Home » A humanitarian crisis in the making Mónica Serrano

A humanitarian crisis in the making Mónica Serrano

2 Mexico
A humanitarian crisis in the making
Mónica Serrano
This chapter examines the changing nature of drug related violence in Mexico
and provides a framework for an interpretation of the country’s human rights
crisis. Three main points are pertinent to the arguments developed here. First,
while it is certain that President Felipe Calderón (2006–2012) declared a war
on drugs and drug trafficking, the actual militarisation of drug policy long
preceded his administration. Second, drug related violence accelerated under
the Calderón administration but had already erupted during the government
of Vicente Fox (2000–2006). Third, the context in which human rights
violations take place and in which international human rights law and
international humanitarian law operate in practice is hugely important in
understanding the nature of the current drug war.
Calderón’s choice of anti-narcotics policy and drug enforcement played a
key role in exacerbating criminal violence. The analysis that follows provides
some insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the main arguments that
have been advanced to explain the violent crisis engulfing Mexico. It looks at
the scale, character and nature of the violence that followed Calderón’s massive deployment of troops, ostensibly to fight organised crime, as soon as he
took power.
Transition to democracy and the rise of drug violence
At the turn of the century Mexico appeared to be ideally positioned to make
an uneventful transition to democracy. The country had navigated the uncertain and sometimes turbulent waters of a protracted political liberalisation,
despite fears that political violence could trigger a major crisis. Between 1988
and 1994, when the first multi-party election took place, over sixty members
of the left wing Party of Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución
Democrática, PRD) were killed, in what the party interpreted as a campaign
of violent intimidation. In 1994 a chain of high level political assassinations,
including the murder of the PRI’s presidential candidate and the rise of the
Zapatista insurgency, threatened to upset the delicate balance upon which the
transition rested. Nonetheless, the country managed to navigate its way to
democracy. By then Mexico had embraced market reforms and a move
towards greater global and regional integration. The 1994 entry into the
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been preceded by
structural reforms and new economic rules that moved Mexico towards an
integrated regional economy. By the time democracy was introduced, years of
austerity and economic uncertainty had given way to moderate hopes for
prosperity and a relatively stable political environment that were reflected in a
rapidly expanding literature on electoral politics and democratic government.
However, responses by the illicit drug economy to political change were
largely ignored in critical analyses which concentrated on electoral shifts and
party dynamics. Beneath the superficial stability of democratic institutions,
organised crime was exerting an ever greater influence.
The hopes that accompanied the newly formed government of Vicente Fox
in 2000 were replaced by mounting security concerns. The abandonment of a
hegemonic party system had eroded the regime’s capacity to uphold the
formal and informal rules upon which political stability had rested. Meanwhile, the weakening of presidential authority had created a vacuum that was
rapidly filled by both legitimate and illegitimate actors, including criminal
groups. Besides, external trends beyond the government’s control had left the
country in a vulnerable position. Mexico’s illicit markets experienced a massive shock with the rise of the cocaine economy’s powerful and brutal drugtrafficking organisations. Coincidentally, the 9/11 terrorist attacks profoundly
affected US–Mexico relations, adding to the security pressures already facing
the new administration.
The focus of the Fox administration on re-launching NAFTA and meeting
its neighbour’s post-9/11 security concerns was understandable, but the choices it made would have far reaching consequences (Smith 1997: 143), not
least its apparent downplaying of the challenges posed by drug trafficking
and its laissez-faire attitude to the growth of the cartels. The obvious
intention behind these approaches was to ‘denarcotise’ its relationship with
the US.
A multiplicity of factors has produced the crisis of credibility that haunts
Mexico’s democracy. Under three successive elected governments the problems besieging Mexico’s democracy became more acute. Halfway through
President Peña Nieto’s term in office, electoral authority, once perceived as
the beacon of Mexico’s democracy, had become increasingly contested. The
main political parties which had infused life into electoral competition were
now much weaker, and increasingly perceived as ‘cartel’ organisations distanced from the electorate (Smith 1997: 143). Despite the efforts of the Calderón and Peña Nieto administrations to spin the successes of their policies,
doubts about the prospects for Mexico’s democracy deepened. Indeed, the
charade of political pluralism, widespread and systemic corruption and impunity, almost zero economic growth and a growing public debt had drained
democratic hopes (Pardiñas 2014; Silva Hérzog-Márquez 2015), leading to
the erosion of the presidency’s authority, greater power for governors, and
unbridled corruption.
54 Securitization, militarization, human rights
How much of the criminal security crisis and the attendant exacerbation of
violence can be explained by the failure of democracy still provokes much
heated debate. The reality is that, given the complex nature of the illicit drug
economy, it is unlikely that a more proactive drug policy could have prevented either Mexico’s collapse into criminal violence or the capture of state
institutions by the cartels. The Fox administration, like its predecessor and
successor, had inherited the disastrous consequences of ever more stringent
drug control policies which had given rise to criminal organisations and had put
in their hands the resources to engage in massive corruption and indiscriminate
violence (Kenny and Serrano 2011a; 2011b).
The opening of the cocaine transit economy and changes in
drug related violence
As Mexican authorities considered various drug control strategies, they had
to contend with at least two major and interrelated challenges. The first was that
Mexican drug producers had succeeded through the 1990s in keeping their
traditional market position, which allowed them to continue supplying over
80 per cent of US marijuana imports and 30 percent of the US illicit heroin
market (Andreas 1996: 56; Smith 1997: 128). The second was the opening of
the cocaine transit economy and its impact on existing trafficking activities
(MacCaun and Reuter 2001). Since the second half of the 1980s there had
been evidence that the drug problem was moving and mutating at an accelerating pace (Mayorga 2016). A critical element was stiffer drug market
competition caused largely by drug enforcement efforts on both sides of the
US border. In Mexico, the arrest of Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo in 1989 had
triggered the emergence of major regional drug organisations, with Baja
California controlled by the Arellano Félix brothers; the Juárez/Chihuahua
cartel by Amado Carrillo; Sinaloa dominated by Joaquin Guzmán and
Ismael Zambada, and the Gulf cartel led by Juan García Ábrego and subsequently by Osiel Cárdenas, founder of the armed group Zetas, in the late
1990s (Blancornelas 2002: 52–59; Valdés Castellanos 2013: 179–180 and 211).
Behind this transformation of Mexico’s criminal marketplace lay the opening
of cocaine routes across Mexican territory, resulting from the closure of the
main US entry point for Colombian cocaine in South Florida (Kenney 2007;
Gootenberg 2011: 39–40; 2012: 160 and 168). The sudden flood of cocaine
caught the unprepared Mexican authorities unawares, confronting them with
unforeseen and formidable difficulties. With 10.5 million Americans reporting
having used cocaine in the early 1980s, doubling to 22 million in the mid1980s, and with consumption peaking in the early 1990s, the US had established itself as the largest cocaine market in the world, with Mexico now the
major transit point supplying that market (Gootenberg 2010: 72; 2012).
The opening of the cocaine transhipment economy transformed Mexico’s
drug problem into an insoluble conundrum. The 1,000-tonne flow of Colombian cocaine, increasingly diverted via Cali and Panama towards northern
A humanitarian crisis in the making 55
Mexico, radically altered the size, value and organisation of the Mexican illicit drug market (Palacios and Serrano 2010; Serrano 2012). In the late 1980s
one third of cocaine bound for the US market entered through Mexico, rising
by the late 1990s to 85 per cent. As cocaine seizures in Mexico increased,
tripling between 1988 and 1990, the organisations transferring the drug
mutated fast. At first Mexican traffickers coexisted peacefully, and, taking toll
fees from the suppliers, coordinated the delivery of cocaine to the US in
‘relative harmony’ (Blancornelas 2002: 106–107; Valdés Castellanos 2013:
226, 282 and 300; Epstein and Propublica 2016). However, as the number of
players in the market increased, disputes over turf, routes and territory also
increased, fuelling systemic drug violence (Goldstein 1985). Already in the
early 1990s, 40 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the United States was
smuggled by one organisation, the Arellano Félix brothers. As US interdiction efforts pushed the cocaine routes deeper into Mexican territory, market
competition intensified, and previously local and regional drug trafficking
organisations became nationwide cartels able to recruit and mobilise armies
to defend their share of the trade (Epstein and Propublica 2016; Valdés
Castellanos 2013).
Although in the late 1990s cocaine consumption among American users
began to ebb, with millions still of chronic users the US market remained
buoyant (Caulkins et al. 2015). By then, campaigns by the US and Colombian
authorities against the Medellín and Cali cartels had strengthened the hand of
Mexican traffickers and allowed them to change the tolls they had initially
charged Colombians for 40–50 per cent shares in kind, and to make their own
direct purchases. Not surprisingly, their profits soared five to tenfold, as did
their autonomy. As in Colombia, the scale and profitability of cocaine trafficking fuelled the rise of ‘brutal world class’ drug organisations characterised
by their competitiveness, transnational links, innovative capacity, infiltration of
state and business institutions, and, especially, their readiness to resort to
massive bribery and violence (Kenny and Serrano 2011b; Gootenberg 2012:
168 and 174; Valdés Castellanos 2013: 217 and 365–366).
Charging an average fee of $1,250 dollars per kilo of cocaine transported
into the US, a Mexican intermediary between 1985 and 1986 had earned tens
of millions. Once Mexican traffickers started charging one kilo of cocaine for
each transported kilo, their profits rocketed, according to some sources by as
much as 1,000 per cent. Not surprisingly, by the mid-1990s US officials estimated the total value of Mexican drug exports at about $10 billion, while
Mexican estimates put it as high as $30 billion (Gootenberg 2012: 172; Valdés
Castellanos 2013: 193–195 and 291–292). With such enormous profits giving
traffickers the means to buy or coerce state authorities, the risk of legal
penalties was easily neutralised. Mexican traffickers also acquired additional
revenues by exporting methamphetamines to the US after the government
had closed laboratories in California supplying a growing North American
56 Securitization, militarization, human rights
Mexican administrations, particularly those of the Zedillo government,
could not keep up with the frantic expansion of the new illicit market. The
escalation of turf wars between drug trafficking organisations was a forceful
indicator of violent changes in Mexico’s drug marketplace. Greater control of
cocaine smuggling and distribution enabled the cartels to pay ‘informal taxes’
to institutional actors including the police, the military and politicians, and
ultimately to compromise the state. But when efforts to persuade the authorities actively to favour the criminals did not achieve the intended results, traffickers resorted to more violent means. Indeed, through the 1990s, the economic
weight and power of Mexican drug cartels allowed them to neutralise state
institutions and coerce law enforcement and security agencies.
The first elected government had identified the reform of law enforcement
institutions as a democratic priority, but had failed to recognise the scale of
the task. By the time the Fox government assumed power, violent criminal
confrontations had exposed the transnational dimensions of the country’s
security challenges. The criminal wars between the Arellano Félix and Sinaloa cartels, and the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, and the rise of the Zetas and
their capture of the border city of Nuevo Laredo in 2003–2005, were glaring
exposures of security weaknesses and the government’s inability to enforce
the law.
The logic of criminal war
During the Fox administration, criminal competition had led to full scale
criminal wars in the major cities along the border, from Tijuana, to Juárez to
Nuevo Laredo. This section will argue that the rise and evolution of these
wars was closely linked to anti-narcotic policy decisions and drug
(a) Arellano Félix’s reign of terror
In Baja California, where the first elected opposition government assumed
office in 1989, drug trafficking revealed its power over two decades on many
fronts. From the early 1990s main roads were often closed at night to allow
the landing of planes loaded with marijuana and cocaine. By then the Arellano Félix organisation was sending two tons of cocaine a day into the US
and was mainly responsible for administering the transfer of drugs across the
Baja California–California border with the connivance of local and federal
authorities and security services (Reyna and Fresnedo 2014). In 1993 the FBI
published a list of the names of over 100 police officers who, it believed, were
on Arellano Félix’s payroll. Backed by a dependable network of police protection, including that of Enrique Harari, head of the Federal Road Police
(1986–1988), Arellano Félix’s ascendancy remained uncontested for most of
the 1990s. In 1997, they offered the then recently appointed PGR delegate,
General José Luis Chávez García, a choice between the life of his family or a
A humanitarian crisis in the making 57
1 million dollar payment. Two major operations aimed at overhauling the
state’s Attorney General’s Office, and the arrest of nearly twenty-five federal
police officers on charges of criminal association with Arellano Félix organisation did little to erode its power (Proceso 2000, Blancornelas 2002, 193–194
and 248; García and Dávila 2002; Cornejo 2000, Valdés Castellanos 2013:
It is true that the Arellano Félix’s violent hegemony was gradually weakened by sustained efforts at law enforcement, including a series of DEA
operations. However, the pressure of the anti-narcotics policy on Arellano
Félix made room for criminal competition, especially from the Sinaloa cartel
(Cornejo 1997; Avila 2002; Venegas and Cornejo 1996). By 1997, with
Ramón Arellano Félix on the FBI’s most wanted list, the power of the organisation had suffered a significant diminution (Reyna and Fresnedo 2014). By
the late 1990s, the effects of gang instability were revealed in increasing
numbers of homicides and disappearances, as well as in open attacks on state
authorities and journalists, including Jesús Blancornelas. In 1999 the state’s
total number of homicides doubled to reach 637 and more than 400 minor
traffickers were slain in 1999–2000 for freelancing (Blancornelas 2002: 131;
Valdés Castellanos 2013: 234). As Blancornelas and his colleagues at Zeta
tried to keep track of drug related deaths, their estimated figure for 1997–July
2000 reached 2,094 individuals executed in Baja California (Blancornelas
2003: 69–72; Valdés Castellanos 2013: 233–234).
With the help of young middle-class men known as ‘narco-juniors’, who
acted as mules and triggermen for the cartel, and a whole team of ‘baseballistas’, the Arellano Félix cartel had established a reputation for ‘innovative’ and vicious violence. Victims were hung and beaten to death or
disintegrated in barrels of hot lye or acid (Solís 1996; Blancornelas 2002: 201
and 207–212; Epstein and Propublica 2016). The statement given by Santiago
Meza López ‘el pozolero’ upon his capture in 2009, regarding the more than
300 dead bodies that he had helped dissolve in the course of a decade, offered
a gruesome glimpse into the cartel’s callous murderousness (PGR 2009; De
Mauleón 2009; El País 2009).
Although its ongoing corruption of local police forces and authorities
allowed Arellano Félix to keep things reasonably under control, by 2002–2003
the death of Ramón Arellano and arrest of his brother Benjamín exacerbated
renewed internecine conflict and criminal competition. Three years later, in
2006, the capture of the youngest brother, Javier Arellano Félix, by the DEA,
drove violence in Tijuana and Baja California to unprecedented levels, largely
resulting from the DEA’s protracted operations, culminating in Operation
Shadow Game and the arrest of Javier Arellano Félix, which mortally
wounded the Tijuana organisation (Epstein and Propublica 2016). Between
2006 and 2008, open conflict between the lieutenants fighting over the cartel’s
internal succession, Eduardo Sánchez Arellano ‘the engineer’ and Teodoro
García Simental, ‘el Teo’, the latter already recruited by the Sinaloa organisation, left over 1,000 deaths. The Binational Centre for Human Rights
58 Securitization, militarization, human rights
claimed that at least 1,200 people had been disappeared in the state, with
mounting numbers in 2007 caused by internecine conflict within the Tijuana
organisation. With critical information provided by the rival Sinaloa cartel,
the DEA’s pressures expedited the final downfall of the Tijuana cartel. Ironically, as DEA agents themselves have acknowledged, the blows they had
inflicted on the Arellano brothers facilitated a takeover by the Sinaloa group.
In the words of Dave Herrod, the DEA agent in charge of the final operation,
‘taking out the Arellano Félix Organisation cleared territory for Chapo’
(Moore 1997; Epstein and Propublica 2016).
(b) The Sinaloa cartel’s march eastward: the battle for Juárez
Having established a foothold in the Tijuana–San Diego corridor, the ascendant Sinaloa cartel pushed turf war violence eastwards. As in Baja California
and Tijuana, for over a decade in Chihuahua a pax mafiosa agreed by the
Juárez/Chihuahua cartel, and firmly anchored in police protection, had survived. Thus, between 1984 and 1993 the homicide rate in Ciudad Juárez, the
organisation’s main gateway into the US, had remained fairly stable at around
8.6 per 100,000 inhabitants. However, by the end of 1991, the assassination of
Victor Manuel Oropeza, a journalist who had exposed the links between local
police and drug trafficking, set off the first alarms. With 134 murders registered in the city in 1991, El Norte de Ciudad Juárez described 1991 as one of
the most violent years in the history of Juárez (Molloy and Bowden, 2011:
20–21). Additionally, in April 1993, the killing of Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, a
founder of the Juárez cartel and an ex-regional head of the DFS, together
with the subsequent murder attempt on the man thought to be responsible,
drug lord Amado Carrillo, were obvious symptoms of rising criminal competition (Gutiérrez 1993; de Mauleón 2001; Villalpando and Castillo 2005;
Pérez Espino and Páez Varela 2009). The impact of these events on the extralegal peace enforced by the Juárez cartel in Ciudad Juárez manifested itself in
a sudden surge in the city’s homicide rate and the first appearance of an
apparently systematic femicide. In 1994, following the discovery of one of the
first female bodies, El Diario de Juárez called attention to a pattern linking a
series of female killings from 1993 to 1996 (Alvarado Alvarez 2009).
The unexpected death in 1997 of Amado Carrillo, ‘el señor de los cielos’,
opened a further phase of chronic infighting. Internal strife among criminal
gangs and political instability at local and state levels intensified competition
for the control of drug trafficking, a trend reflected in the doubling of the
state’s annual total homicide figure, from 306 in 1990 to 648 in 1997, and the
discovery of the first mass graves in 1999. Throughout the next decade, as had
been the case in Tijuana, the Juárez cartel, led by Vicente and Rodolfo Carrillo, managed to maintain formal control of the ‘plaza’. In sharp contrast
with Tijuana, in Ciudad Juárez criminal instability almost immediately resulted in a human rights crisis. Thanks to the hitman El Sicario’s confessions,
the details of thousands of executions, no less than one hundred witnessed by
A humanitarian crisis in the making 59
him, came to light. His testimony revealed indiscriminate killing campaigns,
including one prompted by the disappearance of 3,000 kg of cocaine, targeting at least seventy drug dealers and forty-five car thieves. As his account
makes clear, contract killers, like him, working for the Juárez cartel, would
dump the bodies in clandestine graves (Molloy and Bowden 2011: 116–125;
Lomas 2009). Between 1997 and 2007 a rising tide of femicides, involving the
violent deaths of hundreds of women, a rapidly growing number of disappeared persons, reaching nearly 200 by 2003, and the discovery of their
burials were a bleak precursor of things to come (Dillon 1997; Badillo 1999;
Reforma 2002; El Siglo de Torreón 2004; González 2015). Criminal collusion
between local police forces and the Juárez cartel was exposed in 2004: under
the orders of Miguel Angel Loya, chief police officer, dealers who had gambled against the Juárez organisation had been disappeared, killed and buried
in mass graves (Valdés Castellanos 2013: 240–241).
The violence that had descended upon Ciudad Juárez took an ever more
brutal turn as the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels outsourced coercive power to
local gangs. Estimates by the Municipal Public Secretariat calculated that in
the late 1990s the total number of gangs in Ciudad Juárez was around 300
with approximately 15,000 members. The estimated total for the Ciudad
Juárez–El Paso area was 400 gangs and 25,000 members (Pineda Jaimes and
Herrera Robles 2007: 99; Valdés Castellanos 2013: 402). In an effort to bolster ‘La Línea’, the Juárez cartel’s armed branch, members of the gang
known as ‘Los Aztecas’ were recruited. Meanwhile, the Sinaloa organisation
resorted to members of the local gangs known as the ‘Mexicles’ and ‘Los
Artistas Asesinos’ as murderous enforcers of its aims.
(c) The Gulf–Zetas military drug cartel at war in Nuevo Laredo
Thanks to their military strength, their geographical reach and territorial
control, the rise of the Zetas undoubtedly marked a turning point in the history
of organised crime in Mexico (Kenny and Serrano 2011c; Valdés Castellano,
2013: 257). Originally the armed branch of the Gulf cartel, the Zetas started
operations in 1999 and were first recorded in 2002 in an FBI electronic communication. The Zetas brought together between 14 and 30 former elite officers of
the GAFES (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales), many of whom had
received training at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, under
the command of Arturo Guzmán Decena, a defector from the Mexican Army.
Following Arturo Guzmán’s death in 2002 and the capture of Osiel Cárdenas the
following year, the leadership of the Gulf cartel fell to Heriberto Lazcano, ‘El
Lazca’. The consequent disruption of the Gulf cartel’s internal structure
pushed the Zetas towards ever more violent activities, including the diversification
of the organisation’s business portfolio to include kidnappings, human trafficking,
arms trafficking and extortion (Cook 2007; Milenio 2015).
With the emergence of a previously unimaginable ruthlessness and efficiency in the escalating use of violence, arising from both the Zetas’ military
60 Securitization, militarization, human rights
training and the recruitment of ex-Kaibiles, members of the Guatemalan
special forces, Mexico saw the dawn of a new and more extreme era in the
drug wars (Kenny and Serrano 2011c: 62–64). By 2003 both Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and FBI reports highlighted the Zetas’ geographical expansion and their military power, then estimated at around 350
heavily armed men. In that year the PGR revealed that the Gulf cartel was
active in at least ten states, stretching from Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche and Quintana Roo to Chiapas and Zacatecas,
Jalisco and Mexico City (López Medellín 2015: 31). This expansion, and the
Gulf cartel’s decision to open a Pacific coast route, were responses to the
logistics of transporting cocaine overland from Guatemala to the northern
border. Already in 2001 the Zetas had extended into Michoacán, and, a few
years later, into Guerrero. In January 2004 their military potency was
demonstrated when a sixty-strong armed commando freed twenty-five members of the Gulf cartel from a state prison in Apatzingán in Michoacán
(Gómez 2004; Valdés Castellano 2013: 257–258).
As far back as 1999 El Chapo and Arturo Beltrán Leyva of the Sinaloa
cartel had identified Nuevo Laredo as a potential priority for expansion of its
activities. It was, however, the arrest of Osiel Cárdenas, leader of the Gulf
cartel, in 2003, that promoted open competition between the two organisations. Indeed, not only did Osiel Cárdenas’ capture prompt fierce internal
disputes, pitting five would-be successors to the leadership against each other,
it also invited external challenges. As a result, throughout 2003 violent confrontations between armed groups linked to the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas,
or between the Zetas and the state security forces, became increasingly frequent (Proceso 2003; Gómez and Monge 2003; Crónica 2003; Valdés Castellanos 2013: 251, 256 and 306). Unsurprisingly, such unprecedented levels of
violence forced the government to deploy troops to Nuevo Laredo to secure
the airport, control entry points into the US and patrol the streets.
Exactly as in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, indisputable evidence pointed to
local, state and federal police collusion with the criminals and revealed the
cartels’ pervasive capture of state institutions. In the sequence of violent confrontations that took place in 2003, local and federal police forces were often
at loggerheads with members of the newly created Federal Investigation
Agency (AFI) allegedly extending their protection to the Sinaloa cartel.
In 2004 Nuevo Laredo’s mayor, José Manuel Suárez, admitted the extent of
police corruption, acknowledging that in the period 1999–2004 at least 868
police officers had been dismissed in that city. Police collusion with organised
crime was suspected in the wave of kidnappings and disappearances that
spread throughout 2003. Investigations following the kidnapping of eight
people, and the abduction and murder of businessman Cervantes Ezpeleta,
confirmed these fears (Proceso 2004). According to the Centro de Estudios
Fronterizos y de Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (Cefprodhac) in 2003
alone the number of kidnappings and forced disappearances registered in ten
municipalities located near the border had reached 240, while the total
A humanitarian crisis in the making 61
number of violent deaths in Tamaulipas for the period 1992–2004 surpassed
3,000, of which nearly 700 were drug related, the majority occurring under
the Yarrington administration of 1999–2004 (Monge et al. 2004). The exceptional violence of events taking place in the state can be attributed to the
military origins of the Zetas and the absence of a family structure at the head
of the Gulf cartel, as factors which combined to produce a uniquely savage
and predatory criminal organisation.
The battle for Nuevo Laredo was ferocious. Growing suspicion in the
media over the accuracy of the authorities’ reporting of homicides and their
manipulation of homicide statistics was believed to underlie the assassination
of the editor of the newspaper El Mañana de Nuevo León, who had accused
the police authorities and Francisco Cayuela Villarreal, the state’s Justice
Attorney, of massaging the figures (López Medellín 2015). In 2005 an internal
DEA assessment reported the ascendancy of the Gulf cartel and the Zetas as
they recaptured areas previously under the control of the Sinaloa organisation
(DEA 2009). That same year, an FBI classified report alerted the US
Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol to the presence of
training camps where Guatemalan ex-Kaibil officers were training drug traffickers in paramilitary tactics just over the border from McAllen, Texas (Joint
Staff 2004; Smith 2005; Padgett 2005). The Zetas–Kaibil nexus had been first
documented in September 2004 when, at a federal checkpoint in Aguililla,
Michoacán, three men transporting a massive arms shipment admitted their
Guatemalan origin. A year later in October 2005, Deputy Attorney General
Santiago Vasconcelos confirmed that at least thirty Kaibiles were under the
orders of Heriberto Lazcano, el ‘Lazca’, head of the Zetas and the Gulf
cartel. If the unstoppable rise of the Zetas had already signalled the use of
advanced military skills in the drug market, their collaboration with the kaibiles had also exposed the extent of the arms smuggling that for decades had
fuelled the violence of the drug wars (El Universal 2005; Castillo 2005; Cortés
The vortex of violence
As we have seen, when Felipe Calderón assumed power in December 2006,
Mexico’s tide of violence was being propelled by criminal wars arising either
from fierce competition between major heavily armed groups, and/or violent
internecine battles within such organisations. There is no doubt that, underlying the more than 2,000 violent deaths attributed to drug violence and
organised crime in 2006, was the contest between five criminal organisations
for the control of strategic territories, routes and border cities. Initially the
new government wasted precious time by failing to track the homicide rate,
but the drastic escalation of violence and a 50 per cent increase in recorded
homicides soon prompted a heated debate. Supporters of the Calderón
administration were right in arguing that the violence had preceded their
election, and that its escalation had already been incubated by criminal
62 Securitization, militarization, human rights
competition. Thus Alejandro Poiré, head of the Executive Secretariat of
Public Security, and the director of Mexico’s intelligence agency, the Centre of
Investigation and National Security (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad
Nacional, CISEN), Guillermo Valdés, went to great pains to emphasise the
emergency context in which the eventual decision to deploy massive federal
forces took place. Government advisors Joaquín Villalobos and Alejandro
Hope concurred with the view that the situation clearly merited an immediate
response, but disagreed on the form it should take. (Poiré 2011; Villalobos
2010; 2012; Valdés Castellanos 2013; 363–379; Hope 2012). As things stood,
critics were right to press for more nuanced explanations for the sharp upturn
in violence in the period 2008–2010. While it was generally accepted that
extreme criminal violence had existed prior to the Calderón administration,
there was heated discussion about the immediate causes of its sudden escalation
and about the role of military and federal security deployments in that escalation.
Government officials argued emphatically that heightened criminal competition was the main reason for the growth in and diffusion of violence.
Accordingly, they cited as evidence the wars between the Sinaloa and the
Arellano Félix organisations over the Tijuana–San Diego corridor, the vicious
fracture between El Chapo Guzmán and the Beltrán Leyva brothers, as well
as the latter’s decision to close ranks with the Juárez cartel and the Zetas,
resulting in the subsequent violent divorce between the Gulf cartel and the
Zetas, and the spread of these conflicts to the Pacific coast. In the government
view, it was indisputable that the violence resulting directly from these wars
and criminal competition for territorial and market control was entirely to
blame for the massive increase in drug related deaths, from a total of 2,200 in
2006 to 16,987 in 2011.
There is a general acceptance that criminal competition did play a key role
in shaping violent trends in the country. Indeed, the tripling of homicides
between 2007 and 2008 in Baja California was largely the result of the Sinaloa takeover of the Arellano Félix stronghold. Similarly, the repercussions of
the 2008 rupture between El Chapo and the Beltrán Leyva brothers were not
confined to internal chains of killings and vendettas, but were felt all the way
from Ciudad Juárez to Guerrero and Michoacán (Zepeda Gil 2016; Pantoja
García 2016). Similarly, the drastic escalation observed in 2009 and 2010 of
homicides in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas cannot be explained without
taking into account the violent split between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas
(Kenny and Serrano 2011d: 214; Poiré 2011).
However, missing from the government’s diagnosis is the incendiary role of
anti-narcotics policy and drug enforcement. As the government struggled to
distance itself from responsibility for the violence, it portrayed it as almost
entirely criminal. The Calderón administration’s account stressed the concentration of violent activities in particular states and particular municipalities.
When official figures were released for the period January 2007–December
2011, a total of 51,501 drug related deaths were reported, but their 51 per cent
concentration in four states – Chihuahua 25 per cent, Sinaloa 11 per cent,
A humanitarian crisis in the making 63
Guerrero 9 per cent and Tamaulipas 6 per cent – was duly highlighted. And
once three other states, Durango, Nuevo León and Michoacán, were included, each one containing 5 per cent of allegedly drug related deaths, as many
as 66 per cent of such deaths were found to be concentrated in just seven
states. The government’s argument did not stop there; it insisted on the eminently criminal, i.e. non-civilian character, of the victims of these deaths.
Accordingly, it contended that the great bulk of such deaths, that is 43,551, or
85 per cent, of total drug related deaths, were the result of either internal
cartel executions (82 per cent), or criminal armed confrontations (3 per cent).
In this analysis just 15 per cent of total drug related deaths had originated in
unilateral and direct criminal aggression against state authorities (7 per cent)
or armed clashes with state security forces (8 per cent). The emphasis on such
statistical abstractions played a key role in the administration’s narrative
(Kenny and Serrano 2011d: 204). By stressing the geographical isolation of
these trends, the government sought to refute its critics’ claims of rising and
widespread violence. Also at the core of the government’s implausible assertions about criminal deaths lay the proposition that killings were exclusively
criminal-on-criminal. In the words of Poiré (2011) and Villalobos (2012),
since 89 per cent of drug related killings registered in the period 2006–2010
were the result of executions, it was reasonable to conclude that victims and
perpetrators alike were involved in organised crime, and that the bulk of the
deaths resulted from internecine conflicts.
Sooner than expected, critics and human rights organisations, including
Human Rights Watch, called into question the procedures the administration
had used to record drug related killings in order to conclude that the great
majority had been perpetrated by criminals on criminals. Partly owing to a
lack of consensus among government agencies over the criteria by which to
define drug related killings, but more because of outrage at their presumption
of a guilty verdict without a proper criminal investigation, the government
was forced to resile from this classification after human rights organisations
argued vociferously that the government’s claims regarding alleged criminal
infighting could be substantiated only through proper judicial investigations.
The government’s narrative continued blatantly to ignore the role of drug
control and enforcement in promoting gang violence, although drug policy
experts had long called attention to the propensity of drug cartels to react
violently to prohibitionist and punitive drug control policies. Indeed, for decades experts on drug policy and security had highlighted the way in which, by
laying down the rules of the game governing the interactions between state
drug control organisations and criminal organisations, drug policy ultimately
shapes the market’s systemic violence.
Once drug related homicides multiplied further, increasing by 142 per cent
in 2008, reaching 6,824 deaths, the role of drug enforcement again took centre
stage. Obviously the size of criminal organisations and their financial and
military resources could not be ignored, but it was impossible to explain their
expansion and violence without putting drug policy decisions into the
64 Securitization, militarization, human rights
equation. To many, the succession of criminal wars which had spread along
the border had provided enough warnings about deeply flawed anti-narcotic
policies and enforcement. As critics were keen to point out, it was state policy
and drug control enforcement that had long shaped the decisions of drug
traffickers, inducing them to resort to violence to enforce internal discipline,
settle criminal accounts or secure territory and routes (Reuter 2009).
The contentious debate about the causes of the abrupt escalation in violence in 2008 included recognition by both the government and its critics of
the existence of rising criminal competition, but beneath this apparent consensus lay significant disagreements. There were important differences in
accounting for the drivers of the increase in drug violence, but essentially the
discussion boiled down to two main arguments. Both highlighted systemic
drug violence but disagreed about the contribution to it of anti-narcotics and
enforcement policy. One emphasised changes in the illicit cocaine market; the
other underlined the role of federal and military deployments.
The logic of the arguments blaming changes in the illicit cocaine economy
can best be understood by pointing to their effects on criminal competition
and systemic violence. In this line of argument, the risk of market saturation and
a possible reduction in cocaine supply and demand are seen as key factors in
increased competition and drug violence. Indeed, evidence of a steady decline
in US cocaine consumption and the prospect of a saturated market has been
highlighted as a potential element in fostering fiercer criminal competition
(Friman 2009; Caulkins et al. 2015; Valdés Castellanos 2013: 290).
Others have instead pointed to changes arising from Colombian anti-drug
policies resulting in an increase in prices and a reduction in the supply of
cocaine from 43.4 million tonnes in 2006 to 16.6 million tonnes in 2010, as
important factors in the drug violence equation (Serrano 2000; Castillo et al.
2014). Whether as a result of a reduction in demand, a smaller volume of
available cocaine, or higher prices, the idea supporting these arguments is that
enforced changes in the illicit cocaine market intensified competition, and
probably exacerbated systemic drug violence among Mexican drug traffickers.
What seems true in all of this, as in previous complex drug trafficking relationships between Mexico and Colombia, or Turkey and Mexico, is that drug
enforcement efforts in one latitude were bound to have knock-on effects,
including spasmodic violence, in distant locations.
The second theory seems especially compelling, including as it does not
only the decision to deploy military and federal troops, but also the way in
which it was executed. According to this thesis, President Calderón’s all-out
war on drugs spread violence across the country and triggered criminal fragmentation, unleashing in turn a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. Critics
started questioning the official strategic narrative, according to which rising
levels of violence were the necessary corollary of what had, of necessity, to be
a long war and clearly indicated success in its conduct. In the words of Villalobos, ‘This enemy can only be dominated through the full force of the
state, and when that happens its resistance augments, exacerbating in turn its
A humanitarian crisis in the making 65
own wars.’ Drawing on Colombia’s experience, defenders of government
strategy went on to argue that, in the city of Medellín, after ten years of war
and 70,000 deaths, the government’s victory had produced no reduction in
violence. In this account, which echoed that of the government, violence
abated only following ‘the state’s resolution to recover by force the territories
that had been captured by drug cartels, paramilitary and narco-guerrillas’
(Villalobos 2010; 2012).
Notwithstanding the government spin, many critics remained dubious
about the wisdom of Calderón’s counter-drug strategy. In their view, behind
the escalation of violence into a humanitarian crisis lay policy decisions and
law enforcement tactics that shaped the responses of drug trafficking organisations. Distrusting the government’s assumption that rising violence was a
clear sign of success, critics started charting the impact of the government’s
anti-drugs strategy on two main fronts: the effects of the kingpin strategy and
the consequences of military deployment on the ground.
For decades there had been concern within the security community about
the detrimental effects of the headhunting ‘kingpin’ policy devised to eliminate the leaders of drug cartels. Designed by the DEA in the early 1990s, this
decapitation strategy has long been blamed for turning a national security
threat into a public order menace. Although over the past decades the scheme
has produced a considerable flow of drug related extraditions to the US, it
soon ran into trouble by exacerbating drug violence. Despite this, security
advisors, compelled by US authorities in both Colombia and Mexico, continued
to endorse it (Kenney 2007: 90–91; Llorente 2014). As a matter of fact, the
strategy had already been deployed by President Calderón’s predecessors.
Indeed, throughout the mid-1980s and 1990s a chain of highly visible arrests,
including those of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo,
Amado Carrillo and others, had been designed to mitigate US certification
pressures. In 1996 the first top Mexican drug trafficker, Juan García Abrego,
then head of the Gulf cartel and also a US national, was extradited upon his
arrest by the Zedillo government. And while it is true that under the Fox
administration 63,456 drug dealers were arrested and set free upon admitting
personal consumption, these individuals were clearly linked to major organisations: 15,849 of them to the Juárez cartel, 6,133 to the Amezcua Contreras
organisation, 12,171 to the Sinaloa cartel and 8,736 to the Gulf cartel. Moreover, no fewer than fifteen top drug lords were captured and extradited among
235 nationals who were handed over to foreign governments (Castillo 2006).
But with the publication in 2009 of an official list, including the names of the
thirty-seven most wanted drug lords, plans for the capture and extradition of
drug traffickers gathered momentum (Finnegan 2012).
The decapitation strategy was enthusiastically embraced by then attorney
general Eduardo Medina Mora, who found inspiration in an uncritical reading of the dismantling of the Medellín and Cali cartels. Disregarding the
relocation of Colombia’s drug marketplace to FARC and the paramilitary,
and the rise and multiplication of a third generation of smaller, nimbler but
66 Securitization, militarization, human rights
brutally violent criminal organisations, Medina Mora committed himself to
breaking up Mexico’s major cartels into fifty or more smaller entities. For this
he was duly praised by the United States’ General MacCaffrey (ICG 2007;
Kenny and Serrano 2011d). Thus, in the period between 2007 and 2011, more
than thirty drug lords were either killed or arrested, and as many as 505
nationals extradited. As in Colombia, in Mexico the kingpin strategy
informed anti-narcotic policy and enforcement. Not only did these efforts
lead to the capture, extradition or assassination of major drug figures, but
also to the vicious fragmentation of the criminal market place, causing in the
process humanitarian havoc (Oxford Analytica 2015).
It is no surprise that in both countries, the adoption and implementation of
this strategy had been vigorously promoted by US drug agencies, in particular
the DEA. In Mexico, with the blessing of the Calderón government, at least
sixty-two DEA agents were allowed to operate freely, with no restrictions or
reporting requirements, and to work with a network of informants that the
agency had long cultivated. Indeed, in Mexico, as in Colombia, the implementation of the kingpin strategy came to depend on the information obtained from
talks and negotiations with members of criminal organisations. Using this
information, US and Mexican agencies have been able to seize drugs and to
capture rival traffickers. According to court testimonies of informants, as well
as of Justice Department agents and some DEA officials, some of these relationships were developed through sustained and frequent contacts dating back to
the late 1990s. A prominent case concerned a Sinaloa organisation lieutenant
whose information led to at least twelve arrests and the confiscation of drug shipments belonging to the Arellano Félix and the Juárez cartels. Nonetheless, it is clear
that under these arrangements criminal and violent activity has been allowed
to continue. And it is also transparently obvious that the expectation of legal
immunity and reduced sentences has encouraged informants to share information that has indubitably fuelled brutal criminal violence. While accepting
that these arrangements are ‘deals with the devil’, many continue to defend
them on the basis of intelligence they provide such as ‘where traffickers like to
eat’ or where they may ‘sleep’. Thus ex-ambassador Myles Frechette, who
had been entrusted with the task of re-establishing extradition between the US
and Colombia, claimed success for the kingpin strategy, notwithstanding the
fact that the drug trade continues unabated. More recently, Vanda FelbabBrown from the Brookings Institution considered the information exchanges
with the Sinaloa cartel informant as an important intelligence coup, whereas
in the view of Eric L. Olson, based at the Woodrow Wilson Center, ‘What
makes this so hard’ is the fact that ‘the United States is using tools in a
country where officials are still uncomfortable with those tools’. However,
their permissiveness towards brutal behaviour, and their tolerance of the
criminal violence and human tragedy they often unleash, make it hard to see
how official actions can be justified (Thompson 2011; Gómora 2014).
When President Calderón rolled out his military operation for Michoacán
in December 2006, the Attorney General’s Office had identified half a dozen
A humanitarian crisis in the making 67
criminal organisations as being active. Two years later, under the pressure of
anti-narcotics policy and law enforcement, the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels
had split into four organisations. The ripple effects of the Sinaloa–Beltrán
Leyva divorce produced at least five organisations, while the Milenio cartel
spawned at least two offspring. Towards the end of the Calderón administration the Attorney General’s Office identified twelve major organisations,
though in some states the level of fragmentation had reached unprecedented
levels: in Guerrero federal authorities estimated that at least four regional
organisations and ten local groups were fully active.
The succession of military and joint operations deployed by President Calderón in early 2007 in Guerrero, Baja California, Tijuana, Chihuahua and the
Golden Triangle, and in 2008 in Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Sinaloa, followed by a deployment to the southern border in 2009, further fragmented the
criminal marketplace. By 2013, although the Attorney General’s Office again
identified eight major criminal organisations, its intelligence branch concluded
that their ramifications spread across eighty sub-groups with a presence in twentyfour states. According to the PGR analysis, the Barbie cartel commanded twentythree sub-groups, the Arellano Félix fourteen, the Sinaloa cartel twelve of the
most powerful cells, the Familia Michoacana five cells, the Zetas three sub-groups,
the Caballeros Templarios and the New Juárez group two sub-groups each,
while the Beltran Leyva had fragmented into nineteen cells (Guerrero 2011;
PGR 2013; Flores 2013). This fragmentation also meant that these groups were
engaging in ever more predatory crime throughout the country. The combined
effect of military deployments and decapitation created a criminal nightmare of
greater proportions, with violent networks spreading ever further.
Criminal violence in various places has created pressure for military intervention, in some instances requested by governors, including PRD governors
in Guerrero and Michoacán. However, it soon became evident that military
involvement had been adopted with little or no awareness of its likely impact
on criminal power balances and dynamics.
The reasoning that drove military deployment was based on two equally
questionable assumptions: that the drug cartels had to be confronted by full
military might, and that by the capture or elimination of their top leaders
they could be destroyed. If voices within the Calderón administration had
raised doubts or called attention to the potential dangers of military action,
they were clearly silenced. By contrast, the security advisors who singlemindedly argued that ‘200 targets had been identified and that the purpose of
the campaign was precisely to eliminate them’ presumably prevailed. The
proliferation of criminal gangs and explosion of violence immediately following military action revealed the degree of blindness to the complexities of
tackling the drug problem within the Calderón administration.
Indeed, the Calderón government showed little grasp of the probable
repercussions of initiating a war on drugs. On the one hand, by resorting to
the rhetoric of war it inadvertently ran the risk of conferring the status and
legitimacy of belligerents to criminal actors. But more importantly, by declaring
68 Securitization, militarization, human rights
an all-out war on drugs the government inflated the pressure to use military
force, creating in turn the expectation of a quick, decisive victory. President
Calderón’s policy turned the elimination of illicit drug transactions into a
military target, failing to understand that drug trafficking can never be wiped
out, it can only be regulated. There was certainly a security aspect to the
crisis, possibly even a military dimension, but clearly there was no military
solution to the drug problem.
Any suggestion that the best policy would be either to refrain from the use
of military force altogether or to use it ‘in the proper capacity and in a precise
and principled manner’ did not appear to find an echo within the administration, and was possibly dismissed as a sign of weakness (Howard 2002;
Mullen 2010). The failure to understand that criminal organisations held
sway over local communities, and that traffickers were generally embedded
within the population, meant that the use of force was not considered only as
a last resort, nor were tactics aimed at protecting the population. The
accounts of military patrols and operations in cities, including Ciudad Juárez,
reveals how the simple logic of ‘going after the 200’ came face to face with
murky realities on the ground. In Ciudad Juárez, in 2008, after the military
campaign there, the homicide rate reached 1,607 violent deaths, including 175
police officers, and through the next two years the funerary business thrived.
With no clear intelligence policy, and no stated rules of engagement, military
action turned into a desperate search for drug deposits and a brutal witchhunt. Having been tortured into forced confessions, hundreds of young men,
many of them dealers, were then left at the mercy of a ferocious war for
criminal survival between ‘La Línea’, the armed branch of the Juárez organisation, and the Sinaloa cartel. The ripple effects of the drug war spread in
diverse ways. The head of the local police, Roberto Orduña, was forced to
resign upon the warning that every 48 hours a police agent would be killed.
Drug rehabilitation centres were stormed and forced to close. Agricultural
communities like ‘Le Barón’ felt compelled to organise self-defence units.
Notwithstanding these outcomes, in February of that year Fernando Gómez
Mont, then secretary of the interior, announced that the local, state and federal levels of government had joined forces to expel all criminals from Ciudad
Juárez (Rodríguez Nieto 2009a; 2009b; Chávez Días de León 2009; Alvarado
Alvarez 2009; Turati 2009, Lomas 2009).
The government had sought to defeat its elusive adversary by deploying
9,000 troops, the objective being to trace and detain the enemy as quickly as
possible with little or no concern for the impact on the civilian population.
The absence of clear rules of engagement and a lack of clarity over the use of
firepower in military operations meant that a significant number of civilians was
bound to be affected. Moreover, the fluidity of the violence and its multifarious sources meant that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify
who was criminal or non-criminal and thus to establish the non-combatant
status of hundreds of innocent citizens (Strachan and Scheipers 2011; Roberts
2011). If the objective was the total defeat of a criminal enemy, the chances of
A humanitarian crisis in the making 69
civilians being wrongly identified as complicit and thus becoming military
targets clearly increased. As the stories described in the tragic vignettes
included in La guerra por Juárez (Páez Varela 2009) make clear, in the eyes of
the citizens of Ciudad Juárez ‘Operación Conjunta Chihuahua’ was never
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A humanitarian crisis in the making 75

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