Mexican Drug Wars
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|Martin Barillas||February 9th 2009|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
Mexico is struggling to wage war against its ultra-violent drug traffickers. More than 6,000 people were murdered in 2008, including innocent people, law enforcement officers and military men, as well as narco-traffickers themselves. The gruesome conflict is spilling over into American territory into the lives of U.S. citizens vacationing south of the border. Mexico's drug war is in fact more threatening and bloody now than at any point in history.
The numbers are staggering. In 2008, some 530 police officers were killed. In January 2009 alone, some 493 murders were attributed to drug-related violence, nearly doubling the figure for January 2008. These murders were gruesome. Many of the dead were decapitated and showed signs of torture. Minors and women have not been spared from the violence.
The Mexican government admits that a number of the police killed were also working for the narco-traffickers and were in fact murdered by rivals. Escalating violence has American authorities worried.
President Felipe Calderón of Mexico has vowed to bring to heel the country's criminal organizations, such as Los Zetas – some of them former military and police forces – as well as the Arrellano Felix family, even at the expense of Mexican civilians and scores of troops and police officers. Calderón has sent thousands of troops into states bordering the Ameircan Southwest and into other areas such as Guerrero. But the fight is lopsided.
Mexico's army is often matched by the narcos, who have access to military-grade armaments and munitions. They frequently use enhanced pickup trucks and SUVs in their drive-by shootings and other quasi-military operations, rather than the cumbersome vehicles used by Mexico’s military that are supplied by the United States. Mexican law enforcers are often kitted-out in poor uniforms, obsolete body armor, and weapons insufficient for combating the narcos wielding state-of-the art weapons. They find consolation in religion, good luck charms, and early retirement. For their part, the narcos can easily buy weapons in the U.S. and from overseas to commit murder at will. Their exploits are sometimes lionized by balladeers singing foot-stomping and accordion-laden songs called narco-corridos.
The U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings to U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico, noting that firefights between the gangs and the Mexican military are open small-unit combats involving automatic weapons, fragmentation bombs, and high-speed chases through urban areas. Even the U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton outside of San Diego, California, are forbidden to cross over into the neighboring city of Tijuana, Mexico, out of fear of violent crime. Indeed, some 200 U.S. citizens have been murdered since 2004, with no culprits arrested. Some of these U.S. citizens, according to reports, might have been hit-men, traffickers, or drug-users, but most were probably innocent tourists.
The narco-gangs have become increasingly brazen. Retired army general Mauro Tello and two other men were murdered and their bodies found in the pre-dawn hours of February 3 near the resort town of Cancún, Quintana Roo. All three had been tortured before their deaths. Tello had retired from the army in January 2008 and had been serving as a consultant to the mayor of Cancún – a seaside resort city that hosts thousands of sun-seeking tourists from Europe and the U.S. every year. Cancún is also a prime transit point for South American cocaine on its way north. Tello is one of the highest-ranking officials killed so far in the narco-war. Police said they had no suspects or motive in Tello’s killing. A former governor of Quintana Roo is awaiting extradiction to the U.S. for involvement in narcotics.
In Tijuana, bordering southern California, hit-men working for the narco gangs openly taunted their intended victims – police officers – before killing them. Breaking onto police radio channels, the murderers chillingly issued the death threats “You’re next, bastard…We’re going to get you,” and named the victim. A few hours later, the bodies of two officers were found with bullet entry wounds in their heads. Tijuana police chief Gustavo Huerta admitted “These death threats are part of the psychological warfare that organized crime is using against officers." The narcos often transmit new threats and feigned condolences over the same airwaves over which they broadcast their original threats.
Undaunted, Mexican authorities are claiming, perhaps wishfully, that most of the deaths can be attributed to the rivalry between narco-traffickers rather than a failure on the part of law enforcement and the military. They point to arrests such as that in January 2009 of Santiago Meza López, who on February 2 was put under 40 days’ arrest for disposing of the victims of drug violence. Meza López is known by the nickname “Pozolero,” a reference to a savory Mexican stew made of chunks of pork. He is accused of having dissolved over the last ten years some 300 bodies of murder victims in caustic soda for a wage of $600 weekly. He is one of the FBI’s most-wanted criminals and may face extradition to the U.S.
But arrests such as Meza López are remote victories in the war. Firefights between the narcos and Mexico’s military continue unabted. Two soldiers and four narcos died in fighting in the town of Fresnillo, Zacatecas, in central Mexico on February 8. An army colonel was wounded as were three presumed criminals, according to the Federal Preventative Police. According to official reports, a convoy of military and law enforcement personnel came under fire from criminals using grenades and military-grade weapons.
Alleged to be members of Los Zetas, the narcos this time were apparently out-gunned or at least out-witted themselves. One of the grenades launched by the narcos exploded in their own vehicle, immediately killing three. The combat lasted approximately one hour, leaving behind the dead, as well as six totally-destroyed vehicles – including a military Humvee. Hours after the exchange of fire, a group of Mexican Special Forces arrived - presumably to seek more narco hitmen known as “sicarios.” In the dragnet over the town of Fresnillo, police have found official uniforms, communications equipment, weapons, and drugs.
In Nuevo Laredo, across the border from sister-city Laredo, Texas, Los Zetas recently plastered signposts and walls with posters offering jobs to Mexicans now facing a perilous economic downturn. A banner hung over a street in Nuevo Laredo saying "The Zetas want you, soldier or ex-soldier. We offer a good salary, food and benefits for your family." Remittances sent back home by Mexicans working in the U.S. have fallen off for the first time in history, giving evidence jobs are scarcer in the U.S. and that Mexicans may be returning home only to find unemployment. A job with Los Zetas or other criminal organizations now awaits them.
President Calderón’s efforts to militarize the struggle with narcos by bringing in 45,000 federal troops in the border states has been met with mixed success. In his own government, accusations of in-fighting and corruption are rife. In January 2009, Mexico’s drug czar, Mariano Herran Salvatti was arrested on embezzlement charges. Once approved as a counterpart to the Clinton-era drug-czar Barry McCaffery, “Iron prosecutor” Herran Salvati is now suspected of being on the payroll of a drug cartel based in the state of Sinaloa.
With such violence unleashed, flagging morale in the military, and civilian officials under suspicion, it may be with reason that U.S. Joint Forces Command analysis recently claimed that Mexico "could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States." While both Mexican and U.S. authorities agree that 2009 will be critical for the war on drugs, at least some in the Mexico law enforcement may not quite understand. General Alfredo Duarte, military commander of the Tijuana district says "The real problem is just between organized crime groups."
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent Martin Barillas is the editor of www.speroforum.com.