Pubdate: Wed, 1 Apr 2009
Source: Foreign Policy (US)
Issue: March/April 2009
Copyright: 2009 Foreign Policy
Author: Sam Quinones
Note: Sam Quinones, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, is author 
of two books on Mexico. His Web site is


Mexico's hillbilly drug smugglers have morphed into a raging
insurgency. Violence claimed more lives there last year alone than all
the Americans killed in the war in Iraq. And there's no end in sight.

What I remember most about my return to Mexico last year are the
narcomantas. At least that's what everyone called them: "drug
banners." Perhaps a dozen feet long and several feet high, they were
hung in parks and plazas around Monterrey. Their messages were
hand-painted in black block letters. They all said virtually the same
thing, even misspelling the same name in the same way. Similar banners
appeared in eight other Mexican cities that day--Aug. 26, 2008.

The banners were likely the work of the Gulf drug cartel, one of the
biggest drug gangs in Mexico. Its rival from the Pacific Coast, the
Sinaloa cartel, had moved into Gulf turf near Texas, and now the
groups were fighting a propaganda war as well as an escalating gun
battle. One banner accused the purported leader of the Sinaloa cartel,
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, of being protected by Mexican
President Felipe Calderon and the army. After some time, the city's
police showed up politely to take the banners down.

I'd recently lived in Mexico for a decade, but I'd never seen anything
like this. I left in 2004--as it turned out, just a year before
Mexico's long-running trouble with drug gangs took a dark new turn for
the worse. Monterrey was the safest region in the country when I lived
there, thanks to its robust economy and the sturdy social control of
an industrial elite. The narcobanners were a chilling reminder of how
openly and brazenly the drug gangs now operate in Mexico, and how
little they fear the police and government.

That week in Monterrey, newspapers reported, Mexico clocked 167
drug-related murders. When I lived there, they didn't have to measure
murder by the week. There were only about a thousand drug-related
killings annually. The Mexico I returned to in 2008 would end that
year with a body count of more than 5,300 dead. That's almost double
the death toll from the year before--and more than all the U.S. troops
killed in Iraq since that war began.

But it wasn't just the amount of killing that shocked me. When I
lived in Mexico, the occasional gang member would turn up executed,
maybe with duct-taped hands, rolled in a carpet, and dropped in an
alley. But Mexico's newspapers itemized a different kind of slaughter
last August: Twenty-four of the week's 167 dead were cops, 21 were
decapitated, and 30 showed signs of torture. Campesinos found a pile
of 12 more headless bodies in the Yucatan. Four more decapitated
corpses were found in Tijuana, the same city where barrels of acid
containing human remains were later placed in front of a seafood
restaurant. A couple of weeks later, someone threw two hand grenades
into an Independence Day celebration in Morelia, killing eight and
injuring dozens more. And at any time, you could find YouTube videos
of Mexican gangs executing their rivals--an eerie reminder of, and
possibly a lesson learned from, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Then there are the guns. When I lived in Mexico, its cartels were
content with assault rifles and large-caliber pistols, mostly bought
at American gun shops. Now, Mexican authorities are finding arsenals
that would have been incomprehensible in the Mexico I knew. The former
U.S. drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, was in Mexico not long ago, and
this is what he found:

. The outgunned Mexican law enforcement authorities face armed
criminal attacks from platoon-sized units employing night vision
goggles, electronic intercept collection, encrypted communications,
fairly sophisticated information operations, sea-going submersibles,
helicopters and modern transport aviation, automatic weapons, RPG's,
Anti-Tank 66 mm rockets, mines and booby traps, heavy machine guns, 50
[caliber] sniper rifles, massive use of military hand grenades, and
the most modern models of 40mm grenade machine guns.

These are the weapons the drug gangs are now turning against the
Mexican government as Calderon escalates the war against the cartels.

Mexico's surge in gang violence has been accompanied by a similar
spike in kidnapping. This old problem, once confined to certain
unstable regions, is now a nationwide crisis. While I was in
Monterrey, the supervisor of the city's office of the AFI--Mexico's
FBI--was charged with running a kidnapping ring. The son of a Mexico
City sporting-goods magnate was recently kidnapped and killed.
Newspapers reported that women in San Pedro, once one of Mexico's
safest cities, now take classes in surviving abductions.

All of this is taking a toll on Mexicans who had been insulated from
the country's drug violence. Elites are retreating to bunkered lives
behind video cameras and security gates. Others are fleeing for places
like San Antonio and McAllen, Texas. Among them is the president of
Mexico's prominent Grupo Reforma chain of newspapers. My week in
Mexico last August ended with countrywide marches of people dressed in
white, holding candles and demanding an end to the violence.

In Monterrey, most were from Mexico's middle and upper classes, people
who view protests as the province of workers and radicals. In all my
time in the country, I had seen such people turn to protest only once:
during the 1994 peso crisis, when Mexico was on the brink of economic

I've traveled through most of Mexico's 31 states. I've written two
books about the country. And yet I now struggle to recognize the
place. Mexico is wracked by a criminal-capitalist insurgency. It is
fighting for its life. And most Americans seem to have no idea what's
happening right next door.

What happened in the four years I was gone? Fueled by American demand,
dope was always there, of course. So was a surplus of weapons and
gangs to use them. When I lived in Mexico, drug violence was a story,
but not the story it is today.

I remember grander concerns back then: Mexico peacefully shedding 70
years of one-party authoritarian rule and dreaming of becoming a
stable and prosperous democracy. But Mexico's one-party state, led by
the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), gave way to the control
of a few parties, which were as inert and unaccountable as their
authoritarian forebears. They bickered about minutiae in congress, and
the hoped-for reforms didn't come. The PRI's centralized political
control was gone, but nothing effectively took its place. This vacuum
unleashed new opportunities for criminality, and Mexico's institutions
weren't up to the new threats that emerged.

Most of the cartels that now battle for drug routes into the United
States emerged in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa--a mid-sized
Mexican state with an outsized drug problem. Mexican drug smuggling
began primarily among rural and mountain people from lawless villages
who are known to be especially bronco--wild. Marijuana and opium
poppies grow easily in Sinaloa's hills. A narcoculture has evolved
there, venerating smugglers and their swaggering hillbilly style,
called buchon. Hicks became heroes. They moved into wealthy
neighborhoods and fired guns in the air at parties. Bands sing their
exploits; college kids know how they died. Sinaloa is that rare place
where townies emulate hayseeds, and youths yearn to join their ranks.

These renegades have grown into a national security threat since I've
been away from Mexico. One reason is that regional drug markets have
changed a lot in the past few years. The Colombian government grew
more successful against narcotraffickers who had taken over large
parts of Colombia. Enforcement in the Caribbean also improved.
Once-settled Mexican smuggling routes suddenly became the best way to
move dope through Latin America and into the United States. Those
routes were now up for grabs, and much more was at stake. Old gang
enmities exploded. Mexico's cartels could not let their rivals take
over new drug routes for fear they'd grow stronger. The gangs began
vying for turf in an increasingly savage war with a constantly
shifting front: Acapulco, Monterrey, Tijuana, Juarez, Nogales, and of
course Sinaloa.

With war raging between Mexico's narcogangs, and with plenty of cash
available from drug sales to Americans--$25 billion a year, by one
reliable estimate--cartel gunmen began to grow discontented with the
limited selection of arms found in the thousands of gun stores along
the southern U.S. border. Instead, they have sought out--and
acquired--the world's fiercest weaponry. Today, hillbilly pistoleros
are showing signs of becoming modern paramilitaries.

Mexico's gangs had the means and motive to create upheaval, and in
Mexico's failure to reform into a modern state, especially at local
levels, the cartels found their opportunity. Mexico has traditionally
starved its cities. They have weak taxing power. Their mayors can't be
reelected. Constant turnover breeds incompetence, improvisation, and
corruption. Local cops are poorly paid, trained, and equipped. They
have to ration bullets and gas and are easily given to bribery. Their
morale stinks. So what should be the first line of defense against
criminal gangs is instead anemic and easily compromised. Mexico has
been left handicapped, and gangs that would have been stomped out
locally in a more effective state have been able to grow into a
powerful force that now attacks the Mexican state itself.

The first sign of trouble was Nuevo Laredo in late 2005. The Gulf and
Sinaloa cartels staged street shootouts and midnight assassinations
for months in this border city, which the Gulf cartel had controlled.
One police chief lasted only hours from his swearing-in to his
assassination. The state and municipal police took sides in the cartel
fight. Newspapers had to stop reporting the news for fear of

Enter Calderon, who took office in late 2006, determined to address
the growing war among Mexico's cartels. He broke with old
half-measures of cargo takedowns that looked good but did little to
damage the cartels. Calderon wanted arrests. He also began extraditing
to the United States the capos and their lieutenants--more than 90 so
far--who were already in custody and wanted up north.

But when Calderon looked across Mexico for allies to help him escalate
the war on the narcogangs, he found few local governments and police
forces that hadn't been starved to dysfunction. So he has had to rely
on the only tool up to the task: Mexico's military. Calderon has also
turned to the United States for help. The Merida Initiative, launched
in April 2008, is a 10-fold increase in U.S. security assistance to a
proposed $1.4 billion over several years, supplying Mexican forces
with high-end equipment from helicopters to surveillance technology.

Fighting criminal gangs with a national military is an imperfect
solution, but Calderon has scored some victories. He has captured or
killed key gang leaders. Weapons seizures have been massive. Last
November, the Mexican Army seized a house in Reynosa that contained
the largest weapons cache ever found in the country, including more
than 540 rifles, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and 165 grenades.

The cartels have responded to Calderon's war with the kind of buchon
savagery that so struck me upon returning to Mexico. In addition to
fighting each other, the cartels are now increasingly fighting the
Mexican state as well, and the killing shows no sign of slowing. The
Mexican Army is outgunned, even with U.S. support. Calderon's purges
of hundreds of public officials for corruption, cops among them, may
look impressive, but they accomplish little. The problem isn't
individuals; it's systemic. Until cities have the power and funding to
provide strong and well-paid local police, Mexico's criminal gangs
will remain a national threat, not a regional nuisance.

There's little reason to believe 2009 won't look a lot like 2008. And
there's reason to fear it will be worse. The financial crisis is
hitting Mexico hard. How long it can hang on is unclear. The momentum
still favors the gangs, meaning the bloodshed will likely subside only
when they tire of warring.

Americans watch this upheaval with curious detachment. One warning
sign is Phoenix. This city has replaced Miami as the prime gateway for
illegal drugs entering the United States. Cartel chaos in Mexico is
pushing bad elements north along with the dope--enforcers without work
and footloose to freelance.

Phoenix--the snowbird getaway, the land of yellow cardigans and
emerald fairways--is now awash in kidnappings--366 in 2008 alone, up
from 96 a decade ago. Most committing these crimes hail from Sinaloa,
several hundred miles south. In one alarming incident, a gang of
Mexican nationals, dressed in Phoenix police uniforms and using
high-powered weapons and military tactics, stormed a drug dealer's
house in a barrage of gunfire, killing him and taking his dope.

Phoenix is hanging tough--for now. Its capable local police, so
desperately lacking in Mexico, are managing to quarantine the problem.
No one unconnected to smuggling has been abducted, police say, and no
kidnapping victim has been lost in a case they have been asked to
investigate. As a result, most Phoenix residents live blithely unaware
that hundreds of people in the smuggling underworld are kidnapped in
their midst every year.

Still, violence and criminality are moving north at a rapid pace, and
Americans would be foolhardy to imagine capable police departments
like Phoenix's going for long without cracking under the pressure. As
one Phoenix police officer told me, "Our fear is, we're going to meet
our match."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake