Modern history



The PRI failed to muster a majority in either the Chamber of ­Deputies or the Senate, and would therefore have to forge alliances to get anything done. Which Peña Nieto did, cajoling representatives of the other parties into joining a “Pact for Mexico.” This backroom agreement finessed public debate and cleared the way to passage of legislation that accomplished several key neoliberal goals. Notably, changing the Constitution to allow foreign investment in Mexico’s oil sector; along with passing laws dealing with telecommunications monopolies, money laundering, tax policy, and the educational system (a domain in which EPN also established his anti-graft credentials when, in February 2013, his government arrested the flagrantly corrupt head of Mexico’s teachers union).41

Vis-à-vis the drug war, EPN’s initial tactic was to take the conflict off the front burner by simply talking about it less. Not only did he not dress up in military uniform and rally the troops, he minimized mentions of bloodshed and narcos—turning down the volume, changing the subject, shifting the attention to his economic agenda. The U.S. was informed that the new president would not be as directly involved in counter-drug efforts as the former had been, and indeed would delegate to his interior minister the handling of ongoing relations between Mexican and U.S. crime-fighting agencies.

The switch in style quickly influenced media coverage: in the first three months of his sexenio, one study found that the use of terms like “organized crime” and “drug trafficking” dropped by 50 percent. Perp walks were cut back. The horrifying videotaped confessions of captured cartel assassins vanished. One early payoff was a resurgence of tourism at the country’s top resorts, including Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, and Cancun, which one official attributed to the new strategy: “When the president talks less about drugs and violence, the national newspapers write less about it and so the international media report less on it. Perception becomes reality.”

Peña Nieto also switched his rhetorical emphasis from fighting crime to preventing it. Two weeks into his term, he told state governors, military men, and security chiefs at a public meeting of the national security council that “We are going to focus institutional efforts on attending to the [social] causes of the criminal phenomenon and not only its consequences.” Two months later, on February 12, 2013, he announced a $9.2 billion crime prevention program that would invest in social programs (job creation and improved health and social services) targeted to the country’s most violent towns and neighborhoods. “We must put special emphasis on prevention,” the president said, “because we can’t only keep employing more sophisticated weapons, better equipment, more police, a higher presence of the armed forces in the country as the only form of combating organized crime.”

The new emphasis on the economy was picked up and amplified by U.S. media and business. There was much talk of a newly aroused Aztec Tiger, whose surging growth in GDP suggested a great leap forward on the order of that attained by Asian Tigers like South Korea and Taiwan. Foreign reporting on Mexico brightened up, with ­pundits such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman highlighting the nation’s potential rather than its problems. In a February 23, 2013 valentine, “How Mexico Got Back in the Game,” Friedman confided that: “In India, people ask you about China, and, in China, people ask you about India: Which country will become the more dominant economic power in the twenty-first century? I now have the answer: ­Mexico.” True, “drug cartels, crime syndicates, government corruption and weak rule of law” continued to “hobble the nation,” as did stifling monopolies in energy, telecom, and media, and a weak K-12 education system. But “Something happened here,” he observed, reporting from Monterrey: “It is as if Mexicans subconsciously decided that their drug-related violence is a condition to be lived with and combated but not something to define them any longer.” He urged greater attention be paid to the country’s new tech startups, multiple free trade agreements, cheap natural gas finds, and especially the fact that Mexico, given rising wage costs in China, was “taking manufacturing market share back from Asia and attracting more global investment than ever in autos, aerospace and household goods.”

Others joined the chorus. A Foreign Affairs article by Shannon O’Neill, “Mexico Makes It,” announced that “modern Mexico is a middle-class country,” citing a World Bank estimate that 95 percent of the populace was in the middle or the upper class. The Financial Times said the achievements of Peña Nieto’s neoliberal administration would outshine the appeal of the “Latin Left.” And businessmen added their two cents: Larry Fink, who heads BlackRock, Inc., the world’s largest asset-management company ($4.5 trillion), called Mexico an “incredible growth story.”

The U.S. government endorsed the happy talk. In May 2013 ­President Obama made a high-profile visit to Mexico City. In a speech at the National Anthropology Museum he acknowledged that “there are Mexicans all across this country who are making courageous sacrifices for the security of your country.” But he stressed that the world was also seeing “a Mexico that’s creating new prosperity: Trading with the world. Becoming a manufacturing powerhouse—from Tijuana to Monterrey to Guadalajara and across the central highlands—a global leader in automobiles and appliances and electronics.”

“I see a Mexico,” Obama rolled on, “that’s lifted millions of people from poverty. Because of the sacrifices of generations, a majority of Mexicans now call themselves middle class, with a quality of life that your parents and grandparents could only dream of.” And he insisted that “the relationship between our nations must be defined not by the threats that we face but by the prosperity and the opportunity that we can create together.”

Time magazine’s veteran correspondent Tim Padgett was one of the few not swept away by irrational exuberance. In a March 2013 piece entitled “Mexico’s New Boom: Why the World Should Tone Down the Hype,” he expressed reservations about the “overweening boosterism” and the “blood-soaked headlines yielding all of a sudden to rose-colored banners,” reminding readers of Mexico’s ongoing “mafia bloodletting,” vast “social inequality,” “corrupt and incompetent judicial system,” “shameless business monopolies,” and enormous levels of poverty.

Padgett proved prescient. Mexico’s economy sagged badly over the rest of Peña Nieto’s first year, growing at a rate of only 1.1 percent, well below the regional average, dragged down by the continuing U.S. recession and investor worries about crime. What cream there was floated to the top: the number of Mexican billionaires rose 23 percent between 2013 and 2014, and the top 10 percent harvested 42 percent of all income. Many middle-class families saw their incomes stagnate or even decline. And a report released by CONEVAL (the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy) splashed cold water on the “middle class nation” notion by showing that approximately fifty-three million Mexicans were living in poverty—around 45 percent of the populace—and that the number had remained fairly constant over two decades, making a hash of the argument that NAFTA had lifted all boats.

Some of the huge discrepancy in observed poverty rates was a function of different measurement systems. CONEVAL employed a multidimensional approach that considered not just income but also access to education, health services, social security, basic services, and food. The income-based piece, taken separately, defined the poverty line (in 2012) as 2,329 pesos ($177) per month in cities and 1,490 pesos ($113) in rural areas, and “extreme poverty” as roughly half those amounts.

Wilson and Silva’s analysis of the 2013 CONEVAL report notes that while the middle class had indeed been growing, so too had the numbers of poor Mexicans. They found it “quite troubling” that “poverty as measured by income increased in recent years despite the relative strength of the Mexican economy,” and advanced a variety of specific explanations, such as the fact that 71.8 million Mexicans do not get social security, in large part because they work in the “informal sector” (which includes workers in the drug industry). That in turn was because there weren’t enough jobs in the “formal sector,” which in turn was due to insufficient economic growth.

But Mexico was the only major Latin American country where poverty had grown in recent years. Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia had used their economic growth to reduce poverty levels by more than 30 percent in recent years; why had Mexico not?

Perhaps the simultaneous growth of Progress and Poverty—as Henry George entitled his 1879 Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth—could be traced in part to specific neoliberal policy choices Mexico made. Thomas Friedman noted that Mexican manufacturing growth—a.k.a. the revival of maquiladora sweatshops—was largely due to rising wages in China. But he did not ask why Mexican wages had not gone up too. The stagnation, Paul Imison suggests, was in part related to “labor reform” legislation passed in 2012, at the tail end of the Calderón sexenio, by PAN and PRI Congress members. It effectively tore up Mexico’s 1970 labor law, and gave employers greater leverage against workers, notably enhancing their freedom to fire. Corrupt unions, long-time supporters of the PRI, did not help either. Nor did NAFTA provisions. Nor did a minimum wage of sixty-seven pesos a day (less than $5). Nor did the absence of unemployment insurance or having only 30 percent of the workforce covered by social security. As a result, average manufacturing wages were, in 2012, only 18 percent of those in the U.S. And auto jobs were notoriously low-paying. Which is why almost 60 percent of the workforce has opted for the informal economy. So perhaps, pace Friedman, undercutting Chinese wage levels was not something to boast about.

images images images

On the crime front, Peña Nieto’s first two years proved to be an extremely mixed bag.

Ironically, his administration performed best at doing the one thing—catching kingpins—on which he had pledged not to focus. In July 2013, Mexican marines arrested Miguel “Z-40” Treviño Morales—the number one Zeta—without a bullet being fired. U.S. authorities had passed along information that Treviño Morales, famed for burning his victims alive, had been making frequent visits to the Nuevo Laredo border area to see his newborn baby. Duly alerted, marines searched for him from a Black Hawk helicopter, spotted Z-40 riding in a truck, landed, and apprehended him. In February 2014, Treviño’s opposite number, El Chapo Guzmán—the number one Sinaloan—was tracked down using DEA data, and arrested while vacationing with his wife at a beachfront condo in Mazatlán; again, no shots fired. March 2014 brought the violent end of El Más Loco, head of the Knights Templar, in Michoacán. In October 2014, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, top man in the cartel that bore his family’s name, was captured (again, with no gunplay) while dining on fish tacos at a seafood restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, near the city of Querétaro, where he had been living in plain sight, passing as a moderately wealthy businessman who dabbled in the real estate and art markets. And a little over a week later, Vicente “El Viceroy” Carrillo Fuentes, head of the shrunken Juárez Cartel, was reeled in, again, in a bloodless affair. These top-drawer triumphs were also accompanied by a raft of second-stringer arrests.

The impact of all these roundups is unclear. Fears that the Hydra Principle will come into play have not been borne out, though the country continues to be roiled by combat between fragments of former cartels, notably the battles between the Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos, which figured in the murder of the Forty-Three. Guzmán’s well-built cartel, the most business-like of the bunch, seemed to be managing a smooth transition of power, with El Chapo’s long-time associate Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada managing to keep billions’ worth of drugs moving, his protection by well-rewarded political officials and corrupt businessmen seemingly undiminished. In particular, his Sinaloa ­Cartel still controls almost all of the Ciudad Juárez plaza, though the remnants of the Carrillo Fuentes drug-trafficking organization, notably its enforcement gangs La Línea and Barrio Azteca, are challenging that dominance, with a little help from their newfound friends, Los Zetas. (Should La Línea and Barrio Azteca have a falling out, of course, Ciudad Juárez could again become a war zone.)

More ominous were reports of a June 2014 drug summit meeting in the border town of Piedras Negras between four of the major cartels—somewhat akin to a Marvel Comics’ League of Supervillains sit-down—at which the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez) Organization, the Beltrán Leyva Organization, and Los Zetas explored the possibility of creating an alliance that would reconfigure the drug-trafficking map of Mexico. A donnybrook between Sinaloans and Supervillains would be cataclysmic indeed.

images images images

Whatever the long-term outcome of Peña Nieto’s successes in decapitating cartels, in the short-term laurels were not forthcoming because other types of crime had exploded all over Mexico, with doubts raised about his ability to deal with them. The president could and did point out that the number of homicides in 2013, his first year in office, had declined modestly from the previous year, Calderón’s last. Estimates of those killed on his watch ranged from 18,388 to 22,732 (between 8 and 13 percent fewer than the 2012 body count), though the number did not take into account the thousands who had disappeared.42 But in the same twelve month period Mexico had become a world kidnapping capital, with more than 1,698 reported abductions in 2013, a 20 percent increase over 2012, and the worst year on record. It was made even more nightmarish by expert estimates that more than 80 to 90 percent of kidnappings went unreported, family members being scared to endanger the victims—or themselves—by going to the police, who might well be in bed with the perpetrators. The victims were not only plutocrats—indeed the rich could afford high-caliber security—but also shopkeepers, physicians, carpenters, and taxi drivers, ordinary working people. The perpetrators, ever younger, were satisfied with the lower per unit ransoms, which they made up for with higher volume. 2013 had also been a particularly bad year for the media, the most violent one since 2007: at least ten journalists had been killed, and according to the organization Article 19, 330 non-lethal attacks had been made on the press, 60 percent of them attributed to authorities.

Fear was up, too. Mexico’s National Statistics and Geography Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía) Victimization Survey found that people had felt more unsafe in 2013 than in any previously recorded year. The United States State Department, to Mexican officials’ dismay, believed fear was an all-too-rational response to reality. Its August 2014 Travel Warning alerted readers that seventy-one U.S. citizens had been reported to the department as having been murdered in Mexico in 2012, and eighty-one in 2013. Travelers had also fallen victim to carjacking, highway robbery, and kidnapping—nearly seventy of the latter had been reported between January and June 2014. U.S. government employees were prohibited from driving on non-official business from the U.S.-Mexico border to or from the interior of Mexico or Central America, as they had been since July 2010.

Mexico’s forces of order, meanwhile, had received some black eyes. A coalition of national human rights groups had filed a complaint with the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, asking it to investigate the “systematic and widespread” abuse of thousands of civilians by the army and the police in their fight against organized crime. The federal police had been deluged with widespread accusations of abuse and corruption—particularly with extorting money from migrants in transit through Mexico.

Then, on June 30, 2014, in Tlatlaya, a town in the Estado de ­Mexico, a squad of eight soldiers on night patrol happened upon a group of twenty-two gang members in an empty warehouse, together with two tied-up rival gangsters and four women (a fifteen-year-old runaway; her mother, a teacher, come to retrieve her; and two tied-up girls that the gang members had snatched off the streets). The army men called on them to come out; they answered with gunfire, slightly wounding one soldier; the army fired back, killing and wounding a few; and after this brief exchange the gang members surrendered and were disarmed. The soldiers, saying “these dogs don’t deserve to live,” then executed them, one after another, roaring “where are your balls now, you sons of bitches?” They also finished off the runaway, who had been wounded in the crossfire, though they spared her mother and the two remaining women. Then they moved the bodies around and put guns in their hands, rearranging the crime scene to make it appear as if all had been killed while shooting at the soldiers. The State of Mexico’s governor, its attorney general, and the army’s high command stoutly accepted their story. Indeed the state attorney general’s people tortured the two kidnapped women into backing up the lies. The teacher, though released, was similarly terrorized into supporting the coverup.

The charade unraveled when journalists from the Associated Press and Esquire Latin America visited the scene and discovered patently obvious signs that the crime scene had been rearranged. They then tracked down the teacher who bravely agreed to tell what had happened. The two imprisoned girls also recanted. Now international human rights organizations demanded a review, and Washington insisted on a “credible” investigation. Finally Peña Nieto ordered the case transferred to federal authorities, who eventually accused three of the soldiers with extrajudicial murder, but no higher-ups; nor have state officials have been charged with coercing witnesses. Human Rights Watch spoke for many when it said that Peña Nieto’s reaction had been so halting that “the image of his government is in tatters.” 43

The much touted National Gendarmerie, which arrived in August 2014, proved but a shadow of its much anticipated self. The hoped-for forty-thousand-man organization, independent from both the army and federal police, had been whittled down (at army insistence) to a five-thousand-man subdivision of the federal police. The rank and file were not military veterans, as originally intended, but rather young, well-educated, and intensely screened recruits who had never served in any armed force. They were, however, trained by the Mexican Army, and their commanding officers had gone to school with police forces from Colombia, Chile, Spain, France, and the United States. Their lack of experience would presumably be offset by their freedom from corruption, and rather than replacing military units as primary forces of order, they would be flown into hot-spots (SWAT-team style) where organized crime had all but strangled local or foreign businesses.

But the most momentous moves against organized criminality came from a completely unexpected source—the citizenry itself—in an uprising that forced the federal administration to put front and center what it had hoped to sideline.

images images images

Autodefensas: Civil Society in Arms

On February 24, 2013, the drug war began to push its way back onto the front pages, with the eruption on the scene of a totally new set of players—fed-up and outraged citizens who, rather than marching and protesting and demanding state protection against criminal depredations, picked up guns and launched their own offensive against one of the nastiest cartels of all.

What came to be known as the autodefensa (self-defense) movement had actually made its first appearance two years earlier, high in the mountains of Michoacán, in the town of Cherán, where indigenous Purépecha people had been under siege by Los Caballeros Templarios, the Knights Templar Cartel. For centuries they had sustained their economy and culture by logging in the surrounding oak forests, but recently outsider loggers had descended like locusts, protected by machine-gun toting gangsters, and had taken away an estimated 70 percent of the trees. The Templarios also extended to Cherán the reign of terror they imposed elsewhere in the state—raping, kidnapping, and murdering at will. Appeals to municipal and state officials proved useless as they (and the police) were securely in the service of organized crime; indeed the cartel was the government in much of the region. Cherán was thus like the mountain village in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai—beleaguered by bandits—except that no samurai showed up to rescue them, so they decided to rescue themselves.

On April 15, 2011, armed townspeople, women and men of all ages, rose up and expelled the town’s entire police force, along with the representatives of established political parties. Reviving an ancient tradition of community policing, which had been given rough sanction in the 1917 Constitution, they turned an institution once used to maintain internal order into a weapon to wield against an external threat. Using captured AR-15 assault rifles, they took the loggers hostage, barricaded all entrances to the town, closed off roads leading to the timber territory, kept hundreds of bonfires blazing all night while they watched for Templario invaders, and successfully established a bandit-free zone.

Roughly two years later, on February 24, 2013, just at the start of Peña Nieto’s sexenio, a few dozen residents from two towns in Michoacán’s Apatzingán Valley, in the low lying Terra Caliente region, decided to resist Templario exactions by forming an autodefensa. But not being composed of indigenous peoples, they were without benefit of even a quasi-legal cover. The group of lime pickers, ranchers, and small business owners started small, patrolling the streets, setting up roadblocks, and ambushing Knights who cruised through town in black SUVs, culminating in a vicious and victorious gun battle near the town plaza. Over the next eight months other towns followed suit—mobilizing farm hands and factory workers, doctors and taxi drivers—until there were several thousand comunitarios, or militias, or vigilantes in the valley. They were financed by donations from residents and businessmen who preferred to support vigilantes rather than pay protection money to the cartel. Weapons were bought in the United States and smuggled south, others were seized from the Templarios. Many of the farmers had learned to shoot in hunting clubs, others now trained with members who had served in the Mexican Army. The ­citizen-combatant movement spread across Michoacán and into neighboring Guerrero, the vigilantes shooting it out with the Knights and liberating ranches, villages, and towns (though only where local autodefensas had already been established and asked for their help).

The rapid spread of citizen militias startled many, not least the federal government. The Peña Nieto administration’s first response was to dismiss them as criminals. Their ranks, it was asserted, harbored members of the Knights’ rival from the state just north of Michoacán—the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel [CJNG]). Their guns, it was feared, had probably been obtained from criminal suppliers. Officials in the capital recalled that La Familia Michoacana had started out promising to be pro-citizen but quickly evolved into bloodsuckers, and Human Rights Watch activists remembered that Colombian paramilitaries had similarly transmogrified into Frankenstein’s monsters. Taking a more abstract perspective, some argued that the vigilante movement was a threat to the government’s monopoly over the use of force. As one congressional leader put it, “A state that allows citizens to arm themselves to take justice into their own hands is a failed state.”

From the perspective of Michoacán’s Templario-ridden countryside, it must have seemed risible that the government thought it had a monopoly of violence. A simpler explanation for the state’s anxieties, one militia founder suggested, was that “the government has never wanted to recognize that we could do the job that it never wanted to do.” And while the militias admitted there were no doubt some bad apples in their barrel—the movement was expanding with such speed it was hard to ensure quality-control—they denied any serious presence of cartelistas, other than small fry who had jumped ship when they saw which way the wind was blowing. Besides, as another senior leader observed: “The great heroes who gave us this country really weren’t the best people.”

Nevertheless, in March 2013, federal troops were sent in. They arrested scores of militiamen and seized their weapons, only to quickly discover the depth of their support among the populace. In one instance when arrests were made, hundreds of autodefensas poured in and detained the soldiers until their comrades were released. Peña Nieto stood firm, stating that “The practice of taking justice into your own hands is outside the law and my government will combat it.”

In May 2013, setting aside his goal of demilitarizing the conflict, Peña Nieto sent in six thousand more troops and federal police. But once on the scene, the army, realizing that dismantling the comunitarios would be vigorously resisted, opted for a de facto alliance with them, in effect covering their backs while they liberated new towns. By October 2013 the militia had completely broken the cartels’ grip in several municipalities. “Many of the criminals have fled town since we came in,” explained one leader. “We have achieved in weeks what police and soldiers could not do in years.” “We are not scared of the cartels,” said another, brandishing his weapon. “They have guns but we have guns too. And we are many.”

By January 2014, vigilantes were preparing to advance on Apatzingán itself, the city of 120,000 people being the bastion of the Knights, and they were determined to slay the dragon in its lair. Fearing a major bloodbath, Peña Nieto dispatched thousands more troops and federal police. But he also opted for a more daring initiative. Deciding to treat Michoacán as a bankrupt state, if not a failed one, the president dispatched a receiver to take control of it. Alfredo Castillo, his former State of Mexico attorney general, was appointed “Commissioner of Security and Integral Development.” A position of doubtful legality, it existed in no other Mexican state and was reminiscent of the old imperial status of viceroy. The thirty-eight-year-old Castillo briskly shouldered aside Michoacán Governor Fausto Vallejo, who seemed powerless to stop the rising violence, and brought in several dozen other federal officials to take control of the state police, the prosecutor’s office, and other strategic agencies, confecting an ad-hoc legal framework to legitimize the process.44

Castillo also cut a deal with militia leaders. He offered them de facto recognition, with the choice of joining one of the revamped municipal police forces—donning uniforms and receiving salaries—or doing temporary service in a “rural defense corps” under control of the army.45 Hence the new Peña Nieto line: “Those that have the vocation to participate in security matters, which is the principle that the self-defense squads have claimed,” he told reporters, “should do it within institutions that are established by law.”

The government also announced a $3.4 billion spending plan for Michoacán aimed at building public works and public housing, improving education, and financing social development (though most of these programs, it turned out, were already in the pipeline).

With this detente in place, a new level of collaboration flowered between the militias and federal forces. In January 2014, they began jointly occupying new towns, and in February, they marched into Apatzingán itself. Hundreds of soldiers and cops patrolled the city’s streets, while militia gunmen manned checkpoints on the outskirts. A flood of intelligence coming from the liberated locals led to the arrest of several important Templario associates. One of them was the city’s mayor—in reality boss of the local plaza—who also just happened to be a nephew of the departed Nazario Moreno, “El Más Loco.”

Then, on March 9, it turned out that Moreno had not departed after all. Michoacán locals had been saying since his reported death in 2010 that he remained among the living, despite all the shrines Templarios erected to “Saint Nazario,” which autodefensas had delighted in smashing to bits as they advanced into each new town. “We always knew his death was a farce because people saw him around,” one vigilante leader said, adding that the capo was often sighted at cockfights and parties. But when locals had offered to lead troops to his doorstep, their insistence was treated, condescendingly, as an interesting instance of the power of myth. When the army finally listened to them, Moreno was tracked down and killed—his Second Coming followed swiftly by his Second Going.46

By the end of March, marines had also killed Enrique Plancarte, one of Moreno’s two top operatives, and had the other, “La Tuta” Gomez Martínez, on the run. Just a few weeks later the federal government took another bold step by arresting Jesús Reyna, Michoacán’s interior minister, second only to Governor Fausto Vallejo, accusing him of working with the Knights Templar. Shortly after that the governor resigned, only days after the fugitive “La Tuta” released a photograph of ­himself having a cozy chat with the governor’s son, an image that led to the son’s arrest and the father’s retirement. “We are very happy that the government is finally doing its job,” one vigilante leader said. “We are getting closer and closer, in coordination with the government, to cleaning Michoacán of all the criminals,” said another.

The optimism proved premature. Castillo and Peña Nieto, who had never been happy about their Kalashnikov wedding with vigilantes, now desired a divorce. Perhaps because they felt they had the Knights on the run, the government strike force believed it was “reaching a point at which we no longer need them.” They worried that the unelected and gun-wielding autodefensas might get out of control (or even break bad); the conversion in Colombia of autodefensas into paramilitary squads was a cautionary tale. They were disturbed that the comunitarios did not share their larger drug war goals, and refused to go after traffickers and producers. “We aren’t going to go looking for [meth] laboratories because that’s not our responsibility,” said one spokesman. Their ambitions were more modest: “We don’t want there to be kidnappings, disappearances, extortion.” Their reluctance should not have been surprising, given that nearly 35 percent of Michoacán’s employed were working in the “informal” economy.

Nevertheless, in early April, Castillo ordered the militias to disarm and demobilize or face arrest, and his forces began targeting militia leadership. Just a few days after El Más Loco was killed, authorities arrested one of the first militia leaders, Hipólito Mora, accusing him of involvement in the murder of a vigilante rival (whatever the real story, longstanding feuds did at times get imported into the leadership). Mora’s arrest and others that followed (there were soon over a hundred comunitario prisoners in state and federal prisons) were seen as a betrayal, and deeply embittered many of the autodefensas. Some militias refused to dissolve or turn in their weapons. Yes, they said, thirty or so towns had been liberated, but they wanted to finish the job by cleaning out all 113 of Michoacán’s municipalities, capturing or killing La Tuta, and perhaps even marching to the aid of violence-stricken Acapulco. In June 2014, police and soldiers arrested one of the more obdurate of these vigilante leaders, Dr. Jose Mireles, and locked up more than seventy of his supporters for carrying illegal guns.

The state’s abrupt termination of an alliance that had partially dismantled one of the country’s most powerful criminal organizations and evicted many of its corrupt protectors from public office, may have been understandable—there was no legal basis for such collaboration—but perhaps tactically premature.47 With the militia movement in disarray, the crime rate shot up again, according to the government’s own figures, with murders and extortion leading the pack. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Templar gunmen remained at large elsewhere in Michoacán, among them “La Tuta,” despite Castillo’s announcement back in March 2014 that he was “cornered and with his hands tied.” In September 2014, La Tuta, still at large, offered his own assessment of the situation in an epistle to the citizenry. “Right now,” the Teacher admitted, “the Caballeros Templarios cartel is not at its best.”

We’ve suffered painful casualties, and yet we’re still standing, and facing the enemy. They got to us, this we accept. With deceit they were able to enter Michoacán and confuse the people. . . . Now it’s up to us to come back and return order in Michoacán. We know it will be difficult but not impossible. We get pissed off seeing the suffering of our people. We do not forget or forgive treason; the betrayal is punished by death. Many have signed their sentences and will not receive forgiveness.

We have returned to Michoacán with more force than ever, and for example, we’re going to really fuck up those fucking Rurales [the autodefensas]. We’re still here in many towns, and we remind you that they haven’t gotten rid of us. We’re not leaving Michoacán. We keep supporting the Michoacán people and receiving support. We have agreements and support at the highest levels!!!

We understand your confusion. Why you turned your backs to us. We are human and we made mistakes, but [you] are the most important thing for us. We will never let our young people consume the filthy crystal meth. Now. . .these scourges are poisoning our youth. Gradually, all will return to peace. Little by little, you will see.48

But by then the central state’s attention had turned to Tamaulipas. In April 2014, faction fights broke out inside the Gulf Cartel, and the Zetas seized the moment to challenge its rival’s dominance of particular plazas. With the prevailing truce shattered, gun battles left over one hundred dead within weeks. Thousands marched in Ciudad Victoria and Tampico, dressed all in white, demanding government protection.

At the same time, an autodefensa movement grew—hearteningly or alarmingly, depending on one’s perspective—putting additional pressure on the federal state to act. Its seedbed was the rural town of Hidalgo, which had been swept, like much of Tamaulipas and indeed much of the nation, by a wave of extortion and kidnapping in Peña ­Nieto’s first year. A local militia, the Pedro Méndez Column, named after a local general who had fought the French in the 1860s, drew in hundreds of armed men, established a curfew, set up a sandbag perimeter, developed a social media communication network, and executed several Zetas. Criminals submit only to “blood and fire,” they declared, and called for “permanent struggle and sustained combat against kidnappers.” The Zetas could not penetrate the town, but in May 2014 they shot and burned nine people in an outlying hamlet. They also left a note reading: “People of Hidalgo, don’t be involved with the column. The monster has woken up. This is the first test. Attentively: The Zetas.”

Aware they were no match for cartel sicarios, the Pedro Méndez Column, like the marchers in white, hoped for outside aid, but of the collaborative variety. “Insecurity, violence, and criminality are only solved,” they asserted, “by honest soldiers and an armed people.” Others disagreed; one marcher in Victoria said: “I think the self-defense groups are dangerous. A shoemaker makes shoes. A businessman does business. You need trained police officers to fight crime, not just anybody with a gun.”

In mid-May 2014, Peña Nieto jumped into Tamaulipas boots first. Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Chong arrived in Reynosa, the state’s biggest city, to announce that, as in Michoacán, the federal government was sending in the army, navy, and federal police to restore order. In an effort to differentiate this initiative from Calderón’s approach, Chong stressed their intention of making structural transformations. The largely lawless state of over three million residents would be divided into four regions, each with a military man in charge of providing security—24/7 patrols of urban centers and highways (which the cartels had ruled for years), along with the ports and airports. Forty police departments would be dismantled; a training center for new cops would be established; the office of the attorney general would be purged. It would take at least six months for the strategy to produce results, said Chong, and three to four years for Tamaulipas’ state and municipal police forces to be reconstituted. There was no sign of any interest in working with autodefensas—indeed this plan might have been promulgated in part to head off another Michoacán scenario.

images images images

The Forty-Three and the Future

It was at this juncture that Guerrero became the incendiary center of national (indeed global) attention. The forty-three students from Ayotzinapa were taken away in September 2014 and their appalling fate revealed in November. As recounted in our introduction, this triggered a tsunami of protest—the mass murder provoking mass fury—and the emergence of widespread demands for fundamental change. But prior outbursts have come and gone, with the established order weathering each storm, and it is always possible that the newest marches will die down, the media move on to some new horror, the collective energy will dissipate, and prospects for the arrival of an Aztec Spring will wither away. How to channel this energy into long-term structural transformations is the question of the hour, and we will have to see what bubbles up from the ferment now boiling throughout the country. From our perspective, one that flows from the historical analysis we’ve presented, several broad-brush approaches might deserve popular attention.

It’s not enough, we believe, to call for restructuring the country’s criminal justice system, or for rooting out corruption from the political system, or for erecting insuperable barriers to money laundering. Worthy and indispensable as these goals are, they’ve been advocated endlessly and have proved incapable of achievement. Why? Partly of course because the existing arrangements have powerful supporters—politicians and police, gangsters and businessmen—who have profited mightily from the status quo. What’s been missing is an efficient mobilizing of the opponents of this narco-order, particularly the millions of members of what goes under the admittedly amorphous term “civil society.” It seems to us that a big obstacle to such a rallying—apart from the disparate and divided nature of such a huge aggregate of people—is the disconnect between the state (that portion of it not already gone over to the dark side) and those mass movements that have emerged to challenge existing arrangements (the ­autodefensas, the Sicilia ­demonstrators, the student protestors, the human rights activists, the families of the disappeared, the vast numbers propelled into action by the murder of the Forty-Three).

What if the federal state were to help organize these forces, rather than suppress or ignore them? How about trying to find a way to empower grassroot organizations, perhaps along the lines of the short-lived alliance between federal forces and autodefensas in Michoacán that, in an incredibly short space of time, swept an immensely powerful drug cartel off the board, if admittedly in a delimited area. Perhaps a modus operandi might be found, one that warded off the possible dangers of vigilantism that loomed so large in federal thinking that they aborted the entire enterprise. Perhaps some strategy could be developed that combined federal takeover of corrupt state and local operations (as done in Michoacán, Tamaulipas, and now in Iguala and other municipalities in Guerrero), with a state-assisted mobilization of citizens’ action entities? Perhaps ways could be found to involve the public directly in mitigating if not eradicating corruption?

How about revisiting the oft-suggested notion of establishing a Truth Commission. Its multi-faceted project would be to coordinate and amplify the work of existing human rights groups, and other organizations of concerned citizens (notably families of the disappeared), in undertaking a thoroughgoing toting up of the costs of the drug war, and of the Dirty War with which it was intertwined. The goal would be a complete uncovering of the casualties—canvassing the countryside and opening up mass graves, collecting accounts of abductions, refining existing government data, and establishing a national registry of the disappeared, with DNA information included, so the dead could be paired with the missing.49

President Peña Nieto proposed something like this in the reform package he laid out on November 27, 2014, when—feeling the heat of public outrage—he called for creation of a National System for the Search of Lost Persons, and a National System of Genetic Information. The problem is that after so many broken promises of this sort from the state, civil society has no confidence in yet another one. More to the point, a Truth Commission should not be a government operation, run behind closed doors, but an utterly transparent and mass based enterprise, one whose very mode of organization would be a model for a new political order.

The same goes for EPN’s support for a National Anti-Corruption System, and the suggestion of naming a special prosecutor as an anti-­corruption czar. The problem, again, is that being subject to the attorney general and the president, such a figure would be all too liable to capture by the Executive, hence lack all credibility. An anti-corruption agency should be as autonomous as possible, situated in the space between state and civil society, able to draw on the resources of both.50 But while the state could provide funding and commence criminal proceedings against accused miscreants, what would the populace at large bring to the table?

images images images

For one thing, eyes and ears; for another the memories of experienced abuse. Here we think social media could play a larger part in bringing to bear the power inherent in civil society. Consider the phenomenon of witnesses to police or military abuse pulling out their cell phones and posting images and videos to various web sites. Consider the practice of catching arrogant behavior on camera, and having the posted footage “go viral,” something of a spectator sport in Mexico.51 ­Consider the impact of the footage filmed by a bystander showing Eric Garner being wrestled to the ground in a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer, after which four other cops pile on, driving his face to the ground as he repeatedly gasps out “I can’t breathe”; he died shortly thereafter. That video not only went viral; it also helped galvanize hundreds of physical “I Can’t Breathe” die-in demonstrations by tens of thousands in cities across the United States and abroad. It’s precisely this ability of the new media to alert vast numbers of citizens that provides new opportunities for citizen intervention, but only if it’s organized so as to transcend its scattershot quality.

Perhaps it would be possible to develop a system for receiving eyewitness accounts of abuses in progress. Peña Nieto has proposed establishing a nationwide 911 call-in system but the problem there is who is answering the phone? Citizens are demonstrably and reasonably reluctant to turn to local police for help, and the notion that folding the 1,800 municipal forces into thirty-two state organizations, theoretically making it easier to police the police, overlooks the dangers of centralization, and ignores the truly dismal record of state and federal agencies.52

Social media in conjunction with autonomous anti-abuse and anti-corruption bodies might help circumvent these problems. ­People could anonymously submit accounts of abuse or extortionate demands, not to municipal or state police, but to an autonomous ­Corruption Complaint Center, or a Police Abuse Center, or perhaps an overarching Citizen’s Action Center (its motto: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? [Who will watch the watchmen?]). This institution would be an autonomous body—headed by elected civic worthies of unimpeachable character, staffed by pro bono lawyers, accountants, and other professionals, supplemented by an army of student volunteers (perhaps mobilized through a Peace Corps equivalent: an Anti-Corruption Corps).

The organization might have three divisions. The first would enter arriving accusations and any supporting evidence in a database. When a predetermined number of similar accusations were filed against a particular individual or organization, thus providing a check against merely malicious gossip, an investigation would be initiated into the truth or falsity of the accumulated charges. That would be the province of the second division, trained investigators given the right to subpoena, acting somewhat like a grand jury. If there were deemed to be sufficient grounds for prosecution, a citizen indictment—in effect a pre-prepared case, complete with evidence and lists of willing witnesses—would be handed over to the criminal justice system. Now the third division would take charge of follow-up, tracking the progress (or lack thereof) in the courts of the case against an accused perpetrator, and if needs be mobilizing popular response via social media. If done with flair, such coverage could outdraw “true crime” or “reality TV.” This body would be financed ideally by civic-minded citizens, again using social media (crowdfunding) to gather the resources. These are just gestures toward a solution. The mechanics and practicality of such an approach would have to be worked out by professionals in the field.53 A similar procedure could be fashioned for dealing with corruption by high state officials, though to be effective, the legal immunities they now enjoy would have to be withdrawn. Mayors, governors, and presidents could then become liable to recall referendums at any time in their tenure, not only in the first two years of a term, as is currently the case in Mexico. In the U.S., roughly half the states have recall provisions in their constitutions, and in 2011, of the 150 recall elections in the United States, 75 ended in a removal from office.

More broadly still, picking up on Peña Nieto’s proposal for federal seizure of cities where infiltration by organized crime has been demonstrated, why not make this a systematic periodic practice? Franklin Roosevelt, when the public had lost confidence in the banking system, ordered a Bank Holiday, shutting down all banks and reopening only those proven sound. Why not establish a program of regular corruption check-ups with, again, autonomous regulatory bodies sending swarms of lawyers and accountants and students to scrutinize the books? Yes, there’s always the danger of regulators being captured by the entities they are regulating, but, again, all these investigations would be done transparently, their data and findings posted online for all to see.

A similar device was used in New York City in the 1990s, during a crackdown on mob infiltration of legitimate industries. Gangsters had established strangleholds over, among others, fish and food markets, garment manufacture, baking, trucking, garbage collection, and construction—some of which had been in place for over half a century. The city established new regulatory procedures requiring that licensees pass background checks, then denied or withdrew licenses to mob related actors. In one instance, to get rid of corrupt employees at the Javits Convention Center, every employee was fired, and had to pass a background check to get rehired. These measures have not worked miracles, but as James Jacobs argues in Gotham Unbound they’ve had a considerable and salutory impact.

On an even grander scale, the call by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas for Mexicans to write a new Constitution sounds like another empowering project, one in which the population could and should be deeply involved. The old Constitution, with its mandating of social justice provisions, has been end-runned or overturned on a piecemeal basis and by undemocratic methods. This would be the place to reckon up the costs and casualties of the neoliberal regime, and to consider which aspects of the Old Mexico and the New Mexico the populace wish to retain. Constitution-making would be a contentious process, given the existing deep divisions of opinion, but it seems better to put everything on the table and to have a vigorous conversation about the collective future, than to continue along the path the country’s been following.

If the notion of engineering a new nexus of state and civil society that would initiate a series of projects which involved and empowered the citizenry is to be more than the latest utopian fantasy to come down the pike, it will have to reckon with the already existing power of the narcos. As long as the drug lords are possessed of virtually unlimited funds with which to bribe governments and buy weapons, the likelihood of successfully eradicating or even moderating them seems unpromising. So our last suggestion, one that follows from our analysis of the U.S.-backed approach to drug use by its citizens—a prohibition/interdiction/incarceration regime—proposes an effort to diminish the resources available to the narco/state complex, one that provides an opportunity for Americans as well as ­Mexicans to take a hand in altering the unsatisfactory status quo.

41 It has been suggested that Peña Nieto was “reaching out” in another way, by using the judicial system to extend peace offerings to particular interests. Thus in a possible bow to the military, he arranged the freeing and rehabilitation of General Tomás Ángeles ­Dauahare, whom Calderón had fired on flimsy or trumped-up charges of corruption, though he was likely guilty only of PRI leanings. Peña Nieto returned a favor to former president Salinas, who had backed Peña Nieto’s PRI bid, by freeing his brother Raúl. And, conceivably, he sent a message to the cartel world by springing none other than Rafael Caro Quintero. Still doing time for the murder of Camarena, he promptly vanished upon release. The official story that he was freed on a suddenly discovered technicality strained credulity and enraged the DEA and the U.S. Justice Department. But what influence the godfather (by now the grandfather) of Mexican crime might have in the new era was difficult to discern. Still, the cluster of releases hinted at a commonality of purpose.

42 Where 12,930 had disappeared over Calderón’s sexenio, a rate of 5.9 every day, Peña Nieto’s tally stood at 9,384 as of October 2014, a rate of 13.4 every twenty-four hours.

43 In January 2015 Human Rights Watch went further, and urged President Obama to make clear to Peña Nieto “that if Mexico is unable to show significant results in prosecuting human rights crimes, [the U.S.] administration will no longer be able to certify that the human rights requirements in the Merida Initiative have been met.”

44 A forerunner of this takeover strategy had been deployed two months earlier when on November 4, 2013, the government announced that the navy, army, and federal police would take over security in Lázaro Cárdenas, replacing the local police force (which was disarmed and taken out of action) and customs officials. The port city had expanded enormously since being opened up to container ships a decade earlier, and its harbor was deep enough to enable the port to compete with Los Angeles in handling Asian goods bound for the U.S. market. But that would require breaking the Knights, who were at that point skimming off an estimated $2 billion per year from its operations. Months later, in May 2014, the city’s mayor was arrested over suspected links to traffickers, kidnappers, and extortionists. The following day, Mexican authorities seized a ship carrying sixty-eight metric tons of illegal iron ore, totaling since the beginning of 2014 over two hundred metric tons seized, most on the way to China.

45 Rural defense corps were originally militias formed to control banditry in the nineteenth century, and they played a role in defending cooperative farm communities following the Revolution, but had long since disappeared. Castillo’s resurrected structure would require vigilante leaders to submit a list of members to the army, and register their weapons. One reason enlistment lagged was that donning uniforms was a surefire way to attract Templario attention.

46 This time, after having been shot to death by soldiers and marines, Nazario Moreno’s autopsy at a hospital in Apatzingán was surrounded by 150 armed guards to ensure that the body would not be snatched by his followers.

47 As well as heavy handed. Mirales was treated worse than some captured drug lords: blindfolded, hooded, cuffed, denied phone calls, denied conferences with his attorney, denied his insulin, his head and face clean shaven, flown blindfolded in a helicopter for five hours, and incarcerated at a Sonora prison one thousand kilometers away from his support and defense team. This triggered extensive human rights protests.

48 One wonders if this particular appeal was in part the result of public relations advice he received back in 2013 from two reporters, one of them Televisa’s correspondent in Michoacán, whom La Tuta had summoned for a consultation (the ensuing conversation was secretly videotaped and released to the media in September 2014). La Tuta—miffed at all the good press being showered on the autodefensas by the local populace and the national and international press—asked the journalists how to improve his public image. They counseled a better media strategy, making various specific suggestions, including a TV interview they could (and did) arrange with Fox News. The camera also caught him handing them large wads of cash. On release of the tape, the journalists were fired forthwith. Perhaps Tuta’s epistle was itself part of his new media strategy, though the real strategy here was his ability to secretly get political and media heavyweights to offer self-incriminatory ruminations, which provided Tuta with leverage—threats to release the tapes—to use against those whose careers he had not yet ruined.

49 For a demonstration of how such data can be accumulated and presented, see the refinement (done by the DATA4 group) of existing government-provided numbers of the disappeared during the Calderón and Peña Nieto to-date sexenios, in Merino, And on a civil society approach to forensic studies see the work of the Gobernanza Forense Ciudadana (

50 A group of eighty intellectuals and representatives of organizations pondering ­Mexico’s corruption problem objected to the special prosecutor proposal on this and other grounds. See, among others, the work of Mauricio Merino and his colleagues at the ­Network for Accountability:

51 See the tweets assembled in this Gatopardo article, some outrageous, some hilarious:

52 The members of the shiny new national gendarmerie, and the graduates of the Merida-funded police training schools, may perhaps turn a new page in police-civilian relations, but Mexico has seen too many such fresh starts turn swiftly sour to warrant getting hopes up.

53 Professionals like the Red por la Rendición de Cuentas (Network for Accountability); the Laboratory for the Documentation and Analysis of Corruption and Transparency, part of the Institute for Social Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico; the Alianza Para El Gobierno Abierto En México (Open Government Partnership); and Transparencia Mexicana, a branch of Transparency International, which documents corruption levels in countries around the world; Mexico, it calculates, registers 200 million acts of corruption annually.

Amateurs haven’t done too badly, either. Citizen journalists have been organizing twitter feeds that track corruption—@anticorrupción—and one Monterrey group, the Via Ciudadana, has begun running a “Corruptour” bus ride, which spotlights eleven “corruption landmarks” in the city. The young activists hope to “place the issue of corruption at the center of political debate.” See:

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!