Drug trafficking in Mexico


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IN recent years, both official discourse and the media have successfully transformed common sense on drug trafficking into historical evidence. Some analysts and researchers have also condoned these perceptions. Speculations and myths about the underworld are usually taken at face value; the source of information is not questioned. In fact, commentators present their personal opinions, prejudices, interests and beliefs as legitimate perceptions. Rather than engage in verification, the credibility of the sources is assumed as an act of faith. The boundary lines between fact and fiction are not easy to distinguish since there has never been any proper academic research on drug trafficking and politics in Mexico. The reason behind this assertion is the original separation of the two fields of power, crime and politics.

The history of this particular relationship between drug trafficking and politics in Mexico began in the second decade of the 20th century during the Mexican Revolution and continues into the present. Political history has ignored some relevant aspects of sociological history, which shows drug trafficking as a business – tolerated, promoted and even controlled by prominent political figures at the local, regional and national levels. First hand documents are scarce. Criminal behaviour is never included in a politician’s autobiography, and the law of silence among the political class belonging to the state party or among big drug lords has never been broken.

Changes in drug trafficking should take into account the transformations in the political system to understand the relative autonomy of the drug trafficking field in recent years resulting from the ruling party elite’s loss of power, and the cascade effect it has had on the structural mediation between drug trafficking and the political fields.

The American factor has always been present in Mexico’s drug policy history. Customs, Treasury, State and Justice Departments of the United States have gathered and accumulated information on politics and drug trafficking in Mexico since the beginning of the 20th century though drug issues have not always been as important as they are today in the American political agenda. It is only since the foundation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, directed by Harry Anslinger, that the U.S. government began to construct more clearly what would eventually become the most influential drug policy worldwide.

The 20th century in Mexico ended with scandals in politics and drug trafficking. General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, former director of the National Institute for Drug Combat (NIDC), who allegedly protected Amado Carrillo, the most important drug lord at that time, was incarcerated, judged and sentenced in 1998 to 35 years for arms stocking and arms transportation. Raul Salinas de Gortari, the ex-president’s brother, was sentenced to 50 years in January 1999 for having masterminded the assassination of his brother-in-law, president of the ruling party (PRI). In July 1999, his sentence was reduced to 27.5 years. There seems to be no simple answer to what actually happened or what is really going on in the history of drug trafficking and politics in Mexico.



Politics and drugs: The Governor of the state of Quintana Ron (1993-1999), Mario Villanueva was linked to drug trafficking in some official reports. In 1997, David Van Valkenburg, the U.S. Consul in Cancun had to leave the country because he faced a death threat from some local authorities.

In Mexico, the press reproduces the same information; Mexican politicians protest against interference in internal affairs, accuse the U.S. of creating the demand for drugs and of exporting weapons to arm drug traffickers. Opposition leaders criticize the Mexican government for their meek acceptance of U.S. points of view and demands. As a result the credibility of Mexican and American authorities is in doubt.

Calculating the risk of political instability should the links of PRI politicians to drug trafficking are exposed, U.S. authorities have decided to put requisite pressure on the Mexican government to incorporate their views and ways of doing things in drug policy. Consequently, Mexican officials have decided to militarize their anti-drugs combat, as suggested by the Americans. This despite the fact that the DEA’s anti-drug activities have been a failure all over the world. The same thing can be said about the military in drug activities in Mexico. Production and trafficking still exist and increased consumption calls for alternative strategies.



In February 1998, the U.S. government, through the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) chief, Barry McCaffrey announced a plan to ‘seal’ the southern border to drugs. It announced a budget of US$ 173 million to engage 1,000 border patrol agents, 54 million to Customs for new technology, 75.4 million to the Department of Defence (DOD) for operations in the Caribbean, the Andes and for training counter-drug forces in Mexico (13 million). The plan also involved increasing the number of DEA, FBI, INS agents and other federal police officers working at the border. There was special concern about corruption at the southwest border, ‘the principal transit route for cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine entering the United States.’

Between 1992 and 1997, there were 28 cases of INS and Customs agents assigned to the southwest border being convicted of drug related crimes. The unsolved mystery is how the drugs consumed in the U.S. were smuggled and commercialised without notice, and how to explain it without accepting the probability of more extended corruption among U.S. authorities and the participation of American crime organisations.

In May 1998, President Zedillo initiated a plan to seal the North and South Mexican borders to drug trafficking. It is claimed that drug trafficking reduced by 50%. But what happened to the balance 50 was not specified.



The labelling game: The perceptions on drug trafficking and its importance among Mexican officials heading specialised police corporations are riven with contradictions. According to Agustin Ricoy Saldana, chief executive of the Public Security National System (SNSP), there is a real possibility of Mexico becoming a ‘narco-state’ if the authorities do not pay attention to what is happening in the drug field.

Violent actions are characterised by some labelling professionals as examples of what they call ‘narco-state’ or ‘Colombianisation’. The level of violence seems to be either the only or the most important element taken into account for giving a name to a particular social phenomenon. The existence of drug trafficking in a given society and the use of armed violence against the authorities does not mean that drug traffickers dominate that particular society. A ‘narco-state’ would be a state dominated by traffickers in narcotic drugs, and not in any other kind of drugs like stimulants, for example. Such a thing does not exist in reality. ‘Colombianisation’ would be a social process of a permanent, direct and highly violent confrontation between drug traffickers and a guerrilla movement, separated, united or associated in a pragmatic way on the one side, and the authorities democratically elected using the law, the police, the army and the paramilitary to fight them on the other.

In Colombia drug trafficking was separated from the political power, while in Mexico it remained closely linked to it. Also, the association between the guerrillas and drug traffickers is not a part of the official discourse in Mexico. In Mexico, there is a hierarchical level limit to violence from drug traffickers against authorities, a transgression of which can have a boomerang effect on traffickers themselves; in Colombia, on the other, the only limit seems to be the President.



News reports on drug related violence in Mexico, especially at the Mexico-U.S. borderland, have become frequent in recent years. Whenever there is a violent death in drug producing or transit states, the local police assumes that it is related to drug trafficking vendettas. The use of weapons such as AK-47s and R-15s, the police say, is a distinctive sign of drug groups. They kill each other when they want to fight for a territory or when their chiefs disappear. Local and federal police agents as well as military officers are often used as gunmen hired by drug lords to eliminate rivals or to teach a lesson to those who do not pay their debts.

There are instances of informants and freelancers being kidnapped, tied up, blindfolded, tortured, shot in the head, and put in the trunk of a car with a cut finger in their mouths. This last is ostensibly a trademark of the Juarez group. Equally, counter-drug agents allegedly tortured drug dealers to death and dumped their bodies in the Chihuahua desert. The explanation given by a Juarez Justice Department official about the disappearance of people taken away by federal agents was: ‘A UFO came and took them away.’ The violence in the drug business is not only internal it also comes from the outside, from those who are supposed to represent the law but do not respect human rights, reproducing and reinforcing the logic of a spiral of violence.

One official reason for including the military in antidrug activities in Mexico was their reputation for honesty. Nevertheless, corruption, especially among agents placed in sensitive positions, demonstrated the risks and the limits of such a strategy. Recently, a group of eight military personnel transformed into federal agents and assigned to the Mexico City airport was apprehended, accused of drug trafficking and other illegal activities. They allegedly charged 15-20 thousand dollars (others say 2,500 per suitcase) per load of cocaine coming in Avianca aeroplanes from Bogota.

Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have criticized the inclusion of the military in antidrug activities supported by the U.S. government. Torture and executions are some examples of the unwanted but real effects of this particular war, further weakening civil institutions and democracy. In Mexico, military representatives are divided in their support to this policy. General Garfias Magana (PRD), ex President of the Commission of Defence at the House of Representatives, said the government policy of transforming the military into police led to a lowering of the prestige of the army. People have lost respect for the institution, he added. On the other side, General and Senator Vallarta Cecena (PRI) supports the participation of the army in antidrug activities, given the force of organized crime and the helplessness of the police to challenge it. In Tijuana, local authorities have demanded that the army patrol the schools. The Mexican Academy of Human Rights protested immediately. Its president, Raul Ramirez, said the action violated the Constitution and warned against lynching and social cleansing.



In 1995, the U.S. government approved a legislation imposing sanctions on Colombian firms suspected of being connected to drug trafficking. The Cali organisation was the objective of the operation. So far about 24 enterprises have been run out of business. In July 1999, the U.S. Senate passed a similar law concerning the rest of the world. Among the supporters of this initiative were Dianne Feinstein, Democrat for California, and Paul Coverdell, Republican for Georgia. It was proposed to bar drug traffickers and their associates from doing any business in the United States, cut off their access to American banks and freeze any assets they may have deposited here. American firms that continue to work with companies linked to the traffickers would be subject to civil and criminal prosecution. From 1 January 2000, and every year thereafter, legislation requires the Secretary of the Treasury to submit a list of major international drug traffickers after consulting with the CIA and the Departments of Justice, Defence and State. That list would then be vetted by the White House drug policy director and sent to the President.



By 1 March 2000, the President has to produce a final list of traffickers to be sanctioned, as well as report to Congress explaining his reasons if he decided to leave off any of the accused traffickers. The legislation added to the discretionary powers given to the U.S. President by an existing measure called IEEPA (International Economic Emergency Power Act). It authorizes him to impose economic sanctions on individuals or corporations considered an ‘unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy or the economy of the U.S.’

The Mexican Ambassador in Washington sent a confidential letter to the State Department claiming that the measures would have a negative effect, that the initiative would be worse than the certification process. Both the officials and representatives from different political parties expressed their anger, arguing that the U.S. should worry about its own money laundering, though some businessmen and officials in Colombia felt that the legislation would be helpful. Most Latin American diplomats said that such pressure tactics would damage the counter drug efforts in the continent. James Foley, spokesman of the Department of State, declared that the government would be careful to prevent the negative effects on the economy in Mexico and other countries.



Drug seizures: Counter-drug authorities now face a new problem: cocaine can be of different colours from black, yellow, red, blue, or even transparent, grained or liquid. Black cocaine was detected for the first time in Germany in February 1998. Agents from the DEA, FBI and CIA asked a counter narcotic detective from the DAS to introduce a load of black cocaine through the Washington airport: the cocaine passed undetected.

In June, 1999, the Mexican Navy seized a load of cocaine 400 miles from the Chiapas coast. Seven tons were confiscated. The drug was later incinerated. Two months earlier, more than a ton had been seized in Nuevo Leon. In July of the same year, three tons of cocaine was seized in the limits of Michoacan and Colima. In August, another boat was captured in international waters along the coast of Michoacan and Guerrero with an estimated 10 tons of cocaine. U.S. authorities aided the Mexicans in the operation.

Since 1991, when the Sinaloan drug lord Manuel Salcido Uzeta, AKA the ‘Crazy Pig’, settled in Colima, loads of cocaine began to arrive at the port of Manzanillo – four and seven tons in 1991, one ton in 1997, and 13 tons of hashish in 1997. The Attorney General announced the seizures of 25 tons of cocaine, 850 tons of marijuana, and 671 k of raw opium between January and August 1999. In all of these cases, information about the drug and the name of the organizations has not been made public.



Illicit drugs use: Mexico City health authorities estimate that there are about 20,000 drug distributors, many of them children and women, who conduct their business outside 8,200 primary and secondary schools. A PGR official said most of the cocaine circulating in the country is adulterated. The substances frequently used are sugar, quinine and methamphetamine. Two years ago, the price was between USD 8 and 10 for less than a gram. Other sources place it at USD 13-20 depending on the quality. In 1999, the price fell to 2 dollars for the same quantity.

The third National Survey on Addictions (ENA, l998) gathered information on urban population in the age group 12 to 65 years from 13,288 households on the prevalence of illicit drug use (marijuana, cocaine, inhalants, heroin and hallucinogens). Marijuana and cocaine are used more in the north and central regions of Mexico than in the south. Heroin and cocaine users are more important in the north, while marijuana users are in first place in central Mexico, as also inhalants and hallucinogens users. The north and centre show the same characteristics. The south seems far behind except for heroin and hallucinogens use. Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico City and Guadalajara, the most important urban centres, abound in marijuana and cocaine users. Mexico City has the highest number of inhalants and hallucinogens users. Heroin users are found mainly in Tijuana and Guadalajara. Frequent drug users (50 times or more in their lives) are more likely to be found among those who prefer inhalants.



Recent reports on drug trafficking in Mexico show a more frequent mention of its relationship with the political field. U.S. agencies and media have generated information concerning high-ranked officials of the ruling party. The opposition has not been mentioned as related in a similar way to the forbidden business. Since drug trafficking is a federal crime, the question is whether federal antidrug agencies whose members are frequently linked to the drug business are working as freelancers, autonomous groups or as a key structural link between the drug trafficking and the hegemonic political fields.

Local authorities for example, could not protect drug trafficking without the assistance of federal agents, but these agents could continue their protection work without the assistance or the surveillance of local authorities from opposition parties. Moreover, even when certain politicians directed the authorities to crack down on drugs, federal agents continued to protect drug trafficking in different parts of the country. There are some other networks beyond political opposition control that can be activated when necessary, all of them belonging to the hegemonic power.

The political opposition has recently won elections in a few states where drug plantations and trafficking are an important part of the local history. For a long period of time the ruling party had no competition in the country, and the violence generated in the drug business was kept under certain limits. Local governments, as a part of the federal system, did not oppose the orders coming from the central power, though legally local police is supreme in drug matters. Though the violence in the drug field has its own timing, coincidentally, when political opposition won the elections in some states, the levels of drug-related violence immediately increased. Clearly, the earlier mechanisms of mediation and control of the state party system at the national and local levels had broken down.



The reorganization of local police corps disrupted their subordination to the federal judicial police. Political opposition, at least theoretically had no interest in becoming a cover-up associate of its enemies. Consequently, local power fell outside the corruption network, a situation that facilitated more autonomous actions of traffickers, federal agents, local police and corrupt officials, thereby increasing the probability of violent actions to impose new rules of the game.

Federal agents have the reputation of being corrupt and are so prone to double-crossing practices that even political pre-candidates refused to have them as bodyguards as proposed by the government. Every time there was a drug scandal, federal agents were involved. Many of them have been fired; some have returned to the police agencies and others decided to become full-time traffickers.

Mexican authorities have not been able to reorganise the federal judicial police. Instead they have engaged in a kind of patchwork, creating new special groups. Unfortunately, operationalising them takes a long time. Given this frustrating experience, the U.S. government suggested the use of the military specially trained in the U.S. in counter-drug activities. The elite units took the place of the civilians, for a limited period of time according to Mexican officials, long enough to prepare a new generation of antidrug agents.

Many people were skeptical about the reputation of the military, the use of soldiers as policemen, and the continuation of a repressive strategy to stop drug trafficking. High-ranked military officials were soon proved guilty of corruption and protecting drug trafficking. The military was exposed and the strategy failed. Drug trafficking, violence and drug use have all increased. Cocaine prices are now higher than that of gold.



Mexico is generally considered a transit country for the U.S. drug market. Officials say drug traffickers are paying distributors with their merchandise and that could be one of the reasons for the increase in drug use. They feel that traffickers prefer not to take the risk of crossing the border even if the local market is less profitable. They do not take into account that for many decades drug traffickers had entered into an unwritten pact with Mexican authorities, whereby drugs were to be an export commodity and not for creating a local or national market. With the breakdown of the mechanism of mediation between drug trafficking and the political field, traffickers have become more autonomous to attempt other strategies of marketing.

The U.S. has influenced Mexico’s drug policy since the beginning of the 20th century. Political opposition in Mexico never had the power that its northern neighbour government wields in drug issues. One reason is the seven decade hegemony of the ruling party. Another is that political opposition has not proposed anything different from what exists today. Mexico’s drug policy seems to depend more on U.S. interests and will than on Mexico’s capacity to define its own path. When the justice system, the police corporations and the army have all failed in stopping drug trafficking, violence, drug use and ravaging corruption, the future can only be bleak.