Mexico’s drug wars rage out of control

Saturday: A shoot-out between rival cartels in the north-western state of Sinaloa leaves nine dead, including six peasant farmers caught in the crossfire.

Sunday: Gunmen burst into a wedding in a small rural town in the southern state of Guerrero, killing five.

Monday: Hitmen target two people driving in Ciudad Juárez. The scene recalls the murder of three people linked to the US consulate 10 days earlier.

Tuesday: Newspapers publish a photograph of an alleged drug dealer being arrested by marines next to pictures of his body found dumped on Monday.

Just a small selection of incidents from the last four days of Mexico’s raging drug wars that have left few parts of the country untouched over the last three years . A snap visit on Wednesday by the United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is a sign of how concerned the US is getting about the spiralling violence just over its southern border.

With more than 2 000 people killed since the new year, 2010 is shaping up to overtake the record 6 500 drug-related murders last year, which topped the toll of more than 5 000 in 2008. The killings have happened despite an offensive against the cartels involving tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police launched in December 2006 by the president, Felipe Calderón. .

“We will not take even one step back in the face of those who want to see Mexico on its knees and without a future,” Calderón said on Sunday. But such expressions of presidential determination do little to counter the impression that the authorities are unable to deal with the killings, which are marked by ever more inventive cruelty and savage perversion.

International coverage focuses on the relentless violence in Ciudad Juárez, which has turned the city across the border from El Paso, Texas, into the deadliest in the world, with 191 murders per 100 000 citizens.

Weak government
But this is a complex and multi-faceted series of regional conflicts involving at least six organised crime groups that use corruption as well as firepower to control territories.

“The federal government is too weak to control the state governments so it is crazy to think they can control organised crime in those states,” says Samuel González, a former drug czar turned critic of Calderon’s military-led strategy. González says it is illusory to hope that the war will burn itself out through the emergence of a single, clearly dominant cartel. “Every organised crime group has some degree of protection from local authorities that makes it impossible that one can gain [national] hegemony.”

Much of the violence has been between the Sinaloa cartel — led by the country’s most famous trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — and its rivals who are vying for control of cocaine trafficking corridors across Mexico. The killing is also associated with growing cartel interest inother criminal activities, from the growing domestic drugs market to kidnapping, arms dealing and people smuggling.

Some of the most vicious recent violence has been in the north-eastern state of Tamaulipas. The Gulf cartel and its military wing, the Zetas, had assumed terrifying and absolute control over the busiest commercial stretch of frontier in the world. A pax mafiosa — the mafia’s peace — briefly reigned between the two gangs, with commercial and civic life subjugated by an omnipotent extortion racket.

But over the past month, an internecine battle inside the Gulf cartel has exploded. According to reports reaching the Guardian from Reynosa, the epicentre of the fighting, 200 people were killed over three weeks in late February and early March.

Journalists targeted
In Reynosa, at least eight journalists have been kidnapped in recent weeks. Two were visiting reporters from Mexico City who were later released and are now too frightened to talk about their ordeal. One other was found tortured to death and five are still missing.

Information from a journalist who must remain nameless for her own safety described armoured cars cruising through Reynosa marked CDG — Cartel del Golfo — or else with the letters XX to denominate the Zetas.

After one reported gun battle in Reynosa, the Gulf cartel hung a so called narco-mensaje, or narco-message, from a bridge. It read: “Reynosa is a safe city. Nothing is happening or will happen. Keep living your lives as normal. We are part of Tamaulipas and we will not mess with civilians. CDG.”

‘You are going to regret it, big time’
The Mexican government has sent in crack units of the marines but with little obvious success. A crime reporter from the city told the Guardian that he was on his way to cover a shoot-out last Thursday when traffickers called his cellphone to warn him not to publish anything. “They know everything about you. I don’t know how they do, but they do,” he said. “If you publish anything about them they don’t like, or somebody in the government who is protecting them, then you are going to regret it, big time.”

The following day there were five gun battles across the city, and on Saturday there were a further three. Of these, only one was referred to by the state government website that promises reliable information in the vacuum about the violence. Local news outlets decided against publishing government promises to improve security after warnings from the traffickers. They self-censor complaints of abuses by the army for fear of angering the third force also battling for control of Tamaulipas.

Meanwhile, the axis of the conflict in Juárez is the attempt by El Chapo to muscle in on the turf traditionally controlled by the Juárez cartel.

In the urban nightmare of Juárez, amid closed factories and abandoned homes, the pyramids of narco-cartel power have collapsed into a state of criminal anarchy. Here gangs fight a ruthless war for the local plaza, or dealing turf. Municipal and state police forces are infested by corruption, forming mini-cartels of their own. The role of the army in Juárez has also been called to account by a Chihuahua state human rights official, Gustavo de la Rosa, who accuses the military of playing a part in “social cleansing”, as most of the killings claim addicts and former users massacred at the city’s rehab centres.

“The difference between Juárez and Tamaulipas is that in Juárez the state still has a degree of formal presence, however incompetent,” says Edgardo Buscaglia, who specialises in comparing worldwide trends in organised crime. “In Tamaulipas the state is absent. It is like Afghanistan.” –

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Ed Vulliamy
Ed Vulliamy works from EXILE, mental/physical. Writer The Guardian & The Observer Amexica 'War Along the Borderline' The War is Dead, Long Live the War When Words Fail: A Life With Music, War & Peace Ed Vulliamy has over 3853 followers on Twitter.

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