Protecting communities, building schools and now offering to avenge the death of a campaigning pacifist – is the seemingly human side of Mexico’s drug gangs hampering the government’s ‘war on drugs’?
In June 2009, Rubi Marisol Escobedo’s mutilated body was found in a bin in Ciudad Juarez. Her boyfriend, Sergio Arranza, was arrested but later released from custody, prompting Rubi’s mother, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, to begin a campaign to ensure her daughter’s killers were brought to justice. On 19 December this year, Marisela was shot dead. On 21 December, Marisela’s brother-in-law was also killed and his timber business burnt down.
Mexico is reeling from this triple attack on a family. But help has arrived from an unexpected source: the Sinaloa gang. Arguably the country’s most powerful gang, led by Joaquin ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzman, they have called on the public to denounce the killers. They have also offered to carry out justice themselves and punish the murderers in their own way.
It may seem incongruous but many of the gangs see themselves as upholders of public order. Many Mexicans agree. On 9 December, Mexican police shot dead Nazario Moreno, the leader of notorious gang La Familia Michoacana. Three days later, some 300 people held a peaceful rally in the Michoacan state capital Morelia in support of La Familia.
La Familia gang is seen as a way of life in the state and funds from the gang have been directed to road and school-building programmes. They are the most overtly religious of the cartels, promoting family and Catholic values. Mr Moreno wrote a book, The Family Bible, which contained the moral code used to train new recruits.
In Sinaloa state, locals can see the community developments which the Sinaloa gang have brought about. Generations of families are connected to the gangs in some way, through an uncle or a brother. When that relative is sending back huge sums of money to improve the family lot and the community, why would one say anything to the authorities?
Many recognise the inextricable links between gang and community up and down the country. Calderon is fighting more than the gangsters and will have to change the culture of villages and towns across his country to turn the tide in the war.