I think I’d quit, too

October 27, 2010

The entire police force of Los Ramones, Mexico resigned last Tuesday. They told their boss “Tome este trabajo y empujarlo!”

Why, you may ask?

Oh, gosh. Maybe it has something to do with criminals blasting  1,000 rounds of ammunition at their new headquarters:

Los Ramones Mayor Santos Salinas said nobody was injured in Monday night’s attack, during which gunmen fired more than 1,000 bullets at the building’s facade, according to Noroeste newspaper’s website. Six grenades, of which three detonated, were also flung at the building, the newspaper reported.

“Fortunately, those who were inside the building threw themselves on the ground and nobody was hurt,” Salinas told the newspaper.

The AP tried to contact the police to get a comment on the story, but, um… no one was answering the phone.

But I’m sure the authorities have the situation well in hand.

Via The Mexico Institute.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

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When crooks no longer fear the cops

October 12, 2010

I’ve used that subject line before, about Chicago. But it’s just as fitting for Mexico, where cartel gunmen ambushed a police convoy in the state of Sinaloa, killing eight officers:

The gunmen, travelling in three or four vehicles, “began shooting with automatic weapons”, an official said.

The state is home to one of the country’s most powerful drug gangs, the Sinaloa cartel run by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman.

(…)

The police officers were patrolling a road 80km (50 miles) form the state capital, Culiacan, when they were attacked on Monday.

The killings highlight the challenges for Mexico’s police as they and other security forces seek to take on the drug gangs.

Yeah, challenges such as “just staying alive.” Of course, when the cartels can trap even the Mexican Army in one of its bases, what a mere patrolmen supposed to do?

I think I’ll postpone that trip to Mazatlan for a while…

RELATED: President Calderon aims to deal with the serious problem of corruption in the local police forces by eliminating local departments and having the states provide local policing. Given the well-known problems of corruption at the state police-level (example), I can’t see how this is much more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Still, one can hope that it’s a start to purging corrupt cops from the local ranks.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Failing states: is Mexico the new Colombia?

September 28, 2010

I’ve suggested in recent postings that Mexico and its cartel-spawned violence is coming to resemble Colombia’s war with leftist guerrillas and allied drug cartels, including the loss of state sovereignty over territory. Secretary of State Clinton made a similar observation, causing a minor diplomatic flap.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times criticizes this comparison, arguing that the analogy to Colombia is flawed:

As the death toll from drug-related violence nears 30,000 in four years, the impression that Mexico is losing control over big chunks of territory — the northern states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Durango at the top of this list — is prompting comparisons with the Colombia of years past. Under the combined onslaught of drug kingpins and leftist guerrillas, the South American country appeared to be in danger of collapse.

The Colombia comparison, long fodder for parlor debates in Mexico, gained new energy this month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the tactics of Mexican cartels looked increasingly like those of a Colombia-style “insurgency,” which the U.S. helped fight with a military and social assistance program known as Plan Colombia that cost more than $7 billion.

But is Mexico the new Colombia? As the Obama administration debates what course to take on Mexico, finding the right fix depends on getting the right diagnosis.

The article then look at four facets of the comparison to see if the Colombian experience really does map to Mexico:

The Enemy: the authors correctly point out that Colombia’s problem originated with political rebellion – various flavors of Marxists trying to overthrow the state- while Mexico’s is, so far, more one of organized crime. Very bold and violent, but there is no political agenda. However, Colombia’s Leftist (and some Rightist) guerrilla groups eventually allied with the drug lords and even went into the business, themselves. There’s no reason to think the Mexican cartels couldn’t evolve in the opposite direction, to out and out rebellion, if the Mexican state weakens.

Land Grab: Journalist Ken Ellingwood is somewhat right when he asserts that, while the Colombian guerrillas at one time controlled vast swathes of territory from which Colombian authorities were banned, that hasn’t happened in Mexico. I say “somewhat,” because it almost seems like a distinction without a difference. Yes, no territory has been formally ceded to the cartels, as happened in Colombia. But what’s the practical difference when the Mexican Army gets blockaded in its bases; a newspaper gives up and says to the cartels “You win;” and the police chief of a major city has to live in an office closet with a gun under his pillow for his own safety? The cartels may not claim territory, but it’s clear who rules.

Who Gets Killed: Ellingwood  argues that the Colombian guerrillas attacked government officials and business men in an effort to topple the state. The Mexican cartels, on the other hand, while they they have killed cops and mayors (and even a gubernatorial candidate), are doing so as part of their war with each other. Yes, but the difference is… what? If government officials are getting whacked, it represents the breakdown of the state and civil society, regardless of whether it is part of an attempt to overthrow the government, or simply because they backed the wrong cartel. As with the territory issue, the end result is roughly the same.

A Weakening State: Here the article seems to argue that Colombia was in a better situation than that in which Mexico currently finds itself. State institutions fought back with the active support of the media and the public, particularly after an aggressive president, Alvaro Uribe, came to power. In Mexico, while President Calderon has launched his military against the cartels in some area, they’ve been largely ineffective. In addition, the police and court are notoriously corrupt. While Ellingwood describes the Mexican Army as more reliable that the police, it may be a question of relative positions on the scale of rottenness.

The article concludes with an argument, correct in my opinion, that Plan Colombia, which was tailored to specific Colombian needs, cannot be applied to Mexico as a “one size fits all” solution. Any solution (or solutions) will have to be designed with the particular qualities of Mexico’s problem in mind.

To come back to the original question, the analogy of Mexico now to Colombia of the 1980s and 1990s, while Mr. Ellingwood draws useful distinctions between the two nations, in my opinion they are largely academic. The essential quality of the situations in both countries is that rule of law, government, and civil society are under deadly assault by armed groups, whether directly targeted in an act of rebellion or as a byproduct of a war between criminal gangs. In that regard, the comparison is quite valid.


Mexican town resorts to mob justice

September 24, 2010

With the authorities unable to protect them, the residents of a small town in the state of Chihuahua that has suffered an average of three kidnappings per week finally had enough:

Ascension is a farming community of some 15,000 people, about 100 miles south of the border with New Mexico. In the past two years, kidnapping and extortion have been rampant.

“Our problems with public security have spoiled our progress in this town,” says Rafael Camarillo, the outgoing mayor.

The public fury happened Tuesday when an armed group allegedly kidnapped a 16-year-old girl from her family’s seafood restaurant. The kidnappers escaped down a gravel road, and word of the missing girl spread quickly.

Soon, a group of about 200 residents began the chase. Three of the alleged kidnappers were captured by the Mexican military, who have a presence in the town.

Three others fled into a nearby cotton field, where one was later found dead. The other two were hunted down and beaten by the mob from Ascension.

“When they found them, it was a direct aggression,” says Ignacio Rodriguez, a local kitchen-cabinet maker who was elected to head city council next month.

The girl was rescued unharmed by the residents.

Two of the kidnappers were taken by federal police to a nearby Mexican Army base, but the mob wasn’t done with them: they stormed the base, seized the kidnappers, and locked them in a hot car until they died.

Let’s be blunt: these three deaths were acts of murder. But it is both hard to sympathize with the victims and not hard to sympathize with the townsfolk. What are they supposed to do when their own government can’t or won’t protect them? The local force was so useless that the Mayor of Ascension fired them all after this incident. Corruption is rampant in the local, state, and federal police forces. At some point, the people are left with a choice: wait like sheep to be slaughtered  or fight back. The people of Ascenscion made their choice.

Of course, fighting back against teenaged kidnappers is one thing, but striking back at heavily armed, ruthless cartels is another altogether. Mexico’s gun laws are very strict, so law-abiding citizens are effectively disarmed from the start. Yet the presence of such laws implies a clause in the social contract: in return for not bearing arms, the state promises to protect its citizens. If the government cannot do this, then the contract is broken and the state loses legitimacy. Society reverts to a state of nature and residents are forced to take justice into their own hands.

While Mexico is not yet a failed state and may never become one, the incidents at Ascension are nevertheless further signs of a fraying social fabric that, unmended, could one day fall apart.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

UPDATE: A newspaper in New Mexico sees similar dangers.


Mexico, a failing state?

September 19, 2010

One of the marks of a dying polity, at least in my estimation, is when the criminals no longer fear the police. When that happens, the government can no longer enforce law and order and a state of anarchy prevails. Mexico may not be a failed state –yet– but there are numerous and growing signs of breakdown, such as the kidnapping and murder of the police, themselves:

Police in Mexico say eight officers who were abducted by gunmen in the southern state of Guerrero on Friday have been found shot dead.

A ninth member of the unit has been found alive with wounds to his head. The bodies of some of the dead officers are reported to have been mutilated.

The police patrol was investigating a murder when it was ambushed.

Guerrero state has been a focus of the drugs-related violence that has killed more than 28,000 Mexicans since 2006.

The nine agents from the federal investigative police had travelled to the Teloloapan district after a man was reported shot dead.

As they went in pursuit of the suspected killers they were stopped by a large group of gunmen.

Two officers were found shot dead close to where they were abducted. The other six bodies were found about 15km away after a search by police and troops.

Note that these were federal cops, Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI or Justice Department investigators. Imagine if a group of FBI agents were kidnapped and executed in the US. This isn’t just criminal activity; it’s insurrection. These cartels are not just running drugs, they’re denying the authority of the government itself and saying they rule, instead.

In one of the rare times I’ll ever agree with Hillary Clinton on anything, she was right to say Mexico more and more resembles Colombia as it was 20 years ago.

Only this time the problem is right on our border, rather than 3,500 miles away.

LINKS: The AP has an earlier article on the kidnapping and murder.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Cartel city: terror in Torreón

September 17, 2010

I’ll grant that subject line sounds like it should be the title for a roleplaying game adventure or the next Grand Theft Auto release, but, sadly, it’s all too true. In the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Rory Carroll reports on the nightmare that has become life in this northern Mexican city. Once a center of transportation, manufacturing, commerce, Torreón and its surrounding area by the 1990s was a prosperous place. But now, after several years of war among the drug cartels, it is a city in which prisoners are released from jail by the warden to massacre innocent party-goers:

For a country in the throes of a war that has claimed 28,000 lives in four years it is perhaps little surprise that a transport hub such as Torreón, intersection for cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines, is grim. Murders among the population of 550,000 average three per day. Two massacres in city bars preceded the attack on the Italia Inn party, a bloodbath made worse by the fact the victims had no connection to drug trafficking.

The atrocity’s apparent motive was a display of strength by the Sinaloa cartel in its battle to oust a rival group, the Zetas, from Torreón. “It’s a turf war, and they’ll kill anyone,” says Carlos Bibiano Villa, Torreón’s police chief. The day after the attack, the Zetas, keen to show they still controlled the city, left four human heads with a note saying the massacre’s perpetrators had been punished. Decapitation, once unheard of in Mexico, has become routine.

What came next, however, was new. The Zetas, after killing the four probably random and innocent unfortunates, really did investigate the massacre. The result was a harrowing video uploaded on YouTube. Rodolfo Nájera, bruised, swollen and stripped, gazed into the camera with a confession. The 35-year-old kidnapped policeman, flanked by masked gunmen, must have guessed how the video would end. Asked by an off-camera interrogator about the Italia Inn massacre, Nájera said the killers were Sinaloa members allowed out of prison for nocturnal hits. Guards lent them guns and vehicles. “Who let them out?” barked the voice. “The director,” replied the doomed man. The video ends minutes later with a shot to the head.

The entire article is one paragraph after another of eye-popping facts and vignettes that one would think could only happen in a movie, but are part of everyday life in Torreón. Here’s just one: the entire police force of 1,200 was fired and replaced for corruption. As the mayor says,

“The police relaxed their ethics and discipline and just gave in. In the end they weren’t working for them (the cartels). They were them.”

Carroll briefly discusses possible solutions, ranging from the libertarian “legalize drugs” to “let one cartel win.” The former strikes me as a pie-in-the-sky academic solution that would do nothing to end cartel violence; they’d fight over the legal trade as much as the illegal commerce. On the other hand, allowing one or the other gang to win in the hope of regaining peace seems to be the definition of a dying republic, one that admits the gangs are the real sovereign power.

It may not be a genuine failed state yet, but Mexico seems to be coming awfully close.

Read the whole thing.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Welcome to Cartel City

September 9, 2010

That Mexico is wracked by violence as the federal government battles drug gangs and the gangs battle each other isn’t really news anymore; around 23,000 people have died since 2007, and I’ve written before about violence in Mexico’s northern border cities, as well as the possibility of it spilling over to our side. Secretary of State Clinton recently referred to this drug war as an insurgency, something the Mexican government loudly denounced.

But what do you call it when the central government loses control of a city to the drug cartels? Residents of Reynosa, Mexico, might well agree with Secretary Clinton:

“It’s hard to be sure when the Gulf cartel gained the power over the city that it has now; it didn’t happen in a single blow, reporters said. Most traced the change to three or four years ago. Before then, the cartel ran a kind of parallel government from which it strongly influenced institutions such as the police and the city government. Reynosa Mayor Oscar Luebbert Gutiérrez did not respond to written questions submitted by CPJ, but journalists say the cartel is fully embedded in the government and gets nearly whatever it wants. “

Journalists are not allowed to print stories without the cartel’s consent first. The cartel even has its own Website where it publishes stories that are okay to cover under its guidelines  (They don’t print the site’s url, though.)  There is a gun battle nearly every day in Reynosa, yet they largely go unreported by the media who have been threatened or killed for reporting on the violence.

“The editor said journalists also know what it means to go against the cartel. “They will abduct you; they will torture you for hours; they will kill you, and then dismember you. And your family will always be waiting for you to come home.” In a chilling illustration of the traffickers’ brutal enforcement methods, three Reynosa journalists disappeared in March and are now feared dead. Colleagues said the three could have done something to anger either the Gulf cartel or the Zetas, or have gotten caught up in the warfare by doing favors for one of the groups.”

The situation is so bad, according to journalist Melissa del Bosque, that gangs even hijacked trucks and used them to block the local Mexican Army base, effectively sealing troops inside to prevent them from intervening in a battle in Reynosa between rival cartels wielding assault rifles and grenades.

And that’s right across the bridge from the US city of McAllen, Texas.

Mexican President Profirio Diaz once famously said “Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.” Nowadays he might phrase it “Pobre Mexico – y triste Reynosa!”

RELATED: Reynosa and McAllen feature in an excellent book I read recently, Robert Lee Maril’s “Patrolling Chaos.” Professor Maril spent the better part of two years riding with the agents of the Border Patrol station in McAllen and studying its operations. Far from being a dry academic work, it’s fascinating reading with compelling portraits of the people and the area. I plan to do a fuller review soon, but, for now, take this as a strong recommendation for anyone interested in border issues, illegal immigration, the Border Patrol itself, and Deep South Texas in general.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)