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The World : Behind Mexico's Violence: The Rise of Middle-Man Drug Cartels

October 09, 1994|Andrew Reding | Andrew Reding directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research and is an associate editor of Pacific News Service

UPPER JAY, N.Y. — Once again, the assassination of a politician is raising troubling questions about the power and influence of Mexico's drug cartels in the country's politics. In August, a for mer deputy to the Mexican attorney general warned that drug traffickers have forged links with prominent members of the government and police and may have been behind the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Now, the slaying of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the deputy leader of the ruling party, seems to add credence to the earlier warning: His brother is deputy attorney general for drug investigations and he was apparently killed by a gunman hired by an in-law of a top lieutenant of the Gulf Cartel.

Both assassinations struck down close associates of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose approach to political reform seems to have put his allies at risk. The power of Mexico's traditional political leaders--from labor boss to regional and local cacique of the Institutional Revolutionary Party--is eroding. Meanwhile, shake-ups in the attorney general's office have put the heat on drug traffickers, who once could count on a free hand by bribing government officials. With common enemies, and often common interests, corrupt politicians in the PRI's old guard and police commanders are making common cause with the drug cartels to block Mexico's transition to democracy.

Underlying the growing political violence is a revolution in the structure of drug trafficking. Before Salinas, the Mexican drug business was largely a domestic affair. Marijuana and opium poppies, grown in the Mexican Sierras, was the primary exports. During the administration of President Miguel del la Madrid (1982-1988), the Mexican army routinely staged spectacular incinerations of impounded marijuana. Yet, no serious attempts were made to seize the drug lords. As illustrated in the case of Enrique Camarena, the Drug Enforcement Agent murdered by Rafael Caro Quintero's Guadalajara Cartel, collusion between influential members of the government and drug traffickers was widespread.

At the beginning of Salinas' administration, a number of changes radically altered the drug picture. For one, Salinas moved against the drug kingpins. Quintero was apprehended and imprisoned, along with several lesser-known traffickers. Second, a transformation in the drug business itself was under way. Colombian traffickers, who had relied primarily on Caribbean routes to deliver cocaine to the United States, began shifting their operations westward. With their links in Cuba and the Bahamas under increasing scrutiny, they began focusing on the U.S.-Mexican border. The outcome was the rise to prominence of new cartels, consisting chiefly of middle men engaged in transshipment. At one end of the U.S.-Mexico border, the cocaine trade fed the rise of the Tijuana Cartel, led by the Arellano Felix brothers. At the other end, in Tamaulipas, it fueled the Gulf Cartel, under Juan Garcia Abrego.

The Colombian connection has, in turn, introduced new elements into the relationship between the government and drug traffickers in Mexico. The switch to cocaine has multiplied the amount of money involved by several orders of magnitude, leaving greater sums with which to secure the cooperation of corruptible officials. By raising the stakes, it has also led to the introduction of heretofore unimaginable violence. In the past, hits were confined to rivals and nosy journalists. Now, as in Colombia, the circle of violence has been extended to government officials who are perceived to be threats to what is now Mexico's most profitable--albeit illegal--business.

The Arellano Felix brothers are wanted in the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara. Humberto Garcia Abrego, brother of the Gulf Cartel kingpin, has been arrested in connection with the assassination of Ruiz Massieu. Significantly, neither the Arellano brothers nor Juan Garcia Abrego have been caught. Earlier this year, an attempt to nab a lieutenant of the Tijuana Cartel ended in disaster when a team of federal judicial police was ambushed by state judicial police. The team leader was killed, the mobster escaped. The incident underscored the extent to which traffickers have infiltrated the police. The fact that no serious attempt has been made to seize the Arellanos themselves suggests they may have friends in high places.

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