Drug Trade Rots Away Mexican Society

  Drug Trade Rots Away Mexican Society

Posted by FoM on September 08, 2000 at 07:28:46 PT
By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen 
Source: Ottawa Citizen 

Mexicans call the violence and corruption spawned by illegal drug trafficking 'Colombianization.' And they fear it could undermine their country's progress towards becoming a developed nation. Driving to work one morning in 1997, Jesus Blancornelas entered a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film. A car had wheeled around and blocked the street ahead of him. As Mr. Blancornelas, a renowned Mexican newspaper editor, watched from the passenger seat, the windows of the blockading car were rolled down. 
Machine-guns jutted out. His driver slammed their car into reverse; Mr. Blancornelas threw himself to the floor. Shots exploded. Glass shattered. On the sidewalk, more men, these ones on foot, pulled out machine-guns and added to the barrage. The car was ripped by gunfire. Mr. Blancornelas's driver slumped in his seat, slain by 38 bullets. Four shots hit Mr. Blancornelas. His car rolled to a stop. One of the assassins walked toward it, intending to ensure the occupants were dead. From the other side of the street, gunmen kept pumping shots into the car. One bullet hit the metal floor, ricocheted at a wild angle and flew up, striking the approaching assassin in the eye. He died instantly. The dead killer was, it turned out, the chief of the operation. The other men fled. "And thanks to God," Mr. Blancornelas recalls quietly, "I was saved." The horrifying attack was just another skirmish in the gang warfare that rages in the streets of Tijuana and other big Mexican cities along the American border. Here, gangs fight over who will supply millions of Americans with the illegal drugs they demand. Prohibition has made the drugs flowing through Tijuana worth billions of dollars, a treasure chest so immense that thousands of Mexicans are prepared to murder, bribe or steal for a chance to dip into it. Even shooting newspaper editors is, for drug traffickers, just business. When I suggested to Mr. Blancornelas that it all sounded like Chicago in the 1920s, during Prohibition, when Al Capone and other gangsters machine-gunned each other in the streets, he shook his head. As the editor and co-founder of Zeta, a muckraking Tijuana newspaper that angered the city's most powerful drug cartel with daring exposes, Mr. Blancornelas knows his city better than just about anyone. No, he said, it wasn't like Chicago. "I think it's more." The body count alone bears him out. From 1920 to 1933, the years of Prohibition in the U.S., about 800 gangsters died fighting each other in the streets of Chicago. In just the last two years in Tijuana, 1,000 people have been killed fighting over the drug trade. While most of the mayhem involves little-known criminals, Tijuana has also seen more than its share of spectacular homicides. In 1994, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated here. Two police chiefs have been murdered in the last six years, the most recent dying in February. The streets of the city of two million have even seen pitched battles between federal and state police in the pay of rival drug cartels. But the level of violence only hints at the full effects of the illegal drug trade on Tijuana, and on Mexico as a whole. Many people fear illegal drug trafficking is a profound rot capable of undermining the progress the country has made toward becoming a developed, democratic, lawful nation. They call the rot "Colombianization," a word that pops up with increasing frequency in the Mexican press. The fear is that Mexico, like Colombia in the 1980s, could be corrupted and crippled by the growing wealth and power of drug traffickers. For the U.S., whose border regions are intimately tied to Mexico, that would be a disaster. Canadians, as partners in NAFTA, should also find the prospect chilling. Like Mexico itself, Tijuana has historically suffered from crime and corruption, in large part because Americans have always looked to the city to provide those things that their governments won't let them have. In the 1920s, it was booze. With rising American demand for illegal drugs in the 1960s, it became marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Now the synthetic drugs, such as Ecstasy, cooked up in kitchens in poor Tijuana neighbourhoods, have been added to the menu. Tijuana's central Avenida Revolucion is a monument to the forbidden appetites of Americans. Three-storey-high bars line both sides of the long street, catering to southern California frat boys and high school girls out to saturate themselves with cheap tequila. Scattered among the bars and souvenir shops is probably the highest concentration of pharmacies in the world. Mexican law requires prescriptions, of course, but amphetamines, Viagra, and the rest of the legal pharmacopoeia can be had without one if a customer asks nicely. The sidewalks are jammed with street vendors, beggars, hookers and wide-eyed tourists. Platoons of American servicemen hunt for strip shows and whorehouses. Smiling Mexican hustlers work the crowds. At night, pitches for drugs or sex are as common as traffic noise. "Cocaine, marijuana, Ecstasy?" I was asked by one smiling salesman as casually as a gas station attendant would ask whether I collected air miles. The verbal menus are extensive, but if at first it's not offered, it can be negotiated -- particularly if you pay in American dollars. This garish and bizarre side of Tijuana remains pretty much as it has been for generations. What has changed radically in the last 15 years is not what Tijuana provides to Americans who come looking, but what Tijuana and other Mexican cities ship north of the border. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the huge surge in American demand for illegal drugs was satisfied mainly by smugglers shipping cocaine and marijuana from Colombia to Florida via the Caribbean. Mexican involvement in drugs was limited to smuggling marijuana and some heroin. But when the U.S. poured resources into plugging the Caribbean route, the Colombian cartels shifted operations to the 3,200-kilometre Mexican-American border. At first, Mexican gangs were given cash to smuggle Colombian cocaine into the U.S., where the Colombians picked it up and got it to retailers. Later, the Mexicans were paid with a cut of the cocaine. This spurred Mexican traffickers to develop their own delivery networks across the U.S. When the Cali and Medellin cartels were smashed in Colombia in the mid-1990s, the Mexicans took majority control of the trade. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 60 per cent and two-thirds of all cocaine in the U.S. gets there via Mexico, and most of that belongs to the Mexican cartels. Awesome quantities of Mexican marijuana, along with Mexican-made methamphetamines, are also shipped north, much of it by medium- and small-time smugglers. That leaves Mexico in much the same position as Colombia was in the 1980s. Its cartels buy most of the drugs they move from producer countries -- mainly Colombia, Peru, Bolivia -- and smuggle them into American and other markets. That is the role once held almost exclusively by the Cali and Medellin cartels. It is by far the most lucrative in the drug trade, netting the lion's share of drug wealth and the power that goes with it. The Mexican cartels are in control. As American ambassador Jeffrey Davidow noted in a speech to American university graduates in Mexico City, "the headquarters of the drug-trafficking world are now in Mexico." The question now is whether the dominance of the Tijuana, Juarez, and other Mexican cartels will lead to the spiralling violence, corruption and chaos that afflicted Colombia when its cartels controlled the drug trade. One man well-placed to compare Mexico today with Colombia under the cartels is Gustavo de Greiff. As Colombia's prosecutor general in the early 1990s, Mr. de Greiff was a central figure in the destruction of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord. Mr. de Greiff subsequently spent four years as Colombia's ambassador to Mexico and is now a scholar with the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. He sighs when the "Colombianization" theory is mentioned. "Unfortunately, it's true." Mr. de Greiff quickly notes there are many mitigating factors in Mexico's favour, including Mexico's strong central government and relative stability, two things Colombia has never had. But wherever the illegal drug traffickers go, he says, they take along the tools of the trade: violence and corruption. In Mexico, as the traffickers have flourished so have bloodshed and graft. The mayhem is obvious, especially in cities like Tijuana where the trade is centred. But the corruption is even more pervasive. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claimed in 1997 that 90 per cent of police, prosecutors and judges in Tijuana were in the pay of drug traffickers. Corrupt officials don't simply look the other way. They provide intelligence to the traffickers and obstruct other officials. Police commonly protect drug shipments or work as bodyguards for traffickers. And for good reason. The money available to the traffickers to bribe justice officials is staggering: In 1995, one drug lord was found to be laying out $40 million U.S. per month in payoffs. Refusals of bribes are exceedingly rare, in part because to say no may mean death. Hence, the phrase "plata o plomo" -- silver or lead. In 1994, Tijuana's crusading police chief was offered a handsome bribe, refused it, and was promptly murdered. The rot is by no means restricted to one body or city. In 1997, Thomas Constantine, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told Congress he didn't fully trust any Mexican law enforcement agency. Corruption on this scale is extremely harmful to economic and social development. But its most immediate damage is the cynicism it fosters in the public, an attitude neatly summed up by one Mexican I met: "If you want to be rich in this country, you have to be a politician, a policeman or a narco." Just how high up the corruption has seeped is a matter of dispute. Governors have been convincingly implicated and murky allegations have surrounded former president Carlos Salinas. Perhaps the highest confirmed case of corruption was that of Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, a respected army general who was Mexico's "drug czar" when it was discovered in 1997 that he had been in the pay of a drug lord for seven years. In 1997, Canadian ambassador Marc Perron told a Mexican magazine he had never seen corruption as bad as that in Mexico. Mr. Perron was quickly reassigned by the Canadian government. Tellingly, though, few in Mexico disputed the substance of his statements; his offence seemed to be saying what everyone knew. Over the last several years, largely at the urging of the U.S., Mexico has increasingly called on its army to take the lead in its anti-drug efforts. This shift has brought successes and some officials, particularly in the U.S., have been optimistic that -- the unfortunate example of Gen. Gutierrez notwithstanding -- the army would not succumb to corruption. They were wrong, it seems. Just one week ago, two senior army generals were charged with taking bribes and drug trafficking. Mr. de Greiff feels that, in a strange way, revelations of corruption and mounting violence may ultimately be a good thing for Mexico and the world. "Sometimes I think that maybe that will create a crisis necessary for people to realize (drug prohibition) has to change. In Chicago, the smugglers of liquor, the violence in the streets, the killing of policemen and judges, brought the end of Prohibition. But isn't it a pity we needed something like that in order to be rational?" Jesus Blancornelas has a bleaker outlook on the future because, ironically, he does not think Mexico is approaching a crisis of "Colombianization." Speaking in the Tijuana offices of Zeta, the newspaper editor notes that in Tijuana and throughout Mexico, unlike in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, traffickers are not consolidated into just a few well-organized, well-known, politically powerful cartels. In fact, even while the big cartels continue to prosper, new low-level networks that he calls "disorganized crime" are flourishing. "These are small groups without chiefs ... The 'disorganized crime' that smuggles drugs in small shipments is now bigger than the cartels." Low-level traffickers spawn low-level violence and corruption. Rather than spreading the rot to the highest reaches of power, and challenging the state itself, the problems stay local. Instead of spectacular acts of violence, such as Pablo Escobar's destruction of the headquarters of the Colombian police, traffickers fight gun battles in the streets of Tijuana. Instead of bribing top officials and paying for presidential campaigns, "disorganized crime" sticks to paying off local police, judges and bureaucrats. Nowadays, says Mr. Blancornelas, "you have to be realistic and see that the corruption is from the middle downward." But that doesn't mean the damage done by "disorganized crime" is less than that of big cartels. Far from it. In fact, it's precisely because the corruption here is so profound that Mexico hasn't seen the war between police and traffickers that wracked Colombia. "In Colombia," Mr. Blancornelas says wryly, "the drug smugglers kill the cops. In Mexico, the drug smugglers buy the cops." As to which society suffers worse, he says emphatically, "Definitely Mexico." It's not just the economic and social ills of the illegal drug trade that Mr. Blancornelas sees hurting Mexicans; it's the lure of a rich and dangerous business. The traffickers who kill each other in the streets of Tijuana, he insists, are not just criminals killing criminals. They are often very poor Mexicans drawn into the trade because it's their only hope of a better life. "The problem again is that we're at the frontier of one of the richest parts of the United States of America. And in one day, one person could earn $500 that he can't earn in one month working at a normal job. So it's very easy to replace those who are killed. There are people getting in line waiting for others to drop dead so they can start doing their business." The drug trade offers an escape, not much different than illegally crossing the border into the U.S. It's hard to imagine the depth of desperation that drives so many Mexicans to seek such escapes. Border Patrol agent Merv Mason described a creek at the border, its water black with unimaginable filth, which Mexicans cross by submerging themselves and hiding their heads in balls of foam floating on the surface. Every year, hundreds of Mexicans die of thirst, heat, or exposure crossing the border. Smugglers who lug 35-kilogram packs of marijuana through desolate areas are often killed by the bitter cold of desert nights. These desperate people make up the majority of traffickers. They are labourers, mules and foot soldiers who bear no resemblance to the drug barons of gringo imagination. Agent Mason notes that the men caught at the border rarely give up information because "they are so low on the totem pole and so insulated from the cartel that they probably don't even know who they're working for." So powerful is the lure of smuggling that a whole culture has sprung up around it in Mexico. Drug traffickers are standard fare in Mexican soap operas, novels and movies. Their image is an ambiguous one. Sometimes, the smuggler is the villain, sometimes the hero, but in either case, he is typically a romantic figure. It's not unlike the images Canadians and Americans have of the smugglers and gangsters of the Prohibition era -- whether hero-smugglers like Bill McCoy ("the real McCoy") or the fictional Jay Gatsby, or the villainous Al Capone of innumerable movies. Beyond the obvious pop culture forms, Mexican smuggling culture has spawned its own form of popular music, an offshoot of corridos, a traditional style of folk ballad in northern Mexico. Corridos always reflected the issues of the day. In the 1920s, that meant tales of brave tequila smugglers duelling the Texas Rangers. Today, narco-corridos songs have titles like "Terrible AK-47" and "Sacred Cargo." They tell the stories of poor Mexicans who struggle to the top of the dangerous world of drug smuggling, get rich, meet a beautiful woman and die a glorious death. Some songs even turn the lives and deaths of real smugglers into ballads. Despite having been banned from radio by several state governors, narco-corridos are hugely popular because, says Mr. Blancornelas, they appeal to "poor young men." The culture of drug smuggling has even found religious expression. Jesus Malverde, a robber hanged in 1909 and reputed to have stolen from the rich and given to the poor, is the unofficial patron saint of smugglers. At a shrine to Malverde in Sinaloa state, smugglers come to pray for luck and give locks of their hair as a gesture of thanks for success. Faced with a choice between poverty or a shot at wealth and glory, it's understandable that thousands of young Mexicans are "lining up," as Mr. Blancornelas says, to get into drug-trafficking. A few will seize the brass ring. Most will end up in prison or dead in the streets. Along the way, they will add to the corruption and violence that threaten development, kill innocent bystanders, and scar the lives of those courageous Mexicans who refuse to look the other way. Since he was shot in 1997, Jesus Blancornelas has been surrounded day and night by guns. Everywhere he goes, 11 heavily armed army commandoes encircle him. In the mornings, he walks into his garage and gets into a bombproof car. He gets out in the garage at his office. He is not permitted to go anywhere else without special arrangements. When I ask if we might take his picture outside in front of the Zeta offices, he apologizes and says no. The soldiers won't let him step outside, not even for the time it takes to snap a photo. Mr. Blancornelas is philosophical about living like a fragile plant under a bell jar. "I'm 63 years old. I've already travelled a lot. I've drunk a lot. I've partied a lot. Fine. Now I'm writing a lot." He also takes satisfaction that his refusal to retire after the assassination attempt set an example for other Mexican journalists. Before, Zeta was alone in Tijuana in writing about the drug cartels. Now other newspapers and writers do as well, and the traffickers, perhaps with Mr. Blancornelas's determination in mind, have left them alone. It's small consolation for such misery and loss. But at least it is something. For most of the misery and loss in the streets of Tijuana, there is nothing -- no sense, no reason, and certainly no hope. Mexico at a Glance Size: 1,972,550 square kilometres Population: 98.6 million Government: Republic Leader: President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce De Leon; President-elect Vicente Fox Languages: Spanish, various Mayan, Nahuatl, and other regional indigenous languages Major Religions: Roman Catholic 89 per cent, Protestant six per cent Ethnic groups: Mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish) 60 per cent, Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian 30 per cent, European ancestry nine per cent, other one per cent Labour force: 36.6 million (1996) Unemployment rate: 3.7 per cent (1997) Inflation Rate: 36.7 per cent Gross domestic product (total value of goods and services produced annually): $694.3 billion U.S. (1997 est.) Government budget: $94 billion U.S. (1997 est.) Debt: $162 billion U.S. (1997) Exports: $110.4 billion U.S. (1997 est.), primarily crude oil, oil products, coffee, silver, engines, motor vehicles, cotton, consumer electronics Imports: $109.8 billion U.S. (1997 est.), primarily metal-working machines, steel mill products, agricultural machinery, electrical equipment, car parts for assembly, repair parts for motor vehicles, aircraft, and aircraft parts Source: CIA World Factbook Dan Gardner is a Citizen Editorial Writer Published: September 8, 2000Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)Copyright: 2000 The Ottawa CitizenContact: letters Address: 1101 Baxter Rd.,Ottawa, Ontario, K2C 3M4Fax: 613-596-8522Website: Articles:As Long As There Is Demand, There Will Be Supply The War On Drugs Has Failed Advice: End The Drug War - Vancouver Sun The War On Drugs Has Failed, Part 1a The War On Drugs Has Failed, Part 1b 

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