The wars on what?

The similarities between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’

A commentator writing in The Daily Telegraph, a British conservative newspaper, simply said that ‘a man has died in a war’. The truth is that Osama bin Laden was often considered, by both supporters and opponents, as more than just a man. Some have seen him as a mysterious sage who loved honey and the BBC World Service at the same time as being a scourge of mighty Western powers. And the circumstances both preceding and following his demise are certainly more than just a war.

It is hard to define the limits of the ‘war on terror’. Far from the traditional battlefield scrap, this challenge has relied heavily on intelligence gathering, multi-national cooperation against a moveable enemy, pre-emptive drone strikes, increased border security and the launching of two military interventions in Muslim countries.

There are similarities between the fight against terrorism and another ‘war’ which only loosely fits the customary definition of belligerence. The ‘war on drugs’ is much closer to home for the US and this blog first looked at possible links between al-Qaeda and the Mexican drugs gangs in February 2011 (see ‘Jihad in Juarez‘ – 20/02/11) .

This other ‘war’ has also required more cross-border teamwork, the need to adapt to a changeable and, at times, faceless enemy. It too has called for the use of drones, although at the moment the unmanned aircraft have been surveying Mexico for gang hideouts and signs of activity rather than taking out human targets, as they have been directed to do in Pakistan. The use of drones against the gangsters in the future cannot be ruled out.

There is another similarity between the two ‘wars’: the culture of celebrity. In Mexico, the aura of myth and legend surrounds many key gangsters as it did around bin Laden, and none more so than Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He is rumoured to eat regularly amongst normal diners in Sinaloa, picking up the tab for everyone in the chosen restaurante and in 1993 he was smuggled out of jail in a laundry basket. Huge multi-million dollar bounties have been placed on his head, along with other main celebrity criminals like Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva gang), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez organisation) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Los Zetas).

But although ‘the head of the al-Qaeda snake has been cut off’, the organisation is, as the UK Defence Secretary said recently, still “alive and well”. The same can be said for the gangsters in Mexico. For as more and more are either captured or killed by the police and military, more and more are ready to fill empty shoes and continue their lucrative and violent trade. As Mexico is starting to discover and as the US has realised, these new ‘wars’ with the new type of assailants are long-term struggles against mobile enemies who, as bin Laden had said in the past, ‘love death as much as Americans love life’.


Jihad in Juarez?

Fears are growing in Washington over organised and violent crime in Mexico but defiant rhetoric must be backed up by defiant actions.

US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a bold message to the gangsters south of the border recently:

“Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.”

Napolitano also elaborated on fears that Al-Qaeda could get in contact with some of the gangs in efforts to exert more destabilising influence over the region.

However, Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake rejected the idea that, in particular, Los Zetas could start to get cosy with the Islamist terror group. He emphasised the differences between the situations, with Al-Qaeda driven by religious interpretation and the Mexican gangs by drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Jihad or not, gang members in Mexico won’t be too bothered by this latest challenge from Washington. Words have come and gone before. There have been some major bilateral policies, such as the Merida Initiative.

However, despite the help it offers Mexico, the lack of support that scheme gives for Central American nations tarnished by inflitrating Mexican gangsters is a problem. The US obviously takes its border security very seriously and major strengthening efforts have been concentrated in frontier states, although this is not an area free from controversy.

This is an important year for Mexican politicians, with the presidential election coming up in 2012. Gangs have been extending links into Central America and the US is still nervous. Napolitano’s call could be seen as a spur in the side of the politicians, reminding them that whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential residence, next summer must remain focussed on the war.

The US can help and it works closely with Mexican intelligence services, but this is a nudge to remind everyone where this all started. Mexicans prefer to highlight the incessant consumer demand in the US. Finger-pointing doesn’t help and dialogue often simply puts off substantial movements; meaningful actions must continue to be the main focus of both Mexico City and Washington.

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1

A human side to Mexico’s gangs?

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.

Mexican bicentenary year closing in familiar bloody fashion

This has been another violent year in Mexico and celebrations for the bicentenary of the uprising that led to independence and the centenary of the Revolution have been overshadowed by record numbers of deaths.

There was some slight relief for Mexican president Felipe Calderon this week as the National Security Council (CSN) released figures showing decreases in the weekly death toll for the country’s two most deadly states, the border regions of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.

Furthermore, the death toll in Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city, was slashed by 50% last month. But, just as has happened in the past when promising data have been published about the city, the information has been rendered fruitless as this weekend (4/5 December) has been another bloody one. Gangsters shot dead 10 people in two separate attacks in Juarez, according to the state-run news agency Notimex. Firstly, a group of armed men ambushed four municipal policemen and six people at a local metal works shop were also killed when gunmen gatecrashed a barbecue, continuing gangsters’ penchant for committing multiple murders at parties and family get-togethers. There have been more than 2,500 deaths in Juarez so far this year.

There are two particular areas of growing concern for the government, which launched the US-backed ‘war on drugs’ four years ago. The first is the rising numbers of women who are involved in the war. On 19 October, a 20-year-old criminology student was sworn in as the police chief in the town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravo, in Chihuahua state. She was following in the unfortunate footsteps of Hermila Garcia Quinones, who was the first Mexican woman to take charge of a local police force. Last week, Mrs Garcia was assassinated.

The second area is particularly chilling: the children who work for the gangs. In the same week as Garcia’s death, Mexican soldiers arrested a 14-year-old boy on suspicion of beheading victims for a faction of the Beltran Leyva cartel.

But the encouraging figures from the CSN do not mask the truth: the drugs war is far from over and the strength and reach of the gangs shows no sign of abating. More than 10,000 people have been killed this year and the total figure since 2006 has surpassed the gruesome milestone of 28,000. There were massed parades and fiestas galore in September (Independence) and November (Revolution) but in this year of historical celebration, the drugs war ploughs on. With neither side backing down, it is hard to see how the situation can improve in 2011.