Mexico is a fascinating country, with a rich heritage, gracious people and delicious food. There is life and color everywhere; on the streets, in homes, in people’s hearts and minds. When I read about the violence that is engulfing this beautiful nation, it is difficult to relate to it as the Mexico I know and love is nothing like this.
But Mexico has a huge problem. Not only is the country a large drug producer, it is one of the most important foreign supplier and transporter because of its geographical location and proximity to the drug market in the US. Drug cartels established in the 1980’s went totally unchecked and it was this silence on the part of the government that allowed them to flourish. Even though Colombia is the largest cocaine producer, most of the supply is done through Mexico and over time these Mexican transporters have become actual distributors of the drugs. The business proved to be so lucrative that within no time rival gangs cropped up and more and more people got attracted to the drug trade.
As competition intensified, gangs started turning on each other and bitter rivalries began. These rivalries were not based on clan differences, ethnicity or religion; the struggle was simply over money, power and access routes. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the violence was only between the drug cartels, with their influence waxing and waning depending on arrests or deaths of cartel leaders, ability to escape law enforcement agencies and maintain crucial relationships on both the supply and demand side. However the violence steadily worsened from 2000 onwards and has crippled life in certain parts of the country. Only now is the true might and reach of these cartels visible as they are proving to be formidable enemies; this time not only for each other but for the government and the public.
The government of Felipe Calderon finally awoke to the reality that they could no longer let these rouge elements function within their borders, but even he couldn’t have predicted the violence that followed. These cartels have small private armies and hit men. They have sophisticated weaponry and their influence penetrates from law enforcement agencies to the government. They are willing to kill innocent civilians and be killed in order to protect their turf and control critical access points, and their sphere of influence extends to Europe and West Africa in addition to the Americas.
It comes as no surprise that bribery, fear and intimidation are the most effective tools available to them. Drug lords broadcast executions on YouTube, toss body parts in the streets and hang banners warning people against leaking information or siding with the authorities. Unfortunately this is not the first or the last time such tactics have been used to create an atmosphere of insecurity, terror and helplessness. Bribery is rampant across all levels and many high ranking officials have been charged with selling information or protection to the drug cartels. This is an interesting phenomenon as this isn’t a case of impoverished naïve people getting involved with the bad guys. Educated, well-off people are deeply involved in the drug trade and the ensuing violence, which goes to show the power and lure of money. The ‘Benjamins’ are too seductive and the desire for them takes precedence over all sense of morality and humanity. It even takes precedence over notions of loyalty as gang members change sides frequently and alliances shift before you can say ‘methamphetamine’.
The Gulf cartel and Sinaloa cartel are the two most powerful gangs in the drug trade. The Zetas previously worked for Gulf, but are now involved in a bloody battle with them, and simultaneously a battle is being waged for leadership of the Beltran Leyva cartel, whose leader was killed in a shootout with marines. Since 2006, more than 22,700 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico. The northern state of Tamaulipas that borders Texas, the southern state of Guerrero, Sinaloa and the Chihuahua state where Ciudad Juarez is located, are some of the deadliest hubs of the conflict. Bodies are found dumped at the side of the roads, thrown from bridges, with brutal tactics used such as taping the head with tape to suffocate the victim.
Opposition leaders and drug trade experts are increasingly critical of Calderon’s US backed crackdown, arguing that it has been ineffective in curbing violence and the influence of the kingpins. Little has been done to stem the flow of narcotics into the US, and the deployment of thousands of soldiers and police has led to many human rights abuses. This is a classic case of what happens when a blind eye is turned for too long on the ills in a particular society, especially when obscene amounts of money are at stake.
Tackling this issue will take much more than a military crackdown. A comprehensive strategy has to be formulated that cuts off critical access points, tackles the producers as well as distributors, blocks access to weapons and alleviates poverty in these states so people have other options. Bribery has to be dealt with severely, and nations that generate the demand for these drugs have to clamp down on their side as well. The government has to make it so risky, difficult and unrewarding for the cartels to deal in drugs that it is no longer worth it. Unfortunately till there is a demand for the product and huge financial rewards to be reaped, this trade will continue. It is said that religion is the opium of the masses, but for the drug lord opium is his religion.