Mexico - failed state, narco-state or merely a weak state?

Annabelle Quince: This week: drugs, murder and corruption in Mexico.

Journalist [archival]: Mexico has endured many horrors over the past decade in the war on drugs. Almost two months ago, on the orders of a city's mayor, 43 student teachers were attacked by local police and then handed over to a local drug gang to be tortured and 'disappeared'.

Journalist [archival]: They came in their thousands to the centre of Mexico City. It was the end of a five-day march of almost 200 kilometres which began in the city of Iguala from where the missing students were attacked. The protesters chanted 'we want them alive' and 'justice'.

Annabelle Quince: The disappearance of the 43 Mexican students from police custody has raised many questions about the connections between the Mexican state and the drug cartels. Their disappearance is not an isolated incident; abduction, murder and corruption has become commonplace in Mexico, and people are starting to ask if Mexico has become a failed state or even a narco-state.

Hello, this is Rear Vision on RN and via the web. I'm Annabelle Quince and today we trace the growth of the drug cartels in Mexico and their relationship with the Mexican state.

But first let's begin with the 43 students. Who were they and what do we know about their disappearance? Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas program at the Centre for International Policy based in Mexico City.

Laura Carlsen: On the night of September 26, there was a group of students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in the state of Guerrero. And they went down to the city of Iguala to get buses and to prepare for a trip that they were taking to Mexico City, when the Iguala police surrounded them, stopped the buses, the students got off the buses and the police opened fire without warning. They hit several students, one of whom was killed instantly.

At some point the students were loaded into police vehicles and taken into custody, and those were the 43 students that are still missing to this day. There is no doubt whatsoever that they were last seen in police custody, which has been one of the shocking factors of this case. And although they found many remains in the state of Guerrero, there is no scientific proof yet that the remains that have been found belong to the students.

Journalist [archival]: For the past seven weeks, parents and survivors have anguished, protested, and grieved for the lost 43, Los cuarenta y tres. One student's body has been found. It was in the street; his face had been cut off, his eyeballs removed. Then officials declared they had found a few remains of the 43 in a remote garbage tip, burned for more than 14 hours to destroy their DNA.

Laura Carlsen: The version that the Attorney General's office, which is responsible for the investigation, has put forth is that the Iguala police took the students and they delivered them to another nearby police force that is also believed to have connections with organised crime who turned the students directly over to a drug cartel called Guerreros Unidos. This drug cartel wields control in the region, and there have long been accusations, with considerable proof, that the Mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, is in the pocket and working very closely with the drug cartel itself. In fact his wife belongs to the family that runs the drug cartel in the area of Iguala, her brothers have been the major leaders and kingpins of the drug cartel, according to identifications, and in fact the Attorney General said that she herself was the kingpin of the cartel in the city of Iguala. So the connections there are pretty clear, and they are actually connections that the government has known about and certainly the people of Iguala have known about for some time.

So this hypothesis is that the drug cartel then took the students and apparently, and this is what the Attorney General says, believing that they had…either were infiltrated or had some connection to a rival drug cartel in the area, took them all out and assassinated them, then burned the bodies, then disposed of the ashes, which is why the government now has found that site. It's a dump outside of the city of Cocula, and they've collected remains from the site but the remains are in such a state that we don't know exactly when or maybe in some cases if there will be DNA identification.

Journalist [archival]: The anger in Mexico over the disappearance and likely murder of the students is all the more palpable for the lack of compassion shown by the government.

Journalist [archival]: Newspapers around the world and social media have shared one cartoon. It shows the Attorney General with a shovel, digging up the skulls of the students from a shallow grave and saying 'look, look, we found them all, let's go back to being a country of peace and justice'. Underneath that small grave is a small hole that opens to reveal a sea of skulls below Mexico's surface.

Laura Carlsen: The government itself recognises that there are more than 22,000 disappeared people in Mexico, most of them since the drug war was launched. They also recognise that collusion between government agents on all levels—the state, local and federal levels—has been very high throughout Mexico, and it is often something that people know but don't talk about. Occasionally you'll have an emblematic case that will come out and make the news for a few days, and then sometimes those cases aren't even followed up on or nobody really knows what happens to them. But it's certainly an accepted fact of life in many ways, that in many parts of the country government officials cooperate with drug cartels to make money, there are mutual payoffs, the government officials offer protection to the cartels, and cartels for money and bribes to the government officials, and it has become a common modus operandi in much of the country.

Annabelle Quince: So if it's widely accepted today that there is a close link between the Mexican state and the drug cartels, when did that relationship start? According to Peter Watt, lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield and the author of Drug War Mexico, it's a link that goes right back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Peter Watt: There was always a market for cannabis, heroin and opium at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th centuries, and the border with the United States was very porous, so it was relatively easy to smuggle goods across, it's a huge border. There has always been a relationship between the smugglers and the politicians and the business interests, perhaps for obvious reasons because they always had a shared interest; profits.

Many of these politicians actually favoured prohibition, as did many of the smugglers, but of course prohibition doesn't really become a serious issue until the 1920s and 1930s really. Mexico very much follows the US example and the pressure from the United States, but there was always a certain amount of complicity between established business interests and smugglers, organised criminal organisations and the state. And of course it was always violent to an extent, so throughout most of the 20th century…so I suppose following World War II up until the 1980s, there was plenty of violence associated with drug trafficking and smuggling, but it wasn't anything by comparison to what we are seeing nowadays. And that really becomes quite explosive I think from the 1980s onwards, but particularly so in the last decade or since the year 2000.

Alvaro Mendez: I mean, drugs obviously have existed for a very long time. Narco trafficking as such took off in the 1960s with a massive demand in the US.

Annabelle Quince: Alvaro Mendez is a research fellow and co-founder of the Global Studies Unit at the London School of Economics.

Alvaro Mendez: If you want to talk about drugs in Mexico you have to talk about Colombia because, for example, cocaine cannot be produced in Mexico, it's actually produced in the Andes countries. So the Mexicans used to be the mules of the Colombian cartels, but because of the demise of the Colombian cartels, the Mexican cartels saw an opportunity and they basically took over the business. So I think when you look at the Mexican situation you have to take into account the Colombian one as well.

Annabelle Quince: So when do we see the cartels starting to emerge more significantly in Mexico itself?

Alvaro Mendez: In the 1990s when the international community focused on the Colombian cartels, there was a massive campaign against the Colombian cartels because the levels of violence were totally, totally unacceptable and very, very difficult to handle. So when the focus was on the Cali cartel and the Medellin cartel in Colombia, you start seeing the rise of these gangs in Mexico seeing an opportunity. The demand for drugs continues, the Colombian cartels are declining in importance, this is a business opportunity. So what you see now, interestingly, is the emergence of Mexican cartels, and now in many ways the Colombians are working for the Mexicans, not the other way around as in the beginning.

Peter Watt: There was a significant amount of narcotics going into the United States from the end of the 19th century onwards. But you're right, the Colombian trade becomes really important in the '60s, '70s and 1980s. But there is a shift that takes place in Mexico. When Ronald Reagan becomes President of the United States he announces this accelerated drug war. The drug war is already in place by that time and has been imposed by President Nixon and the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration, but Reagan takes it to a whole new level. The Colombian traffickers are smuggling through the Caribbean, and the Caribbean basin is a very good trafficking route and easy trafficking route in the sense that there are lots of islands, it's quite easy to hide, and then it is not far to dump their goods in Florida.

But in the early '80s, Reagan starts this crack-down in Florida and in the Caribbean against Colombian traffickers. And so the Colombian traffickers realise that they need to move their routes westward, and of course the obvious place via which to traffic their goods is through Mexico.

Laura Carlsen: When the major cartels in Colombia were broken down they actually passed on a part of the business to Mexican cartels. They continued to produce the cocaine in Colombia of course, but instead of them having the Mexican cartels giving them a right to go through Mexico, they would actually sell the drug to the Mexican cartels, giving the Mexican cartels the responsibility for taking it through the country and trafficking in the United States. That made them much, much richer and more powerful because much of the profit is made on that end of the deal. So they were richer and powerful, but there still wasn't a lot of violence until the drug war started, and when the drug war started, that's when the violence began.

Peter Watt: Around that same time the Reagan government is also trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. In 1979 the Sandinista government, there is a revolution in Nicaragua, and the regime of Somoza is overthrown by the Sandinista revolution. Nicaragua becomes the new enemy of the United States, and the Sandinistas are demonised to the extent that it provides the pretext for a proxy war in Nicaragua. And so the US government funds the Contra army.

But when the US Congress finds out what the Contras are actually doing in Nicaragua there's quite a scandal because of the human rights abuses that the Contras have been committing. So the US Congress reduces the funds. You may remember Oliver North and co begin funding the Contra war covertly, but the other part of that is that they use Mexican drug cartels to ship arms and funds to the Contras, who are mostly based in Honduras and are attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas.

In return for those services, the CIA and the US government essentially tell cartels like the Guadalajara cartel; we won't bother you when you ship crack cocaine into cities in the US south-west, so long as you do your part of the bargain. All of that has the effect of allowing these what were in the 1970s I suppose incipient organisations into major drug-trafficking organisations, so that they now become the biggest trafficking organisations in Latin America.

Annabelle Quince: You're with Rear Vision on RN and via the web. I'm Annabelle Quince and today we're tracing the growth of the drug cartels in Mexico and their relationship with the Mexican state.

The PRI or the Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico for 71 years, from 1929 through to 2000. How did they respond to the growth of the drug cartels?

Peter Watt: The PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, they essentially managed organised crime. They kept a lid, if you like, on the activities of drug-trafficking organisations. And because it was, if you like, a central command via the PRI, via the army, via the police, via the DFS, which was the secret police, there was this sense that there was a kind of pax mafiosa in which the state was essentially in control of the activities of organised crime.

Laura Carlsen: During the PRI governments, when the PRI was the one-party system within Mexico, they were obviously able to coordinate a system whereby they made deals with the drug cartels and they divided up drug trafficking routes and they also divided up in some of the protection routes, so you knew that certain cartels were dominant in certain areas of the country. The government officials got their kickbacks and their bribes, they are part of the business. And the drug cartels were able to carry out the trafficking to the US market, which is of course the destination for the drugs that both transit through Mexico and are produced in Mexico. So this meant that there was collusion, there was corruption and there was drug-trafficking going on, but it didn't burst out into violence in many cases because you didn't have the rivalries between the drug cartels and you didn't have the police and the army going up against the drug cartels in a militarised fashion the way you do now.

Annabelle Quince: From 1980 onwards the PRI began to lose control in some regions and in some towns, this meant that they also began to lose control over the drug cartels.

Peter Watt: Up until the year 2000 Mexico was a one-party state, but there are signs that that is beginning to change in the 1980s where other political parties start holding governorships in different places and in municipalities where the mayor might not be from the PRI. That means that the criminal organisations have different individuals and different parties with whom they can negotiate. So you have this fragmentation of the control of these activities.

The DFS, which I mentioned, the secret police, in the '70s and the early '80s had a huge role in controlling trafficking and monitoring who was doing what, because traffickers had to pay tribute to the PRI, to governors and mayors, to the police, to the army, and often to the DFS. But it was clear that it was the state and state authorities which were in control, who set the rules of the game. But following the 1980s into the '90s and certainly now the rules of that game have changed, and rather than the traffickers being the employees of the state authorities, it's the politicians who are the employees of the cartels essentially.

Annabelle Quince: In 2000 the PRI lost power nationally for the first time in an election that saw Mexico's first democratic transition of power.

Journalist [archival]: In a shower of confetti, thousands of Vicente Fox's supporters gathered beneath Mexico City's Angel of Independence.

Vicente Fox [archival]: Today, Mexico is already different.

Journalist [archival]: A new chapter in Mexico's history is dawning this week, following the defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has governed the country for 71 years. The new President-elect, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, is planning to overhaul the way Mexico is governed, by ending the culture of bribery and corruption, political cronyism and patronage that had characterised public life in the country for much of the past century.

Peter Watt: There were many expectations about what was called the democratic transition in 2000. So Mexico moving from being a one-party state to having electoral pluralism. This was celebrated in the Mexican press and among many Mexican intellectuals and abroad as being this opportunity for this democratic transition. But it became very clear that although there might be electoral pluralism, there was no economic democracy. So the PAN were essentially carrying out exactly the same policies, economic policies of the PRI and was very committed to this program of neoliberal reform, and deconstructing the many victories of the Mexican Revolution and the economic protectionism that was guaranteed after World War II.

And so you have a great sense of disillusionment rather quickly with the National Action Party government, the PAN government after 2000. And by 2006 when we have elections again, Felipe Calderón of the PAN wins or apparently wins, because it's a very contested election. You have a left-of-centre candidate, AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and there is this great fear among the Mexican elites and I think among US elites that this left-of-centre candidate will win the presidency, which of course would be very costly to US business and political interests and to the Mexican elites. They saw this guy as a threat to the established traditional order. So when the election happens in July 2006, it seems that the count is fraudulent and there are many reasons to believe that it was fraudulent.

Journalist [archival]: There is confusion in Mexico tonight with both leading candidates claiming victory in the country's presidential election. Officials say sample results show the poll is too close to call, with less than 1% separating the two. Both major candidates have said that exit polls show they've won the election.

Peter Watt: Felipe Calderón of the PAN is declared as the winner, but this leads to some of the biggest protests Mexico has ever seen, so the centre of Mexico City is filled with over a million protesters, protesting what they see as the election having been stolen.

Journalist [archival]: There's finally a winner in the race to be Mexico's next President. Harvard educated Felipe Calderón has won the hotly disputed contest by a fraction of 1%.

Journalist [archival]: As the final votes were counted today, supporters of the conservative candidate Felipe Calderón were already celebrating. Felipe Calderón from the governing National Action Party has defeated the left's Andrés Manuel López Obrador by just 0.6%. Mr Obrador is now vowing to fight the outcome in the courts, claiming the election was plagued with widespread voting irregularities.

Laura Carlsen: In 2006 in December the president elect was Felipe Calderón and he took office on December 1 in a very precarious situation because there were millions of people in the streets in Mexico City who were protesting what they saw (and there is considerable evidence and now historically it's been pretty much proven) was a fraudulent election. The president barely had control of the country, and he was seen by a large part of the population as an illegitimate president.

So he needed something to distract people from the internal division and the anger that existed over the elections, and the drug war was a way to create an external enemy…it's really not external though, it's internal, but to create an enemy that was sort of out there and also to get the Armed Forces on his side. There was a real fear that there could be uprisings in the country as a result of the elections. But with the Armed Forces going out into communities, and there were 50,000 army soldiers and officers that were dispatched, with them in the communities it was much more difficult for there to be any kind of an uprising because the communities and the cities were militarised. So it created a much stronger allegiance between the Armed Forces and the presidency itself, and was a way to maintain control during this period of Mexican history in 2006.

Peter Watt: So Felipe Calderón comes to power in December 2006, but amid a great sense of scepticism. So one of the first things that he does, he deploys about 50,000 police and military forces to the streets of Mexico all over the place in order ostensibly to combat the power of organised crime. Mexico's crime rate actually at the time was declining. The murder rate was declining, the problems of drug addiction were virtually insignificant compared to the United States, for example, and they were certainly no higher than comparable countries in the region. But all these things are used to justify the war on the narcos that Calderón accelerates in 2006. So some view it as a distraction.

Another view has it that this war on drugs is used in order to offset the possibility of some kind of popular revolt, given that there is so much political disillusionment, there's so much hatred for the old economic system and the old elites. And so the deployment of these troops has the effect of discouraging the formation and the coalescence of a serious oppositionary movement.

But the thing that we see almost immediately is that the homicide rate increases radically. The number of human rights abuses committed increases six-fold. The complaints of torture increase very quickly, and all of this happens as soon as the military are deployed to the streets. So even though the army in 2006 retains some sense of popular legitimacy, again, a few years later that has virtually disappeared because everybody understands by this point that it's the army and it's the police, it's the state authorities themselves which are committing many of the worst human rights abuses which are disappearing people, killing people.

Journalist [archival]: It happened a block away from Paseo de la Reforma, the main street of Mexico City. It was broad daylight, 12 weeks ago, when eight men and four women were taken at gunpoint and driven away. Last week, human remains were uncovered on a farm half an hour from the city centre.

Laura Carlsen: The violence is caused because by capturing kingpins another cartel will see that the first one has been weakened and will come in and try to take over its route. So a lot of them are turf wars that we are seeing between drug cartels, and then a lot of them also have to do with the corruption of the army itself and the police forces that are supposed to be fighting them but who are also taking sides in these turf wars and are also using this blanket of violence to go after opposition leaders in many cases, and other members of society that could be considered undesirables. There is so little justice—98% of crimes, including homicides, are never sentenced or punished in Mexico—that it's gotten to a situation where a lot of times you just never know who killed who and why, because almost anybody can kill anybody and nothing happens.

Peter Watt: I think one of the reasons you are seeing so many protests in Mexico at the moment is, one, because people are absolutely fed up with this violence and the fact that they feel that the state does not protect them. But secondly that the disappearance of the 43 students illustrates this relationship between the state, paramilitary organisations, the police, and the drug cartels. The Federal government is attempting to portray this as this bad-apple mayor and his wife who ordered the arrest of these students. But we are seven weeks on now from the disappearance of those students, and the perception is that the Federal government has not investigated these crimes and in fact is lying.

The 43 students who have disappeared are very emblematic, they are very symbolic in that sense. But tens of thousands of people have disappeared in Mexico. One study which was published about two years ago by the magazine Milenio suggests that about 26,000, 27,000 people disappeared between 2006 and 2012. They noted that this was a conservative estimate. One of the questions about what's happened with these students is, well, they keep finding mass graves, and if they aren't the students, who are these people who are in the mass graves? It's a huge crisis, it's a massive crisis which has been virtually ignored in the outside world but is gaining more attention now because of these 43 students.

Annabelle Quince: Peter Watt, author of Drug War Mexico. My other guests: Alvaro Mendez, research fellow and cofounder of the Global South Unit at the London School of Economics; and Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas program at the Centre for International Policy based in Mexico City.

Today's sound engineer is Mark Don. I'm Annabelle Quince, and this is Rear Vision on RN.

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Guests

Laura Carlsen
Director of the Americas program at the Centre for International Policy based in Mexico City.
Peter Watt
Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield.
Alvaro Mendez
Research fellow and cofounder of the LSE Global South Unit at the London School of Economics.