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.

But let us make the risky assumption that today’s army is no longer involved in drug trafficking. The belief that it is exploiting a weak government to advance agendas beyond its declared mission is widespread, and not without reason. While many of the crimes alleged to have been committed by the armed forces appear to be the random acts of rogue troops, others may be part of a directed campaign with three possible objectives.

One objective is laudable—to get information about drug trafficking. The problem is that, in de la Rosa’s words, “the army’s investigative techniques are kidnapping and torture.” But according to Cipriana Jurado, a veteran labor organizer and women’s-rights activist, the military has another purpose: trying to stifle dissent, she said, citing numerous arrests of political troublemakers. And, as Gutiérrez’s case indicates, the generals also may be seeking to clamp down on Mexico’s freewheeling press.

In seeking, much less speaking, the truth about what the army is up to, one often runs into the paradox of the Mexican reality: something dreadful happens and is then treated as if it hadn’t happened. Facts, like people, simply disappear.

I experience this myself as I tour the ruins of a Juárez drug-rehabilitation center with my friend Julián Cardona, a photographer and Reuters correspondent. The rehab clinic is in a shabby two-story building on an unpaved street lined with cinder-block hovels, old cars, and derelict buses. A wind-whipped urban grit that feels dirtier than desert dust pelts our faces as we enter the rectangular patio strewn with rubble, its walls gouged by bullet holes. Small rooms lead off the patio, each with a hand-painted phrase above its door—Cocina for kitchen, Sala de Juntas for meeting room, D-Tox, which needs no translation.

We enter the meeting room. Votive candles gutter in glass jars arranged around an image of Jesus Christ propped up in one corner. The walls are peppered with bullet holes and spattered with dried blood. Cardona tells me what happened here on a Wednesday evening, August 13, 2008, as an Assembly of God pastor named Socorro García and her deacon, Joel Valle, conducted a service for the patients. After they and about 20 addicts gathered in the meeting room to sing hymns and hold a prayer service, García took the podium for altar call. “Is there anyone here who was a Christian in the past,” she asked, “but who fell away into drugs and who would like to reconcile with God?” Several patients raised their hands. García summoned them.

Outside, a Ford pickup carrying a detachment of Mexican paratroopers was parked at an intersection no more than 50 yards away. Two other trucks pulled up in front of the rehab center. Eight men armed with assault rifles and 9-millimeter pistols and wearing bulletproof vests and ski masks piled out of the vehicles and rushed inside.

The shooting started in the patio, just as the patients were walking up to the podium in answer to García’s call. Some flung themselves to the floor, others ran for their lives or huddled against a wall. García stood at the podium, crying out, “Muchachos! Ask God for another chance to live!” At that moment, four gunmen burst inside and, in her words, started “shooting in all directions.”

García raised her hands and hollered above the gunshots, “Lord, send your angels to protect us!” A gunman looked at her through the eyeholes of his ski mask and she looked back. He stopped shooting. “I was right there in front of him,” García told Cardona. “He had already shot a lot of people, and one more life would have meant nothing to him, but he didn’t shoot. Why? Maybe God did not allow it.”

Neighbors called the Emergency Response Center, the equivalent of 911, but got no response. Accounts of the actions taken by the soldiers parked at the street corner differ. According to one, the soldiers stood by passively as the assassins jumped in their trucks and fled. According to another, they drove past the rehab center at high speed while the massacre was going on. People shouted to them to put a stop to it, but the soldiers kept going. This led one of the neighbors to conclude that they “were guarding the killers or came with them so that the police would not intervene.”

In all, nine people were killed and five wounded. Among the dead was Joel Valle, the deacon. It was the worst mass murder in Juárez in years, Cardona says as I gaze at the flickering votives, the bloodstains and bullet holes framing the picture of Christ.

Of course, I have questions: Were any of the killers identified or captured? No. Was their motive determined? No, although there were rumors that they were after members of a street gang, the Aztecas, said to be hiding in the facility. Were the soldiers involved in the massacre? That’s what eyewitnesses claimed, Cardona replies. I keep grasping for facts, but realize it’s futile. Cardona says, “This is the black hole of Mexico. You cannot see inside of it, and nothing gets out.”

Despite the heavy military and police presence, six rehabilitation clinics have been attacked in Juárez over the past two years. The deadliest incident occurred on September 2, when 18 people were executed. Government authorities claimed the massacres were part of a war of extermination between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels.

The conduct of the Mexican military goes to the heart of U.S. counter-narcotics policy. In the past year, experts like General Barry McCaffrey (the drug czar in the Clinton administration) and political figures have warned that if the cartels are not contained, Mexico could become a failed state and the U.S. could find itself with an Afghanistan or a Pakistan on its southern border. Such forecasts are hyperbole, but the fact is that drug trafficking and its attendant corruption are a malignancy that has spread into Mexico’s lymph system. To extend the metaphor, Calderón is attempting to perform radical surgery with the only instrument at his disposal—the army. It may be a tainted instrument, so the reasoning goes, but it is less tainted than the law-enforcement agencies.

Washington supports, indeed encourages, this approach through the Mérida Initiative, a security-cooperation agreement between the two countries that Congress passed and George W. Bush signed into law. Its aim is to provide $1.4 billion in funding, spread over several years, for military and law-enforcement training, equipment such as helicopters and surveillance aircraft, and judicial reforms. The aid package also includes conditions for improvements to Mexico’s less-than-enviable record on human-rights issues. Fifteen percent of the funds can be withheld if Mexico fails to show progress on matters such as prosecuting human-rights violators and prohibiting the use of torture to obtain evidence and testimony.

And that is where U.S. policy becomes contradictory. It calls for a military solution to the trafficking problem. But there are very few, if any, civil safeguards on the actions of the Mexican military. Its soldiers are subject only to military law, even when deployed in their current crime-fighting capacity, and the country’s military-justice system is, to understate things, opaque.

A good example is the case of Javier Rosales, a medical technician who died after he and a friend were captured and tortured by soldiers. Members of his family went to the state justice office and the federal attorney general’s office to file a complaint against the soldiers and demand an investigation. They were turned away because, the officials said, charges of army misconduct fall under military jurisdiction. However, Enrique Torres, a spokesman for the Joint Chihuahuan Operation, told me that the army looks into such allegations only through internal investigations or when formal charges have been filed by state or federal prosecutors. It’s pure catch-22: state or federal authorities will not receive complaints against soldiers, and the army will not investigate unless charges have been filed by state or federal authorities.

That is among the reasons why, out of the more than 2,000 complaints brought before Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, not one has resulted in the prosecution of a single soldier.

The provisions of the Mérida Initiative would appear to give the U.S. considerable leverage in compelling the Mexican army to act with more restraint and greater respect for the civil rights of the country’s citizens. Financial leverage, that is. The moral authority of the U.S. has been eroded by accusations that it has employed torture and illegal detentions in the “war on terror,” as well as by its status as the drug cartels’ biggest market and its singularly unsuccessful efforts to dry up demand.

Every year, under the Foreign Assistance Act, the State Department is required to certify that its southern neighbor is fully cooperating in efforts to stem the export of illegal narcotics into the United States. Without certification, Mexico would be ineligible to receive the vast majority of American aid. But the U.S. government often soft-pedals criticisms of Mexico on matters such as corruption and human-rights offenses, for two reasons. One is U.S. sensitivity to the Mexican elite, which can be thin-skinned about what it regards as infringements from the north on its national sovereignty. The second is money. In the highly unlikely event that Mexico were decertified, the cutoff in U.S. aid would strain bilateral relations, trade agreements would be imperiled, and American businessmen would find it harder to operate south of the border. Also, of all the countries that export oil to the United States, Mexico, at 985,000 barrels a day, ranks third, behind Canada and Saudi Arabia.

That makes speaking the truth about Mexico politically and economically dangerous in official U.S. circles.

But a larger question arises. Even if tomorrow the Mexican military began waging its anti-narcotics campaign with the probity of, say, the Swiss Guard, could it overcome the power of cartels? The drug bosses and their organizations have become integrated into Mexican society, corrupting every aspect of the nation’s life.

The U.S. government estimates that the cultivation and trafficking of illegal drugs directly employs 450,000 people in Mexico. Unknown numbers of people, possibly in the millions, are indirectly linked to the drug industry, which has revenues estimated to be as high as $25 billion a year, exceeded only by Mexico’s annual income from manufacturing and oil exports. Dr. Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City and a senior legal and economic adviser to the UN and the World Bank, concluded in a recent report that 17 of Mexico’s 31 states have become virtual narco-republics, where organized crime has infiltrated government, the courts, and the police so extensively that there is almost no way they can be cleaned up. The drug gangs have acquired a “military capacity” that enables them to confront the army on an almost equal footing.

“This in itself does not prove that we are in a situation of a failed state today,” Buscaglia wrote. He seemed to be suggesting that the situation could change tomorrow—and not for the better.

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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