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Investigating Mexico’s drug cartels

Wed, Jan 29, 2014

In recent years, the world has watched stunned at the bloodshed in Mexico. In 2006, violence between drug cartels exploded onto Mexico’s streets with armed gangs battling each other for control of a multi-billion dollar trade that has threatened the nation’s stability. Such has been the levels of violence that an estimated 60,000 people have been killed over the past seven years. The killing spree has been horrendous with mass murder and headless corpses piled at roadsides a regular theme. At great risk to his own life, UK journalist Ioan Grillo has covered the Mexican drug war since 2000 and his book El Narco provides an extraordinary insight into the violence benighting the nation. Grillo spoke to INSP about reporting the Mexican drug war, the unfathomable brutality of the violence, and his thoughts on legalisation as a route to peace.

Ioan Grillo

Ioan Grillo

Callum McSorley: Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists – what’s it like to cover the drug war?

Since 2006 an estimated 60,000 have been killed in Mexico’s drug war, to the point where many media outlets will not allow reporters to cover the story. (Photo: Ioan Grillo)[/caption] Ioan Grillo: It’s difficult. I’ve been covering this story for 12 years now and there have been different stages. When I first came and covered drug violence, it was not as bad as it is now. When I first came and I was working for people like the Houston Chronicle, I would simply fly places, rent a car, and drive around by myself. Since things got more difficult, I don’t do that anymore. I’d always be with somebody, take more precautions. A lot of media outlets now won’t let you go to places to report. They don’t want to lose somebody so they simply say “we cannot let you go to that place,” which is frustrating as a journalist, working with those restrictions. One of the first big obstacles is not simply the danger, it’s a difficult story to get good information on: difficult to get the interviews, to make sense of it. So it takes a lot of time, over years, to understand this and to work and really break into this. It’s not a story you can just find out about straight away. It continues to be in difficult environments, in terms of shootings happening and that kind of risk, I’ve been in areas where there’s been shooting happening. It’s difficult dealing with dangerous people as well, and handling those interviews. It’s been quite a challenging thing to report on.

CM: Does being a white foreigner affect that as well? Does it make you more visible?

IG: It’s a mixed bag. In some ways, when you go to these communities where there’s an armed conflict happening between different drug cartels, by being a white foreigner you have one advantage in that they’re less likely to mistake you for being a drug cartel operative. One of the risks is simply you go into these neighborhoods, and they have spies looking at who goes in and who goes out, and they have guys with guns in certain places, and the risk is if you are mistaken for a gang member. They see a vehicle full of Mexican journalists coming through: who are those guys? Are they part of some other crew? So you have a risk that way. Normally when I go to neighborhoods I’ll very quickly tell people, even just people on the street – often they might have contact with the cartel guys – “I’m a journalist, blah, blah, blah, I’m British.” I think when it actually comes to interviews, any journalist can try and use their strengths to communicate with people. I don’t think it’s that important, really, where you’re from. Sometimes you can communicate with people by being from a similar background to them, and them relating to you, but also you can communicate with people by being from a completely different background and them feeling comfortable expressing themselves to somebody who is not involved in their world, being able to talk to somebody who is completely outside of it. So it’s kind of a mixed bag.

Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency: El Narco CM: The book finishes in July 2012. What has happened with the drug war since then? There’s a new president, what has he been doing about it?

IG: The new president, [Enrique] Peña Nieto, one of his biggest tactics has simply been to try to change the conversation, to say, “we don’t want to talk about drugs and crime anymore, Mexico is more than drugs and crime, we don’t want to let these few thousand drug cartel members – tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands – affect the entire agenda for a country of 118 million,” which is a legitimate point he has. A lot of it has been very much a media strategy, of changing the narrative about Mexico, which has been, to an extent, effective. However, on the ground there’s been more of an acceptance that they cannot defeat cartels militarily, as was the attempt of Felipe Calderón. He launched a military offensive to try and defeat drug cartels and that failed. So now there’s more of a question of trying to contain the situation. Say, if there’s violence, we have soldiers doing roadblocks and trying to calm things down, which is, again, a legitimate tactic of damage control. You can’t stop the drug trade, or harm the drug trade, and having the army and military less engaged can actually sometimes be better than having them more engaged. The army, by being more engaged, was in many ways simply fuelling more violence. But many things do continue the same: they still arrest major drug traffickers, there’s still a lot of murder. One of the biggest, most interesting news stories has been the emergence of vigilante militias in certain places, particularly in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán. And these are basically armed guys from villages, from communities – they can be farmers, or taxi drivers, or doctors, or whatever – who’ve said, “we’ve had enough of harassment from drug cartels,” and they’ve taken matters into their own hands, going around driving drug cartels out of these communities. I’ve been covering that this year; it’s been very interesting being in areas where they have civilians with AR-15 rifles and Uzis on display. It’s been one of the most important new developments.

CM: Are they being successful at pushing out the cartels, or is it again just fueling the violence?

IG: In some cases I think they have been successful in the short term. You have seen communities where there were drug cartels doing kidnappings, or shaking down people, and they’ve pushed them out of these places. However, in other places it’s been more difficult. In some places you don’t really know who the vigilante militias are, or if they are really drug cartel people, simply using vigilantism as an excuse to be carrying arms on the streets, to fight against their rivals, or to even just pretend they are fighting against themselves to establish control of the streets. Also, it creates a real vision of more lack of control – lack of state control, lack of government control – when you drive into these communities and see a bunch of guys in baseball caps with Uzis, whereas a lot of the time the drug cartel violence is clandestine, is hidden, and you can go to a community and you don’t really see any of these people around. It’s kind of invisible. This is much more overt, much more open, and so, in some ways, that creates more of a perception of insecurity amongst people. Also, they’re arresting people, detaining people and holding them, and they’ve killed people. How do you control this? So in the long term it’s creating more lawlessness.

CM: What has caused the sheer brutality of the violence in Mexico? – in El Narco you use the word “holocaust” to describe the kidnapping and murder of immigrants in Mexico.

IG: A really fundamental question about this is how did it become so violent? How did it go from being a crime/mafia situation to becoming a low-intensity war? How do you have people capable of such evil crimes? Like the mass graves of 72 people, and leaving piles of 49 bodies with no heads and no hands and feet. And it’s difficult to fathom and really understand this, but I think one of the best ways to understand this is to see it in terms of war, and in war zones people commit severe atrocities. It’s the same in any war zone around the world, from British troops in war zones we’ve been in, to American troops in Vietnam, to mainland Europe and Germany, to all the civil wars in Latin America, and dictatorships in Africa and so forth. What happened with this change of government in Mexico, this move to democracy, is you began to get the cartels emerge as warlords, and really fight for feuds in a military fashion. Although what’s weird about this conflict is that it happens amid a more-or-less normal society in many ways. It doesn’t happen in a collapsed society like Somalia, or in other traditional wars you’d understand. But you have to think of it still as people being involved in a warzone. Once you raise the stakes to that, once you say “I’m gonna take your territory with 500 armed guys, or 1,000 armed guys,” and then you’ve got to try and defend it, and then people start behaving like in war. They’ve got no control. With formal armies you at least have some control, some accountability, there’s no accountability to these guys so they commit as many atrocities as they can.

CM: You mentioned democracy there. In the book you say the rise in the drug trade came with the change to democracy. Would you say democracy has had a negative impact on Mexico?

Grillo says that having the Mexican army engaged in the drug war often fuels the violence. (Photo: Ioan Grillo).

Grillo says that having the Mexican army engaged in the drug war often fuels the violence. (Photo: Ioan Grillo).

IG: I wouldn’t say overall democracy’s had a negative impact in Mexico because there have been many good things as well – like the fact you have been able to vote parties and presidents out of power. Calderón had a disastrous six years of fighting drug cartels and people were able to vote him out of power. I illustrated in the afterword a scenario where politicians were forced to confront family members of disappeared people and to see them – that kind of thing couldn’t have happened 40 years ago, even 20 years ago. The fact you’ve got press criticizing the government, criticizing these things, and a lively debate among press and among people is good. But although democracy has brought good things to Mexico, I think one of the problems – one of the side effects – we have to face globally with democracy in the 21st century, is that many countries do not have an effective rule of law. Across Latin America, across Africa, across central Europe, West Asia, etc., many countries face large parts of their population in poverty, marginalized, and many countries see movement of guns and so forth. Within in a democracy, how do you deal with this problem? How do you deal with criminal warlords? There’s no easy answer. You’ve got to try and work out a framework of how you deal with that and still preserve people’s rights of freedom. You can see how Mussolini was capable of dealing with the mafia by going to villages, rounding everyone up and saying: “anyone in the mafia, I’m going to start killing your family unless you all get out,” or the way the Taliban could deal with the drug trade, and you can see that dictatorships can be effective because they don’t respect human rights. But that’s an even worse state of affairs. There’s a phrase said by the Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe [Vélez], (though I don’t want to be singing his praises too much): “democratic security.” How can you have democracy and security? And that’s a big question for Latin America and for many parts of the world.

CM: There have been some high profile captures recently, including the leaders of the Zetas [Miguel Treviño Morales] and Gulf Cartel [Mario Ramírez Treviño]. How will these affect the drug business?

IG: The capture of Treviño, head of the Zetas, was important. On one side, you have a problem that you keep on arresting these guys but there are always guys to replace them. So it just becomes a regular thing: you arrest this guy, somebody else comes, you arrest him, etc. It’s still good. You have to still challenge these people. The problem if you don’t arrest them is that these guys just get more powerful. So you just keep arresting leaders and they keep replacing them, but they stay in a state of flux and so you’re limiting their power to an extent. There is a certain logic if the government says, “we’re going to go after the most violent criminals, so if you are really violent we’re going to arrest you,” because If that’s the case then they’re punishing violence. The Zetas are extremely violent so if they say, “we’re going arrest the Zetas because they’re really violent,” then that can have some good effects, with groups realizing that it’s better to be less violent, so they’re less likely to be arrested. But we’ll see. It’s not going to have a massive impact. Again, it’s simply not the case like Colombia in ’93 when they arrested Pablo Escobar and changed everything. Under Calderón, they arrested -or killed – 25 major cartel leaders but they’re still intact. Now with Peña Nieto they’ve arrested at least four or five major players and they’re still going to be there.

CM: What role does the culture surrounding El Narco – such as the narcocorridos [bands who write drug ballads] – play in pulling young people into the cartels?

IG: I think they’re fascinating to look at, drug ballads. By looking at them we can start learning about the kind of thinking behind the drug trade from some of the people inside it. There have been attempts to ban it. For example, they recently fined a promoter for having a concert with drug ballads being played, but I’m generally not too sympathetic to trying to repress cultural expressions. The argument people have for it, is that they’re just writing about what they see in their community, in the streets, which I think is reasonable. If you live in a community with drug traffickers you might want to sing about that stuff. Many of their songs do glorify cartels, but it’s hard to say how much it really makes people join them, probably other facts have to be there as well. In Europe, loads of people watch gangster movies and listen to gangster music, but they’re less likely to become a hit man for a cartel because it’s not the same. They’ve got more opportunities, in terms of economic and education and so on. And they don’t have the structure of these organizations in their neighborhoods. So there are other factors there. It’s more likely the stuff you see, and the behavior you really see among people you know. If you know your cousin is in the cartel, if you know the guy across the road from you is in the cartel, they’re going to be bigger influences than simply hearing about it on a record.

CM: Is poverty then a big factor?

Grillo says that having the Mexican army engaged in the drug war often fuels the violence. (Photo: Ioan Grillo).

Grillo says that having the Mexican army engaged in the drug war often fuels the violence. (Photo: Ioan Grillo).

Yes, massively. I think poverty is a very big issue, marginalization as well. Because you have some of the poorest people not as involved, some of the people living in the countryside just in poverty, but it’s often the poor in the cities, and in the ghettos of the cities on the border, that are involved. People who, on one side see materialism, and feel materialism. They can watch American TV programs, but they’re living in neighborhoods without the streets being paved, without basic services, where they don’t feel the state is there to offer them anything. When you feel there is nothing offered to you, you feel rejected, and you’re more likely to say, “OK, the drug cartel is offering me a route up.” So definitely poverty and marginalization: these factors are very important in the cause of why the next generation become drug cartel recruits.

CM: How do you see America’s position in the drug war?

IG: The United States has got a massive responsibility for the situation in Mexico, because of guns, because the Americans consume the drugs, and because a lot of drug money goes through there. The drug trade is a creation of drug prohibition, The American “War on Drugs.” American-led drug prohibition created the illegal drug trade, which we know created drug cartels. Now, we have maybe seen a historic turning point in the “War on Drugs” with the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado, and in Washington state, with a change in thinking, with decriminalization, and I hope we are at a changing point. In America, and in Europe, I hope we use this time more to change the thinking, to say, “this hasn’t been working, and look at what the illegal drug trade has created, the phantom it’s created in these countries, and we have to deal with this problem now.”

CM: So do you think legalization is a viable route to stopping the violence?

The U.S. War on Drugs has not worked, Grillo says, but has instead created the situation. (Photo: Ioan Grillo).

The U.S. War on Drugs has not worked, Grillo says, but has instead created the situation. (Photo: Ioan Grillo).

IG: Yes I do. I think right now, we need to legalize marijuana, which is the first drug which is used more broadly than any other illegal drug. So we should legalize marijuana in the United States. We’re moving to try and legalize it in Mexico, and in Europe, to get marijuana trade outside of the illegal drug trade. It’s become the grade A illegal drug. Then we have to focus on the other three drugs, the major drugs: heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, and other things which come along. Once we’ve legalized marijuana, we have to look at how to deal with the other drugs. Firstly, I think we have to focus very hard on treatment, and really look at where treatment could be successful, where rehab can be successful. Rehabilitation has gone on for years but we really need to put money into that because a lot of these drugs are used by addicts who consume a large amount. Whereas marijuana is consumed by lots of people, a lot of the time a large amount of cocaine can be consumed by just a few people, because they’re addicts, or because they have problematic use and they’re using a lot of crack cocaine or powder cocaine. Then we have to deal with these drugs as well but I think generally the phrase ‘drug policy reform’… it’s time for that to happen.

CM: What is the Mexican government’s next move then?

IG: I think a lot of what they’re doing now is containment. They talked about a prevention program, which is very important. We talked earlier about poverty. Everyone wants to end poverty, and it’s not that easy, but at least you can have real social work, even with limited resources, aimed at the young people joining cartels. I think you really need to try and create that as a permanent public policy. But how do you rebuild poor communities, and poor parts of cities? There have been interesting politicians (the mayor of Medellín, Colombia, and the mayor of Palermo, Sicily) who have ideas about recreating and regenerating neighborhoods. This could be true from parts of Glasgow to parts of London to parts of Caracas: in the 21st century we’ve got to comes to terms with the fact we’re living in a lot of big, unequal cities with large pockets of the population marginalized. And we have to find better ways of easing that problem; otherwise you just get communities, which are producing violent criminals. How do you reach out to those? There are some really interesting ideas about this, like in Medellín where the mayor was building music conservatories in the ghettos and the musicians would have to go to the ghettos to play their music, forcing these people together. And people would just feel better about themselves and their neighborhood if they had these nicer buildings, and state-of-the-art libraries like the stuff he’d built in these ghettos. And that kind of thing is an interesting way to pursue these policies.

Callum McSorley
International Network of Street Papers


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