Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, January 2010
George W. Grayson, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?, Transaction Publishers, 2010, 339 pp.
Is Mexico on the verge of becoming a “failed state” like Somalia? George Grayson, who teaches government at William and Mary, thinks it could be. Mexico was never a model of public spiritedness, and billions in hot money from the drug trade have blasted what little integrity the country ever had. Hair-raising stories occasionally float north, but it takes the full picture Prof. Grayson offers to grasp how bad things really are.
The United States and Mexico are both cursed by having each other as neighbors. We get Mexicans and they get a violent, enormously powerful underworld that exists mainly because of our insatiable demand for drugs. Although many Mexicans have become addicts, the real money is in getting marijuana, heroin, and cocaine into El Norte, and that is why the worst breakdowns in authority are in the six smugglers’-haven Mexican states that border the U.S.
Prof. Grayson reports that Ciudad Juarez, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, and virtually every other Mexican border town is in a state of terror, overwhelmed by murder, dismemberment, and kidnapping. So many bodies show up without heads — or vice versa — that funeral homes offer special deals to hold the remains until missing parts turn up. Tourists are long gone, and undertaking and casket making are the only growth industries.
In Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, the police chief resigned after multiple cop killings and threats to kill an officer every 48 hours until he quit. In 2005 in Nuevo Laredo, the job of police chief went begging because no one dared take it. A printing company owner said he would give it a try and was dead within six hours. How did Mexico get this way?
A boost from the Americans
We have made the drug business irresistible for Mexicans, who learned the ropes running booze during Prohibition. During the Second World War, when the Japanese occupied the poppy-growing regions of Asia, and Turkey sided with the Axis, we taught Mexicans how to grow the opium poppies we needed for making morphine. The hills of Sinaloa State turned out to be perfect. After the war, we asked the Sinaloans to stop, but poppies were just too profitable to give up. Drug use took off in the United States during the ’60s, and production and smuggling grew to meet demand. Since then, millions of illegal immigrants have sneaked across the border, plowing even deeper channels for illegal trade.
Prof. Grayson writes that while the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was the unchallenged political power, the drug industry was reasonably well behaved. Each cartel stuck to its own territory and sold drugs only in the United States. Hit men didn’t kill innocent people, and kidnapping was rare. Drug lords were deferential to politicians.
Things began to change in the 1990s, when Mexican drug traffickers started buying huge quantities of Colombian cocaine to sell in the United States. This added enormously to their profits and power. The National Action Party (PAN) began winning regional elections, and the oppressive but stable PRI system broke down. At that time, federal authorities were mainly responsible for fighting drug crimes, and as local police came under local control, it became easier for them to ignore the problem completely.
In 2000, the PRI lost a presidential election for the first time in 70 years, and Prof. Grayson says the final coup de grace to the old centralized system made it easier to flout the law and establish parallel power centers. Another big push toward anarchy was the arrival of new cartels such as the Zetas and La Familia, which were more violent than the established gangs and had no respect for cartel boundaries and the old, quiet way of doing business. The stage was set for real threats to state power.
How bad have things gotten? It is estimated that only one in five crimes is reported, and that of these, only 13 percent are investigated, and of that number only 5 percent lead to a sentence. This means that about 1.3 crimes in a thousand are actually punished. Kidnapping has been on a sharp and terrifying rise, but only an estimated 10 percent are reported because the public thinks the police were in on the snatch. In the first half of 2008 alone, there were 95 attacks on journalists, and so many newsmen have been killed that press organizations call Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for newsmen.
An equally disturbing picture emerges from the details of the lives of drug kingpins. Take Joaquin Guzman Loera or “El Chapo” (Shorty), as he is known. Born in 1957, he is the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, named for the state in which it is based. Forbes says he is worth $1 billion and rates him the 41st most powerful man in the world. When he was first arrested in 1991, he dropped $50,000 on the desk of a Mexico City police officer who was so startled he let him go. El Chapo was caught and imprisoned in Guatemala, where he lived in a luxurious cell, drank fine wines, chatted by phone with top media personalities, carried on several notorious affairs, and ran his business unimpeded. He was transferred to Mexico’s top-security prison but escaped just a few days before he was to be extradited to the United States. No fewer than 78 people were implicated in the elaborate bribery scheme that led to his escape.
In 2007, he fell for Emma Coronel Aispuro, a 17-year-old contestant for the title of “Queen of the Great Guayaba and Coffee Festival” in Sinaloa. On Jan. 6, 2008, she held a dance in La Angostura in support of her candidacy. Two hundred armed men on motorcycles roared into town and secured the entrances to the city. A popular professional music group, “Los Canelos de Durango” arrived by air to serenade the beauty with her favorite songs, and El Chapo himself and his entourage arrived later in a fleet of six planes. Emma’s beaming parents presented her to her suitor, and the party went on for 12 hours before El Chapo and his pals made a graceful exit. Only the next day did the cops arrive. Emma won the beauty competition, and went on to become El Chapo’s third wife.
Emma’s story, by the way, has a fairy-tale ending in the eyes of many Latinas, who want nothing more than to catch the eye of a drug baron. Sin tetas no hay paraiso (No Paradise Without Tits) is the name of a novel by a Colombian author about mothers who pay for breast augmentation for their daughters so they can become the playthings of men with drug money. The book was made into a wildly popular television series that ran for 23-episodes and was syndicated all over Latin America (the Puerto Rican version was called No Paradise Without Breasts because the FCC forbids use of the word “tits”).
El Chapo likes to cause a stir when he eats out. He and a dozen heavily-armed body guards will sweep into a tony restaurant, introduce themselves, politely take custody of the other patrons’ cell phones, and urge them to stay in their seats and enjoy themselves for the next two hours. After the thugs have eaten their fill and strolled out, the patrons find that El Chapo has picked up their tabs.
The cartel’s business operations are first class. Its 1,500-foot-long drug-running tunnel from Tijuana to Otay Mesa, near San Diego, was made of reinforced concrete and had air conditioning. The Sinaloa boys dug an equally sophisticated tunnel to Douglas, Arizona.
The police may never catch El Chapo, despite a $5 million dollar price on his head. Five million is peanuts to a man who once boasted he splashes out that much every month in bribes. He is a hero in his state, and his neighbors will never turn him in. He has roads paved, hands out cash to the poor, fixes up churches, builds sidewalks, and has created thousands of high-paying jobs in the poppy fields. Some fans attribute his many seemingly-miraculous escapes to the fact that he was born on Christmas. A rival drug gang is more likely than the police to end his career.
El Chapo is celebrated in many narcocorridos, or songs that glorify drug bosses. Professional bands play narcocorridos, and a catchy one can top the charts. It is not well for a band to become too closely associated with a cartel, however; hit men have taken out a dozen or so singers who praised their rivals.
The Gulf Cartel, a long-time syndicate based just south of Texas in Tamaulipas State is the Sinaloans’ main rival. It used to be run by Juan Garcia Abrego, who, in 1994, had the distinction of being the first Mexican and the first drug smuggler to make the FBI’s ten most wanted list. He was caught and extradited to the U.S., where he is serving several consecutive life sentences.
He was succeeded by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who was arrested and imprisoned in Mexico in 2003, but continued to run his empire from his air-conditioned, liquor-stocked cell equipped with television and telephone, where he enjoyed frequent conjugal visits from ladies not his wife. He was a big hit back in Tamaulipas for sponsoring massive Children’s Day celebrations in bull rings and baseball stadiums. As many as 18,000 people came for free food, clowns, wrestlers, and presents for children with signed notes from Mr. Cardenas Guillen that read, “Constancy, Discipline, and Effort are the basis of success.” The fun came to an end in 2007 when he was shipped to the United States, where he languishes still.
Teodoro Garcia Simental runs the Tijuana Cartel. A line in a narcocorrido sums up his relationship to the government: “Listen up, President . . . in Tijuana I rule.” He pays his men $300 for every federal policeman they kill, and he, himself, likes to kill people at parties; he enjoys the sensation it creates. In his gang, status comes from the most creative and cruel killing; his men are said to have dissolved more than 300 people in caustic soda. He split off from an earlier Tijuana Cartel and his war with the original faction has raised the kill rate in Tijuana. Police who operate in his territory cover their license plates with tape and run the other way when they see his procession of Cadillac Escalades.
The Oaxaca Cartel, also named for the state in which it is based, was until recently run by Pedro Diaz Parada. His most famous exploit dates back to a 1985 conviction, when a judge sentenced him to 33 years in prison. He told the judge, “I will go and you will die.” Six days later he escaped, and two years after that his men fired 33 rounds into the judge’s body and left a note, “a bullet for a year.” He was finally captured in 2007 and is in a Mexican prison.
There are several other traditional cartels, but two recently established ones have distinct personalities. The Zetas have their origin in a 1997 decision by the Gulf Cartel to hire Mexican special-forces men for security. The first batch of 30 brought others over to the dark side and they eventually broke away from their masters and went into business for themselves. The Zetas are now the dominant cartel in Nuevo Leon state and most of Tamaulipas. They are in such firm control that these two states are the most peaceful of the six that border the U.S.
The Zetas are the most militarized of the cartels and have set up at least six camps — one across the border in Guatemala — for weapons training. It is said that one must kill to join the Zetas and that the only way out is death. They go to almost insane lengths to free captured comrades and make a fetish of retrieving the bodies of dead Zetas. They also have a system of benefits payments for bereaved spouses and children. The Zetas have broadened their reach by recruiting American Hispanics, and are said to control such American gangs as the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate.
La Familia (the Family) came to national attention in 2006, when some of its men burst into a night club in Uruapan in Michoacan state, and tossed five decapitated heads onto the dance floor. Attached was the message, “The Family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women. It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.”
La Familia is said to have started as a group of armed citizens who wanted to keep kidnappers and methamphetamines out of their Michoacan neighborhoods, and although they deal in every other kind of drug, at least in some areas they do not handle meth. Its members go to church, carry around “Bibles” of their leader’s philosophy, and justify executions as “orders of the Lord.” They are so powerful in Michoacan state that they appoint police chiefs in some towns. They perform the usual local good works: paving streets, building churches, helping the poor. La Familia’s estimated 4,000 members are not supposed to use the drugs they sell.
Although each cartel has its personality, and chiefs cut distinctive figures, drug gangs have a lot in common. Like many criminal groups, they are often run by brothers or other extended families. Members also tend to be both religious and superstitious, and perhaps because they see it so often, have an almost pathological fear of death. They have a patron saint, Jesus Malverde, who is a semi-mythical 19th century bandit who is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor. There is a shrine to him in Culiacan, where smugglers come before a trip north to ask for protection. If the trip goes well, they come back and pay the shrine band to serenade Malverde.
Another saint of the drug trade is Santa Muerte (Saint Death), represented as a clothed skeleton holding a scythe. She is an underworld saint, banned by the Catholic Church, but has been greatly popularized by drug runners. She is especially venerated around Nuevo Laredo, where the government has used backhoes to smash more than 30 shrines built to honor her.
Since his election in 2006, President Felipe Calderon has made controlling the drug barons — and thereby the country — one his top priorities, but he doesn’t have much to show for it. Drug-related deaths are climbing: 2,275 in 2007, 5,207 in 2008, and in 2009 were on a trend easily to break records. One apparently unsolvable problem is police corruption. When a plane carrying one of El Chapo’s top lieutenants was forced to ditch because of engine trouble in 1995, he was found to have 33 active members of the Federal Judicial Police in his 40-man bodyguard.
The police, both local and federal, are so rotten that President Calderon has relied on the army to control them and to fight the cartels, but soldiers get a reputation for high-handedness and arrogance wherever they are deployed. The education level in the army is so low that instruction manuals are written as comic books. Although not quite so rotten as the police, the army has been hit by about 150,000 desertions between 2001 to 2008, and many deserters have moved to the cartels, where the pay is better.
In June 2009, President Calderon merged the two federal forces into a new organization called the Federal Police, but it appears to be the same bad apples under a new name. Prof. Grayson says Mexican legislators don’t want an incorruptible force because it might investigate their own crimes, and that the police have such a bad reputation that it is nearly impossible to get honest men to become officers. The army is jealous of the new Federal Police because it is afraid part of the military budget will be used to support it.
The local police are more than likely on the take, and many are obese, physical wrecks. Nearly two-thirds are hired despite having failed background checks that are supposed to weed out criminals, drug-takers, and crazies.
The prison system is a mess, with massive corruption, and special privileges for cartel chiefs who can bribe guards. It has been impossible to keep cell phones out of prisons, so in 2007 expensive jamming equipment was put in at 11 prisons. It has broken down and no longer works, so prisoners can tend to business just as before. Drugs and liquor flow in and prisoners flow out. There were 22 successful escapes during just the first three months of 2009.
Mexico has traditionally been too proud to extradite criminals to the U.S. but President Calderon knows that is the only way to be sure they are permanently out of the way. He has extradited several hundred, whom the American taxpayer will feed, house, clothe, and medicate for the rest of their lives.
In late 2009, the Mexican government had rewards of 30 million pesos (about $2.4 million) on the top 24 drug kingpins, and smaller amounts on smaller fry, but there are few payouts; cartel chiefs have made themselves too popular — and feared — in their own states for anyone to turn them in. In any case, when a big cheese is taken out it can lead to bloody succession battles and border wars with neighboring cartels that think they see an opening.
Prof. Grayson writes of “the decomposition of the state,” and thinks only legalizing drugs will improve things. In 2009, the government listed 233 “zones of impunity” where crime cannot be prevented or punished. Mexico City’s international airport is a den of corruption, where cartels routinely grease palms to run contraband in and out. Many churchmen are in the pockets of the drug lords; they preside over private services in exchange for donations and church repairs. The powerful Mexican Oil Workers Union is a morass of featherbedding, theft, and sweetheart deals. One third of the electricity in the Mexico City area is stolen. The tax collection system is a joke.
“Most Mexicans have become disillusioned by the corruption and inaction of the authorities,” writes Prof. Grayson, “and consequently have little reason to feel any obligation to their community.” It starts at the top. Mexican presidents serve for a single six-year term, and the last year is called the Year of the Hidalgo. It gets its name from Miguel Hidalgo, the historical figure on the ten-peso coin, and means that the outgoing president uses his last year for really serious stealing. Everyone’s hand is out. In 1985, when a huge earthquake centered on Mexico City killed 10,000 people and flattened 6,000 buildings, survivors had to bribe the police to let them through to where family members were pinned under the rubble.
When disloyalty to the community reaches a certain level there is no going back. Societies function only when enough people are capable of acting on motives other than pure selfishness, and Mexico may be nearing the point of no return. Drugs and drug money make things worse, but problems start with the every-man-for-himself mentality that thrives in Latin America.
Mexico may or may not crumble into complete lawlessness as Somalia and parts of Pakistan have, but we will pay the price no matter what happens. The rot is already lapping over the border, taking root in those parts of the United States that are already Mexican in everything but name. Prof. Grayson thinks he wrote a book about Mexico today; it is also about America tomorrow.
Read at Your Own Risk
Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? is full of fascinating information but it is one of the worst edited books I have read in a long time. It is full of typos and written in a stream-of-consciousness style that leaves readers wondering how the pieces fit together. The author also insists on a labored, pointless comparison of the organization of drug gangs to Catholic Church hierarchy, which runs irritatingly through the whole book. He is a complete firearms ignoramus, writing about .9 millimeter weapons (such a weapon would fire a round about as thick as pencil lead) and 50 millimeter bullets (the Nazis and the Soviets used 50 millimeter mortars during the Second World War). No proper publisher should let this sort of rubbish into print, and it leaves the reader wondering what else got through.