Pubdate: Sat, 21 Feb 2009
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Page: W1
Copyright: 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba
Bookmark: (Mexico)


With Drug-Fueled Violence and Corruption Escalating Sharply, Many 
Fear Drug Cartels Have Grown Too Powerful for Mexico to Control. Why 
Things Are Getting Worse, and What It Means for the United States.

Detective Ramon Jasso was heading to work in this bustling city a few 
days ago when an SUV pulled alongside and slowed ominously. Within 
seconds, gunmen fired 97 bullets at the 37-year-old policeman, 
killing him instantly.

Mr. Jasso had been warned. The day before, someone called his 
cellphone and said he would be killed if he didn't immediately 
release a young man who had been arrested for organizing a violent 
protest in support of the city's drug gangs. The demonstrators were 
demanding that the Mexican army withdraw from the drug war. The 
protests have since spread from Monterrey -- once a model of order 
and industry -- to five other cities. Drug Wars in Mexico

Much as Pakistan is fighting for survival against Islamic radicals, 
Mexico is waging a do-or-die battle with the world's most powerful 
drug cartels. Last year, some 6,000 people died in drug-related 
violence here, more than twice the number killed the previous year. 
The dead included several dozen who were beheaded, a chilling echo of 
the scare tactics used by Islamic radicals. Mexican drug gangs even 
have an unofficial religion: They worship La Santa Muerte, a Mexican 
version of the Grim Reaper.

In growing parts of the country, drug gangs now extort businesses, 
setting up a parallel tax system that threatens the government 
monopoly on raising tax money. In Ciudad Juarez, just across the 
border from El Paso, Texas, handwritten signs pasted on schools 
warned teachers to hand over their Christmas bonuses or die. A 
General Motors distributorship at a midsize Mexican city was extorted 
for months at a time, according to a high-ranking Mexican official. A 
GM spokeswoman in Mexico had no comment.

"We are at war," says Aldo Fasci, a good-looking lawyer who is the 
top police official for Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is the 
capital. "The gangs have taken over the border, our highways and our 
cops. And now, with these protests, they are trying to take over our cities

The parallels between Pakistan and Mexico are strong enough that the 
U.S. military singled them out recently as the two countries where 
there is a risk the government could suffer a swift and catastrophic 
collapse, becoming a failed state.

Pakistan is the greater worry because the risk of collapse is higher 
and because it has nuclear weapons. But Mexico is also scary: It has 
100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any 
serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees. Mexico is 
also the U.S.'s second biggest trading partner.

Mexico's cartels already have tentacles that stretch across the 
border. The U.S. Justice Department said recently that Mexican gangs 
are the "biggest organized crime threat to the United States," 
operating in at least 230 cities and towns. Crimes connected to 
Mexican cartels are spreading across the Southwest. Phoenix had more 
than 370 kidnapping cases last year, turning it into the kidnapping 
capital of the U.S. Most of the victims were illegal aliens or linked 
to the drugs trade.

Former U.S. antidrug czar Barry McCaffrey said Mexico risks becoming 
a "narco-state" within five years if things don't improve. Outgoing 
CIA director Michael Hayden listed Mexico alongside Iran as a 
possible top challenge for President Obama. Other analysts say the 
risk is not that the Mexican state collapses, but rather becomes like 
Russia, a state heavily influenced by mafias.

Such comparisons are probably a stretch -- for now anyway. Beyond the 
headline-grabbing violence, Mexico is stable. It has a thriving 
democracy, the world's 13th-largest economy and a growing middle 
class. And as many as 90% of those killed are believed to be linked 
to the trade in some way, say officials.

"We have a serious problem. The drug gangs have penetrated many 
institutions. But we're not talking about an institutional collapse. 
That is wrong," says Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora.

Officials in both Washington and Mexico City also say the rising 
violence has a silver lining: It means that after decades of 
complicity or ignoring the problem, the Mexican government is finally 
cracking down on the drug cartels and forcing them to fight back or 
fight with one another for turf. One telling statistic: In the first 
three years of President Felipe Calderon's six-year term, Mexico's 
army has had 153 clashes with drug gangs. In the six years of his 
predecessor Vicente Fox's term, there were only 16."

If Mexico isn't a failed state, though, it is a country with a weak 
state -- one the narcos seem to be weakening further.

"The Mexican state is in danger," says Gerardo Priego, a deputy from 
Mr. Calderon's ruling center-right party, known as the PAN. "We are 
not yet a failed state, but if we don't take action soon, we will 
become one very soon."

Mexican academic Edgardo Buscaglia estimates there are 200 counties 
in Mexico -- some 8% of the total -- where drug gangs wield more 
influence behind the scenes than the authorities. With fearsome 
arsenals of rocket-propelled grenades, bazookas and automatic 
weapons, cartels are often better armed than the police and even the 
soldiers they fight. The number of weapons confiscated last year from 
drug gangs in Mexico could arm the entire army of El Salvador, by one 
estimate. Where do most of the weapons come from? The U.S.

Last year alone, gunmen fired shots and threw a grenade, which didn't 
explode, at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey. The head of Mexico's 
federal police was murdered in a hit ordered by one of his own men, 
whom officials say was working for the drug cartels. Mexico's top 
antidrug prosecutor was arrested and charged with being on a cartel 
payroll, along with several other senior officials. One man in 
Tijuana admitted to dissolving some 300 bodies in vats of acid on 
behalf of a drug gang.

The publisher of Mexico's most influential newspaper chain moved his 
family from Monterrey to Texas after he was threatened and gunmen 
paid a visit to his ranch. Other businessmen from cities across 
Mexico have done the same.

"I have never seen such a difficult situation" in Mexico, says 
Alejandro Junco, who publishes Reforma in Mexico City and El Norte in 
Monterrey. Mr. Junco now commutes every week to Mexico from Texas.

A few weeks ago, a recently retired army general hired to help the 
resort city of Cancun crack down on drug gangs was tortured and 
killed. His wrists and ankles were broken during the torture. Federal 
officials' main suspect: the Cancun police chief, who has been 
stripped of his duties and put under house arrest during the investigation.

Every day brings a new horror. In Ciudad Juarez on Friday, gunmen 
killed a police officer and a prison guard, and left a sign on their 
bodies saying they would kill one officer every two days until the 
city police chief resigns. He quit late Friday.

Analysts and diplomats worry that drug traffickers may increase their 
hold on Mexico's political process during midterm congressional 
elections scheduled for July.

Mauricio Fernandez Garza, the scion of a wealthy Monterrey family, 
says he was approached by a cartel when he was a gubernatorial 
candidate in 2003 and told the cartel would foot the bill for the 
campaign if he promised to "look the other way" on the drugs trade. 
He says he declined the offer. He lost the election.

Mexico has long been in the crosshairs of the drug war. In the 1980s, 
the drug of choice for local traffickers was marijuana, and much like 
today, accusations of high-level Mexican corruption were common. In 
1985, DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was tortured to death by 
local traffickers, with the aid of a former president's 
brother-in-law. In 1997, the country's antidrug czar Gen. Jesus 
Gutierrez Rebollo was jailed after it emerged he was in the employ of 
a powerful trafficker.

Drawn by the opportunity to supply the U.S. drug market, powerful 
trafficking groups have emerged on Mexico's Pacific coast, its Gulf 
coast, in the northern desert state of Chihuahua and in the wild-west 
state of Sinaloa, home to most of Mexico's original trafficking 
families. These groups, notorious for their shifting alliances and 
backstabbing ways, have fought for years for control of trafficking 
routes. Personal hatreds have marked fights over market share with 
barbaric violence.

Several new factors in the past few years added to the violence, 
however. In 2000, Mexicans voted out the Institutional Revolutionary 
Party, or PRI, which had ruled for 71 years. The end of a one-party 
state loosened authoritarian control and broke the old alliances 
cemented through corruption that kept a check on drug-related violence.

Another factor was 9/11. After the attacks, tighter border security 
prompted some gangs to sell cocaine in Mexico instead, breaking an 
unspoken agreement with the government that gangs would be tolerated 
as long as they didn't sell the drugs in Mexico but passed them on 
instead to the gringos. Since 2001, local demand for cocaine has 
grown an estimated 20% per year. The creation of a local market only 
encouraged infighting over the spoils.

Things started getting really nasty in 2004, when Osiel Cardenas, 
then leader of the Gulf Cartel, killed Arturo "the Chicken" Guzman, 
the brother of Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, a leader of the Sinaloa 
cartel. Mr. Guzman soon tried to take over Nuevo Laredo, the border 
city controlled by Mr. Cardenas with the help of the Zetas, former 
elite Mexican soldiers who defected to the drug traffickers, as well 
as most of the Nuevo Laredo police, who in fact worked for the Zetas. 
The struggle for Nuevo Laredo culminated in a pitched battle when 
gunmen used rocket-propelled grenades to attack a safe house 
belonging to the other cartel. The all-out battle led the U.S. to 
close its consulate for a week. The violence soon spread as the two 
groups fought for dominance all over Mexico's northern border.

Monterrey, just a hundred miles to the south, seemed unperturbed. 
Can-do, confident and modern, Monterrey likes to think of itself as 
more American than Mexican. It's the home of Mexico's best 
university, Tecnologico de Monterrey, modeled on MIT, as well as the 
country's most prosperous suburb, San Pedro Garza Garcia, and local 
units of 1,500 U.S. companies. Its police are considered among 
Mexico's best. In the 1990s, the San Diego Padres came to play a few 
regular season games here and there was heady talk of Monterrey 
landing a pro baseball team.

As violence engulfed Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey business leaders, police 
chiefs and government officials were of one mind: It wouldn't happen 
here. "We have drawn a line in the sand and told the drug lords they 
cross it at their peril," state governor Natividad Gonzalez said in a 
2005 interview.

What the governor apparently didn't know is that, for years, 
Monterrey's relative calm was due to an unspoken agreement between 
rival drug lords whose families lived quietly in the wealthy San 
Pedro enclave, a place where their wealth would not be conspicuous, 
say local police. But Monterrey was too big a local drug market to 
ignore for both sides, and soon fighting broke out.

By 2006, the murder rate spiked and cops were getting shot at 
point-blank on the streets. San Pedro Police Chief Hector Ayala was 
gunned down. Months later, Marcelo Garza y Garza, the chief of state 
police investigations, a well-known San Pedro resident and the DEA's 
main contact in the city, was murdered outside the town's largest 
Roman Catholic church. U.S. law-enforcement officials believe he was 
betrayed to the Zetas by a corrupt cop.

Today, the warring gangs still vie for control, though the Zetas have 
the upper hand. In much of the city, the gang is branching out into 
new types of criminal enterprise, especially extorting street 
vendors, nightclubs and other shops that operate on the margin of the 
law. These places used to be preyed upon by local cops, but no 
longer. The owner of a billiards hall says the Zetas told him they 
wanted a cut of the profits every month, a bill he ponies up. They 
also ordered him to allow someone to sell drugs at the hall, he says. 
"What can I do," he shrugs.

In the street market along the city's busy Reforma Ave, the Zetas 
sell pirated CDs, and have their own label: "Los Unicos," or "The 
Only Ones," with a logo of a black horse surrounded by four Zs. In 
Spanish, "Zeta" is how you pronounce the letter "Z." One vendor says 
some Zetas came to the stalls last year and ordered several vendors 
to start peddling the Zeta label CDs.

Many Monterrey residents are convinced that even a cut from bribes 
they pay local cops for traffic violations goes to the Zetas through 
corrupt cops. That kind of extra money to fund the drug gangs only 
worsens the balance of power between the state and the traffickers. 
The drugs trade in Mexico generates at least $10 billion in yearly 
revenues, Mexican officials say. The government's annual budget for 
federal law enforcement, not including the army: roughly $1.2 billion.

Both the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartels are believed to field as many 
as 10,000 gunmen each -- the size of a small army. The Zetas, for 
instance, can find fresh recruits easily in Monterrey's tough 
barrios, where the unemployment rate is high.

In Monterrey's Independencia neighborhood, one of the city's oldest, 
it is not the city government that controls the streets but the local 
pandillas, or gangs. During a recent workday, the streets were filled 
with young gangsters, sitting around playing marbles, chatting, and 
looking tough. At the entrance to a local primary school, a group of 
four men sat and smoked what appeared to be crack cocaine, what 
locals call "piedra" or rock.

Outsiders are clearly unwelcome. A reporter visiting in an unmarked 
SUV along with a state policeman wearing civilian clothes was enough 
to get plenty of hostile stares and a few mouthed expletives. One or 
two gang members pulled out their cell phones and began placing a 
call. "They're unsure whether we're cops or another drug gang," said 
Jorge, the state policeman, who did not want his full name used for 
fear of retaliation by the drug lords. "Either way, we move on or 
we're in trouble."

Jorge, clean cut and with an infectious smile, has been a state cop 
for more than 20 years. He earns 6,000 pesos -- $450 -- a month. It's 
an old saw in Mexico that police here don't make enough money to 
either resist being corrupted by the criminals or care enough to risk 
their lives going after them. In fact, corruption extends throughout 
the police forces. A senior state official said privately that he 
doesn't trust a single local police commander.

The state's former head of public security resigned amid allegations 
that he was in league with the Sinaloa cartel. The man who took his 
place is Mr. Fasci, a former top prosecutor. Mr. Fasci says officials 
are trying to improve coordination among Mexico's alphabet soup of 
different law enforcement bodies. In Monterrey's metropolitan area, 
there are 11 different municipal police forces, a state police, three 
branches of the federal police, and the army. Statewide, there are 70 
different emergency numbers for the police. Making matters worse, 
narcotics smuggling is a federal crime, so local cops aren't supposed 
to prosecute it.

Mr. Fasci says the protests are organized by drug gangs, who go to 
barrios like Independencia and pay $30 to each person to block 
traffic, hold up signs like "no military repression." Mr. Fasci 
thinks the gangs are trying to goad the police into a crackdown that 
would generate antipathy for the authorities and the army. "We're not 
going to fall for it," he says.

Neither will the Mexican government call off the soldiers. Mexico has 
no choice but to deploy the army to do what corrupt and inefficient 
state and local police forces can't, says Mr. Fasci. And the protests 
are likely a sign the military is having success pressuring the drug 
gangs, say officials. Meanwhile, Mexico has passed a law that calls 
for an ambitious reform of all its state and municipal police forces. 
The problem: It could take 15 years or longer to complete, says Mr. 
Medina Mora, the attorney general.

The U.S., which is providing Mexico with some $400 million a year for 
equipment and training to combat drug traffickers, backs Mexico's 
stand. U.S. law enforcement officials are ecstatic about Mr. 
Calderon's get-tough approach. A U.S. law enforcement official says 
the Mexican military is trying to break down powerful drug cartels 
into smaller and more manageable drug gangs, like "breaking down 
boulders into pebbles." He adds: "It might be bloody, it might be 
ugly, but it has to be done."

Demand in the U.S., of course, is the motor for the drugs trade. 
Three former respected heads of state in Latin America, including 
Mexico's former president Ernesto Zedillo, issued a joint report 
recently saying the drug war was too costly for countries like 
Mexico, and urged the U.S. to explore alternatives like 
decriminalizing marijuana.

Indeed, Mexican officials long ago gave up on thinking they might one 
day eliminate the drugs trade altogether. Victory now sounds a lot 
like what victory in Iraq might be for the U.S.: lower violence just 
enough so that people won't talk about it anymore.

Jorge Tello, an adviser to President Calderon on the drugs war, 
defines it like this: "It's like a rat-control problem. The rats are 
always down there in the sewers, you can't really get rid of them. 
But what you don't want are rats on people's front doors."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake