State in retreat

Print edition : June 17, 2011

In a locality in Michoacan state on May 14, residents wearing masks stand guard at a barricade after loggers, who they said were backed by cartel henchmen and the local police, killed two residents and injured several others. - MUGUEL TOVAR/AP

The spectre of drug wars and failure of governance looms large even as the nexus between politics and drug cartels becomes stronger.

SEVERAL indicators point to the fact that the state is fading into insignificance in Mexico. The contours of the state are increasingly withering away in this significant country. It appears that in the province bordering the United States state control has already vanished. In fact, some amount of Mexican territory (12 per cent by some accounts) has fallen completely into the hands of powerful drug cartels. Attempts to appoint a Mayor and restore some form of administration were in vain in the north-eastern regions of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Even the police force has disappeared in these places and only the criminals remain.

In the northern regions of the country, the drug cartels are engaged in a fierce battle against each other to capture the best routes to smuggle drugs into the U.S. and fear their competitors more than they do the 50,000-strong Mexican military. Every year, cocaine, heroin and amphetamine, originating mostly in Colombia, find their way into the U.S. The U.S. State Department estimates that the Mexican drug trade is now worth between $13 billion and $46 billion. According to a recent central government report, about 35,000 people have died in cases relating to drug trafficking since Felipe Calderon assumed office as President in December 2006.

The spectre of drug wars and failure of governance looms large over Mexico even as the nexus between politics and groups engaged in nefarious activities becomes stronger. Mexico's leading newspaper El Universal points out that in the past few years 70 per cent of the electoral campaigns were allegedly funded by drug traffickers and that 78 per cent of Mexican business houses are believed to have strong connections to the drug cartels.

Recently, a well-known politician congratulated a cartel boss on his victory over his competitors and assured him of all possible support. The telephone conversation between the two was tapped and broadcast on radio. A high-ranking government official heading the department to combat organised crime is alleged to have passed on recently confidential information pertaining to his department to the drug cartel of Sinaloa for a huge sum of money.

The question of what is legal and what is not sounds impertinent in the regions dominated by violence. Representatives of the police force, the military and the government originally deployed to crush the criminals wonder if they have also assumed some of the criminals' traits. The means used by the state do not vary much from those used by the cartels. Amnesty International has accused the Mexican military of severe human rights violations.

The drug cartels have emerged time and again as the most successful multinational firms of Latin America. As a consequence, their bosses, such as Joaquin Guzman, figure on the Forbes list of the world's richest people. The unbridled greed of the cartels to increase profits has intensified their conflict with the government and culminated in their politicisation.

The breakdown of government machinery is evident on the law and order front. Mexico's independent press indicates that the majority of the criminals go scot-free and only 5 per cent of the cases have so far been investigated. Occasionally, bosses of drug trafficking groups are nabbed; Flavio Mendez Santiago, the head of the most dreaded cartel Los Zetas, was arrested in January this year. Fierce fighting among the various cartels to gain supremacy is often the fallout of such arrests and worsens the situation.

People living outside Mexico get only a hazy picture of the situation, as the voice of the press is muffled in the northern States of the country. A leading newspaper published in the northern city of Ciudad Juarez, where 3,000 murders are reported every year in spite of a strong military presence, tailors its content according to explicit instructions from the drug barons.

In Saltillo, the police discovered a note lying next to the body of a journalist killed by drug peddlers. It said: This will happen to those who don't understand. This message is for all. Such notes and narcomantas (banners with messages) and video clips on YouTube showing torture have become part of the main news media. According to Reporters Without Borders, the France-based non-governmental organisation that advocates freedom of the press around the world, 64 journalists have been killed so far and 11 have been reported missing. The cartels run a parallel government a state within the state and have their own spokespersons.

Public trust in the political leadership and government institutions is on the wane. Recent surveys indicate that 56 per cent of Mexicans believe that the government cannot succeed in its war against the drug mafia.

Reckless liberalisation

One important reason for the present situation, which includes the weakening of the regulatory agencies and the consequent ascent of the drug cartels, lies in the reckless liberalisation and privatisation pursued in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the then President Carlos Gortari. In addition to this, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which came into force in 1994, enabled free movement of goods and services between the U.S. and Mexico. This benefited the smugglers too. Very low export duties, deregulation of trade and uncontrolled exchange with U.S. markets weakened the hold of the then powerful political party the Partido Revolucionario Institucional over the economy.

In certain cases, the contact of state agencies with the corporations was related solely to illegal transactions. According to a report published in 2005 by CEI Consulting and Research, kickbacks received by government officials, especially from middle-level corporations, ran to $30 billion. The state incurred losses to the tune of $43 billion every year primarily as a result of tax evasion. The state has failed to bridge the widening social divide caused by the untrammelled economic boom of the past decades.

The U.S.' increased engagement with Mexico is to guard its own security interests, which are threatened by the fierce drug wars going on next door. America's role in the worsening of the situation in Mexico cannot be overlooked. The U.S. is not only the biggest drug market in the world but also a major arms dealer. The United States Government Accountability Office estimates that 90 per cent of the weapons that drug cartels use are sourced from the U.S., and enter Mexico through the drug trafficking routes. Moreover, a U.S. bank had offered a giant drug cartel full assistance to transfer tainted money and had encouraged money laundering by not looking into the source of huge sums from Mexico.

The former President of Mexico Porfirio Diaz summed up his country's plight a century ago: Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!

Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico. He has so far targeted only the cartels and has not taken steps to alter the conditions that lead youngsters astray.-CHRIS GOODNEY/BLOOMBERG

The joint efforts of U.S. President Barack Obama and Calderon have not yielded any results so far. Alejandro Poire, Mexico's security spokesman, says that in 2010, more than 15,000 people lost their lives in drug wars, 12,000 of them in contract killings. At the beginning of this year, many U.S. citizens in the American border city of El Paso succumbed to violence unleashed by the cartels. The U.S., seeing the drug cartels spread their tentacles into its territory, has issued a stern warning to them.

America also fears, as Obama's Chief of Intelligence James Clapper observed recently, that corrupt forces could usurp state control in Mexico. According WikiLeaks, American diplomats have apprised the U.S. Foreign Ministry of the narcoadministration in the Mexican state of Michoacan engaged in creating jobs and rebuilding churches, besides taking on the role of the police.

Last year, three former Latin American Presidents espoused the decriminalisation of drugs and suggested that the drugs may be allowed in a restricted manner. Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa pointed out that the legalisation of the drug trade might generate huge tax revenues, which could be ploughed back to rehabilitate youngsters living in abject conditions.

Calderon has given serious thought to such proposals and has been successful in getting passed legislation that permits the possession of drugs like marijuana in limited quantities. However, the Christian Democrat is opposed to the complete legalisation of the drugs trade.

Mexico should enlist the support of not only the U.S. but also European countries that source drugs from Mexico and other Latin American countries where the clout of the drug mafia is steadily on the rise. Experts reiterate that only legalisation of the drug trade, extending to the whole of the U.S., will have a wider impact. According to the U.S. State Department, one kilogram of heroin costs $2,700 when it leaves Colombia and $25,000 when it is smuggled through Mexico. The price shoots up to $100,000 in the U.S.

The former President of Colombia Ernesto Samper equates the appeals to legalise the drug trade to the offering of swimming classes to people who are drowning. The point in question is the survival of the state authorities and bodies as a part of the sovereign Mexican state.

Moreover, it is not only the drug trade that fills the coffers of the drug mafia but also a plethora of other illegal activities such as film pirating and human trafficking.

Poverty and illiteracy have proven to be the two main problems of Mexico. Manuel Ebrard, the Mayor of Mexico City, said in a recent interview with El Pais that 39 per cent of the country's wealth was concentrated in the hands of 10 per cent of the population. As much as 50 per cent of its children do not attend school as their families are too poor for them to do so.

In Ciudad Juarez, often youngsters, and at times even children, become sicarios (contract killers). Sometime ago, a 12-year-old boy was the most wanted criminal in the country. Whoever thinks his future is bleak risks his life in the drug trade. Nosotros nacemos muertos (we are all stillborn), replied a young killer in Ciudad Juarez recently when he was asked whether he feared death in this job. Sometimes the killers see themselves as martyrs.

Missing measures

President Calderon has so far targeted only the cartels and has not taken any decisive steps to alter the conditions that lead youngsters astray. Besides judicial reforms and social welfare programmes for the young, more public spirit and courage are necessary. Politicians, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and society as a whole have a crucial role to play here. The drug war, which affects adversely the youth, is rooted in a general malaise prevalent in Mexican society. It appears, at times, that the state is fighting against its own failure in the border States the failure of not providing future prospects to the youth.

The people of Mexico continue to be as hospitable and warm as ever. Mexico can boast a long history, an enchanting culture, brilliant intellectuals and excellent universities. The entire nation is in a state of shock on account of the numerous unimaginable crimes perpetrated by the criminals, and has lost hope in its political leadership.

The Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote once that all national celebrations in Mexico fulfil the purpose of momentarily escaping from the irreversible reality. Even the bicentenary of freedom, celebrated last year, served the same purpose. One daily newspaper termed it the saddest bicentenary celebration in America. Thus, in the 200th year of Independence the current depression engulfing the nation was celebrated with pomp and fervour. The highest representative of the state, Felipe Calderon, played master of ceremonies.

In Mexico City,Omar Estrada Luna of the Los Zetas drug cartel is presented to the media on April 17. He is accused of planning and ordering the killing of 72 migrants in August 2010 and ordering the slaughter of more than 145 people, whose remains were found in mass graves in San Fernando.-AFP

It is now well known that the director of a prison in the northern Mexican city of Durango deployed prisoners as contract killers at the drug cartels' behest. The government official shifted her allegiance to the cartels and followed their diktats either for money or because she feared for her life.

By the way, Durango is well known as the backdrop for many classical U.S. Westerns in which the sheriff single-handedly takes on the mighty villains. In Durango, the last upright individual and protector of law and order has joined hands with criminals instead of monitoring them.

It appears that the Western currently running in Mexico does not, contrary to the fiction, have a happy ending.

Rdiger Punzet works for the Goethe-Institut, Germany. The views expressed here are personal.

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