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According to the US Departments of State and Homeland Security, referring to the organized crime gangs in Mexico as drug-trafficking organizations, or DTOs, is pass?. The acronym du jour is TCOs, or transnational criminal organizations; to better reflect the cartels’ sheer range of activity from people-smuggling and pipeline-raiding to illegal logging.
The latter is no joke. In the rural municipality of Cheran, Michoacan, in western Mexico, local residents have formed a militia and surrounded their town with barricades after outlaw loggers came accompanied by heavily-armed gunmen; hired muscle purportedly working for one of Michoacan’s feuding drug gangs ? likely the Zetas or The Knights Templar (formerly La Familia).
Clandestine logging has been a fact of life in this part of Michoacan for a decade, during which an estimated 80 per cent of Cheran’s woodland has been illegally appropriated. But after loggers began packing automatic weapons ? and cops, military, and local and state authorities turned their backs ? residents of Cheran took matters into their own hands. They expelled local officials and established a communal city council, which voted to organize a citizens’ militia to patrol and defend the town.
In their first confrontation with the armed gang, residents of Cheran ? armed with only sticks, machetes, and farming tools ? seized ten trucks belonging to a logging crew and detained five of the drivers. One local resident was killed in the altercation; eleven have been killed or disappeared since the start of the year.
The community turned over the five detained men to state police, only to see them later released without charge. Schools in the town have been closed since Easter and the local economy ? largely built around cattle and timber ? has been hamstrung since the blockade began on April 15.
Residents recently collected names and evidence against those responsible for the raids, pooled their meager resources, and traveled to the Attorney General’s Office in Mexico City, which refused to send investigators to Cheran citing the lack of security in the area. Video footage taken by locals shows that during logging raids, the state police and military simply step aside and make way for the gangs.
With a population of 12,600, Cheran is situated in a primarily indigenous region of Michoacan that Mexico’s much-trumpeted human rights drive forgot. The mainly native Purepecha inhabitants are just the latest of Mexico’s marginalized population ? indigenous or otherwise ? to suffer from the country’s rampant lawlessness as drug gangs, paramilitaries, and security forces make up the rules as they go.
The state of Michoacan just happens to be the latest hotspot in Mexico’s ongoing cartel rivalry where the area’s former top player, La Familia Michoacana, splintered at the turn of the year and its new incarnation, The Knights Templar, is battling the Zetas for turf. The two gangs have clashed throughout the state in recent weeks, blocking roads with burning vehicles to ward off security forces and prompting President Felipe Calderon to send a further 1800 federal police to the region.
Ironically, Michoacan is both Calderon’s home state and the place where he kicked off his “Drug War” by deploying troops in 2006. Mexicans are asking exactly what has changed in four-and-a-half years. Violence has increased throughout the country every year since. “Capos”, or bosses, are routinely killed or captured and paraded in front of television cameras, yet the cartels dust themselves off, restructure, and go back to business.
The latest big fish to face the cameras was Jesus “El Mamito” Rejon Aguilar ? a co-founder and the alleged third-in-command of the Zetas ? arrested by federal police on July 4. He had been linked to an attack on two US Customs agents, which killed one and wounded the other, on Mexican soil in February. Interrogated by police in a video that was released on You Tube, “El Mamito” (“the Mummy”)’s statement merely affirmed what many analysts had been saying about the cartel war.
Among “El Mamito”‘s confessions was that the Zetas acquire their weapons from contacts (“US citizens”) north of the border. However, he claimed that if the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was supplying arms to Mexican cartels ? via Operation Fast and Furious ? it wasn’t to the Zetas. He claims that the gang’s top rival, the Gulf Cartel, has had far fewer problems acquiring weapons, which if true, could indicate that “Operation Fast and Furious” effectively armed the gangs that the Mexican government is backing to win the cartel war.
The government recently admitted that its current strategy focuses on going after the Zetas ? portrayed as the most dangerous and violent of the cartels ? and that is unlikely to change before the presidential election next summer. But the more Calderon goes after the Zetas’ alliance, the more he boosts the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies; a far more politically-influential faction often regarded as the “old-school” of Mexican drug-trafficking.
A key example is Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, where authorities point to a significant drop-off in violence this year. It’s true, but the DEA states that the majority of drugs entering the US via El Paso are now courtesy of the Sinaloa Cartel, which appears to have won the Juarez plaza after a bloody three-year war.
The war on impunity
On July 12, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the military ? long “tried” in shady military tribunals ? will now answer for its abuses in civilian courts. It’s another example of “democratic” Mexico’s push to fulfil Merida Initiative obligations of improving its human rights record. In 2010, the Obama administration “withheld” 15 per cent ($26 million) of military aid for that very reason and told the Mexican government to get its house in order (at the same time slyly releasing $36 million of aid “withheld” the previous year).
There are two obstacles facing the Supreme Court ruling, however, which human rights groups have been quick to point out. The civilian courts ? where corruption and political cronyism are endemic ? can barely prosecute cartel members without the majority slipping through the cracks. Secondly, as in Colombia, the Mexican military’s knack for magically transforming its victims into “narcos”, “guerrillas”, or just plain “unpeople” is legendary.
Calderon’s supposed drive to improve human rights conditions and punish corruption within his security forces ? such as in 2007’s much-vaunted “Operation Clean House” ? is pure sham and Washington knows it. Leaving military abuses aside, less than 25 per cent of “Drug War” arrests by federal forces result in charges, while only 15 per cent of those taken to trial result in a sentence. These are the same civilian courts that the military will answer to.
In June, Cipriana Jurado, a human rights activist and single mother from Chihuahua, became the first Mexican citizen granted political asylum by the US, citing persecution by the military. Jurado had made a name for herself campaigning for justice for the some 3000 young women murdered in Ciudad Juarez in the past twenty years, as well as for women’s labor rights in the city’s “maquiladora” plants. Her case could be a landmark for other Mexicans ? activists and journalists among them ? who have accused the military of kidnappings, torture, extrajudicial killings, and reprisals, all in the name of the “War on Drugs”.
Of course, this is a military trained by the US and funded to the tune of half a billion dollars per year. Unconditional support from the Obama administration continues to give Calderon’s “war” the veneer of international respectability it so sorely lacks at home. Despite intense criticism and arguments against the militarization of the drug problem by former and current heads of state, the UN, drug policy analysts, and millions of affected families, Calderon only really cares what Washington thinks.
Since January, his government has declined to update the official tally of “Drug War” deaths, which is likely some 40,000 by this point. Criticism has also been leveled at the administration’s reluctance to put the deaths into any meaningful perspective, perpetuating the myth that all those who wind up dead are simply “narcos” riding the drug-trade gravy train. But as public opinion turns against the “Drug War”, it’s an increasingly difficult myth to sell.
Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org