Renowned Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, author of Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers, has been receiving police protection since her reporting outed top figures in the country's security apparatus as collaborators with the drug cartels -- predictably resulting in threats on her life. On September 26 she spoke at an event hosted by New York University in Lower Manhattan, entitled "Too Dangerous for Words: Life & Death Reporting the Mexican Drug Wars." She spoke about her journey, and how she views the state of Mexico's narco-wars following last year's change of government.
"This man exists because the federal government of Mexico wants him to," Hernández said of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin Guzman AKA "El Chapo" -- officially the country's top fugitive. Hernández charged that El Chapo was allowed to escape from prison by the Mexican federal government 2001 and has been protected by the government ever since. She particularly named Genaro García Luna, public security secretary under the previous government of President Felipe Calderón, as "on the payroll of the Sinaloa Cartel."
"Calderón was protecting the Sinaloa Cartel and fighting their enemies," Hernández charged. The year before El Chapo's escape saw the election of the first of two presidents from the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) -- Vicente Fox followed by Calderón. That 12-year reign of the PAN broke up the entrenched 70-year rule of notoriously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But Hernández places the blame for the explosion of narco-violence over the past decade squarely with the PAN. "The PRI protected the drug trade, but each cartel had a different piece of the cake. Then Fox let Chapo escape, and the war started in 2003."
In Hernández's view, the Mexican state under Fox threw its weight behind the Sinaloa Cartel in its bid for supremacy throughout Mexico, breaking the relative peace that held between the rival syndicates under the PRI. And while most observers blame Calderón for sending the army into the streets to fight the cartels, Hernández says this militarization really began with Fox in 2003 -- when he ordered military troops to the Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas to fight the Zetas.
Hernández says Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, the leader of the Gulf Cartel, "created Los Zetas to fight the federal government and the Sinaloa Cartel." Faced with army troops rather than just federal police, the Zetas hired veterans of the Kaibiles -- Guatemala's feared elite counterinsurgency force. "That's when the violence in Mexico started to grow and grow and grow," she said.
And so did the dope trade, with Mexico emerging as a top global producer of opium as well as marijuana, a methamphetamine industry emerging and domestic drug use soaring. "What kind of war of drugs do you have when the business only get bigger?" she asked rhetorically. "This is why I say Calderón's war on drugs was a sham."
And pointing to the $2 billion US "drug war" aid program to Mexico and Central America known as the Merida Initiative, she told her audience of New Yorkers: "What is happening in Mexico is also your problem."
She also pointed to official corruption north of the border. "A huge white elephant crosses the border every day -- all that cocaine. And nobody sees the elephant? And the elephant also walks in New York, because you have corrupt police and officials here too."
But now that the PRI is back in power in Mexico -- following last year's election of Enrique Peña Nieto -- does Hernández see potential for a return to the old order, in which the government brokered peace between the cartels? Alas, no. "A return to the past is not possible," she said. "In the old days, you could sit the eight leaders of the Mexican drug trade around a table and talk. Now, there are hundreds of little cartels, each with a little piece of territory." She portrays this as the fruit of the decapitation of the Sinaloa Cartel's rivals. "It is chaos," she emphasized.
Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch, who also spoke at the event, noted that over the past 10 years of a militarized "drug war" model, the number of drug-related killings in Mexico soared from an annual 3,000 to 15,000 -- by the government's own, probably too conservative figures. He also notes that HRW announced a decision during the OAS summit in Guatemala this year, where regional leaders broached legalization as an alternative to the failed "drug war" model, to recommend exploring at least the option of decriminalization.
Hernández isn't ready to go there herself. She emphasizes that the cartels have branched out into extortion, oil piracy, child pornography and other rackets, so undermining their profits from drugs wouldn't wipe them out. She sees hope in the potential for a popular upsurge from civil society. "When the Mexican people demand an end to corruption and impunity, maybe we will see an end to this war."