Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Mexico's vigilante state: An Al Jazeera English report

Mexico's Vigilante State

Correspondent Teresa Bo takes viewers to the troubled state of Michoacán for an immersive examination of the autodefensa movement.  With tension between the vigilantes and the government increasing this week, a tenuous disarmament deadline looming, and new allegations of cartel affiliations...I think the story will shed some light on how things have been unfolding on the ground.

If you are unable to watch the video at the above link, try accessing it at 

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Mexican Drug Scene After the fall of El Chapo and the rout of Los Templarios

Rise in Street Crime? Changes in Drug Use?
Do we really know who —or, if anyone— is running the Sinaloa cartel since the surprising arrest of El Chapo Guzman on February 22? And can we know whether the "autodefensa" surge in Michoacan is a citizen uprising headed by good and trustworth leaders who decided they "don't want to take it any more"— or whether it has been a clever maneuver to take-over a drug plaza by a criminal group masquerading as heroes?
Clearly, there is a continuing “manipulation and readjustment” at the leadership level of Mexico's criminal chains, but there is not enough concrete intelligence to arrive at a definitive conclusions about power-struggles in Sinaloa and Michoacán; even less is known about plazas in Edomex, Jalisco and Guerrero. In these last few weeks before Easter 2014, many regions of Mexico might now be described using the same words that Javier Valdez Cardenas used to describe "la Perla Tapatia". His new book (Con una Granada en La Boca) reports the observations of an El Chapo lugarteniente following the death of his boss El Nacho Coronel:
"Todos contra todos, es tierra de nadie. La gente que hemos tenido acá, los parientes de Nacho Coronel, todo se nos vino abajo. Los mataron, los detuvieron, y los otros, los mas recientes, se nos han volteado. Y ahí están todos los cartels y organizaciones nuevas, disputándose la plaza."
"Everyone against everyone, it's a no man's land. The people that we had there, those linked to Nacho Coronel, all have been taken down. They killed them, they captured them, and the others, the most recent arrivals have thrown us aside. And all of the cartels are there and the new organizations – all fighting for the plaza".
The fact is, we do not know who is in charge of the Sinaloa cartel or who may be giving the orders. Neither do we know who has the advantage and control in Michoacan. We know that at least six groups are competing for the plaza in Edomex ( — but can't be certain which is dominant.
However, there have been developing trends indicating a shift in the drug market — in particular, reports of major differences in the "product" that is shipped and consumed both in the USA and within Mexico.
Miroff describes an increasing heroin use, and perhaps a weaker marijuana market for Mexican "mota" in the US. Perhaps this is one consequence of El Chapo's take-down — Marijuana is a “stable cash-crop” and “income staple” of the Sinaloa Cartel (primarily shipped through the tunnels of Arizona from Nogales to Agua Prieta), and marijuana supplies the payroll for much of El Chapo Guzman’s organization. Marijuana shipments may have been disrupted —in response to the changing demand in the market (unlikely), to a new competition within the US markets taking advantage of "legalization", or perhaps as a result of confusion and uncertainty within the Sinaloa distribution network.
There is also evidence a shifting consumer market within Mexico according to Proceso (#1953 —Manzanillo, más caliente que nunca ). Proceso attributes an increase in domestic consumption of synthetic drug to the plaza battles between Los Templarios and the Cartel Nueva Generacion de Jalisco. This report reports that the port city of Manzanillo has now "heated up" ever since the Cartel de Jalisco Nuevo Generacion (CJNG) decided to focus the internal Mexican synthetic drug market.
Any adjustments at the "top of leadership level chain" and the long-term changes in the distribution patterns and consumer tastes should become clearer over time. But what is even more chaotic and difficult to control are the changes affecting the bottom end of the drug underworld. The crime on the street will remain unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous until the adjustments at the top reach a new equilibrium.
The chaos at the street level and in the lower echelons of the drug trade is becoming more evident and has been described in a few Spanish language reports. The payroll (la nomina) of several organizations has been severely disrupted, and as a result the entry level apprentices and hangers-on  — "los halcones”,“enforcer squadrons”, and "goon enforcers" are not assured of a regular "sueldo"  (bi-weekly payments) nor can expect "bonuses" for jobs well executed. The result —rising trends in petty crime (robberies, car-jacking, strong-armed extortion, and kidnapping. The widely publicized attack on a Noroeste Director may be one example of this fall-out (e.g. ). Proceso edition #1953 also has a report describing the rise in extortion, robbery, car theft and other street crimes throughout Tamaulipas suggesting that it is the bottom feeders of the cartels who have been left without a steady source of income (En Tamaulipas, violent recaída)
It will take time to understand how things have resettled at the leadership level, but in the short term I expect to see a significant increase in called routine street crime and random violence. Without a stable leadership who are firmly in control, thousands and thousands of young hoodlums have no expectation of a regular salary. Many Mexican communities can expect increases kidnapping, extortion and robbery. And I expect that this will happen in the cities that have been previously been safe and described as "sanctuary cities".
We must remember that "capos" and high level operators employed "squadrons" of lower-level thugs to "keep the lid-on" local communities and gave them directives to sanction petty crime. And in some cases (Tamaulipas and Nuevo Laredo), they used these lower-echelon thugs to create confusion and public mayhem. Many who have have written about this, but one of the most detailed descriptions is found in Javier Valdez's new book where one chapter focuses on a member of one of these lower end "squadrons": Valdez describes the criminal life of Juan, a low-level enforcer whose primary task was to "sanction" anyone who perpetrated a crime on ordinary citizens in Culiacan. Juan describes one assignment where he was ordered to hunt down, torture and kill three young guys who kidnapped someone. Juan and three companions— all under 20 years old — carried out their task with a brutal efficiency that included feeding one of the kidnappers to a crocodile and dousing the partially eaten victim with cocaine. Valdez asks Juan if he feels bad about this, but he reports that feels no remorse or moral quandary. His only concern was whether he would be receive his regularly bi-weekly payment in the coming week.
Unfortunately, routine street crime is likely to increase over the next few months during this period of leadership instability and it is ordinary citizen who will suffer the consequences.  And in the absence of "capos" in clear control, there will be no-one to defend the ordinary man or woman — and they never had confidence in the police. The fact is, the police are more likely to join in and exploit them if they believe that there is no "chief of the plaza" watching them.

April 7, 2014

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Narco Cultura" the Documentary

November 25, 2013

I  was fortunate to have seen "Narco Cultura" when it screened at the Toronto International Festival (HotDocs).

Its wider release has been greeted with a number of reviews (traditional print and blogs), and I believe that many (if not most) offer a rather shallow interpretation of this wonderful documentary. Some write about "Narco Cultura" by comparing it to their personal and inaccurate understanding of the drug war and the violence it has unleashed. 

Some reviews appear to compare this documentary to fictional myths promulgated in popular culture: It is a documentary, and "Narco Cultura" should not be judged against fictional tales like Breaking Bad— oreven worse, to the superficial and sensationalistic tropes inserted willy nilly throughout "The Bridge".  "Narcocultura" is not an old news story that has been reported elsewhere as suggested by a New York Times review ( ). Fictional accounts of the drug war in Mexico and its bloody consequences should never be used to dismiss the more accurate portrayal of real lives that are portrayed in this documentary. The biographies of everyone in Narcocultura are tragic, and few - if any— of the those in this documentary will achieve the redemption of a fictional Walter White.

Several reviews have zeroed in on the unrealistic narco corrido dreams that motivate Edgar Quintero and pay little attention to other dimensions of "culture" and/or subculture that are captured by Schwartz's camera throughout this documentary. Although Edgar's simplistic dreams are focused on achieving fame for his band "Los BuKnas de Culiacán", the documentary is NOT intended to be a definitive exploration of the cultural relevance of the narco-corrido genre. In fact, Edgar Quintero is not hoping that he will achieve success and gain riches within the traditional narco corrido stream —but is enamoured with an alternate (and more explicitly violent) version of this music known as corridos alterados popularized by musicians such as el Komander. Edgar Quintero is a sad and modern day imitiation of Don Quixote when he undertakes an unrealistic and improbable search to tilt at windmills - or at least to wildly unleash the firepower of an AK-47 or AR-15 in the hills outside of Culiacán. Anyone who wants to know more about narco-corridos would be better off looking for Elijah Wald's terrific book and its companion CD ( ). And for that matter, anyone interested in Sinaloense cultural phenomena can seek out a lengthy article that I did a few years ago about the cultural relevance of Jesus Malverde. ( ) (please excuse the shameless self promotion)

Edgar Quintero is not representative of young men in Mexico - he is a marginalized young American with little hope of success in and fame, and a man is driven by far-fetched dreams of riches and wealth to be gained as a "pop idol". Schwartz's documentary should not get sidetracked by debates about the negative or positive impact of narco-corridos, but rather it should raise more questions about the powerlessness and marginalization of young men (and women) trapped in the "interstices" defined by economic and geographical boundaries without the benefit of clear cultural or moral guidelines about right or wrong.

Richi Soto IS representative of the young man in Mexico. He is educated, connected to his community, sincere in his desire to make his country a better place, and working in a job that would be bring him a great deal more respect and provide an honourable living if it were north of "la linea". Instead, Richi risks his life every day that he punches the time-clock, and is trapped in a cycle of ground-hog days and interminable waiting for his never-appearing Godot. He retrieves corposes that will never be tabulated because of a government that suppresses information to convince the world that things aren't so bad in Mexico, and brings back human remains whose identity and family ties are inconsequential to his superiors.  Richi is a man trying to do his best and he works hard everyday, but he is also someone who moves ahead only because he is afraid to stand-still.The devil, the cartels, the army and the police are too close to his back for him to stop what he is doing. Richi's life and his daily world represents the real Mexico of Ciudad Juarez, and it is a world that is very remote from the sad and tragicomic vision of Mexico dancing about in the head of Edgar Quintero when he goes on his road trip to Culiacán to get a feel for authenticity.

The Narco Cultura in the documentary is not limited or bounded by the influence of narcocorridos, although music is an important manifestation of the "culture" that Shaul Schwartz traces in his documentary. The Narco Cultura of this documentry is much more complex and much more powerful - it is seen both in the distorted vision imagined by a marginalized Mexican American with no realistic sense of its power or consequences, while at the same time narco-cultura is expressed in the institutional incompetence and in daily power of rules, norms and values (Culture) that predetermine and limit the options of men and women like Richi Soto.

The parallel lives of these two young men from two realities divided by a border represents the narrative engine (without words) that drives this documentary forward. But we also observe the impact of violence on others and we see how codes of violence are ingrained in everyday life. I literally wanted to scream at the naive stupidity of high school girls who idolized musicians — and I honestly prayed that their comments represented little more than a passing infatuation not unlike my generation's screaming adolescents fainting in the presence of the Beatles. 

I could not suppress a tear in a scene near the end of the documentary where a dignified father patiently stood with his young daughter opposite a horrific scene of carnage and bloodshed.  He said that he wanted her to not look away and to see how this drug war had ripped apart a community that he obviously loves. That scene in its quiet presentation of reality brought back the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins 
"Spring and Fall - to a Young Child"
Margaret, are you grieving    Over Goldengrove unleaving?    Leaves, like the things of man, you    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?    Ah! as the heart grows older    It will come to such sights colder    By and by, nor spare a sigh    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;    And yet you will weep and know why.    Now no matter, child, the name:    Sorrow's springs are the same.    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed    What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:    It is the blight man was born for,    It is Margaret you mourn for.

Shaul Schartz's documentary patiently follows the lives of people on two sides of a great divide, and he quietly allows their lives to unfold  without the intrusion of commentary or super-imposed narrative. He leaves it up to the viewer to make their own interpretation. On our side of the border, some of us may weep for Mexico and its violence and think we know why while there will be others who will not spare a sigh. But on the other side, the dead remain uncounted, unnamed and as numerous as fallen leaves. On the other time there is no time for mourning, only the expectation that there will be sights much colder. 

It is the child in that scene that I mourned at the end of the documentary. Narco Cultura is to be seen and to be felt, and our search for answers and the reasons for this "blight man was born for" are to be discussed elsewhere.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The End of El Chapo Guzman? Why STRATFOR has got it wrong.

STRATFOR has produced a report that is now widely circulated and seems to be accepted as authoritative truth in Mexico. "The Mythical El Chapo" was available to subscribers on STRATFOR's site beginning on AUG 1, 2013. It is also available to others as a "promo" if they are willing to sign up for STRATFOR's monthly subscription rate ($39.99)
"El control de Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sobre su territorio está en riesgo ante el ataque de grupos rivales por el control de rutas y plazas. Incluso, el capo ya es considerado como “sustituible” dentro del Cártel de Sinaloa por especialistas de Estados Unidos."
Several reputable news sources in Mexico reproduced parts of this report and have represented it as an authoritative United States view. Proceso referenced the report on August 7 ( ) and Rio Doce (Sinaloa) provided a lengthy summary and analysis based on the details available in the Mexican news portal 24 horas.  ( ). The link to the 24-horas site is 
The STRATFOR report argues that El Chapo is not invincible or irreplaceable. Personally, I know of no-one who would argue with that statement.  Many of Mexico's previous "Jefe de Jefes" have fallen by the wayside —remember Miguel Angel Feliz Gallardo and Amado Carrillo Fuentes? But all of them were replaced, and the Mexican drug business has continued without them.
The STRATFOR provides little evidence and this is an opinion piece and a matter of speculation. It relies on widely circulated reports about "challenges to El Chapo's authority" and refers to several "battles for plazas". The report has escalated those incidents to the point where they are presented as evidence of El Chapo's decline. I am not convinced by the arguments made in this report.
The Stratfor report makes three major arguments that are reproduced in the Rio Doce report). 
One argument is that El Chapo is being seriously challenged by los Mazatlecos. This is true, but it is also old news. Los Mazatlecos are a heavily armed group of sicarios headed by "El Chapo" Isidro Meza Flores (a good English language description of him is available in  Borderland Beat and several Spanish language reports are in Rio Doce at and ).  This minor "Shorty" has terrorized the north of Sinaloa for a few years now and has variously operated in the service of the Beltran-Leyvas as hitmen for hire, as armed allies working with Los Zetas to disrupt trade routes along both highway 15 and highway 24, and sometimes just acting as local thugs and bullies following their own agenda of repaying personal grudges and violence.
STRATFOR has not provided any evidence that Los Mazatlecos have made inroads beyond those that it achieved two years ago. And STRATFOR has not provided any evidence that Los Mazatlecos have learned how to function as a well-oiled organization. All evidence from Sinaloa suggests that Los Mazatlecos are brutal, dangerous, heavily armed, frightening and bothersome – but there is little evidence that they are anything more than a band of thugs operating in the long tradition of roving bandits in the Sierra Madre of the Golden Triangle. They are a definite pain in the ass for the powerful El Chapo, but they won't be the group that replaces his powerful organization.
Another argument made in the STRATFOR report is that the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) is the major threat to El Chapo in Jalisco. The report also suggests that this threat emerged out of a "betrayal" of a CJNG leader by El Chapo. Again, this is old news and although the CJNG has created serious organized disruptions in Guadalajara, they were also quick to "back off" in the face of government displays of power.
As is the case with los Mazatlecos, there is no real hard-core evidence that they are structurally organized to the point where they represent a real threat to the "hegemonic" control of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman Loera's dominion. There's no evidence that the CJNG have the international reach (Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Latin America) that has been carefully maintained by El Chapo (the same argument holds for Los Mazatlecos). Where's the structure behind the threat of CJNG? Where's the organization that makes them anything more than a local group of thugs? Where's the reach beyond Jalisco? Where's the support from other challengers? None of this is addressed in the STRATFOR report.
The third argument made by STRATFOR is that it's too early to write off Los Zetas after the capture of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales. Who hasn't said this? Who would disagree? One valuable part of this STRATFOR report is its description of how Los Zetas have organized along different lines (vertical) than the Sinaloa cartel (horizontal). This part of the article and report is a nice summary and that is undoubtedly accurate. In fact, STRATFOR's main strength over the past few years has been its ability "to correctly describe the threat and structure of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas". On the other hand, STRATFOR has always been on shakier grounds when it describing the strength, power and organization of the Sinaloa cartel. 
And STRATFOR's "lesser-understanding" of the Sinaloa cartel is likely the reason that they were willing to publish a report as speculative as this. All evidence suggests that the powers that be in Mexico (from los Pinos down) would prefer to work with the Sinaloa cartel and its leaders. The Sinaloa cartel has a proven track record and business model, they generate profits, they share with others (albeit through corruption), and they cause less trouble for the State and make less noise than Los Zetas, Los Templarios, Los Mazatlecos, or the CJNG. The noise and disruption associated with those groups (violence, dismembered bodies, blockades, notorious kidnappings) makes it more difficult for Enrique Peña Nieto to convince the international community that Mexico is back on track and that Mexico is a country of the future. Does anyone really think that Enrique Peña Nieto and the economists of PRI will allow the "cowboy cartels" to replace El Chapo.
Or to put it more succinctly. Sure, El Chapo may eventually go and he may be replaceable, but the Sinaloa cartel and its structure are rock-solid and not threatened by Los Mazatlecos or the CJNG. His replacement is likely to come from within.

JHC. August 8, 2013