Echoes of the Drug War
Even in Mexico's most elite locales, it's impossible to escape the reverberations of cartel violence.
Puebla, MEXICO-My hotel on the outskirts of Puebla, a city of 1.3 million in central Mexico, looks out over a rolling golf course lined with palm trees and beyond that a busy highway flanked by Mazda and Mercedes car dealerships. The historic downtown has colonial Spanish architecture. Newer areas of the city boast gated subdivisions, Home Depot outlets, and strip malls. I came to attend a technology conference, "Ciudad de las Ideas," now in its third year and featuring such international luminaries as Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson as speakers. This is first-world Mexico, as swanky and cosmopolitan as anywhere in the United States or Europe. The slice of elite Mexican society at the conference sports iPhones and Chanel bags, sips Starbucks coffee, and, upon hearing that I'm American, waxes on about vacations in Miami and San Diego.
Puebla, MEXICO-My hotel on the outskirts of Puebla, a city of 1.3 million in central Mexico, looks out over a rolling golf course lined with palm trees and beyond that a busy highway flanked by Mazda and Mercedes car dealerships. The historic downtown has colonial Spanish architecture. Newer areas of the city boast gated subdivisions, Home Depot outlets, and strip malls. I came to attend a technology conference, "Ciudad de las Ideas," now in its third year and featuring such international luminaries as Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson as speakers. This is first-world Mexico, as swanky and cosmopolitan as anywhere in the United States or Europe. The slice of elite Mexican society at the conference sports iPhones and Chanel bags, sips Starbucks coffee, and, upon hearing that I’m American, waxes on about vacations in Miami and San Diego.
In other words, I’m not in newspaper Mexico: the Mexico that has been so obviously ravaged by the country’s brutal drug wars over the past half decade. Mexico’s chattering classes are removed not just geographically but, it would seem, psychologically, from the more grisly images we’ve seen on the news this year, mostly from northern Mexico: 13 young people slaughtered at a birthday party in the border town of Juárez; teenage drug-cartel recruits wielding machetes in homemade torture videos; beheaded bodies left on the white-sand beaches of Acapulco; the bullet-ridden corpses of six blind-folded former drug-runners rotting beside a coastal highway with hand-written notes from the killers (a tactic to intimidate rival gang members). Since 2006, an estimated 30,000 people have died in violence arising from the activity of increasingly powerful Mexican drug cartels. "It is not only the amount of violence that’s terrible; it is the spectacular nature of the violence — the elaborate style of the executions," Mexican journalist Sergio Sarmiento told me. In the largest outbreak of violence since the Mexican revolution 100 years ago, both the recruits and the victims appear to be getting younger — giving rise to talk of a "lost generation."
About 90 percent of the violence has taken place in a handful of northern counties, far away from the swimming pools and gated villas of Puebla. Yet, these two Mexicos — the privileged and the desperate — are not so far apart as it may seem. Drug violence doesn’t often come to Puebla, but drug cartel leaders — like other successful Mexican businessmen — do. In September, one of the country’s most notorious cartel leaders, Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal Barragan, was arrested in Puebla by 30 Mexican marines. "Puebla is perceived as a place that is largely free from violence — which, surely, must be as attractive to a drug lord as it is to me," Pedro Ángel Palou, a Puebla-based novelist, wrote in the New York Times. Yet that perception is changing: "We too, in a sense, are trapped in Puebla. In my neighborhood, where the roads are still unpaved, we live behind high walls and electrified or barbed-wire fences … no matter the lengths we go to preserve our tranquility, violence infringes."
In Mexico City, I spoke with Gabriella Gomez-Mont, an artist and senior TED fellow, who explained the cultural echoes of drug violence this way: "To see death and violence every day on the TV and newspapers, you think it doesn’t affect people? Some people feel directly threatened, but for others it simply opens up an imaginarium of violence. There is a sense of impunity people feel. Even crimes not related to drugs … are becoming more violent."
I did not come to Mexico to report on the drug wars. But it is impossible to visit any part of Mexico today, even Puebla, and not recognize how much the fear and despair of the drug wars has permeated all aspects and levels of Mexican life.
"Thank you for coming. Not a lot of Americans come to see us these days," said Luis Echarte, chairman of Fundación Azteca America and former CFO of TV Azteca, one of Mexico’s top broadcasters. We were sitting in a conference room inside TV Azteca’s main offices in Mexico City, having just toured the festive studios of a popular morning show where women with long tresses and practiced effervescence were gushing about how to throw the best bachelorette parties. I had not mentioned the war on drugs, but it was, implicitly, the first subject of conversation. "It’s not as bad as it looks on the news, but we are having some serious problems in some cities," Echarte said. "Thank you again," he said as I was leaving. "It’s very difficult to get Americans to come down."
No one quite understands how things became so bad, so quickly, or why the violence is so much more spectacular and grisly than similar drug-related violence in places like Colombia. Among the Mexican politicians I spoke with, some say that President Felipe Calderón’s high-profile "war on drugs" crackdowns since 2006 on Mexican drug bosses such as Villarreal Barragan have only driven a spike in violence, because removing cartel leaders simply inflames rivalries among would-be successors and competing gangs. Others argue that the violence would have shot up regardless of the president’s policies, due to the existence of an estimated 7 million "ni nis" — young people who neither work nor study and have little opportunity to make money outside of cartels — victims of both Mexico’s sluggish economy and predatory drug bosses.
Some say that stemming the demand for smuggling illegal drugs into the United States, for instance by legalizing marijuana, would help curb the problem. Others contend that if it wasn’t drugs, it would be something else (Mexican cartels used to smuggle hemp and even appliances) — in other words, the problem isn’t drugs so much as it is organized crime.
As to what’s next, some worry about the human-rights implications of the popular notion that this is "Mexico’s 9/11," a national tragedy justifying increased police powers (Mexico’s law-enforcement forces have already been given increased latitude in detaining suspects and using wiretap evidence in court). Others say the historic weakness of Mexican institutions and civil society created conditions for lawlessness to flourish in the first place.
Consider Juárez, now infamous as Mexico’s most violent city. It is a northern border town and located on a heavy drug-trafficking route. Perhaps just as significantly, it was one of the cities most affected by the economic transformations that began in Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerated after the passage of NAFTA in 1994. Workers moved from south and central Mexico to Juárez to find low-skilled jobs at newly opened maquiladoras, factories paying low wages and manufacturing for export north of the border. The children of these internal migrants — contemporaries of today’s drug-cartel leaders — grew up without role models and little to tie them into the community.
"In Juárez, they figured the only thing that mattered was having a job. But one can’t see the true extent of poverty only by looking at employment," explains Cecilia Balli, an assistant professor of anthropology at University of Texas at Austin who has spent time in Juárez interviewing local officials and victims of gang-related violence. "Places like this in Mexico never developed the rule of law — [such cities] didn’t incorporate the poor into any kind of democratic process. There are just layers and layers of neglect: social, psychological, economic neglect." Her reporting has led her to believe that Mexico’s young and jobless are even more disconnected from society than their counterparts around the world. Juárez is a standout, but other northern maquiladora cities have been among the most susceptible to cartel recruitment and ghastly violence.
This year, Mexico marked the 200th anniversary of its independence. But celebrations were marred. In Juárez, shortly after the celebratory parade, a local newspaper photographer — allegedly a friend of the son of a local human rights investigator — was gunned down in the middle of the afternoon. Even aside from recent drug violence, there is an element of prevailing pessimism in the national narrative that immediately stands out to an American visitor. "We were a very rich country at one point," as the journalist Sarmiento put it. "When America was building log cabins, we in Mexico already had vast sparkling cities. Then things started to happen; we started to do things wrong; we started to live below our potential…. We still haven’t figured out what we did wrong over the past 200 years, what exactly is not right in Mexico."
Sitting inside the heavily guarded presidential residence, Los Pinos, in Mexico City, waiting to speak with one of Calderón’s advisors, I examined the portraits of mustachioed national heroes staring down from their gold frames. How would they answer Sarmiento’s question? The palace had the feel of a bunker, but not because the drug wars resemble "an insurgency," as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in September — it’s clear that most of the violence is directed at rival gangs, not the state. But it’s also clear that Mexico’s "war on drugs" cannot be regarded as a law enforcement issue alone; it concerns the whole of society. And society at large must be engaged if the war is ever going to end.
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