Author Ioan Grillo wrote El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency after spending years researching the drug cartels in Mexico, often at great risk to himself. He traveled to opium-growing areas in the Sierra Madres, talked with assassins and smugglers, and explains how the various cartels grew. His central point is that the drug cartels are no longer just traditional crime organizations (like the Mafia) but instead are criminal insurgencies that threaten the entire legal and economic structure of Mexico.
Here in the States we occasionally have criminal gangs shooting at police. But in Mexico, drug cartels sometimes have six-hour battles with police using machine guns, grenade launchers, and AKs with 100 round clips. The cartels, especially the Zetas, are well-trained in military tactics. Indeed, the original Zetas were Mexican soldiers trained in special forces tactics. (Their training was in Mexico and in the US.) This is not some rag-tag street gang that can’t shoot straight but something more like professional soldiers.
The cartels had their start decades ago in the lawless Sierra Madres. The area is good for growing opium poppies, remote, and hostile to outsiders. From there the cartels grew. The PRI, the Mexican ruling party for decades, basically kept them in line with show trial arrests and the bribe money kept everyone happy, at least for a while. But when the PRI lost power in 2000, everything changed. The existing relationships, the institutionalized corruption, was no longer valid. The new president Vicente Fox, went after the cartels with a vengeance. But this didn’t wipe them out. Instead, they morphed, grew more powerful, and now threaten to become a shadow government.
In some areas the shakedown money extorted from innocent local businesses is sent to the drug cartels first who then dole it out to those in police departments and the government. Police officers often are working for a drug cartel. The level of corruption is far worse than anything in the US, where sure, we may have some dirty cops, but we don’t have entire police forces that are corrupt.
The level of violence is of course horrific. The blameless are just as likely to be brutally tortured and murdered as anyone else. Kidnapping is a growing source of income. The author recounts watching a video sent to the parent’s of a kidnapped 13 year old boy. It showed him being brutally beaten for a long time, this as a warning to the parents to get the ransom money quickly.
In God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, author Richard Grant chronicles his travels through the Sierra Madre in the 1990’s. He predicted the current violence based on the hyper-machismo he found there.
At one point, a guide remarks that Mexico seems to be moving towards democracy. In a prescient comment, Grant said he thought Mexico was moving the other way, towards the lawlessness and blood feuds of the Sierra Madre. If you want to know where the insane and escalating violence in Mexico border towns now comes from, look to the code of machismo of the Sierra Madre.
Where does all this end? Mexico is in genuine danger of becoming a hollowed-out state. The only solution, it seems to me, is complete legalization of all drugs.