Second in a series on the Mexican Drug War
By Joe Chivers
One of the reasons I was so specifically intrigued to write about the Mexican Drug War is because I feel it is a war that is vastly misunderstood. In most news reports, all you will get is a litany of tragedies. You’ll hear about barely recognizable human wreckage scattered across graveyards, or corpses dangling from bridges, but there will be no deeper analysis. Actions will not be put under the microscope. They will be treated as inevitable, as though the war is as unchanging as the seasons. We all know that this is not truly the case, but in-depth, good reporting mostly comes from Mexican blogs, such as the now defunct Blog del Narco, which reported news in the face of innumerable death threats. My aim with this series is to go some way to give you a better understanding and to comprehend the war’s roots and why it continues. Last time, we saw how Mexico came to be the home of unrivalled gang violence, which began with alcohol and drug prohibition in the early 20th century. This time, we’ll examine the intensification of the drug war, from 2006 onwards.
In 2006, Mexico elected Felipe Calderon, of the National Action Party (PAN), who immediately increased Federal Police and military salaries, and launched raids on the cartels. Until this point, cartels largely stuck to their own territory and conflicts were dealt with by local officials or the federal authorities as necessary. This was the first time that a Mexican leader had decided to emulate the American War on Drugs, and, in doing so, the situation would become far more volatile.
The first raids began on December 11, 2006, when 6500 troops were deployed to Michoacan, where over 500 people were killed by cartel violence in 2006. The situation developed slowly, but by 2007, soldiers were already beginning to use heavy weaponry such as grenade launchers in their running battles with the traffickers. This is one facet of the problem. Soldiers are trained to fight in battles, not to participate in low-intensity firefights or arrest those who break the law. The results are civilian casualties, avoidable deaths, and human rights violations. The situation was destined to boil over, and in 2008, the heat was sharply increased. On April 23rd of that year, General Sergio Aponte Polito, the leader of the campaign in Baja California accused numerous police and government officials of corruption in an article in the newspaper Frontera. At least 50 of the accusations appear to have held water given the number of resignations. These accusations were far from unprecedented: in December 2007, the police force of Playas del Rosarito in Baja had been accused of colluding with cartels and were disarmed. However, Aponte was removed from the post four months later.
By this point, in August 2008, 40,000 troops had been deployed across the country. Deaths were to double to 5,207 that year. To put it in the blunt terms that the Blog del Narco journalists did “[Felipe Calderon] ran around our country and began hitting the beehive, thinking he would get rid of the bees.” The American government was apparently fairly happy with this arrangement, and gave the Mexican government $1.6 billion in the Merida initiative. The war continued to intensify.
An example of this intensification of the conflict can be seen with the events following the arrest of Arnoldo Rueda. Rueda, a leader of La Familia Michoacana cartel was arrested on July 11th, 2009, and was the second Familia leader to be arrested that year. The same day, La Familia responded, attacking the police and military with heavy weapons in co-ordinated attacks, and several days later, 12 police officers were found dead on a Michoacán highway. The war is, of course, not only a war between cartels and government, but one which spills over and kills countless civilians. In September, for example, 27 people were killed in two attacks on rehab clinics in Ciudad Juarez, a city which had seen 5000 troops deployed. 2009 was also the year that saw the start of the embarrassingly poorly planned Operation Fast and Furious, which saw the ATF effectively overlooking arms sales to cartels. On December 15, the Mexican government received five Bell 412 helicopters from the US. The United States was now arming both sides.
2010 began as violently as 2009 ended, with Los Zetas beginning to battle the Gulf Cartel, for whom they previously worked as enforcers, in the north-eastern state of Tamaulipas. The battles focused on the border town of Reynosa, with some surrounding municipalities being turned in to ghost towns. Take the firefight in the city of Camargo on February 27th. The rival cartels fought across the area, rendering it uninhabitable. The army surrounded the city, but did not move in, with residents becoming increasingly angry at this state of affairs. This was to be the start of a long, bloody conflict between Los Zetas and the Gulf, Sinaloa, and Familia Michoacana cartels. In March, various U.S. officials including Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates pledged public support for the Mexican government and its drug war.
This was also to be the year that saw the worst crimes of the drug war begin in earnest. In June, two mass graves were discovered, each containing over 50 bodies, one in Guerrero, one in Nuevo Leon. Then, in August, another mass grave was discovered, this time in Tamaulipas, containing 72 bodies, mainly undocumented immigrants from Central and Southern America. They had been abducted by Los Zetas who murdered them out of fear that they would work for the Gulf Cartel. Violence continued in Tamaulipas until the end of the year. In November, one of the leaders of the Gulf Cartel, Antonio Cardenas Guillen, was killed in the city of Matamoros by government forces. In December, Los Zetas attempted to siphon oil from a pipeline in Puebla state, causing an explosion that killed 28. Total deaths from the drug war in 2010 were over 15,000.
Violence occurred within minutes of the year 2011 arriving. Two men were killed in Nuevo Leon, and in Guerrero, a 10-year-old girl was struck by a stray bullet and killed at a beach party. Later in January, 22 bodies were found scattered across Acapulco, with 15 having been decapitated.
In February, an ICE agent, Jaime Zapata, was gunned down in San Luis Potosi state by Los Zetas. The assailants would be arrested later that month in a raid by Mexican marines. The month after that, 193 bodies were discovered at the same site as the mass grave in August 2010, San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Once again, Los Zetas were to blame for the massacre of undocumented immigrants, who had been forced to fight to the death, or be executed.
In May, the violence spilled across into Guatemala, where 27 farmers were massacred by Los Zetas. In August, a casino in Monterrey was attacked killing 52, while in Acapulco, 600 teachers left their jobs after receiving threats from cartels, leaving 75,000 children without schooling. Finally, in December, a US military delegation met with the Mexican authorities on December 14th in Tamaulipas. On Christmas Day, authorities announced that they had captured El Chapo’s head of security.
The beginning of 2012 was marked by a spate of violent prison brawls. In January, a prison in Altamira saw a riot which killed 31, while in February, a riot in Nuevo Leon saw 44 killed. February also saw the deaths of a pair of Texas Baptist missionaries, John and Wanda Casias. The couple had lived in Mexico since the early 1970s, and there was no apparent motive for their murders.
On March 23rd, the day before the Pope was to visit Mexico, thirteen people were killed across Mexico. In April, attackers killed 16 in a bar in Chihuahua, with two of the dead being journalists, which may have been the motivation for the attack. In May, 49-68 people (death counts vary) were found massacred by Los Zetas in Nuevo Leon, on Highway 40. In addition to a spate of violence, July also saw a general election. The PAN party, over which Calderon presided, and which saw the drug war ignite, saw their voteshare plummet to 25%. The PRI party, who had previously been in power, returned with 38% of the votes. Enrique Peña Nieto was duly elected as President, but the drug war was far from over.
Finally, on December 19th, 23 people were killed in yet another prison brawl, this time in Durango.
January saw two immediate and severe problems raised for various cartels. On the 15th, a high-ranking member of the Gulf Cartel, Hector David Delgado, better known as El Metro 4, was shot by a rival group. On the 20th, Jose Angel Coronel Carrasco, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested by the Mexican military.
The net was also beginning to close on El Chapo Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel since the early 90s, with his father-in-law being arrested on April 30th. Meanwhile, on May 13th, Gulf Cartel commander Aurelio Cano Flores received a 35-year jail term in the US.
June saw some good news, with 165 kidnapped migrants being freed by the Mexican forces. Given the previous massacres of migrants that had occurred, this likely saved their lives. In August, Mario Ramirez Treviño, a Gulf Cartel commander, was arrested. In December, yet another mass grave was discovered, this time in Jalisco, with 67 bodies being recovered.
The key event in the Drug War in 2014 was the arrest of Sinaloa Cartel capo El Chapo Guzman in Mazatlán, at a hotel. El Chapo was found in bed with his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, and was seized by Mexican marines. He was then flown to Mexico City, where he was formally identified. However, as we know, the authorities’ celebrations would have to be short-lived.
On April 6th, in San Sebastian del Oeste in Jalisco, 15 police officers were killed in an ambush. This was the single biggest mass killing of police in five years. On May 3rd, 11 laborers disappeared without a trace in Sonora, while on May 22nd, a shootout between a cartel and police killed 43 in Tanhuato, Michoacán.
On July 16th, El Chapo was able to escape from the maximum-security Altiplano prison for the second time. This time, he was able to escape through a tunnel under his cell. The tunnel was not a tiny affair. It was 5’7” high, close to a mile long, 30 inches wide, and had artificial lighting and air ducts.
On January 8th, El Chapo was recaptured, in Sinaloa as part of Operation Black Swan. In addition to Mexican marines, Delta Force operatives and US Marshals also took part in this operation, as the US wished to extradite El Chapo, which has since been done.
While a horrific number of murders occurred in 2016, I would like to focus on one fact: 23,000 people were killed in Mexico that year, making it the second most dangerous country on Earth after Syria. The Mexican government have argued that the Mexican Drug War should not be considered a war, and should not be ranked alongside the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. However, the evidence speaks for itself. Are thousands of Mexicans dying thanks to conflict between highly-organized, heavily-armed groups? They are. The Drug War has intensified relatively low-level conflict between cartels to the status of a national conflict. The war’s goal was to make the world less safe for cartels, but it has also made the world less safe for civilians, for police, and for the military. In addition to this, the constant deaths create power vacuums which are filled only by even more violent successors.
In creating this list, I have had to cut out numerous atrocities. From garbage bags full of dismembered body parts, decapitated heads left outside a children’s museum, and numerous journalists, politicians, musicians, entertainers executed. Yet the war shows no sign of ending. 2017 looks set to be one of the bloodiest years on record: from January to June, 12,155 people were killed, with 2,234 cases opened in June alone. In the next, and final article in this series, I will examine Mexico’s possible futures, and the options open to it.
Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.