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.
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Open secret or no, an allegation that soldiers may have acted on behalf of a drug lord needs to be substantiated. After all, Calderón’s counter-narcotics strategy relies, with U.S. support, almost exclusively on the military.

With a short list of contacts provided by Gutiérrez, my interpreter, Molly Molloy, and I enter Mexico through the Palomas border crossing and head south into the Chihuahuan Desert. I have just been in Juárez and am relieved to not be going back to that industrialized border city—utterly charmless in the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. Juárez’s main product now is the corpse. Last year, drug-related violence there claimed more than 1,600 lives, and the toll for the first nine months of this year soared beyond 1,800, and mounts daily. That makes Juárez, population 1.5 million, the most violent city in the world. Two lines of graffiti summed up a place where not only law and order but civilization itself has broken down: Mi ciudad pide clemencia en su dementia (“My city asks for mercy in its madness”), and Mi ciudad es un negro lamento un aullido infinito (“My city is a black lament, an eternal howl”).

Nuevo Casas Grandes lies on a plateau near a fertile valley—cowboy-and-farmer country where cattle graze on the high desert ranges and apple and pecan orchards form tidy ranks on the city’s outskirts. The city itself, with some 51,000 people, is known to archaeologically minded tourists for its proximity to Paquimé, the site of ancient pueblo ruins. It looks prosperous by the standards of interior Mexico, with wide streets, a few decent hotels and restaurants, an airport, and several auto dealerships selling Fords and Jeeps and other familiar makes. If it weren’t for all the Mexican license plates, I could believe we were in a town in the southwestern United States.

Our first call is at the offices of El Diario, housed in a whitewashed villa on the main drag. Molloy and I are hoping to meet with José Martínez Valdéz, who is Gutiérrez’s former editor, and the news director, Victor Valdovinos. They can answer some of our questions and provide introductions to city officials. But repeated attempts to see Martínez are unsuccessful—he manages to dodge us all afternoon. We do get a very brief audience with Valdovinos. When we tell him what we are there for, he flinches and says, “You don’t want to talk to me,” then vanishes.

That leaves Fernando Díaz, whom we find at the radio station as he and David Andrew wrap up their afternoon show. They are willing to talk to us, and we go into the back room. Andrew, a heavyset, 30-ish man with dense carbon-black hair, shuts the door, either to muffle the noise from outside or to make sure no one overhears our conversation.

In the Mexico Mexicans have to live in, Díaz begins, life is “very hard, very bad,” a statement he underscores with a statistic: last year, 115 homicides were committed in Nuevo Casas Grandes and its surrounding communities. That works out to a murder rate more than 20 times as high as New York City’s.

It’s at this juncture that he makes his comment about the dangers of speaking or knowing the truth. I begin inquiring about the February 2008 incident, but Díaz and his younger colleague aren’t eager to discuss it.

I don’t get anywhere, though Díaz casts doubt on Gutiérrez’s assertion that the raid was a military operation. All of this talk about human-rights abuses by the army is “a myth,” Díaz insists. He is in fact cheered that an army battalion has been making rounds to bolster security in Nuevo Casas Grandes: “We are abandoned and unprotected here in northwest Chihuahua. It is a very big wish that the soldiers will bring peace. The army is the only group we can trust.” He adds by way of illustration that several sicarios, as professional assassins are called in Mexico, were arrested and confessed to killing 19 people in town.

Two of the sicarios, Andrew interjects, were his neighbors: “One guy worked in a car wash, the other guy was an army deserter.” Two others turned out to be auto salesmen—“nice guys in the day, killers by night,” Díaz says, as if he’s voicing over a trailer for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “You are talking to me, a radio announcer, but you can’t be sure that I’m not a sicario,” Díaz adds. “You say you’re an American reporter, but I don’t know that you’re not a sicario. You cannot trust anybody.” He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s contradicted his earlier remark that only the army can be trusted.

The question is, can the army be trusted, and if so, can it win this latest—and biggest—battle in the seemingly endless “war on drugs”? Calderón has deployed more than 45,000 troops (out of a total force of 230,000) throughout the country. Of that number, about 7,000, reinforced by 2,300 federal policemen, occupy Juárez as part of Operación Conjunta Chihuahua—the Joint Chihuahuan Operation. The army has taken over all the policing functions. The city is under undeclared martial law.

Although many ordinary Mexicans welcome the army’s intervention, certain that things would be far worse without it, approval has been far from universal. Claims of grievous abuses by the armed forces—unlawful detentions, disappearances, thefts, rapes, and murders—have increased sixfold in the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch. One hundred and seventy complaints have been filed in Chihuahua alone, says Gustavo de la Rosa, the former Chihuahua state ombudsman for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

Leaving aside the question of whether militarizing the anti-narcotics campaign is the best way to go about things (a similar strategy in Colombia has been only partially successful), the fact is that, by destroying public trust in the armed forces, military misconduct undermines the entire effort, as I learned from a 50-year-old cleaning woman who now lives in Arizona and who asked to remain anonymous. She was visiting her aunt in Juárez last December when soldiers broke into a neighbor’s house, claiming that they were looking for a suspect.

“They didn’t say who,” the woman told me. “They tore her house apart, took her jewelry and her money, and said that if she complained about what they did they were going to come back and kill her. People are more afraid of the police and soldiers than they are of the narcos, because they’re very mean guys—not all, but many.”

The fear goes beyond undisciplined soldiers running amok. In an interview, de la Rosa told me that the president, elected in 2006 by a margin as thin as an ATM card, called out the army not merely to fight the cartels and eliminate a threat to national sovereignty but to consolidate his power and confer legitimacy on his presidency. “Calderón wants to show the Congress that the military is with him,” de la Rosa said. “And the military promised to support Calderón in exchange for being allowed out of the barracks, because the army wants to govern. Chihuahua is an experiment. What is happening here is in essence a military coup, a regional coup.” To support this contention, he cited a change he has had to make in his own work. Under normal circumstances, he would file complaints of abuse with the state governor, but now, he said, “the governor is ineffective, so I have to go to General Felipe de Jesús Espitia, the comandante of the 5th Military District.”

I was somewhat incredulous that the military was staging a creeping coup. To what end? I asked.

De la Rosa shrugged. “Actually, nobody really knows or understands what the military is up to,” he answered, hedging a bit. Then he asserted that the army intends not to stamp out drug trafficking but to “control” it. “So now if a drug cartel wants to move drugs into the U.S., who would they go to? To the governor? No, to the general.” (El Universal, Mexico’s largest newspaper, reported in September that de la Rosa had received death threats from the army, apparently because of his sharp criticisms; sources have told me he has taken temporary refuge in the U.S.)

As de la Rosa suggested, there is a dismal history of collusion between the armed forces and organized crime. In the late 1980s, the Mexican defense secretary was caught peddling protection to three drug organizations, which paid him a total of $10 million. In 1997, Mexico’s chief anti-narcotics officer was indicted for providing the Juárez cartel with classified drug-enforcement information in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes. In a 2001 essay in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, a University of Texas criminologist, Patrick O’Day, cited several instances of Mexican soldiers’ guarding narcotics shipments and transporting them into the United States in military vehicles or by other means. These operations were so extensive and went on for so long that O’Day concluded that the army was a cartel unto itself.

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