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The Murderers of Mexico

Atentamente, El Chapo (Sincerely, El Chapo)

by Héctor de Mauleón
Nexos, August 1, 2010 (available at www.nexos.com.mx)

La Ruta de Sangre de Beltrán Leyva (The Path of Blood of Beltrán Leyva)

by Héctor de Mauleón
Nexos, January 1, 2001 (available at www.nexos.com.mx)

Mafia & Co.: The Criminal Networks in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia

by Juan Carlos Garzón, translated from the Spanish by Kathy Ogle
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 187 pp., available at www.wilsoncenter.org
Shaul Schwarz/Reportage by Getty Images
Mausoleums with windows, air conditioning, and upstairs rooms for visiting mourners, built for rich traffickers from the state of Sinaloa who were killed in the Mexican drug war, Culiacán, July 5, 2009

How to write about Mexico’s drug war? There are only a limited number of ways that readers can be reminded of the desperate acts of human sacrifice that go on every day in this country, or of the by now calamitous statistics: the nearly 28,000 people who have been killed in drug-related battles or assassinations since President Felipe Calderón took power almost four years ago, the thousands of kidnappings, the wanton acts of rape and torture, the growing number of orphaned children.

For reasons they themselves probably do not completely understand, the various Mexican drug clans and organizations responsible for so much bloodshed have acquired a liking for public attention, and to hold it they have developed a grisly theatrical performance of death, a roving display of grotesque mutilations and executions. But for all the constant innovations, one horrifying beheading is, in the end, much like the next one. The audience’s saturation point arrives all too quickly, and news coverage of the war, event-driven as all news is, has become the point when people turn the page or continue surfing.

We, the people in charge of telling the story, know far too little ourselves about a clandestine upstart society we long viewed as marginal, and what little we know cannot be explained in print media’s standard eight hundred words or less (or broadcast’s two minutes or under). And the story, like the murders, is endlessly repetitive and confusing: there are the double-barreled family names, the shifting alliances, the double-crossing army generals, the capo betrayed by a close associate who is in turn killed by another betrayer in a small town with an impossible name, followed by another capo with a double-barreled last name who is betrayed by a high-ranking army officer who is killed in turn. The absence of understanding of these surface narratives is what keeps the story static, and readers feeling impotent. Enough time has passed, though, since the beginning of the drug war nightmare1 that there is now a little perspective on the problem. Academics on both sides of the border have been busy writing, and so have the journalists with the most experience. Thanks to their efforts, we can now begin to place some of the better-known traffickers in their proper landscape.


In 1989, an up-and-coming drug trafficker called Joaquín Guzmán, and known generally as El Chapo or Chapo—which is what short, stocky men are called in Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa, on the northwest coast of Mexico—picked a fight with some of his business associates in Tijuana. Four years later, the estranged associates sent a hit team to Guadalajara, where Chapo Guzmán was living. According to records of the investigation, the Tijuana team was supposed to intercept Guzmán on May 24, 1993, as he arrived at the airport on his way to a beach vacation, but the murderers appear to have confused Guzmán’s white Grand Marquis with one owned by the burly Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, cardinal of Guadalajara.

As the unfortunate cleric pulled up to the curb, the Tijuana hit men opened fire. (According to some versions, Guzmán had arrived at the airport by then, and engaged in a shoot-out with the killers.) The cardinal died on the spot, and even though this was to become one of the most scandalous murders of the century, a subject for endless conspiracy theories, the hit team managed to get on the next commercial flight to Tijuana. No one has ever been tried for the crime. Guzmán’s comment on the day’s events, before he packed his bags and went on the run, was “Esto se va a poner de la chingada,” or roughly, “Things are going to get really fucked now.”

Guzmán’s take on the situation was correct: he fled south, unimpeded by a trail of “Wanted: Joaquín Guzmán” posters everywhere he went, but he was captured in Guatemala and deported to Mexico in a matter of days. Guzmán didn’t foresee his own long-term prospects, though. At the time of the cardinal’s murder he was merely one of the more ambitious Sinaloa traffickers plying their trade along the Pacific coastal states and the northern Mexican border. Seventeen years later—eight of which were spent in a Mexican prison, from which he escaped in 2001, reportedly in a laundry van—Guzmán may be more embattled than ever, but he is also the most powerful trafficker on earth, or certainly the most influential.

We owe Guzmán’s prophetic statement, and the details of his flight, to his former business administrator, as quoted by Héctor de Mauleón, a novelist and essayist who has just published a biography of Chapo Guzmán in the Mexican magazine Nexos. De Mauleón has pieced together his account of Guzmán’s life from court records of his convicted former bodyguards, associates, relatives, and enemies. We learn a great deal about this very rich big-time thug: his canniness, his insecurity about his height, his lavish wedding a few years ago to a Sinaloa beauty queen.

But what we mostly understand here, as in de Mauleón’s parallel biography of Arturo Beltrán Leyva—Guzmán’s former associate turned bitter enemy, who was killed in December—is his influence at the highest levels of the Mexican government. Throughout these records army generals provide Guzmán with information, police officers provide security, major airports are run by his allies, and the dark suspicion grows steadily that cabinet members in several administrations, including the current one, are also on friendly terms with him.

It’s not that Guzmán has influence whereas other traffickers do not; it’s that every trafficker has a great many appointed officials and elected politicians on his payroll but Guzmán has more than the rest. The most distressing conclusion one can draw from de Mauleón’s articles is not that President Calderón’s war on drugs is being lost but that it may not even be fought. The sampling in the court records would suggest that each high-level arrest and killing claimed by the government as a victory—notably that of Guzmán’s former friend Arturo Beltrán—is a consequence of skillful intelligence work not by the government but by the traffickers, who systematically turn each other in to their government contacts—and are often freed by contacts working for the other side, as happened to Beltrán:

On May 7, 2008, the Federal Preventive Police set up a checkpoint at km 95 of the highway between Cuernavaca and Acapulco. The police had just received information leaked to them by [a major trafficker] Arturo Beltrán was about to pass through there. The regional director of the Federal Police was in charge of coordinating his capture…. Five suspicious vehicles [approached]. The police agents signaled them to stop. The convoy members opened fire. [Arturo Beltrán Leyva managed to escape, but his enemy, counting on that possibility] had provided the police with addresses in Cuernavaca in which Beltrán Leyva might hide. The police inspector who…had received the leaked information called…the Federal Police’s chief of antidrug operations and told him: “We’ve located various addresses [for Beltrán Leyva]…we’re mobilized [mobilizados] and ready to enter.

The antidrug chief cut him off: “Stop everything. Return immediately to Mexico City.”

Beltrán’s luck—or his contacts—finally ran out in December 2009, when he was surrounded and killed by a Navy commando team, which was presumably selected on the supposition that, having had very little to do with the drug war until that point, it was less likely to be infiltrated by traffickers. The question left floating in the air by these records and testimonies, and by common experience, is this: If the army and the national intelligence agencies are so generally infiltrated as to be completely unreliable, and if both local and federal police forces are so corrupt and dangerous that we frequently have reason to fear them as much as we do common criminals, then what is the use of having them? Or as several participants wondered at a recent series of round-table meetings convoked by Calderón: How can the security forces be controlled or safely replaced? The question is particularly pointed now that the federal government has fired 3,200 policias federales—one tenth of the total force—presumably for reasons of corruption. The last time a comparable firing took place was in the late 1990s, when the first elected mayor of Mexico City fired three hundred police officers for reasons of corruption, and the city immediately witnessed an unprecedented increase in violent robbery and kidnapping.


When general outrage broke out in Mexico in February, following the wanton killing in late January of fifteen youths at a birthday party in the northern border city of Juárez, Calderón did not help matters by declaring that, like most of the violent deaths in Juárez, these latest murders had been the result of a “gang fight.” He was distressingly wrong in this case—the young people had no connection to the drug trade. Still, most murders in Juárez are, indeed, the result of gang warfare. The murder rate in Mexico City is eight per 100,000, comparable to Wichita, Kansas, or Stockton, California. The overall murder rate in Mexico is fourteen per 100,000. But in Ciudad Juárez it is 189 per 100,000. And as in Tijuana, Reynosa, or Nuevo Laredo—other border cities also afflicted by runaway violence—all but a very small number of the Juárez victims are, in fact, involved in one way or another in the drug trade.

The border is the crossing point for some $300 billion worth of legal commercial traffic, which, ever since 1994, when a free trade agreement between Mexico and the United States went into force, has grown exponentially. The war among drug traffickers began over the right to move drugs through the border cities. One would have thought that traffickers moved their goods by foot, in the dark, through desert territories. In fact they still do, in great quantities, but they move their goods most efficiently and in far greater volume past US customs inspectors in broad daylight. Illegal substances travel in SUVs, double-semi trucks, or beat-up cars, packed with merchandise, disguised as eggs in crates, stuffed into teddy bears, melted into candy bars, or tamped into hollowed-out chairs.

It’s easy to see why arrangements regarding access points to the United States would be unstable: the bigger the city and the larger the volume of legal trade, the easier it is for contraband to go unnoticed. Most cocaine is grown and processed in South America, and much of what is smuggled into the US passes through Mexico. Most marijuana and opium poppy crops are grown on the Pacific coast, and controlled by the old families in Sinaloa, Guzmán’s foremost among them, but growing is easy. The hard part is getting the product to market, and in this effort border cities are the prize rich enough to go to war for. What’s less easy to understand is how a trade that for decades had flourished with nothing more than the standard gangland kidnappings and killings has in the last half-dozen years erupted into the nightmare symbolized by Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso.

  1. 1

    Strictly speaking, thirty-nine years have passed since Richard Nixon first targeted drug production and consumption as a priority for his administration. What Nixon then baptized as a “War on Drugs” has since spread from a handful of countries in the Andes, the Mideast, and Asia to every continent, creating law enforcement problems in Canada and devastating already helpless countries like Guinea-Bissou. Since Nixon’s time, however, overall demand for illegal substances, whether agricultural in origin—like heroin, marijuana, or cocaine—or chemical, like methamphetamines, has remained steady.

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