Friday, 31 May 2013

A Dirty War

AN AFTERNOON IN a busy salon in Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the United States. As the stylist puts the finishing touches to her hair, a woman is discussing the recent events in the city, renowned for its drug-related violence. "Things are so bad around here that I can't even let my kids play out in the street any more. And all because of these damned narcos (drug traffickers)." A young woman behind her, awaiting her turn, stands and approaches the pair, drawing a .38 revolver from her handbag. She points it at the head of the customer, who looks on in shock via the mirror, and orders the stylist "Shave her." As the girl obeys and quickly cuts off all of the trembling woman's hair, she is told "If I see you wearing a wig to cover this up, I will kill you." The pistol is put away, and the assailant leaves the shop without a backward glance.

This incident occurred in Juarez in 2009, up until then the most violent year on record. In 2008 a mere 1,653 people were assassinated in the city. By the end of 2009, cartel-related murders happened on average seven times a day in a city of 1.8 million people. A total of almost 2000 killings, including 80+ women and 49 children. It is said that the average Juarense will see a road blocked by the ubiquitous yellow crime scene tape at least once a day. The northwestern states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango are known as the Dorado Triangle. The war on drugs begun by president Felipe Calderon six years ago has seen little success; unless success is measured in bodies, of which there have been 60,000 in his six-year term. The cartels compete for control of the "plaza", or drug market. And they are many. The Sinaloa cartel and their armed faction La Linea; the Federation, headed by the Carillo Fuentes dynasty; the Knights Templar; Familia Michoacana; the Zetas, deadly enemies of Sinaloa, consisting of ex-military men until recently working for the Gulf cartel. There is no clear picture of who is fighting who. But every week, the corpses of murdered rival factions are publicly displayed: mutilated, dismembered or beheaded, along with messages for their enemies: the so-called narcomantas. This macabre practice is designed to frighten and intimidate. Not only rivals in the business, but also the public. Do not talk. One man was hung, headless, from a bridge in Chihuahua; his head was found in a plastic bag, in a town square 8km from his corpse. In Michoacan in 2010 a discoteca full of revellers became a scene of panic when masked men entered and emptied a bag of ten severed heads onto the dancefloor. The savagery is beyond belief. In a step up from leaving bodies in busy public places, the narcos have taken to the Web to spread their messages of fear. Graphic beheadings with knives, and even chainsaws, are there for all to see online. "But, you see, we're descended from the Aztecs" a friend in the capital told me "this brutality is in our blood." Having read Bernal Diaz's account of the Spaniards' conquest of Mexico, and the Aztecs' pitiless sacrifices of captured men, I'd be inclined to agree. But those ancient Mexicans had faith in their gods as an excuse for slaughter.

The violence does not exclusively affect those in the drugs trade. The blood of innocents is shed as they are caught in the crossfire. In 2009 a man was targeted in a dispute; his car was shot up as he travelled with his family, his hunters unperturbed by the fact that children were in the vehicle. He was unhurt, but his nine-year-old son received a hole in the arm courtesy of a bullet from an AK-47 assault rifle. Ordinary people are caught up in the cycle. A Juarez businessman, tired of the corpses that would be dumped outside his business on a weekly basis, decided to hang a sign out front as a joke: "It is prohibited to throw rubbish or corpses outside these premises". The joke was on him two weeks later as killers dumped the body of his daughter on his doorstep. Fortunately he was not around to see it: they had killed him the previous week. Up in the hills of the Sierra Madre, the Le Baron family cultivated products for the likes of Ferrero Rocher. When one of their number was kidnapped in 2008 they refused to pay a ransom, believing that this would pave the way for more extortion and kidnappings. The boy was eventually recovered by an army operation. But if the Le Barons thought that this was the end of the matter, they were sadly mistaken. Months later, the high-profile head of the family, Benjamin Le Baron, was kidnapped by twenty armed and masked men. He was taken, along with his brother-in-law, several miles out of town on the highway before being thrown to the ground and shot several times in the head. Even something as simple as a date with your girlfriend can turn into a nightmare here: if a narco takes a liking to her, the safest thing for both you and her is to let the narco to take her. A lost girlfriend is better than a bullet in the head for either of you.

The police force is notoriously corrupt. The only piece of advice I was given before travelling in Mexico was "If you get into trouble, the last person you should ask for help is a policeman". I met a couple from Washington recently who were travelling in a hire car in Baja California. They passed two policemen who had pulled someone over on the other side of the road. One cop made eye contact with them, and his eyes spun like the wheels on a slot machine. He couldn't get in his car fast enough to turn around and chase after them. They were stopped, told they were speeding and stung for $100 (£65). It was that or a trip to the station. Not speaking much Spanish, they opted just to pay up. Nice, simple tax for the police. Especially when you consider that a policeman earns just £175 a week here.

There are three levels of policing in this country: municipal, state and federal. Those at the bottom, your small-town cops and the like, are the most corrupt. There is less amongst the feds, but the corruption is at another level. The municipal and state police are taking backhanders and turning blind eyes; though in more serious cases you have the recent arrests of several off-duty policemen who were involved in shooting up a convoy of lawyers who were involved in the prosecution of narcotraficantes. Guns for hire, indeed. For anyone taken off the street to be interrogated and tortured by the authorities, the outlook is bleak: most are disappeared from their homes soon afterwards, and murdered by the narcos just in case they talked. The military have also been accused of collusion with the cartels. Many cases of robbery were reported during Operation Conjunctivo Chihuahua, when army units would demand to search the properties of rich people for suspected drugs and weapons, when in fact they would be searching for the family safe. "Mexico is the second most corrupt country in the world" a man in the Oaxacan hills told me with a smile "because we paid not to be first..."

The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes said: "The war on drugs has no direction. The solution is to raise the quality of life for the Mexicans, that is the way to reduce crime." When drug money is so easy to make, and the standard of living is so poor, you can understand people taking a chance. The police and military are so badly-paid that you can, to a certain extent, understand their ease of corruption. But the money can be good even on the peripherals. Mechanics and bodyshop owners can earn decent money fitting out vehicles to smuggle contraband, be it people, drugs or weapons. But when investigators get too close, or the cartels decide someone knows too much, these people get butchered as easily as a cartel soldier tosses a cellphone which has become too hot to use. Close-range executions with powerful .44 calibre Magnums seem to be the favoured method of guaranteed execution. Life has never been cheaper.

Perhaps the most dangerous profession in these northern states is that of the journalist. They are murdered frequently. Editors are threatened, told what they can and can't print. Photographers have been beaten or killed for photographing cartel members at society weddings and funerals; sometimes for not photographing them, as if this was an intended slight. Foreign journalists tend to file their reports from their hotel rooms, and conduct interviews with the subjects in the relative safety of their grounds. I recently read an article written by a Mexican journalist lamenting his city's moniker of Most Violent City In The World. On being contacted by a Scandinavian journalist looking for a story on what it was like to be working in such a risky industry, he offered to give the man a guided tour. The foreigner was understandably nervous about his safety, but the Mexican assured him that he would be fine. He took him into the hills above Juarez; showed him the stunning views of the town, the river and the sight of El Paso across the border; the fine old districts with beautiful old buildings which once bustled with the famous nightlife of the town which would draw visitors from the U.S. side of the river. But no longer. At nights the streets are deserted and anyone in search of nightlife is now over on the American side of the river. Juarez has changed irrevocably. They passed two of the most notorious corners in the Alta Vista barrio: La Cima (the Summit) where the police come by to pick up their quota, or payoffs, and La Tiendita (Little Shop) where any drug you could possibly want is on sale. And guns should you need them. In the Parque Central lie the ruins of an old sports complex. In 2008 the army used this as a base for 2000 soldiers until it was deemed unsafe for them. Unsafe. For 2000 trained and heavily armed men. Having seen all of this, the foreign correspondent was still surprised by the pleasant appearance of the town, and remarked on the fact that it didn't quite resemble the war-zone he'd been expecting? Life goes on for the people of Juarez, albeit a little more cautiously these days.

Now picture yourself in a nice restaurant enjoying a meal with your family. In walks a man as his associates quickly seal off the space. "I am Joaquin El Chapo Guzman. Everything is paid for. My men are going to collect your cell phones. If you value life, you will co-operate. Nothing is going to happen. We will eat and go in peace. Good evening." Shorty Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel, has made many such appearances, always with the same introduction, since his escape from prison in 2001. According to Forbes magazine, he earns $25-40 million a year, and has amassed a personal fortune of $1.2 billion. He makes Pablo Escobar look like a street dealer in Brixton. If this is just one cartel head, albeit the most successful, imagine how much money is washing around Mexico and the States? Because the simple fact is that a lot of money disappears into the system on both sides of the border. As long as America wants cocaine and heroin, and the Mexicans want the guns and cash which flood south, the slaughter continues. There are lots of rich people getting steadily richer. There is far too much money at stake for anyone, innocents aside, to want the war on drugs to end. How best to resolve it? Legalisation and taxation? It would be a step in the right direction; hopefully the recent initiatives taken in several U.S. states will go some way towards making this happen.

Though the likes of El Chapo and Carillo Fuentes are not likely to be the last of their kind, neither were they the first. On this dusty land, already soaked with the spilled blood of the Apache and the Navajo, was born the first in the genesis of the narco: a woman named La Nacha. From 1906 right up until the 1960s, she and her clan controlled the flow of contraband into the United States from Ciudad Juarez with an iron fist. In the 1920s the trickle became a flood as Prohibition in America saw the Mexicans shipping illegal alcohol across the border, along with cocaine, heroin and opium. There were several Chinese rivals for the business in the early days, and she had them captured and brought before her to be executed. No prisoners. Like Pablo Escobar in Colombia, La Nacha financed community projects and supported her people, earning her their loyalty. If the police ever entered the barrio of Alta Vista looking for her, she was spirited away by her neighbours before they got close. The bloodline was severed when her only grandson was killed in a car crash shortly before her death in 1973. Her passing signalled a scramble for control of the market which continues to this day.

The city has suffered a shrinkage in its business sector in recent years, the world economic crisis adding to the woes of protection racketeering and other extortion. Almost 2000 businesses closed between 2006 and 2009, a shrinkage of 12.5%. But it's not all doom and gloom. Especially if you are a funeral director. Business is booming for them, as the bodies continue to pile up. Shiny new emporiums spring up continually, full of state-of-the-art coffins in a range of colours and finishes. And amongst the many offers are those of skilled reconstructive services. As one funeral director advertises: "Bring us your loved one and a recent photograph, and we will do the rest". Reassuring for those who've recently lost someone at point-blank range to a sicario with a .44 Magnum.

No-one is sure where this will end. Only one thing is certain, and that is that more people are going to die horribly. Felipe Calderon's term ended six months ago, and the current incumbent is, unbelievably, being blamed for the spiral of violence, continued unemployment and poor standard of living in the country. He's going to need more than Luck on his side, I know that much.

And please...don't quote me on any of this? Mine is not the prettiest head in the world, but I'm quite happy with where it's located at the moment.

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