Pubdate: Mon, 11 May 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ken Ellingwood, Reporting from Mexico City
Bookmark:  Mexico Under Siege (Series)


The Museum, Which Is Used to Educate Soldiers and Is Closed to the
Public, Offers Powerful Testimony to the Inventiveness and Huge
Resources That Traffickers Continue Bringing to the Fight.

Army Capt. Claudio Montane wants one thing clear from the start: This
place is not not a narco-museum. The point is not to glorify drug

"Its purpose is to show Mexico and the world the efforts and the good
results that we have achieved," Montane said, opening a tour of a
military collection officially called the Museum of Drugs.

But spend a couple of hours examining the exhibits with Montane, in
his crisp dress uniform and spit-shined shoes, and you wonder if a
better name would be the Museum of Mexico's Long and Unwon War Against
Drug Traffickers Who Keep Finding Clever New Ways to Feed the U.S.

Just as the museum outlines the army's 33-year-old role in this war,
it offers powerful testimony to the inventiveness and enormous
resources that traffickers continue bringing to the fight.

 From their use of semi-submersibles to sneak Colombian cocaine in by
sea to powerful rifles capable of punching through armor, the
smuggling gangs present a foe that can seem more formidable with every
passing day.

A section full of captured cross-border smuggling artifacts --
including an innocent-looking doughnut and empanada that proved to be
filled with drugs -- is a credit to on-the-ball soldiers in the field.
But it prompts a nagging question: How much got through?

"Drug dealers are ingenious," said Montane, who before running the
museum was on the front line of the drug war, in the northern state of
Sonora. "But the genius of the military people is more."

This is no ordinary museum. For one, it's closed to the public. Housed
on the seventh floor of the Mexican Defense Ministry building here, it
is instead used to teach military personnel about the drug trade they
have been called upon to fight.

The collection was created in 1985, back when troops were mainly used
to eradicate crops of marijuana and poppies by uprooting and burning

But the exhibits have never been more relevant than today, with the
military playing a larger role in the drug war than at any time in its
history. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has dispatched 45,000
troops across the country since declaring war on the drug cartels in
December 2006.

It has been a bloody chapter. Clashes between troops and drug
traffickers, and among rival gangs, have claimed more than 10,000
lives. A plaque at the museum's entrance tallies the military's losses
since December 2006: 99 officers and soldiers have died.

The museum tells the story of a cat-and-mouse battle, with prehistoric
roots. Mexico's peoples used peyote and hallucinogenic mushrooms for
rituals. Later, Spanish sailors showed up with marijuana seeds and
Chinese traders brought poppy to Mexico's Pacific region.

Subsequent exhibits depict the global campaign to stop illegal
substances. In one telling map, arrows showing the routes of various
illicit drugs converge on the United States.

There are exhibits showing clandestine heroin labs built from seized
jugs and hoses, models of military helicopters zooming over
eradication operations, and photographs illustrating how years of
practice helped drug growers tease bigger yields from marijuana and
poppy fields by the 1980s, when the drug trade became big business

In one room, a life-sized model of a farmer stands guard with a
shotgun in a primitive drug encampment equipped with a police radio
and bust of Jesus Malverde, the mustachioed patron saint of drug

A nearby case holds poorly spelled bribe offers and threats. "I am
very close," warned one sign, scrawled on cardboard. "You are
surrounded. If you cut the plant, you won't leave here alive."

But it is the "narco-culture" room that probably would be the crowd
favorite, if crowds were allowed here. This is where the over-the-top
trappings of the narco life are on display: bejeweled cellphones;
engraved, gold-plated pistols; jackets with hideaway armor plating.

The exhibit reveals "the ostentation they use to impress their rival
groups and the authorities," Montane said.

Certain to impress is a gold-plated Colt .38 Super, studded with tiny
red and green stones and engraved on the pistol grip with the date of
Mexico's independence: Sept. 16, 1810. (Who says bloodthirsty
gangsters can't be patriots?)

Another .38-caliber pistol, seized last year when authorities captured
suspected drug lord Alfredo Beltran Leyva, is adorned with emeralds,
an engraving of revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa and a
proverb: "I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees." (Who says
bloodthirsty gangsters can't be cliched?)

The allure of the narco existence, its spread into mainstream Mexican
culture and the way it is passed like a garish keepsake from one
generation to another worries Montane -- and many officials.

On the wall near the museum's exit is a picture that Montane said was
seized during a raid on a trafficker's house. It shows a chubby boy,
about a year old, sitting on the floor. He is clad in camouflage.

Around him, lined up like favored stuffed animals, are two dozen
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