"Law and Order in Mexico"
By Dana M. Grimes, Esq.
Published: June/July 2010 "Trial Bar News"
When Felipe Calderón started his six year term as President of Mexico in 2006, he initated a campaign against organized crime that far surpassed anything attempted in previous administrations. On December 11, 2006, Calderón sent 6,500 Mexican Army soldiers to Michoacán to end drug violence. This action is regarded as Calderón's first major strike against cartel violence, and is generally viewed as the starting point of the current Mexican drug war, which rages on. One of the consequences of the drug war has been an escalation of the homicide rates, as the cartels battle each other and law enforcement, armed with millions of dollars, automatic weapons, and shocking savagery.
In a 2009 survey, Transparency International listed New Zealand and Denmark at the top of its Corruption Perceptions Index, which means these countries are the least corrupt. Somalia was at the bottom of the 180 countries rated. The Corruption Perceptions Index is the world's most credible measure of domestic, public sector corruption and is based on data from country experts and business leaders at 10 independent institutions. On the Corruption Perceptions Index, Mexico is 88. Italy, where the Mafia penetrated the organized government in many regions long ago, is 63, and China is 79.
Corruption is a fact of life in Mexico, as well as in most other Latin American countries. However, some of the primary institutions in Mexico function well, providing financial stability. The banking industry is sound (most Mexican banks are owned by international banks, such as HSBC and Scotiabank), and the Mexican Stock Exchange is well-regulated - it is the second largest stock exchange in Latin America after Brazil's, with an estimated value of over $600 billion. Residential and commerical real estate can be purchased by Mexican citizens and by foreigners, with title searches and title insurance issued by United States title companies. Property owners can pay property taxes online, with a United States credit card - and can use that same credit card to shop at Costco and Home Depot in Cabo San Lucas, and while doing so can get a good exchange rate.
If you are one of the tens of thousands of citizens of the United States and Canada who live in Mexico, you will probably never be in a situation where you are asked to pay a bride. One likely exception may be if you are stopped for a traffic offense, and you have to make a decision (both moral and practical) of whether you will offer to hand the officer $20 on the spot, or follow him to traffic court.
At a press conference in mid-April of 2010, President Calderón indicated criminals constitute more than 90% of Mexico's drug war's death toll, which stands at nearly 23,000 people since December 2006, when a U.S.-backed military attack on the cartels began. (San Diego Union Tribune, April 16, 2010, by Ivan Moreno: Calderón: Most Mexico Drug War Dead Are Criminals.)
The national rate of homicides per year per 100,000 people usually average around 60 in El Salvador, 50 in South Africa, 32 in Jamaica, 25 in Brazil, 11 in Mexico, 6 in the United States, and less than 1 in Spain. Of course, there are great differences in different regions. Ciudad Juarez, on the other side of the El Paso, Texas border, is one of the most violent cities in the world, with a rate of about 123 homicides per year per 100,000 people. By comparison, the homicide rate is 87 in New Orleans, 73 in Gary, Indiana, 44 in Baltimore, and 42 in Detriot. However, in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, where the primary cities are Cabo San Lucas, San Jose Del Cabo, and La Paz, the rate is 4.7, which is pretty close to the rate of 4 here in San Diego. A very high percentage of the homicide victims in Mexico are drug cartel members (usually low-level players) who are killed by rival cartels, and corrupt law enforcement officers. However, there has been a disturbing recent trend of cartel violence directed towards honest members of law enforcement and the Mexican military.
Los Zetas are a criminal group co-founded by Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers and is now comprised mainly of corrupt ex-federal, state and local police officers, as well as ex-Kaibiles from Guatemala. Los Zetas were first employed as a mercenary army for the powerful Gulf Cartel. However, after the arrest of Gulf leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, and a subsequent weakening of that cartel, Los Zetas became more than the enforcement branch of the Gulf Cartel and took a more active leadership in drug trafficking. Los Zetas now operates as an independent cartel, and are considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be among the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent paramilitary groups in Mexico. (Grayson, George: Los Zetas: the Ruthless Army Spawned by a Mexican Drug Cartel. U.S. Foreign Policy Research Institute.)
Mexico has the highest rate of kidnapping in the world. Kidnapping is a major business of organized crime. The investigation of kidnapping cases in Mexico is complicated by the fact that police officers are often working with the kidnappers. Wealthy Mexicans are primary targets of this crime. There has been a proliferation of "kidnap express" which targets middle-class Mexicans. The victims are kidnapped, driven by the perpetrators to ATM machines, and ordered at gunpoint to withdraw the maximum amount possible.
As with homicides, most of the kidnappings occur in certain high crime areas. It is rare for North American tourists to be targeted, perhaps because the organizations of kidnappers do not want to have the United States FBI involved.
Auto theft is sometimes committed by freelance thieves, but is often commited by organized groups. For this reason, it is much higher in areas where such groups proliferate. The rate of auto theft per year per 1,000 cars is 19 in the State of Baja California, and only 3 in Baja California Sur.
Efforts Toward Change
There is such deep penetration by organized crime in the local, state, and federal police, that when the Mexican government locates cartel leaders, it sends in elite units of the Mexican Army, without notifying local law enforcement authorities. Continued efforts are being made to increase the pay and training of law enforcement officials. Background checks are more common now, which helps prevent the hiring by one law enforcement agency of an officer who was fired by another agency. One model for a federal law enforcement agency to aspire to are the Caribineros of Chile. After an unfortunate period of history was brought to an end with the demise of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, the Caribineros of Chile became a national police force with a good record of efficiency, lack of corruption, and few human rights violations.
There is a movement - albeit moving at different speeds in the 32 states of Mexico, as well as other coutries of Latin America - to have trials in open court, much as we have in the U.S., with a judge or panel of judges, a prosecutor, and a defense lawyer (usually a public defender). Jury trials are not going to occur in the foreseeable future, but transparent and public trials, with rights including confrontation and cross-examination, would be a huge step toward Rule of Law for these countries. Chile again is in the lead in this regard.
In addition to the systemic governmental corruption in Mexico, the other major hurdle toward curbing drug violence is the United States' demand for drugs. In March of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged increased support for Mexico in the fight agaist drug gangs. As part of a high-level U.S. delegation, whose members include Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Clinton vowed more would be done to cut the United States' demand for drugs and the flow of profits and guns into Mexico. (Clinton Pledges Broader U.S. Effort on Mexico Drug Gangs. BBC News, 24 March 2010.)
While providing financial support and supplies such as helicopters and firearms to fight the drug war helps Mexico fight organized crime, as long as the trafficking and sale of illegal drugs is a multi-billion dollar industry, the war will continue. There is no easy way to end the violence. Some believe the problem requires more border enforcement and long-term efforts on the part of the United States. While the solution is open to debate, the current state of affairs is hard to dispute: we are not fighting a battle with a foreseeable end in sight, but rather are stuck in a vicious cycle of taking down one cartel, only to create a power vacuum that creates instability and violence until a new cartel takes its place.
UPDATE - October 28, 2010:
President Calderón is continuing to use the Mexican army in an aggressive campaign against the drug cartels. He acknowledges that it will be a long, hard battle, but he finds it ironic that everybody talks about the violence in Mexico, and the 2016 Olympic games will be held in Brazil. The homicide rate in Brazil is over more than double than that in Mexico, and Rio de Janeiro (where the Olympics will be held) is one of the most violent cities in the world. In Tijuana, retired army colonel Leyzaola was named Chief of Police in December of 2008. He says that the police officers who work for the cartels are traitors to the country, and has conducted a "depuración" (purification) of the department. He has arrested, often personally, more than 180 police officers, and forced the resignation of hundreds more. He is controversial, and some of the arrested officers have alleged that they have been subjected to torture, but has been praised by United States officials. Carlos Pascual, the U.S. Ambassador, has said that Tijuana now has the best municipal police force in Mexico, and the Los Angeles Times calls Leyzaola's work a "model for the kind of law enforcement muscle the Mexican government needs to fight organized crime."
UPDATE - November 11, 2010:
An internal review by the US Department of Justice has concluded that the much publicized US efforts to keep guns from being sent across the border to Mexican cartels is unwieldy and mismanaged, with insufficient ATF agents allocated to this effort. More than 90% of the guns seized after raids and shootouts in Mexico originate in the United States. President Calderón has implored the United States to diminish the flow of firearms and dirty money to Mexico. The efforts of the U.S. government in this regard have been inadequate. The ATF has only 2,500 agents in the entire country, and there are 7,000 licensed gun dealers along the border with Mexico alone. In many states, AK 47s and other assault weapons can be purchased in gun stores, and cartels send straw buyers in to buy them. The wide availability of firearms is due largely to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies. In 2011, the Republicans took control of the House, and the NRA lobbyists will find an even warmer welcome. The chances of reducing the flow of assault weapons to Mexico are not good.
Update 9/3/2011- On 8/25/2011, members of Los Zetas entered Casino Royale, in the Mexican City of Monterrey, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire. 52 civilians died, mostly mothers and grandmothers who were there to play bingo or slot machines. The motive is believed to be that the Zetas wanted to teach a lesson to businesses from whom they demand protection payments. Extorsion by drug cartels has become a huge problem for many honest mexican business owners. Shortly after this homicidal arson, the brother of the mayor of Monterrey was caught on video, accepting bribes from owners of other casinos in that city. This is classic trafico de influencia (although the mayor of Monterry gave an interview to Joaquin Lopez-Doriga, denying involvement. If you speak Spanish, you should listen to the reporting of Lopez-Doriga and his colleages on www.radioformula.com.mx).
Some mexican businesses are paying bribes to government officials to get permits to operate their businesses, and also are paying protection to the cartels.