartels) to beef up the Gulf forces.
On August 22, 2010, seventy-two migrants (fifty-eight men and fourteen women) were taken from two vehicles, grilled as to their destination, their cell phones inspected for incriminating evidence. Though no signs of a Gulf connection were uncovered, it seemed better to be safe than sorry. The migrants were accordingly taken to a nearby abandoned farm shed, tied hand and foot, laid facedown on the ground, and mowed down en masse—except for one Ecuadorian who, having feigned death, was able to reach an army checkpoint on the highway.
This, it turned out, was only a dress rehearsal for a more macabre massacre committed less than a year later. In March 2011, several buses on 101 were stopped and their passengers (this time mostly Mexicans) were removed and murdered. By June, excavation of forty-seven mass graves in the San Fernando area had unearthed 193 corpses. Most had been dispatched by blunt force trauma to the head rather than by gunshot. Despite the capture and confessions of several self-professed Zeta perpetrators, the cause and nature of the executions remain murky. Explanations range from the same justification offered for the 2010 killings (fear of Gulf reinforcements), to refusal to work for the Zetas as drug mules, to kidnapping (not particularly plausible given the immediate killings and lack of ransom demand), to a cinematic story told to a reputable Texas journalist by an at-large, anonymous, and self-proclaimed participant. He claimed the men were given weapons, including sledgehammers, and forced to battle one another to the death like “a gladiator fight from ancient Rome.” The survivors were recruited as Zeta assassins and sent on suicide missions, like driving into a Gulf stronghold and shooting it up.22
With 566 people dead at Zeta hands, thousands of San Fernando citizens now picked up and fled to other parts of Mexico, or to the United States. Calderón flooded the area with soldiers, deposed the local police, and turned the territory into a military base. But the Gulf-Zeta conflict merely moved on to other venues, with the Zetas (in 2011) steadily pushing the parental cartel out of much of its traditional turf along the Texas border. They also expanded southward into the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, and over the border into Guatemala, behaving less like gangsters (Grillo notes) than “like a paramilitary group controlling territory.”
In 2012 Calderón proclaimed a major setback to this Zeta juggernaut when Mexican naval forces killed Heriberto Lazcano in the state of Coahuila on October 7. Unfortunately the Hydra Principle—chop off one head and two or more spring back in its place—was as operative here as elsewhere. Lazcano’s leadership role was taken over, in fact many Zeta-watchers believed his place had already been usurped, by his number two man, one Miguel Treviño Morales. While Lazcano (“The Executioner”) was a hard man to top for cruelty, Treviño was an even more vicious piece of work, given, for instance, to “stewing” his victims—dumping them in fifty-five-gallon oil drums, dousing them with gasoline, and burning them alive. The “be careful what you wish for” maxim was all too appropriate in the case of Lazcano’s demise and Treviño’s rise. And so it proved to be with the similarly premature celebration by Calderón, across the country in Michoacán, of the excision of another kingpin, the “Más Loco” ruler of La Familia, a surgery that led only to deeper malignancy.
By late 2009, La Familia Michoacana, with help from the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels, had succeeded in driving their now common enemy, Los Zetas, out of the state. Then, not satisfied with commanding the methamphetamine business—exporting about one hundred tons to the U.S. each year, with a street value of perhaps $10 billion—they expanded into the cocaine, heroin, and marijuana trades, and added sidelines such as smuggling people as well as drugs into the U.S. They also tightened their grip on local government, buying some politicians and murdering others, gaining the ability to name the police chiefs who were their purported pursuers. Nor were they shy about directly attacking the federal forces that Calderón poured into the state. When one Familia lieutenant was arrested in July 2009, his comrades retaliated by capturing, torturing, and murdering a dozen federal police, dumping their bodies by a mountain highway, and affixing a narcomensaje reading: “So that you come for another. We will be waiting for you here.” Calderón dispatched an additional thousand federal police, but to no great effect. Until December 2010 when, thanks to intelligence information provided by ever more deeply involved U.S. agencies, the government announced they had killed the cartel’s capo, Nazario “El Más Loco” Moreno González, in a firefight, though disappointingly the body had been spirited away before it could be definitively identified.
After the apparent death of its strategic and spiritual leader, La Familia retreated into its mountain fastness, where the leadership split in two, prompting triumphalist government assertions that Michoacán would soon be back under control. But while one of the factions began to fade away, the other mutated into an even more repellant descendant, Los Caballeros Templarios—“The Knights Templar”—named after the medieval Catholic crusaders. Claiming Moreno’s mantle, the Knights were led by two Moreno lieutenants, Servando “La Tuta” (“The Teacher”) Gómez Martínez, and Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte. They donned white cloaks blazoned with red crosses, erected statues of the departed drug lord decked out in medieval armor, and, decorating them with gold and diamonds, venerated El Más Loco as a saint.
As had La Familia, the Knights Templar professed a devotion to social justice and even to revolutionary politics. They also affected respect for the Roman Catholic Church, and when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico, they hung banners on bridges in seven cities proclaiming: “The Knights Templar Cartel will not partake in any warlike acts, we are not killers, welcome Pope.” They too promised to protect Michoacán from outside evildoers. Soon after appearing on the scene they hung more than forty banners across the state proclaiming: “Our commitment is to safeguard order, avoid robberies, kidnapping, and extortion, and to shield the state from rival organizations.” By which they meant the Zetas, against whom they invited other cartels to join in a countrywide anti-Zeta alliance.
It took the Knights far less time to turn super-malevolent than it had La Familia.
In addition to dominating the drug trade, the Templarios began terrorizing the local populace, committing all the crimes they had promised to “avoid.” They extorted tribute from farmers by forcing growers of avocados and limes to pay a quota for every kilo, terrorized corn growers into selling their crops cheap, then resold them to tortilla makers at double the price. They raped women at will, kidnapped with abandon, and tortured and beheaded resisters in public. They also took control of much of Michoacán’s political order, installing local politicians in office, controlling municipal budgets, and employing local police as assistants.
The Knights menaced not only local campesinos, but also corporate and multinational enterprises. Starting in 2010, they boldly began robbing iron mining companies of their ore, or seizing the mines outright. Then they sold the product to processors, distributors, and Chinese industrial firms—voracious consumers of iron ore—having established all but total control of the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, now the country’s second largest. In 2010 they moved over a million tons of illegally extracted ore, a blow to the country’s economy and international standing. The Templarios, now an eight-hundred-pound leech, had opened up a whole new field of endeavor for Mexico’s organized crime.
But for all the setbacks Calderón’s war experienced in the east and the west, it was the developments in the borderland’s center that proved most disheartening.
Ciudad Juárez, Murder Capital of the World
The nightmare that overwhelmed Ciudad Juárez cannot simply be explained by the battle between the drug trafficking syndicates vying to control this crucial corridor to the U.S. marketplace, though that was at the core of the story. The world-class catastrophe that befell the city stemmed from a concatenation of historical forces, some dating back to the Second World War, which came together with unfortunate simultaneity in 2008.
In 1942, the United States and Mexico had launched the Bracero Program, a series of bi-lateral agreements that allowed Mexican agricultural laborers to work seasonally on United States farms. The resulting ebb and flow of hundreds of thousands of campesinos ended the perceived shortage of (low-waged) manpower north of the Río Bravo, in effect reversing the massive deportations that had been carried out back in the depressed thirties, when there had been a perceived surplus. In 1964 the program was ended, due partly to U.S. labor protests against the undercutting of farm worker wages. Mexicans found their access to northern jobs blocked. In response to the resulting rampant unemployment, the Mexican Government launched the Border Industrialization Program. In doing so they followed the lead of Hong Kong and Taiwan, which had established free trade zones, enclaves within which foreign corporations could build factories and hire local workers to assemble imported component parts into finished products, e.g., television sets. The corporations paid no tariffs on the “imported” parts, and were liable only to an export tax on the value added by the laborers, which, given the extremely low wages, was a modest increment. The Mexican government’s maquiladora program—a term derived from the practice of millers charging a maquila or “miller’s portion” for processing other people’s grain—offered U.S. companies cheap labor, tax breaks, and a location that was steps (not oceans) away from American soil.
United States companies leapt at the offer, opening factories along the border throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The number of these plants grew from twelve (employing 3,000) in 1965, to 1,920 (employing 460,258) in 1990, by which time Mexican maquiladoras had outstripped their Asian rivals. Ciudad Juárez led the field, sucking in enormous numbers of migrants from the surrounding distressed rural areas to work in the industrial enclaves. Between 1950 and 1990, the city’s overall population swelled from 122,600 to 800,000.
The maquiladora sector surged again in the 1990s, boosted by the signing of NAFTA in 1994, and the devaluation that year of the peso, which lost more than half its value. The resulting rise in the inflation rate from 7 percent in 1994 to 52 percent in 1995 drove down the price of dollar-denominated Mexican wages by almost 30 percent. United States firms raced to Mexico to profit from the super-cheapened labor which is why, even as the country’s overall economic growth rate contracted, maquiladora employment shot up by an average of 11 percent per year between 1995 and 2001. In Ciudad Juárez, the 140,045 maquiladora workers of 1994 nearly doubled to 262,805 by 2000. And the city’s overall population skyrocketed along with its labor force, rising from 800,000 at the beginning of the nineties to over 1,200,000 by its end.
The profits from this surge flew away north, but while the workers were in some respects better off than they had been in the countryside, the downward pressure on wages (from local and increasingly international competition) kept people impoverished. Living conditions in the spreading slums outside the factory gates were squalid. Some of the ramshackle housing was built out of pallets from the loading docks of the American factories. Vast numbers had limited or no access to running water, a functioning sewage system, paved streets, or electricity. Schools, hospitals, parks, public transport—public amenities in general—were in scarce supply. In some respects Ciudad Juárez, despite its name, was less a city than a holding pen for workers in the private-sector enclaves.
Social stress levels were high, particularly along the gender divide. The assembly plants, though originally intended to solve the male unemployment problem, opted instead to hire single young women, who were cheaper and deemed more pliable. This suited the needs of desperate rural households who, confronted with the agrarian crisis, needed to increase their number of income streams. Urban maquiladoras allowed them to place their daughters in the industrial labor force; indeed, young women came to constitute the great majority. The work, working conditions, and wages were grim. Maquiladora employers paid Mexican women roughly one-sixth the wage paid women just across the Río Bravo. Worse, the women faced hostility from males, many of whom were unemployed—not simply over access to jobs, but because the body of independent and mobile working women represented a challenge to a profoundly patriarchal gender order.
Starting around 1994, when poverty shot up as the peso declined, and maquiladora employment rose but females got the jobs, a plague of violence against women—overwhelmingly maquiladora workers—swept through the city. The number of rapes, beatings, tortures, and increasingly violent deaths (strangulation, stabbing, mutilation) began to climb, the killings abetted (sometimes perpetrated) by the police force, and facilitated by darkened streetscapes that enhanced women’s vulnerability. More than 340 were killed between 1993 and 2003, by which time the “murdered women of Juárez” had been made an international byword by outraged protestors. While some of the killings were rooted in specific situations and prompted by personal motives, it seemed clear that the murder wave was more than just an agglomeration of individual incidents. It was something rooted in the city’s social ecology.
The nineties were also the heyday of “El Señor de los Cielos,” Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who in 1993 had ascended to overlordship of the Juárez Cartel. By 1995, his fleet of jets landing at Juárez airport, laden with Colombian cocaine, was generating over $12 billion a year. The northward flow of drugs, paralleling and piggybacking on the NAFTA-expanded flood of legitimate products, provided the profits that supported lavish lifestyles for Carrillo Fuentes and his fellow drug lords. It also furnished the payroll for an army of drug traffickers who moved the tons of product warehoused in the city—an army whose numbers, some believed, matched those working in the assembly plants. Until his untimely demise in 1997, El Señor de los Cielos maintained a reasonable degree of order in his sector. Murders were, of course, part of doing business in an illegal industry, one could not take such business disputes to the courts, but they were limited to a modest two hundred to three hundred a year.
As the twenty-first century dawned, additional stresses were added to a dangerously fraught situation. Competition from even lower-waged Chinese assembly plants tempted some corporations to relocate their operations to Asia. And in March 2000, the U.S. dot-com bubble popped, and the economy slid into recession. The Mexican economy promptly nose-dived: it had always been sensitive to America’s financial perturbations, and now, more vulnerable than ever, it was dragged down by the chains of NAFTA. Nowhere were the consequences more devastating than in the border belt. Between 2000 and 2002, maquiladora employment in Ciudad Juárez lurched downward, as 529 plants were shuttered, taking with them roughly 49,000 jobs (out of 262,000).
The recession proved a brief one, and the roller-coaster economy headed up again. Employment rose. So did in-migration. By 2005 the population reached 1,464,100, leading some to worry that the underdeveloped city was simply not capable of sustaining such numbers.23
There were other things to worry about. The death of El Señor de los Cielos in 1997 had been followed by the customary succession crisis and attendant instability, but by the early 2000s Amado’s brother Vicente Carrillo Fuentes had come out more or less on top. Now styling himself “El Viceroy,” Vicente strengthened his position by entering into the Federation alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel of El Chapo Guzmán. But 2004 brought disturbing signs that this united front—directed against the Gulf-Zeta powerhouse—was coming unglued.
On September 11, 2004, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, another brother of the departed Amado, was executed by sicarios believed to have been dispatched by El Chapo. This prompted the revenge killing three months later of Arturo Guzmán Loera, a brother of El Chapo. As the alliance crumbled—its complete breakup postponed only by the ongoing war with the Gulf Cartel and its Zeta army—factionalism deepened within the Juárez Cartel, undermining El Viceroy’s shaky grip on power.
Once the east-west war was ended by the truce of 2007, the break between the Sinaloa and Juárez Cartels became complete, and full-scale war ensued. Violence spiked upward in January and February 2008, racking up a record one hundred murders in sixty days. In April, Calderón launched Operation Chihuahua (it was compared to Bush’s “surge” in Iraq), which eventually sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to the city. It had the effect of spraying gasoline on a fire. By the end of 2008, 1,600 had died.
Another calamity landed on the city’s head that year. On September 15, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The subsequent downward plunge of the U.S. economy produced the sharpest drop in the Mexican economy in twenty years. Gross Domestic Product contracted by 6.6 percent in 2009, the biggest decline experienced by any Latin American country.
The Great Recession combined with the escalation of violence interrupted foreign investment flows, with devastating consequences for the maquiladora belt. Ciudad Juárez, the city with the highest concentration of export assembly jobs, took the biggest hit. Manufacturing employment, which had dropped by 50,000 earlier in the decade, now lost another nearly 50,000 jobs, cascading down from 214,272 in July 2007 to 168,011 in December 2009, a 22 percent decrease. Tijuana dropped 21 percent. Another blow: as Mexican-Americans in the U.S. were hammered by hard times, their ability to send remittances south diminished, and in 2009 Mexico experienced a 16 percent drop in this vital income stream. Countrywide, ten million people fell below the poverty line between 2006 and 2009.
Economists noted that, in partial compensation, the so-called informal economy grew by nearly a million jobs from 2008 to 2009, though few dwelt on the fact that a hefty number of these positions were not being created by plucky independent entrepreneurs, but by the biggest business sector left standing. The cartels hired the unemployed to serve as everything from mules to murderers, an appealing prospect (given the lack of alternatives) especially for youth, who tumbled out of schools and onto the streets. In Ciudad Juárez, one 2010 study found that 120,000 Juárez youngsters aged thirteen to twenty-four—45 percent of the total—were not enrolled in any educational institution, nor had they any formal employment. Instead many were wielding cartel-provided Kalashnikovs and AR-15s, having been transformed from high-school students into baby-faced sicarios, ready to kill for cash. (The going price per corpse in Juárez was $85, which covered a week’s worth of beer and tacos.) Thousands from the city’s sprawling slums were pulled into the conflict, recruited either directly by the Juárez or Sinaloa Cartels, or by their subordinate street gangs.
By 2009 Calderón was being implored from many sides to respond to the economic crisis. The Mexican Catholic Church, speaking through the Archdiocese of Mexico’s weekly newspaper Desde la Fe (From the Faith), declared that the U.S. financial crisis had proved that savage, speculative capitalism “had failed,” and called for a return to a socially responsible economy. The PRD proposed that the Bank of Mexico set aside twenty-five billion dollars for the building of public works, to generate jobs and reactivate the economy. López Obrador also called on the government to cancel all increases in the prices of gasoline and electricity; provide educational stipends for all students; and create a food budget for older adults, beginning with the indigenous population and the urban and rural poor.
Calderón’s response was to launch a crash program intended to reverse decades of neglect of Juárez’s social fabric, but it amounted to putting a Band-Aid on the arm of a patient who had just been shot in the gut. He hailed his “TODOS SOMOS Juárez” program (“WE ARE ALL Juárez”) as “a set of policy interventions” designed to address “not only the effects but also the causes of violence and crime.” They included: seventy-one schools extending their hours; establishing a “Safe Schools” program that “promotes safe environments through addiction- and violence-prevention plans”; granting “soft loans” to 1,379 small and medium-size businesses; nineteen public spaces in poor urban areas being “rescued or improved,” including sports facilities, parks, and community centers; signing up more people for Seguro Popular, the federal government’s free medical insurance program; doubling the number of households (to 21,808) covered by the federal anti-poverty program Oportunidades—which Calderón had inherited from Fox and Zedillo—that gave conditional cash grants to low-income families who enroll their children in school “and take them for regular medical check-ups.” The pathetic inadequacy of these otherwise worthy initiatives was underscored by the first use for one of the new soccer fields—as a killing ground, on which seven people were murdered.
Nationally, the government’s response to the crisis was to pass budget cuts for 2010, the austerity measures dedicated to “restoring investor confidence.”
Ironically, one thing that did seem to buoy investors’ spirits were the drug profits that continued to flow as copiously as ever. Analysts were surprised at how well Mexico’s banking sector was doing, given the tanking economy. Calderón’s government attributed this to financial reforms undertaken after the 1994 financial crisis. But according to Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it appeared to be “drugs money worth billions [that] kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis.” The thirty billion dirty dollars that had been laundered south into Mexican bank vaults proved, the global drug czar believed, to be “the only liquid investment capital” available during the meltdown to institutions on the brink of collapse. The Mexican Treasury secretary assayed a more modest assessment of the bonanza’s dimensions when he said, in a press conference on June 15, 2010, that the forty-one banks operating in Mexico had “ten billion dollars that cannot be explained within the proper dynamics of the country’s economic activity.”24
Calderón did try to remedy this situation. He decreed measures to clamp down on cash deposits, and won passage in October 2012 of a modest money-laundering bill that tightened regulations on banks, casinos, and credit-card companies, and limited cash transactions in certain real-estate operations or in the buying and selling of vehicles, jewelry, precious metals, watches, gemstones, and works of art. But prospects for efficient enforcement seemed bleak, with Mexico’s Ministry of Finance reporting that only 2 percent of money laundering investigations in 2010 had ended with the accused being sentenced.
Rather than confront the financial and systemic crises, Calderón doubled down on the military option. In Ciudad Juárez, approximately eight hundred officers were dismissed from the police department and replaced by troops and federal police. As of March 2009 at least 4,500 had arrived; by August there were more than 7,500. Further reinforcements followed in 2010, with Calderón insisting: “We won’t back down against the enemies of Mexico.”
In this he had the full backing of the United States government, which, despite a change of regime, stood foursquare behind the strategy of sending the military into the streets of Mexican cities. The Merida Initiative, which had authorized $1.4 billion worth of hardware and training to be disbursed over three years, had been signed in 2008 by President Bush, but its administration fell to President Barack Obama (2009–). On his first presidential visit to Mexico, in April 2009, Obama praised Calderón for taking on the drug cartels, and promised to expedite the shipment of Merida weaponry that had been slow to arrive in government hands.25
As the violence in Ciudad Juárez exploded, the Obama administration and the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command worried that Mexico might be verging on becoming a “failed state.” They wondered if cartel violence might trigger a collapse of the government, sending the country spinning down into chaos, which in turn “would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.” In April 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced she would be sending hundreds more federal agents and other personnel to border areas.
As the Mexican death toll mounted, Calderón had asked Bush for armed drones, having been impressed with their results in Iraq and Afghanistan. The White House rejected this, fearing collateral damage (as in Iraq and Afghanistan). But after the July 2009 shooting death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Predator drones were okayed, for reconnaissance only, with U.S. pilots sitting at the controls in the States, and Mexican military or federal police commanders directing their flight path south of the Rio Grande. Obama also approved DEA and CIA training of Mexican counterparts to hunt down drug kingpins, using counter-terrorist “high-value target” strategies of the sort used against members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Americans also tried to set up trustworthy Mexican units by polygraphing, drug-testing, and vetting candidates, but these operations were routinely penetrated by moles.
Anxiety levels mounted in 2010. In January (as a Wiki-leaked cable revealed) U.S. embassy officials saw Calderón as struggling with “spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed.” In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico and declared that cartel violence might be “morphing into or making common cause with what we would call an insurgency.” In February 2011 the U.S. undersecretary of the army expressed concern about “the potential takeover of a government that’s right on our border,” a development that might possibly require America’s “armed soldiers” to fight “an insurgency right on our border or just across our borders.”
This hint of possible U.S. military action—evoking memories of Pershing’s incursion of 1916 if not Polk’s 1846 invasion—touched off an uproar in Mexico that won an immediate retraction. But days later, on February 15, 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata was shot to death by Zetas using a weapon smuggled in from the United States. This was the first such murder since Kiki Camarena’s in 1985, leading some to demand the growing number of U.S. agents in Mexico be allowed to carry weapons. In March 2011, Calderón flew to Washington for talks with Obama, which led to the latter praising the former for his “extraordinary courage” in fighting the drug cartels, and insisting that Calderón’s war had in the United States a “full partner.” To support Mexican operations in Ciudad Juárez, U.S. authorities arranged brainstorming sessions at nearby Fort Bliss in Texas, and U.S. liaison officers were placed inside the federal police war-room in Ciudad Juárez.
But on the ground in the beleaguered city, it quickly became apparent that the military, eyeing all locals as potential narco-assassins (which many were), had launched brutal attacks against suspect civilians and municipal police, becoming part of the problem rather than its solution. Worse, they and the federal police—as if infected by a greed virus—swung over to the dark side in great numbers, stealing, raping, robbing, and kidnapping at will. Though they had been welcomed at first by the citizenry, many of the latter soon changed their mind, and complaints about abuse poured in. A November 2011 report by Human Rights Watch (Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s “War on Drugs”) asserted that: “Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country.”26 Major General Manuel de Jesús Moreno Aviña, commander of the Third Infantry Company, and in charge of operations in the entire state of Chihuahua, was soon relieved of duty and charged with torture, murder, and collaboration with traffickers. But the carnage continued.
A feeding frenzy of murder, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, gang clashes, revenge slayings, and sicario assassinations gripped the city. Bursts of machine gun fire became routine background noise, as prevalent as car alarms. Spent cartridges from AK-47 and AR-15 rifles, and .40-caliber and 9mm pistols, littered the streets. So did decapitated, burned, mutilated, or merely bullet-riddled cadavers.
In August 2009 the murder rate in Ciudad Juárez was declared the highest in the world, leaving second place Caracas in the dust. By year’s end 2,660 had died, nearly doubling the 2008 total. In 2010, the body count reached 3,116.
Tens of thousands fled the city between 2007 and 2011, those with money and papers relocating across the border in El Paso and points north. A reported one hundred thousand homes were vacant, abandoned, or destroyed.
Inside the inferno, death seemed omnipresent, a war of all against all, beyond rational explanation. Journalist Charles Bowden, who lived in Juárez during those days, wrote in his harrowing account Murder City that it seemed as if “violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community, and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button.” Violence was “like the dust in the air, part of life itself.” Or no, Bowden reflected, “not a part of life, now it is life.”
But the bloodletting was not pointless, nor inexplicable. Though inflamed by Calderón’s intervention, it was ultimately a product of the struggle to control the plaza, and the tens of billions of dollars that would accrue to the victor. When in 2011 El Chapo and his Sinaloans significantly degraded El Viceroy’s forces, and Calderón was pressured into withdrawing the inflammatory military in favor of reconstituted federal and local police forces, the violence began to subside, the body count dropping by year’s end to 2,086. And in 2012, reflecting the clear (though not total) triumph of Sinaloan forces, it lurched downward to 750—still atrocious, but a quantitative change sufficiently significant to be reflected in qualitative experiences. Businesses reopened; citizens basked in the relative calm.
But the tamping down of the clash between goliaths, this time not through truce but through victory, did not bring countrywide relief. Quite the opposite: the war generated a vast expansion of collateral criminality, a rampage not of tyrannosaurs but of raptors, and one that wreaked havoc across the land.
Calderón had argued that his fundamental goal was not drug interdiction but beating back the narcos’ de facto (verging on de jure) challenge to the authority of the state, thereby ending organized crime’s undermining of public order and security. But the president chose to define victory as the dismantling of cartels by taking down kingpins—going mano a mano with the drug lords—in the belief that decapitating the organizations would degrade and hopefully destroy their ability to dominate great patches of Mexican territory. By this metric his sexenio was a great success, as Calderón’s forces captured or killed twenty-five of the top thirty-seven bad guys. But the end result was not the desired one.
On the one hand, the five or so major organized crime organizations of 2006 were consolidated into the two gigantic super-cartels of 2012—the Sinaloans, who dominated the western half of the country, and the Zetas, who dominated the east. Calderón had inadvertently furthered the concentration of power in the industry (with the Gulf, Beltrán Leyva, Juárez, Tijuana, and Templario outfits reduced to secondary status).
On the other hand, there was an explosion of disorganized crime. The Hydra Principle was again in effect. Calderón’s war, coupled with the fissionability of the criminal industry, spawned an estimated eighty smaller criminal organizations, restoring the free enterprise system and its murderous concomitant: competition. He argued that the resulting explosion of violence by ganglets, against one another and against civilians, was an indicator of success—in the way that a fever signals that a body is fighting off an infection. This disturbing level of abstraction allowed him to depict a horrifying breakdown of public order as merely the storm before the calm.
In truth, the wartime scramble for revenue streams was remaking the criminal landscape as the competitors broke open new markets. In the United States a somewhat similar situation had emerged after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. When legitimate corporations regained control of the production and distribution of alcohol, the chieftains of organized crime—whom the liquor trade had empowered and enriched—were now forced to diversify into other entrepreneurial channels, like labor racketeering, extortion, gambling, and prostitution. In twenty-first century Mexico there was wrought, rather, a bifurcation. The big boys maintained their grip on the big international drug business, leaving the lesser hoods to do the diversifying, by moving into distinctly local rackets.
In this context, according to statistics compiled by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Computing), crime skyrocketed, reversing the historic decline that had been underway since the 1990s. Leading the league were the kidnappers.
The last time abductions had been abundant—during the economic crisis of the 1990s—they had mostly been carried out by freelance criminals, with no links of consequence to the organized drug traffickers of the day. Indeed it was, at times, rather the reverse: when independent gunslingers in Sinaloa began kidnapping wealthy ranchers and cutting off their fingers to hasten the arrival of ransom payments, drug bosses issued an edict prohibiting the practice in their territory, under penalty of death. Perhaps that’s why the state had one of the lowest kidnap rates in the country.
Kidnapping surged again during Calderón’s war years. One government study found the number of reported cases rose 317 percent between 2005 and 2010, spiking particularly in 2008 and hitting 1,350 in 2010. As the ratio of reported to actual instances was generally considered to be 1-to-10—given the fear that calling in the police (assuming they had not done the deed in the first place) would increase the chance of the kidnappers killing their victim—criminologists calculated that Mexico’s kidnapping rate was arguably the highest on the planet.
Much of the dirty business was undertaken by the small-fry gangs, emerging out of the chaos of the war itself and fueled by the growing availability of ever younger recruits who, hammered by the economic crisis and the war’s disruptions, were casting about for accessible avenues of profit. They were joined by cashiered cops from local police forces, evicted by the military who regarded them (not unreasonably) as being under cartel control. This had the double downside of diminishing such local policing as had existed, and creating a cadre of unemployed gunsels.
These newcomers tended to snatch not the rich and better protected but professionals and small businessmen, doctors and auto dealers, and even better-off employees like oil workers. And almost always they went after locals rather than Americans and Europeans.
This is not to say that the giant cartels passed up the opportunity. Indeed, the Zetas entered the business—it being an obvious and easy sideline for an armed and fearsome organization—but did so on an industrial scale, turning to a massive supply of potential victims, the migrants coming up from Central America, heading for the Río Bravo frontier.
From the 1970s into the 1990s, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans had been in flight from civil war and government-backed and U.S.-supported death squads that killed and disappeared hundreds of thousands. Two million more had made their way up to Mexico and the United States. Since 2000, the 180,000 murdered in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have sustained the region’s position as the most impoverished in Latin America and the most violent on earth. Their murder rates swerved upward from about 2007—reaching (in Honduras) over 90 per 100,000 in 2012, far outstripping Mexico’s 21.5 (and the 4.7 in the U.S.)—and partly in response to the arrival of Mexican cartels in their homelands, adding their own brand of savagery to the homicidal culture the citizenry had inherited.
The ongoing mayhem in turn sent an estimated four hundred thousand to five hundred thousand to seek refuge in the U.S. each year. Most chose to get to the border by clambering aboard the roofs of cargo trains, known collectively as La Bestia (The Beast), or if their families could scrape together the money, traveling by bus or truck. Organized criminals in close collusion with crooked cops feasted on the flow: robbing, raping, kidnapping, killing.27 Zetas calculated there were huge potential profits in low-unit-price, high-volume ransoming. Aware that even the poorest migrant had relatives who, if they pooled what they had, could come up with $5,000 a head, on paper ten thousand kidnaps could fetch $20,000,000. And they had the organizational capacity to kidnap by the trainload. Such projections were not fanciful. In 2009, the country’s National Commission on Human Rights documented 9,758 reported kidnappings in six months, from September 2008 to February 2009. And in 2010, between April and September, the Commission cited 214 mass kidnappings involving 11,333 people. Still, neither government nor media paid much attention to the roundups and ransoming until that year’s San Fernando massacre of seventy-two migrants jolted the country into noticing the plight of the Central Americans passing through their midst.
Those who made it to the U.S. border confronted another set of problems. The beefed-up wall did not cover all two thousand miles. It left a series of lacunae, usually adjacent to hostile environments, which had produced a fortified frontier punctuated by funnels, the only viable avenues of access for illegal migrants. But this left them vulnerable to the swarms of ski-masked bandits who, knowing precisely where the travelers must go, awaited them there to rob and rape. Still more dangerous were the narcos, who squeezed through the same spaces, and were enraged when mass movements of migrants attracted the attention of the Border Patrol. On one occasion, at a small town on the border between Mexico and Arizona, drug traffickers belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel seized almost three hundred migrants using one of “their” routes through the desert. Their ankles were broken with baseball bats—a symbolic punishment as well as effective deterrent. On other occasions they simply killed entire groups of Central American intruders. On others still, they kidnapped and held them for ransom. Or forced them to deliver drugs as the price of being allowed to move north. Alternatively, the cartels could act as coyotes, profiting handsomely by smuggling the migrants themselves across the border. Given that tighter enforcement had raised the price, they could charge more for their services.
Kidnapping was a species of extortion directed at individuals. But the hungry new arrivals at the banquet table of criminal opportunites tackled businesses as well, demanding payoffs in exchange for not inflicting damage on the proprietors or their property. Until 2008 shakedowns by organized crime were relatively rare, but then the Zetas realized that given their control over great swatches of urban space, they could convert their territories into preying grounds, on a grand scale. And so they demanded protection payoffs from restaurants, bars, discos, brothels, car dealerships, taxi stands, pharmacies, and funeral parlors—the commercial infrastructure of city life. Enterprises that did not pay up were raked by gunfire or burned to the ground—as when Zetas set fire to an obstinate casino in Monterrey and barred the exit doors, killing more than fifty people.
The discovery of this form of taxation at gunpoint accelerated the cartel’s expansion across Mexico, as the more territory it controlled, the more money rolled in. The Zetas even began franchising their name, allowing local extortionists (for a price) to claim they were Zetas, and use the brand’s terrifying reputation to faciliate exaction of tribute.28 Other cartels quickly jumped on the extortion bandwagon. La Familia Michoacana, and its successor the Caballeros Templarios, became masters of the form, expanding their leeching beyond small businesses into the agricultural and industrial sectors, shaking down growers of limes and diggers of mines.
The war accelerated this new practice. Extortion rackets took off in Ciudad Juárez after 2008, partly to compensate for the interruption of other business by turf wars and the government crackdown, and partly because police officers evicted from office provided a ready form of muscle. The Juárez Chamber of Commerce soon felt the bite: while it had never complained much about the tons of narcotics passing through the city, or the drug dollars washing back, it now indignantly called on the United Nations to send troops.
In addition to kidnapping and extortion, robberies and burglaries of all sorts underwent a resurgence, sharply reversing indices that had been declining since the early 1990s. Some of these were old standbys, like auto thefts. Cattle rustling too made a comeback. In September 2010 at least eleven states showed an increase of 30 to 50 percent in the business of stealing cows and then selling them back on the open market, a practice that ranchers attributed to drug-trafficking cartels expanding their field of activities. Here, too, the cartels operated on a grander scale than garden-variety thieves were capable of doing. The Zetas again were pioneers. Between 2008 and the end of 2009, when federal attention was focused elsewhere, they (and copycat cartels) stole more than $1 billion worth of oil from PEMEX, the Mexican national oil company. They simply tapped directly into federal pipelines, siphoned the oil off to stolen tanker trucks, and sold the fuel to Texas-based oil companies.
Virtually all this crime went unpunished. Calderón had believed he could fix the broken criminal justice system on the fly, in the midst of war, but he was proven wrong. He did win passage in 2008 of a judicial reform package, which among other things changed the trial system from a closed inquisitorial to an open adversarial model, similar to that used in the U.S., and specifically prohibited the use of torture.
But the problem was getting criminals into a courtroom in the first place, given massive corruption, inefficiency, and lack of public confidence. The Mexican Human Rights Commission found in 2012 that only eight of every one hundred crimes committed were even reported, and only 1 percent of these were investigated by prosecutors. Drug war murders rated a trifle more attention: 5 percent of them were investigated. Convictions, however, were virtually nonexistent. Criminals of all sorts had been guaranteed near total immunity. Murderers were in effect given a “007 license to kill.” This impunity extended to the upper echelons, of course, with virtually no money launderers or corrupt politicians being arrested during Calderón’s sexenio.
The military, too, had been granted de facto immunity. While its reputation had been repeatedly tarnished by the many charges of human rights abuse—murder, rape, torture—they virtually never led to punishment. According to a report by Amnesty International of the 7,164 complaints of torture filed between 2010 and 2013, exactly zero resulted in convictions.
The military was more severe in dealing with deserters. SEDENA (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, the Mexican Department of National Defense) reported that between December 2006 and April 2012, 56,886 soldiers deserted—over one quarter of the armed forces—of whom roughly one fifth were tracked down and punished. (Penalties could go as low as a month in jail, depending on rank.) On the other hand, most of the four-fifths simply vanished, and many feared they had sold their skills to the cartels. Calderón had raised salaries—perhaps why his desertions, though abysmal, were only half those of the Fox years—but wages still remained low, making soldiers susceptible to better offers.
Language and Silence
During his war on the cartels Calderón focused, understandably enough, on recapturing physical control of territory, a goal for which he believed, rightly or wrongly, the application of military force was the appropriate method. But there was another dimension to the conflict, though seldom spelled out as such, which was a struggle over what could and could not be said (or read, or seen, or thought) about the war; a battle, that is, over public perception and discussion. On this front, too, he was challenged in ways he perhaps had not anticipated.
The power of Mexican presidents to shape national narratives through their command of the public podium had been dramatically weakened by the breakup of the PRI’s monopoly of political power, and consequently its ability to dominate the national media. In the old days, the PRI presidency and the PRI state authorities spoke with something approaching a single voice, and both information and analyses dispensed from the top hewed fairly closely to the party line. PRI regimes moreover had had tremendous influence over messages disseminated by private channels of communication. In the world of television, media barons and government officials forged close political, economic, social, and ideological ties. Telesistema Mexicano (which became Televisa in 1973) worked hand in hand with the reigning party. The company head, Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, was fond of calling himself “a soldier of the PRI.” His channels notoriously censored coverage of the student movement and blacked out the 1968 massacre. In the print world, publishers and journalists were rewarded for fealty (with government subsidies and inside information), while those who wandered too far afield faced withdrawal of advertising patronage, denial of access to newsprint from the state-owned paper agency, and physical intimidation up to and including murder.
One of the most sensitive areas deemed to require information control was the plaza system of organized collusion between PRI officials and drug traffickers. Though corruption was widely understood to be all but omnipresent, silence was the tribute that vice demanded from virtue. During the cocaine boom of the 1980s, when the stakes for both partners rose significantly, extreme measures were taken to suppress unauthorized and unwanted reportage, especially when it also touched on Cold War concerns.
In 1984, Manuel Buendía was a well-known print reporter, very well connected in the halls of power, but also the author of investigative exposés of government corruption, law enforcement links to organized crime, and covert operations by the CIA. The unholy trinity of state, mob, and CIA, believing Buendía to be on the verge of exposing their financing of the contras in Nicaragua, had him assassinated, shot from behind as he left his office in Mexico City. The case remained “unsolved” until 1989, when José Antonio Zorrilla Pérez, former head of the by then disgraced and defunct Federal Security Directorate—Mexico’s equivalent of J. Edgar Hoover—was arrested and jailed for having masterminded the murder.
In the 1990s, as the narcos’ power grew, they began to share the work of silencing. In 1997 the Arellano Félix brothers ordered the assassination of Jesús Blancornelas, the Mexican journalist and publisher who had co-founded the Tijuana-based Zeta magazine, and was known for his reporting on corruption and drug trafficking. Blancornelas had enraged Ramón Arellano Félix by publishing his photograph. So a squad of sicarios fired 180 bullets into Blancornelas’ car, killing his driver and bodyguard, but only wounding the reporter. Blancornelas would continue his work, but spend the rest of his life a virtual prisoner in his bricked-up home and fortified office, surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards whenever he moved between them.
In the 2000s, especially during the Calderón sexenio, journalist assassinations became ever more overt, their intentions heavily underscored.
In 2009, Eliseo Barrón Hernández, crime reporter for a newspaper in the northern borderland state of Coahuila, published some articles about a police corruption scandal. His coverage helped secure the firing of some three hundred police officers. It also led to his death when eleven masked gunmen broke into his home, beat him in front of his horrified family, then took him away. Twenty-six hours later his body was found in a ditch with five bullet wounds and evidence of having been tortured.
During his funeral the following day, narcomantas were hung around town reading: “WE ARE HERE, JOURNALISTS. ASK ELISEO BARRÓN. EL CHAPO AND THE CARTEL DO NOT FORGIVE. BE CAREFUL, SOLDIERS AND JOURNALISTS.” Clear enough, except that a few weeks later suspects detained in unrelated events supposedly confessed (under torture?) to murdering Barrón Hernández—but on orders from the Zetas, the enemies of El Chapo. Information? Disinformation? No one knew, no one knows, as nothing more was ever heard about the putative killers. There were no further arrests, no trial, nothing remained but a question mark and a dead journalist.
In 2010 in the northern city of Saltillo, Valentín Valdés Espinosa, a reporter for the local paper Zócalo de Saltillo, had recently published a story on the arrest of a Zeta leader at a local motel, along with a crooked cop who was being paid off by the cartel. Days later Valdés was kidnapped, tortured, shot five times, and his body (arms and legs bound) dumped outside the same motel, accompanied by a handwritten narcomensaje: “This is going to happen to everybody who doesn’t understand, the message is for everybody.”
These were not isolated instances. Mexico has had a long history of murdering journalists. But it is important to understand the pattern of assassinations, their distribution over time. One scrupulous accounting listed a total of 289 verified killings between 1876 and 2012 (including a few disappearances that were almost certainly murders but the bodies were never found). From 1876 to 1935—a period covering the Porfiriato plus the Revolution and its aftermath—there were thirty-three killings, for an average rate of 2.3 annually. Between 1936 and 1982 there were thirty-three, averaging .48 annually. Between 1983 and 2000, when drug trafficking became big business, the number jumped to 92, an average rate of 5.1 per year. The Fox years saw only a slight increase, the thirty-five murders producing an annual figure of 5.8. But during Calderón’s time in office, 106 deaths were recorded, and the yearly average leapt to 17.7. In 2012 the International Press Institute Death Watch not only labeled Mexico “the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2011,” but it found arrests and prosecutions of those responsible for such killings to be essentially nonexistent.
The intent of this surge of attacks on the press by drug cartels and corrupt officials was clear enough: they were seeking silence, hoping to throttle the flow of unwanted information. And in large measure they succeeded.
In 2010, the Zócalo de Saltillo, to demonstrate it had clearly understood the “message” delivered with the corpse of its reporter Valdés Espinosa, quickly announced that “As of today we will publish zero information related to drug trafficking to avoid situations like the one we went through today.” In July 2012, El Mañana, a major regional newspaper based in Nuevo Laredo, declared it would stop reporting on “violent disputes,” after its offices were attacked with grenades and rifle fire; it cited the “lack of adequate conditions for freely exercising professional journalism.”29 Others began limiting their coverage to information taken from official government press releases or police reports. And if a publication did not self-censor, its reporters might. As Javier Valdez Cárdenas of the Culiacán-based weekly Ríodoce put it: “When you write an article about the narcos you don’t think about your editor. . . .You don’t think about your reader. You think about the narcos and whether they’ll like it, whether they’ll have a problem with it, whether they’ll be waiting outside to take you away. The narcos control the newsroom.”
This was something of an overstatement, given the ongoing involvement of corrupt law enforcement officials, primarily at the state and local level, who had their own interest in sustaining the official federal narrative—that the war on narcos was a clear cut struggle of a unified people and virtuous state (“us”), against a criminal class (“them”), a limpid story line that exposés of state collaboration with gangsters would muddy. Similarly, Calderón’s triumphalist narrative—that the gangs were on the ropes, that “we” had “them” on the run—might be undermined if the TV networks and the national press paid undue attention to the horrific realities of daily life. War reporting dominated the national media—stories from various “fronts” led off the nightly news—but in general the mass media zoomed in on showpiece “victories,” a kingpin capture or big drug seizure, rather than the grimy daily realities which reporters had risked their necks to capture.
With information about sicario executions and military operations under-reported in mainstream information channels, people turned to social media for more detailed information. The existence of this alternative communication network was itself a recent development. In 2000, fewer than three million Mexicans had access to the Internet; by 2006 it was twenty million; by 2012 it was forty million, more than one-third of the population. Cell phone use also exploded, up 600 percent between 2000 and 2012, by which time roughly 80 percent of the population owned one, despite the high cost of purchase and the need to pay tribute to Carlos Slim’s monopoly in order to access networks, which largely precluded the use of mobiles by the poor.
Residents in dangerous parts of the country could therefore turn to Twitter to find out if there were any shootouts in progress which they should avoid on their way to work. Increasingly these posts were hashtagged together, creating an ad hoc news service, perhaps the first of which was developed in the deadly Tamaulipas town of Reynosa.
Bloggers emerged, who devoted their postings to covering local narco violence, though this could be a risky business. In September 2011, two bodies were found hanged from a Nuevo Laredo pedestrian bridge with a notice that read: “This is going to happen to all of those posting silly things on the Internet.” Shortly thereafter, María Elizabeth Macías Castro, a well-known editor at a Nuevo Laredo newspaper who had also blogged about organized crime activities in the region, ignored this warning. Several days later her body was found next to her severed head and a computer keyboard, along with a note signed with the letter Z that read: “I am here because of my reports.” The same fate soon befell a collaborator of hers, whose decapitated corpse bore the text: “This happened to me for failing to understand that I should not report things on social media websites.”
Narco injunctions to silence most definitely did not apply to themselves. Indeed, during Calderón’s time the cartels unleashed a barrage of communiqués, a torrent of words and images that challenged the president’s ability to dominate the public conversation.
To some degree they let their violence speak for itself. Hanging, shooting, burning, hacking, or decapitating rivals, journalists, police, and citizens—and then dumping the bodies in public places (highways, plazas, the front doors of government buildings)—commanded attention even if unaccompanied by text. The mute corpses testified to the criminals’ ferocity and the government’s incapacity. But often these communicative capos delivered their victims’ cadavers with words attached: messages hand-scrawled on a piece of cardboard and ice-picked to the chest of the corpse; illiterate rants painted on bed sheets draped over the body; garrulous proclamations professionally printed on banners (narcomantas) hung from overpasses; signs posted on the sides of hijacked buses and trucks turned sideways to block roadways—narcobloqueos—thus bringing stalled motorists face to face with their message.
During the Calderón era the number and ubiquity of narcomantas soared, as the cartels verbally and visually muscled their way into the public sphere. The appearance of narcomantas became a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence in many Mexican states. The messages were addressed to rival gangs, to the general public, and to the state, sometimes all at once.
In September 2011, one Sinaloa sub-gang challenged Zeta control of Veracruz by presenting two messages at a roadblock, the first announcing that “the plaza now has a new owner,” the second urging: “People of Veracruz, do not let [the Zetas] extort you, and do not pay their dues.” The missives were reinforced by the presence of thirty-five corpses dumped at the scene and alleged to be Zetas. Later, the Zetas rejoined with a neatly printed appeal to “all the people of Veracruz,” posted in the center of the city, imploring citizens to not “let themselves be tricked [into believing that the Zetas] are their enemies.”
Another common theme was whining to the state about its being “unfair.” One sign Juárez gangsters hung up in their city read: “This letter is for citizens so that they know that the federal government protects Chapo Guzmán, who is responsible for the massacre of innocent people. . . . Chapo Guzmán is protected by the National Action Party since Vicente Fox, who came in and set him free.” “Why do they not fight with us face-to-face?” they asked. “We invite the government to attack all the cartels.”
The Zetas also deployed recruitment posters aimed at getting military men to desert. One such classified ad, on a blanket hung from bridges, declared: “The Zeta operations group wants you, soldier or ex-soldier,” adding that “We offer a good salary, food, and attention for your family. Don’t suffer hunger and abuse anymore.”
None of these were propaganda pieces in the classic political sense. Mexico’s narcos had nothing in common with the FARC in Colombia, or Sendero Luminoso in Peru. They had no ideology, evinced no interest in bidding for power, were not into winning hearts and minds—except for the fact that they did make extraordinary efforts to persuade the populace that their own brand of criminality was a superior one, from the public’s point of view, at times even suggesting they were defenders of the public interest. In March 2012, El Chapo gunmen killed fourteen Zetas in Nuevo Laredo, dumped their bodies, and plastered the vicinity with banners announcing Guzmán’s intention to liberate the city from Zeta control. Deriding Los Zetas as “a bunch of drunks and car-washers,” the Sinaloan capo declared: “We are narcotics traffickers and we don’t mess with honest working or business people. . . . I’m going to teach these scum to work Sinaloa style, without kidnapping, without payoffs, without extortion.”
The cartels did not limit themselves to print media; indeed they quickly inserted themselves into the new Internet world. One of their premier strategies was to post homemade videos, the most effective of which took the form of a live performance, before a digital camera, of the interrogation of a rival gang member, or a politician, or a crooked official, seated and bound hand and foot. When a confession of wrongdoing was elicited, his or her execution immediately followed, usually by shooting or decapitation. Again the gangsters sought to persuade viewers they were acting justly, that their sentencing and execution of the accused (presented as an enemy of the people rather than a business rival) was legitimate, indeed praiseworthy, something done on behalf of the citizenry, something the state had proved unable or unwilling to do. Thus in 2011 the Gulf Cartel staged a video in which eight of their members used an axe to lop off the limbs of a supposed Zeta sicario, one at a time. The nightmare went on for eight minutes and thirty-four seconds, ending with the narrator, holding up the now severed head, declaring the execution had been in retribution for the Zetas’ second San Fernando massacre—“a bid,” as Robert Gomez argues in his “Narco Warfare through Social Media,” for claiming “legitimacy as a just power in Mexico.” And even if their performance failed to erase from viewers’ minds that the filmmakers were criminals every bit as vicious as those they were dispatching, the films constituted a raw demonstration of their power and freedom to kill at will.
These performances were then restaged, millions of times, courtesy of the websites that emerged during Calderón’s sexenio devoted specifically to coverage of the war on and between the narcos. The most well-known of these is30 the Blog del Narco (BDN), launched in March 2010, about whose beginnings and founder there are various origin stories. BDN has survived and thrived, partly because it opened its site to all comers. While it posts (and re-posts) stories written by real journalists at reputable institutions, it also solicits contributions from ordinary citizens: “Send photos, videos, notes, links, or information about your locality,” requests its home page, “and it will be published anonymously.” Its first posting concerned a small-town shootout, which police would not even confirm had happened, but which had been captured in an amateur video by a drive-by resident, uploaded to YouTube, then reproduced on Blog del Narco. But soon the site was airing extremely gruesome videos created by the cartels themselves—filmlets that recorded interrogations, decapitations, gunfights, and torture sessions—but also other footage depicting horrific crime scenes that were accessible only to the military or police.
The arrival of incarnation) precipitated controversy in the journalistic and wider civic communities. The producers claimed from early on that the Blog del Narco (and its YouTubeBDN was a response to self-censorship adopted by the press to avoid narco retribution. They asserted, too, that they were presenting unfiltered, un-journalist-mediated, un-state-censored (and admittedly un-fact-checked) accounts as a public service. While horrible, these accounts were representations of Mexico’s current reality, about which citizens were entitled to know. The claim of financial disinterest was dented somewhat by the site’s running of advertisements, though there are no doubt costs to be covered. More troubling was the ambiguity of intention on the part of both producers and consumers—the latter numbering in the millions. Were these spectacles of brutality providing essential information that might facilitate self-defense, or mobilize citizen resistance? Or were they merely a form of pornography, like snuff films, akin to sites on which homemade erotica was posted? Were they a challenge to the bloodbath or a salacious repackaging of its most grotesque aspects?31
A similar debate surrounded the narcocorridos—an old established form, as we have seen—that also went viral during the Calderón war, uploading into the culture a nihilistic (yet eminently danceable) music whose lyrics glorified the kingpins and the violence they unleashed. “With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder,” ran one ditty among thousands, “Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off. We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill.” They heroized the Chapos and Barbies, recounted their deeds, hailed them as rebels who had beaten the system, defied the military and the gringos, and become stinking rich doing so.
Corridos have often been subsidized by their subjects, with the capo sponsorship acknowledged in the lyrics. Rookie composers, as Ioan Grillo notes, asked for as little as $1,000 to write some verses about an up-and-coming thug, but accomplished musicians could get tens of thousands of dollars for a tune about a ranking cartel member. But it proved a risky business. As corridos became weapons in the ongoing wars—capos paying to belittle their enemies—their composers became casualties of the larger conflict. Valentín Elizalde, known as “The Golden Rooster,” was shot full of holes when he was leaving a performance at the Reynosa Fair, killed by Zetas distressed that his songs—particularly “A Mis Enemigos” (“To My Enemies”)—favored the Sinaloans. And La Quinta Banda was playing in a dance hall in the city of Chihuahua when a hooded gunman armed with an AK-47 opened fire on them, killing five of the musicians; it was believed they were murdered because their song “El Corrido de La Línea” praised La Línea, the armed division of the Juárez Cartel. In the vast majority of musician slayings, as with the murders of journalists, police named no suspects, made no arrests.
Critics said the corridos glorified drug traffickers and contributed to the violence. Some states heavily impacted by crime cartels, such as Sinaloa and Chihuahua, banned them from radio and TV, and prohibited live performance of the songs in bars and nightclubs. Such blackouts were readily evaded, and narcocorridos remained accessible on the web, and CDs with covers featuring men in ski masks wielding Kalashnikovs could be bought virtually anywhere. Culiacán alone boasted five labels producing corridos, each of which had about two hundred balladeers churning out product. Arguably the verdict on their impact should be reversed: rather than the songs spurring the war, the war enhanced the appeal of the songs (which despite their incendiary lyrics remained staunchly traditional in their polka-like melodies).
In addition to the rapid diffusion of death-oriented narco texts, videos, and music through Mexico’s commercial culture, Calderón’s war years overlapped with a rapid expansion of death-oriented religious cults. The bandit saint Jesús Malverde, a mythicized Robin Hood purported to have lived during the reign of Porfirio Díaz, had long been venerated in Sinaloa, but devotion to the mustachioed man in the white suit moved out into the larger culture during Calderón’s sexenio.
On a far grander scale, so did the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death), a figure of great antiquity in Europe and then Mexico, whom narcos have long accepted as their own goddess. Covered with tattoos of her image—an elaborately costumed and shrouded lady skeleton carrying a grim reaper scythe—they implore her help in ensuring safe delivery of their narcotic cargoes to the north, and her protection before embarking on murder. The walls of jail cells across the country are adorned with her image.
During the narco-war years her cult grew with meteoric speed, drawing the veneration of many poor and working class Mexicans with no connection to crime. Sales of her paraphernalia zoomed, and shrines and roadside altars popped up with increasing frequency, especially in states along the northern border. Estimates of the number of her devotees in Mexico (notes R. Andrew Chestnut in his Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint) run as high as five million (roughly 5 percent of the population), with many additional followers in other countries influenced by Mexico’s narcoculture, including parts of the United States.
Calderón, seeing Santa Muerte as a supreme manifestation of narcoculture, warred on her as well, at one point dispatching the army to bulldoze shrines on the border (where they were rapidly replaced). The Catholic Church, already beleaguered by the growth of Protestant sects, also condemned the “Bony Lady,” another reason why the pro-Catholic PANistas helped attack this rival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But the fact that Calderón opposed the cult does not negate the likelihood, given the timing, that his war was a significant factor in its spread—yet another unanticipated consequence of his purposive social action.
Civil Society Stirs
Calderón’s efforts to shape the narrative of events were confronted with major challenges from the narcos, but what of the voices of civil society? Was the great mass of the population able to get a word in edgewise? Did the omnipresence of high decibel messaging from state officials and criminal cartels dominate the public sphere’s soundtrack?
There were, in fact, innumerable acts of courageous (or foolhardy) individual resistance to narco and/or military activities, but the sad truth is that most of these were crushed. The survival rate of more organized opposition to the status quo, however, was considerably higher. Groups already established or newly created existed in virtually every corner of the country, many of them flying the flag of human rights. These were overwhelmingly citizens’ organizations, autonomous and independent, or affiliated with churches and universities, dedicated to building a civil sector that could bypass the endemic corruption of the government and political parties. Hundreds of these were active during Calderón time.
Many were local entities that collected and promulgated information on state-initiated human rights abuses, monitored gang violence in their territory, searched for the disappeared, litigated human rights cases, prepared legislative proposals, and/or defended particular constituencies like women, migrants, or journalists.32 Others had a broader nationwide remit.33 And one step further up were coalitions of these local and national organizations,34 which were in turn wired into international organizations.35
Human rights activism was also a risky business. Scores of activists were threatened, beaten, jailed, tortured, and killed—thirty-one were murdered in 2011 alone—the killings virtually always unsolved and unpunished. In 2010 an outfit called Urgent Action for Human Rights Defenders emerged to keep track of such attacks, and offer security training to activists.
In addition to all this citizen-driven activity, a sizeable agency—the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH)—was created in 1989 as part of the interior ministry. It achieved a quasi-independent status, though it continued to be amply funded by the government. It has the authority to investigate charges brought against any branch of government other than the judiciary, and its president is the equivalent of a national ombudsman. It served as one of the few avenues open to victims seeking redress of past grievances, and it documented some systematic obstacles to human rights reforms. But as the Human Rights Watch found in 2008, when it came to “actually securing remedies and promoting reforms to improve Mexico’s dismal human rights record, the CNDH’s performance has been disappointing.” Similar critiques were leveled in subsequent years, and in 2014 its then president, Raúl Plascencia, came under fire not only for sins of omission but of commission, such as channeling funds—from its ample annual budget of 1.4 billion pesos (ninety-five million dollars)—into promoting his own reelection, an endeavor in which he failed.
For all their valuable work most of these organizations did not consider mobilizing the masses to be within their bailiwick. But there were entities who took up that challenge. Most were launched by individuals who had lost family members to organized crime, the military, or the police. A host of victims’ family groups sprang up to investigate disappearances, and track down key witnesses and persuade them to speak. A few turned to organizing marches and demonstrations to gain national attention for their cause.
The most prominent of these was a poet, Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered in March 2011 in Cuernavaca, capital city of the state of Morelos, his death attributed to drug gangs. On April 4, Sicilia published a blistering public letter addressed “To Mexico’s Politicians and Criminals.”
“We have had it up to here,” he told the former, with their “permitting our children to be murdered,” with their “badly proposed, badly made, badly led war,” with their corruption that “generates the complicity with crime and the impunity to commit it,” with their “miserable screaming” and “struggle for power” that precludes the unity needed to confront the problem. “The citizenry has lost confidence in its governors, its police, its Army, and is afraid and in pain,” he summarized, and then reminded state officials of “the phrase that José Martí directed at those who govern: ‘If you can’t, then resign.’”
“As for you, the criminals,” he continued, “we have had it up to here with your violence, with your loss of honor, your cruelty and senselessness. . . . In days of old you had codes of honor. You were not so cruel in your paybacks and you did not touch the citizens nor their families. Now you do not distinguish. . . . You have become cowards like the miserable Nazi sonderkommandos who kill children, boys, girls, women men and elders without any human sense. We have had it up to here because your violence has become infrahuman—not animal, as animals do not do what you do—but subhuman, demonic, imbecilic.”
But given “the thousands of anonymous and not anonymous cadavers that we have at our backs, which is to say, of so many innocents assassinated and debased,” Sicilia argued, flinging words was not enough, rather they “must be accompanied by large citizen mobilizations.” Therefore, he announced, “We will go out into the street,” with the goal of forging a “national citizen unity that we must maintain alive to break the fear and isolation that the incapacity of you, ‘señores’ politicians, and the cruelty of you, ‘señores’ criminals want us to put in our bodies and souls.”
Sicilia’s call for marches in Morelos and cities across the country—“We must speak with our bodies, with our walk, with our cry of indignation”—touched a national nerve, and hundreds of thousands rallied in over forty cities, under banners proclaiming “¡Ya basta!” (“Enough is Enough!”), “No More Blood,” and “Not One More.” This was followed by a three day march in May 2011 from Cuernavaca to Mexico City (roughly sixty miles to the north) culminating in a giant demonstration in the Zócalo. Over the next days and weeks, as a grassroots Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity took shape, more specific goals emerged. Protesters called for a phasing out of the drug war, the withdrawal of military forces from the streets (though not precipitously), the legalization of drugs, and the resignation of Calderón’s Public Safety Secretary Genaro García Luna. Many called on Calderón himself to step down.
The poet suggested making a pact with the cartels, one that would begin with the premise that Mexicans should stop assassinating one another on behalf of the United States. “The weapons that are arming organized crime and are killing our kids, our soldiers, our police,” he noted, “come from the U.S. and they are not doing anything to stop them.” So “if the U.S. doesn’t prosecute and put a stop to its arms industry—a legalized horror—why should we prosecute the producers of the drugs?” Consumption should be treated “as a public health matter,” and if the U.S. refused to do so, “the problem of their consumption is theirs, not ours.” The criminals should be left free to compete with one another to sell drugs to gringos, so long as there was an agreement “that the civilian population won’t be touched, that innocents won’t be assassinated, and that the prisoners of gangs in conflict must be treated according to human rights standards.”
In June 2011, with Sicilia gaining international attention, Calderón agreed to have a public discussion with him at Chapultepec Castle, the conversation broadcast live on TV. Sicilia called for a moment of silence “for all the victims of this senseless war,” and accused the president of being responsible for forty thousand deaths while ignoring job creation, education, and public health. He asked him to apologize to the nation and the relatives of those who died or were disappeared. Calderón stuck to his guns, regretting only that he had not sent the military and federal police into the streets earlier, though he did apologize for having been unable to protect the many victims. Here and elsewhere he would insist that reports of abuses and disappearances by soldiers and police were isolated cases; that the Mexican military was not equatable to the death squads deployed by authoritarian regimes; that he could not and should not have waited for law enforcement institutions to change before attacking insecurity; and that protestors should say Basta! to the criminals who kidnap and murder, as they were the enemy, not the soldiers who fought against them.36
The two had another televised conversation in October 2011, and while each stood his ground, Calderón, who had become increasingly upset with the United States, tacked a bit in Sicilia’s direction. Blaming American demand for drugs for fostering the violence, he called on the U.S. to reduce the flow of money coming from consumers. “How to do this,” he added, “is their problem.” Alternately, he suggested, if they opted for legalization, perhaps they “need to open cocaine trafficking [routes],” though if they did, “they should do it through Florida or somewhere else, but not through here.” And if neither of those approaches worked, the U.S. should look for other solutions, adding, “This is a discussion that needs to be held internationally.”
It was Sicilia, however, who carried the case across the border. After organizing additional in-country marches from Mexico City north to Ciudad Juárez, and south to the Guatemala border, the poet took his movement north. In August to September 2012, a 120-person Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity—led by the mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers of Mexicans murdered and disappeared during the drug war—traversed the United States from San Diego to Washington, covering 5,700 miles, holding events in twenty-six cities, and generating extensive media coverage. But by then Calderón’s sexenio was on the verge of expiration, his party had just been repudiated at the polls, and Mexico’s political climate appeared to have changed abruptly.
21 For more on Los Jardines del Humaya Cemetery, see Natalia Almada’s 2011 documentary El Velador (The Night Watchman).
22 The second San Fernando slaughter was trumped when, also in March 2011, the Zetas exacted terrible retribution on the relatives, friends, and even present or past employees of two cadre who had stolen five million dollars and fled across the border into a witness protection program, disrupting the cartel’s cocaine trafficking into Eagle Pass, Texas, which had been netting six million dollars a week, funds badly needed for the war with the Golfos. A small army of Zetas showed up in the two men’s home town of Allende, in the state of Coahuila, equipped with grenades, sledgehammers, and heavy construction machinery and proceeded to totally demolish any buildings connected with the turncoats, and to kidnap and kill any resident even faintly associated with them, even if they just had the same last name. A minimum of three hundred people vanished, undoubtedly into one or another of the mass graves strewn across the barren landscape. The entire episode was hushed up until 2014. The survivors were terrified into silence—especially after one enterprising soul who began offering tours of the ruined buildings was found with a bullet in his head—and the authorities had no interest in spreading more bad news.
23 Of course such evaluations depended on the eye of the beholder. In 2008, Ciudad Juárez was designated as “The City of the Future” by the prestigious magazine Foreign Direct Investment, published by the influential Financial Times group. As the website Global Direct Investment Solutions: Corporate Development for a Networked Worldenthused: “Congratulations to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico as the Winner of the Overall and Most Cost Effective rankings plus a Top Five ranking for Best Infrastructure in the 2007/2008 North American Cities of the Future competition by fDi magazine for the Large Cities category (five hundred thousand to two million population).”
24 HSBC accepted at least $881 million in cash deposited by the Sinaloa Cartel, hundreds of thousands at a clip, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimension of their teller windows. In addition, the bank failed to monitor more than $670 billion in wire transfers, and more than $9.4 billion in purchases of U.S. currency from HSBC Mexico. Executives admitted they had failed to follow money laundering rules, and in 2012 the bank was fined $1.9 billion—about two months’ worth of profits—but prosecutors refrained from bringing criminal charges, lest they topple the bank and further destabilize the global financial system. “Too big to indict” was the consensus.
25 Weaponry destined for the cartels, however, had continued to flow at a brisk and profitable pace. Obama admitted this, noting (as had Bush) that more than 90 percent of the arms seized from Mexican gangsters had come from the United States. Obama promised action, saying he would push the U.S. Senate to ratify CIFTA, the inter-American arms-trafficking treaty. In this he failed. He also indicated that he favored reinstating the U.S. ban on assault weapons, but on this front he declined even to try, as, given NRA and Republican intransigence, he believed gun control, even for export to gangsters, was just not in the political cards.
26 Between 2006 and 2009, there was a 1,000 percent increase in complaints against SEDENA (the Department of National Defense) for alleged violations of human rights; a great leap upward from levels under Fox.
27 Six to eight of every ten women, it is estimated, are raped or sexually assaulted during the trip north, by narcos, criminals, police, government officials, or other migrants; many, aware of what awaits, begin taking contraceptive pills before departing.
28 In a less organized way, this was the practice of the famed Black Hand “gang” that flourished in the U.S. in the early twentieth century: independent extortionists would affix a black-inked handprint to their letters demanding payoffs under threat of death, and people came to believe they were all members of a single fearsome criminal band; in fact the Black Hand was a modus operandi, not an organization.
29 As this suggests, attacks on the media went beyond murdering individual journalists. The offices of newspaper and TV stations were subject to assaults with car bombs, hand grenades, IEDs (improvised explosive devices being used extensively in Iraq in those years), volleys from gunmen, and on occasion the receipt of severed heads, left on their doorsteps in coolers.
30 See (extreme viewer caution is advised): http://www.elblogdelnarco.org.
31 There are, it should be emphasized, sites devoted to covering Narcoiana that are not marred by such ambiguity. Borderland Beat, an English-language site in operation since 2009, is moderated (hence not unfiltered) but latitudinarian in its selection of over-the-transom items. It relies heavily on articles written by its own staff of regular contributors (albeit anonymous ones, given concerns about narco-retribution). Insight Crime, founded in April 2010 with financing from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, relays news reports, with commentary appended, and undertakes in-depth investigations.
32 These include: the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, the Human Rights Commission for the state of Chihuahua, Defense and Promotion of Human Rights—Emiliano Zapata (in Matamoros), the Center for Border Studies and Promotion of Human Rights (Reynosa), the Human Rights Center—Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Chiapas), the Binational Center for Human Rights (Tijuana), the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Center for Human Rights (Mexico City), Citizens in Support of Human Rights (Monterrey), the Center for Human Rights of Migrants (Ciudad Juárez), and Forces United for Our Missing and Disappeared in Coahuila.
33 These include: the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, ASILEGAL: Asistencia Legal por los Derechos Humanos, the Collective Against Torture and Impunity, the Casa de los Derechos de los Periodistas, and Journalists on Foot. Meta-organizations like the National Center for Social Communication were devoted to helping the NGOs develop a media strategy as an integral part of their work.
34 Like the REDTDT (National Network of Human Rights Civil Society Organizations), which was composed of seventy-one human rights NGOs, and another bundler operation, Nuestra Aparente Rendición.
35 These include: the International Federation of Human Rights, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Coalition of Organizations of Human Rights in the Americas, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin American Working Group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and Article 19.
36 After the Gulf Cartel was initially blamed for Sicilia’s son’s death, it quickly hung a series of narcomantas in Morelos that denied any involvement in the killing. Indeed they abducted a member of the South Pacific Cartel (an offshoot of the Beltrán Leyva Organization), left him beaten and tied up in an abandoned truck, and alerted authorities to his involvement in Sicilia’s murder. When he allegedly confessed to federal police, the Beltrán Leyvas released a series of mantas disavowing the murder and promising that its members “do not kill innocent people.” In June 2012 army troops captured one Raúl Diaz Roman, the reputed boss of the Beltrán Leyva Organization in Morelos state, who they claimed was responsible for young Sicilia’s death. It seems that at the time Diaz Roman was a member of the Morelos police, overseeing the war on drug traffickers (i.e., himself) in Cuernavaca. When some cops tried to rob or extort Sicilia and his friends, and the kids said they would report them, the cop-cops called in Diaz and his gang-cops from the South Pacific Cartel, who had in fact done the deed, as originally thought.