Mexico's Drug War : Overview from the December 12, 2008 CQ Researcher Report

Is the violence spilling into the U.S.?

By Peter Katel

Down in Baja California, people in Rosarito Beach have quit worrying about rowdy Americans on spring break ruining the ambience. The once-bucolic getaway on Mexico’s Pacific Coast — just an hour south of San Diego — has other concerns.

“We’re betting against getting hit by a stray bullet, against our daughter being kidnapped,” says a frightened local businessperson, who spoke by phone on condition of not being identified by name, occupation or gender. “We’re living through a war.”

As drug traffickers mow down rivals and government forces all along the border, law-abiding citizens — American and Mexican — find some relief in the fact that most of the killing takes place among members of Mexico’s major drug cartels.

In Tijuana, a barrel of industrial acid left on a street in October apparently contained the dissolved remains of rival drug dealers. Bodies with the tongues cut out, or heads cut off, have been left in public places. Most recently, a headless body was left hanging from a busy bridge in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

But citizens’ fears are well-founded as well. The Rosarito Beach businessperson knew a real estate broker who sold some property to gangsters and was kidnapped and killed despite a ransom payment.

“We came here because it was so peaceful,” the businessperson says. “But now the entire economy is based on the narcos’ spending.”

Even the cops are scared. Last May, three Mexican police chiefs sought asylum in the United States.

For Americans, “war on drugs” is a catchy slogan. But in Mexico, where traffickers fight each other for territory using automatic weapons, the metaphor hits close to the mark.

During the first 11 months of this year alone, more than 5,300 people have been killed — traffickers, police, soldiers and ordinary civilians — about 1,000 more than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. The number of Americans included in the toll is unclear. In recent weeks, an American citizen and two U.S. residents were killed, one standing in front of a house, and two driving in a funeral procession. And more than 40 American citizens and residents have been kidnapped in the Tijuana-Rosarito Beach area since last year, the FBI reported.

As in the early 20th century, when smugglers began running opium and marijuana to Americans from the mountains of Sinaloa — still a major drug center — Mexico remains the main foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States. Mexican traffickers are also major suppliers of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine. Since the demise of the Colombian drug cartels in the 1990s, the four major drug cartels operating in Mexico have become even more powerful, garnering billions of dollars in revenue and keeping American gun sellers busy.

Now the Mexican gangs are expanding. In September, U.S. law-enforcement agencies announced they had arrested 507 people and seized more than $60 million after an 18-month investigation of cartel operations in the United States. Gang activities included killing and kidnapping people with debts to traffickers.

Recognizing the deep American connection to the Mexican drug war, Congress voted this year to send $400 million worth of aid to Mexico, and the Bush administration started a program to reduce the weapons traffic into Mexico.

The money is the first installment of the Mérida Initiative, an anti-drug gang program drawn up by both countries that includes anti-trafficking operations in Central America and the Caribbean.

But some critics say the United States needs to do more. A blue-ribbon commission on U.S.-Latin America relations lays the blame for Latin American drug violence largely on the United States and what the panel called the “failed war on drugs.” Only a new, rehabilitation and treatment-oriented policy in the United States can lower drug demand, said the Brookings Institution’s Partnership for the Americas Commission, headed by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering.

“Drug use in the United States has not declined significantly,” the commission said recently, arguing that continuing the present course will maintain the profits that fuel drug trafficking and its wars. “This violence already threatens to spill into the United States and to destabilize Mexico’s political institutions,” the commission said.

When Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, he quickly moved to crush the drug gangs. As of July, government forces had arrested 26,000 drug suspects, including at least two kingpins, according to authorities.

No one sees victory at hand, however, largely because of the huge fortunes at stake — estimated at from $8 billion to $23 billion.

There is also deep concern about corruption. Many experts say the traffickers have penetrated the Mexican government and military more deeply than U.S. and Mexican officials had realized.

“When we took office we knew we had an organized-crime problem, but we thought it was like a tumor that was well-identified and easily excised,” a top Mexican law-enforcement official last year told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa, according to Undersecretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon. “But when we opened up the body, we realized it had metastasized, and the kind of treatment we needed was far beyond what we had expected.”

In recent months, as part of Operation Clean House, Mexican investigators have arrested the former chief of the federal anti-organized crime unit for allegedly taking $450,000 from cartels in return for information and arrested or fired 35 members of an elite anti-drug unit accused of spying for drug gangs. In addition, charges have been filed against Mexico’s former liaison to Interpol, the international law-enforcement network; against a former top officer of the federal investigative agency and against 10 other military and law-enforcement officials suspected of working for cartels. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City may have been penetrated as well.

In a letter to the Mexican Senate on Nov. 27, Calderón acknowledged that half of 56,000 federal, state and municipal police recently evaluated were “not competent” to serve, after investigations of their assets, as well as psychological evaluations and drug tests. In Baja California, where Tijuana and Rosarito Beach are located, only 10 percent of police passed muster.

To a leading academic specialist on the drug war, the revelations of widespread corruption vindicate the Mérida Initiative’s strategic approach. “A lot of intelligence and counter-intelligence work is needed because the government has been infiltrated,” says Raúl Benítez Manaut, a sociologist and political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Research Center on North America.

For cops both honest and dishonest, working amid so much corruption can be fatal. Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez, Mexico’s national police chief, was assassinated outside his apartment building in Mexico City by a squad of killers wearing rubber gloves. Others assassinated include the Sinaloa state police commander, the organized crime division chief of the Public Security Ministry and a high-ranking officer of the State Investigative Agency of Chihuahua.

On Nov. 4, Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and veteran anti-drug official José Luís Vasconcelos died in a spectacular airplane crash in Mexico City. The official preliminary report on the crash blames the pilot of their Learjet for following an airliner too closely and getting caught up in its wake. 12 But many experts scoff at that assessment. “It certainly makes me a doubting Thomas,” says Thomas Cash, former special agent in charge of the DEA’s Florida and Caribbean Division.

And even if cartels didn’t cause the crash, it still serves their goal of intimidating the country, Cash and many others say, because most Mexicans won’t ever believe the event was an accident.

On the border, where the conflict is at its most intense, the cartels still seem to have the initiative. For the Rosarito Beach businessperson, the occasional sound of gunfire at night, the daily sight of heavily armed bodyguards escorting politicians, the worry over a child befriending narcos’ offspring at school all add to the mental and emotional toll.

Would it be better to leave, even at the cost of starting from the bottom somewhere else? Perhaps, but selling house and business in a war zone is next to impossible. “All we have,” the businessperson says, “is hope.”

To view the entire report, login to CQ Researcher Online [subscription required], or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF