Drug cartel members
Foto: BBC News

Drug Cartels and the Mexican Problem

It started out as a regular demonstration. Commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre—when Mexican security forces took lives of 300 student protesters—in late September more than 100 Mexican college students marched from Rural Teachers College in Tixtla to Iguala. On the way there, the students were intercepted by police force. An unavoidable clash ensued. Following the chaos, most of the students managed to ran away. But 43 of them went missing.

Until today, the fate of the 43 missing students is still not clear. Between the early and mid of October, a mass grave containing charred bodies, with signs of heavy torture, was found. Further digging discovered more mass graves around the area, but whether it contains the bodies of the missing students are yet to be proven by DNA tests. The investigation, however, found that drug cartels, an ever revolving force in Mexico, were reportedly involved in the disappearance of the students – working in cohort with the local police forces.

The mass disappearance in Iguala is a significant part of gargantuan problem involving drug cartels in Mexico. Since long, drug cartels have been holding its grip into the land of the Mexicanos, leading to devastating amount of murders and rampant practices of corruption. Despite Mexico’s position as the chairman of Open Government Partnership, a global initiative to promote government’s transparency, there seems to be lack of progress in upholding democratic practices.

The Problem with Drug Cartels

The history of Mexican drug cartels is a long history—and it’s a history closely associated, if not intertwined, with the Mexican state. Since the beginning, drug leaders have been actors knitted to power structures (Medel and Thoumi 2014). The earliest documented case of drug trafficking in Mexico records Colonel Esteban Cantu, a top military authority in the 1910s, as a druglord owning his own fiefdom in Baja. Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, druglords of Guadalajara Cartel and Juarez Cartel respectively, were both police officers—and chiefs too, no less.

During the long seven decades of Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Instititucional, PRI) rule, governors and other high authorities maintained close ties to drug cartels (Medel and Thoumi 2014). Some were blatantly known as open collaborators in the press, while others are merely accused as working with or protecting activities of certain groups. The drug cartels themselves realize their advantageous position. Smuggling syndicates understood, as long as they keep making protection payments, authorities would leave them alone.

The PRI built an all-powerful bureaucracy and instituted a federated system with many local police forces overlapping in their tasks and weakened law enforcement accountability (Medel and Thoumi 2014). Under their bureaucracy, the elites maintained a huge network of drug cartels, operating discreetly under them in return for protection and moving business. Since World War II, Mexican underworld has been supplying drugs to United States, the highest bid in the trades of narcotics.

With such history, it would come to no surprise when investigations found out that Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, the supposed-to-be-mayor of Iguala where the 43 students went missing, is connected by blood to drug syndicates—three of her brothers were drug traffickers (The Yucatan Times 2014). Her husband was the previous mayor; she was supposed to continue the “imperial” tradition of mayorship.

Drug Cartels and Decentralized Violence

In the PRI period, though, drug cartels operated in a relative peace. Mexico has not always been as drenched in bloodbath as today. Prior to PRI’s loss in 2000 general election, all cartels worked in cohort with the government. They were agents employed by the state.

But with PRI’s unpopular traction in Mexican regions and their loss in the general election of 2000, the strong bureaucratic network that had been maintained by PRI broke. Local opposition dismantled the centralized network PRI had and built their own (Morris 2012). They formed their own allegiance with local illegal actors and strengthened their own region. The competing drug cartels we see today, who shed both on civilian’s and each other’s blood, developed from the decentralization of PRI’s smuggling network—and unlike their predecessor, they are violently hostile to each other.

Thus post-2000, drug cartels no longer have what Kenny and Serano call as “elite-exploitative” relation with the political elites. Drug cartels have become their own agents—if not overruling the state and reversing the position. This matter is worse if we consider that how cartels are heavily militarized.

Arturo Guzman Decena of the Zetas cartel was a former lieutenant in the army’s airmobile division of special forces (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFE). Along with Decena, it is estimated that from 2002 to 2009, 100.000 other soldiers have quitted the military to join drug cartels (Morris 2012). The cartels also have imported United States military veterans to act as both hirelings and trainers (RT 2013).

Meanwhile, the Mexican police forces are lacking behind the sheer amount of force the cartels could present. Aside from being militarily trained, the cartels also possess sophisticated weapons such as M-16s with grenade launchers—weapons not even the police have (BBC 2014). Noted for their less modernized units, the police forces can barely step on the land where drug cartels bare their sharpened fangs. Some even prefer to be posted along the border and other strategic drug regions, escorting the smuggling or keeping an eye for rival cartels.

Entrenching Local Communities?

This situation leaves Mexico with a weak central government, coupled with powerful local paramilitary leaders working in cohort with governors who used corruption as an instrument to exert control over the country. Civil society is also notably very weak; anomie is common among the population (Medel and Thoumi 2014).

Mass media has almost no breathing space to thrive under the control of drug cartels. Ciudad Juarez, known as “murder capital of the world”, is one horrid example. When the bloody battle between Sinaloa Cartel and Juarez Cartel broke up in 2010, journalists were murdered for attempting to report the events. Reporters were ambushed in their residence and their bodies hanged in streets. Except for the lone El Diario newspaper, no Juarez media has ever since attempted to meddle in the cartels’ affair. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press Report (2011), Mexico is considered “Not Free”.

However, as worst as it may sound, in the poorer districts of Mexico, the drug cartels have gained a peculiar interest among the local communities. The people in Sinaloa, for example, consider Sinaloa Cartel as the protector of the community. “Most people do business with the cartel or join it,” as said by Jose, a Sinaloan resident, “It’s almost an obligation here because if you don’t you’re on your own.” (BBC 2014)

Considering the dysfunctional police forces, the sentiment does make a bit of sense. Though the drug cartels are, like the way Howard Abadinsky would put it, “crime enterprise”, they still function similarly to most organized crimes would function: as a provider of protection (Abadinsky 2010). In the land where blood is shed violently between crime syndicates, the only power capable of giving protection to the community living upon it is the syndicate themselves. This, of course, as the Sinaloan resident himself admitted, comes with a price: deal with the cartel. Given the amount of unemployment in Mexico – especially in its poorer districts – drug cartels provide employment opportunities for the vast unemployed (Morris 2012).

The cartels, surprisingly, also built altars and small chapels honoring the Mexican folk saints: Santisima Muerte and Jesus Malverde (Cowden 2011). The veneration of folk saints, resulted from the disappointment of church’s inability to provide care to its congregation, is a widespread practice in regions where the drug cartels activities are considered rampant. They are present not just in altars and chapels, but also as talisman of goodluck. It’s a way for people to turn to alternative figures, while still allowing them to utilize traditional rituals of worship found in Catholicism (Dahlin-Morfoot 2011).

A Challenge for Solution

The first question raised should relate with Mexico’s membership—as a chairman, no less—of Open Government Partnership. Mexico as it is now seem to suffer from a glaring deficit of “rule of law”. State institution is defunct, lacking the capacity to deal with both society and the state institution themselves—particularly in regards to local governments. The civil society, the sphere where civility is expected to flourished, seem to be dead with the violent bloodshed going rampant. Civil society is being substituted by the working mechanism of organized crime, the drug cartels, acting as the protector of its own kin.

Medel and Thoumi (2014) offers a framework to improve the attempt to collaborate with United States, known as “Beyond Merida”. The focus of the plan should not be only emphasized on law enforcement—as it usually is—but also on building communities and developing a more effective border. Biggest demands of drug trafficking comes from United States, the Mexican neighbor, so it should be regulated effectively to reduce the demand. And building the local communities should foster the effort to provide a civilian control. However it should be noted that the problem is multi-faceted—especially considering how the local communities interact with the drug cartels.

In this regard, following the forced disappearance of 43 college students, Mexican tech-savvy youths have been actively contributing in a virtual sphere: the internet. Through the Twitter hashtag #YaMaCanse (enough, I’m tired), adapting from the state’s attorney general apparent disinterest in investigating the case further, netizens have rallied a protest with chirps of tweets. Where the physical space does not allow people to organize movements – or at least limiting the attempt – the internet could serve as a practical substitute to voice the concern. This virtual sphere, as Evgeny Morozov argue, works best in the context of regime where actual activities are physically limited, as it would hinder what he called as “slacktivism” – the sublimation of politics into a particular lifestyling of retweet-ing Tweets or liking Facebook posts (Morozov 2010).

If civil society is restored and a stronger central government is established, there is hope that Mexico should be able to combat corruption, provide transparency, and act as a proper OpenGovernment Partnership chairman.