Why I Don’t Believe the Mexican Government is Serious About Combatting Drug Violence

26 Oct

June, 2010
It was early summer and Mexico City bathed in the sweltering heat of a dry season stubbornly refusing to give way to the rains. Even as the number of deaths from the government’s struggle against organized crime reached past 23,000, even as one of the nation’s most powerful men — former presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos — was kidnapped, life went on in the vast metropolis and in towns and cities across the country. It was as if an alternate reality, a webbing of uncontrollable criminality, lurked below the surface of daily life.
It’s a reality to which Mexicans, appalled as they may be, are becoming accustomed.
“It’s not like you’re fearful just walking down the street,” said John Mills Ackerman, law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, “but if you’re targeted by a drug cartel there’s really nothing you can do. And this,” he added, “is an inheritance of the authoritarian system of government. This has been the big problem of the democratic transition of the last 10 years. We are still working with the same state apparatus, the same institutions. The changing colours of the party has led to different groups or mafias coming in or out of government—but not to a real conquest of formal institutions over informal institutions.”
Mexicans who have for one reason or another fallen afoul of what Ackerman called “powerful informal actors” should be seeking protection from the federal Attorney General, or PGR. Its Ministerio Publico, or Public Prosecutors Office, has the job of not only investigating crimes, but deciding which cases will be prosecuted. “The Ministerio Publico is in total control of every part of criminal proceedings,” said Ackerman.
Yet while the 2000 ouster of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, from government may have cracked open the political system, the judiciary remains mired in a culture of favouritism, secrecy and corruption.
Judges rarely question or even see defendants during trial. There are no juries, no oral arguments, and no public access to evidence until the trial is over. Evidence gathered under torture is admissible, and most suspects are found guilty without scientific proof like fingerprints or DNA. In this system, prosecutors have unusually broad powers, deciding if a suspect is guilty before their day in court and using their own police force to gather evidence to support those decisions.
For Jose Rosario Pacheco of the non-governmental Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Centre, the probability of such a system offering protection is “almost zero. There are many inequalities in Mexican society,” he said “and those same inequalities reproduce themselves in the justice system.”
What’s more, Mexican law does not allow people from one state to accuse anyone of so-called ‘common’ crimes like extortion, threats, kidnapping or even murder in another. To seek justice, victims must stay within the jurisdiction where crime has occurred, putting themselves in even greater danger. And, said Ackerman, “that’s not going to happen because the person knows the Ministerio Publico itself is, if not totally corrupt, that at least a criminal gang will have eyes and ears there. They’re going to see who is actually charging them. So there’s a very strong disincentive to even accuse these people.”
The entire apparatus allows organized crime to flourish. “Most Mexicans,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and an expert on organized crime, “consider the judicial system corrupt at all levels. By being conceived as corrupt by society, people do not report crimes, do not collaborate with the authorities and therefore any effort of the state is hampered.”
Originally trained by the Mexican army in the 1990s as an elite, crime-fighting squad, the Zetas were soon co-opted by Osiel Cardenas, leader of the Gulf Cartel. When Cardenas was captured, “they slowly became more and more independent in many of their operations,” said Buscaglia, “at first with kidnappings, later extortions. And at some point they acquired so much economic power that they were able to divorce themselves from the Gulf Cartel.”
By now, he said, they are much more than a drug-trafficking gang. “They are a transnational organized crime group involved in 17 types of crimes, and present in 23 countries around the world.” Branching out into weapons and human trafficking, along with contract killings, protection rackets and the kind of small yet profitable business of forcing non-members to retail drugs, “they have made fortunes out of this huge diversification,” he said.
Their financial clout and violent methods have allowed the Zetas to infiltrate police and judicial systems in several states, including Chiapas and Oaxaca. Infiltrating the federal government has been more of a challenge for them, said Buscaglia, but that’s only because their main rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, “has had a long-term monopoly on the capture of federal authorities at the highest level.”
There are 982 “pockets” in Mexico, where “the authorities and organized crime are one force,” Buscaglia added, “and that’s the essence of a failed state. Mexico is facing limited symptoms of a failed state—and it’s expanding.”
Although President Felipe Calderon has continually proclaimed his desire to vanquish organized crime, dispatching the army throughout the country to do so, he seems unwilling to overhaul its dysfunctional justice system. “That system,” said Buscaglia, “is quite cosy for the political and business elite.”
Mexico’s congress did pass new acts designed to reform the justice system in 2008. And with reform, said Buscaglia, “the capacity of organized crime to capture the judiciary would be limited.” But the president has done nothing to actually implement those changes. For Buscaglia, judicial reform is “a joke—two years have gone by and nothing substantive has been done.”
For Ackerman, meanwhile, “The big opportunity of democratic transition, the possibility of reforming our institutions, of bringing democracy into the state of itself? Calderon just hasn’t done it.”
And for Buscaglia, “this nightmare will never cease, until the violence and the suffering of average Mexicans reaches the political and business elite, when their families, their persons and their net worth is actually hampered by organized crime, and the monster they created starts to eat them.”

The article above was taken from Canada Deports Mexico’s Drug War Refugees, with Deadly Consequences, published in THIS magazine in Sept., 2010.

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