Dissecting a Drug War
Frontera NorteSur, News Report, Kent Paterson Posted: Sep 25, 2009
Editor’s Note: Frontera NorteSur reports from the Global Public Policy Forum on the U.S. War on Drugs held Sept. 21 and 22 in El Paso, Texas. The event was organized by faculty from the University of Texas at El Paso with support from the El Paso City Council and other individuals and organizations.
El Paso was the scene this month as academics, students, journalists, community members, and a smattering of government officials from the United States, Mexico and other parts of the world gathered to analyze and debate the 40-year war on drugs. Located next door to blood-soaked Ciudad Juarez, the event took place at a time when a sense of urgency literally prevailed just outside the conference doors.
Even as conference attendees rolled up their sleeves to discuss and debate the burning issues of the day, drug-fanned violence flared only miles from the meeting sites. Among the numerous stories carried in Ciudad Juarez press dispatches, a man was found beheaded near a ditch, four young people
were gunned down in a motel and a woman was slain in the Felipe Angeles neighborhood visible from the UTEP campus.
In the hours after the meeting ended, an additional 17 people were slaughtered in Ciudad Juarez.
“I see the current period as the worst thing that has ever happened to Ciudad Juarez,” declared Dr. Oscar Martinez of the University of Arizona to a conference panel. And Martinez should know. The author of perhaps the definitive history of Ciudad Juarez up until the 1970s, Martinez was born in a small Chihuahua town and reared in Ciudad Juarez. As a child, the pioneer borderlands historian sold newspapers, shined shoes and crossed “illegally” into neighboring E1 Paso. Crime, Martinez told Frontera NorteSur, was present but not an overriding concern in the city of his youth.
“I spent a lot of time on the streets, and yes we weren’t concerned about these things,” Martinez said. “I can’t imagine any 12-year-old kid nowadays doing the same thing that I did back in those days because it’s become extremely dangerous.”
According to the latest body counts compiled by New Mexico State University researcher Molly Molloy more than 1700 people have been murdered in the unprecedented wave of violence hitting neighboring Ciudad Juarez this year so far.
Historian Martinez said the level of violence experienced by the Mexican border city during the past two years exceeds the killings registered during the 1910-20 Revolution, when Ciudad Juarez was the scene of periodic battles between warring factions.
How and why the current violence has reached such an extreme was a topic dissected by scholars and others in El Paso.
In one session, presenters cited government crackdowns, generational shifts within the narco hierarchy, growing Mexican domestic drug consumption, U.S.-based arms trafficking, institutional corruption on both sides of the border, and the failure of political, social and economic structures.
Dr. David Shirk, professor of political science and lead researcher for the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego, said the desertion of 120,000 Mexican soldiers during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006), or roughly one-third of the armed forces, provided drug cartels with a huge pool of new recruits trained to engage in types of combat that went beyond the sort of violence long practiced by the traditional gun-for-hire, or pistolero.
“In some ways, we’re seeing the military defect to the other side,” Shirk said.
Showing graphic slides of murder victims, Shirk reminded the audience that behind the statistics of execution victims routinely reported in the Mexican and U.S. press are real human beings, however sketchy their personal histories. Putting the carnage in a longer-range perspective normally considered by the media, Shirk reported that there were 19,287 and “counting” cartel-related killings in Mexico from 2001 until the present.
A former national security adviser to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Sigrid Arzt said a combination of factors was behind the contemporary bloodletting, including a generational change in narco leadership since the Zedillo presidency, the breakdown of old criminal criminal codes and the ready availability of weapons from the United States. Once employed by Mexico’s national security agency CISEN and now a scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Mexico Institute, Arzt also pointed to broader
social indicators including the breakdown of the traditional Mexican family structure and the growth of domestic drug use in the country.
Mexican political structures, in which municipal governments change every three years and state governments every six, likewise provide lucrative openings for criminal organizations that thrive on weak and chaotic local administrations, according to Arzt. “We’re reinventing every six years with no accountability or transparency,” she said.
Chihuahua state lawmaker and longtime rural activist Victor Quintana compared the violence in his state to a Cormac McCarthy novel-only worse. To illustrate his point, Quintana detailed the evolution of the narco war in the northwestern part of rural Chihuahua into a scorched earth campaign. Quintana recounted torched homes, threatened families, raped women and entire communities under siege. Freedom of movement is now curtailed, community festivals and social life severely disrupted and out migration on a steady rise. People are fleeing a land already battered by economic crisis, Quintana said.
“Due to the situation of terror, people head where they have family networks,” Quintana later said in an interview. “Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque are the three cities that have networks from the northwestern part of Chihuahua.” Many of the new refugees are in a difficult situation, forced to rely on part-time jobs, dwindling savings and relatives’ generosity, the Chihuahua legislator said.
The Human Rights Crisis
In the current conflict, human rights are getting tossed out the window. To underscore the point, a new scandal erupted in Ciudad Juarez even as the El Paso conference was meeting. In a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson said that he was threatened for his denunciations of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Mexican army during the course of Operation Joint Chihuahua. De la Rosa appealed on the Organization of American States’ official human rights body to issue protective orders for himself and his family.
In his letter posted on the Ciudad Juarez news site Lapolaka.com, De la Rosa disclosed that the state human rights agency received 154 complaints related to anti-drug military activities in Ciudad Juarez from January 2008 to September 2009, including allegations of illegal searches, improper detentions, torture, forced disappearance, and homicide. Due to his investigative work, De la Rosa charged that he had been subjected to harassment at army checkpoints, telephoned threats, surveillance, and
According to De la Rosa, an already-violent climate has worsened since the middle of August when the Sinaloa cartel redoubled an offensive against the long dominant Juarez cartel. The intensified violence, De La Rosa contended, consisted of a virtual war of extermination against anyone connected in any way to the Juarez cartel in the strategic Juarez Valley outside the city. The targets include practically everyone, the human rights investigator asserted, because of the prevalence of a narco economy
in a region long afflicted by the decline of traditional agriculture.
De la Rosa wrote: “My work as a human rights defender makes me a field investigator of crimes committed by soldiers, because the National Human Rights Commission has abandoned the zone and the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office as well as the federal attorney general’s office declares
themselves incompetent and turns over the cases to military justice.”
Lapolaka later reported that De la Rosa fled to El Paso after his letter was published.
Maria Isabel Rivero, spokeswoman for the IACHR, told Frontera NorteSur that the Washington-based commission had not issued a request for precautionary measures in the case of De la Rosa as of Friday, Sept. 25. Rivero said that the IACHR follows procedures that include contacting the relevant parties. For a request to be granted, Rivero added, “It has be an urgent situation that threatens to have irreversible consequences.”
Interviewed at the El Paso conference, U.S. human rights advocate Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, said that she was concerned about US security assistance to Mexico in light of human rights abuses in the drug war south of the border. In particular, Olson cited a lack of transparency in the military system of justice that makes it impossible to know whether soldiers are punished for crimes or not.
In response to criticisms that human rights activists provide cover for dangerous criminals, Olson said nobody should be above the law. “If you’re going to arrest drug traffickers committing horrendous murders, you have to have functioning police and justice systems,” Olson asserted. “It’s having the rule of law. It’s having a standard that has to be applied across the board.”
What Will Stop the War?
Speculation about what it will take to end Mexico’s drug violence was rife at the El Paso conference.
Anthony Placido, director of intelligence for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told a group of reporters that violence was likely as long as the Calderon administration cracked down on cartels. Asked by a reporter about a story that accused Gulf cartel kingpin Ossiel Cardenas, now imprisoned in the United States, had reached a pact with the Calderon government, Placido chuckled and said, “Even if it was true, you know I wouldn’t answer that question.”
Other talk centered around questions of “equilibrium,” or cartel balance-of-power in a given market, and the existence of an underworld “parallel state” with more power to negotiate and influence the course of events than the official one.
The University of San Diego’s David Shirk said a relative reduction of violence in Tijuana during recent months happened more because of cartel decisions than actions by government. “This is worrisome,” Shirk said. The cross-border affairs expert reported that a recent poll conducted by a Mexican polling organization found that 57 percent of respondents did not believe the government was winning the so-called narco war.
Public policy analyst Sigrid Arzt also addressed the question of a parallel state, but stated in an interview that the Mexican government would not negotiate with outlaw organizations. Arzt contrasted Mexico with Italy, where the Mafia did not disappear but lowered its profile because of a massive wave of public revulsion to its most outrageously violent activities. “If (organized criminals) are sharp, intelligent businessmen, at some point they go into the learning curve and keep it quiet,” Arzt said.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico
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