Mexico’s Narco Opera Reaches for High Note

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico’s on-going Narco Opera is straining to reach new dramatic heights.  Springtime 2008 has been for killing.  Since Good Friday (March 21st) when 22 citizens were slaughtered in gun battles from Quintana Roo to Chihuahua, the daily body count has left Baghdad in the dust.  Headless bodies and bodies without heads like the one abandoned on a Sinaloa highway with a note attached that read "give my regards to the kids", are regularly sighted throughout this not-so-distant neighbor nation’s narco-geography.  At least once a week, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez have erupted in a bloody border ballet and one after another, the Fat Lady sings for President Felipe Calderon’s star drug cops in the capital of the country.

The Diva (Divo) at center stage in this homicidal opus is well known to narco-fans everywhere.  Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman broke out of the maximum security Puente Grande Jalisco federal prison in January 2001, just days after the inauguration of then-president Vicente Fox and has not been seen since except in government wanted posters.  But all spring, the absent Chapo ("short guy") has been engaged in high-octane melodrama. 

After courts freed him of money laundering charges April 10th, Archibaldo Guzman, AKA "El Chapito", the Chapo’s youngest son, was escorted out of a Jalisco jail by a posse of ski-masked cops at midnight, shoved into a big gray car, and disappeared off the face of the earth.  Who is holding the Chapito is not clear.

On a second tremulous note, another son Edgar was blown to smithereens in a Culiacan Sinaloa supermarket May 9th by a commando that reportedly included 40 gunsills armed with bazookas and grenade launchers.  Arturo Beltran Leyva AKA "El Barbas", a disaffected Chapo associate plus elements of the Juarez Cartel with which "Barbas" (Beards) is now allegedly aligned are considered facilitators in Chapito II’s wild demise.

Wait, there is more.  Days later, someone unknown dropped a dime on a Chapo cousin Alfonso Guzman who was trapped in a Culiacan safe house after a shoot-out with federal police and is now said to be singing like Maria Callas.  Don Chapo himself is supposed to be currently ensconced at the top of the rough-hewn sierra between Colima and Michoacan states, a roadless tract with limited access – 500 troops were dispatched to the area last week (May 5th.)  

On the other hand, the drug lord may be in Guatemala where he is sometimes sighted.  Or in La Jolla California where his fellow Sinaloa boys, the Arellano Felix brothers, hid out for years.

Alfonso Guzman is not the only singing sensation in this narco opera although most of the belters like the late Chelino Sanchez, Swiss-cheesed back in the ’90s during a Sinaloa concert (Chelino pioneered personalizing narco-corridos) are defunct – at least six musicos, mostly grupero and banda performers, have been whacked in the past six months.  Even narco executions these days come accompanied with music.  The Culiacan daily "Noroeste" reports that narco killers hired a "tambor" (a Sinaloa nortena band) to serenade a victim with his favorite narco-corridos (drug ballads) during his Mother’s Day execution.

If El Chapo owns the circus then the Beltran Leyvas were his ringmasters to paraphrase a still-popular 1990s Los Tigres del Norte narco ballad.   El Barbas and his three brothers ran Chapo’s day to day business for a decade but as is so often the tonic in such narco-dramas, a lot of "mala leche" (bad milk) has been spilled between the two of late.  For one, Guzman reportedly gave up Alfredo Beltran Leyva, "El Mochomo", to the Feds – El Mochomo is currently cooling his heels in Puente Grande, the same prison which El Chapo walked out of seven years ago, and Brother Barbas is said (nothing is verifiable in the miasma of the narco world) to have organized 300 gunslingers into the FEDA ("Special Forces In Defense of Arturo") to bust him out of the joint.  Federal troops are now posted on the perimeter of Puente Grande.

One example of the bad blood between the Beltran Leyvas and The Big Divo: last December, four bodies were dumped from a small airplane near Imala Sinaloa (30 kilometers from Culiacan.)  One was inscribed with a note addressed to "Chaputo" insinuating that Guzman is homosexual.

The bizarre exchange of notes continued May 3rd when banners draped from a Culiacan freeway overpass announced "I am the Chief of this Plaza little soldiers of straw and Federales made out of lead.  This is the territory of the Beltran Leyvas."  Another warned "Let it be known that El Mochomo still carries a lot of weight around here.  Attentively yours, A. Beltran Leyva "El Barbas." 

The reply appeared the next day when anonymous responses apparently posted by local police accused Beltran Leyva of being pals with Mexico Public Security Secretary Genero Garcia Luna, the discredited Juarez Cartel, and a certain "General Miranda." 

Culiacan de las Maravillas (its official title), where the narcos boast their own lay saint, the legendary Jesus Malverde, has been the historic stage for Mexican Narco-Operatics ever since the 1920s when Chinese immigrants planted opium poppies in the hills outside of town.  Today, its arias reverberate around the world wherever better drugs are sold.  Mexico City, where the Beltran Leyvas are battling for control of Benito Juarez International Airport, a key drug destination center, is no exception. 

Last December, the heads of four freight forwarding company employees were found rolling around airport property. Then in February, a powerful bomb apparently intended for a top-drawer police commander, exploded prematurely on teeming Chapultepec Avenue here, instantly whacking the delivery boy. 

Also in the capital, three of President Calderon’s star drug cops have been taken out since May 3rd when Jose Aristeo Gomez, a federal police (PFP) commander was gunned down in what the government at first pretended was a car jacking.  Three days later, Roberto Velasco, the chief of the Mexico City office of the Federal Investigation Agency (AFI, modeled on the FBI) was cut down in front of his home.

But the big hit came down on May 8th when Edgar Millan, third in command at the Federal Public Security Secretariat and the "brains" of Calderon’s faltering drug war according to Proceso magazine, was blown away in the living room of his apartment in the drug-saturated center-city Colonia Guerrero where he was considered a neighborhood hero. 

Millan, who won his bones with the high profile collar of serial kidnapped Andres Calatri and was called in to oversee the investigation into the still-unsolved hit on ex-president Carlos Salinas’s brother, had been responsible for a number of important airport drug seizures of late, including a 50 kilo ephedrine drop just in from Argentina.  The Millan killing was carried out on the same day as nine presumed Beltran Leyva associates engaged police in a lethal shoot-out in neighboring Morelos state.

The indomitable Millan made it a point to sleep in different domiciles each night and it appears that the killer, a petty thief high on Ice (speed) who carried two brand-new machine pistols and a duplicate set of keys to the apartment, was tipped off as to the top cop’s imminent arrival by someone very very close to Millan inside the Public Security Secretariat – no one has been pinned for the job as of this writing.

It is publicly acknowledged that Mexico’s narco-cartels have infiltrated the various drug war bureaucracies as well as federal and state police forces and the military from which hundreds of soldiers each year defect to the drug gangs.

The day after Edgar Millan went down, a visibly nervous Felipe Calderon (some say he too sleeps in a different bed each night) appeared on national television to denounce the killing as a "cowardly" crime and vow vengeance – Calderon often sees the bloodshed in black and white, Us vs. Them, Good vs. Heinous Evil.  The Mexican president was joined by U.S. ambassador Tony Garza who lamented the passing of another Mexican "hero,"

This latest act in Mexico’s Narco Opera had resonance in Washington too where White House security spokesperson Gordon Johndroe spotlighted the Millan killing to urge the U.S. Congress to pass the Bush administration’s so-called Merida Initiative, AKA Plan Mexico, a $1.4 billion USD drug war boondoggle ostensibly modeled on the more ambitious counter-insurgency scheme Plan Colombia. 

Synchronistically, Plan Mexico popped out of committee and sailed through the House May 15th.  The Merida Initiative would provide a first installment of $400 million to pay for a fleet of second hand helicopters, troop transports, and surveillance technology capable of eavesdropping on every Mexican with a telephone and Internet access.  But, like all Washington’s arms deals, Plan Mexico is, in reality, a bait and switch con whereby Washington pretends to give Mexico drug funds but instead pays off U.S. defense contractors and subsidizes the sale of their weaponry south of the border. 

Mexico’s fulminating Narco Opera is playing to packed houses on the border.  Things had gotten so hectic in Ciudad Juarez by late April that Calderon had to dispatch 3000 more troops (30,000 are in the field) to that beleaguered border town where 210 citizens had been killed from January to March and narco graves regularly turn up on quiet backstreets – 36 decaying cadavers were recently unearthed. 

Local police have been ubiquitous targets: a note left at a monument to fallen officers in January listed 22 names, 18 of whom have since been cut down.  The daily body count peaked at 12 during Easter and 50 unidentified corpses are moldering in the city morgue. 

One motive for the mayhem: the Chapos have been horning in on the debilitated Juarez Cartel’s control of the "plaza", a crucial platform for the shipment of drugs to El Norte.  In recent years, the Juarez gang has linked up with the Gulf Cartel and its bloodthirsty enforcers, "Los Zetas", ex-military thugs trained in the U.S. as drug fighters who are masters of the art of beheading their rivals. 

The toll at the western end of the U.S. border in Tijuana January to April is 190 homicides, the high water mark being 19 on April 26th when two factions of the moribund Arellano Felix cartel riding around in dueling fleets of armor-plated SUVs emptied their Uzis at each other, leaving the dead scattered along an eight kilometer stretch of a downtown boulevard.  Some of the martyred reportedly wore large gold rings stamped with the image of "Santa Muerte" – the sainted "Lady Death" is said to protect its bearers from the bullets of their enemies. 

At the eastern end of the border in Matamoros where police chiefs are sworn in in the morning and are D.O.A. by nightfall, the ambiance is not cordial but the open warfare between the Gulf Cartel and Chapo’s Sinaloa boys during the winter months, has softened this spring under the guns of thousands of Mexican army troops. 

The deadly border ballet is also being played out in the deep desert where Palomas Chihuahua connects up with Columbus New Mexico.  Palomas, a cow town (drug czar Rafael Caro Quintero ran cattle stuffed with cocaine-filled condoms across the border there in the 1980s), is down to 7000 residents from 12,000 just last year and row after row of abandoned homes paint a desolate picture.  As the cartels transfer their business from a militarized Juarez, the kill rate has zoomed – 23 so far this year. 

When Police Chief Javier Perez Ortega resigned this spring and fled to the U.S. border station in Columbus to ask political asylum, his eight cops followed him, leaving Palomas more lawless than ever.  10 bullet-riddled bodies have been dumped at the Columbus border station according to a Reuters report – those who are still breathing are taken to nearby New Mexico hospitals but the dead are denied entry to the U.S.

The War on Drugs has been a deadly flop on both sides of the border since it was declared by Ronald and Nancy Reagan back in 1986.  The U.S. security crackdown following 9/11 in 2001 has kept cocaine in Mexico, a transshipment point for South American blow, for much longer than the narcos can afford and the drugs have leaked onto the streets with a vengeance – crack addiction here has tripled since 2001.  Moreover, the militarization of the border has intensified competition to exploit cracks in the security barrier, which has quintupled the kill rate.

On the Mexican side of the ledger, Calderon’s drug war, declared soon after he took office following the highly questionable 2006 election, has ratcheted up the body count – more than 4000 Mexicans have been killed in the first 18 months of Calderon’s offensive and 2008 in which total deaths at the current rate extrapolate out to about 3300, will be the bloodiest year yet.  12,745 victims have been slain in Mexico’s drug war between 2001 and 2008, including 33 military officers. According to the Federal Security Secretariat, 438 Mexican police officers have bitten the dust in the first five months of this year alone.   

Despite the gristly statistics, Calderon’s rookie Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino, a kind of Paliachi in this tragic-comic opera (comic-tragic opera?) insists to reporters that the president’s strategy is working and the escalating carnage is proof of how desperate the cartels have become.  Mourino indignantly denies that his boss is negotiating with the narco-divas (divos?)

Now with Plan Mexico worming its way through their congress, U.S. taxpayers will soon have an opportunity to underwrite all this slaughter.

The difference between narco-war and narco-peace has everything to do with the product being transacted and by how much added value its illegality inflates profits – this is, after all, a war on drugs and not one on tomatoes.  The more than obvious solution: Legalize It!

That’s just what several hundred "pachecos" (potheads) were chanting as they marched through Mexico City’s downtown Alameda Park this May 3rd in a cloud of green smoke. Mexico City cops assigned to monitor the annual parade made no move to arrest smokers.  Under Mexican law, marijuana users are considered addicts and up to three grams of weed can land the guilty party in prison for ten to 16 months.  Despite the May 3rd one-day amnesty, Mexico City’s liberal mayor Marcelo Ebrard has jailed 21,000 pachecos since he took office in 2006. 

Now the tiny Alternative Social Democratic Party intends to introduce marijuana decrim legislation in the fall session of the Mexican congress, allowing for possession of up to five grams of herb, and encouraging medical marijuana treatment and the use of hemp fibers in cottage industries.  In 2006, Congress actually passed a decriminalization measure and sent it on to then-president Fox who promptly vetoed it after receiving an emergency phone call from an alarmed George Bush.

How much this prolonged Narco Opera has cost both Mexico and the U.S. in blood and money is incalculable.  The vast boodles it has taken to mount this absurd production has drained cash from already threadbare education, health and other social services and undermined the credibility of the state.  One modest proposal for defraying expenses would be to emulate the Brazilian model posed by a Rio de Janero travel agency, which is now booking narco-tours of impoverished, crime-ridden favelas where tourists get to be photographed with local drug gang bosses for $54 USD per head.      

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City pounding away on "El Monstruo – Tales of Dread & Redemption In the World’s Most Terrifying Urban Monster" (working title) to be published in 2009 by Nation Books.  Ross himself is available at johnross@igc.org.

 

 

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