Narcoterrorism in Mexico

 In Peace

Posted by Kristin Bricker – September 25, 2008 at 5:06 pm

by Carlos Montemayor for La Jornada
translation and notes by Kristin Bricker

Translator’s note: On September 15, Mexican Independent Day, unknown assassins threw two fragmentation grenades into a crowd of revelers gathered for the traditional grito or cry for independence. Eight civilians, including children, died in the attack. This is the first time in Mexico that civilians were specifically and intentionally targeted in what is suspected to be a narco-related attack. As Montemayor discusses in the following essay, the attack brought the debate of whether Mexico constitutes a “narco-State” to the forefront in Mexico. The narco-State assumes that drug cartels are taking over the Mexican government to the point where the government and the cartels are becoming one and the same.

No one denies that the cartels have a significant influence over the government. President Felipe Calderon chose to deploy the federal army to eleven drug-producing states because the local police were either incapable of combating the cartels, or, more frequently, working for the cartels. The frequent shoot-outs that occur between the army and drug cartels often involve police–fighting on the side of the drug cartels.

Suspicion of the government’s involvement in protecting and assisting drug traffickers was even further elevated by the revelation that ten plainclothes police who were supposed to work Morelia’s Independence Day celebration never showed up for work. Furthermore, witnesses saw a man throw the grenades–he even apologized to those around him for what he was about to do–but the only people who were detained following the attack were released.

The terrorist attacks carried out in the city of Morelia this past September 15 brought out diverse perspectives in the international and Mexican media about the relevance of drug trafficking in Mexico and its parallels with Colombia.

Those perspectives distort Mexico’s political life in various directions, sometimes magnifying the controversial process of drug trafficking in our country, sometimes confusing and forgetting the real collapse of our economic life, and at other times trying to capitalize politically, or even better, partisanly, on the drug trafficking cartels’ escalating violence. A convincing and grave example is the federal budget for the 2009 fiscal year: a notable increase in funding to Sedena [Mexico’s National Defense Department], SSP [Mexico’s Public Security Department], and Cisen [Mexico’s Intelligence Agency], and the decrease in the areas of health, education, and social security[1]. This approach to the political budget demonstrates that the federal administration assumes that this country’s grave conflicts would be resolved with more repressive apparatuses and a reduction of rights, and that its attention is far from on the impoverishment and stagnation of the national economy, which finds itself in the basement of the 20 Latin American countries analyzed by Cepal [the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean]. What happened in Morelia can produce ideal media results for the Mexican government.

There’s one thing about the attack that’s difficult to doubt: it was narcoterrorism. It’s about an unprecedented act committed in the birthplace of president Felipe Calderon, which was the state where the media and military war against drug trafficking began[2]. For months now in many places in the country, on the other hand, narcobanners[3] have shown up denouncing the governmental bias in this war. It’s about a change of message to the federal government: from the narcobanners and the attacks against the civilian population (Creel and Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, Ocoyoacac in the state of Mexico, Merida in Yucatan[4]) to fragmentation grenades. We are, at the very least, facing a gradual, ascending, and continuing process.

In effect, we have a possible similarity with the Colombia of the ’80s: the economic, social, and arms strength of drug trafficking on one side, and the poriferous and corrupt politicians, from police and military structures and some top public servants administering highways, airports, customs, or ports, on the other. All of this is a reflection of the insufficient and ineffective intelligence services[5], a situation which has worsened over the past four federal adminstrations. The war on drug trafficking lacks intelligence services and is extremely erratic. It’s a medium to intensify the subjugation of the Mexican police and military to the United States’ hemispheric security projects through projects like Plan Colombia and Plan Mérida[6].

A little while ago an Argentine journalist from the newspaper The Nation commented to me that some analysts have begun to use the expression narco-State when talking about Mexico. To me it seems exaggerated and above all erroneous. The Mexican State is dismantling itself because it submits itself to irrational economic globalization, not because of drug trafficking. It’s a State weakened by neoliberalism, with a population that’s becoming poorer and poorer, with a government that’s becoming more and more inept and vulnerable and very docile and faithful to the large consortiums’ interests. Drug trafficking is not the country’s mortal enemy; the transnational consortiums are, the foreignization of our economy in bank and financial services, in business, in agricultural products, and in the energy sector. To talk of a narco-State means forgetting the economic prostration that has brought us the dismantlement of the public company and the State’s withdrawal from the rectory of the national economy.

For a while now they’ve been asking me here in Mexico and from places around the world if it were possible that a relation exists between the guerrillas and the drug trafficking clans, as was the case in Colombia. Not only does it appear to me to be unthinkable, but also ridiculous. It’s clear that the real links and what most interests the drug traffickers is found in the police and military forces, among politicians and various levels of public service, with banks and financiers in money laundering and the legal investment of laundered resources. These are the drug traffickers’ real and useful ties. The guerrillas operate under other social orders and with other goals.

In sum, for organized crime the many dozens of daily executions and decapitations aren’t enough now, nor are the narcobanners, to denounce the federal authorities. Now, in the birthplace of Felipe Calderon, two fragmentation grenades thrown at a crowd were the new messages. In the whole country, narcoterrorism demonstrates that it is not a phenomenon of regional crime, as the government’s perspective wants us to believe, but rather a process of national decomposition, a reflection of the insufficient intelligence services in Mexico. What happened in Morelia was a terrorist act, which puts violence in the heart of the civilian population. The warnings and threats that where known to local authorities assured ambulances’ immediate response, but not the prevention of a terrorist act or the cancellation of the [Independence Day] gathering. Mexico doesn’t just occupy the last place in economic growth in the 20 Latin American countries studied by Cepal, I insist. Today it debuts as a country vulnerable to narcoterrorism. A tangible demonstration that the Mexican government is losing control of the country.


[1] In Mexico’s 2009 federal budget, national security spending rose a whopping 39% over 2008’s budget.

[2] Morelia is located in Michoacan, the first state to which Calderon deployed the army when he declared open war on drug cartels soon after taking office.

[3] The narcobanners often accuse the government of waging war on the civilian population to cover up the government’s own involvement in protecting drug cartel leaders. Numerous examples are available here.

[4] While the victims in all these cases were not government employees (which is why Montemayor refers to them as civilians), there has been speculation in all cases that they were involved in drug trafficking. Furthermore, these were targeted murders, and most victims were tortured prior to being executed. The attack in Morelia is the first case of suspected narcos randomly killing civilians who were in no way related to cartel disputes, either with other cartels or with the government. No armed organization (cartel or insurgent) has claimed responsibility for the Morelia attack, which is a rarity. Cartels often leave notes that vaguely explain who killed the victims and why.

[5] Mexico’s national intelligence agency, Cisen, has come under fire for its ineptness. Complaints increasingly come from both the left and the right that Cisen spends too much of its time and energy tracking and repressing activists who present little-to-no public security threat, and not enough time investigating real public security threats, like the one in Morelia. Furthermore, in July the head of Cisen, Guillermo Valdés, told the Financial Times that drug cartel money is behind many political campaigns, quite possibly including those of federal senators and deputies. He did this despite the fact that a Cisen-funded investigation into drug money in the federal congress was underway. He did not release any names of politicians receiving drug money and didn’t recommend any indictments. His reckless claims sparked a national outcry, and it is still unclear why he made those statements. No one doubts that drug cartels do buy politicians, but it is unclear why Valdés chose to expose Cisen’s investigation, which he claims was making headway, without a single indictment.

[6] Officially known as the Merida Initiative, and also known as Plan Mexico.

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