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News (Media Awareness Project) - Mexico: Day Of The Dead
Title:Mexico: Day Of The Dead
Published On:2011-07-10
Source:Time Magazine (US)
Fetched On:2011-07-10 06:01:09

You will hear the voice of my memories stronger than the voice of my
death -- that is, if death ever had a voice.

- -- Juan Rulfo, Pedro Paramo

This is how Mexican investigators believe gangsters murdered business
student Juan Francisco Sicilia: Two of his friends had been assaulted
in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, by a pair of policemen
moonlighting as muggers for the Pacifico Sur drug cartel. The friends
reported the criminal cops, who panicked and asked their mafia bosses
for help. On March 27, eight Pacifico Sur thugs, including a crazed
psychopath called El Pelon (Baldy), abducted the two accusers, as
well as Juan Francisco and four other buddies, from a bar. They were
bound with packing tape, tortured in a safe house and suffocated to
death. Their bodies were found the next day outside the city.

Both the cops and the killers likely expected the massacre to go
unnoticed: in Mexico, gangland homicides have claimed nearly 40,000
lives in the past five years, up from less than 7,000 from 2001 to
2005. But Juan Francisco was not destined to be a statistic. He was
the son of Javier Sicilia, one of the nation's best-known authors and
poets, who has turned the young man's murder into a national movement
of outrage over the unchecked violence of drug cartels, known as los
narcos, and the government's inability to put an end to their reign of terror.

With the rallying cry "Estamos hasta la madre!" (a Mexican
colloquialism that means "We've had it up to here!"), Sicilia has
helped organize large protest marches in Cuernavaca, Mexico City and
more than 30 other towns. In June he led a bus caravan to the border
city of Juarez, where 3,200 were killed last year -- a murder rate of
more than 200 per 100,000 residents, which makes it the most
dangerous city not just in Mexico but the world -- and where hundreds
of families met Sicilia holding pictures of slain relatives.

Sicilia has at least achieved some poignant literary symbolism. In
one of Mexico's most celebrated novels, Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo,
the victims of murder clamor for rule of law in their lawless land,
and the poet hears those voices now. "We're finally articulating
names for the drug war's dead," Sicilia tells me. "We're letting
their voices rise above ours and be more than just numbers and
abstractions in this demoniacal tragedy."

Mexico's national horror story is often told as a gangster epic full
of lurid detail of the lives and deaths of drug kingpins. Or it's
reduced to dry figures: the cartels make $30 billion a year, equal to
the economy of a midsize Central American nation, moving marijuana,
cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the U.S. At home they earn
extra from activities like kidnapping, a crime that's up 317% in
Mexico since 2005. Protests led by a bereaved poet are giving the
tragedy a human face, as are the heroic acts of civilians like
teacher Martha Rivera, who in late May became an Internet star
because of a YouTube video showing her calming her kindergarten class
as hit men executed five people with assault rifles outside her
school in the northern city of Monterrey.

For 22 years, I've covered the rise of Mexico's drug gangs, charting
their evolution from trafficking mules for Colombian cartels to the
dominant players of the narcotics trade in the western hemisphere.
They've morphed from mafiosi who once killed only one another -- I
remember the national trauma when a Roman Catholic cardinal was
caught in their cross fire in 1993 -- into monsters who routinely
slaughter innocents. Last August, Los Zetas, a bloodthirsty gang led
by former army commandos, executed 72 migrant workers on a ranch in
northern Tamaulipas state just because they couldn't pay the
extortion money the gangsters demanded.

The violence is so pervasive, so constant, that only the most
egregious episodes remain in the memory. Like last year's massacre of
15 teenagers at a Juarez party by narcos who mistook them for rivals.
Or the eight people killed in 2008, when thugs tossed grenades into a
crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in western Michoacan,
President Felipe Calderon's home state. Or what happened in 2009
after Mexican marines killed drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva: his
gunmen went to southern Tabasco state, to the funeral of a marine
killed in the shoot-out, and gunned down the man's mother and three relatives.

On June 23, Calderon started a formal dialogue with victims' groups
designed to lead to the kind of police, judicial and social reforms
Mexico desperately needs. Inside Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle,
Sicilia and Calderon butted heads, but they know they are in this
together. "I join your outcry," said Calderon. "I'm willing to make changes."

A Criminal Insurgency

It has been more than four years since Calderon started a military
campaign against spiraling drug savagery, backed by a $1.5 billion
pledge of U.S. aid. The cartels -- there are at least six major gangs
and several smaller outfits -- reacted by unleashing a wave of
violence, fighting for turf. Calderon insists this shows the gangs
are rattled, but his critics say his strategy has often made matters
worse. Drug lords are now engaged in an arms race, firing everything
from assault rifles to rocket-propelled grenades at the army, police,
rival gangsters and any civilians who get in their way. The military
has scored some victories, taking out the leaders of a few cartels,
but even those successes usually spawn new, more vicious power
struggles. The carnage now threatens the fledgling democracy and
growing economy of one of the U.S.'s most important trade and
security partners. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has gone
so far as to describe the cartels as a criminal "ins! urgency" that
seeks not to overthrow the Mexican government but rather to keep it
under its blood-soaked thumb.

The U.S. helped create this beast. According to the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans consume $65 billion
worth of illegal drugs annually, roughly what they spend on higher
education, and most of those drugs are either produced in Mexico or
transit through it. The U.S. is also a primary source of the weapons
the cartels use to unleash their mayhem: the Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimates that 70% of the guns
seized in Mexico in the past two years were smuggled from north of
the border. "The current flow of weapons," Mexico's ambassador to the
U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, charged last year, "provides the drug
syndicates with their firepower."

Calderon's war against the cartels may have been poorly thought
through, but a succession of U.S. Presidents has pursued equally
ineffectual policies. Since President Richard Nixon declared a "war
on drugs" 40 years ago this summer, Washington has opted for a
sweeping policy of incarcerating drug offenders at home and
eradicating drug sources abroad. The Obama Administration has begun
to balance law enforcement with more drug-rehab-oriented policies
that reduce demand, but it dismisses the recent suggestion of several
Latin American leaders to legalize arguably less harmful drugs like
marijuana. Such a move might put a serious crimp in drug-cartel
finances, but the White House says it would "make it harder to keep
our communities healthy and safe." However the legalization debate
goes, the U.S. could at the very least do more to help Mexico develop
modern investigative police forces in addition to sending high-tech
helicopters to Calderon's army.

Mexicans don't hold out much hope for constructive help from their
northern neighbor. They realize that making their communities safe
again means pressuring their politicians to get serious for once
about the rule of law -- about ensuring that powerful criminals and
the officials who protect them are brought to justice in a timely way
in a legal system that has a broad measure of public confidence. That
is far from the case now. The corruption watchdog Transparency
International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to
police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent
crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

There are plenty of examples of governments that have driven out, or
at least greatly diminished, once dominant criminal gangs. Perhaps
the most appropriate example is Colombia, where powerful cartels have
been cut down in the past two decades thanks largely to the
professionalization of the police and judiciary. Calderon himself
knows his military campaign is not enough. In May he repeated his
long-term goal of "judicial institutions that Mexico has too long
lacked and without which the advance of criminals is understandable
- -- and a future for Mexico is incomprehensible."

But the time for lofty rhetoric is long past. Measured in lives
claimed, the level of violence in Mexico now surpasses that in
Afghanistan or Pakistan. And the drug lords are engaged in a macabre
competition to ratchet up the gore. Groups like the Zetas are fond of
posting Internet videos of the prolonged torture and murder of their
enemies. One top investigator tells me that the cartels wage bidding
wars for the services of the best butchers and surgeons to perform
beheadings of murdered rivals. The craniums are triumphantly
displayed in town plazas like Halloween decorations.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a
country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have
little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state
attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for
drug cartels in Juarez alone, not least because even foot soldiers
can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen.

It isn't just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have
a pilot's license, for example, you're useful to a cartel, which
makes you a target for rival gangs. A few years ago in Culiacan --
the capital of northern Sinaloa state, the cradle of Mexican drug
trafficking -- I arrived at the scene of the murder of pilot Manuel
Lopez, 29, just as paramedics loaded his bullet-riddled body into an
ambulance. Gunmen had shredded him and his Jeep Sahara in front of
his home and relatives -- who told me, in tear-stained shock, that
they had no idea he was airlifting drugs.

A Slaughter of Innocents

I've seen too many scenes like that. But even the most hardened souls
were shaken by the discovery in recent weeks of fosas, or mass
graves, in several locations across northern Mexico. So far, close to
500 corpses have been recovered. Many were innocent victims, ordinary
Mexicans grabbed at roadblocks erected by gunmen who shake them down
and then, in many cases, murder them. Perhaps most depressing of all
is the fact that the culprits include policemen: 17 cops were
recently arrested in connection with massacres in Tamaulipas. In
fact, police in Mexico, who are usually miserably paid and poorly
trained, often join up precisely because the force is a recruiting
pool for the cartels.

Human-rights advocates say the fosas recall the killing fields of the
Balkans in the 1990s or Central America in the 1980s. "I think the
world should be as worried about what's happening here as they are
about what's happening in North Africa," says Carlos Garcia,
president of the human rights commission in the northern desert state
of Durango, where seven mass graves have been found, many in
middle-class neighborhoods or near schools. When I arrived with
forensics officials last month at a newly located fosa in the
eponymous state capital, I thought we'd gotten bad directions: the
site was the backyard garden of a house in the upper-crust Jardines
de Durango neighborhood. State officials wouldn't permit me a records
search to identify the property's owner because they feared it could
get them -- and the records clerks -- killed.

One of those buried in Durango may be Victor Camacho, or so his
family believes. They're among some 350 families who've come to the
state attorney general's compound to offer DNA samples, hoping to
identify a relative among the 238 corpses exhumed there so far.
Camacho, a successful tortilla-restaurant owner in Torreon, northeast
of Durango, was 39 when thugs nabbed him off the street in broad
daylight three years ago, in front of his wife. Despite the fear that
criminal spies known as halcones, or hawks, were listening in on us
- -- "We don't know who's friend or enemy around here anymore," a
Durango official says -- Camacho's son Victor Jr., 24, wanted to
talk. "Anybody can be caught in this now," he told me, "and we're
tired of being quiet about it."

While Victor Jr.'s mother wept softly behind us, covering her nose
from the stench of decomposing bodies arriving at refrigerated
trailers nearby, he spoke of having to leave law school to support
her and his two sisters after his father vanished. A fierce turf
battle is raging in Torreon between the Zetas and Mexico's most
powerful narco-group, the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin Guzman,
known as Chapo (Shorty). "Every part of your life is affected," said
Victor Jr. "Economically, morally, physically, you live with a daily
fear of losing your family, your livelihood, everything. And the
authorities don't raise a hand."

Putting the Economy at Risk

Mexican authorities are prey themselves, sometimes because they are
in the pay of a cartel, but sometimes because they refuse to be
co-opted. That seems to be the case with Minerva Bautista, who until
last summer was the security director in Michoacan, which is also the
base of a bizarre "narco-Evangelical" cartel, La Familia. After I
interviewed Bautista in April 2010 -- she had just laid out stricter
police recruitment guidelines in defiance of La Familia -- I started
to walk her to her car. A Mexican journalist gently stopped me.
"She's a target now," he whispered. A few days later, Bautista's SUV
was ambushed by gunmen who fired 2,700 high-caliber rounds at the
vehicle. Miraculously, she survived; her two bodyguards were killed.

Despite the high-profile successes of Calderon's campaign -- it has
since killed or captured La Familia's top leaders, for example,
including Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. El Mas Loco (The Craziest One), who
wrote his own "bible" -- most Mexicans feel abandoned by law
enforcement in this conflict. Perhaps the most painful stop during
Sicilia's recent bus caravan was the northern city of Chihuahua.
Marisela Escobedo's 16-year-old daughter Rubi was murdered in 2008 by
a member of the Zetas, Sergio Barraza. He confessed, but judges
acquitted him for lack of convincing evidence, a chronic problem in
Mexico. Critics said the judges feared reprisal. A higher court
convicted Barraza last year. By then, however, he was on the lam.

Infuriated, Escobedo stood vigil for weeks last year on the steps of
the Chihuahua state government palace to protest. Just before
Christmas, a gunman chased her down and shot her. The murder was
caught on a security camera, but no one has been arrested. Escobedo's
terrified family is seeking asylum in the U.S. "We want to be as
courageous as Marisela," a relative, who asks not to be identified,
tells me. "But how can we not feel that it gets you nothing in the end?"

Not surprisingly, this is all taking a political and economic as well
as human toll. Mexico is far from being a failed state. Traditionally
an inward-looking economy, it started to open to the world in the
1980s, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, wrote
trade pacts with 42 other countries and is now Latin America's
biggest importer and exporter. After a sharp contraction following
the financial crisis, it enjoyed one of the fastest economic
recoveries among Latin American countries last year, growing 5.5%.
Mexico is not a BRIC -- the now ubiquitous acronym for top emerging
markets Brazil, Russia, India and China, coined by Goldman Sachs
economist Jim O'Neill. But it is part of O'Neill's latest catchy
acronym, MIST, which brings together up-and-coming economies Mexico,
Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.

The unchecked violence could undermine all that. In Tamaulipas, the
Zetas are, in effect, the law; they're the top suspects in last
year's assassination of gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre. In
once booming Juarez, from where thousands have fled across the Rio
Grande to El Paso, Texas, the commercial tax base has shrunk 40%
since 2008, and many business owners refuse to pay taxes since they
already fork over extortion "tolls."

Drug violence also harrows Monterrey, long Mexico's business capital,
where kindergarten teacher Rivera soothed her students amid gunfire
and where victims have been found hanging from bridges and
overpasses. Commuters in Monterrey can find themselves trapped
between roadblocks during rush hour, at the mercy of gangsters who
storm through the paralyzed traffic to steal money or cars at gunpoint.

The gangsters' impact on civil society is just as significant. Garish
music and fashion celebrating the drug lords are popular. Almost 70
Mexican journalists have been murdered by the gangs since 2007 --
most recently Veracruz newspaper editor Miguel Angel Lopez, 55,
gunned down with his wife and son on June 20. Many in the media now
self-censor their drug coverage. The Catholic Church, too, has been
linked to the cartels: Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, known as El
Verdugo (the Executioner), funded construction of a chapel in his
home state of Hidalgo, complete with his name on a bronze plaque.

Solving the Problem of Impunity

Can Mexico pull itself out of this living hell? Much depends on its
ability to modernize the police and judicial system. As part of
Calderon's reform package, federal and state courts are beginning to
conduct oral trials, in which lawyers have to argue before the bench
rather than simply push papers across a clerk's desk. It is hoped
that the change will force police and prosecutors to improve their
methods of gathering and presenting evidence. Mexico's Congress is
considering Calderon's proposal to incorporate all the police into a
more unified national network, similar to the one Colombia
reconstituted to great effect in the 1990s. The belief is that a
centralized police force will be better able to weed out corrupt
members and ensure a coordinated offensive against the Hydra-like
cartels. In April lawmakers passed a bill granting new powers and
resources for money-laundering investigations: it's aimed at the web
of corrupt politicians and businessmen who abet the cartels.! And in
early June, Calderon pushed through a change in Mexico's
criminal-appeals system that makes it harder for the accused to
frivolously block or delay prosecutions.

The harder task is changing a culture that was centuries in the
making. "Mexico's biggest problem," says Sicilia's lawyer, Julio
Hernandez, "is still the problem that leads to all its other
problems: impunity." Mexico's lawlessness is often thought to be a
legacy of the Spanish conquistadors, who were more interested in
pillaging than policing and who left the country with the warped
sense that law enforcement is a private rather than a public concern.
That civic negligence was a boon for the drug mafias that emerged
after World War II. Their brutality was regulated only by the venal,
authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled
for 71 years and was the cartels' tacit partner. When Calderon's
National Action Party toppled the PRI in 2000, the cartels splintered
and embarked on an orgy of violence that spawned soulless killing machines.

Tackling them will take a sustained commitment by governments on both
sides of the border. But for all the horror, there are some reasons
for hope. The homicide rate in Juarez is down this year. And the
military recently arrested Jesus "El Negro" Radilla, the alleged
leader of the gang that murdered Juan Francisco Sicilia and his
friends. Juan Bosco, the police director in Morelos state, which
includes Cuernavaca, was also collared for his alleged ties to the
Pacifico Sur cartel.

That is not enough for Javier Sicilia, who had hoped to watch his son
receive a business degree this month. Known to readers for his
Catholic mysticism, he has given up writing poetry. "They choked it
out of me when they choked Juanelo," he tells me. He's thrown himself
fully into his movement against the drug gangs. "I'm doing this," he
says, "because I believe it's the dead who are going to lead Mexico
to the light." If so, his son, and the countless others in pictures
being held up across Mexico, will not have died in vain.

- --with reporting by Roya Wolverson
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