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A Quiet Shift in Mexico’s Drug War

Alma Guillermoprieto
Without the rest of the world paying much attention, the tortured relations between drug traffickers and the rest of the Mexican population have taken a significant turn.
Mexican soldiers.jpg

Matias Recart/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican soldiers, members of a special anti-narcotics brigade, uproot marijuana plants in the La Puntas zone in Sinaloa State in western Mexico, August 14, 1995

Without the rest of the world paying much attention, the tortured relations between drug traffickers and the rest of the Mexican population have taken a significant turn. Following a series of hair-raising events over the past few weeks, it appears that the government of Felipe Calderón may be preparing to replace its aggressive military campaign against the drug trade with a rather different policy—opening the door to a previously unthinkable debate about legalizing drugs. Either that, or the administration is losing its bearings at an even faster rate than we had supposed.

It all started with something that is by now horrifyingly routine: a YouTube video of the gory execution of a Mexican policeman by a gang of narcotraficantes. Posted on July 22, it begins with the interrogation of the policeman, who was from the northern state of Durango, by masked gangsters employed, in this case, by one of Mexico’s most powerful trafficking groups, the Zetas. Such interrogations have been circulated on the Internet before, and, as here, they often end in death. However, in the course of this particular video the policeman stated that the director of a federal prison in Durango was in the habit of releasing and arming certain prisoners at night, so that they could commit murders aimed, broadly speaking, at the Zetas. The recent massacre of seventeen people attending a birthday party in the neighboring state of Coahuila was the work of these temporarily sprung assassins, the policeman said, as were two other mass killings earlier this year.

The policeman’s account gained instant notoriety, and came to the attention of federal authorities in Mexico City. At a press conference on July 25—three days after the YouTube posting—the Attorney General’s spokesman confirmed the story, adding that the R-15 rifles used in the Coahuila massacres were indeed standard issue for federal prison guards—a fact that had apparently gone unremarked before. Pending further investigation, the government placed a number of people under temporary arrest, including the director of the Durango prison, a chunky, tough-looking blonde by the name of Margarita Rojas Rodríguez.

What happened next was astonishing. The inmates of the prison rioted, killed a prison guard, and demanded that Señora Rojas be restored to her post immediately, surely the first time in history that prisoners have risen up on behalf of their jailer. Then, four local reporters who had covered the riot—two cameramen and two print reporters—were kidnapped after they left the site. This, as it turned out, was the work of the Zetas’ most bitter enemy, the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquín Guzmán (known as el Chapo). The reporters’ employers—the enormous Televisa television network, and the influential newspaper Milenio—agreed almost immediately to the kidnappers’ demands. What Guzmán wanted was simple: the airing of three more videos. Homemade, almost impossible to understand, horrible to watch, the videos showed assorted terrified police, including one woman, giving the names of other police who allegedly work for the Zetas. Because it has long been known that every one of the drug groups recruit heavily from the security forces, some viewers were puzzled: to barter four human beings for such footage was like blowing a million dollars on pizza. But the question that has been left hanging in the air is not funny: will reporters’ lives be the ticket to free publicity every time a trafficker feels he has something he wants to get off his chest?

Two hostages were released by the kidnappers before el Chapo’s three videos were aired. The other two reporters surfaced at a press conference on August 1, given by Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna, at which he described an operation by federal security forces culminating in their liberation. The two reporters sat quietly—looking, rather unsettlingly, still like hostages—while García Luna read a brief statement and took questions. The very first one showed just how dismally the Calderón presidency has failed to gain credibility in the course of its three-year-old war on drugs. How was it, a reporter wanted to know, that his colleagues had been liberated by the government, while all the kidnappers managed to escape? Had there not been, instead, a humiliating negotiation the government was not willing to acknowledge? During later questioning by their colleagues, the freed reporters were unable to describe convincingly where they were taken by the kidnappers, how they were treated, and how they were rescued—maintaining a reticence that only increased the general atmosphere of suspicion. There were even those who speculated that the kidnapping had been set up by authorities at the state or federal level simply to distract attention from the shameful events at Durango prison. Were the kidnapped journalists answering questions—or rather, failing to answer them—under threat?


Other questions were left hanging in the air: what was the fate of the police shown in the three broadcast videos? Was there no government force capable of locating them? Where were the three federal police who were allegedly held captive in the same house as the journalist hostages? Had the media given in to government pressure to accept the kidnappers’ demands and air the videos? How was it that the governor of the state of Durango could denounce the prison scandal as if it had happened in some other state, and not, instead, on his watch? And what, come to think of it, had happened to all the rioting prisoners and to the prison director whose insouciant approach to prison regulations had set this particular snowball in motion?

All in all, by early August, the impression of a helpless government had become overpowering. Over the past three and a half years, some 45,000 soldiers and police have been dispatched to fight Mexico’s powerful and increasingly violent drug cartels, and to no avail: according to figures just released by the government, 28,000 people have died since the start of Felipe Calderón’s drug war, addiction rates among young Mexicans are ballooning, and, as the jailhouse incident in Durango showed so alarmingly, the traffickers’ operatives have infiltrated many state institutions. Meanwhile, bilateral trade in drugs (smuggled to the United States) and increasingly lethal weapons (smuggled from the United States) continues uninterrupted.

Such is the crisis in Mexico City that President Calderón, who is a member of the conservative National Action Party, now seems willing to at least open a debate about a radical change in drug policy: the legalization of marijuana. Soon after taking office, in December of 2006, he had refused to even consider the idea. But last week he presided over a series of round-table gathering of intellectuals, academics, and drug specialists and said merely that he was “taking note of the debate that has been started here, regarding the regulation of drugs … I think, first of all, that it must take place in the context of a democratic pluralism.”

The following day the Primate of the Mexican Catholic Church, an arch-conservative who has opposed making drugs legal in the past, said merely that the issue should be studied from a public health perspective. President Calderón subsequently clarified that he himself is against legalization, considering the evident risks such a change in policy poses. But former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia, came out in favor of the “decriminalization” of marijuana last year, and they have now been joined by President Calderón’s immediate predecessor and fellow conservative, Vicente Fox. “This doesn’t mean that drugs don’t hurt the people who use them,” Fox wrote in his blog on August 8. “We should see legalization, rather, as a strategy to … break the economic structure that allows [drug] mafias to reap enormous earnings … which in turn are used to corrupt, and to increase their share of power.” There is no question of legalizing all drugs, or making any immediate change on marijuana policy without careful coordination with the principal drug market in the world, just north of the border. But as leading Mexican intellectuals and public officials leap to join the discussion, a debate that has long been taboo has suddenly become the order of the day.

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