Tag Archives: drug violence in Mexico

Is this what happens when you start with Twitter?

19 Jan

You begin by trash-talking justifiable targets like Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, branch out into meeting movie stars, and end up back in jail?

images.jpeg It’s a question Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman might well be asking himself at this very moment.

Following his headline-making escape from a maximum security prison last July, the diminutive drug lord accrued more than half a million Twitter followers, enjoying his occasional insults to people most Mexicans don’t like anyway.

But the fame seems to have gone to head. He started thinking that what he really needed was a movie made about his life, and got in touch with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. She, in turn, got Sean Penn to come along with her on a trip to one of El Chapo’s jungle hideaways so he could write an article about it for Rolling Stone.

Now Mexican justice authorities are suggesting that El Chapo’s yen for fame, not just notoriety, contributed to his capture earlier this month. That clandestine visit with the stars apparently played some role in giving police, according to the New York Times, “the break they needed: actionable intelligence of his specific location.”

The truth is, I myself have consistently wondered if I too should be on Twitter. After all, I have just published a new book, and could use the publicity. Twitter, I guess, is one way to get publicity although I’m still not quite sure how.

But I do recognize that tweeting and celebrity-dom are somehow entwined. Not only can you follow your favourite celebrities’ thought processes via their tweets, but you are, in a sense, a sort of celebrity yourself if you are on Twitter, if you can boast vast crowds, or even small crowds, of anonymous followers.

All of which has got me pondering the very nature of celebrity. After all, El Chapo is already well known as a larger-than-life character who controls a vast empire of crime and death, and has earned gazillions in the process. He’s got a beauty-queen wife, a legion of gun-toting minions, and sway over a considerable number, no doubt, of Mexican politicians.

And it’s interesting how Penn himself, along with his 11,000-word article underscores that celebrity power.

His article, as Joel Simon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, “was not an interview and certainly not a piece of investigative journalism. It fits more neatly into another journalistic genre: The celebrity profile. Penn’s story is an exercise in myth making that for the most part lets El Chapo tell his own story.”

The context is important here. Mexico is a dangerous place for journalists who question and illustrate the extraordinary damage to Mexican society by its combination of unaccountable politicians and unassailable drug cartels.Way too many of them have paid with their lives.

However Penn’s article was, first of all, mostly about himself – naturally. He’s a celebrity too. But he also shied away from asking Guzman hardball questions about the consequences of what he does for a living, and even had the magazine send him a prior copy of the article to make sure he was okay with everything.

This is probably normal for celebrities. When I approached Penn’s organization in Haiti for my book about aid, I was told I had to sign a similar agreement before they would consider allowing me into the Internally Displaced Persons camp he was running in the Pétion Ville Golf Club. (In the end, I signed it, but never did pass on what I wrote before publication.)

Our obsession with celebrities, as opposed to the newsworthy, seems to have opened up an increasingly ample definition of what the term even means. It has provided an ever-broader platform to the talentless and unremarkable, people who have nothing worthwhile to offer, not even entertainment value. And in the case of El Chapo, quite simply a violent cartel boss with no idea of the harm he and his ‘business competitors’ are causing.

Maybe El Chapo is now regretting his desire to clamber onto this platform. Maybe he is seeing how fame can also be a two-edged sword. As the pathetic images of him post-arrest inspire everything from piñatas to popular social media jokes, he seems to have very quickly gone from being an unlikely counterculture icon to a figure of ridicule.


From Rhinos to Orangutans, Criminal Activity is So Depressing

24 Oct

Photo Credit: Marboed

Whether it’s been about palm oil or rhino horn, recent news items I’ve seen about the dire effects of criminal activity on our planet’s forests and wildlife are truly depressing. From the photo of a Vietnamese woman gleefully grinding rhino horn that she believes will cure her gall stones (honestly, someone there ought to do a television news segment on the chemical make-ups of endangered animal parts and how they don’t cure anything) to the map of Sumatra’s shrinking forests, I’m wondering when if ever criminals will be stopped from helping destroy the natural world.

And there’s the article I saw on organized crime gangs’ increasing destruction of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve and surrounding Selva Maya. Salvadoran drug dealers are slashing and burning tens of thousands of officially protected hectares to establish ranches to launder their narcotics cash, Chinese gangs are plundering the region for rare hardwoods — before moving on to the jaguars, which they’ll kill for body parts — and Mexican cartels are razoring the forest to land their illicit cargo, one three-strip airport alone accounting for the loss of 40,000 hectares of pristine jungle.

It almost makes me want to applaud the folks who simply go out and rob a bank or liquor store (not that I will: As Jockin Arputham (of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, who I write about in my book, Broke But Unbroken) would say, you guys need to get some value change.)

The Sumatra problem was recently highlighted in an NBC news program that focused on the impact of shrinking habitat on orangutans, and an Australian man who has been trying to move them to places where there is still some forest left. The illegally cleared land gets turned into palm oil plantations, already a billion dollar industry in Indonesia, thanks to the fact that we now find palm oil in everything from chocolate to ice cream, as good a reason as any to boycott these products, quite frankly.

There was no word on how these well-armed gangs given a blind eye by local authorities are affecting the forest dwellers in this area. No doubt my friends at the Serikat Petani Indonesia would have something interesting to say about that.

But the article on Guatemala did tell some pretty sad tales about how local forest community groups, given concession rights and financial assistance to protect the forest from these ignorant, money-hungry marauders, are fighting a losing battle in keeping them out. In one case, an ethical community leader was even killed, and the local management project fell apart.

So while it’s hard to use arguments get crooks to stop with the environmental mayhem, it should be possible to find the financial means to do so. Companies using palm oil can and should stop buying the stuff if they can’t triple check its provenance. And if they don’t, we should know who they are and what they’re selling us. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral lending institutions, being arguably useless at encouraging effective development, should at least demand that Vietnam uphold its own laws on sales of endangered animal parts there. And countries like Guatemala that are trying to safeguard their natural resources with nowhere near enough money ought to be given more help.

But, sadly, I think it unlikely that people with power will actually do much to stem the tide of environmental destruction. Here in Canada, we were recently treated to a news story about conservative Member of Parliament Alice Wong enjoying some shark fin soup at a news conference for Asian media in Richmond, B.C. Ms. Wong was apparently supporting local restaurateurs’ opposition to a municipal ban on the so-called delicacy — a ban her host labels as “culturally insensitive.” (As if culture and cultural sensitivities do not evolve — or does he also support a return to foot binding?)

And with more than a third of all shark species threatened with extinction because of finning, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, isn’t this cruel practice ‘environmentally insensitive?’

A New Democrat MP is now tabling a private member’s bill to make it illegal to import of shark fins to Canada, but with the Tories holding a majority in parliament, and their own environmental insensitivity a point of pride for them, I’m afraid it stands little chance of passing. “It’s part of the culture and (the government) has no intention of banning the soup,” Ms. Wong told the Richmond News.

So I guess that means there are two things that couldn’t be more depressing: criminal activity’s destruction of the environment — and Tory politicians.

Average People and the Impact of Mexico’s Drug War

9 Dec

Today I have to bring some attention to a very interesting interactive posting on the website of The Guardian. It gives some well-deserved space to different people suffering in different ways the impact of organized crime in Mexico — and by the government’s poorly thought out and executed attempts to reign in the murderous mayhem.

Do their statements help us better understand the nature of what seems like an inexplicable and obscure phenomenon? To a certain extent, they do, I think because they illustrate both the immensity of the business — the vast sums of money, the ability to buy off major power brokers — and the picayune, quotidian aspect. And by that, I mean, the gangs of small-timers linked to bigger cartels or acting independently, carrying out kidnappings and extortions, and of course, retailing drugs.

Who are not, to my knowledge ever investigated, are the legitimate companies involved in the cartels’ support network. Edgardo Buscaglia talked about it when I was working on an article in THIS magazine last year but for which there wasn’t space.

“The main link between political corruption and organized crime goes through legal businesses in Mexico,” he told me. “They provide the logistical structure for (it) to operate. Some provide the transportation infrastructure for organized crime to move weapons, people and drugs, and storage infrastructure. They provide the distribution infrastructure, so drugs from here can reach Canada. Or people — they provide the production infrastructure.”

Today, another legal expert I interviewed for that article, John Mills Ackerman, has an interesting Op Ed piece in The Daily Beast. As he says in the piece, “There are no signs that organized crime actually has been weakened since the present Mexican president came to power in 2006. To the contrary, the cultivation and use of drugs in Mexico has risen dramatically, organized crime groups now have more firepower than ever before, money is freely laundered in the country and the impunity rate has reached an historic high, with, at most, 5 percent of all crimes receiving punishment.”

The situation is so out-of -control that, guess who is now seeking to move to Mexico? Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saadi. Having escaped trial and punishment for his various crimes in Libya, it looks like he thinks he will be right at home in Mexico.

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.

Mexican President on Trial?

15 Oct

Well, he certainly deserves to be.

Now, a group of lawyers and human rights defenders in Mexico has brought an accusation of war crimes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. While this may not seem all that surprising, what is both amazing and courageous is that they have added the name of President Felipe Calderón to the suit against the nation’s drug cartels as well. And not just Calderón, but his chiefs of policing and public security too.

At a press conference last week, the participating lawyers explained that the ever more untenable situation of violence is as much the fault of organized criminals as it is of what they call Mexico’s “structural impunity.” And taking into consideration that only 12 percent of crimes are denounced and even less – just eight percent – investigated, the entire policing and justice system is failing the citizens who pay for it.

Meanwhile, the violence has claimed more than 50,000 lives and caused the displacement of 230,000 people, according to their press release. Another 10,000 people are considered ‘disappeared.’ No wonder that they can therefore claim that “Mexico is living a state of emergency and going through the most dramatic humanitarian crisis of recent history.”

And certainly my own research, carried out for several articles in the past, bears this out. Mexico doesn’t have the slightest capability of effectively dealing with, seeking out and investigating criminals, much less of properly bringing them to trial. Its judicial system is as corrupt as it is inefficient, with thousands of people in prison even though they have committed no crime, and thousands more at large even though they are constantly kidnapping, extorting and murdering people, and shipping huge amounts of illegal drugs.

It is probably six of seven years ago already that the Mexican congress passed a judicial reform act. But as Autonomous National University of Mexico law professor John Mills Ackerman explained to me last year, the executive branch hasn’t implemented any meaningful improvements at all. (It was given a period of eight years to do so, and that time period is almost up.)

So I hope the ICC takes the matter seriously and does set up some form of investigation into the behaviour of the Mexican government. I have believed for a long time that Calderon’s so-called war against the drug dealers has been flawed from the start – and is clearly useless. The big question therefore is whether this has been on purpose, or because he is an idiot.

In future posts, I will probably re-publish some of the information I worked on in the recent past that illustrates this sorry state of affairs. In the meantime, Occupy Wall Street has spread to Toronto today and I have to go and check that out.

Mexico’s drug cartels and the death of a poet’s son

3 Apr

Last Monday, police made yet another gruesome discovery along the margins of the Cuernavaca-Acapulco highway – the bodies of seven young people, including that of a woman. Among the dead was 24-year-old Juan Sicilia, son of a well-known Mexican poet named Javier Sicilia.

As so often is the case with these mysterious deaths, it isn’t clear why Juan Sicilia was targeted, but I can’t help but wonder if it is because his father writes a column in magazine, Processo – Mexico’s only serious magazine, and only truly coherent source of information about the country’s drug cartels and their connections.

Everyone in Mexico, I feel, must be getting sick and tired of so much violence, so much disgrace. The shadows in which thousands of murderers operate and the complete disinterest of authorities in bringing the guilty to justice never seem to change. These deaths are just another tragic story, another opportunity to wonder how their families must be feeling, and when or how all of this will ever end. Mexico has become a nation, as Javier Sicilia himself put it, “with a rotten heart.”

These murders come just as Britain’s Observer has published a long and detailed piece about the Wachovia, a US bank now owned by Wells Fargo, and its shameless laundering of billions of drug cartel profits – the kind of cash that helps pay for the cruel deaths of criminal competitors and innocent bystanders alike.

The article (a must-read) quotes federal prosecutor Jeffrey Sloman saying “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.” It also points out how the bank, which got a $25 billion bailout from the tax-payer, paid a total fine that “was less than 2% of the bank’s $12.3bn profit for 2009.” Equally shocking is the amount of money Wachovia processed – almost $379 billion, about a third of Mexico’s entire GDP.

The murders also inspired my husband to write his column for an academic weekly called U2000 about the darkening prospects for Mexico’s youth. He teaches at a public his university, his students “the ones who have had the rare opportunity (in a country that leaves the majority of its youth out of the school system) to grow, to learn, to read other texts (neither those of the media, nor the cartels’ mantas and posters, nor the television news read out in that ambiguous tone pretending sympathy but that just ends up sounding idiotic) about what the human soul signifies, and how great is the capacity of men and women to realize projects and actions – transcendent ideas that, rather than leaving us ashamed, fill us with pleasure and pride.

Instead university and the society it mirrors kill our young people, stigmatize them, marginalize them, exclude them, impede them from arriving, impede them from working, close off the paths of the future, murder their hopes, their poetic sensibility and creativity, and condemn them to frustration, powerlessness and the hate that a society with decades of impunity and corruption generates.”

The poet too has spoken in public about his son’s death, saying that he will not write again.