As drug cartels battle the government, Mexico descends into chaos
by GUY LAWSON
Rolling Stone, Issue 1065
The dead policeman is found propped against a tree off a dirt road on the outskirts of the city. He is dressed like a cartoon version of a Mexican cowboy, wearing a sombrero and wrapped in a heavy woolen blanket. The murder and symbolic mutilation of policía has become almost routine in Culiacán, capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa: Pablo Aispuro Ramírez is one of 90 cops to be killed here this year. There is a note pinned to the body, a warning to anyone who dares to oppose the powerful drug lord who ordered the execution.
"I'm a cop-cowboy!" the note reads. "Ahoo-ya! There are going to be more soon!"
In the United States, the War on Drugs is a political slogan for a policy disaster that has cost taxpayers at least $500 billion over the past 35 years. In Mexico, it is a brutal and bewildering conflict — a multisided civil war that has taken 3,000 lives this year alone and brought the federal government to a state of near-collapse. Narcotics are now one of the largest sectors of the Mexican economy, twice the size of tourism. Most of the country's drug trade involves transporting contraband from other sources — especially cocaine from Colombia — to satisfy the nearly insatiable demand in the U.S. But Mexico's narcotraficante cartels have also gotten into the production side of the industry, manufacturing 80 percent of the crystal meth sold in America, 14 percent of the heroin and most of the marijuana. What Mexico offers the global narcotics industry is proximity to the largest market on earth.
Until the Bush administration's crackdown on coca growers in Colombia began driving the drug trade further north, traffic through Mexico was relatively stable, overseen chiefly by the huge cartels based in Sinaloa. Known as "the federation," the traditional families that led Mexico's thriving narcotics business each controlled disparate areas of the U.S. border, much as the Mafia once divided up the boroughs of New York City. Perhaps the most ingenious and hardworking of these Mexican mobsters is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as "El Chapo," or "Shorty." Chapo, who controls the border towns of Nogales and Mexicali, built massive underground tunnels to smuggle cocaine into Arizona. He concealed tons of cocaine in cans of chili peppers destined for California. He assembled a fleet of boats and trucks and airplanes with hidden compartments to enable them to slip past customs. To the U.S. government, he is one of the most wanted drug dealers in the world, a fugitive with a $5 million reward on his head. In Culiacán, he is more folk hero — part Pablo Escobar, part Robin Hood, part Billy the Kid.
"We respect him," the owner of a restaurant in the town of Altata tells me. "He grew up poor, planting corn and pot. Then he took trucks with false floors filled with pot to the United States, and speedboats from the coast to California. In Mexico we have a saying: He spread like humidity."
For years, Chapo shared the drug trade with other families in the federation. The Beltrán Leyva cartel was in charge of the traffic in Monterrey, and a former federal police officer known as "El Azul" ran Guadalajara. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the cartel leader called "the Lord of the Skies," worked the border town of Ciudad Juárez, opposite El Paso. At the peak of his power, Fuentes was said to have paid $500 million a year in protection money. It was Fuentes who pioneered the traffic in Colombian coke, and who infamously died during plastic surgery to alter his appearance. (The two doctors alleged to have botched the operation were later found entombed in cement, their arms and legs bound.)
Over the past decade, however, that relatively stable structure has erupted into full-scale war — largely as the result of the unintended consequences of U.S. drug policy. When the Drug Enforcement Administration blocked cocaine shipments through the Caribbean during the 1980s, the trade simply migrated to overland routes through Mexico. Likewise, the DEA's success against the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia has only emboldened Mexico's narcos, driving the drug traffic ever closer to home. Newcomers on the Gulf Coast eager to break into the industry are challenging the rule of the existing cartels, sparking a bloody battle over territory and supply routes. And the Mexican government — under pressure from the United States to curb the flow of drugs — is waging an all-out campaign to destroy the cartels.
Indeed, much of the current bloodshed can be traced to the special forces that Mexico trained to find and arrest drug traffickers, receiving instruction from the U.S. military on tactics, intelligence-gathering, air assault and advanced weaponry. In the late 1990s, one of the new Gulf cartels began recruiting these American-trained soldiers to work as hired guns against the Sinaloan cartels, offering vastly higher wages than the government. Known as "Los Zetas" — the Mexican police's term for a high-ranking official — these mercenaries are now the most violent force in Mexico, moving massive amounts of drugs into the U.S. while murdering journalists and police and politicians who challenge their authority. Led by Heriberto "the Executioner" Lazcano, the Zeta paramilitaries are far more sophisticated in their weaponry and combat skills than the hapless and corruption-addled policía. It is as if the Navy SEALs or an FBI SWAT team went to work for the Russian mob.
Through the early part of the decade, the war steadily increased in intensity, but it was only with the inauguration of President Felipe Calderón in December 2006 that true chaos enveloped the nation. A conservative elected by a narrow margin, Calderón has made going after the drug traffickers a central part of his administration. He has deployed more than 40,000 federal soldiers across the country and imprisoned thousands of narcos, from lowly street dealers to drug lords and money launderers. But the result of Calderón's war has been catastrophe. In reply, the traffickers have directly attacked the legitimacy of the government, targeting politicians and senior law-enforcement officials. Ten days after Calderón took office, in what was seen as a message from the cartels, a cousin of his wife was killed and stuffed into the trunk of a car in Mexico City. In May, the chief of the federal police was gunned down in the capital. That same month, a village in the state of Chihuahua was overrun by 70 gunmen; the police chief and two officers were killed, the rest of the force quit in fear. In August, 12 decapitated bodies were left on the outskirts of Mérida on the Gulf Coast, the letter "Z" tattooed on their bodies, the calling card of Los Zetas. On September 15th — during a celebration of Mexican Independence Day — two fragmentation grenades exploded in the square of President Calderón's hometown of Morelia, killing eight civilians and wounding more than 100. The government's war on drugs has sparked a war on the government itself.
The war has now spread to America's own border. In three days in August, 43 people were killed in drug-related murders in and around Juárez, just across the river from El Paso. Experts agree that the violence could soon pose a threat to national security in America, with the already porous border turning into a floodgate for Mexican refugees and gangs. "I worry that the country's political class won't truly act until a major figure is assassinated," says Luis Astorga, a sociologist at the Institute of Social Research in Mexico City. "But right now it's not very clear what the 'war' means. No one is sure who is fighting who. It best resembles a circular firing squad."
[Read the entire story in the new issue of Rolling Stone, on stands October 30, 2008.]