Shooting for the Top

The assassination of a top government drug fighter outside his southern Mexico City offices first thing last Monday morning (May 14), has sent tremors ratcheting through the highest echelons of security agencies on both sides of the border.

In an unusual display of bi-lateral concern, both U.S. Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff and beleaguered attorney general Alberto Gonzalez tendered their heartfelt condolences to Mexican president Felipe Calderon for the killing of Jose Nemesio Lugo Felix, second in command of the National Center for Planning and Analysis (CENAPI), a nerve center in Mexico’s war on its multiple drug cartels, and U.S. ambassador Tony Garza eulogized Lugo as “a tireless fighter” and lamented “the latest functionary to fall fighting the criminals who profit by the destruction of our society.”

The gangland-style hit –gunman opened up on Lugo as he parked his car on a narrow alley in the sleepy Coyoacaan neighborhood–came as President Calderon marked the sixth month of his war on the nation’s murderous drug cartels and may actually have been aimed even higher–at Lugo’s boss General Ardelio Vargas, a Calderon loyalist who at the start-up of his disputed presidency, headed both the militarized Federal Preventative Police (PFP) and the Federal Investigation Agency (AFI), an unprecedented concentration of power, before moving on to direct the CENAPI.

General Vargas and Nemesio Lugo were longtime colleagues. Both had spent a decade at the highly secretive CISEN, the nation’s top national security agency. The General also commanded security operations during the “pacification” of Oaxaca in November and December before being tagged for Calderon’s drug war. Both Vargas and Lugo arrived early each morning at the CENAPI offices and both reportedly traveled alone–some top security officials eschew bodyguards who are often suspected of setting them up for the drug gangs.

In explicit testimony to the tenseness of the times after six months of low- (but sometimes very high) intensity warfare with the cartels, Calderon was not in Mexico City on the morning Lugo was gunned down. Rather, he had been helicoptered under heavy security to Veracruz state to pay homage to four bodyguards of Mexico state governor Enrique Pena Nieto, an important political ally. The “guaruras” who had been assigned to protect Pena Nieto’s children while they vacationed on Caribbean beaches, were cut down May 10th in a furious fusillade that actually tore one of the victims in half.

“Zeta-10”, one of many drug gangs battling for control of Veracruz, had brazenly posted warnings on YouTube directed at both Pena Nieto, whose own state is a battleground in the drug war, and Veracruz governor Fidel Herrera. Reportedly counseled by the elite presidential guard or “Estado Mayor” to forego Lugo’s funeral for security reasons, Calderon was a prominent no-show at the ceremony.

In a ploy to bolster his own tainted legitimacy after he was awarded the fraud-marred July 2nd 2006 presidential election, Calderon went on the warpath against the cartels soon after his December 1st swearing in. The oath-taking, a private ceremony at which he was surrounded by generals and admirals and which was broadcast live by the nation’s two-headed television monopoly Televisa and its junior partner TV Azteca, proved instructive as to how the new president intended to rule–with the military in one hand and the media in the other.

A week after the ceremony, Calderon dispatched 30,000 troops, about a sixth of the Mexican military, into the hot lands of his native Michoacan and seven other states where the narco cartels had commited wholesale mayhem during the six year reign of Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox (an estimated 6000 dead.)

With Televisa and TV Azteca maximizing the moment, the new president was given ample space to display his “firm hand” (“mano firme”) on national screens. Much as when he was campaigning for the office, Calderon’s handlers produced “public service” spots that were repeatedly aired by the TV giants, extolling the military campaign–the new “Commander-in-Chief” even donned an outsized army field jacket at one event–and the media campaign helped to consolidate a modicum of authority for the dubiously elected president.

Nonetheless, the results of the military offensive have been less than spectacular–a few hundred tons of bailed marijuana but virtually no cocaine, the key to U.S. drug fighters’ hearts. The “capos”, tipped off by the media ballyhoo, went to ground and no major arrests were made. To compensate, Calderon cracked down on urban street traffickers.

The Mexican president’s war on drugs seemed designed to impress the Bush administration with his loyalty to the Washington Consensus–which he cemented by promptly extraditing a handful of aging drug barons whom U.S. authorities had thirsted after for years. But the military offensive has been a badly-calculated quick fix that has redistributed drug markets, stirred counter-attacks, and turned relatively quiet states like Veracruz and Aguascalientes into killing floors as multi-sided internecine warfare between drug gangs, local, state, and federal police, and the military spreads throughout the country.

May has been a particularly bloody month in Calderon’s drug war with Baghdad-like numbers showing up from coast to coast and border to border–27 were cut down May 16th with many of the corpses trussed up and bearing marks of torture. much as in Iraq’s homicidal sectarian fratracide. On the morning pistoleros took out Nemesio Lugo (who had an international reputation for breaking up cross-border prostitution rings and was a nephew of the late screen goddess Maria Felix), a commander of the Federal Investigation Agency was found shot and strangled in Tijuana. The day before (May 13th) an army captain was cut down in Guerrero. Since Calderon launched his offensive, the daily El Universal counts a thousand dead (the more conservative Reforma puts the numbers at 768), both estimates well ahead of the murderous pace of the Fox years.

Meanwhile, the military has come under increasing fire, not only from the drug gangs (four soldiers were fatally ambushed in Aguascalientes in February, and five killed in Michoacan in April) but also from human rights advocates for alleged violations commited during assaults on small towns in Michoacan, Sinaloa, and other drug front states. National Commission for Human Rights ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes lists 52 accusations of abuses of individual guarantees in Michoacan alone, including the rape of five young women (four of them underage) by occupying troops, arbitrary arrests, home invasions, warrant less searches, and torture. The military has been stung by accusations of rape in recent months–a dozen soldiers were alleged to have gang-raped women in a Coahuila tavern while guarding ballots during the July election and troops stand accused of the rape-murder of a Nahua Indian grandmother, Ernestina Asencion, in the Zongolica Sierra of Veracruz.

Southern Michoacan’s “tierra caliente” is on the hot seat. Following the ambush of a military convoy in April, troops descended on the provincial city of Apatzingan where the entire police force had been arrested just last year, and opened fire on an alleged local drug lord’s headquarters with bazookas and heavy artillery, killing all the occupants and sending neighbors, some of whom were brutally arrested, scurrying for cover. Because of such spectacles, the CNDH’s Soberanes urges Calderon to order the military back to barracks–“it is not the army’s function to be patrolling the streets.” Instead, the ombudsman opts for a better-trained police.

Back in the pre 9/11 ’90s, when the U.S. still certified Mexico each year for its performance in Washington’s War on Drugs, warriors like White House drug advisor General Barry McCaffery, discouraged by rampant corruption in Mexico’s state and federal police agencies, urged presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo to entrust drug war responsibilities to the Mexican military. Within five years, a dozen generals were in prison for protecting narco lords including the general who headed up the Mexican branch of Washington’s War on Drugs, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, now doing 40 years for shielding a capo celebrated in song and story as “the Lord of the Skies”, Amado Carrillo.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the narco-corruption of the military was the defection of dozens of crack troops trained as drug fighters by the U.S. at the Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the Gulf Cartel where they become the most feared enforcers in the country, held accountable for multiple beheadings under the tutelage of their legendary leader “Tony Tormenta.”

But the ex-soldiers who dubbed themselves the “Zetas” or “Zs”, have split into murderous territorial factions such as “La Familia” (“the Family”) which distributed five heads on an Uruapan Michoacan dance floor last July or the “Zeta-10s” who last week deposited the severed head of an alleged informer outside a Veracruz military base. Perhaps the most colorful victim of narco violence during the bloody month of May may have been an unidentified cadaver that turned up in Tijuana wrapped in Christmas paper.

The Lugo assassination in the heart of the capitol has inspired Calderon’s supporters in the right-wing PAN party and the once-ruling PRI to clamor for sending the military into the streets of Mexico City, a bastion of the opposition left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and a move that would meet with “hard resistance” editorialized the national daily La Jornada in a masterstroke of understatement. After the July election was stolen from former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, millions marched and blocked the streets of the capitol for nearly two months.

“Calderon is heading into dangerous waters,” reflects author and analyst Carlos Montemayor, “he has picked a war he cannot win.” Montemayor is a vocal advocate for decriminalization to take the profit out of drugs. “This is what motivates the violence.”

The new president’s military offensive has been bad for the media which so lionizes it. Televisa correspondent Amado Ramirez was gunned down in Acapulco in April and two TV Azteca reporters were disappeared after covering Mother’s Day festivities in the northern city of Monterrey. 20 Mexican reporters were murdered or disappeared during Fox’s bloody six years in office, most of them taken down by the narco gangs.

The escalating carnage south of the border gives U.S. officials reason to fret. Indeed, it must have dawned on security agencies on both sides of the border by now that the Lugo hit suggests the cartels have set their sights high. How safe Calderon is in his security bubble surrounded by thousands of bodyguards that are potentially corruptible by the cartels is crucial.

The sense that the President’s life is on the line strikes a dramatic chord down below. “It’s like a big ‘telenovela’ (soap opera)–very diverting–but if I were Felipillo, I’d hire a double,” comments Oscar Garcia, a street musician in the old quarter of the capital.

If Calderon were to be taken out much as was Luis Donaldo Colosio, Salinas’s heir apparent in Tijuana in 1994, political chaos would surely erupt here. There is no vice president and selection would be thrown to the congress where last July’s election is still an open wound. The free-for-all for power would soon spread into widespread street violence and put the border on red alert. Indeed, one scenario, as detailed by former Pentagon boss Casper Weinberger in a long-ago volume “The Next War”, would have Washington urging the Mexican military to take command or alternatively sending its own troops across the border to restore law and order.

JOHN ROSS is the author of Murdered By Capitalism and ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. After 104 days on the road, Ross is back in Mexico tracking the late Brad Will through Oaxaca. Write him with any info you may have at



JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to