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Mexico's Political Drug Warriors

Calderon’s Last Grito

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City

Many Mexicans may breathe a sigh of relief that last Thursday’s “Grito de Independencia” (the “Cry of Independence” enacted every September 15) was the last under “drug warrior” Felipe Calderon, whose six-year term has unleashed nearly unparalleled violence upon the country. The “Grito” is a re-enactment of Independence hero Miguel Hidalgo’s famous cry of “Death to the Spaniards!” in 1810 as he rang the bell of the parish church in the town now known as Dolores Hidalgo.

“Gritos” have been muted affairs in recent years given the insecurity afflicting Mexico, and many friends told me they saw little to celebrate and would go through the Independence Day ritual solely out of habit. Mexicans are, for the most part, very patriotic – it comes with the territory when you have been conquered twice and live in the shadow of the global leader, who never lets you forget it – but there is also a sense that the country is spiralling out of control under Calderon.

The “Grito” takes place in every town in Mexico, but the big one sees the president step onto the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City’s main square, reel off the names of Independence heroes like Hidalgo, and cry “Viva Mexico!” three times as fireworks explode overhead. It’s the most patriotic moment of the year.

But as has been usual in the past few years, not every “Grito” was able to pass off peacefully. A car bomb exploded two miles away from the event in strife-torn Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas; fire fights and narco-blockades threatened to disturb the one in Matamoros, arguably Mexico’s most violent city right now; the “Grito” in Querendaro, Michoacan was canceled altogether when a group of 40 armed men chased merrymakers out of the main plaza.

In the northern city of Saltillo, Coahuila, another violence-wracked hotspot, several citizens attending the “Grito” in the central plaza were injured in a stampede when people mistook the fireworks for gunshots. An hour earlier, two men had indeed been gunned down six blocks away.

The Caravan for Peace – part of the Movement for Peace which marched 200,000-strong on Mexico City in May and aims to bring attention to the victims of the “Drug War” – spent the holiday on tour in southern Mexico, where it passed the “Grito” with the Zapatistas in Chiapas. The movement, led by poet Javier Sicilia, has been criticized by the Right for supposedly blaming the government instead of the criminals.

The traditional military parade along Reforma Avenue, Mexico City, on September 16 (the “Grito” takes place the night before Independence Day) was an emotional affair. Well-wishers applauded, cheered and even wept as immaculately-presented squadrons marched by and jets soared overhead. Those most directly engaged in combat with the cartels – the Army, Navy and federal police – received a particularly grand ovation. The troops offered salutes to crowds lining either side of the avenue and received even wilder applause.

Mexicans who fear that their country is being taken over by organized crime understandably believe that the armed forces are the only thing standing between them and the much-maligned drug gangs. This is the sentiment in Mexico City at least, the sprawling capital of 20 million people, which improbably feels like an oasis of tranquillity compared to many parts of the country. Those who have witnessed the ineffectiveness and abuses of the military firsthand – in Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and elsewhere – may feel differently.

Even in Mexico City, some feel uncomfortable saluting the military. One of the squadrons that paraded on Reforma was the fearsome-looking (with its ludicrous amounts of face paint) GAFE, or Special Forces Airmobile Group, the unit from which a band of deserters formed the Zetas in the late ‘90s, the drug-trafficking paramilitary group responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Mexico.

Mexico City’s Ivory Tower

“Chilangos” (Mexico City folk) are sometimes accused of looking down on or “not really getting” the rest of the country. Certainly they have yet to experience the horror of bullet-ridden violence on a daily basis like their compatriots in Tijuana, Juarez, Culiacan, and now Monterrey. Theories as to why the cartel war has yet to hit the capital abound. There is certainly an enormous “plaza” (or territory) to fight over. The Sinaloa Cartel rumoredly has dibs on the city’s airport (two customs officials working for a rival gang were murdered and beheaded in 2009) and gang members have been busted, but widespread violence has yet to sweep the metropolis.

Theories range from a pact between federal government and criminals that the capital is off limits to bloodletting, to the fact that many top “capos” (cartel bosses) and their white-collar business associates send their kids to the exclusive – largely American and British-owned – private schools here.

Another theory is that Mexico City is simply too valuable economically (22 per cent of the country’s GDP is produced here) for the cartels to move in and tear it apart. But much the same was said about the US investment hub of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon – Mexico’s third largest city and per capita the wealthiest – before the Zetas and their ex-employer, the Gulf Cartel, went to war in 2010. It’s now one of the most dangerous.

Mexico’s other big metropolis, Guadalajara, has also been largely unaffected even though major cartels are known to operate there. Just last week, Secretary of Public Safety Luis Carlos Najera cited evidence of a new alliance between the relatively small, local mafia, the Milenio Cartel and the Zetas, which could potentially see a spike in violence as they team up against the Sinaloa faction.

Mexico City sees its fair share of isolated incidents. Federal police recently busted a leader of La Mano Con Ojos (literally “the hand with eyes”), a low-level organization competing with the Cartel del Centro for retail turf in both the capital and neighboring Mexico State. A group of seven people, mostly young men, were gunned down in the rough suburb of Nezahualcoyotl in February. At the other end of the economic spectrum, a top member of the Zetas was captured in the wealthy neighborhood of Napoles. But the major players don’t go to war here.

The other, glaring reason why Mexico City remains relatively trouble-free is that it is, of course, the seat of government. Should the drug gangs – notably the Zetas, with their military-caliber arsenal – open fire here, the US would likely declare Mexico a “failed state”. However bad things get here, citizens of all social classes will tell you that the last thing they want to see is a US military intervention, and the cartels would surely agree.

With Independence Day in the bag, the Mexican media will turn its attention to the already juicy build-up to the 2012 presidential election. Although campaigning doesn’t officially get underway until April, the central plot is whether Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) can keep the resurgent Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) from retaking power. It’s being billed as a huge contest, but they’ve all been huge (and controversial) since the PAN kicked out the PRI’s seven-decade rule and Mexico “returned to democracy” in 2000.

Although Calderon can’t run thanks to Mexico’s one-term, six-year limit, the PAN will likely push hard the unpopular idea that the “Drug War” is succeeding. The Calderon administration points to cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez as one-time powder kegs that have calmed down considerably, when the reality is that one criminal organization, or drug cartel, has simply won out against another.

The tantalizing element of a PRI victory is whether the party – which governed for 71 years and was notorious for cutting deals with organized crime – could put its old tricks to good use and negotiate some kind of end to the cartel rivalry. Drug-trafficking is viewed here as primarily a US-created problem with the blame deflected on Mexico as always. A government that could offer people security and repair the country’s severed reputation could potentially stay in power for decades.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com