In Mexico, a Real Drug War
by Frontera NorteSur

The news reports are graphic: "7 Bodies Found," "Attack with Grenades," "Three Kidnapped and Others Murdered," "Two De-Quartered Bodies Found." Iraq? Afghanistan? Guess again. The death toll and motives might be different, but the newspaper headlines in question actually hail from Mexican newspapers that print daily stories about narco-violence that's extended from northern border states to the central and southern parts of the nation. Depending on the estimate, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 Mexicans have been slaughtered in violence connected to organized crime since the beginning of the year, but it is widely suspected by the press and other close observers that the real number of victims is higher. If current murder rates continue, the body count will equal or surpass the figure for 2005.

While much of the recent attention on Mexico has focused on the post-electoral conflict in Mexico City or the popular uprising against Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, violence attributed to wars between drug cartels and to organized crime shows no signs of abating. Nor does the Mexican state show any new ability or desire to put a halt to the carnage.

"It's an all-out battle that's become more visible, above all because the violence has come to zones where the drug traffickers didn't regularly move around in," said Mexican criminologist Rafael Ruiz Harrell. "Regrettably, we're talking about an all-out war in which the authorities seem only to be witnesses."

Flashpoints include the capital of Mexico City , as well as the states of Baja California , Sonora , Sinaloa , Chihuahua , Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon , Michoacan, Guerrero, Quintana Roo and Yucatan , among others. The tourist resorts of Cancun , Acapulco and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo continue being hot spots. Indeed, the major part of the nation is now embroiled in organized crime feuds. Violence is reaching such levels that some "narco-families" are reportedly fleeing their home bases and seeking refuge in the few remaining tranquil spots of the country or attempting to relocate to the United States and Canada.

While certainly not new, gangland violence is evolving in new ways, ranging from the military-style ferocity of the bloodletting to the changing geographic origins and demographic profiles of both the victims and victimizers. Alongside the AK-47 rifle, grenades and bazookas now are popular weapons of choice. Recurring government reports claim that Central Americans, including members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, have been employed to do the cartels' dirty work. Few, however, have been detained.

A Lost Generation?

A review of episodes of suspected narco-violence in recent weeks confirms several trends. More of the victims are young, a growing number are female and a good percentage are somehow connected to the police or military. A disturbing number of the casualties are made up of bystanders who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. A high-noon shoot-out between two gangs on Aug. 31 in Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero, left two young boys wounded, 11-year-old Daniel Yair Vega Felix and his 6-year-old brother Felix. Other school children were present at the scene of the gun battle but were not injured.

In early August, residents of the Ciudad Juarez neighborhood of Tierra Nueva witnessed the abductions of two teenagers by a band of armed men who were driving a truck with Texas license plates. The youths, 16-year-old Hector Moncayo Gomez and 17-year-old Alonso Prieto, were later found executed and dumped in an empty lot near the city's airport. Shocked and angered neighbors insisted the young men never caused trouble. "We know who is trouble here in the colonia, who takes drugs, one is not blind," said an unidentified woman amid tears. "They didn't take drugs or do bad things. They were just boys!"

Independent of whether or not Moncayo and Prieto were involved in criminal activities, Mexican academic researchers report that more youth are being lured into the fast-money temptations of the narco-world. According to Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a researcher with El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, many youths from marginalized backgrounds do not have problems at all with committing violent crimes if it means earning an income.

"Nowadays, youths say they want to become politicians, work in the United States or get involved in drug trafficking to have money and power," added Luis Garcia, coordinator of the criminology faculty at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon.

Another trend involves the increasing number of women who are victims of narco-executions. Since late July, for example, at least eight women in several states have been kidnapped or murdered in incidents reeking of the involvement of organized crime. Two of the victims, Viviana Mendoza Chavez and Lorena Gallardo Rosiles, were shot to death inside an Internet cafe and cell phone sales outlet in the violence-wracked port of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan.

The Press Under Further Siege

In his last report before leaving office, outgoing President Vicente Fox stated on Sept. 1 that freedom of press is a reality in Mexico . What President Fox did not mention was that Mexico now ranks only second to Colombia in terms of murdered journalists, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. For many Mexican journalists, covering the news about organized crime is practically akin to being a Middle Eastern war correspondent.

Just hours before President Fox delivered his upbeat report, a grenade exploded at the offices of the Por Esto! newspaper in Merida , Yucatan , wounding three workers. The attack occurred within 180 feet of a school that had just begun classes for the day. It was the second grenade attack suffered by a branch of the newspaper in recent days. Known for its audacious reporting, recent stories of Por Esto! have discussed the smuggling of undocumented Cubans and the involvement of law enforcement officials in drug trafficking.

Yucatan state law enforcement authorities detained a collaborator of Por Esto!, Ricardo Delfin Quezada, for questioning, but according to Miguel Menendez Camara, the newspaper's assistant editor, serious leads pointed to organized crime. Menendez complained that state and municipal authorities did not immediately contact the newspaper after the explosion to express their concern. “This shows their interest in what's going on in Yucatan and in a city like Merida,” Menendez said.

At the same time they physically intimidate the press, narco-gangs are also getting craftier about using the media to spread threats against their rivals and send messages to the government. Especially gruesome are the messages left alongside decapitated heads or mutilated corpses by presumed members of Zetas and Pelones gangs against each other and the government. Fueled by revenge and counter-revenge, strong indications exist that the narco wars are escalating beyond simple economic turf battles and acquiring a life of their own.

Mexican Federal Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca blames the upsurge in violence to the “success” of the Fox Administration in arresting major traffickers and disrupting criminal organizations. According to Cabeza de Vaca, detentions have delivered major blows to drug cartels, leaving the golden cookie jar open to second- or third-level operators who fight over the spoils.

Nonetheless, many leading, alleged traffickers like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman have yet to be captured. For criminologist Rafael Ruiz Harrell, all levels of the Mexican government have let whatever control they might have had over drug trafficking "slip from their hands."

A tiny sampling of the firepower available for use in the narco wars was revealed by the Mexican army recently after its soldiers seized three vehicles -- one of which was armored -- in Sinaloa state. Eugenio Hidalgo Heddi, the commander of 9th Military Zone, reported that his soldiers confiscated several AK-47 and G-3 rifles, ammunition, dynamite, cell-phones, radios, camouflage clothing, and a bullet-proof vest. No suspects were reported detained, however.