In Mexico death is never too far away. It is part of the folklore. Shrines to the macabre Santa Muerte (Saint of Death) — adorned with flowers, bottles of tequila and cigars — are all around Mexico. It is a country where the feast of the "Day of Death" is a joyous celebration of those who passed away. Laughing white polished skulls, dancing cardboard skeletons, funeral wake games and the presence of the popular Catrina Calavera (a skeleton in a wedding dress) speaks of a society at ease with the idea of the dead.
Well, Mexico used to be such a society. It’s not any longer. The drug war waged in Mexico today — the worst in the western hemisphere — has transformed the country into a graveyard. Drug-related violence killed 6000 people last year. And already more than 1000 have been murdered this year.
Wealthy and armed to the teeth, Mexican drug cartels are waging a brutal war for the control of the northern border, the key corridor for the traffic of cocaine from Colombia and Mexico to the United States.
In Mexico, death is no longer part of folklore. It’s feared. It’s gruesome. Dismembered human bodies are left in plazas, headless bodies are hung from bridges and bloody limbs, ears, and fingers are spread throughout the gardens of those threatening the interests of the powerful drug cartels. "Narcotraffic in Mexico has reached inconceivable and dehumanising extremes," renowned Mexican writer and journalist Carlos Monsiváis said last year.
"Pobre Mexico (poor Mexico) — so far from God and so close to the United States," is a popular saying in the country. And it’s true that this is where part of Mexico’s problem lies. The Mexican drug cartels have obtained some of the most sophisticated weaponry from the United States. The US has also provided a massive consumer market for illicit drugs. "The addiction of [the]United States to drugs, the dollars and the weapons that travel through our border maintain the activities of the cartels," said US Senator Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs.
Durbin told a Senate hearing last week that "Mexican drug cartels supply the vast majority of the cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana distributed in the Chicago area and Downstate." He also said that poor US gun law enforcement had "armed Mexican drug cartels to the teeth". In 2008, in one of the few successful anti-organised crime actions, the Mexican authorities seized 20,000 weapons from drug cartels. Most of them had been purchased in the US.
The US State Department has now listed Mexico — along with Pakistan — as a state at the brink of "rapid collapse". Mexico as a "failed state" has already entered into the Washington narrative. Barry McCaffrey, the former Director of the US Drug Control Policy, warned Mexico is at risk of becoming a "narco-state" in the next five years if the situation doesn’t improve.
Washington is concerned the drug war is spilling over into the US. The US Department of Homeland Security and other US agencies announced an increase in military personnel deployed to the border and President Barack Obama said he is considering the deployment of the National Guard across the border. The US militarisation on the border with Mexico is not new. However, today it has become a major priority, only followed by the Iraq and Afghanistan war deployment.
If loss of control of its territory is an indicator of a failed state, Mexico can be considered one. The northern border has practically fallen under the control of narco-bosses. Sonora — one of the 31 states of Mexico — has been under the thumb of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán since the 1990s.
El Chapo (Shorty) — the maximum leader of the Sinaloa Cartel — is the most wanted man in Mexico and also one of the wealthiest thugs in the world. He was included in the last edition of Forbes magazine world’s richest, next to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc and New York City’s mayor Mike Bloomberg. El Chapo’s wealth is valued at US$1 billion.
El Chapo is also — along with the other drug bosses — one of the largest employers in Mexico. At least 450,000 people’s livelihood depends on the growth and commercialisation of marijuana and opium. The US Government says this "employment" generates around US$25 million annually.
A key strategy to gain control of Mexico’s northern border has been the drug cartels’ infiltration of the political and police institutions. El Chapo’s protégés have risen to influential positions in the state and local government, in the judiciary and in the police force. In Tijuana — the largest city of the Mexican state of Baja California — the majority of the police officers are on the payroll of the Tijuana Cartel, another powerful crime organisation masterminded by the Arellano Félix brothers.
Between 2006 and 2008, several high ranking federal agents and police were arrested due to their links with organised crime. Among them were Noel Ramírez, a leading anti-drug officer, and Víctor Gerardo Gara, who until 2008 was the acting director of the Federal Preventive Police.
According to the United Nations, Mexico is one of the five countries in the world with the highest level of organised crime. The international organisation said that corruption and the collusion between authorities and drug cartels was the main impediment to solving the crisis.
"It is well known that governors in different parts of Mexico are aligned to different cartels," Dr Gabriela Coronado, an anthropologist at Mexico’s Research Centre and Higher Studies (CIESA) told newmatilda.com. Or as Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui puts it "the line between the State and crime is blurred".
The Mexican state seems unable to stop the carnage. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón, from the conservative National Action Party, deployed 45,000 soldiers to quash the drug cartels. Three years later and more than US$6.5 billion spent, Calderon’s war has not only failed, but the level of violence has increased.
In response to the "failed state" warning given by the US, Calderón has announced the deployment of more troops — 3500 soldiers — in the city of Ciudad Juárez, considered to be Mexico’s violence capital. Last year 1600 people were murdered there.
Recently a group of prominent Latin American writers and intellectuals, including Brazil’s Paolo Coelho, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and Nicaragua’s Tomás Eloy Martínez, said the war on drugs had not succeeded. They also accused the US administration of failing to introduce effective measures to reduce the consumption of drugs among its citizens.
According to the US State Department 90 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the US comes from Mexico, and the earning for cartels has reached massive sums: US$10 billion annually. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes hit the head on the nail when he said: "There are Mexican drug offers because there is US demand".
Calderón has promised that by the end of his mandate in 2012 his war to topple organised crime will have been won. But, nobody — in Mexico or in the US — believes he will be able to defeat the narcotraffic.
In the meantime, as the carnage and bloodbath continues, Mexicans have no other alternative than to kneel and pray to the Santa Muerte that the cloak of violence enveloping the country will soon be lifted.
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