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Feature 022414 Pearce

Monday, February 24, 2014

New Victims of the Mexican Drug Cartels

By Eve Pearce

In Mexico, the power of the drug cartels is absolute. No level of society or the political establishment is untouched by them; but it is the poor, the powerless and those without a voice who suffer most. Over the past seven years, the US-supported offensive against organized crime has resulted in the dismantling of many of the larger gangs. Of course, crime pays: the resultant unemployed lower ranks of these criminal organizations, forced back on their own resources, have diversified. Last year, while the number of gang-related murders fell, the number of reported kidnappings had hit a sixteen-year high, rising by 31% on the previous year. Official figures for 2013 showed 1,695 kidnappings, although polls indicate that less than 2% are reported. The true figure is probably over 100,000.

Breaking the silence

This new wave of kidnappings targets mainly those who are able to pay the ransom and who cannot fight back - not the rich and powerful, but the comfortable working class and growing middle class, the schoolteachers, shopkeepers and farmers, who make easy pickings for these organized gangs who are used to tougher opposition. There is no honor amongst these thieves: paying the ransom is no guarantee that their victims will go free.

Last December, a taxi driver kidnapped in the prosperous city of Yautepec, in the Mexican state of Morelos, was found murdered even though his family had paid a $3,000 ransom. In the same city, in 2012, 33-year old architect and engineer, Cesar Vidales, was kidnapped on his way to visit his family. His father, an auto mechanic, and his mother, who owns a small clothes shop, were able to get together the $10,000 ransom, which they packed into a cereal box and left in Cuernavaca to be picked up. Five days later, Cesar was found dead in the trunk of his car, close to the state prosecutor's office, where his parents had just reported the kidnapping. With the ransom collected, he'd been murdered anyway. His mother, Maria Ruth Gonzales Vidales, joined the demonstration outside the office of Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, trying to put pressure on the authorities to act against the kidnappers, who seem immune from prosecution. She is fearless in her pursuit of justice: "I feel as if I'm already dead. I'm not afraid of anyone seeing me. I'm going to keep going and one day these people will pay."

Official response

The city of Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos, was a base for the once powerful Beltrán-Leyva drug cartel, which has now been splintered by the arrest or killing of many of its leaders. This area, which includes the city of Yautepec, is now among the top five for kidnappings. Secretary of Public Security in Morelos, Jesus Alberto Capella, together with the State Prosecutor, Jose Manuel Serrano, are looking into the possibility of the complicity of local government in the kidnappings. Capella said: "Criminal organizations couldn't succeed anywhere in the world [without the help of] corrupt police, corrupt prosecutors, corrupt judges and corrupt institutions." Meanwhile, the Mayor of Yautepec has thrown out his own challenge in response: "I have nothing to hide.... My life is an open book."

Another result of the breakup of the cartels is the criminal gangs' frequent targeting of unlicensed alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers. This is because gang members wanting to break free of their own drug addiction are more likely to attend one of these than the licensed rehabilitation centers, which in Mexico have links with the penal system: the country's decriminalization law allows drug addicts convicted of a crime to serve their time in one of these centers. The unlicensed centers have poor security systems, making patients vulnerable to attacks by other gang members either seeking to avenge a death or to silence a police informant. Unlicensed centers may also act as a front for drug dealing, or as a safe house. The cartels also use them as recruiting centers. Attending one of Mexico's 15,000 unlicensed rehabilitation centers is only for the desperate, where the risk of death at the hands of the cartels or of being dragged into a life of crime is no worse than the environment they come from. The notorious cartel, La Familia, is believed to prefer using ex-addicts as drug mules because they have a greater incentive not to steal the product.

In his 2012 election campaign, President Enrique Peña Nieto pledged to take swift action against the gang crimes - including murder, extortion and kidnapping - that affect most ordinary Mexicans. Under persistent pressure to keep his promises, and with the drastic rise in kidnappings since his election, in January 2014 he launched a new 10-point strategy against the kidnappers and appointed the federal prosecutor Renato Sales Heredia as the new anti-kidnap czar; but unless the twin problems of the profitability of violence and criminal impunity in Mexico are addressed, the future success of the strategy is uncertain. Lessons do not seem to have been learnt from the days of Felipe Calderón, when destruction of the cartels such as Beltrán-Leyva in Morelos without replacing its authority with a strong government presence only prolonged the lawlessness of the region.

President Enrique Peña Nieto's support for the National Gendarmerie has gone from a campaign promise to a forgotten ideal in only a year, with troop numbers stripped from 40,000 to just 5,000. He saw an urgent need for the creation of single, standardized and professional state police forces, but leaving this to the state governors without the support of new federal laws and constitutional changes has meant that in most areas, with the exception of only a few cities - Monterey, for example - positive change has been slow or non-existent.

The false assumption behind this frustrating lack of progress in the war against crime is that criminality and violence are driven by poverty. The truth is that the homicide rate had steadily reduced between 1992 and 2006, and it was only in 2008 that it began to shoot up. There was always poverty in the country. People were always marginalized. This hasn't changed. The homicide rate has shown a small decline since its peak in 2011, but this is insignificant when viewed in the context of the past seven years. Kidnappings continue to rise. In Mexico, violent crime is profitable and about 99% of crimes go unpunished. There is no disincentive, and the high rate of unreported kidnappings has made this an increasingly attractive source of income.

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Eve Pearce is a freelance journalist and commentator who covers issues that include international business, economics, global politics, and sustainability.

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