Across Mexico, the continuing ability of traffickers to topple governments like Tancitaro’s [a town in central Mexico], intimidate police and keep drug shipments flowing is raising doubts about the Mexican government’s 3-year-old, U.S.-backed war on the drug cartels.
Far from eliminating the gangs, the battle has exposed criminal networks more ingrained than most Americans could imagine: Hidden economies that employ up to one-fifth of the people in some Mexican states. Business empires that include holdings as everyday as gyms and a day-care center.
And the death toll continues to mount: Mexico saw 6,587 drug-related murders in 2009, up from 5,207 in 2008 and 2,275 in 2007, according to an unofficial tally by the respected newspaper Reforma.
Cartels have multiplied, improved their armament and are perfecting simultaneous, terrorist-style attacks.
Some analysts are warning that Mexico is on the verge of becoming a “narco-state” like 1990s-era Colombia.
In the latest sign of the cartels’ grip, on Wednesday the National Action Party of President Felipe Calderón announced it was calling off primary elections in the northern state of Tamaulipas because drug traffickers had infiltrated politics.
And in Chihuahua, the government is redeploying troops from the embattled city of Juarez to the countryside because of fears that the cartels are cementing their control in smaller border towns.
Even Calderón, who a year ago angrily rebutted suggestions that Mexico was becoming a “failed state,” is now describing his crackdown as a fight for territory and “the very authority of the state.”
Towns on the ropes
In places like Tancitaro, population 26,000, the battle already may be lost.
In the past year, gunmen killed seven police officers, murdered a top town administrator and kidnapped others, said Martin Urbina, a city official. The reasons were unclear–most of the town leaders are in hiding and could not be reached for comment–but the drug traffickers were apparently demanding the removal of certain police officers, Urbina said.
When the traffickers kidnapped the two officials’ fathers on Nov. 30, it was the last straw.
In Vicente Guerrero, in Durango state, 34 of 38 police resigned after the police chief and four officers were kidnapped. The victims have not been found.
In the border town of Puerto Palomas, the police chief fled to the United States and asked for asylum in March, saying Mexican officials could not protect him. In October, traffickers killed the town administrator in Puerto Palomas.
In the northern town of Namiquipa, traffickers killed the mayor and two top town officials last year. Police there are woefully outgunned, police Chief Jesus Hinojosa said. There are only 15 weapons for 39 police officers.
Often the cartels target city officials they believe are cooperating with federal authorities, said Juan Manuel Bautista, the City Council secretary in the western town of Novolato, where traffickers have killed 25 police, two city councilmen and a town administrator in the past two years.
Other times, they are simply lashing back at the most convenient targets, he said.
Even when governments replace police chiefs, mayors and town councils, it’s often only a matter of time before the replacements are bribed, intimidated at the barrel of a gun or killed, and the scenario repeats itself, said Bernardo Gonzalez Arechiga, an expert on crime at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Advanced Studies.
In May, federal officials arrested 10 mayors in Michoacan state on charges of protecting smugglers.
In June, Mauricio Fernández, a mayoral candidate in the wealthy Monterrey suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was recorded telling a meeting of supporters that he had negotiated a truce with the Beltrán Leyva gang as a way of guaranteeing security in the town. Fernández later denied any contact with the gang. He easily won the July 2 election.
In many towns, smugglers pay for playgrounds and other things the government cannot afford. Bank loans are expensive and hard to get in Mexico, a lingering effect of the country’s bank crises during the 1990s, so traffickers have stepped in to provide small-business loans.
Since 2006, the number of Mexican citizens and companies on the U.S. Treasury’s blacklist of suspected drug smugglers has nearly doubled, from 188 to 362.
In March, the financial magazine Forbes included Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán in its list of the world’s billionaires for the first time. Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, was listed at No. 701 with a net worth of about $1 billion.
In fact, Guzmán’s cartel and other gangs probably bring in $3.8 billion just to Sinaloa state alone, said Guillermo Ibarra, an economist who used bank and government statistics to compile an estimate this year.
That is 20 percent of the state’s economy, twice as much as all of its factories put together. The drug trade employs about a fifth of the state’s 2.6 million population, either directly or indirectly, he said.
Gangs going strong
The cartels also have found ways to defend their core drug business by moving marijuana farms to U.S. national parks, finding new smuggling routes through Africa and into Europe, and strengthening their supply lines in Central America.
Drug prices and purity in the United States, the main measure of trafficking, shows the crackdown is having only mixed results.
Cocaine prices in the United States jumped from $132 a gram to $182 a gram from September 2007 to September 2008, the latest date for which the Drug Enforcement Administration has released numbers.
But during the same period, methamphetamine got stronger and cheaper, dropping from $213 per gram to $184 per gram.
Their product is also improving, the report said: Marijuana potency in 2008 was the highest it has ever been.
Since 2008, Mexican drug smugglers have been arrested in Australia, New Zealand and the African nations of Sierra Leone and Togo. U.S. prosecutors say the Gulf Cartel has struck deals with the New York mob and the Ndrangheta Mafia of Italy to smuggle cocaine into Europe.
In the United States, cartel operatives have been detected in 195 cities, as distant as Anchorage, Alaska, and as small as Ponca City, Okla., a report by the U.S. Justice Department said.
In Arizona, the Sinaloa Cartel has operations in Phoenix, Tucson, Douglas, Glendale, Naco, Nogales, Peoria, Sasabe, Sierra Vista and Yuma. The Gulf Cartel also has some operatives in Nogales, and the Juarez Cartel has outposts in Phoenix, Tucson and Douglas, the report said.
At the same time, the cartels are acquiring weapons that are “increasingly more powerful and lethal,” the U.S. Government and Accountability Office said in a June report.
Five rocket launchers, 271 grenades, 2,932 assault rifles, a submarine loaded with cocaine, and an anti-aircraft gun complete with blast shield were all seized by Mexican authorities between March 2008 and August 2009.
In September, traffickers fired an anti-tank rocket at soldiers while trying to free a comrade who had been detained.
The gangs also are getting better at carrying out coordinated, military-style operations.
On July 11 and 12, La Familia launched 15 attacks in eight cities on police stations and a police bus, killing 14 officers.
And on May 16, Gulf Cartel gunmen freed 53 prisoners in a commando-style raid on a prison in Zacatecas state.
Calderón and the Obama administration insist that the Mexican government still has the upper hand against the cartels.
A report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command warned in January 2009 that Mexico was ripe for a “rapid and sudden collapse” because of the drug cartels. And in a report to the West Point military academy, former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey said the cartels could “overwhelm the institutions of the state and establish de facto control over broad regions of northern Mexico” within eight years.