By Adam Thomson in Mexico City
Published: August 27 2010 18:30 | Last updated: August 27 2010 18:30
There used to be a time when the municipality of San Fernando in north-eastern Mexico was known for farming, fishing and a quiet way of life. Today, it is associated with death.
This week, a young Ecuadorean with bullet holes through his shoulder and cheek told the story of how he and his travelling companions on their way to the US in search of work had been kidnapped in San Fernando by the Zetas, one of Mexico’s drug cartels.
“They pulled us out of the truck violently and demanded money,” he told authorities after managing to escape, according to local press reports. “They said that they were Zetas and that they would pay us $1,000 every two weeks [if we joined them] but we didn’t accept and they opened fire.”
Mexican authorities confirmed the account when they discovered in a remote and semi-derelict grain warehouse 72 bullet-ridden bodies with their hands tied and eyes bandaged. Among them was a woman in the final stages of pregnancy.
Revelations of what has now been confirmed as the worst massacre since Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president, declared war on organised crime almost four years ago have focused international attention on the country’s drug war like never before.
They have underlined the extent to which the cartels have moved into other avenues of crime, such as extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking. And they have left Mexicans with the increasing feeling that the government is losing the war.
Mexican opium trade
It used to be possible to pay little heed to Mexico’s drugs cartels, which supply an estimated 80-90 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the US, as well as a substantial chunk of marijuana, methamphetamines and heroin. Today, the violence resulting from bloody inter-cartel battles over local markets and international smuggling routes affects just about everyone.
Less than a week ago, police found four decapitated bodies hanging from a bridge in a wealthy area of Cuernavaca, a weekend getaway about an hour from Mexico City prized for its climate of eternal spring. The victims’ genitals had been hacked off and their little fingers removed. Nearby, police found a calling card left by the South Pacific Cartel, a relatively new drugs syndicate.
Even Monterrey, the country’s industrial centre known until recently for its peaceful lifestyle, has been upended. The past few months have seen an increase in so-called “narco-bloqueos” or impromptu roadblocks by drugs gangs to create maximum chaos in the city and thwart local authorities’ attempts to keep the peace.
Students of the Spanish language and Mexican culture alike can add a new module to their classes: narco-speak. Mexico’s drugs cartels and the chilling violence they have inflicted on the country, have spawned a new lexicon to describe objects and activities that were barely known in the country just a couple of decades ago.
Cuerno de chivo
Before the rise of the cartels, the term “cuerno de chivo” used to mean just that: a goat’s horn. Today, only the most isolated from current affairs and popular culture would confuse it with anything other than an AK-47 assault rifle. The nickname comes from the weapon’s distinctively curved ammunition clip.
In more peaceful times, the word “levantón” usually meant a round-up of suspects by police or other security forces. Today, it means only one thing: kidnapping of one or more rival gang members with the express intention of torturing and then killing them.
More often than not, a “manta” in Spanish was something your grandmother might have made to cover your bed. Nowadays, it is a scrawled message or warning – sometimes in blood and often pinned to a dead body – from one armed group to another.
Remember the “plaza”, that sunlit square
complete with bubbling fountain in the middle that forms any self-respecting image of a Mexican town? Today, it means a local territory for dealing drugs.
The literal translation of “dar piso” is to “give floor” (to something). Today it means to kill someone or to “take them out”.
Perhaps the most flexible term in the new vocabulary is the prefix “narco”.
Try “narcocandidato”, the term for describing a corrupt politician. Or “narcofiesta”, a party of rabble-rousing music, pretty girls and plenty of white cowboy hats held by and for drug traffickers. Then there is the somewhat older term “narcocorrido”, a ballad whose lyrics are specifically about mafia culture.
Things got so bad this week that Coparmex, a national confederation of 36,000 businesses that account for one-third of Mexico’s economic output, demanded that federal, state and municipal governments fulfilled their obligations to protect citizens.
“They must advance more quickly to achieve an efficient co-ordination [on law enforcement],” said Gerardo Gutiérrez, who heads the confederation.
Mexico’s security arrangements are a patchwork of institutions – there are more than 1,600 separate police forces dotted around the country – with little or no information-sharing and notoriously vulnerable to bribes and corruption.
Aware of their inability to perform even basic tasks of law and order, the centre-right Mr Calderón has deployed almost 50,000 army troops to win the nation’s streets back from organised crime.
But Raúl Benitez, a security analyst and expert in military affairs, says that the brute-force approach has fallen far short of what is needed.
“Militarising cities without proper intelligence and information-gathering is never going to work,” he says. “There is a perception that the government is not controlling the situation.”
That perception is increasingly reinforced by the numbers. According to the latest estimates, about 28,000 people have died as a result of drugs-related violence since Mr Calderón declared his war in December 2006. Since January alone, 7,500 people have been murdered, according to Reforma newspaper – 255 of those were decapitated.
With no sign of the violence receding, Mr Calderón and his administration have begun to step away from their assertion that the mounting death toll was a sign of the cartels’ weakness and desperation in the face of the state’s crackdown.
Instead, they are trying to rebrand the war on the cartels as a wider struggle for security. They have called on the opposition to help them design the appropriate strategy.
At the same time, the government is attempting to broaden its attack on organised crime. This week, it announced additional measures to help clamp down on the cartels’ money-laundering operations, which the administration estimates run into billions of dollars a year. One of them includes a bill to prohibit the purchase of real estate, vehicles and other goods for more than 100,000 pesos ($7,700) in cash.
Experts have welcomed the initiatives – although in both cases, they have asked the question: why now and not four years ago?
But with less than two years to go before Mexico’s next presidential election, they also say that any turnround in the drugs war will probably not come in time for Mr Calderón to witness them from his presidential office.