They might be taking their cues from legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was famous for helping out numerous communities in Colombia and donating parks and recreation centers to unprivileged communities. Or maybe they’re inspired by the legend of Jesús Malverde, the so-called narco-saint folk hero from Sinaloa, sometimes seen as a Mexican version of Robin Hood. On the other hand, they may feel threatened by the “self-defense” groups spawning in Michoacán and Colima—civil vigilante groups that have taken up arms against the cartels after declaring that local authorities are unable or unwilling to tackle organized crime battles head-on.
For whatever reason, drug cartels in different parts of Mexico took to the streets this holiday season in order to “give back,” and—ironic as it may sound— spread holiday cheer.
In the southern state of Oaxaca the impoverished communities of Viguera, Bugambilia and Calicanto were surprised on Three Kings Day (January 6) with bundles of toys, which mysteriously appeared in different points of the city, some with signs explaining that they were left there “so that people can see that the Zetas support humble people. ” Not surprisingly, these images did not make it into mainstream national media but were shared via Twitter.
The eerie irony behind these charitable acts is that the Zetas are known for being one of the most cold-blooded criminal groups of the country, often resorting to torture and public displays of their victims.
The Mexican government signaled this week that its approach to fighting drug trafficking in the region could change after voters in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington decided to legalize the recreational use of marijuana on Tuesday.
A top aide for Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who will take office in December, said Thursday that the passage of the two controversial voter referendums in the U.S.—Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington—were potentially “game-changing.” Peña Nieto advisor Luis Vidagaray said the president-elect does not think that drug legalization will solve cartel violence in the region, but that Mexico’s drug strategies would now have to be revisited.
“Obviously we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status,” Videgaray said.
About half of all marijuana consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, but it is not clear how much legalization of the drug in two U.S. states will impact the revenue of Mexican drug cartels. Eric Olson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, said that revenue from marijuana comprises about 20 percent of cartels’ total revenue. A 2010 study by the Rand Corporation said that drug cartels derive about 15 to 26 percent of their revenue from marijuana sales.
However, a different study, by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, said that legalizing marijuana in just the state of Washington could cut drug cartel profits by $1.37 billion, or 23 percent.
Residents of Mexico City had mixed reactions to the news on Thursday. “What they do there, they do here, and for us that is a big problem,” said a Mexican woman interviewed by Univisión after the elections.
Another woman was less certain that legalization is a mistake. “I don’t know what the result will be, but I think it’s a path that we need to start looking at: the idea of legalizing certain drugs, certain things.”
During Vice President Joe Biden’s one-day visit to Mexico City on Monday, President Felipe Calderón asked that the United States do more to "strengthen actions against the trafficking of weapons into our country and money laundering,” according to a statement from the president's office. More than 60,000 of the weapons used by Mexican cartels have been identified as originating in the United States.
Biden also met with the three presidential candidates participating in Mexico’s July 1 general election to discuss security and cooperation. The frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto, said after his meeting that his Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) party is committed to fighting organized crime. "The discussion is not whether we should or shouldn't fight against it, but what we can do to achieve better results, he told reporters. Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador said later that the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship should prioritize development, jobs and welfare to decrease the push of migration. Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) candidate Josefina Vásquez Mota, who is closing in on Peña Nieto’s lead in the polls, said that the candidates in the U.S. and Mexican presidential should avoid the contentious immigration issue in the lead up to their respective elections.
Biden travels to Honduras today to meet with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, as well as the presidents of El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Over the past several months, the presidents of these Central American nations—including Guatemala's President Otto Pérez Molina—and Mexico have said they are open to the idea of legalizing drugs as a response to the U.S.’s inability to curb demand. But after Biden said "there is no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy."
Last week, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) ruled that military personnel accused of human rights abuses will no longer be court-martialed and will now face a civil trial. Though the decision might seem like a triumph for human rights activists, a much larger problem looms behind this smoke screen.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war against drug cartels has increasingly involved the use of Mexico’s military. In hot spots like Nuevo Laredo, the military police has virtually assumed all of the law enforcement responsibilities, after 900 local transit and police officers were suspended pending toxicology exams and criminal investigations. And it doesn’t end there. Soldiers are posted in virtually all conflict-ridden areas in the country, cracking down on drug cartels in order to pursue a safer country where local law enforcement has proven ineffective.
This is all the more intriguing because in Mexico, ensuring domestic civil security is not part of the military’s responsibility. They have filled this gap due to their sworn allegiance to the President—one that they have not threatened to overrun since they committed to Mexico’s first post-revolution civilian government under Miguel Alemán in 1946.
The legislature and the SCJ have argued that since the military has essentially taken over control of policing local conflict areas in Mexico, military personnel should not be exempt from civil law and “protected” by military proceedings. It is unfortunate, however, that those in the lawmaking and justice system apparently have no knowledge of regional history or applied comparative politics.
From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
In Wake of Consular Killings, Calderón and U.S. Ambassador Visit Ciudad Juarez
Mexican President Felipe Calderón traveled to Ciudad Juarez Tuesday to express his “strongest indignation” over the March 13 murder of three people leaving a children’s party in the violence-plagued border city. Gunmen thought to have links to the Los Aztecas gang killed a U.S. consular worker and her husband driving in one car, and a Mexican man married to another U.S. consular worker traveling in a separate vehicle. The Federal Bureau of Investigation believes there’s a chance the murders were a case of mistaken identity, but investigations continue.
U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual joined Calderón in Ciudad Juarez and clarified that Mexican authorities are leading the investigation in Mexico while working in coordination with American officials on the U.S. side of the border. He also said Washington will keep cooperating with the Mexican government “to break the power of narcotrafficking organizations and to put an end to the violence they cause.” Both the White House and the U.S. State Department released statements regarding shared responsibility in fighting drug and arms trafficking.
Calderón’s visit to the border town marked his third this year and comes as public support wanes for a three-year-old military push to combat drug cartels. The battle has left 18,000 people dead since the president took office in 2006. On Tuesday, he gave details about “We are all Juarez,” a series of social programs designed to give the city’s residents better educational and job opportunities. The project was first launched in the wake of a January massacre of over a dozen teenagers at a party in Ciudad Juarez.
The announcement last July that
In the midst of this uproar relating back to fighting the drug trade,
With the establishment of these bases in both the Caribbean and the Pacific,
The U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, David Johnson, announced yesterday the release of $214 million of the $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative package. The sum has been spent or committed to training Mexican federal investigators and providing technology that would help control the narcotics and weapons flowing across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The first $50 million has been spent on helicopters that will be delivered to the Mexican military this fall. Johnson added that the U.S. is also concentrating efforts to help Mexico improve its internal law enforcement systems, through lie detector tests and background checks, in an effort to root out corruption.
The Mérida Initiative is a multi-year program that provides equipment, training, and technical assistance to Mexico’s government to combat organized crime, specifically the drug cartels responsible for trafficking $40 billion worth of illegal drugs annually to the U.S. Beyond support for Mexico, the U.S. has also committed to supplying funding and support to Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic under the Mérida Initiative.
In a greater effort to target tax-evasion and thwart potential efforts of smuggling and corruption, the Mexican government has replaced its 700 customs agents with over 1,400 newly trained and better-educated customs inspectors who have undergone extensive background checks. Announced on Sunday, Mexico’s customs authority spokesman Pedro Canabal said that “this change is part of our response to new demands in the fight against contraband” and also noted that the new deployments would improve Mexico’s tax collection, but the main benefit would be to prevent the entry of pirated and cheap goods that flood Mexico’s domestic industries. Military soldiers aided with some of the border controls during the transition.
This effort follows the government’s previous overhauling of the police force—all done in an attempt to root out corruption and tackle the drug cartels.
The border crossings will also have more dogs trained to identify drugs and other banned items and the new agents have been trained with the new high-tech equipment. Previously, Mexico only checked 10 percent of the 230,000 vehicles that crossed the U.S.-Mexico border daily, but the new technology will photograph, weigh and check the license plate of every vehicle that crosses the border.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.