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Drug War on the Poor

A wounded man, blood-covered and frantic, approached a military checkpoint in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, 100 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, with a horrifying story. Reportedly shot in the neck himself, the Ecuadorian would-be migrant to the United States led members of the Mexican Naval Forces to an even more horrendous scene.

Seventy-two migrants from Central America, Brasil and Ecuador lay piled on each other in a large room, dead from gunshot wounds.

From the man’s testimony it seems that the 58 men and 14 women murdered refused to comply with extortion demands from a drug cartel that President Calderón has identified as most likely being the Zetas. According to the “plata o plomo” (money or bullets) law of organized crime, the migrants got the bullets.

The migrants likely did die at the hands of Mexico’s most brutal drug gang. But they also died as a result of both U.S. and Mexican policies that foment violence and have led to a previously unimagined state of lawlessness and brutality south of the border. U.S. immigration and trade policies and Mexico’s U.S.-supported drug war and human rights crisis all played a role in their deaths.

The seventy-two migrants’ names will pass to the growing list of civilians who have become the casualities of a war entered into without thought to its consequences or a coherent strategy for success.

That is, if we ever know their names.

Representatives from the countries of origin are working to identify the rest and have demanded a full investigation, calling the Mexican government’s information to date “insufficient.”

Preying on the most vulnerable

These latest victims come from the ranks of the human beings considered superfluous to an economic system that drives them from their homes and communities to seek work in the United States, despite the risks. Unprotected by the Mexican government–despite numerous reports of these kind of extortion kidnappings over the past few years–and criminalized by a U.S. society that welcomes their labor and rejects their humanity, they continue to travel north because they can´t find work in their countries.

Imagine the trajectory of the 72 lives that were snuffed out on August 24.

Each man and woman sold land, used savings or went into debt to make the trek to the United States. They have no legal channels to enter the U.S. despite the demand for their labor. The cost of rossing has skyrocketed and the risks increased because security measures on the U.S. border have forced them to use human smugglers where before they crossed with migrant guides. The women are particularly vulnerable as they face sexual abuse from criminal gangs and police along the route.

The global crisis is falling on the shoulders of the poor in developing countries. While the U.S. adopts stimulus and jobs programs, its free trade policies have led to imports that displace local production and cut back state subsidies and supports in southern countries.

But the U.S. immigration debate largely ignores the dire conditions they faced in their countries and during their journey, even though alternative policies and actions could help develop livelihoods at home and protect the basic human rights and safety that every human being deserves.

The migrant group found dead in Tamaulipas was reportedly kidnapped arriving in the border region. Typically, organized criminal gangs not only steal the money migrants carry to pay smugglers to take them across the border, but also demand that they contact family in the U.S. to send more money. Neither the Mexican or U.S. governments have done much to stem this transnational extortion ring, probably because both the migrant victims and often the families extorted are undocumented, placing them in a class that has been illegally stripped of state protection and humane concern.

Mexican authorities charged with the protection of people within its borders too often form part of the problem rather than the solution. Crimes against migrants have been rising, as criminals and corrupt police alike find them easy pickings.

Drug War Violence

Although the economic situation of their countries force thousands to seek jobs in the north, U.S. aid has been concentrated in military equipment and security and intelligence training, such as in the $1.5 billion-dollar aid package to Mexico known as the Merida Initiative. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, the drug war has become the latest pretext for militarization in a wide net that not only targets organized crime but also undocumented workers and political opposition.

In Mexico, the drug war strategy has set off a no-holds-barred battle for routes and markets among competing cartels that has broken through the boundaries of crime-on-crime and now affects daily life (and death) in border cities and other regions.

To get an idea of how violence begets violence, take a look at the Zetas? Briefly, they are a group of former Mexican military elite with U.S. training that crossed over into organized crime, taking with them their government-sponsored knowledge of counterinsurgency tactics and brutal repression. They are associated with the infamous Kaibiles in Guatemala who have a similar history. After acting as the armed forces for the Gulf Cartel, they split off and formed their own cartel. Their bid to take over lucrative trafficking routes is at the root of the drug-war violence in many points on the border.

Weaker financially and with fewer political contacts, the Zetas work their one comparative advantage—their willingness to be absolutely ruthless. The massacre of the migrants could be a reaction of rage when the migrants refused to pay up, but it could also be an easy way for the Zetas to flaunt their ability and disposition to break all previous codes of behavior between the government and the cartels.

Through the bodies of the migrants, the Zetas are sending yet another bloody message to the armed forces, and to the other cartels, which have unified against them in some border cities.

As far as the Calderón administration is concerned, every act of increasing brutality on the part of the drug cartels is a sign of victory. Calderón issued a communiqué on the massacre saying, “The Zetas are resorting to extorsion and kidnapping of migrants as a mechanism of financing and recruitment due to the fact that they are facing a very adverse situation in attaining resources and people… This is the result of the activity of the State against them, which has significantly weakened the operating capacity of organized crime.”

Incredibly, Calderón publicly admits responsibility, albeit indirect, for the massacre of the migrants and further notes that their brutal assassination is a sign of success in the drug war. He went on to warn that there will be more violence to come. This is perhaps the one aspect of his campaign that no-one doubts.

The constant spin–where each act of greater violence is interpreted as an advance in the drug war—has left much of the Mexican population feeling nauseous. How much more violence can the nation take? And when will the increasing toll of civilians finally reach a point where leaders in Mexico and the United States admit that the drug-war strategy has dragged us into a downward spiral that must be reversed now before more innocent people die?

LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).

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Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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