Foreign Affairs December 2009

The Fall of Mexico

In the almost three years since President Felipe Calderón launched a war on drug cartels, border towns in Mexico have turned into halls of mirrors where no one knows who is on which side or what chance remark could get you murdered. Some 14,000 people have been killed in that time—the worst carnage since the Mexican Revolution—and part of the country is effectively under martial law. Is this evidence of a creeping coup by the military? A war between drug cartels? Between the president and his opposition? Or just collateral damage from the (U.S.-supported) war on drugs? Nobody knows: Mexico is where facts, like people, simply disappear. The stakes for the U.S. are high, especially as the prospect of a failed state on our southern border begins to seem all too real.

Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.
—Porfirio Díaz, dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and 1884 to 1911

Those famous words came to mind when another man named Díaz offered me an equally concise observation about the realities of life in the country today: “In Mexico it is dangerous to speak the truth. It is even dangerous to know the truth.”

His full name is Fernando Díaz Santana. He hosts two AM-radio news-and-commentary shows in the small Chihuahuan city of Nuevo Casas Grandes. A stocky, broad-faced man in late middle age, he projects an air of warmth, openness, and intelligence. As he tells me that it’s dangerous to speak or know the truth, the half-rueful, half-apologetic expression in his eyes makes it plain that he’d rather not keep his mouth shut and his mind closed.

He’s received text messages from listeners cautioning him to be careful of what he says on the air. He takes these friendly warnings seriously; failure to heed them could bring a death sentence like the one meted out to Armando Rodríguez, a crime reporter murdered by an unidentified gunman in November 2008 in Juárez, the violent border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The fear of suffering a similar fate is a powerful incentive for self-censorship, for training a naturally inquisitive mind to acquire ignorance.

“So now we give just the objective facts,” Díaz says as he sits facing me in a stuffy, windowless rear room of the radio station, in Nuevo Casas Grandes’s central business district. He and the co-host of his afternoon show, David Andrew (pronounced Da-veed An-dray-oo), explain that the “objective facts” are those reported by the police or city hall or some other official source. Though the accuracy of such facts is often questionable, no questions dare be asked. “We say nothing more,” Díaz adds. “As long as we don’t get too deeply into a story, we are safe.”

I am reminded of Winnie Verloc, the character in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent who “felt profoundly that things do not stand much looking into.”

More than 14,000 people have been killed in the almost three years since President Felipe Calderón mobilized the army to fight Mexico’s half-dozen major drug cartels. Virtually none of those homicides has been solved, partly because witnesses suffer short-term memory loss when questioned, and partly because the police, for various reasons, also feel profoundly that things do not stand much looking into.

Rodríguez’s death is illustrative. His colleagues believe he was killed for an article he wrote linking relatives of Patricia González, the Chihuahuan state attorney general, to narcotics trafficking.

That is not idle theorizing. Jorge Luis Aguirre, a writer for LaPolaka.com, an online Juárez news service, had written extensively about corruption in the Chihuahuan state government, and did not spare González either. On the night of November 13, 2008, as he was driving to Rodríguez’s wake, he got a call on his cell phone. The male caller said, “You’re next, son of a bitch!” and hung up.

Aguirre immediately packed up his wife and sons and fled to El Paso, where he sought asylum. In March, testifying at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, he stated that he’d identified the source of the threats:

“Victor Valencia, a representative of the governor of the state of Chihuahua, had sent people to warn me to ‘tone down’ my criticisms of the prosecutor, Patricia González, because if I didn’t, he was going to kill me, using the Juárez cartel’s preferred method of kidnapping followed by execution.”

The aftermath reveals a lot about today’s Mexico. Patricia González remains in her post. Victor Valencia has been promoted to chief of public security in Juárez. The federal deputy attorney general handling the Rodríguez murder case, Jesús Martín Huerta Yedra, was shot to death in his car, along with his secretary. The investigation has since gone nowhere, to no one’s surprise. As the newspaper El Diario editorialized,

Friends of the journalist, who preferred not to give their names for security reasons, mentioned that they do not feel frustrated by the lack of advances in the case since from the beginning, they felt that the authorities had no intention of doing anything to clarify the crime.

To clarify the crime. Of the many things Mexico lacks these days, clarity is near the top of the list. It is dangerous to know the truth. Finding it is frustrating. Statements by U.S. and Mexican government officials, repeated by a news media that prefers simple story lines, have fostered the impression in the United States that the conflict in Mexico is between Calderón’s white hats and the crime syndicates’ black hats. The reality is far more complicated, as suggested by this statistic: out of those 14,000 dead, fewer than 100 have been soldiers. Presumably, army casualties would be far higher if the war were as straightforward as it’s often made out to be.




Slideshow: Photographer Juliàan Cardona narrates a slideshow of images from the Juárez drug wars

What, then, accounts for the carnage, the worst Mexico has suffered since the revolution, a century ago? To be sure, many of the dead have been cartel criminals. Some were killed in firefights with the army, others in battles between the cartels for control of smuggling routes, and still others in power struggles within the cartels. The toll includes more than 1,000 police officers, some of whom, according to Mexican press reports, were executed by soldiers for suspected links to drug traffickers. Conversely, a number of the fallen soldiers may have been killed by policemen moonlighting as cartel hit men, though that cannot be proved. Meanwhile, human-rights groups have accused the military of unleashing a reign of terror—carrying out forced disappearances, illegal detentions, acts of torture, and assassinations—not only to fight organized crime but also to suppress dissidents and other political troublemakers. What began as a war on drug trafficking has evolved into a low-intensity civil war with more than two sides and no white hats, only shades of black. The ordinary Mexican citizen—never sure who is on what side, or who is fighting whom and for what reason—retreats into a private world where he becomes willfully blind, deaf, and above all, dumb.

Which brings us back to Fernando Díaz and his avoidance of truth.

I have come to see him at the suggestion of Emilio Gutiérrez, who fled to the U.S. because army officers threatened him with death. During an interview at his hiding place north of the border, Gutiérrez told me about a mysterious event that occurred on February 12, 2008. Teams of gunmen, riding in SUVs and pickup trucks and described by witnesses as “dressed like soldiers,” swept through Nuevo Casas Grandes and six neighboring communities between midnight and dawn, kidnapping and executing people.

The convoys covered 170 miles altogether, rolling through military checkpoints unimpeded. In Nuevo Casas Grandes, the “armed commandos,” as they were called by the Mexican media, set fire to the house of a police subcommander and shot him to death as he ran outside. Two other people, one of them the uncle of a midlevel narcotics trafficker, were also executed. The press reported that 14 more were abducted, but the actual number was believed to be much higher. All the victims, except two who were apparently snatched by mistake and later released, vanished without a trace.

Gutiérrez, a reporter in El Diario’s Ascensión bureau, covered the operation. From what he’d seen with his own eyes and from interviews with eyewitnesses, he concluded that the perpetrators were dressed like soldiers for the simple reason that they were soldiers. An operation on that scale, he reasoned, could not have been conducted by gangs of pistoleros hastily thrown together: it required thorough planning, accurate intelligence, discipline, and coordination. Nor could pistoleros have driven through army roadblocks without being stopped. If the raid wasn’t military, it must have been conducted with the army’s cooperation.

That wasn’t what Gutiérrez reported, however. He told me that his boss, José Martínez Valdéz, the editor of El Diario’s editions in northwest Chihuahua, instructed him to “not cause problems by writing that this was military.” Gutiérrez’s silence did not win him any points with the army. Five months later, he was warned that the military was going to kill him, and he was forced to leave the country.

But why, I asked, would soldiers maraud the countryside on a murder-and-kidnapping spree? He replied that the raid was not part of the Mexican government’s war on the drug cartels but a struggle between two powerful cartels: the Juárez organization, headed by Vicente Carillo, and the Sinaloa federation, whose boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is the most-wanted man in Mexico. Gutiérrez said that in this instance the gunmen, whoever they were, had been after people they thought were working for the Juárez cartel.

“It’s an open secret in Mexico,” he said, “that the army is fighting the [Juárez] cartel to weaken them and pave the way for Guzmán.”

Presented by

Philip Caputo is the author of 14 books, including A Rumor of War, Acts of Faith, and most recently, Crossers, a novel about life on the Mexican border.

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