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Op-Ed

Mexico: Notes from Narcoland

Michael Werbowski, August 2, 2009

Arnoldo Rueda Medina aka 'La Minsa' — a member of drug traffickers gang 'La Familia Michoacana' — is presented in a press conference at the Mexican Federal Police headquarters in Mexico City, on July 11. (Photo: Alfredo Estrella / AFP-Getty Images)

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in his relentless yet ineffective crusade against drug traffickers, deployed around 2,500 troops into his native state of Michoacán on July 20. The obvious objective was to fight the growing "narco insurgency" which is spreading throughout what was until recently a relatively tranquil part of the country. This serious challenge to the central authority in Mexico City is spreading faster than the H1N1 swine flu virus, which still plagues parts of Mexico. There seems to be no cure for either the drug wars or the influenza so far; both are out of control. Nevertheless, this most recent impressive show of military force is meant to intimidate the drug barons/warlords, whose business still seems to be booming, despite the severe economic crisis in the country.

Mexican Guns and Grenades Bonanza

These criminal organizations are extremely well equipped, using impressive firepower on the front lines. Their arsenal includes explosives such as fragmentation grenades, which are used in bloody ambushes or during offensives against federal troops. Other types of high-powered weaponry seem to be available and easily obtainable. A knowledgeable source, who is familiar with ballistics and firearms, told me recently to my not-so-slight surprise that the military sells rifles and guns at public auctions. The items sold are new, not used. Hence it is not surprising at all that the "Narcos" are well armed these days. Obtaining guns seems like child's play in country already overflowing with weaponry and in a de facto state of civil war.

Recently, the well-armed opposition proved their might by brazenly and savagely attacking the federal police force and killing 16 of its members. The victims' slaughtered bodies were dumped by the roadside as if to remind everyone who dared to think otherwise exactly who was in charge in the empire of the drug lords. Meanwhile, the drug cartels' power is growing and their battle-like insurgency tactics are being perfected each day. Their methods at times resemble a mixture of mafia-like executions, enhanced by Taliban or Al Qaida-style ruthlessness, using beheadings and torture to terrorize their enemies, whether they may be the government or rival drug cartels.

Fear and Loathing in Michoacán

The official photos in the media, of caskets with portrait photos of the fallen fighters, could almost be taken in any war zone — like perhaps eastern Turkey, which has been the scene of a decades' long insurgency between Kurdish army and federal forces. But then, this is not an endless armed struggle like the ones in the Middle East or Africa (Darfur, Sudan). Or is it? The state of Michoacán is the newest theater of operations for this latest round in the drug war. The state resembles a battleground. Its largest city, Morelia, is under de facto marital law. When I was there in April, the city and state capital were already occupied by platoons of state, municipal and federal police, who patrolled the streets and highways leading in and out of the place. It was a common sight to see "Robocops" with semi-automatic machine guns drawn, driving around on the back of army-issued pickup trucks. And now, some three months later the "whole enchilada" has been activated and mobilized, and the Mexican army is now engaged in this battle between the central government and pockets of insurgents seeking to take control of all levels of authority in Michoacán. The military occupation is complete. Yet if the federal troops are going to make any headway they must first, like the U.S. forces in Iraq, win the "hearts and minds" of the locals population, which has yet to happen.

In Morelia, there is fear and terror and no relief in response to the recent military presence. "La Familia" is the foe in this war. It is the drug cartel that practically runs the city and perhaps the whole state as well. It has sway over everything and gets its way, according to local and national newspapers, with all the elected officials and law enforcers. They do this by means of monetary enticement and not so subtle intimidation. The local drug thugs, it seems, enjoy even some sympathy among the distressed populace. And there are plenty of them. This Hezbollah-like strategy, perfected among the poor of Lebanon, has won them much needed cooperation and undermined whatever confidence the citizenry has left in what appears to be a disgraced and defeated opposition.

President Calderon's advisors and military intelligence networks must know this and probably fear they might lose Michoacán to the enemy or to the drug barons and their well-armed brigades of brigands. So now it has launched an all-out offensive to try to regain control of Michoacán before it is too late. A sign things are not going too well on the propaganda front appeared recently. In a letter to the editor published in La Jornada (July 23) a local wrote: "Here in Morelia and in the whole state of Michoacán, people go out of their homes only because they have to work. … otherwise we stay closed in our houses as not to be subjected to the humiliations, fright … and insults at the hands of the troops. The writer went on to say that army personnel point their powerful weapons at everyone. "The people are desperate," he added. Amid this reign of state-sponsored terror, there have been both official and unofficial reports of human rights abuses perpetrated by the army while in action. The military in Mexico is supposed to be the "most respected institution" in the country. But not for long it seems, if the war drags on.

With the military being mobilized and dispatched to more Mexican states in this drug war, the crucial question remains: how long before this increasingly nasty narco-insurgency spreads to the capital city? We may, sooner than most of us had expected, see Mexico become the next narco-state of the 21st century, run like the caliphate of the Colombian drug kingpins or turned into a "narco land" on Washington's doorstep.

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