Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s much-publicized visit to Ciudad Juarez on the US border last week – the proverbial “scene of the crime” – was as well-timed as it was cynical. With his National Action Party (PAN) facing a tough re-election campaign ahead of July, the man who will forever be remembered for Mexico’s “Drug War” dropped by to both defend the failed strategy and take a now-characteristic swipe at the United States.
The visit made for spectacular headlines when Calderon unveiled a government-sponsored billboard that now faces El Paso, Texas, across the Rio Grande. With lettering formed out of crushed firearms, the stark notice reads: “No More Weapons”; a powerful condemnation of the ease with which illegal arms have been flowing across the border and their contribution to the carnage in Mexico.
“So close to the United States, so far from God” – as the old saying here goes – Juarez has seen the worst of the gang violence that continues to blight the country. Dubbed “the murder capital of the world” in 2009 (that dubious honor has since passed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras); the city’s 1.3 million inhabitants have witnessed nearly 10,000 murders in just five years.
Juarez is a microcosm of the criminal dispute behind much of Mexico’s violence. For years, the border town’s illicit economy was run by the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (or Juarez Cartel) but in 2008 the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Forbes Rich List member Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, arrived to take control of “the plaza”. Murders soared from 300 in 2007 to 1,800 the following year.
Juarez is not the only Mexican city to have fallen victim to such a turf war, but the conflict there has been particularly drawn-out and grisly. Calderon dispatched 4000 troops to Juarez in 2008 yet the violence only escalated. The number of killings rose to 2,600 in 2009 before peaking at 3,000 in 2010; nationwide the Drug War’s bloodiest year to date.
Last year, however, Juarez saw a 45 per cent drop in homicides; the principal reason for Calderon’s visit. It may still be far and away the most violent city in Mexico (Acapulco and Torreon are some way behind) but the current administration will go out screaming that its militarization of the war on organized crime has been a success.
Good Neighbor Policy
The decision to erect the “No More Weapons” billboard within sight of the US border may at first seem like a highly provocative move, but within days Calderon was sidling up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Los Cabos to sign a major new energy deal; friends as always. A close ally of Washington and heavily-backed by the Bush administration during the 2006 electoral dispute that brought him to power, Calderon’s latest round of “gringo-bashing” was clearly intended for domestic consumption.
The right-wing PAN might well lose this summer’s election owing to the failure of the “Drug War” and the belief that it has actually worsened the security situation in Mexico. As public opinion has turned against him, Calderon has increasingly resorted to blaming drug users and gun-sellers north of the border for the country’s crime rate, tapping into anti-US sentiment that goes back 165 years.
On the other hand, the PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota – the first major female presidential candidate in Mexican history – will rely heavily on US support for her upcoming campaign and Calderon’s anti-gringo offensive may even be tacitly endorsed by the Barack Obama administration whose real interest in Mexico, after all, is a fully-liberalized, investment-friendly economy; for which the PAN is the best bet among Mexican parties.
Yet tensions remain. The “No More Weapons” slogan largely refers to Operation Fast & Furious; a US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) scam exposed last year by Republican congressman Darrell Issa. During 2009-10, the Arizona branch of the ATF deliberately allowed some 2000 firearms to be smuggled across the border in an attempt to “sting” the country’s drug cartels. Naturally, most of the weapons simply wound up the hands of gangs and have been linked to at least 200 murders south of the border.
A Republican-led investigation by the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform has sought to pin the blame on Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, but it’s now understood that the Bush administration carried out a similar exercise dubbed “Operation Wide Receiver” in 2006. It’s also been revealed that Mexico’s own Attorney General was likely aware of the US operation; something that the Calderon administration vehemently denies. It’s bad enough that Calderon is fighting a war on behalf of Washington that has taken some 50,000 lives in Mexico; even worse that he might have overseen a calamity like this.
Chapo Wins Again
As for the fall in violence in Juarez, which Calderon claims as a victory; it was predicted some time ago. At an anti-narcotics conference in the Mexican city of Merida in 2010, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that the majority of shipments being intercepted on the El Paso side of the border were coming from the Sinaloa Cartel – evidence that “El Chapo” Guzman’s organization was winning the turf war and order would soon be restored.
One only has to look to Tijuana for a precedent. The most infamous of Mexican border cities experienced its own gang war in the early 2000s when the Sinaloa Cartel arrived to take down the Arellano Felix Organization (or Tijuana Cartel). Violence tapered off in 2010 and the city has remained relatively calm since; the Mexican government again pointing to success for its strategy. According to those on the ground, the reality is that the Sinaloans simply took control of the city’s criminal networks.
A recent report by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office for Organized Crime (SIEDO) stated that the Zetas – a relatively new group founded by ex-members of Mexico’s Special Forces – is now the most powerful criminal organization in the country and the focus of the government’s anti-narcotics strategy. You’ll struggle to find one independent analyst or journalist who really believes this, however. In the past eighteen months, the Zetas have suffered a slew of arrests, seizures and casualties at the hands of Mexico’s armed forces while the Sinaloa Cartel goes relatively untouched.
Government statistics show clearly that the main cause of violence over the past decade has been the Sinaloa Cartel trying to take territory from its rivals. There is also a well of evidence that the back-to-back PAN administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon have wanted it this way; going after the cartel’s enemies and protecting its leaders in order to impose order on the lucrative drug trade, whose funds flow through the legitimate economy and prop up banks, businesses and political campaigns.
Ultimately, the drug trade in Mexico may account for some $50 billion per year – a huge slice of the country’s economic production (equivalent to some 3 per cent of GDP) and money that is laundered through major industries on both sides of the border. The leading drug lords – as opposed to the street-level gang members that make up the majority of the body count – have considerable clout and an increasing number of Mexicans feel that some kind of truce involving all sides is the only way forward.
Tell that to Washington. President Barack Obama earmarked another $200 million for Mexico’s “war on organized crime” in his latest budget. This continued support for Calderon’s policy only encourages the next government in Mexico to take the route of militarization and ignore the debate on alternative measures to combat crime.
Tellingly, the recent proposal by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina to legalize drugs in Central America – which is also being torn apart by gang violence – was quickly shot down by the US embassy. Former general Perez Molina, who took office in January, certainly didn’t need much encouragement to dispatch the military against his country’s own criminal gangs. But earlier this month he appeared with El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes to declare that the prohibition of narcotics was only exacerbating the violence.
As far as Washington is concerned, that’s not really the point. Despite a petition last year from former world leaders via the UN, which deemed the worldwide “war on drugs” a failure, US allies in Latin America are expected to tow the line. While Felipe Calderon’s latest round of “gringo-bashing” may win his party a few stray votes this July, his five years in office have largely been dedicated to supporting the “Drug War” charade. An emotive cry of “no more weapons” from the city that has suffered most from such policies – while fabulous electoral propaganda – is just not enough.
PAUL IMISON is a journalist living in Mexico City. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org