Pubdate: Sat, 07 Aug 2010
Source: Stabroek News (Guyana)
Copyright: 2010 Stabroek News


Six months ago, in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, a convoy 
of SUVs and trucks pulled up in front of a house party. Masked gunmen 
stormed the premises then rounded up and executed a group-teenagers 
as well as several adults who attempted to intervene. Sixteen people 
were killed -- five adults and 11 children -- and dozens more left 
wounded. Initially, both state and federal authorities claimed the 
violence was drug-related. Then evidence emerged that a local drugs 
cartel had in fact mistaken the party for a gathering of rival gang 
members close by.

Should these deaths be tallied as a form of drug violence, or blamed 
on a government that has stirred a hornet's nest of corrupt officials 
and competitive cartels? Of course, the distinction makes no 
difference to grieving families, but it is an important reminder for 
outsiders that the costs of President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs 
have been borne most often by innocent bystanders. During the three 
and a half years CalderA3n adopted military tactics against the 
country's drug trafficking organizations similar horrors have become 
commonplace. To date the resulting violence has killed more than 
25,000 Mexicans, at least 5,000 of them in Juarez. (Trinidad, which 
has a similar population and is currently experiencing a record 
murder rate, is on course for 550 killings by the end of this year.)

Eager to boost his credibility after a disputed election President 
Calderon did not begin a war in December 2006 so much as authorize a 
surge which substantively deepened an existing conflict. Even so it 
has become Calderon's war, one for which the federal government is 
ill prepared. As the violence swells to epidemic proportions the 
state seems to have no clearly defined goals, coherent tactics or 
even a viable endgame. The initial justifications for the conflict -- 
that drug consumption and related violence were increasing -- were 
provably false (in fact crime had been falling in the border region 
for more than a decade, as had national consumption) but the war has 
now created the conditions necessary to justify its own continuance.

 From the start the authorities have claimed victories with the same 
determined optimism that skewed early American accounts from 
post-invasion Iraq. Spikes in violence are offered as evidence that 
the cartels are fighting for their existence, temporary lulls are 
said to be signs of a return to law and order. Either way the 
government wins. In fact, the entire campaign has been marked by 
failures and misjudgments. The most noticeable elephant in the room 
has been the wholesale defection of state forces. Lured by the 
exorbitant profits of the $65 billion market they were meant to 
disrupt, many soldiers simply switched sides. The New York Times 
reports that more than 100,000 soldiers have deserted the Mexican 
army during the last seven years, many of them Special Forces with 
the sort of military knowledge that is invaluable to narco-traffickers.

Some have even started their own cartel, Los Zetas -- currently 
waging its own mini-war against the Gulf Cartel in and around the 
city of Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas.

Throughout the war Mexico's journalists have been attacked by both 
sides. Reporters without Borders estimates that nearly 70 media 
workers have been killed during the last decade and with ten killings 
already this year that figure is likely to rise significantly. Even 
so, Mexico's journalists have continued to uncover facts that 
seriously undermine official claims about the management of the war. 
Some recent scandals are so florid they would strain the credulity of 
a Hollywood producer. In Durango state, for example, the Attorney 
General's Office has been forced to admit that guards at a state 
prison not only helped to sneak inmates out of the prison but also 
armed them to carry out murders and massacres on behalf of the 
cartels. El Universal, one of the capital's largest dailies, has 
disclosed that confidential information shared with the senate 
indicates that to date the government has investigated only 5 per 
cent of 22,000 reported executions. Internatio! nal monitors of press 
freedom report that 65 per cent of the threats against the media 
recorded last year were made by state or national forces (only six 
per cent by drugs gangs). Most damning of all, perhaps, are the 
government's own statistics on the body counts so far. As the current 
edition of The Nation magazine observes: "in the midst of what is 
repeatedly called a war... Mexican soldiers seem immune to bullets. 
With over 8,000 Mexicans killed in 2009 alone, the army reported 
losses of thirty-five that year... Mexico is now one of the most 
dangerous places in the world to be reporter. And possibly the safest 
place in the world to be a soldier."

Forty years after President Nixon started America's own "war on 
drugs" there is much to suggest that the best a confrontational drugs 
policy can achieve is a series of Pyrrhic victories. After a trillion 
dollars worth of federal efforts at prohibition, plus a $41 billion 
annual budget for local and state governments, the cartels' supply 
networks within North America are intact and their bottom lines more 
profitable than ever. There also seems to be growing incoherence in 
the US government's idea of how to fight the war. As Jorge Castaneda, 
a former Foreign Minister of Mexico, noted in a recent debate: "We 
have tens of people dying every day in Tijuana, on the border with 
the United States. Sometimes, 50, 60, 70. And, they are there 
basically dying to stop Mexican marijuana, among other drugs, from 
entering the United States. The small problem is that 120 miles north 
of Tijuana, in Los Angeles, there are more public, legal dispensaries 
of medical marijuana t! han public schools."

President Calderon's misconceived war appears to be morphing into the 
sort of multi-faceted guerrilla conflict that could last, 
conveniently, for the duration of his entire presidency, perhaps 
longer if needed. While the government crows over its illusory 
victories and the cartels continue to reap their accustomed profits, 
the wretched citizens of cities like Juarez are forced to learn how 
to live with corruption, savage gang violence and almost complete 
impunity. As with every classic Mexican standoff there are no 
winners, but some losses are heavier than others.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom