Monday, January 25, 2016
Bullseye on Her Back
The cartels in Mexico seem to be constantly in the headlines. Catering to the drug demands within the United States is big business, worth killing, maiming and terrorizing over. El Chapo may be in custody, but there are plenty of other cartel bosses and cartel-boss-wannabees duking it out in Mexico. Not to mention a new profession that is attracting a bevy of pathological villains who are slowly changing the face of Mexico.
They’re called sicarios, professional hitmen whose skillsets are growing rapidly and who are exceptionally well-armed with guns purchased legally up north (lots from U.S. gun shows) and smuggled south into Mexico, which has (on paper at least) fairly strict gun control laws. The current Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro film, Sicario, is the story of a CIA-hired Mexican hitman turned back onto a cartel boss. The real sicarios are transforming Mexico in a way no one would have pictured just a few years ago.
No longer content to siphon significant revenues from the drug trade, bands of these sicarios have found a new revenue source – a protection racket, one that threatens Mexico’s democratic election process, perhaps even the government itself. “For a decade, Mexican troops have worked with American agents to pursue kingpins, in what is known as the cartel decapitation strategy. Flamboyant gangsters with nicknames like ‘Tony Tormenta,’ ‘the Engineer’ and ‘the Viceroy’ have been shot down or arrested. El Chapo, or Shorty, has been detained twice in less than two years. Yet while these kingpins rot in prisons and graves, their assassins have formed their own organizations, which can be even more violent and predatory.
“Morelos State, which is home to Temixco [whose mayor was recently shot; see below], is a bloody example. Dotted with green valleys and hot springs, it had long been used by a drug lord called Arturo Beltrán Leyva, alias ‘the Beard,’ to fly in cocaine from Colombia before taking it north. Mr. Beltrán Leyva was an ally-turned-enemy of El Chapo who rivaled him in his capacity to move product. But during the early 2000s, while Mr. Beltrán Leyva built his empire in Morelos, murder rates were relatively low.
“In 2009, American agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration got intelligence on Mr. Beltrán Leyva’s whereabouts. The D.E.A. gave the address to Mexican marines — an elite American-trained force — who stormed in, killing Mr. Beltrán Leyva and four of his accomplices. A senior D.E.A. official told me they paid their informant a $5 million reward for the information that led to the takedown — taxpayer money spent to try and win the drug war.
“Without their leader, sicarios who had worked for the Beard formed their own splinter cartels, including Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos, or Warriors United, and went on a killing rampage. The two cartels now fight over turf in Morelos and neighboring Guerrero State, leaving piles of bodies. Last year, Guerrero had the highest number of murders per capita in Mexico; Morelos was fourth.” Ioan Grillo writing in the January 15th New York Times. Their new targets? Mayors from towns and cities all over Mexico.
These bands of sicarios are sending a message to locally elected political leaders: play ball with us or die! And playing ball seems to be going well-beyond simply taking the bribes to “look the other way” or help the cartels stay in business that we have all become used to. Instead of bribing officials, these sicarios are looking to these towns and cities to pay them protection money: “The cartel makes telling demands of the mayors, [the governor of the Mexican state of Morelos, Graco] Ramírez said — for example, contracts for valuable building projects or the right to name the town police chiefs. And they are forcing mayors to give them 10 percent of their annual budgets. As Mexico’s government provides much of the financing, this means the cartels are feeding from the federal pot — and in turn from the United States, which provides the Mexican government with about $300 million a year in drug-war aid.
“Corruption in Mexico is as old as the country itself, and traffickers have been bribing politicians during the century that they have been smuggling drugs to Americans. Mayors, governors and federal officials have turned a blind eye to opium fields and meth superlabs. In 1997, the federal government’s drug czar himself was arrested on suspicion of taking bribes.
“But now gangsters are flipping this century-old deal. Instead of handing out bribes, they are making the mayors pay them. Politics is not just a way to help their criminal businesses; it is a business in itself. And as they take control of these politicians, the cartels transform themselves into an ominous shadow power, using the tools of the state to affect anyone who lives or works in its jurisdiction.
“With more than 2,000 mayors in Mexico, most of whom have little protection, the cartels have a big market to tap. The combined booty is potentially worth billions of dollars a year. And, indeed, the tactic of shaking down mayors appears to be expanding beyond Morelos. In 2014, it was revealed that the bizarrely named Knights Templar cartel, based in Michoacán State, was also forcing mayors to hand over a percentage of their budgets. Videos and photos even emerged of the Templar’s leader, Servando Gómez, also known as ‘La Tuta,’ sitting down and talking with various mayors.” Grillo.
On January 2nd, the latest mayor to be executed by these sicarios was the anti-cartel-reform candidate, “33-year-old Gisela Mota, who only hours before had been sworn in as the first female mayor of Temixco, a sleepy spa town an hour from Mexico City. Ms. Mota was still in her pajamas as the men approached her parents’ breezeblock house. She was in the bedroom, but most of her family was in the front room, cooing over a newborn baby. As the family prepared a milk bottle, the assassins smashed the door open. Amid the commotion, Ms. Mota came out of her bedroom and said firmly, ‘I am Gisela.’ In front of her terrified family, the men beat Ms. Mota and shot her several times, killing her… [Sicarios] have killed almost 100 mayors in Mexico in the last decade. But Ms. Mota had been undeterred.” Grillo.
Are officials in Mexico and the United States remotely prepared to take down this new lucrative business? Allowing it to continue undermines the entire democratic system that has only recently begun to be the multi-party system envisioned by its 1917 constitution. When what used to be the sole political party – the PRI – was ousted in 2000, hopes ran high for a new, freer Mexico. But with the rise of cartel/sicarios power in recent years, a new, more malevolent threat seems to have arisen. And anti-drug laws in the United States have made the drug trade, and all aspects of that trade, the biggest challenge to Mexico since it ended Spanish colonial rule on September 16, 1810 and the ousted the French as of May 5, 1862.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is particularly unsettling to have this degree of violent instability in our southern neighbor.