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Outsourcing the Blood: Letter from the Drug War in Mexico

By: 
John Gibler
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010

Like so many others, Alma Trinidad thought that if you turned up dead, your body destroyed by gunfire and left on the street for the cameras, then surely you were up to no good.  This is one of the two central myths of the drug war: if you are found with a bullet in your head you were dirty and thus guilty of your own murder. The other myth is that governments, police, and armies on both sides of the border are actually trying to stop drug trafficking. 

Alma Trinidad, a single mother of three who runs a small independent accounting office in Culiacán, Sinaloa, believed in these myths. Then one July day in 2008, her two sons César (then 28) and Cristóbal (then 16) took her car to a mechanic’s shop where a friend of César’s worked to get the emergency break fixed. 

Minutes after they arrived, about six drug gang commandoes entered the shop firing AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles with drum magazines capable of carrying up to 150 rounds. César heard the gunfire and thought that a shootout had erupted outside in the street, that if he and his brother hid in the back of the garage they would be okay. “Hide!” he shouted to his brother, “there is a gunfight outside!” As César spun to the left and leapt over the hood of a car, a bullet crashed into his leg. He crawled under a truck parked by the wall and hid behind the front passenger wheel. “¡A chingar a su madre a todos!” he heard one of the gunmen shout, “Kill every last fucking one!” 

With every shot that rang out, every burst of machine gun fire, César thought, “I hope Cristóbal is hiding; I hope Cristóbal is hiding.” He heard footsteps and saw a man running to the back of the garage. Shots sounded out and the man fell to the ground only a few feet away, staring César in the face. He was not dead. When he made eye contact with César hiding under the truck, the man turned his head quickly to the other side to look away. But the gunman saw him move and released a burst of fire into his back and head. Now he was dead and the gunman stood above him. He took out his clip, pulled out a loaded one, but dropped it on the ground so close that César could have reached out and grabbed it. “If this asshole bends down to pick it up, I’m dead,” César thought. 

Just then the voice that had given the order to kill everyone shouted out, “Alright, let’s go, everyone out!” The gunman left the clip there on the ground, withdrew another, and reloaded as he followed his orders and walked away. 

César waited several minutes before crawling out from under the truck. He saw dead bodies everywhere. He found his friend who worked at the shop still barely alive, his arms almost completely torn off and his stomach ripped apart from the bullet wounds. He rushed to find his brother. 

“I went back to the back to see if he was still alive and I saw that his eyes were open,” César told me. “I couldn’t see any bullet wounds and I said to him, ‘Get up man! Let’s get out of here!’ But he didn’t react. I slapped his face and when I went to lift him his jaw came loose and blood began to run everywhere. When I knew he was dead I started screaming with rage. I went back to Jesús [his friend] and with another person we tried to fan him with a piece of cardboard. I was talking to him when he also died.” 

That day gunmen killed nine people at the Mega 2000 mechanic and body shop and two municipal police officers down the road as they left the scene. No one has been held accountable for the massacre. Sixteen year-old Cristóbal, together with his brother, was running an errand for his mother; he had nothing whatsoever to do with drugs, drug dealing, or drug trafficking. 

Cristóbal’s slaying destroyed the myth of implicit guilt for Alma and César. Alma took to the streets to demand justice (as the sole survivor of the massacre, César is hesitant to appear before press cameras), and began to organize other mothers of innocent children gunned down in absolute impunity. That’s when she came face to face with the other broken myth: the drug war itself. 

IIlegality is money 

Drugs are big business. The United Nations 2010 World Drug Report estimates that the global cocaine and opiates markets generate $153 billion a year. Cannabis is the most widely consumed illegal drug, but it is more difficult to estimate annual revenues since it can be grown and sold locally worldwide in small amounts. The medical marijuana crop in the state of California alone was worth an estimated $17 billion in 2008; in contrast, the value of California’s entire field crop yield in 2008 was $4.19 billion. The 2010 US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report estimates that Mexican drug trafficking organizations move up to $25 billion in earnings across the US border into Mexico every year. The Mexican federal government estimates that drug traffickers earned over $132 billion between December 2006 and June 2010. 

Drugs are commodities and illegality is a part of their commodity form: illegality creates risk, and risk justifies dizzying price hikes. As California voters faced a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in the summer of 2010, the rightwing RAND Drug Policy Research Center released estimates that marijuana prices would fall by 90 percent upon legalization and regulation: a $375 ounce of medical marijuana could be worth $38 an ounce upon statewide legalization for recreational use. 

The bulk of drug money does not get stuffed in closets and basements, but in the world’s largest banks. Raul Salinas—brother of former Mexican president and NAFTA architect Carlos Salinas— was caught with unaccounted for Swiss bank accounts holding $80 million; Citibank handled at least $50 million of the transfers. The magazine Proceso reported that the Mexican banking industry finds itself with an “extra” $10 billion in cash every year. The Mexican Treasury Secretary said in a press conference on June 15, 2010 that the 41 banks operating in Mexico have “$10 billion that cannot be explained within the proper dynamics of the country’s economic activity.” 

In 2008, drug money saved the major global banks from collapse and thus perhaps even saved capitalism from a devastating internal crisis when the speculative capital markets imploded. Drug money— truckloads of cash, actual physical money—would appear to be one of capitalism’s global savings accounts. In December 2009, Rajeev Syal at The Observer in London reported that “Drug money worth billions of dollars kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis.” His source: the United Nations. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime told Syal that he saw evidence that organized crime money was “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse. He went on to tell Syal that “a majority of the $352 billion (£216 billion) of drug profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result.” 

Catch and release 

In the midst of all that money, Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s “war” has mostly targeted the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, the Carrillo Fuentes and Beltrán Leyva cartels, and the Familia Michoacana, leaving the Sinaloa Cartel—Alma and César’s home state—pretty much alone. A National Public Radio analysis of 2,600 federal arrests between December 2006 and May 2010 found that members of the Sinaloa Cartel accounted for only 12 percent of those arrested. Meanwhile, as the Mexican Army and federal police commit daily raids across the country, and the US government continues to send hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and equipment, the Sinaloa Cartel CEO Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has made the Forbes list of billionaires two years running. 

According to Mexican federal reports analyzed by the investigative news magazine ContraLínea, of the 121,199 people that soldiers and police had detained in three and a half years of Calderón’s war, prosecutors brought charges against only 1,306 for having links to one of the eight cartels presumed to operate in Mexico. Judges sentenced a mere 735 to prison for organized crime. 

On May 26, 2009 federal police and Army soldiers detained ten mayors, 17 officials ranging from governors’ aides to police officers, and one judge in the state of Michoacán. In the following days they detained another mayor and six more officials, for a total of thirty-five arrested officials, an unprecedented sting operation in Mexico’s drug war. The television cameras were on the scene to capture the images of disgraced mayors and cops leaving their offices with their jackets pulled up over their faces, escorted by heavily armed and masked soldiers and federal police. The arrests dominated the nighttime news broadcasts and the next day’s headlines. The federal Attorney General’s office accused them all of participating in organized crime. All of those arrested were members of the opposition PRD party. 

The PRD controls the state government and most municipalities in Calderón’s home state of Michoacán. The arrests took place six weeks before the 2009 federal mid-term elections in Mexico. A year and a half later, by late September 2010, 34 of the 35 Michoacán officials and police arrested back in May 2009 had been released for lack of evidence. The one mayor still being held had not yet been convicted of any crime. The national daily Milenio ran the following front-page headline on September 29, 2010: “The Michoacán sting operation ended in ridicule.” 

Of the estimated 22,000 executions carried out between December 2006 and April 2010, the Mexican federal attorney general’s office (PGR) investigated only 1,200 cases. The Mexican government did not even investigate 95 percent of the drug war murders. Some 20,800 murders guaranteed impunity. 

Prohibition kills 

If there were really a war on drugs, the drugs would be winning: the 2009 US National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 21.8 million people aged twelve or older had consumed an illicit drug within the past month. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime ventured a guess in its 2009 World Drug Report that between 170 and 250 million people use illicit drugs worldwide. 

In 2009, more people in the US consumed illegal drugs than any year prior, while 2009 was also the bloodiest year on record in Mexico’s drug war. The direct correlation between US recreational drug use, prohibition, and the murder and terror unleashed throughout Mexico cannot be avoided. Some drugs may cause harm, but prohibition kills. 

Nor is the terror limited to Mexico. The number of people in US prisons and jails on drug charges increased by 1,100 percent between 1980 and 2005. More African Americans are behind bars now than were enslaved in 1850, and most received racially discriminatory sentences on minor drug-related charges. The first drug prohibition law ever passed was an 1875 ordinance in San Francisco, California banning opium, and with it, criminalizing working class Chinese immigrants and attacking their local economy: the drug war has its deepest roots in racism. 

So what do we know? After decades of a multi-national drug war imposed by the US government, drugs are more plentiful and easily available than ever before, drug money pulses through the legal capitalist economy and keeps it af loat when speculative markets crash, the US has the largest prison population in the world, and Mexico— the gateway to the US drug market—is being bludgeoned with the murder and impunity that accompany the transnational illegal narcotics industry. In summation, US policy has outsourced the blood. 

Judging by the drug war’s own proclaimed objectives, there is no better case study in failure. But it is not a failure of course: illegality creates value and illegality allows for massive funding of police and military repression and mechanisms of social control. The drug war is a horrid success of state violence and capitalist accumulation. 

Hope looks like this 

Alma Trinidad learned all this when she asked for something impossible: justice. She asked that the Mexican government investigate the massacre in which her son was murdered, apprehend his killers, put them on trial, and sentence them for their deeds. 

That is how she came to feel the weight of a global war. The homicide detectives on the case told her they were too scared to investigate, the judge in the case told her not to get her hopes up, the Sinaloa state human rights commission forged her signature on a document officially withdrawing her complaint against state officials, and Senator Rosario Ibarra—whose son was disappeared by the Army during the dirty war of the 1970s—gave her the phone numbers for her legal team and the lawyers never took her calls. On top of all this, the state psychologist tasked with offering services to family members and victims of violence gave her and César a basket with cooking oil, sugar, and rice and said, “Hurry up, this isn’t free, and no tears.” 

“The authorities are good for nothing,” Alma Trinidad told me. “But I would also say they are involved, because how else can you explain that two years have gone by and they’ve done nothing? For them it’s, ‘They already killed your son; now go home and cry.’ Why? Why do we have to do that? If that’s the case then they should go too. If they are so useless, they should go.” 

The state investigators claim that they do now know who owned the body shop Mega 2000, which has remained closed and abandoned since the day of the massacre. The registered owner disappeared shortly after. The word on the street, however, is that the shop belonged to Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza, alias El Macho Prieto. El Macho Prieto is one of the highest-ranking assassins for the Sinaloa Cartel. Apparently his enemies massacred the employees and customers at his business to “heat up” his territory, an increasingly common combat tactic in the drug war. 

From January through July 2010, a Sinaloa Cartel death squad of convicted felons would leave the Gomez Palacio prison in Durango at night—with a nod from the warden—in official vehicles and bearing prison guard automatic weapons to massacre people in bars, nightclubs, and birthday parties in neighboring Torreón, Coahuila. This would then “heat up” the territory of the Zetas. They killed at least 35 people in three separate massacres. 

In the face of absolute impunit y Alma Trinidad refuses to go home and cry. She organized with other mothers of children gunned down in the drug war and in November 2009 they formed an organization called Voices United for Life. Together they took to the streets holding marches and protests in downtown Culiacán, demanding an end to the violence and impunity. The response from the Sinaloa state government has been to stall the case until the federal attorney general took it over, which finally happened in late August 2010. 

“It is demoralizing,” Alma said of the state’s refusal to investigate. “And I think they do it with this in mind. They want people to see that there are no possibilities. They want them to go off and stop looking for justice. Why should people go on if the authorities will do nothing? It is very difficult; it is not easy at all.” 

But Alma Trinidad and her companions do go on. And that is what hope looks like here. 

John Gibler is the author of To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War, forthcoming from City Lights, and Mexico Unconquered (City Lights, 2009). For reporting in Spanish from the heartland of Mexico’s drug war zone, see Ríodoce, www.riodoce.com.mx.