The Hundred-Year Ghost

Mystical calendar cycles are all the rage here in the weary, wary end-days of 2011.

AAAAnd it’s not just That Maya Calendar Thing. Hollywood has joined the calendar fad, loudly, by promoting a new action movie as premiering on 11-11-11 (November 11, 2011)–though few ticket-buyers will recall the bigger 11-11-11 of yesteryear, when AAAthe official end of World War I in 1918 was intentionally set at 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month (November), with the armistice signed in a soon-famous train car.

MEXICO, seeming at first glance so far from all this (“so far from God,” as the 1910 dictator probably never really said), manages nonetheless to come full circle into the middle of the tea leaves. This is because of global excitement (at least in some circles) over That Maya Calendar Thing. Enthusiasts can tell you that the ancient Maya civilization of southern Mexico, peaking before the Aztecs, had evolved a pictographic calendar which, the interpretations say, accurately looked all the way forward to the year 2012. But there (cue the Dragnet music: dum-duh-DUM-dum), the Maya calendar ominously stops.

In a world nervous about techno-speed and banking disasters, the Maya end-point has become a rallying cry, oddly melding fundamentalist rapture and New-Age chic. It’s the big warning: The Old Global Order is going to come crashing down, right in the End Year, 2012. This is a lot to lay on the unsuspecting ancient Mayas–Nostradamus meets the Celestine Prophecies under jungle palms.

AAABut Mexico invites such mystical musings, some not so ancient. The violence of its presentday drug war has become a symbol of the ways that seemingly impossible social breakdown can burst from what seems a clear blue sky.

And again, there’s a Cycle Ap for that. The application of mystic numbers works even on the drug war–with a little hocus-pocus math, and a few more facts than Maya Envy.

In short, Mexico has endured particular chaos once every hundred years. And such chaos, symmetrically, tends to last about a decade.

AAAThe first glimpse (leaving aside older precedents for the moment) was the Mexican Independence War, looming suddenly in 1810, then devastating a new-born nation until 1821. At the time, the decade of chaos could scarcely be viewed as part of a cycle–because the other shoe hadn’t yet dropped. Another hundred years would have to pass before the next great explosion began to suggest a pattern.

Then came 1910, a round century after 1810. Mexico was witnessing festive parades and monumental statues to commemorate the anniversary of the long-ago Independence War–when suddenly the old ghost rose. As if the monumental parade images were coming to life, 1910 brought the Mexican Revolution, which would rage for a disastrous decade, until 1920–as the recorded national population fell by a million.

Then another century passed. Understandably, the combined memories–the 1810 war and the 1910 war–would stir comment in a much more modern Mexico as it passed into a new millennium. In 1999, millennial imaginings were everywhere. Up north, the United States was alive with fears of the supposed Y-2K Bug in computer networks, or possible Times Square bombings on New Year’s 2000. But there was a time lag. This millenniun wouldn’t produce its American nightmare for another year, not until 9/11. Meanwhile in Mexico, the delay switch on millennium fear ran even longer. The natural moment of reckoning would be 2010, because of 1810 and 1910. Could it possibly happen a third time?

In 2000 the idea seemed laughable. Political change was coming peacefully to Mexico. The 2000 presidential election proved that reform was possible; democracy was robust. But the reformers, once in power, started to meet some old ghosts–who at first AAAseemed barely noticeable. These were the gang fights and drug-smuggling conflicts that Mexico had always known. By about 2004 they were mushrooming. By late 2006 there was official declaration. The government declared an unprecedented military crusade against organized crime: the “drug war.”

By 2008 the nation was shocked by growing combat–though this was still barely a blip compared to what was coming. As 2008 kicked off, the Sinaloa Cartel was making a full-court press along a great swath of the border, just south of the United States, attacking rivals in a thousand-mile span from Tijuana, bordering California, to Ciudad Juarez bordering El Paso, Texas. On the other half of the border’s 2,000 miles, the eastern half, epidemics of cartel extortion and mass killing had at least cooled a bit after 2007, but would have stunning renewal–in 2010.

It was 2007, in one of the more remote and peaceful-looking border towns, when I first heard the Hundred-Year Theory and its omens for 2010. The small city of Piedras Negras, opposite Eagle Pass, Texas, is so deep in the inland brush country, and so far from the big border cities, AAAthat in 2007 it seemed a sleepy, friendly sanctuary. But then a midnight cab driver loomed into my experience. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, he said suddenly into the rearview mirror: “Mexico no tiene pena que dura cien años” (roughly: “Mexico never lets a problem last more than a hundred years.”) I had to ask him to repeat. What did he mean by this riddle?

He sighed. The corruption builds up, said the philosopher taxista, until the volcano has to blow. And like Old Faithful, its steam erupts on a schedule. In the darkness of the cab, on silent streets where nothing moved but your shadow, it was a long way to 2010. By that time, peaceful Piedras Negras would be rocked by so much combat that U.S. advisories said don’t go there.

In both 1910 and 1810 the steam had began building in the summer, so naturally the summer of 2010 invited scrutiny. Would there be signs of a big breakpoint? Well, yes and no. By July 2010 the eastern borderlands of Mexico had descended into the “New Federation” war, with formalized combat a bit different from anything before. But the death toll per incident still stayed at old levels, no more than about 20 dead even in the worst clashes. The record in outright massacres in the Mexican violence still seemed to be held by La Marquesa near Mexico City, when 24 men were mowed down–way back in 2008. The summer of 2010 brought ragged fits and starts, scant confirmation of any kind of eerie patterning, and no great burst to mirror 1810 or 1910.

Then it came. On August 24, 2010, the Mexican military issued an obscure announcement. In a single humble sentence, it admitted that an enormity had been discovered. The San Fernando Massacre soon shocked the world, fantastically upping the ante on Mexican violence. Cartel gunmen had killed 72 people–non-combatant immigrants, including 14 women–in a single, war-sized orgy. It proved not to be an isolated exception. The same town would produce another frenzy AAAa half-year later, massacring so many victims–surprised bus passengers, this time–that to this day many of the details are suppressed by the Mexican government. There were more: the 200 occupants of mass graves on the other side of Mexico, in Durango; the 55 terrified civilians killed in the casino hit at Monterrey.

It could be interpreted many ways. Our wisdom deals poorly with rhythms that lead beyond our knowledge. The response is either tidy, mystical prophecy, or head-in-the-sand denials, scoffing that the earth can’t move (Galileo probably never really said those famous words–“E pur si muove”–“It does TOO move”–when the Inquisition told him that God’s world couldn’t move in cycles).

In Mexico the questions go back farther than 1810 (to segue back to That Maya Thing).
It was 1519 when Hernan Cortes (or Hernando Cortez) sailed to the coast of Mexico on some AAAvery unlikely winds of doom, which seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. His arrival would destroy Meso-American civilization too completely for much thinking about future cycles (though the grandfathered myths about the bearded Quetzalcoatl and the eagle-eating-the-serpent might be viewed as shell-shocked Aztec versions of Celestine closure-seeking).

AAAIt didn’t take a decade for Cortez’s entrepreneurial genius to destroy Mexico that first time. The years 1519-1521 weren’t a precise calendar parallel to 1810-1821 or 1910-1920. But not so far off. Like the War to End All Wars delaying the real dawn of the 20th century until 1914, and the Y2K disaster getting predicted a year too early, the calendar of communal nightmares doesn’t always cooperate precisely.

The remnants of the Aztec empire, reduced to a smidgeon by European diseases, could still transmit worlds of experience in the misty realm of symbol, on an unbroken stream from the old monumental rites and sacrifices (which had made the Aztecs themselves look rather nightmare-ridden, long before Cortez). There was the mystical closure offered by the Virgin of Guadalupe (Did she really appear, a decade after conquest, to an humble, shell-shocked Aztec who had been renamed Juan Diego, with her supernatural proof left in the form of a puzzlingly ordinary oil painting?) Meanwhile, Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli were poured into venerated saints. To watch some of the folklore dances that would cross the generations is to marvel at how much symbolism never gets put into words: the rigidly erect, heel-pounding male dancers encircled by the swirling petticoats that nobody is so crude as to call anatomically-correct symbols like the can-can. There is a power in pre-literate symbol (to borrow a bit from Octavio Paz), and it isn’t reduced by a crushing history of endurance and pain.

So who’s to say, at last, that such power can’t set a deadline on what it has to endure–by tapping into that ordinary, everyday mystery called hope–while the volcanic cycles seem to come out of nowhere, and wipe the books clean?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Un-Failed State: Geography Lesson

AAA*The Mexican government “has lost territorial control, and, in sum, governability…in more than 50” percent of Mexico’s land area.–Jorge Carrillo Olea, the founder of Mexico’s lead civilian intelligence agency, to EFE news service on August 28, 2011.

AAA*“Let’s talk about 40 percent of the national territory where the State no longer governs, a 40 percent that is slowly spreading.”–retired Mexican Major General Luis Garfias Magaña, in the newsmagazine Proceso, May 5, 2011.

AAA*“Mexican authorities are in control throughout Mexico, in all its states.”–U.S. State Department, official release, quoted in the Mexican news medium Milenio, September 17, 2011.
How are the above statements to be reconciled? Under the stresses of the drug war and organized-crime violence, how much of Mexico has become a no-go zone?
How wide is the danger?

The statements are all serious assessments of an elusive reality. The violence in today’s Mexico forms a twilight zone. It is not an all-consuming apocalypse, but it is also not the relative peace of Mexico a generation ago.

For example, take the third statement, from the State Department. When translated into Spanish in the Mexican media it sounded absolute, but the original form in English was: “Mexican authorities assert control throughout Mexico, in all Mexican states.” This is less absolute, and is true. Everywhere the Mexican government has sent massive troop surges, criminal resistance has tended to melt before them. But then the problem simply moves, and sets up shop around the corner.

It was Dec. 11, 2006, when a new Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, officially declared war against his nation’s organized-crime cartels. Cartel activity was expanding from drug smuggling into pitched battle, and preyed on the Mexican public through extortion, protection rackets, armed robbery and local drug pushing. This had ballooned over time. The previous president, Vicente Fox (from the same reformist political party as Calderon), had declared long ago–in 2003–that one of the mightiest cartels had been successfully destroyed. That was the Gulf Cartel–which then regrouped, split into factions and came roaring back, with its heirs now blasting through 2011. The premature declaration of the death of the Gulf Cartel (and its soon-multiplying branch called the Zetas) was made on April Fool’s Day, 2003. It was a time for boastful bubbles. A month later President Bush would declare “Mission Accomplished” on Iraq, on May 1, 2003.

AAA Mexico has always had isolated “outlaws’ roost” areas, where even locals warned travelers not to go. Through the mid-20th century these were small and often exaggerated by legend. A main one was in the impoverished and politicized highlands of Guerrero state, flanking Acapulco. Other storied mountain hideout zones dotted Mexico’s high sierra both east and west, from Durango to Veracruz. Some involved drug farming; some had seen guerrilla warfare; some were merely remote and attractive to fugitives.

AAAIn the 1980s it was natural to assume that these throwback bandido areas were shrinking and soon would disappear, as the march of development brought education, opportunity and civilization.

The harsh news from the drug war is that the reverse has occurred. The landscape of no-go zones has swelled across Mexico, as at no time since the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.
“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico.”–U.S. State Department, April 22, 2011 (statement made in the context of a travel warning)

“I feel as safe here as I do at home, possibly safer. I walk the streets of my Vallarta neighborhood alone day or night….Do bad things happen here? Of course they do. Bad things happen everywhere, but the murder rate here is much lower than, say, New Orleans…There are good reasons thousands of people from the United States are moving to Mexico every month, and it’s not just the lower cost of living, a hefty tax break and less snow to shovel. Mexico is a beautiful country, a special place.”–Linda Ellerbee, journalist and frequent resident of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, May 15, 2009

“Drug-related violence does not encompass all of Mexico and much of the country remains safe for visitors and residents alike…According to the British Embassy, the majority of homicides in Mexico have occurred in…less than 3.5% of the country’s 2,438 municipalities. And of these homicides, 9 out of 10 are suspected narco-traffickers killed in fighting over control of drug trafficking organizations and routes…While the issue of narcotics-related crime in Mexico is a serious concern and there are definitely areas of the country one should avoid, it is helpful to keep a reasonable and rational perspective…”–“Living and Loving Mexico,” website by expatriate residents, 2011

“Wages have risen in Mexico, according to World Bank figures…educational and employment opportunities have greatly expanded…Per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000…Over the past 15 years, this country…has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration…Democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined…Birth control efforts have pushed down the fertility rate to about 2 children per woman from 6.8 in 1970, according to government figures….Quality of life has improved in other ways, too.”–New York Times, July 6, 2011 (In 2009, though previously unthinkable, a $250-million rescue loan to the New York Times Company from controversial Mexican investment helped place near-controlling interest in the company in Mexico.)

“The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (affiliated with the Norwegian Refugee Council) warned that because of the violence unleashed by the drug war, some 230,000 persons in Mexico have been forced to leave their places of origin.”—La Jornada, March 26, 2011

(Mexico’s underworld has gone through) “radical transformation from drug smugglers into paramilitary death squads… a criminal insurgency that poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution.”–Ioan Grillo, correpondent for Time magazine, in his book “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” quoted in Time, Oct. 23, 2011


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Can There be Spillover Hunger?


Spillover violence is one of the tricksters in Mexico’s organized-crime emergency. How much is the violence in Mexico spilling into the United States?
The answer is complicated by a long tradition of peering south at Mexico’s struggles, and seeing demons.

As the map above shows, some border areas in the United States are, without doubt, suffering direct echo effects from the Mexican crisis, with known gunmen and drug bosses coming north across the border, igniting fatal bursts of crime.

But alarms over spillover violence hide two key truths: a) similar kinds of violence have ALWAYS spilled across the border, without the world coming to an end; and b) the real need for vigilance now, in case of any future increase, doesn’t mean that a wave of U.S.-side chaos coming from Mexico is a presentday reality (if it ever develops at all).

The spillover violence alarms–so confusing to news consumers–show hallmark symptoms of what sociology calls a moral panic. This is an exaggerated call to arms against an evil which, at some level, may be quite real, but its reality is cheapened by the exaggerations. It is inflated into a massive, demonic threat to society. Thus, alarmists can posture as heroic warriors saving civilization–for whatever political, economic or mysterious emotional gains they might get, while squandering (somebody else’s) blood and treasure on a witch hunt.

The emotional force behind spillover alarms can be seen in examples, which suggest a hunger for dark times that give heroic opportunity:

1) The Laredo, Texas, ranch taken over by Mexican Zetas became an indignant cause celebre as far away as California–though it never existed. The story was a baseless rumor. Enthusiasts kept insisting that documentation proved the Laredo invasion, never looking closely enough to see that nothing was there.

2) The three Texas pipeline workers kidnapped and butchered by Mexican invaders–they never existed either, except in mysteriously delighted rumors.

AAA 3) The Arizona shooting of heroic Deputy Louis Puroll on April 30, 2010, by a horde of drug-smuggling gunmen in the desert. Nope, never existed either. Well, in Puroll’s case there really was a gunshot wound, and a mammoth crowd of lawmen searching for the attackers–who had somehow vanished. It took a half year, while much of Arizona and activists nationwide reveled in the illusion, to drive home the evidence that the small flesh wound on Puroll’s backside had been self-inflicted, as he faked an ambush and excitedly called for backup. Such, apparently, was the hunger to be the lonely hero on the battlements. Eventually, the dramatist was unmasked and fired from his local deputy’s job, with the emotional questions unanswered.

The rumors of the Texas Zeta ranch and the murdered pipeline workers reached only the level of abstract excitement, but in Puroll’s case there was action (at a charged moment when economically depressed Arizona was excitedly passing SB-1070, its extreme new immigration law).

For U.S. policy makers and law enforcement officers dealing with the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, the forces of moral panic and politicized alarm are particularly dicey–because they complicate the real need to calibrate readiness for border crises. Passing the symbolic 50,000-deaths milestone this year, Mexico’s organized-crime violence is certainly real. And there is nothing to say it couldn’t leap to a new level of spillover.

But to point out this nuanced urgency is to invite the exaggerations. In the Brownsville, Texas, map above, spillover violence came in the form of targeted hits by and against figures linked to organized crime, either in the gang war between the Zetas Group and the Gulf Cartel or within the Gulf Cartel, as it broke down into factions called the R’s and the M’s. These South Texas killings were not terrorist strikes against civilians, as are now sometimes happening inside Mexico itself.

And yet the history whispers: Inside Mexico, the violence has snowballed from a past level of controlled hits within organized crime, to finally bring such warfare that civilians have lost their refuge. Could this, too, move north?

For law enforcement to deny the question would be negligence. And yet to ask it is poisonous–because of the mysterious hunger that gives too loud a reply.

“We haven’t seen what I would define as spillover violence.”
—U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Dec. 12, 2009

“The data on spillover crimes and violence is deceiving and underreported. Our state and local law enforcement on the front lines need help. Their firsthand accounts tell the real story of how we are outmanned, overpowered, and in danger of losing control of our own communities to narco-terrorists.”–Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in hearing May 31, 2011

“We have not seen a significant spike in crime on the U.S. side of the Southwest border.”–Amy Pope, Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Justice, in hearing May 11, 2011

“Our Secretary of Homeland Security said, ‘The border is better now than it ever has been.’ Many officials who are directly in the line of fire…disagree with the Secretary. Of course there is violence along the border—spillover of criminal organizations and spillover crime and intimidation.”–Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in hearing May 31, 2011

“Mr. Speaker… Mexican criminals think they can come over here and do as they please and nobody’s going to really do anything about it. And they’re right…Americans [are] being killed all the time in America by illegals from Mexico.”–Congressman Ted Poe, R-Texas, June 14, 2010

“My city is a border city…a better, safer and less crime-ridden city. I would say that such is the case for all of Texas’ border cities.”–Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, McAllen, Texas

“A recent USA Today analysis of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California found that crime within 100 miles of the border is below both the national average and the average for each of those states—and has been declining for years. Several other independent researchers have come to the same conclusion.”—New York Times, Nov. 1, 2011

“In what officials caution is now a dangerous and even deadly crime wave, Phoenix, Arizona, has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City, and over 370 cases last year alone. But local authorities say Washington, DC is too obsessed with al Qaeda terrorists to care about what is happening in their own backyard right now.”—ABC Nightline, Feb. 11, 2009. (However, in 2011 it was acknowledged, rather explosively, that the Phoenix Police Department statistics used to develop the Kidnapping Capital image had been manipulated–or faked–to seek federal grant money, while the problem of immigrant drop-house kidnappings, though tragically real, was far smaller than the image had made it seem).

“Living and conducting business in a Texas border county is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”—report Oct. 2011, “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” commissioned by Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples

“The people that go about their business and lead a regular life really have nothing to fear from this. If you are not involved in illegal trade or organized crime, this won’t affect you.”–Police Chief Carlos Garcia of Brownsville, Texas, on 2011 killings in Brownsville by Mexican organized crime groups (without explaining that this argument was also common in Mexico three years ago, but is now largely abandoned there).

“The violence in Mexico from the drug cartels continues to spill over the border and deep into the heart of Arizona. The drug and human smugglers continue to control this area of America…”–Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona, June 14, 2010, as he continued saying that his deputy, Louis Puroll, had bravely fought off desert traffickers, though later, as evidence mounted that the ambush had been faked, Babeu said quietly that Puroll was inclined to tell tales, and the deputy was let go.

“The perception is the border is dangerous. The reality is that it is not.”–Mayor John Cook of El Paso, Texas

“It’s a war on the border…To suggest the southwest border is secure is ridiculous.”–Capt. Stacy Holland, Texas Department of Public Safety, on Fox News, Nov. 18, 2010

“I think the border-influenced violence is getting worse… But is it a spillover of Mexican cartel members? No, I don’t buy that.”—Police Chief Roberto Villasenor, Tucson, Arizona

“The sky is not falling…What’s happened now is we’ve got rhetoric that’s driving the policy.”—Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, McAllen, Texas

“As far as the Texas border is concerned, to my knowledge, we have not had spillover violence, per se.”—Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, March 17, 2010

“The spillover violence in Texas is real and it is escalating.”—Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, March 17, 2010

“Currently, U.S. federal officials deny that the recent increase in drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico has resulted in a spillover into the United States, but they acknowledge that the prospect is a serious concern.”—Congressional Research Service, Feb. 16, 2010

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

“Lord of the Skies” Syndrome

AAAIt’s looking like “Lord of the Skies” time again. Back in 1997, when Mexico had one main mega-druglord towering above the rest, his fame grew and grew until finally it got ridiculous. And so, according to the cynics, the powers-that-be just had to take him down.

The “Lord of the Skies” in 1997 was Amado Carrillo, the Mexican super-trafficker. His nickname came AAAfrom his innovative fleet of bale-stuffed 727’s. Technically, Carillo’s bizarre 1997 death was from anesthetic reaction after ambitious plastic surgery–but somebody seemed to be convinced it was murder: his doctors were abducted and tortured to death. Leading up to their fatal glitch, the hit song “Lord of the Skies” had been all over the airwaves; Carrillo’s extensive web of bribed officials and perhaps unseen investors were feeling the heat.

Today is a long way from 1997, with far worse cartel violence in Mexico, and, on the other hand, a far more extensive and reformed government “war” against organized crime. Post-millennial Mexico looks less like the bar fights of 1997 and a bit more like a throwback to the flames of Pancho Villa’s Revolution in 1910-1920.

But today, too, despite a swarm of different crime cartels on the battleground, a single high-profile CEO is attracting a growing storm of publicity, as “the most wanted man in the world” and “the world’s biggest drug lord.” He’s the fugitive billionaire tapped in absentia for the Forbes List. His strongholds in the outlaw mountains of Mexico’s deep flank have been hit again and again by army units, but roving retinues of 300-man protective squads and die-hard mountaineer lookouts have always put him a step ahead. (The cynics, recalling the Lord-of-the-Skies playbill and revolving-door kingpins going back to the mists of the 1970s, might say that the capture efforts whiffed of theatrics).

AAAThis presentday super-capo is Joaquin Guzman, “El Chapo” (Shorty), the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. His tendrils reach across Mexico, far into the United States, Europe and elsewhere and, notably, into turf that used to belong to rivals, forming what some people call the largest drug trafficking organization on earth.

The buzz on El Chapo’s legendary status–The New Robin Hood, The New Pablo Escobar, the New Al Capone–has reached the point where even sober reports looking beneath the legends sometimes fan the flames.

For example: the laundry cart story. One cornerstone of the Chapo myth is a very real event. In January 2001 he really did escape from Puente Grande prison, beginning his modern career and centerpiecing Mexico’s rampant conspiracy theories about his being, allegedly, the government’s favored capo. Many reports say that he got out of Puente Grande in a trundling laundry cart, like a cross between James Bond and Maxwell Smart. But many others say it was a laundry truck. Maybe it was both. But both are questioned by a best-selling book in Mexico, “The Narco Lords” (Los Señores del Narco), by journalist Anabel Hernandez. She charges that government collusion in the escape was so great that El Chapo was merely escorted out, wearing a Federal Police uniform. The labyrinth on such matters is too deep for easily taking sides on who’s right–or who’s possibly paranoid–but the point here is off to the side of all that: the myth has a gravitational pull of its own; the hero inevitably goes Hollywood.

AAAThus the second point: that mystifying photograph. In the flood of presentday news stories about the shadowy El Chapo, the same photo of him tends to be used again and again–though it is tremendously out of date and other photos are available that show him more recently. The favored photo, no matter how misleading, is certainly engaging. Dating from all the way back in 1993, it captures the deep, smoldering paradox we want to find in an epic hero. The face is not an iron mask, not frozen in a wiseguy’s sneer. It is (how else to put it?) sensitive.

Orphaned as a child and then beaten and thrown out by a mountaineer uncle, with a third-grade education and a mind that spent his prison time playing chess, the Zorro of the Sinaloa-Durango mountains seems in the photo to be looking out at life in a kind of wounded wonder, asking why it would force him to do such things. The more recent photographs–like the ones offering the $5-million reward–show quite a different face, though still with almost a naivete (the freshly-starched purple dress shirt tucked into too-long jeans under a too-small trucker’s cap looks poignantly unassuming–like the tales that he drives an old pickup, modest as Atilla or Stalin). His prison profile noted a high level of deceptiveness; rivals use the word “treacherous” practically as his middle name (while ignoring their own tender mercies, which might make anybody a little dodgy). He grew up hard, with a small stature and an extraordinary mind. Maybe that’s what’s looking out of that impossible-to-discard 1993 photo.

At any rate, he, too (wherever he is–whether in a sierra bunker or Argentina or Orange County or Cannes) is pointedly aware of the Lord of the Skies Syndrome–that last act in the Mexican drug drama when the biggest player gets so successful and visible that mysterious things start to happen.

But if they do, we may not be able to see them–not really–as we watch the laundry cart trundling entertainingly across the stage.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Messenger

AAAOne wonders even now whether showing her picture could cause more harm, put more people in danger, spread the poison.

Her offense? She was an online chat room moderator in Mexico, using the Internet to crusade against her city’s organized crime. On September 24, she became the first confirmed social media correspondent to be executed by criminal interests, as they sought to keep new media silent.

When she was found dead–with horrific embellishments–it was noted that she was from Mexico’s area of “silent war,” at the border city of Nuevo Laredo. Though Nuevo Laredo is the busiest commercial port on the border, astride the Pan-American Highway, it suffers a special isolation. Its local news reporting has been so severely suppressed by criminal intimidation, for so long, that the outside world sees little of the city’s gang conflicts. In the news, the half million people trapped at Nuevo Laredo can seem eerily quiet. Or simply absent.

The silence made itself felt even as word went around the world about the social media killing–because half the world got her name wrong. Was she really Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro–or was she Marisol Macias Castaneda? In many global media she was one, but in many more she was the other, with no final word on which was right. Then the story vanished, for no further information was coming from the scene. Her personal details lay concealed in a half-million-strong citadel where even giving out a name could tumble you into the pit.

Online, she was known by a pseudonym, NenaDLaredo (GirlFromLaredo), keeping her identity veiled as she tackled issues the old-style media were avoiding. Notably, she denounced the Zetas, Nuevo Laredo’s dominant underworld cartel. Like a masked avatar, she urged fellow citizens to contact government tip lines with information about Zeta movements–though the dragons were closing in.

AAAOn September 14, ten days before she met her fate, Nuevo Laredo had produced two other corpses, of a young man and a young woman, who were pie-sliced and suspended from a pedestrian bridge, with a hand-lettered poster mounted beside the ropes. This gave first notice, saying that “Internet relajes (jerks, clowns)” should not disturb organized crime.

However, the two victims left as examples with the poster could not be verified as social media activists, for a dismal reason: They were never publicly identified at all. In Nuevo Laredo’s atmosphere of mystery, the two remained ghastly ciphers, their names and backgrounds unrevealed. Conceivably, their double murder could have been one more garden-variety underworld hit, dressed up post-mortem with a poster so the killers could use them as stage props for threats against the Web. In this vein, the male victim’s fingers were missing, as if fingerprints might reveal an identity unsuited to an anti-Internet message.

At every turn, the details of this story wreck the telling, overpowering with their horror–as the most primal savagery reacts against the quantum leap of electronic horizons.

AAANuevo Laredo had come early to cartel violence, baptized in the Nuevo Laredo War of 2003 to 2007, well before Mexico’s official “drug war” kicked off in late 2006. The city’s traditional media were long accustomed to staying discreetly dark on cartel crimes, as they faced cartel threats: “get aligned” with what the gang wants, take the envelope from the spying paymaster right in the newsroom, parrot back the caricatured gang “press releases”–or suffer the beatings, and then worse. The information vacuum was partially filled by improvisers in social media–tweeting alerts on firefights, using chat-room bulletins to finger gang lookouts, venting the general frustration.

AAAWhen the September 24 killing arrived, the killers left no doubt about the victim’s identity. There was a new poster now, propped beside the obsessively assaulted remains. Sneeringly, it used her chat-room code name–though the atmosphere of mystery still won some points. Her Web work was a sideline, and on the matter of her day job the obituary again blurred. Was she really a newspaper editor (as many of the worldwide conduits announced), or was she a less dramatic ad vendor at a local newspaper, as in others?

Either way, the killers didn’t seem much interested in her old-media activities. The crude poster, this time propped against a cement flower planter next to a Columbus statue on a public square, cited not only her Internet handle but the name of the Web site where she had kept up the heat on the Zetas. For good measure, the poster addressed its warning to “Redes Sociales”—“Social Networks.”

The signature “ZZZZ” was a common Zetas tag, though naturally it could have been faked by some rival gang (some of the wording reminded vaguely of an old effort by the Sinaloa Cartel). Yet the Zetas never denied the killing, or sent indignant counter-messages claiming the message wasn’t really theirs, as sometimes done elsewhere. The rules of murder-messaging left the boast to stand: We did do this. We are saying it: We own the Web.

So now it was confirmed. The killers were reaching through the glowing screen, to crush the messenger.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Scorpion and the Frog

AAAThe Scorpion stung the Frog, sure–but what lay behind the sting in Operation Scorpion?

On October 12, Mexico saw its second arrest of a high-level drug lord in eight days. And both arrests, on different sides of Mexico, came wrapped in the same snappy, tantalizing language. Official communiques called them “precision operations…without a shot fired.”

This seemed to boast that as of mid-2011 something in the Mexican drug war had changed. These were not old-style mega-busts–as when capo Nacho Coronel bled out in his mansion on July 29, 2010, or “Tony Tormenta’s” downtown apartment was gutted November 5, 2010, with aerial fire hitting parked cars a block away.

AAAThe new-style arrestee on October 12 is “La Rana,” the Frog (Carlos Oliva Castillo), said to be the third-highest leader of the Zetas cartel. His “precision” capture, in the northeast Mexican city of Saltillo, came as part of something called Operation Scorpion, whose sting hides a long history.

It’s been nearly half a decade now that operatives in both Mexico and the United States have been slogging down the drug war’s long road. The official start came on December 1, 2006, when a new Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, took office and launched a full-court press against the cartels of his nation’s organized crime.

AAAPresident Calderon quickly declared a series of regional operativos, or Joint Task Force Deployments, in late 2006 and early 2007, with addenda in early 2008. A look at these concentrations (mostly of army troops, but also Mexican Marines, Federal Police and others) is like a Lonely Planet Guide to the war theater. The task force boundaries trace out main regions of Mexico where cartel violence had overwhelmed local order, drawing in the big federal task forces. This would be the seedbed for later Operation Scorpion.

AAA The task-force structures became long-standing parts of the landscape–fixed bureaucratic blankets for federal strikes and troop assignments, accounting for more than 45,000 troops and federal officers in the drug war overall, or more than a fifth of the Mexican Army’s total strength (nearly 200,000 active-duty soldiers).

Mexico found itself tapped to fight a battle no one had figured out–the global brushfire war against mass-market substance abuse. Vintage military tactics were going into a withering crucible, which alarmed a key ally. Also on the long road to Operation Scorpion’s “precision” was the government of the United States.

In 2007-2008, a $1.6-billion package of U.S. aid was approved for President Calderon’s anti-cartel war. But the Merida Initiative (or Plan Mexico in Spanish) quickly bogged down. As late as January 2010, only 9 percent of the promised aid had actually reached Mexico (as if gangster enemies might politely wait for triplicate copies). And even this 9 percent was in part an accounting gambit, putting ballpark values on things like training and materiel (one Black Hawk UH-60M helicopter was valued at $20 million by the Merida list; but three others, sent to a different Mexican agency, were written up as being worth $37 million each).

Comments on Merida in those days suggest the darkness out of which Operation Scorpion would have to emerge: “It is ridiculous to keep calling the State Department and, each time, getting a different person to find out what is really going on with Merida,” sighed Congressman Eliot Engel, a supporter of the aid. At a hearing in May 2010, a State Department shepherd of the Merida pipeline apologized bleakly: “I think, you know, the last year or so really took us a long time to get started.”


Merida was inching forward through prickly adjustments with Mexico, a proud nation hyper-sensitized against U.S. influence. A scathing audit of Merida by the General Accountability Office was softened by words from auditor Jess Ford, who had been in a prior drug war, in Colombia. Ford reminded that Plan Colombia had taken a long decade of work. It also required more money than Merida’s promised $1.6 billion, which one critic called “anemic.” The State Department pleaded for “strategic patience” in judging the Merida delays.

By 2011, Mexico’s meltdown had ballooned into large massacres perpetrated by cartel gunmen, on a scale scarcely envisioned at the Merida conferences of 2007. But Merida aid was finally moving. The buzz-phrase, “Evolved Merida,” crept into announcements. Many pressures were sandbagging the drug warriors, but there was growing U.S. input as the Merida connection smoothed out. The war effort tightened up.

Troop patrols in some areas were replaced by more welcomed Federal Police. A strictly military approach to social violence was supplemented by discussion of social reforms. In the background were U.S. personnel, and a push to use “precision” counter-insurgency techniques from places like Afghanistan.

On August 25 of this year, the Zetas cartel upped the ante by killing 52 civilians in a casino attack. On August 28 that same area, northeastern Mexico, saw the Mexican government strike back, with a lean new operativo. This was Operation Scorpion. Unlike the old regional task force umbrellas, it was a tightly phased tactical sweep.

The old framework remained to define Scorpion’s target area. Northeastern Mexico had long been covered by Operation Northeast, a renamed and expanded version of a still-earlier dinosaur, Joint Task Force Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas, going back to 2007. After August 28, 2011, Operation Northeast continued getting credit for various battles in its four-state area, but Scorpion followed a separate track, hitting the same area with new vigor.

AAA By October 12, after six weeks, Operation Scorpion had reported 724 arrests, 36 liberated cartel hostages and large confiscations: 1,629 weapons, 870 vehicles, more than a million dollars in cash, tons of drugs. And there was La Rana. His arrest was said to be a lightning strike, catching by surprise the alleged architect of the August 25 casino massacre. The Zetas reportedly responded with ambushes and diversionary firefights, hoping to stage a rescue, but with no result.

Could this mean the Mexican cartel war is changing in a substantive way? Or is today’s Operation Scorpion really just another old-style hammer blow, re-named?

In the drug war’s long tunnel, only hindsight will be able to say whether light was really waiting at the end.

Below is a partial recap of publicly acknowledged U.S. advisory
personnel behind the scenes in Mexico:

*More than 50 U.S. State Department personnel are reportedly
facilitating the Merida Initiative inside Mexico. This is said
to be more than double the old number of liaisons when U.S.
assistance to Mexico’s anti-trafficking effort was down around
the $40-million-a-year level.

*Since July 20, 2009, hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers
have cycled through Mexico, teaching Mexican police in three-week
shifts at a training center 450 miles south of the border.

*U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) personnel are in Mexico
to help vet new military and federal police candidates and instruct
Mexican Army special forces.

*NORTHCOM has reported steady sending of counter-insurgency
training teams into Mexico, an average of 20 teams a year with
4 to 5 soldiers each, on short missions involving no field operations.

*U.S. military commanders are said to meet twice yearly with
Mexican Army area commanders.

*In three Mexican states, elite anti-kidnap squads are trained
by U.S. officers—and also by police specialists from Colombia.

*A stream of bi-national working groups moves through both countries.

*Allegations in the Mexican press that the U.S. had placed a
special permanent intelligence official in Ciudad Juarez actually
referred to an envisioned proposal, not an established fact.

*The U.S. has 12 consulates in Mexico, plus its massive
main embassy in Mexico City, a block-wide fortress that
is the largest U.S. embassy in Latin America. Three people
connected to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez were murdered
March 13, 2010, and a 500-person investigation effort then
convened on the U.S. side of the border. When two ICE
agents were attacked in northeast Mexico on February 15,
2011 (agent Jaime Zapata was killed; agent Victor Avila
badly wounded), they were reportedly bringing security
equipment to a consulate. U.S. reprisal for this attack
came in the form of Operation Bombardier, working on
U.S. soil against operatives of the attacking cartel, the Zetas,
and bringing 676 arrests.

*An inanimate U.S. presence is also notable. In March 2011
it was acknowledged that for two years, at the request of the
Mexican government, unmanned U.S. spy drones had been
flying over Mexico, helping to track cartel gunmen.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Invasion Chief

War came to Chihuahua on a 100-year loop: Pancho Villa had risen up in 1910 and the Sinaloa Cartel invaded in January 2008. Only now has the Sinaloa Cartel’s mysterious invasion chief come out of the shadows, with the October 4 arrest of Noel Salgueiro.

Chihuahua, Salgueiro’s home state in Mexico, contains the border metropolis of Ciudad Juarez. Social meltdown and crime problems had already enveloped Juarez when the Sinaloa gang invasion of 2008 opened the Juarez Cartel War, still ongoing.

The stunning numbers reported up to now from this conflict–7,000 dead, 250,000 residents displaced, 25,000 homes vacated, 5,000 to 10,000 businesses closed, 130,000 jobs lost—are guesses in the dark and perhaps exaggerations, but show the depth of panic during the invasion and Juarez’s subsequent epidemic of gang murders. So does the label “most dangerous city in the world.”

This was not classic war or even “insurgency” (as a puzzling congressional subcommittee tried to say of Mexico’s criminal clashes recently–on the day of Salgueiro’s arrest, October 4). The Juarez War was the street-gang dynamic once feared as representing the bleak future of the United States, but blocked by the web of U.S. law enforcement–while the potential for gang disaster seeped south to more vulnerable ground. The ghost here is not Che Guevara but 1920s Chicago, writ large.

AAA Noel Salgueiro, aka El Flaco (“Slim”), reportedly grew up a long eight hours south of Juarez in the remote mountains of southern Chihuahua, amid tales of giant pot plantations, epic drug lords rising from poverty and a clan culture of pacts and showdowns. Just south, completing the Golden Triangle of three mountainous Mexican states apt for drug-growing, were Sinaloa (drug-lord capital of North America) and Durango, whose crags still hide outlaw wonders the world can only glimpse.

Before 2008 Salgueiro was unknown outside his folksy home smuggling area on the Durango state line, astride the great corridor up Mexico’s mid-section to Texas at the Juarez-El Paso border. Local clan agreements had staved off the growing gang warfare seen elsewhere as Mexico morphed in a new millennium—the Nuevo Laredo War of 2004-2006, the Tijuana meat grinder, the upheaval in Michoacan. In 2004, however, the Juarez die was already cast as two underworld giants—the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel—began isolated tit-for-tat killings of relatives: brother for brother, the odd wife for the occasional cousin. By the end of 2007 either the stars had aligned or the killable relatives had run out–or the conspiracy theories were right and some big puppet-masters, always beyond final proof, wanted the whole pie. Either way, it was now all-out war. Among the 1.3 million or more residents of Ciudad Juarez, with their backs to the U.S. border, rumors said the coming invasion date would be January 6, 2008. The mayor later said the first killings actually started a day earlier.

No bugles called. The number of homicides in January 2008 simply jumped to more than 40, the most homicides of any January in Juarez history–though barely a blink compared to what was coming. Accordion-laced narco songs were said to break into police radio frequencies. Witnesses from police chiefs on down would later testify that every single cop in Juarez had long been on the take, or under orders from captains who were. The invaders, massing far to the south in the Sinaloa Cartel, were sending notice to police throughout the state of Chihuahua: defect now from your accustomed ties to the Juarez Cartel (the old but badly besotted hometown mob) and come over to our side as we take over.

AAA Apparently the only public announcement was a hand-lettered poster left January 26 at Juarez’s Statue to the Fallen Policeman. The poster crisply listed four top police officials the infiltrating invaders had already killed that month–and 17 others set to be offed. When an SUV deposited the poster the statue was being sleepily guarded by a city cop, who was then indignantly fired–the gnat sacrificed to the hurricane. Police operations chief Francisco Ledesma was leaving his home on January 21 when he was obliterated by a .50-caliber rifle, the kind of belt-chewing blaster used by action-movie heroes, able to blow through both sides of an armored vest at a distance of 100 yards. That same January, by coincidence, on the 15th, a predecessor of Ledesma’s, ex-police chief Saulo Reyes, was arrested across the bridge in Texas with a thousand pounds of marijuana. Reyes was not a stereotyped thug but a fresh-faced boy wonder in business circles, appointed as unlikely police chief in a political swamp. A city that had been booming imperfectly at the turn of the millennium, with 400 factories for border export, was honeycombed with get-rich shortcuts.

To prey on this prize (or save it, they said), more than 500 clandestine gunmen were said to be hired by the Sinaloa invaders under the chief in the shadows, Noel Salgueiro, down on the southern state line. Above him were still more elusive top bosses in Sinaloa or Durango: El Chapo, El Mayo, El Azul–a fog of mystic symbols in a sierra Olympus. January 6 was the Day of the Three Kings, Epiphany, the end of Christmas vacation in Mexico—and the one-year anniversary of a big dance thrown deep in the sierra on January 6, 2007, by the Sinaloa Cartel’s storied top capo, Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman, as he had feted his 18-year-old beauty queen fiancée (Miss Coffee and Guayava Festival), prior to their marriage July 2, 2007, clearing the decks for war.

The blitzkrieg invasion force, with Salgueiro back in the bunker, was recruited from standard sources: dirty cops and ex-cops, ex-soldiers, lots of young sierra apprentice assassins–and barrio toughs from target areas in Chihuahua’s own neighborhoods.

Recruit Mario Nuñez, aka M-10, would be one of several (on both sides) whose name would be bandied about as perhaps responsible for a thousand deaths all on his own, like a Bosnian ethnic cleanser. Nuñez and some others came from San Dimas, a Durango mountain stronghold so bad, for so long, that its very name recalled one of the thieves crucified with Jesus, because a shocked father superior in the 1600s had secured an Inquisition permit to excommunicate the whole place, formally cursing “every man, woman and child… animals, land and seeds.”
AAAMeanwhile, the city of Juarez was said to have 8,000 members of ordinary street gangs. The reputed 6,000 in the largest group, Los Aztecas, had long been employees of the Juarez Cartel, gradually taking over much of local drug pushing and debt murder, with a parallel blurring of cartel discipline. In earlier years the Juarez Cartel had held lordly pre-eminence in Mexican drug-smuggling, but the crown fell quickly; by 2008 the Sinaloa Cartel was called the largest in the world–so big that nearly every Mexican citizen seemed to know the never-proven theories that the Sinaloa Cartel had alleged secret links to the government.

Salgueiro’s invasion push from the south showed what the theorists meant (though not proving them right). To roll up the 600-mile corridor north to Juarez, his boys first came over the state line from Durango and disappeared a couple of local smuggling bosses–after three area police commanders were also whacked. On April 5 the Juarez clans struck back, guns blazing along 20 miles of state-line highway, with six dead, including a 19-year-old Juarez Cartel arm-twister with a fake federal police ID.

AAA The punchline came at the 19-year-old’s large clan funeral on April 8–because the Mexican Army irreverently swooped down on this crowd of Juarez Cartel faithful, terrifying women and children with helicopters and rifle butts. The corridor guardians for the Juarez Cartel made easy targets for flashy drug arrests: they were long established and known to all–while the Sinaloa Cartel invaders were hit-and-run phantoms, sometimes blitzing whole towns in convoy strength, but final address unknown. The Juarez stalwarts were caught in a pincer movement, between government forces and the invading hitmen.

On March 28, as murders skyrocketed, Mexico’s federal government flooded Chihuahua with 4,000 troops, 180 vehicles, three Hercules C-130 cargo planes and a Boeing 707. Many residents saw the result as favoring the Sinaloa invasion. The government was in a devil’s bind, facing so many dirty local cops that a crushing blow against such a crowd would be horrific surgery, sure to raise cries of human rights abuse. As the Sinaloa Cartel stepped in to “cleanse” Chihuahua for its own reasons, there was no knowing how high the devil’s bargains might go.

As 2008 deepened, one out of every 889 Juarez residents would be murdered, according to the U.S. State Department. By 2010 the Juarez death toll was topping 3,000 in that year alone. As in World War I, the Sinaloa Cartel’s lightning strike through figurative Belgium hadn’t quite worked; the two sides settled down to permanent killing.

The invasion would succeed at getting the Sinaloa Cartel into major drug smuggling nodes in Chihuahua, but in the end, despite premature announcements, it did not eliminate the battered Juarez Cartel. Both groups would continue operating in the ruins of Juarez–and killing each other.

This past spring, as the Juarez murder rate began to dip a bit, federal authorities badly needed the capture of a high Sinaloa Cartel leader, in order to beat back the “government cartel” accusations. Dragnets had pulled in embarrassingly more members of the Juarez Cartel than of the Sinaloa Cartel. The criticisms were reaching gale force, and a logical way to counter them would be to parade in handcuffs the Sinaloa Cartel overseer for Chihuahua, Noel Salgueiro. But where was he hiding? On December 13, 2010, Salgueiro was said to have escaped, wounded, from a 500-officer raid. On April 30 the net closed not on Salgueiro but on 40 heavy weapons from the U.S. Fast and Furious arms-trafficking fiasco, guns that had somehow reached Juarez and a Sinaloa Cartel trove.

By this time, Salgueiro’s shadowy image was not that of a butcher but a moderator. Down in Durango, a group of Sinaloa Cartel underbosses had gone off the reservation, unleashing a reign of terror so bad that April 11 brought discovery of record-setting mass graves: 217 bodies at main sites and stories of more than 300. The Durango renegades began displaying angry public messages, aimed not at the pursuing government but at Salgueiro, who they said was barging in and trying to remove them. Again the pincer movement: both the government and the Sinaloa Cartel hierarchy were closing in on the extremists, who were known as the Emes, or “M’s.” One of them was bloodstained Mario Nuñez, M-10, of Juarez fame, who had come south to join his Durango brothers from San Dimas. By July this pocket had apparently been cleaned out.

On September 15, a government raid 80 miles south of Juarez was said to seek Salgueiro, but caught only stolen cars, one from Texas. Then on October 4, a mysterious pinpoint operation was said to strike at drug-lord central, in the capital city of the state of Sinaloa. The result was a lone arrestee, no shots fired, and no other details released. The face in the shadows had emerged.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment