Monday, April 28, 2008

Mexican Drug War Erupts; Gangs Diversify into Kidnapping

The new Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, has launched an aggressive campaign using the Mexican Army to confront violent drug traffickers.

Roughly 25,000 soldiers have been dispatched throughout the country. While the Army has met with success, there are concerns about their respect for human rights.

According to government figures, major army operations in nine states have led to more than 22,000 arrests and the seizure of 50 tons of cocaine and 40,000 weapons. The operations, government officials say, have shaved $9 billion a year from the cartel's roughly $23 billion drug trade.

But in nearly every state where the army has deployed, residents have accused soldiers of grave human rights violations that now number in the hundreds. Here in the western state of Michoacan, Calderón's home state, more than 100 such violations have been alleged, including the fatal shooting Jan. 12 of a 17-year-old boy at a checkpoint.

In an anti-narcotics plan now before Congress, President Bush has proposed sending the Mexican military $205.5 million in equipment in 2008, more than 40 percent of the proposed outlay for the year. The Merida Initiative, as the program is known, designates a portion of Mexico's proposed $950 million package for 2008 and 2009 for human rights training for police, prosecutors and prison officials, though none for the army. |In Mexico, War on Drug Cartels Takes Wider Toll - Washington Post|

The Mexican Army, unlike the US Army, is designed for internal control rather than the projection of force overseas, so this role is not as unusual for the Mexican Army as it may seem at first glance to US citizens.

The Mexican Army has taken over the drug interdiction role for a variety reasons. First, there is widespread corruption among the local law enforcement, as recent developments in Baja California, Mexico indicate:
In an open letter published in the [Baja California's] major daily newspapers, Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito named about three dozen municipal, state and federal police officials.

Aponte said the officials have been protecting immigrant smugglers and bank robbers and have worked as guards for drug traffickers. He said agents with the state's anti-kidnapping unit in Tijuana had themselves conducted kidnappings, then negotiated the ransom.

Aponte said top Tijuana police officials with the previous mayoral administration – he did not name them – are constantly approaching the current police chief, a military lieutenant colonel on leave, offering to act as go-betweens with organized crime. |General accuses police officials of corruption - Sign On San Diego|(emphasis added)
Another reason the Army is taking the lead is because the drug traffickers are using military grade hardware including assault rifles, grenades and grenade launchers.
In the last two decades, hundreds of police, soldiers and politicians have been convicted of working for the cartels.

One entire unit of army special forces deserted in the late 1990s to form a paramilitary commando called the Zetas, who work as bloody enforcers for the Gulf Cartel.

Their rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, imitated their paramilitary style by training hundreds of would be enforcers in special weapons and tactics.

After years of beheadings and reprisal massacres, these two cartels recently reached a truce, only to turn their wrath on the federal government, according to Mexican and US drug officials.

The level of firepower of the drug gangs has been shown in raids on cartel safe houses in recent weeks.

Police stormed one middle-class Mexico City home to find 30 guns, 12 grenade launchers, 30 grenades and more than 40 bullet-proof jackets with the initials FEDA – a Spanish acronym for "Special Forces of Arturo Beltran", an alleged drug gang leader.

A raid on a Tijuana warehouse used by a cartel for training even unearthed a shooting range and assault course.

Low ranking police officers complain they are outgunned and are risking their lives for salaries which are as low as $600 per month.

"How are we supposed to confront these guys if they come at us?" Osiel Mendoza, a Mexico City police officer, said to Al Jazeera.

"We need the army to wipe them out." |Mexico's 'narco' uprising - Al Jazeera|(emphasis added)
It appears that the Mexican Army is having some success. The downside, however, is that the drug gangs are increasingly turning to kidnapping as a quick way to raise cash.
Corporate security experts estimate that drug gangs are now responsible for 30 to 50 kidnappings a day in Mexico and that ransoms often run to $300,000....

The phenomenon is spilling over into the United States. Phoenix police investigated more than 350 kidnappings last year, a 40 percent increase from the year before. Most are tied to crackdowns in Mexico, said Detective Reuben Gonzales of the Phoenix Police Department.

The rise in kidnapping prompted a recent warning from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City about the dangers Americans might face as they travel in Mexico. ''Dozens of U.S. citizens were kidnapped and/or murdered in Tijuana in 2007,'' across from San Diego, according to the advisory, which was issued April 15. ''Public shootouts have occurred during daylight hours near shopping areas.''...

''Drug trafficking is not producing for them as it did in the past,'' Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said last month in Washington. "So they are moving into other crimes, such as extortion, kidnapping, car theft.''

However, the rise in kidnappings also shows that Mexico's law enforcement problems go beyond narcotics. Distrust of the police, who may be involved in some of the abductions, and fear that victims will be harmed make kidnapping one of Mexico's most underreported crimes.

Mexican officials say that only a third of kidnappings are reported to police, but corporate experts say it's more like one in 10. |Mexican drug gangs find profit in kidnappings - Miami Herald|(emphasis added)

The Mexican president has suggested that the United States has a special responsibility given its role in creating the drug and gun problem.

Calderon argues the US government has a responsibility to help out because US drug users fund the traffickers - analysts estimate that Mexican drug trade to the US is worth around $10 billion to $30 billion a year.

Most of the weapons fuelling the bloodshed are also bought in US gun stores and smuggled south over the Rio Grande...

"It's a bi-national problem," said a senior US drug official in Mexico... |Al Jazeera|
While I'm sure there's some truth to that claim, organized crime isn't buying grenades and grenade launchers from US gun stores. Those are either from the Mexican military or from foreign suppliers.

I think it's fair to say that Mexico is suffering a fate similar to Colombia where the greed and brutality generated by the drug trade has corrupted most of the institutions of the State.

I wish there were a quick solution to this problem, but I think it's going to intensify rather than abate any time in the near future.

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