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Mexico's Wars

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The Intertwined Roots and Resilience of Organized Crime in Mexico and the U.S.

July 28th 2011

Mexican Topics - Mexico bullets crime scene

Mexico’s ongoing spasm of violence and mayhem is frequently portrayed in the US media as a Mexican phenomenon that threatens to spill across the nation’s borders and sweep up hapless cities in the relentless expansion of powerful, foreign criminal organizations. Looking south, many US citizens gasp in horror as they watch a mounting death toll from the so-called drug war and the seeming break-down of any semblance of civilized behavior and law and order south of the border.

In an interview, Dr. Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of articles and books on cross-border drug culture and violence, contended that a distorted picture of Mexican reality is often conveyed in this country.

“I think that what happens normally in the US is that people will just blame Mexico for its problems and assume somehow that the US is superior and that American culture is superior than Mexican culture, but that has nothing to do with this issue,” Campbell said.

Stressing that crime and violence are transnational forces, Campbell cited the flow of guns from north to south, the US consumption of drugs that feeds an illicit Mexican economy and the emergence of the Aztecas, a prison/street gang that was founded in Texas but later expanded to Ciudad Juarez. Now protagonists in the violence ravaging the Mexican border city, the Aztecas were reportedly the prime target of rival prisoners that went on a killing rampage the evening of July 25, leaving at least 17 dead in the Ciudad Juarez municipal prison.

In Mexico, public discussion of the US role in the current spate of violence destabilizing the country has been growing. And a new book by an award-winning Mexican journalist is furthering the debate over the nature of the US-Mexico relationship while helping shed light on some of the historical origins and influences of organized crime south of the border. Author Juan Alberto Cedillo’s La Cosa Nostra en Mexico 1938-1950 (Grijalbo 2011) delves into the largely unknown story of the Mafia’s penetration of his country in the first half of the 20th century. The book chronicles the interactions of US hoodlums, Mexican politicians and policemen and even Hollywood personalities.

Finding common ground in vice and leisure, their dealings included bootlegging, gambling, drug trafficking and more. Names familiar from other places pop up in Cedillo’s account-Lucky Luciano, California boxing promoter Baron Long, Hollywood pioneer and studio czar Joseph M. Schenck and Al Capone, the capo who reportedly gained a Santa Claus reputation by handing out $50 tips to Mexican service industry workers accustomed to earning pennies a day.

The expanded cast of characters includes Mexican Presidents Lazaro Cardenas and Miguel Aleman, Mexican Senator Carlos Serrano and Virginia Hill, the so-called US “Mafia Queen” who maintained a relationship with Serrano and gained access to the highest levers of Mexican power. The right-hand man of President Aleman, Serrano was tagged by the CIA as an individual who was heavily involved in cross-border drug trafficking and other illegal activities. A car belonging to Serrano was once stopped in the US and discovered to contain 60 tins of opium, according to a landmark 2001 book by Mexican researcher and author Sergio Aguayo.

From behind the scenes, Serrano reputedly ran the legendary Federal Security Directorate (DFS), which Cedillo credits for managing Mexico’s illegal drug business. Founded in 1947 and modeled after the FBI, the DFS’ agents received early training from J. Edgar Hoover’s boys. Once up and running, the Mexican political police force then funneled information to Washington about socialist governments.

The CIA, Aguayo wrote, knew about DFS involvement in drug trafficking and crime but nevertheless praised the Mexican agency’s officers as “competent and capable.”

Aguayo’s and Cedillo’s depictions of the DFS, which was disbanded following scandals in the mid-1980s, challenge a popular folklore that sometimes romanticizes drug trafficking in narco ballads which sing of clashes between the hated federales and outlaw traffickers. Yet virtually from the very beginning, illegal drug trafficking and smuggling in Mexico was an enterprise managed and manipulated by the state in cahoots with foreigners. “What the Italian Mafia did represents the genesis of large-scale drug trafficking to the US,” Cedillo recently told the Mexican press. “This is very important in understanding how drug trafficking currently works…. how this business changed at the beginning of the 1990s when we stopped being an exporting country and became a consuming one.”

Cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo witnessed the domestic consumption of cocaine soar in the 1,000 percent range by the mid-1990s, Cedillo said.

Cedillo and Aguayo expose other patterns in cross-border relationships, not the least of which was Washington’s propensity to look the other way at corruption and criminal activity in favor of the “higher” goals of winning the Cold War against godless communism. In his book La Charola, for instance, Aguayo recounted the story of exiled Mexican journalist Rafael Garcia Travesi. A vocal opponent of President Aleman in the late 1940s, Garcia was detained and then deported from Los Angeles in an exercise of US collusion with a determined campaign by the Aleman administration to silence a pesky critic.

Both Aguayo and Cedillo relied on official US and Mexican documents in preparing their journalistic works. In a recent on-line chat sponsored by the Mexican daily El Universal, Cedillo said the Mexican Defense Ministry denied access to certain documents, while other US documents containing possible information on Mafia-Mexican government ties still have not been declassified.

A ritzy Tijuana development spearheaded by Hollywood mogul Shenck was perhaps the glittering pinnacle of the Mexico-Mafia saga.

Built in 1928 and 1929 for the then-lordly sum of $10 million, the Agua Caliente horse racing track and entertainment complex featured a 500-room hotel, a casino, tropical gardens, an 18-hole golf course, a private radio station and a small airport for the celebrities of the time “jetting” in for revelries across a tolerant border. In the late 1920s, small but action-packed Tijuana (population 20,000) employed an estimated 2,000 prostitutes. Abelardo Rodriguez, the governor of Baja California and future president of Mexico, owned the land on which Agua Caliente was constructed, Cedillo writes.

Concerned that vice was undermining the lofty goals of the 1910 Revolution, Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas closed down Agua Caliente in 1935. Nonetheless, the track later reopened and the concession for its operation was eventually awarded to Jorge Hank Rhon, the controversial former mayor of Tijuana who was briefly detained and then released by Mexican federal and state authorities last month in connection with weapons and other charges.

Recent press coverage of the Mexican “drug war” has reported on the seemingly novel diversification of the Mexican cartels. But a semi-state capitalist business model rooted in illegal and legal activities of all sorts was evident back in the 1920s if not sooner.

Practically from its inception, international tourism was one of the promising business ventures eyed by the underworld. For example, Cedillo contends that President Aleman was working with “Murder Inc.” of US Mafia fame to open casinos in Acapulco before the scheme was disrupted by a US government probe of criminal syndicates. In contemporary times, the narco-tourism connection was highlighted in the fateful career of former Quintana Roo Governor Mario Villaneueva, who wound up extradited to the US on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

While aggressively pursuing large-scale tourism development in Cancun and the Riveria Maya, the politician was allegedly facilitating and protecting shipments of hundreds of tons of cocaine for the Juarez Cartel back in the 1990s. A US indictment accused Villanueva of laundering almost $19 million in drug proceeds through Lehman Brothers in New York and accounts in Switzerland, the Bahamas, Panama and Mexico, including some under the names of British Virgin Islands shell corporations. At the time of Villanueva’s 2010 extradition, US Attorney Preet Bharara accused the Mexican politician of turning Quintana Roo into a “virtual narco-state” where state infrastructure and law enforcement were sold to “one of the world’s most dangerous mafia enterprises.”

In a column, Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho wrote how former tourism industry officials told her that nearly half of the massive hotel development in Cancun, the most favored spot of US tourists visiting Mexico, occurred thanks to dirty money. “The construction and operation of hotels and tourist services, whose purpose is to hide the origin of the illicitly obtained money, as well as the identity of its owner, is a silenced matter,” Cacho wrote. “There is a fine mesh that unites politicians and money launderers who could be involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking and contraband.”

Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur, an on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news service of New Mexico State University.


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