'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Friday, November 21, 2014
Benjamin Smith - MEXICO: The End of the Drug War—Or a New Cartel of Cartels?
On August 29, both U.S. and Mexican intelligence sources reported that representatives of four major cartels had met to sign a pact of alliance. Held in June in the border town of Piedras Negras, the meeting had brought together the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), the Juárez cartel, the Beltrán Leyva cartel, and the Zetas.
The representatives included Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, the head of the CJNG; Vicente “el Viceroy” Carrillo Fuentes, the leader of the Juárez Cartel; Omar Treviño Morales, alias “Z-42,” the supposed head of the Zetas; and Fausto “el Chapo” Isidro Mez Flores, a key player in the Beltrán Leyva organization. According to the reports, members of the Sinaloa cartel were absent from the so-called “narcocumbre,” generating speculation that the four other cartels sought to ally and move in on Sinaloa territory.
The End of the Drug War
The Mexican government has spun the alliance as evidence that President Peña Nieto’s security policy has succeeded in debilitating the cartels. According to Omar Fayad, president of the Senate’s Security Commission, the pact was “a sign of weakness among the Mexican cartels due to the persecution of organized crime by the federal government and the cooperation and coordination with states and municipalities.” Fayad also predicted that the alliance, like many of those signed before, would not last long. “These alliances have not worked for them in the past because they betray one another. There is almost always someone who wants complete hegemony.”
In many of the Mexican newspapers, journalists have marshalled a persuasive list of imprisoned or dead capos to back up the government’s assertions. Over the past two years, President Peña Nieto has managed to imprison the leaders of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel. Other key narcos, like Nazario “el Mas Loco” Moreno González have died in confrontations with government forces; others still, like Juan José “el Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, have expired of natural causes.
This narrative of government triumph and cartel weakening certainly seems plausible. And the ruling PRI party has spared no effort in touting it to both Mexican electors and foreign investors. Since Peña Nieto has come to power, state authorities have run well-funded campaigns to downplay drug trafficking and narco-violence and highlight alternative stories of business entrepreneurship, artistic talent, and tourism. Journalists are paid off, warned, or killed if they threaten to reveal patterns of violence and state collusion; homicide rates are routinely massaged to give the impression of declining violence; and devastating discoveries of mass graves and human rights abuses are kept off the front pages. Meanwhile, the Mexican embassies in the U.S. and the UK give out expensive “bursaries” to journalists to write favorable spins on lighter subjects; the lifestyle guides and business pages of foreign papers abound with stories of Mexican enterprise. In the dying world of print media, the Mexican embute or press bribe clearly has legs.
Or a New Cartel of Cartels?
Reading the drug war is a tricky business—a strange mixture of reading between the lines of official pronouncements, parsing official silences, browsing online chatter, and drawing on historical knowledge. Just because the story ties in so well with the PRI’s stated purpose doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Perhaps the meeting does spell the death knell for the old cartels. Time will tell. But historical experience, contemporary rumors, and the strange absence of any major U.S. coverage of the alliance suggests that more complex forces are at play.
Since the Nixon administration dragged the Mexican government into the “war on drugs” in the late 1960s, successive Mexican presidents have sought to demonstrate their compliance (and hence gain U.S. funding) by taking out major traffickers during the first two years of their administrations. José López Portillo (1976–1982) inaugurated his presidency by announcing his support for Operation Condor, a U.S.–backed anti-narco campaign. Within a year of López Portillo’s taking office, Sinaloa kingpin Pedro Aviles Perez was killed in a shootout with the federal police. A decade later, President Carlos Salinas (1988–1994), eager to persuade the United States to sign on to NAFTA, promised to crack down on organized crime; Guadalajara Cartel kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was in jail within a year. Salinas’s successor Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000) arrested the head of the Gulf cartel, Juan García Ábrego, in early 1996.
Mexican officials invariably spun these high-profile arrests as proof of the government’s serious attempts to dismantle organized crime. In fact, they marked the state’s attempts to reorganize the drug trade and restore hegemony over the organizations. After Aviles’s death, the state security body, the Federal Ministry of Security, or DFS, allied with the Guadalajara Cartel to organize incoming shipments, distribute smuggling routes, and put U.S. investigators off the scent. President Salinas’s officials used the arrest of the head of the Guadalajara Cartel, Felix Gallardo, to shift administrative support to the growing Gulf Cartel. And on García Abrego’s arrest, official backing shifted pendulum-like back to the reconstituted Sinaloa Cartel. Just as PRI presidents kept interest groups on their toes by tacking between left- and right-wing policies, they also kept drug organizations in line by alternating between repression and support.
In such a context, recent events look less like a succession of official victories and more like a traditional play to bring favored organizations back under government control. Three of the organizations that met at Piedras Negras (the Juárez and Beltran Leyva cartels and CJNG) have undergone surprising resurgences under the new PRI regime—unlike the Sinaloa and Gulf organizations, which have lost many of their major leaders. A DEA agent recently described El Mencho, the head of the CJNG, as “the most important trafficker in Mexico.” Furthermore, the recent capture of Hector Beltrán Leyva, the only main capo not at the meeting, suggests that those who don’t sign up are being targeted.
The Piedras Negras meeting, then, may not herald the successful taming of the drug traffickers but rather the establishment of a new cartel of cartels. PRI officials hope that under such a system, inter-cartel violence will decrease, even if the volume of drug trafficking continues as before. Mexicans, especially in the northern states, probably hope the same. Here, they voted overwhelmingly for the PRI in 2012, not out of any sense of ideological allegiance but simply in the desperate hope that the old party would bring peace.
But, as the disappearance of the forty-three Ayotzinapa students suggests, while such tactics might have worked in the past, they no longer fit the profile of organized crime. Neoliberal economic policies, the war on drugs, and inter-cartel violence have fragmented relatively homogenous cartels into countless localized gangs. Groups like the Guerreros Unidos now combine the drug business with kidnapping, prostitution, human trafficking, and acting as the political heavies for unscrupulous local chieftains. Persuading the top-tier drug smugglers to limit activities and toe the PRI line is probably not enough.
The U.S. Response
Beyond the Mexican government, the cartels, and Mexican voters, there is another major player in this strategic game—the United States. And U.S. officials seem less enthusiastic than their Mexican counterparts about the possibility of a new state-led cartel pact. The pact does, undeniably, present certain advantages for U.S. business interests. The end of catastrophic drug-war violence opens Mexico to further investment. U.S. oil companiesare keen to take advantageof the government’s recent privatization of the petroleum industry and move into the oil-rich but cartel-controlled northeastern state of Tamaulipas. And foreign mining companiesback the state’s campaignto bring mineral-rich Michoacán under control.
U.S. officials, too, are eager for a reduction in violence, fearing that continuing drug violence might generate another surge of mass migration. .. read more: