Lawless Mexico in the grip of ‘folk hero’ drug runners
A vicious drug war in America’s neighbour is destabilising the central American democracy, making it more dangerous than Iraq
Drug traffickers kidnap nine hostages and kill six of them at a lonely ranch. Soldiers chase after the gang through a desert of shrubs and heavy snow, killing all 14 and losing one of their own. This was Tuesday, in the ranching and railway town of Villa Ahumada: another 21 dead in Mexico's long-running drugs war.
Since he came to power in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon has sent some 25,000 troops to deal with the half million Mexicans estimated to be directly involved in the illegal drugs industry. It isn't working, and the rare successes simply show the scale of the challenge and the sophistication of the traffickers.
Last year was the bloodiest yet: the annual body count doubled to 5,600. When, late in the year, the authorities raided an ammunition store, they found half a million rounds and even anti-aircraft missiles.
Owning a gun is actually illegal in Mexico, but it isn't difficult to get hold of one. Some nine out of every ten weapons found in Mexico come across the US border from Texas, where you can find a gun dealer every 500 metres or so on the highways near the border fence.
Moving in the opposite direction, alongside the jalapeno peppers, is a lot of cocaine and, increasingly, methamphetamine, the fashionable and highly destructive disinhibitory drug commonly known as crystal meth.
Though Mexico has a growing but barely mentioned domestic drugs problem of its own - recent figures estimated that the number of addicts had almost doubled to 300,000 over the last six years - most of the drugs end up on American palates. Most of the murders take place over the question of who gets to take them there.
Mexico now has the largest slice of the international narco-trafficking pie. After the Colombian government managed to capture Pablo Escobar and gradually reassert its control, much of the cocaine trade has moved to Mexico's northern states, mainly Chihuahua.
At the same time, the drug dealers are no longer bandits but businessmen. They spend their profits on guns embossed with emeralds and rubies, or elaborate mausoleums, rather than on proselytising Marxism.
The most powerful of these men is Joaquin 'Shorty' Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel. He has a private army, 'The Men in Black', to fight his battles, and it is his men the army holds responsible for Tuesday’s kidnapping. Hundreds of soldiers have been searching homes and warehouses across Chihuahua for Guzman’s hitmen.
An entire force quit when gunmen killed the police chief and abducted 10 others
Mexico's most wanted man, Guzman escaped prison in 2001 (he got out in a laundry van) and is the most powerful of the four leading gangsters fighting to control the drugs corridor that runs from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas.
The Sinaloa have been in the ascendancy since the influence of their great rival, the Juarez cartel, began to wane in the late 1990s following the death of their leader, Amado Carrillo Fuentes. He was known as 'The Lord of the Skies' on account of his fleet of 727 jets. When he died in 1997 after a botched plastic surgery operation, his fortune was estimated at $25bn.
Guzman has declared his intention to control the whole border area, using bribery and corruption to exercise power and spread fear. In Villa Ahumada, where Tuesday's bloody rampage took place, there are no police: the entire force quit last year when gunmen killed the police chief and abducted 10 others. "The town is in a state of psychosis," a Villa Ahumada resident told the local newspaper, El Diario this week. "Yes, we are very afraid."
Stories abound of Guzman appearing in local restaurants with a troop of bodyguards. They confiscate everybody's mobile, take pictures of the diners, and then lock the doors. When he's finished eating, he buys a round of drinks, pays everybody's bills and returns the phones. Such is his folk hero appeal, that in markets, you can buy a CD with songs extolling his virtues. ·
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