More virulent than last spring’s Swine Flu panic here and cranked up by Mexico’s two-headed TV demon, a pandemic of paranoia is sweeping this neighbor nation as Felipe Calderon embarks on the back half of his battered presidency.
In the past weeks, the nation’s 107 million citizens have borne witness to a foiled and much-questioned skyjacking and prominent politicians have been the victims of assassins’ bullets. Heeding urgent warnings from Mexican and U.S. intelligence sources, September 15-16 Independence Day celebrations converted public plazas into armed camps and with good reason. September 15 marked the one-year anniversary of a presumed narco-bombing in Morelia, the capital of west-central Michoacan state that killed and dismembered ten celebrants.
A newly-released study by the Public Security Secretariat (SSP) calculates that the civilian death toll in Calderon’s ill-advised war on Mexican drug cartels dating from December 2006 when tens of thousands of troops were dispatched to quell violence in 11 states through August of this year has now topped 14,000 and the violence is on the uptick – 5000 were killed in 2008, 13.6 victims a day. So far in 2009, 4500 have died, an average of 18.5 per diem.
To illustrate the paranoia that this unrelenting orgy of homicidal violence had bred, this September 9th a Bolivian-born evangelical preacher Jose Mar Flores Peyrera “skyjacked” an Aeromexico Boeing 737 with 104 passengers aboard, including a number of U.S. citizens, bound from Cancun to Mexico City. Initially identified as a Venezuelan or a Colombian or some such dangerous South American, Flores turned out to be neither a drug thug or a”21st Century Socialist” but rather a self-anointed messenger of Jesus Christ sent to save Mexico.
As the flight approached Mexico City, “Josmar” (his Christian music recording name) stepped into the aisle with a bible in one hand and a fake bomb (two empty Jumex pineapple juice cans and some Christmas lights) in the other and politely requested the stewardess to instruct the pilot to circle the airport seven times. Heralding himself as “a celestial messenger”, Josmar insisted that he urgently needed to communicate directly with President Calderon who either by coincidence or design was waiting on the ground in the presidential hanger about to board a jet for a junket to Campeche.
The preacher’s intended message: the date was 9/9/09, 666 upside down, and the Mark of the Beast was on the land – he had seen the Devil in the Mexican flag. Now monstrous calamity impended. Mexico City would be riven asunder by an apocalyptical earthquake (the skyjacking took place just days before the 24th anniversary of the 1985 8.1 Mexico City quake that took up to 30,000 lives.) Only the righteous would be saved from the conflagration.
Josmar invited God-fearing Mexicans to get on board the flight to heaven. The apocalyptic Christian told Captain Ricardo Rios that he had three accomplices aboard, information that put security forces on the ground on red alert. The preacher later revealed his accomplices to be God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
The threat triggered emergency communication on both sides of the border. U.S. citizens were on the flight and the incident unfolded just 48 hours before the marking of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Commander-in-Chief, Calderon mulled scrambling jets and forcing the 737 down over neighboring Puebla state but held off, instead ordering Public Security Secretary Genero Garcia Luna to take charge of the explosive situation.
Aeromexico Flight #576 landed at Benito Juarez International Airport (Mexico City) without incident 37 minutes late (the flight had been delayed in Cancun) and taxied to an open runway near the presidential hanger. In addition to phalanxes of federal police and military personnel, the flight was met by an army of photographers and reporters from the mainstream press led by the two-headed television dragon Televisa and TV Azteca that had been invited to cover the show (albeit from a respectable distance) and the denouement of Josmar’s caper was transmitted live at lunchtime to millions of wide-eyed witnesses.
Ironically, those aboard Flight 576 were the last to know they had been skyjacked, only finding out when they punched in cell phones to call homes and offices to announce their arrival. The Christian Terrorist made no effort to hold anyone hostage and women and children were invited to exit first – several passengers were injured when they were forced to use the emergency slide after the requested stairs did not show up. Then ski-masked commandos casually stormed the plane. Josmar, resplendent in a white tunic, was led off in handcuffs, praising the Lord. Seven presumed “accomplices”, including a Quintana Roo state senator, were hauled from the airplane and thrown roughly to the ground (they were freed hours later.) Josmar’s “bomb” was blown up on the tarmac for the TV cameras. If it had been a real bomb, one commentator fretted, the explosion could have taken out half the airport, including the nearby presidential hanger.
An hour later, smiling and snapping gum, Jose Mar Flores appeared at a chaotic press conference under the watchful eye of SSP chieftain Garcia Luna where he flourished his bible and preached a primetime sermon. Later in the afternoon, the would-be savior of Mexico was taken before a federal judge and charged with terrorism, skyjacking, and sabotaging the nation’s air defenses. When asked if he had a lawyer, Josmar affirmed that Jesus Christ was his attorney.
By 7 PM, non-stop coverage was wrapped up just in time for the Mexico-Honduras football match from which Mexico emerged victorious, assuring the Aztecs of a ticket to the World Cup next year in South Africa.
Reporters who accompanied Calderon to Campeche that afternoon found the president oddly gleeful about the dramatic events. “That was a close call, a real test for the government and the Mexican people,” he boasted. But many in the Fourth and Fifth Estates were not convinced. In fact, public skepticism at the spectacle was unprecedented, at least in the memory of this reporter who has spent the past quarter of a century covering public skepticism in Mexico.
“Sabotage or Masquerade?” the left daily La Jornada editorialized, pointing out that the plane had never really been hijacked and the passengers never held hostage and describing the government response as “exaggerated and suspect.” Writing in Proceso magazine, Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, the dean of the nation’s political commentators, speculated that the shadow show had been staged to distract public attentions from an onerous tax hike announced by the Calderon administration just the day before. One couldn’t even pass through airport checkpoints with a kids’ scissors, Granados noted, yet Josmar had managed to smuggle a (fake) bomb aboard Flight 576.
Granados Chapa and others also suggested that the hoax had been engineered to spotlight the SSP’s Garcia Luna who has been engaged in a years-long firefight with (former) Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora over leadership of Calderon’s blood-soaked drug war. It would not be the first time that the Public Security Secretary had used the media to toot his own horn, Granados recalled. In 2007, Garcia Luna gave carte blanche to TV Azteca to “recreate” the rescue of a kidnap victim and the capture of a criminal gang featuring the French citizen Florence Cassiz who has since become the object of an international tug of war between Calderon and French premier Nicolas Sarkozy.
Genero Garcia Luna’s center stage role during the “skyjacking” drama earned him juicy airtime on Televisa’s flagship station “La Canal de las Estrellas” (The Channel of the Stars) and came just two days after his rival Medina Mora resigned as attorney general and was handed a golden parachute (he will become ambassador to the UK), presumably to keep his mouth shut about widespread corruption in the drug war bureaucracy.
In effect, Medina’s removal was a visible admission by Calderon that his anti-drug crusade had flopped and must have dismayed the ex-attorney general’s U.S. counterpart Eric Holder with whom he had collaborated on logistics in the implementation of drug war strategies under Washington’s billion buck Merida Initiative. Just days before, Holder had issued an unusual warning that drug cartels in Mexico would attack public buildings and target U.S. citizens.
On deck to replace Medina Mora is a Calderon crony, Arturo Chavez Chavez. As Chihuahua state prosecutor in the 1990s, Chavez Chavez was charged with the investigation of the murders and/or disappearances of nearly 200 women in the hardscrabble border city of Ciudad Juarez. The attorney general-designate failed to clear even one case. Instead, he blamed “Las Muertas” (“The Dead Girls”) for their own murders, accusing them of provoking their killers by wearing mini-skirts. “Good people stay home at night – only bad people are out in the street,” was one of his more memorable conclusions. Many of the murdered women were slain after coming off late shifts at maquiladora factories.
Chavez Chavez’s crimes of omission as chief prosecutor have been denounced by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH, the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission (CIDH), members of the European Parliament, and the international human rights community. In spite or because of the attorney general-designate’s inept administration of justice, Las Muertas of Juarez have become international feminist icons – Eve Ensler, creator of “The Vagina Monologues”, and actress Sallie Fields lead marches through that grimy industrial city.
Victims’ organizations are appalled by the nomination and are resolved to battle Chavez Chavez’s ratification by Congress as Medina’s successor. Last week, Norma Ledezma, whose daughter’s remains were returned to her in a sealed coffin in 2002, stood before the Mexican Senate and wept at the prospect of Chavez Chavez’s confirmation: “this man put pain in all of our hearts.” Ledezma counts 24 women who have been murdered or disappeared in Juarez so far in 2009, a number that is lost in the sea of death that has engulfed that desert city. More than 1400 have been mowed down in the last year (30 at local drug treatment centers in the past 10 days) despite the fact that Juarez is occupied by thousands of Mexican army troops.
Last year’s Independence Day bombing in Morelia invoked unprecedented security measures at 2009 public commemorations in provincial capitals and the capital of the country, upping the paranoia quotient to the breaking point. In Mexico City, a few hundred souls endured metal detectors, close questioning, and three federal police pat downs to access the great Zocalo plaza where Calderon was to deliver the traditional “Grito” of “Viva Mexico”, a record low turn-out. Those who did get through the police barricades were kept a football field away from the National Palace, upon whose balconies the president would appear, by a labyrinth of metal barriers and 1500 troops.
The stringent security measures were installed as much to discourage supporters of Calderon’s arch-nemesis Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from protesting as they were to detect incoming terrorists – the leftist ex-mayor of Mexico City was holding his own “Grito” just blocks away. “They treat us like sheep!” one elderly street vender hawking patriotic paraphernalia complained loudly, “they are the ones who are afraid of the bombs. We are citizens and this is our fiesta!”
Meanwhile in Morelia, the scene of last year’s Independence Eve massacre, the center of the old colonial city was locked down by thousands of federal and state robocops and only a handful of locals braved the curtain of fear to join Governor Lionel Godoy of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for his Grito.
It remains unclear who precisely tossed the fatal bomb during the 2008 ceremonies. The killings appear to be one more bloody chapter in the on-going turf war between “La Familia”, a home-grown cartel with ties to the Evangelical “Theology of Prosperity” and “Los Zetas”, experts at beheading their rivals whose ex-military founders were trained at the Center for Special Forces in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. In the wake of the bombing, three purported perpetrators were dragged before the TV cameras covered with contusions but skepticism about their guilt reigns.
28 Michoacan mayors whose names appeared on a so-called La Familia “narco-list” have been jailed by Calderon’s drug fighters and an elected federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy, the governor’s half-brother, is on the lam. Both the PRD and the once-and-future ruling PRI party charge that Calderon, a leader of the rightist PAN, is turning the drug war into a political witch-hunt. Whatever the merits of the accusations, the brouhaha underscores increasing ties between the cartels and the political class.
A skein of political assassinations has gilded the paranoia sweeping Mexico:
In neighboring Guerrero, PRD bigwig Armando Chavarria, the president of the state congress and former state attorney general, was gunned down in a gangland-style execution August 20th. No suspects have been collared.
In Tabasco state this September 7th, Jose Francisco Fuentes, a rising star in the PRI firmament and candidate for the state congress, his wife, and two children were murdered in what the New York Times described as “an apparent drug hit.” Three teenagers have been accused of the killings but, as in Michoacan and in the Josmar imbroglio, incredulity is rife. The Mexican justice industry is famous for “fabricando cupables” (literally “manufacturing guilty parties.”)
On September 10th, a gang of gunsels perhaps tied to the Zetas opened fire on a motorcade in which Zacatecas Governor Amalia Garcia, a PRD honcho, was thought to be traveling. Although two of her drivers were grievously wounded, Garcia was unhurt.
President Calderon has also received an undisclosed number of death threats.
This pandemic of paranoia is surging just as the Bicentennial of Independence from Spain and the 100th year anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution hove into view. Despite continuing economic collapse that has added 10,000,000 citizens to the ranks of the country’s 70,000,000 poor, President Calderon budgeted billions of pesos for the festivities, rejecting the cautions of his peers. The new U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual recently expressed concern that as the downturn deepens and unemployed youth are sucked up by the drug cartels or join the armed opposition in frustration, the level of violence could soon be uncontainable. 70 per cent of the 14,000 drug war victims counted by the Public Security Secretariat were between the ages of 20 and 35.
Anticipating destabilization in the 2010 Bicentennial year, it is no secret that Calderon has stepped up surveillance of radical sectors. Despite slashed budgets, the National Security and Information Center (CISEN), Mexico’s lead intelligence agency, has been scheduled 2.4 billion pesos for the coming year, a quarter of the Interior Secretariat’s total allocation. Interior oversees national security. CISEN budgets have tripled since 2007 when the clandestine Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) thrice bombed PEMEX petroleum pipelines.
The “Focos Rojos” (red lights) are flashing in Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca (Chavez Chavez was the government negotiator during the 2006 uprising in that southern state in which 26 activists lost their lives), Mexico state, and Mexico City. By most counts, a half dozen guerrilla formations are active in Mexico but more are lurking in the wings. Three bombings in Mexico City during the past two weeks (a bank, an auto showroom, a luxury clothing store) have been claimed by the previously unknown “Subversive Front For Global Liberation” and “The Autonomous Cells of The Immediate Revolution – Praxides C. Guerrero” (Guerrero was an anarchist fighter a hundred years ago during the Mexican revolution who once wrote “our violence is not justice – it is just necessary.”) Anarchist symbols and scrawled “pintas” (slogans) at the bombing scenes decried animal abuse and the building of new prisons.
But more worrisome to the Mexican and U.S. security apparatuses than pierced youths sporting Mohawks, is the possibility that narco-commandos and the guerrilla movements will strike an accord to move together against the “mal gobierno” (bad government.) Although guerrilla groups like the Zapatista Army of National Liberation distance themselves from the drug gangs, the prospect of creating havoc during the bicentennial celebrations may be too tempting to pass up. Indeed, several recent attacks by drug gang commandos have resembled classic guerrilla actions.
JOHN ROSS’s tome “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will be published by Nation Books this November. His “Iraqigirl” (Haymarket Books), the diary of a teenager growing up under U.S. occupation, is in the stores. The author will soon embark on a 2009-2010 “Ross & Revolution” U.S. tour and is hunting venues at which to present both volumes. If you have further info take a minute to contact firstname.lastname@example.org