Mexico and the Forever Drug War

Federal police present alleged members of the Mexican drug cartel "La Familia Michoacana," detained in a recent police operation, as they are presented to the press in Mexico City, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009. Suspects from from left to right are Rogelio Rivera, Orlando Tafoya, Juan Estrada Rodriguez, Jose Roberto de la Sancha, Juan Gabriel Cortez and Julio Enrique Aguilar. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Tomas Kellner and Francesco Pipitone are senior directors at Kroll Associates. Kellner previously spent eight years as staff writer at Forbes magazine, writing investigative articles focusing on government program abuse and fraud in the corporate and non-profit sectors. Pipitone formerly worked for Mexico's Ministry of the Interior, the Office of the President of the Republic, and the National Human Rights Commission as an analyst on numerous political and social issues. This report appears in the Spring 2010 issue of World Policy Journal and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.

AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico -- Just before noon on February 15, 2007, four municipal police officers in Aguascalientes, the picturesque capital of the central Mexican state bearing the same name, were called to a mundane road accident. An overturned, black Chevy Suburban with out-of-state license plates was blocking traffic on the quiet Boulevard John Paul II that runs through the city's sleepy western suburbs.

When local police commander Juan José Navarro Rincón and his three colleagues arrived, they saw two men who did not appear to be hurt, removing AK-47 assault rifles and police uniforms from the crashed vehicle to a white Nissan sport utility vehicle (SUV) parked nearby. Navarro Rincón called for reinforcements. He was about to arrest the pair when two other cars came to an abrupt stop just up the road. Three gunmen climbed out and opened fire with automatic weapons. Navarro Rincón was killed instantly. Three other officers also died.

The killings, dubbed "Black Thursday" by the local press, were the first shootings of police officers in Aguascalientes by drug gangs. Until then, Aguascalientes had been a quiet place, immune to the violence that was raging in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere in the country. The firefight sparked a manhunt throughout the state's rocky plateaus, involving some five dozen federal police patrol cars and a military helicopter. Later that day, with the gunmen and the drivers of the escape vehicles captured and in police custody, Aguascalientes State Attorney Xavier González Fisher tried to reassure the rattled public. He told the media that the burst of violence was an isolated incident. "Aguascalientes is quiet, is at peace... this does not happen every day." For a long time, his words might have served as an accurate description of the state of affairs in Aguascalientes. But the incident was a telltale mark that the bloody, corrosive nexus of drugs, crime, and corruption growing malignantly along the Mexico-U.S. border has metastasized to regions previously immune to this cancer.

The Drug War Moves North

In some respects, the Mexican problem is the result of Colombia's successful war on the Cali and Medellín drug cartels in the 1990s. Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the notorious leader of the Medellín Cartel, was gunned down by police commandos in 1993. Brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, who formed and ran the Cali Cartel, were captured in 1995, and later extradited to the United States to serve 30-year prison sentences. Although the Cali and Medellín cartels continued to operate, the removal of their leaders weakened them and created an opening for Mexican organized crime groups, such as the Guadalajara Cartel led by Miguel "El Padrino" ("the Godfather") Ángel Félix Gallardo and his successors, to seize control of the lucrative North American drug trade.

The Guadalajara Cartel and similar groups had traditionally moved the Colombian drugs north. Félix Gallardo cultivated friendships with politicians, businessmen, and journalists, as well as with other drug lords. Distributing power and spoils, he built a nationwide trafficking network whose members rarely resorted to violence. Under Félix Gallardo's system, territories were carved out for local chieftains, and whenever another group needed access to his region, a tribute was paid. Though he was captured by the Mexican government in 1989, Félix Gallardo remained in charge, orchestrating meetings and dividing territory from prison. It was ultimately a failing effort. With the Guadalajara Cartel's ringleader locked up and the Colombians under attack, others started developing their own drug operations from scratch -- covering transportation, warehousing, and, eventually, the sale of the product itself.

Barry R. McCaffrey, former director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified before the Senate that the "Colombians paid the Mexican trafficking organizations $1,500 to $2,000 for each kilogram of cocaine smuggled to the United States." But during the 1990s, as a more chaotic arrangement began to take shape, the Colombian and Mexican trafficking groups established a new deal allowing the Mexicans to receive a percentage of the cocaine in each shipment as payment for their transportation services. "This 'payment-in-product' agreement enabled Mexican organizations to become involved in the wholesale distribution of cocaine in the United States," McCaffrey observed. This also ended the Colombians' monopoly and set the stage for the war that followed.

As the Mexican cartels expanded their control over the drug supply chain, revenues exploded. There are no precise historical figures describing the size of the business. But, by any account, there was an enormous amount of money to be made. In 2002, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft described the size of the U.S. drug market, reporting that Americans spent $62.9 billion on drugs in 2000. More than half ($36.1 billion), was spent on cocaine -- of which an estimated 90 percent transits through Mexico. In 2009, the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center estimated that Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations generated somewhere in the range of $17 billion to $38 billion annually in gross wholesale proceeds from drug sales in the United States. By comparison, Google's worldwide revenue in 2009 was $23.6 billion.

As earnings shot up, so did violence. Starting in the mid-1990s, drug gangs in Mexico grew more independent and began fighting for more control and larger territories. A decades-long war, which has claimed some 20,000 lives so far, broke out between Félix Gallardo's lieutenant, Joaquín "El Chapo" ("Shorty") Guzmán, currently Mexico's most wanted person, and rival drug lords. Gone was Félix Gallardo's divide-and-conquer approach, replaced by intimidation, brazen violence, and the executions of officials and anyone else who dared stand in the way. By 2004, the war had reached a simmer: the first mass graves started to appear in Mexico, and newspapers carried accounts of gruesome killings involving beheadings and acid. In the border town of Nuevo Laredo, more than 100 people were murdered from January to August, 2005.

President Vicente Fox had taken a relatively soft approach to combating the violence, but all that changed when President Felipe Calderón took office on December 1, 2006. Within weeks, some 6,500 troops were dispatched to the state of Michoacán (along the country's mid-Pacific coast) to curtail drug violence. It was of little avail. McCaffrey testified in 2009 that "squad-sized units of the police and [Mexican] army have been tortured, murdered, and their decapitated bodies publicly left on display." Media accounts appeared describing instances where police auctioned their loyalty to the highest bidder. Today, some 45,000 Mexican troops -- about a quarter of the standing army -- are engaged in a domestic war with drug cartels, which shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

Rise of the New Cartels

Amid such seemingly indiscriminate violence, it's critical to understand who is fighting whom, and to have a little history of the major players today. The Mexican drug wars have seen the rise of two dominant cartels, which have elevated indiscriminate violence and coercion to levels previously unimaginable. The Sinaloa gang is the country's largest cartel, based on the volume of drugs it moves. It grew out of the coastal state of Sinaloa, once known for its poppy fields and opium gum produced by Chinese immigrants. Now it is produced by hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos. The Sinaloa Cartel operates up Mexico's Pacific coast and along the U.S. border -- from Tijuana in the west, to Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo in the east. Since a different chief, or capo (the Mexican cartels have adopted the same terminology as their mafia counterparts), controls each territory, the Sinaloa Cartel has also become known as "The Federation." But at the top of the chain sits Félix Gallardo's former lieutenant, "El Chapo" Guzmán; Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $1 billion. The U.S. government is offering a $5 million reward for his capture.