Posted on December 30, 2009

The Fall of Mexico

Philip Caputo, Atlantic, December 2009

Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.

–Porfirio Díaz, dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and 1884 to 1911

Those famous words came to mind when another man named Díaz offered me an equally concise observation about the realities of life in the country today: “In Mexico it is dangerous to speak the truth. It is even dangerous to know the truth.”

His full name is Fernando Díaz Santana. He hosts two AM-radio news-and-commentary shows in the small Chihuahuan city of Nuevo Casas Grandes. {snip}

He’s received text messages from listeners cautioning him to be careful of what he says on the air. He takes these friendly warnings seriously; failure to heed them could bring a death sentence like the one meted out to Armando Rodríguez, a crime reporter murdered by an unidentified gunman in November 2008 in Juárez, the violent border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The fear of suffering a similar fate is a powerful incentive for self-censorship, for training a naturally inquisitive mind to acquire ignorance.

“So now we give just the objective facts,” Díaz says as he sits facing me in a stuffy, windowless rear room of the radio station, in Nuevo Casas Grandes’s central business district. He and the co-host of his afternoon show, David Andrew (pronounced Da-veed An-dray-oo), explain that the “objective facts” are those reported by the police or city hall or some other official source. Though the accuracy of such facts is often questionable, no questions dare be asked. “We say nothing more,” Díaz adds. “As long as we don’t get too deeply into a story, we are safe.”


More than 14,000 people have been killed in the almost three years since President Felipe Calderón mobilized the army to fight Mexico’s half-dozen major drug cartels. Virtually none of those homicides has been solved, partly because witnesses suffer short-term memory loss when questioned, and partly because the police, for various reasons, also feel profoundly that things do not stand much looking into.


To clarify the crime. Of the many things Mexico lacks these days, clarity is near the top of the list. It is dangerous to know the truth. Finding it is frustrating. Statements by U.S. and Mexican government officials, repeated by a news media that prefers simple story lines, have fostered the impression in the United States that the conflict in Mexico is between Calderón’s white hats and the crime syndicates’ black hats. The reality is far more complicated, as suggested by this statistic: out of those 14,000 dead, fewer than 100 have been soldiers. Presumably, army casualties would be far higher if the war were as straightforward as it’s often made out to be.

What, then, accounts for the carnage, the worst Mexico has suffered since the revolution, a century ago? To be sure, many of the dead have been cartel criminals. Some were killed in firefights with the army, others in battles between the cartels for control of smuggling routes, and still others in power struggles within the cartels. The toll includes more than 1,000 police officers, some of whom, according to Mexican press reports, were executed by soldiers for suspected links to drug traffickers. Conversely, a number of the fallen soldiers may have been killed by policemen moonlighting as cartel hit men, though that cannot be proved. Meanwhile, human-rights groups have accused the military of unleashing a reign of terror–carrying out forced disappearances, illegal detentions, acts of torture, and assassinations–not only to fight organized crime but also to suppress dissidents and other political troublemakers. What began as a war on drug trafficking has evolved into a low-intensity civil war with more than two sides and no white hats, only shades of black. The ordinary Mexican citizen–never sure who is on what side, or who is fighting whom and for what reason–retreats into a private world where he becomes willfully blind, deaf, and above all, dumb.


But why, I asked, would soldiers maraud the countryside on a murder-and-kidnapping spree? He [Díaz] replied that the raid was not part of the Mexican government’s war on the drug cartels but a struggle between two powerful cartels: the Juárez organization, headed by Vicente Carillo, and the Sinaloa federation, whose boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is the most-wanted man in Mexico. Gutiérrez said that in this instance the gunmen, whoever they were, had been after people they thought were working for the Juárez cartel.

“It’s an open secret in Mexico,” he said, “that the army is fighting the [Juárez] cartel to weaken them and pave the way for Guzmán.”

Open secret or no, an allegation that soldiers may have acted on behalf of a drug lord needs to be substantiated. After all, Calderón’s counter-narcotics strategy relies, with U.S. support, almost exclusively on the military.


In the Mexico Mexicans have to live in, Díaz begins, life is “very hard, very bad,” a statement he underscores with a statistic: last year, 115 homicides were committed in Nuevo Casas Grandes and its surrounding communities. That works out to a murder rate more than 20 times as high as New York City’s.

It’s at this juncture that he makes his comment about the dangers of speaking or knowing the truth. I begin inquiring about the February 2008 incident, but Díaz and his younger colleague aren’t eager to discuss it.

I don’t get anywhere, though Díaz casts doubt on Gutiérrez’s assertion that the raid was a military operation. All of this talk about human-rights abuses by the army is “a myth,” Díaz insists. He is in fact cheered that an army battalion has been making rounds to bolster security in Nuevo Casas Grandes: “We are abandoned and unprotected here in northwest Chihuahua. It is a very big wish that the soldiers will bring peace. The army is the only group we can trust.” He adds by way of illustration that several sicarios, as professional assassins are called in Mexico, were arrested and confessed to killing 19 people in town.


The question is, can the army be trusted, and if so, can it win this latest–and biggest–battle in the seemingly endless “war on drugs”? Calderón has deployed more than 45,000 troops (out of a total force of 230,000) throughout the country. Of that number, about 7,000, reinforced by 2,300 federal policemen, occupy Juárez as part of Operación Conjunta Chihuahua–the Joint Chihuahuan Operation. The army has taken over all the policing functions. The city is under undeclared martial law.

Although many ordinary Mexicans welcome the army’s intervention, certain that things would be far worse without it, approval has been far from universal. Claims of grievous abuses by the armed forces–unlawful detentions, disappearances, thefts, rapes, and murders–have increased sixfold in the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch. One hundred and seventy complaints have been filed in Chihuahua alone, says Gustavo de la Rosa, the former Chihuahua state ombudsman for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

Leaving aside the question of whether militarizing the anti-narcotics campaign is the best way to go about things (a similar strategy in Colombia has been only partially successful), the fact is that, by destroying public trust in the armed forces, military misconduct undermines the entire effort, as I learned from a 50-year-old cleaning woman who now lives in Arizona and who asked to remain anonymous. She was visiting her aunt in Juárez last December when soldiers broke into a neighbor’s house, claiming that they were looking for a suspect.

“They didn’t say who,” the woman told me. “They tore her house apart, took her jewelry and her money, and said that if she complained about what they did they were going to come back and kill her. People are more afraid of the police and soldiers than they are of the narcos, because they’re very mean guys–not all, but many.”

The fear goes beyond undisciplined soldiers running amok. In an interview, de la Rosa told me that the president, elected in 2006 by a margin as thin as an ATM card, called out the army not merely to fight the cartels and eliminate a threat to national sovereignty but to consolidate his power and confer legitimacy on his presidency. “Calderón wants to show the Congress that the military is with him,” de la Rosa said. “And the military promised to support Calderón in exchange for being allowed out of the barracks, because the army wants to govern. Chihuahua is an experiment. What is happening here is in essence a military coup, a regional coup.” To support this contention, he cited a change he has had to make in his own work. Under normal circumstances, he would file complaints of abuse with the state governor, but now, he said, “the governor is ineffective, so I have to go to General Felipe de Jesús Espitia, the comandante of the 5th Military District.”

I was somewhat incredulous that the military was staging a creeping coup. To what end? I asked.

De la Rosa shrugged. “Actually, nobody really knows or understands what the military is up to,” he answered, hedging a bit. Then he asserted that the army intends not to stamp out drug trafficking but to “control” it. “So now if a drug cartel wants to move drugs into the U.S., who would they go to? To the governor? No, to the general.” (El Universal, Mexico’s largest newspaper, reported in September that de la Rosa had received death threats from the army, apparently because of his sharp criticisms; sources have told me he has taken temporary refuge in the U.S.)

As de la Rosa suggested, there is a dismal history of collusion between the armed forces and organized crime. In the late 1980s, the Mexican defense secretary was caught peddling protection to three drug organizations, which paid him a total of $10 million. In 1997, Mexico’s chief anti-narcotics officer was indicted for providing the Juárez cartel with classified drug-enforcement information in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes. In a 2001 essay in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, a University of Texas criminologist, Patrick O’Day, cited several instances of Mexican soldiers’ guarding narcotics shipments and transporting them into the United States in military vehicles or by other means. These operations were so extensive and went on for so long that O’Day concluded that the army was a cartel unto itself.


In seeking, much less speaking, the truth about what the army is up to, one often runs into the paradox of the Mexican reality: something dreadful happens and is then treated as if it hadn’t happened. Facts, like people, simply disappear.


The conduct of the Mexican military goes to the heart of U.S. counter-narcotics policy. In the past year, experts like General Barry McCaffrey (the drug czar in the Clinton administration) and political figures have warned that if the cartels are not contained, Mexico could become a failed state and the U.S. could find itself with an Afghanistan or a Pakistan on its southern border. Such forecasts are hyperbole, but the fact is that drug trafficking and its attendant corruption are a malignancy that has spread into Mexico’s lymph system. To extend the metaphor, Calderón is attempting to perform radical surgery with the only instrument at his disposal–the army. It may be a tainted instrument, so the reasoning goes, but it is less tainted than the law-enforcement agencies.


And that is where U.S. policy becomes contradictory. It calls for a military solution to the trafficking problem. But there are very few, if any, civil safeguards on the actions of the Mexican military. Its soldiers are subject only to military law, even when deployed in their current crime-fighting capacity, and the country’s military-justice system is, to understate things, opaque.

{snip} It’s pure catch-22: state or federal authorities will not receive complaints against soldiers, and the army will not investigate unless charges have been filed by state or federal authorities.

That is among the reasons why, out of the more than 2,000 complaints brought before Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, not one has resulted in the prosecution of a single soldier.


Every year, under the Foreign Assistance Act, the State Department is required to certify that its southern neighbor is fully cooperating in efforts to stem the export of illegal narcotics into the United States. Without certification, Mexico would be ineligible to receive the vast majority of American aid. But the U.S. government often soft-pedals criticisms of Mexico on matters such as corruption and human-rights offenses, for two reasons. One is U.S. sensitivity to the Mexican elite, which can be thin-skinned about what it regards as infringements from the north on its national sovereignty. The second is money. In the highly unlikely event that Mexico were decertified, the cutoff in U.S. aid would strain bilateral relations, trade agreements would be imperiled, and American businessmen would find it harder to operate south of the border. Also, of all the countries that export oil to the United States, Mexico, at 985,000 barrels a day, ranks third, behind Canada and Saudi Arabia.

That makes speaking the truth about Mexico politically and economically dangerous in official U.S. circles.


The U.S. government estimates that the cultivation and trafficking of illegal drugs directly employs 450,000 people in Mexico. Unknown numbers of people, possibly in the millions, are indirectly linked to the drug industry, which has revenues estimated to be as high as $25 billion a year, exceeded only by Mexico’s annual income from manufacturing and oil exports. Dr. Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City and a senior legal and economic adviser to the UN and the World Bank, concluded in a recent report that 17 of Mexico’s 31 states have become virtual narco-republics, where organized crime has infiltrated government, the courts, and the police so extensively that there is almost no way they can be cleaned up. The drug gangs have acquired a “military capacity” that enables them to confront the army on an almost equal footing.