The scale and cost of Mexico's failed war on drugs has become painfully apparent as the death toll reaches 40,000; the four main drug cartels have grown to twelve and extended their reach beyond Mexico's borders, as evidenced by the recent carnage in Guatemala where 27 headless corpses were discovered on a ranch. The rising violence has increased mobility in the ranks of the cartel with new leaders adopting a less ostentatious lifestyle while spending lavishly to buy the complicity of politicians and police. State institutions have become more corrupt with an estimated one in four police officers on the cartel payroll, an alarming figure given that Mexico has half a million police, the third highest in the world per head of population.
Mexico's National Migration Institute has been purging its ranks, suspending 550 employees (15% of the workforce) as a perverse practice has come to light- the 'sale' of hundreds of migrants, the most vulnerable people of all, to drug gangs who in turn sell women into prostitution or extort money in return for their release. The cost of safe return for kidnapped migrants can be up to $3,000, a golden business opportunity when an estimated 500,000 people cross the Guatemala-Mexico border each year. In September 2010, rogue migration officials beat and robbed a group of 100 migrants as they got off a train in Oaxaca. The migration officials have an endless supply of cheap, disposable lives, of men, women and children who cease to exist once they enter Mexico in clandestine conditions. Over three hundred corpses have been recovered in ranches close to the US-Mexico border this year, victims of such massacres.
Mexico has also become the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist, with twelve casualties in the past year.
Perhaps the greatest long term damage inflicted by the war has been the destruction of the nation's social fabric. The statistics don't tell the full story. The casual nature of the brutality and the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators have diminished trust and provoked an existential crisis. Citizens live in a state of defenselessness as violence now threatens everyone. Mexicans in affected areas retreat into silence just as the Argentinian and Chilean people did during the dictatorship era. The media has toned down its coverage of the drug gangs with some newspapers taking the drastic step of publicly calling on the cartels to advise them where to draw the line to prevent reprisals. Meanwhile the Mexican army has become deeply involved in the war, increasing the atmosphere of terror. 'soldiers kick down doors, arrest anyone they feel like, wearing ski masks and carrying powerful weapons, people don't know who they are' said Jose Hernandez, director of Independent Human Rights Commission in Morelos state. This picturesque state just outside Mexico City was once a sleepy weekend retreat for Mexico's wealthy elite. In the past year however 335 bodies have been found scattered along its highways and towns, without a single arrest or even a suspect.
Everyone has an anecdote from the war. In april a family from Mexico City visited Acapulco and went to eat at a restaurant. A bottle of whiskey suddenly appeared at their table. 'That senor over there sent it' said a waiter. A few minutes later the whiskey man asked the father for permission to dance with his daughter, aged fifteen. The father refused. 'Listen carefully' he said, 'this young woman is mine.' The family left the restaurant, returned to their hotel, packed their bags and headed home. An hour later their car was intercepted, their daughter kidnapped at gunpoint. The young woman has not been heard of since. This story was one of 70 testimonies recounted at the Zocalo in downtown Mexico on March 8th during the national March for peace with its unequivocal slogan 'estamos hasta la madre; no mas sangre' 'we've had it up to here. No more bloodshed.'
There are an estimated 10,000 'disappeared' in Mexico, men, women and children, taken by persons unkown, for reasons unknown, their whereabouts unknown, their relatives and friends living in perpetual anxiety. Neither dead nor alive. And the Mexican state is incapable of finding any of them. If a tsunami or hurricane had swept 10,000 people into some remote wilderness the government would presumably declare a national emergency and divert every possible resource toward finding the missing people.
In Sinaloa state some 700 people have been killed so far this year as violence spirals out of control and local police are accused of collaborating with the cartels. Rather than face up to this crisis the state government has come up with two initiatives of its own; the first is to ban restaurants and bars from playing 'narcocorridos' the popular ballads which extol the exploits of drug traffickers. These ballads, unpleasant as they are, did not inspire the drug trade, nor do they sustain its criminal gangs. I have yet to meet anyone in Mexico who honestly believes, as the official announcement suggested, that this soundtrack to crime 'promotes antisocial conduct'. They merely reflect it. In Zapatista rebel villages this reporter has often heard such ballads blasting from local homes, the racy tunes and exaggerated exploits regarded as harmless fun.
In the absence of effective policies and honest officials, the banning of the drug ballads is the nearest thing to a 'victory' in the drug war. Twenty years ago a previous government banned any song with references to the drug trade from being aired on radio. Soon after Los Tigres del Norte, a band with a bigger support base than the local government, released an album, 'Corridos Prohibidos' which broke all sales records and earned the band a platinum sales disc.
Last month (may) the governor of Sinaloa once more waded into the battlefield, this time declaring war on Ralph Lauren polo shirts, the uniform of choice of the drug traffickers. This time the governor said he was 'enormously worried' at the manner in which disaffected youth were seduced by the glamour of expensive brands, adding that he wished they would wear clothes with images of national heroes like Emiliano Zapata. The irony of this declaration will not be lost on the Zapatista movement which sparked a renaissance of Zapata's ideals in 1994, demanding peace, justice and democracy. The government responded with tanks, warplanes and bullets. It was all very well to wear a t-shirt of Zapata but the prospect of indigenous rebels implementing the dream of land and freedom was met with army and paramilitary violence. The Zapatista movement challenged Mexicans to rethink society, mobilizing millions and forcing the ruling party (in power for 70 years) to open up the electoral system. However Mexico's civil society failed to rise to the challenge of cleaning out public life and the result has been a steady moral disintegration which has shattered faith in the country's political parties, including the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
Citizen confidence in the country's authorities is so low and fear of reprisal so great that most relatives don't even bother registering lost loved ones as missing persons. This appalling reality became apparent when Javier Sicilia, a poet whose son was murdered in march, sat down outside the offices of the state government in Cuernavaca, Morelos, for a week. An avalanche of people came forward, registering 1,200 disappeared and 3,500 deaths. Out of this sit in came the national citizen movement for peace and for the rebuilding of the nation. Sicilia finds himself thrust into the position of spokesperson for indignant Mexico, his citizen movement for peace gathering steam and fresh ideas as it travels around the country. In some way Sicilia has taken up the baton left behind by the Zapatista's 'otra campana', in which rebel leaders attempted to unite Mexico from below, with little success.
Sicilia has urged the government to acknowledge the country is in a state of emergency, devastated by a 'badly planned and poorly executed' war which has brought the country to its knees. Sicilia has railed against the incapacity of the government and lamented its perverse attempt to criminalize victims of violence by insinuating that they must have been involved in something. This aberrant logic allowed Argentinians to look the other way when thousands of young people were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by security forces in the 1970s. The government has become, says Sicilia, 'managers of misfortune', lacking initiative and imagination, focused only on an endless body count.
In his landmark open letter to politicians and criminals, Sicilia linked the rise in drug trafficking to the dominant economic ideology of self interest, competition and 'limitless consumerism'. Sicilia has called on the political class to set aside petty differences and the pursuit of power to forge an alliance around an agreed plan of action. With elections looming next year, Sicilia urged parties to agree on a candidate of unity committed to a constitutional conference which would redraw the boundaries of political life, incorporating the recall referendum and other mechanisms of citizen power.
As President Calderon enters the twilight phase of his six year term he has attempted to turn the drug war into a patriotic crusade, calling on citizens, media and politicians to rally round the army and police. In his growing delirium Calderon has taken to comparing himself to Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader who led the fight against the Nazis. The comparison is disproportionate. Calderon declared war on an invisible enemy without calculating the consequences or even determining what victory might look like. Nor did he make an adequate survey of the battlefield or measure the moral and military capacity of his troops. President Calderon is fully committed to a war in which the rising body count is taken as evidence of success in what is fast becoming a macabre dance of death.
The key problem however, as Sicilia noted, is that the enemy 'is inside as well as outside' of polite society. One of the most immediate obstacles to winning the war or securing the peace is Calderon's right hand man, Genaro Garcia Luna, the country's super cop who runs the Ministry of Public Security (SSP). During the Vicente Fox administration (2000-06) Garcia Luna created and ran the Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) which was disbanded in 2006 as it had become thoroughly infiltrated by the drug cartels. Garcia Luna took up his current post in 2006 and has remained in charge despite repeated allegations of links to drug cartels (2008) based on recorded telephone conversations and emails. Discontent grew within the ranks and security officials have accused Garcia Luna of naming corrupt police to top positions while a journalist investigating his sudden acquisition of wealth received death threats.
Javier Sicilia, the moral conscience of a weary nation, is about to embark on a national mobilization. The main objective is to launch a six point Agreement for Peace And The Reconstruction of the Country, beginning symbolically in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's capital city of violence. The Pact calls for an end to corruption and a shift from the military-led fight against organized crime to one where citizen safety comes first. In addition, the document demands official recognition for the victims of violence, promoting 'active memory' through public testimony and tributes in public spaces. A revised drug strategy would follow the money trail and clamp down on the arms trade while taking steps to reconstruct the social fabric through policies promoting education and employment for youth and the exercise of active citizenship, through revocation of mandate and other reforms.
Michael McCaughan has reported extensively from Latin America for the Irish Times and the Guardian, among others. He is author of True Crimes: Rodolfo Walsh, the Life and Times of a Radical Intellectual and The Battle of Venezuela.