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The Murderers of Mexico

Mike King

There is, first of all, the setting. In his excellent introduction to Drug War Zone, a collection of oral histories of participants in the drug world, Howard Campbell describes Juárez for us:

The local landscape provides myriad spaces for imaginative traffickers. Rugged mountains, creased with sharp canyons and arroyos, overlook vast deserts. The lowland, downtown section of El Paso winds along the Rio Grande…. Drug traffickers can easily ford the river and disappear into the maze of rural back roads scattered across El Paso County (one of the largest in the United States), and from there enter Interstate Highway 10, which connects the east and west coasts of the United States….

To the east of downtown Juárez, new commercial and residential sections and hundreds of maquiladoras loom on the horizon, and to the south and west a boundless web of impoverished colonias (poor neighborhoods) has replaced farm and desert lands. Just as El Pasoans can see the factories of their sister city, Juarenses can see the skyscrapers of El Paso from many parts of the city—the two border communities are inextricably linked….

Furthermore, migration to Juárez from Mexican states to the south brings a huge reserve labor army to the colonias and urban barrios, and local government is unable to deal with this influx. There is a virtually limitless supply of unemployed workers ready and willing to make good money by driving or walking loads of drugs across the border or by serving as a stash-house guard or a hit man. Smugglers have little difficulty adapting socially or communicating in Spanish, English, or Spanglish on either side of the bilingual, bicultural border. The enormous maquiladora industry and related El Paso long-haul trucking industry provide the heavy-duty eighteen-wheelers and every possible storage facility, tool, equipment, or supply needed to package, conceal, store, and transport contraband drugs.

Campbell’s central contention, stated in the title of his book, is that the whole idea of a Mexican drug smuggling enterprise, or problem, is untenable: a land so thoroughly bilingual, bicultural, miscegenated, and porous—despite the arbitrary demarcation of a border and the increasingly weird and futile efforts to seal it—can really only be studied and understood as a united territory and a single problem. This is an idea so breathtakingly sensible as to amount to genius,2 and one wonders how many deaths could be avoided if policymakers on both sides of the Rio Grande shared this vision and coordinated not only their law enforcement efforts but their education, development, and immigration policies accordingly.

What we have in the place of collaboration is the shattering loneliness of Juárez. In the 1990s, when young women began to disappear from the poorest shantytowns in the city, and then turned up like so much waste matter, bruised, raped, mutilated, and dead, police officers laughed in the faces of the distraught parents who appealed to them for help. Reporting on the story, I stood one afternoon on a gray hill covered in gray dust above a gray squatter settlement and looked across the river at the faux-adobe office buildings of El Paso. Around me the tumbleweed jittered in the breeze, and plastic supermarket bags and odds and ends of clothing fluttered everywhere, as if all the trash in all of Mexico had beached itself at this spot. A few hundred yards downhill lived the sister of one of the disappeared girls, and for all the outreach by NGOs and solidarity groups concerned with the murders, she seemed as isolated and vulnerable as it was possible for a young woman to be.

Speculation has been never-ending about who was responsible for the murder of those girls—there were several dozen of them, tangled among the statistics for hundreds of other, more random female homicides. It was always clear that the police were somehow involved—the grotesque laughter at the police station, the switched clothing on a couple of bodies eventually returned by police to the bereaved families, the systematic destruction of evidence, all pointed in their direction. But it seemed unlikely that lowly police officers would have the political backing to engage on their own in sick serial murders and remain unpunished, even as a worldwide campaign mounted to protest the killings.

I remember asking back then if a likely culprit might not be the lord of Juárez, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who was the most powerful trafficker of his day. Who else, in the course of doing regular business, could buy off enough politicians, police commanders, and justice officials to guarantee himself immunity under any circumstances? Conceivably, Carrillo Fuentes or his minions had developed a fascination with death that went beyond the strictly professional. Several of the girls had one breast sliced off, and in a shack in the desert some weird graffiti seemed also to have ritual meaning.

None of us reporters understood much then about the new religious cults mushrooming in the drug world—notably the Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, a Halloweenish figure identical to the hooded skeleton who makes frequent appearances in biker art. Her cult has spread well beyond the jailhouses where she is revered, and now that altars to the gloomy skeleton are everywhere in the country and we have heard of young migrant girls from Central America being killed and offered to the Santa Muerte by the particular branch of the drug mafia devoted to human trafficking, there is more reason to wonder if the current traffickers’ obsession with nauseating forms of murder did not start back then.


Carrillo Fuentes, the lord of Juárez, died in 1997. He was given the wrong kind of sedative—perhaps even accidentally—while recovering from plastic surgery in a boutique Mexico City hospital, and his death left the Juárez plaza (meaning a combined drug distribution territory and supply route) wide open. Chapo Guzmán of course tried to move in immediately following Carrillo Fuentes’s murder (or before, if he was behind the fatal injection), but so did a trafficker who, unusually, comes not from the Pacific coast state Sinaloa but from Tamaulipas, which lies across the country on the Gulf of Mexico. His name is Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, and for quite a few years he held the profitable monopoly of all the trafficking in Tamaulipas, whose border cities Reynosa, Matamoros, and Nuevo Laredo are collectively the largest commercial crossroads in the world. Nuevo Laredo is, consequently, the most lucrative plaza in Mexico; some eight thousand trucks pass the US customs inspection checkpoints at Laredo every day. Cárdenas, a man of ambition and keen business sense, baptized what was then just a gang, calling it the Cartel del Golfo (Cartel of the Gulf).

The Cartel del Golfo’s operations prospered wonderfully, so much so that, according to several reliable accounts, their members drive around the border city of Reynosa, particularly, in black SUVs painted with the initials CDG. But Cárdenas was arrested by Mexican police in 2003 and extradited to the US, where he was sentenced to twenty-five years in February of this year. He left a legacy in his home state, though. All the traffickers before him had relied on their own gatilleros, or hired killers, to enforce their law, but in the late 1990s Cárdenas figured out the logistical and intelligence advantages of hiring military men—particularly highly skilled military men who had been trained to fight him—as his own private defense force. That is how the rogue drug gang the Zetas was born. Today it is a collection of former police agents and Central American army special forces, gang members, and what amounts to indentured killers, all led by a group of Mexican former special antinarcotics forces who destroyed all the existing narco codes of honor and rules of engagement.

It should come as no surprise that the Zetas are now at war with their parent group, the Cartel del Golfo. There are predictable rhythms and sequences in the growth and development of illegal groups, as Juan Carlos Garzón points out in a lucid study, Mafia & Co.: The Criminal Networks in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. Garzón examines the drug groups in these three countries as if they were so many bacteria, and studies the way they divide and form new colonies:

Criminal structures are increasingly adopting a network form. They have been moving away from cumbersome—almost bureaucratic—organizations that tried to monopolize illegal economies, toward the configuration of cells that specialize in certain parts of the production chain or in a specific market (like the protection market).

The big boss who used to give all the orders no longer exists…. The real leader is the person who has the contacts and the connections, the person who has developed a significant concentration of relationships….

Most crime organizations have lost their leader at some point in their history but this has not led to their disappearance as an organization. Generally, what happens is that in the absence of the top leader, a process of fragmentation occurs. The successor doesn’t often manage to keep the same cohesive structure, and several possible scenarios emerge. If a capo is captured or killed by the government forces, a situation of instability is created in which various factions attempt to preserve themselves individually. In this framework, the mid-level commanders will begin to compete for the leadership of the organization (as is happening, for example, with the Gulf Cartel). Some structures will try to become independent. Others will be taken over by larger groups…. Some will form alliances to try to maintain a minimum level of cohesion so they can reorganize…and others will be prepared to offer themselves to the highest bidder….

The ever-fluctuating war among the constantly fragmenting and multiplying drug clans and families is, among other things, a culture war, one being fought by the old campesino marijuana-growing and smuggling families along the Pacific coast against the wholesale traffickers of the Gulf of Mexico, who grow nothing. :It’s also a war with, on one side, Pacific coast criminals who have a romantic vision of themselves as renegade outlaws—and who commission old-timey biographical ballads about themselves (narcocorridos) to spread that vision, like this one about Guzmán’s famous escape from prison on January 20, 2001:

It was January 19
That Chapo shouted “Presente!
When they took the roll call,
But the plot was already laid
For when they called him next day,
He didn’t answer at all. 3

On the other side are former members of the Mexican military establishment in the east, whose taste in music, as far as one can tell from the narcovideos frequently put up on YouTube, runs to techno and reggaeton.

Pacific coast smugglers like Chapo Guzmán have yet to catch up with the Zetas’ ability to intercept the conversations of even the lowliest politicians along the Tamaulipas border and their delight in chest-thumping (they appear to have been the first to use trucks to block major thoroughfares, sometimes just for the hell of it). If recent news reports are correct, the Zetas also use antiaircraft weapons and satellite trackers. The traffickers from Sinaloa rely on backroom alliances with local politicians to keep the business quiet and safe—one can only think with envy of Chapo Guzmán’s Rolodex. The Zetas show no sign that they have ever heard of the word “compromise” and seem bent on a direct challenge to all authority.

Shaul Schwarz/Reportage by Getty Images
Devotees attending a mass for the Santa Muerte, the saint of Holy Death, Tepito, Mexico City, July 1, 2009

The Sinaloa traffickers’ cult of a rural trickster hero, Jesús Malverde, is in equally stark contrast with Gulf coast worship of Holy Death. The Zetas seem modern and the Pacific coast gangsters old-fashioned, but at the moment we have no way of knowing who is winning, partly because the Zetas are so out of control and partly because the clan leaders on the Pacific coast who used to form an alliance are busily trying to kill one another, as are the Zetas and their former masters in the Cartel del Golfo.

Properly speaking, as Garzón points out, the Zetas are not really a trafficking group. Osiel Cárdenas ran the Cartel del Golfo’s trafficking operations and hired the Zetas to provide the muscle. The Zetas are an enforcement enterprise, with franchises that specialize increasingly in kidnapping, extortion, holdups, and human traffic. On Mexico’s southern border they lie in wait for the freight trains used by US-bound migrants from Central and South America—and apparently, from as far away as China as well. If the pollero, or people smuggler who guides the migrants in their passage through Mexico, does not have an arrangement with the Zetas, the helpless migrants are kidnapped, beaten up, raped, extorted. With increasing frequency, the men in the group are forced to work as killers themselves, which would indicate that the Zetas’ branch organizations are growing faster than they can be staffed.

Once they leave the southern border, the migrants head for the United States along routes also patrolled by the Zetas, all the way to Laredo and Reynosa. There is only one train route used by the traffickers on Mexico’s border with Guatemala, yet the Mexican government seems helpless to stop either the migrants or the crimes committed every day against them. On August 23, near the city of San Fernando, some one hundred miles from the US border, the Zetas stopped a bus full of migrants, herded them to a nearby isolated ranch, and, after a confused series of events lasting several hours, executed seventy-two.

Two things are worth noticing about the massacre. The first is that from the traffickers’ point of view, no practical end was achieved by killing seventy-two migrants, who were neither enemies nor hostages about to be rescued. The killers appear to have acted out of rage, on whim, or simply out of tedium or habit. They have terrorized half of Mexico, but criminals who lose all discipline tend not to last very long.

The second noteworthy thing is the Mexican government’s response to the tragedy. According to the first reports published in the newspaper El Universal, troops at an army outpost some fourteen miles from the ranch were notified of the massacre by a survivor, but they did not immediately go to the scene of the crime because, the story in El Universal said, they were afraid of being attacked. The first troops arrived at the scene only the day after the lone survivor alerted them to the massacre. This from a military that has been ordered by its commander-in-chief to wage all-out war on the drug trade.

On September 19, following the murder of its second reporter in less than two years—a young man barely twenty-one years old, who joined the list of the more than thirty journalists murdered or disappeared in Mexico during the last four years4:—the daily Diario de Juárez published an editorial addressed to the “Lords of the different organizations fighting for the plaza of Ciudad Juárez”:

We say to you that we are in the communications business, and not mind-readers. Therefore, as information workers, we want you to explain to us what you want from us, what it is your aim that we should publish or refrain from publishing…. You are, at the moment, the de facto authorities in this city, because the legally constituted authorities in this city have been unable to do anything to prevent the continuing murder of our colleagues, despite our repeated demand…. We do not want more dead. We do not want more wounded nor further intimidations. It is impossible for us to fulfill our duty in these conditions. Therefore, tell us what you expect from us as a medium….

It was a relief of sorts to have someone with a public voice and the authority to do so declare, for the record, that the state is no longer the arbiter of who lives or dies along the border. But the question of who is in charge, who rules, who holds the power is vexing.

An easy conclusion would be that Mexico, or the drug war zone, is in the hands of a failed state. But a failed state does not constantly build new roads and schools, or collect taxes, or generate legitimate industrial and commercial activity sufficient to qualify it as one of the twelve largest economies in the world. In a failed state drivers do not stop at red lights and garbage is not collected punctually. The question is, rather, whether in the face of unstoppable activity by highly organized criminals, the Mexican government can adequately enforce the rule of law and guarantee the safety of its citizens everywhere in the country. This, at the moment, the administration of Felipe Calderón does not seem able to do, either in large parts of the countryside or in major cities like Monterrey. There is little doubt that Calderón’s strategy of waging all-out war to solve a criminal problem has not worked. Whether any strategy at all can work, as long as global demand persists for a product that is illegal throughout the world, is a question that has been repeated ad nauseam. But it remains the indispensable question to consider.

—Mexico City, September 30, 2010

  1. 2

    The idea is expressed in similar terms by, among others, the experienced and keen-sighted Guardian foreign correspondent Ed Vuillamy, in the title of his roadie book Amexica: War Along the Borderline (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to be published in November 2010).

  2. 3

    Adan Cuen, “El Corrido del Chapo Guzmán Loera.”

  3. 4

    A horrifying and greatly enlightening report on the state of the press in Mexico is “Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press,” with a preface by Joel Simon, Committee to Protect Journalists, September 8, 2010, available at cpj.org. Following a lengthy meeting on September 22 with members of a joint delegation of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the InterAmerican Press Association, Calderón announced on September 27 that the government was putting in place a long-announced plan to provide physical protection to journalists under threat. Legislation put forward by Calderón to make attacks on journalists a federal crime has been stalled in Congress for two years.

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