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“I never saw something like this before, Ross” marveled Samuel Soriano (not his real name), an angular, graying, hardboiled Mexico City undercover detective whom his associates know as “the Major.” “Who did this? What’s the message, Ross?” he asks, tapping his long fingers against the gristly photo of bodies blown apart in the handsome colonial plaza of Morelia, the capital of west-central Michoacan state, that was plastered across the front page of my Mexico City News.
I wondered what so aroused the Major’s disbelief – pictures like this appear every day on the front pages of a dozen Mexico City dailies. But the detective had a point: Morelia was different.
The bombing had come at Mexico’s maximum moment of patriotic pride on the eve of Independence Day September 15 while the governor of the state, Lionel Godoy, sounded the final cry of “Viva Mexico!” and began tolling the traditional bell. Eight celebrants had been killed in the blast and another 132 hospitalized. Several remain in grave condition. The Morelia bombing was the most devastating terrorist bombing in recent Mexican history.
What, indeed, is the message? Who did this?
Eyewitnesses described a robust, balding, moonfaced man who in composite portraits bears a startling resemblance to both Governor Godoy (he has an alibi) and the state police chief. “Pardon me, but this is necessary,” the neatly dressed gentleman in black apologized politely to those wedged next to him in the packed plaza as he pulled a fragmentation grenade from his pocket and casually tossed it into the holiday crowd just as Godoy finished his third “Grito”. The ringing of the bells partially muffled the explosion and the man in black lost himself in the confusion. A second fragmentation grenade was exploded five blocks away.
“Who did this Ross? What is the message?” Samuel Soriano insisted. Where was the Major going with this line of questioning? We were sipping our cafés con leches at the counter of the La Blanca, a downtown landmark, as Samuel often does when he comes off shift. I’m used to these interrogations by now. I also suspect that the Major knows just what the message is.
The September 15 bombing in Morelia took place just blocks away from where President Felipe Calderon grew up in the quaint old quarter of the city – his mother still lives in the house. But let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. The bomb also exploded just meters away from a governor who is a leader of one faction in the severely fractured left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the mortal foe of Calderon’s right-wing PAN party. Former PRD presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) makes a convincing argument that Calderon and the PAN stole the 2006 election from him
At least six people in several batches have been detained for the bombing. Three young men were arrested the same night as the attack, tortured (according to their families) and held for investigation. Three other accused “narco-terrorists” were put on display on national television and recited “confessions” that smelled like they were scripted.
“They’re ‘artistas’,” scoffs Samuel, “actors.”
“You’re not thinking it might be the PRD or even the EPR?” I prompt – the Popular Revolutionary Army is Mexico’s most active armed guerrilla and while it is prone to bomb property as it did thrice in 2007 taking out PEMEX pipelines, the EPR has never attacked unarmed civilians. Indeed, armed guerrilla formations in Mexico have never been implicated in such classic acts of terrorism.
“No, it’s not the EPR and least of all the PRD,” the Major solemnly responds.
Felipe Calderon was engaged in his own “Grito” in the Mexico City Zocalo when the bombs went off in Morelia. Informed of the terrorist attack, the President stood up a crowd of margarita-swilling bigwigs to huddle with his security cabinet deep in the bowels of the National Palace. 22 days previous here in this same palace, the seat of the Mexican government, Calderon had convoked a top-level emergency meeting of the nation’s business and political elite alarmed at the rising levels of violence throughout the country, to sign a National Security Pact. The president pledged to intensify his war on organized crime.
The junta followed the kidnap-slaying of the young son of a Mexico City tycoon and Calderon backer. In fact, Calderon’s reinvigorated crusade against “organized crime” borrowed its slogan from the grieving tycoon’s challenge “si no puedes, renuncies!” or “if you can’t deal with crime, just quit! ”
Now, 22 days after the National Security Pact was signed, 438 more Mexicans had died in crime related killings and people were in the street demanding that Calderon resign.
Since December 2006 just days after his swearing in when the dubiously elected President declared war on “organized crime” (he never identifies the drug cartels as the enemy) and sent 30,000 troops into the field to confront the narcos, nearly 6000 Mexicans have died, including nearly a thousand soldiers and police officers in a cruel and relentless battle over turf (“la plaza”) and right of way for rival gangs to pass their loads through it (“el piso.”)
Indeed, both Calderon and his Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna sought to pin the Morelia bombing on the internecine squabble between the cartels.
Rather than ruing the appalling toll the drug war has taken, Calderon and Garcia Luna tout their offensive as an unqualified success – their convoluted reasoning being that the drug gangs are slaughtering each other at a record clip because of the pressures the administration is bringing to bear on their markets, a line viewed as dangerously delusional by the president’s many detractors.
Nonetheless, Calderon remains unflinchingly upbeat as he inspects the troops from his customized Hummer or oversees the traditional September 16 military parade this year featuring overflights by Blackhawk helicopters, an advance installment on Merida Initiative drug war hardware. Having once donned an oversized army field jacket to address the troops, Calderon is the prized butt of Mexico’s political cartoonists who often draw him as a squashed-down dwarf, sometimes drowning in a sea of blood.
The weeks preceding the massacre in Morelia were horrific ones. 13 Raramuri Indians were butchered at a family fiesta in the sierra of Chihuahua. 12 decapitated corpses were found stacked on the side of an access road near the highway to the luxury resort of Cancun. On September 13th, the cadavers of 24 young men, each shot with the same pistol, were discovered at a wooded site just a hundred meters outside the Mexico City limits. Who did these things? What is their message?
Michoacan was the first state to which Calderon dispatched the Army in January 2007. Until recently, the state has been a leading marijuana grower but the quality of the herb is poor and Michoacan is far from the northern border. Still the entity is a leader in out-migration with century-long ties to U.S. Mexican communities.
Since the Colombian cartels went to sea, the big prize in Michoacan has been control of the west coast industrial port of Lazaro Cardenas where container traffic is relatively under-policed. In addition to cocaine, meth labs dot the state’s bare, sun-baked hot land hills – the bulk of Michoacan-derived cocaine and speed invariably works its way up to El Norte.
Of late, the two heaviest homegrown drug gangs, “La Familia” and a branch of “Los Zetas”, have been hyper-actively whacking each other all over the state. The Zetas, founded by ex-Mexican soldiers trained as drug fighters at the Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg North Carolina, are connected to the Gulf Cartel and have elevated brutal beheadings into an indigenous art form. La Familia is no slouch at decapitation either, having tossed five still-warm heads onto an Uruapan Michoacan dance floor just a few days before for July 2006 presidential elections.
Using e-mails and text messages, La Familia proclaims its innocence and blames the Morelia massacre on the rival Zetas. In so-called “narco-mantas”, hand-painted banners often draped from pedestrian bridges in provincial cities on which the drug gangs have taken to expressing their grievances, La Familia boasts that it seeks peace and “defends the weakest” – the Family’s banners are emblazoned with a crudely painted dove. The gang also announces that it is conducting a parallel investigation of the Morelia massacre.
In a stab to regain the high ground, President Calderon has been pounding home the necessity for national unity (“pardon me but this is necessary?”) “The Patria needs unity. We must put aside our ideologies and our beliefs (sic) to unite against those who would sow fear to further their miserable interests,” Calderon thundered to the party faithful at the recent 59th anniversary of the PAN, implying that those who do not unite with his government are traitors to the fatherland.
The remarks are of course aimed at his nemesis Lopez Obrador with whom he is engaged in a fierce battle over the president’s plan to privatize PEMEX, the national petroleum consortium, which will soon be voted up or down in congress. Some Calderon backers even insinuate that AMLO is the dark hand behind the bombings.
Lopez Obrador’s people bristle at the allegations and condemn Calderon for exploiting the tragedy to push his own political agenda. Julio Hernandez, the left-wing La Jornada’s chief political columnist, compares Calderon’s tact to that of “another weak president elected by fraud who sought to utilize the 9-11 terrorist attacks to strengthen his hold on power.”
“What happened in Morelia?” Samuel answers his own rhetorical question patting the bloody photo on the front page of the News, “was not a confrontation between La Familia and those other ‘changos’ (monkeys.) Those gorillas kill each other but not innocent families celebrating the Grito.
“It doesn’t make any sense for Calderon to say it’s between this cartel or the other. This is something different, Ross. This raises the “entrada” (ante). You call this terrorism, my good Ross. You terrorize the people into thinking only you can protect them. A lot of the cuates (buddies) who I’m talking to say it’s the government that did this.”
JOHN ROSS is wrestling with “El Monstruo” in the maw of Mexico City. These dispatches will continue at 10-day intervals until the draft is done. If you have further information visit www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com or email@example.com