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In Mexico's drug battle, the public is missing in action

Faced with drug-cartel violence and signs of vigilantism against the gangs, ordinary people would argue that it doesn't pay to get involved.

December 30, 2009|By Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood
  • Mauricio Fernandez, the mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, a well-to-do suburb of Monterrey, Mexico's industrial hub, has acknowledged forming "intelligence squads" to "cleanse" his town of undesirables.
Mauricio Fernandez, the mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, a well-to-do suburb… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico -- The mayor had good news: A notorious thug from one of the drug cartels had been found killed. Hector "El Negro" Saldana would no longer menace the people of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico.

Trouble was, Saldana's body hadn't yet been discovered when Mayor Mauricio Fernandez made the announcement with a flourish at his swearing-in ceremony in October.

How did Fernandez know about Saldana's demise hours before investigators found the body stuffed in a car hundreds of miles away in Mexico City?

Without explicitly admitting that he had ordered the killing, Fernandez eventually acknowledged forming "intelligence squads" to "cleanse" his jurisdiction of undesirables such as "El Negro," who by all accounts kidnapped and extorted with impunity and flaunted his untouchable status by driving around in a yellow Lamborghini.

The top judicial official in the region praised Fernandez's crime-busting initiative as "fabulous." Days passed before any senior government figure criticized the mayor.

The hit on "El Negro" raised a nightmarish prospect for the nation: Had the government's war on the cartels brought Mexico to the point where vigilantism was sanctioned? And were ordinary Mexicans somehow complicit?

"We've all paid off a cop, bribed our way to a degree, been afraid to denounce the pusher at the taxi stand," said Marcos Fastlicht, a prominent Mexico City businessman who is trying to rally citizens into collective action against crime.

"We are all born into this environment and we have not been strong, or courageous, enough. We've all helped this country fall apart."

But many Mexicans would argue that it doesn't pay to get involved. Governments have long discouraged or even punished those who speak out. Given that legions of police officers and politicians have been bought off by the drug capos, it's safer to stay on the sidelines.

And a lot of people benefit from narcotics trafficking. The cartels "have offered work and opportunities and a sense of identity that we as society were not able to offer them," Luis Cardenas Palomino, head of an intelligence branch of the federal police, said at a recent conference on citizen participation.

"They have offered them something that is the most serious of all: the chance for a social payback."

Last year, when a 14-year-old boy from an affluent family in Mexico City was killed and crammed into a car trunk after his parents paid a ransom, an aggrieved public staged protest marches in many cities. But since then, there has been little sustained public action against organized crime.

In this drug offensive launched three years ago by President Felipe Calderon, more than 15,000 people have been killed. But that is not the only measure of the damage, or of the difficulty Calderon faces. The Mexican people have been reluctant allies in the struggle, key institutions of society have been silent or ineffectual, and democratic values that had been struggling to take root, such as independence of the press and the rule of law, have been eroded.

Dripping with money, some of it even legal, San Pedro Garza Garcia is the kind of place where residents put a high premium on safety and can demand it.

Fernandez, the mayor, says he is meeting those demands. He says he was forced to create "intelligence units" because of public anger and the ineffectiveness of authorities.

By acknowledging the use of vigilantes, Fernandez uttered aloud what had swirled as whispers in many parts of the country. From blood-soaked border states such as Chihuahua to drug-producing centers such as Sinaloa to the capital, Mexico City, a number of mysterious killings point to the settling of scores or removal of undesirables.

San Pedro, a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico's industrial capital, boasts multinational corporate headquarters, Ferrari dealerships, pristine streets and parks, the top luxury hotels. At one typically orderly intersection rises a copy of Michelangelo's David larger than the original.

In an interview in a City Hall office decorated with paintings by Mexico's top contemporary artists, Fernandez dismissed comparisons of the intelligence units to death squads or Colombia-style paramilitaries, saying his units are "more like detectives," albeit answerable only to him. He refused to provide any details as to who serves on the squads or how they operate.

"The important thing to know is that here in San Pedro we will do whatever it takes," he said. "We are not willing to accept organized crime."

Fernandez, scion of one of his city's oldest families, said he enjoyed broad support and would pay for his special units with donations from rich businessmen, like himself.

And he said he was talking to Israeli firms about purchasing top-of-the line surveillance and security equipment.

"The important thing is to have the information," he said. "How did we come by the information? Doesn't matter to me. . . . Just bring me the information."

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