Mexico: Judicial ineffectiveness, attacks on human rights defenders, media still major concerns

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 30 March to 5 April 2014

According to the president of Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), the vast majority of violent crimes in Mexico go unreported – upwards of 90% by one estimate.

A study produced by the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE (now the National Election Institute, or INE), found that 66% of Mexican citizens believe the rules of the judicial system are followed rarely or not at all, with nearly a third saying they are not followed at all. 70% of those surveyed think that there is institutional discrimination based on social class, skin color, or ethnicity and the same percentage believe that it is not possible to trust others.

Gun ownership in Mexico grew by more than 50% between 2009 and 2012, from 2 million guns to 3 million, a trend experts say is the result of rising perceptions of insecurity in the country. The average annual rate of growth in civilian gun ownership was 15%, which is higher than the 10% annual increase in crime rates during the same period. Mexican law allows for citizens to keep certain types of firearms in their home for self-defense, but a special license is normally required to carry them in public.

In a statement issued by the Latin American Working Group, the Washington Office on Latin America, Peace Brigades International and Front Line Defenders, the organizations expressed deep concern with the implementation of Mexico’s Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Citing funding issues, lack of leadership and the general ineffectiveness of the program, the groups joined with Mexican civil society organizations to call for the government to urgently address the crisis with the Protection Mechanism.

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom advocacy group, wrapped up a four-day conference in Mexico by calling on the country to strengthen protections for journalists. Mexico ranks 152nd out of 180 countries in RWB’s press freedom index and by the group’s count 89 journalists have been killed in that country since 2000, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Mexico’s secretary of interior affirmed the government’s “full determination” to carry out a “complete overhaul” of the federal Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, “the results of which have not been satisfactory.”


The chief of Mexican newspaper Noroeste, Adrián López Ortiz, was robbed and shot in Sinaloa. While the paper has reported a series of threats and attacks in the past, Sinaloa Attorney General Marco Antonio Higuera Gomez said the attack on López Ortiz was unrelated to his work as a journalist. Five youths were arrested in connection with the incident, but the suspected gunman remains at large.

A Mexican federal policeman was kidnapped and killed in Tláhuac.

US federal agents discovered two drug-smuggling tunnels equipped with rail systems beneath the US-Mexico border, both of which surfaced in San Diego warehouses. A 73-year-old woman accused of running one of the warehouses was arrested in connection with the operation. The discovery brings the number of tunnels discovered in the San Diego area up to seven in less than four years, according to the task force handling the case. Earlier this year, GQ published a worthwhile piece on the use of underground tunnels for transporting drugs across the border. You can read it here.

The killing of an employee at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, Gregorio Serna, sheds light on the extortion of the university’s staff and students by the Zetas cartel. According to an anonymous source who spoke to Proceso newspaper, Serna may have been killed because he refused to get involved with criminal activities associated with the gang. While the Zetas organization is known to control many “above-ground” businesses as well as underground markets in Tamaulipas, incidents like this, which seem to confirm rumors of their infiltration of the university and its staff, show just how insinuated the group is with everyday life.

Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart criticized the legalization of recreational marijuana in the US states of Colorado and Washington, claiming that Mexican drug cartels are “setting up shop” in those areas in anticipation of a black market. Leonhart suggested during testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee that voters in Washington state and Colorado were duped into legalizing marijuana and implied that Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision in August to allow marijuana regulation to proceed largely unchallenged was misguided.

In an interview with El Universal newspaper, former president Vincente Fox explained why he believes Mexico should legalize marijuana and pardon the cartels’ “capos” in order to lessen the power of organized crime in the country.

The mayor of Texistepec, in Veracruz state, and his wife were shot by four unidentified gunmen. Both were taken to the hospital and were reported to be in stable condition. Veracruz, a state coveted by cartels for its strategic location relative to the United States, has been plagued by the violence of a turf war between the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartel, as well as the Knights Templar.

Germán Ceniceros Ibarra (alias “El Tigre”) was killed along with three others in a clash with the Mexican army. “El Tigre” was a former police officer, but authorities allege that he switched sides to work as a lieutenant of the recently-arrested kingpin of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.

Enrique “Kike” Plancarte Solis, one of the leaders of the Knights Templar cartel, was killed in an operation carried out by the Mexican Navy. Plancarte’s death comes after Knights Templar founder Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo,” was killed by troops in Michoacán on March 9.

Mexican authorities arrested autodefensa leader Enrique Hernandez Salcedo over the March 22 killing of Gustavo Garibay, the mayor of Tanhuato in Michoacán state, who opposed the vigilante groups. Hernandez Salcedo was among 19 people detained in connection with the murder of the mayor. More than 50 vigilantes have now been arrested in the state for committing various crimes.

The government launched a website to promote and explain the “Plan Michoacán,” a social development program based on the “Todos Somos Juarez” (“We are all Juarez”) program that many view as having been successful in reducing crime-related violence in the latter area. The program will focus on economic development, education, infrastructure and housing, public health, and social development and sustainability.

Mexican federal prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint against Ferrosur, a Mexican rail line that is a subsidiary of the US-based Kansas City Southern. The complaint alleges that the company’s employees have been complicit in crimes committed against Mexican and Central American migrants headed toward the US, who are frequently beaten, robbed or kidnapped by criminal gangs after they board the trains.

To Watch

Mexican president Enrique Peña Neito announced a regional initiative to combat organized crime during a recent trip to Honduras.

Michoacán federal safety commissioner Alfredo Castillo has given self-defense forces in his state a choice: essentially, they can join the police or disarm. He said that the disarming of unregistered autodefensas in that state will begin within weeks. Castillo also stated that the registration of those who want to register for the bodies of rural defense and the Unified Command will resume.

The U.S. State Department said it is asking Mexico to investigate an incident in which three US citizens were fired upon by Mexican army troops. Mexican military officials reportedly told American law enforcement that the victims were trying to evade a checkpoint, but the young men who were shot dispute this account.

According to documents obtained by the LA Times, on January 26, two Mexican soldiers crossed the US border and drew their guns on US Border Patrol officers, resulting in a tense standoff. The Mexican soldiers claimed to be pursuing drug smugglers, but when the Border Patrol called for backup, the soldiers retreated back across the border.

In a letter to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske cited nearly two dozen other such incidents since 2010, but said his agency “does not have intelligence that directly connects (Mexican military) personnel to criminal activity.” Nevertheless, James Phelps, a border and homeland security professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas who was quoted in the LA Times article said, “Many [Mexican soldiers] are essentially a functional asset of the cartels.” Officials at the Mexican Embassy in Washington have consistently denied that Mexican soldiers were involved in the incident, suggesting instead that the men were smugglers disguised in military uniforms.

After the governor of the State of Mexico declared that a recent crime wave in the area was “rare and temporary,” the Secretariat of Public Security of the Federal District and the Department of Public Safety of the State of Mexico announced that the agencies will work together to combat crime in both areas.

Police arrested Ukrainian national Steven Vladyslav Subkys in Mexico on suspicion that he has ties to a Europen and Asian criminal syndicate known alternatively as “organitzatsja,” “mafiya,” or “bratva.” Two other men identified as members of Subkys’ network were arrested in the same area earlier this month. According to InSight Crime, “[i]t is not known if Subkys was in Mexico to buy drugs, meet associates, or simply escape prosecution by US authorities.”


Mexico’s consumer protection agency filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office against parties who may have helped push the price of limes up 200% since December. According to Latin America Herald Tribune:

The candidatus liberibacter bacteria, which causes “yellow dragon” disease, affected lime trees in some parts of Mexico in 2013, analysts said.

Torrential rains last year, gouging by middlemen and extortion rackets run by drug cartels against growers have also caused lime prices to soar…

Mexico is the world’s largest producer of lemons and limes.

Mexico: A flurry of new reports highlight persistent security, free speech problems

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 17 March to 22 March 2014.

A draft report released this week by Christof Heyns, special rapporteur for the United Nations on Extrajudicial Executions, concluded that Mexico has experienced “numerous extrajudicial executions by the armed forces and the cartels, often without any accountability” as a result of the militarization of the drug war. The report warned that “soldiers who perform police duties have a hard time renouncing the military paradigm…[U]sually the way they have been trained makes them unfit to maintain public order. The main objective of a military force is to subdue the enemy by taking advantage of their superior strength, while the human rights approach only considers the use of force as the last resort.”

The watchdog group Amnesty International called on Mexico to address “ongoing patterns of disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions as well as routine attacks on men and women defending human rights, journalists and migrants.” Among the 176 recommendations made by the United Nations Human Rights Council to the Mexican government is the cessation of “arraigo” detention, a form of pre-charge detention where a suspect can be held for up to 80 days without being brought before a judge.

The international press-freedom organization Article 19 claimed in a new report that public officials accounted for 60 percent of the 330 acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets documented in Mexico last year. Impunity for attacks on the media is rampant in Mexico. In the eight years since its inception, despite an annual budget of more than 30 million pesos ($8.2 million), the government’s “office of the special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression” has yet to secure a single conviction. Attacks against journalists in Mexico skyrocketed by 59% last year. The number of attacks rose from 207 in 2012 to 330 in 2013, nearly 90% of which were against individuals. Article 19 said 2013 was the most dangerous year for journalists in the country since 2007, estimating that the media face an act of aggression every 26.5 hours. The group also said public officials were behind the majority of the attacks.

Journalists investigating the apparent murder of one of their colleagues, Gregorio Jimenez, claim that they have had to take the investigation into their own hands because Mexican authorities have failed to act on evidence that Jiminez’s killing was related to his reporting, which had linked a powerful Veracruz businesswoman to an alleged kidnapping ring.

Unidentified suspects broke into the Mexico City home of Dario Ramirez, regional director of Article 19. The burglars stole documents and computers just two days before Article 19 presents its annual report on violence against journalists and the news media. Ramirez and his colleagues had received death threats and reported a number of other security incidents to Mexican authorities over the past year. Last week, Balbina Flores Martínez, a correspondent from international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, was threatened by someone claiming to be Omar Treviño, leader of the Zetas cartel.


The United States is seeking to extradite the former governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Tomas Yarrington, for trial on charges of racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy to import narcotics. According to the indictment, Yarrington used the bribe money to purchase a luxury condo in Texas and illegally used Mexican public funds to buy a private jet and other property. Fernando Alejandro Cano Martinez, the owner of Mexican construction firm, is listed as co-defendant on some of the charges. Yarrington is not currently in custody and the extradition request still has to be approved by a Mexican judge.

Former intelligence chief Monte Alejandro Rubido will replace Manuel Mondragon as the new chairman of Mexico’s National Security Commission, the country’s top anti-crime post. Rubido also served as head of the Cisen intelligence agency (a sort of Mexican NSA) and as deputy public safety secretary. Manuel Mondragon will “withdraw from the operational field and become part of strategic planning tasks” according to Government Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

Mexican police arrested Manuel Plancarte Gaspar, nephew of Knights Templar kingpin Enrique Plancarte Solis. He is “suspected of killing several minors to extract their vital organs for sale.” While it is possible that some Mexican cartels have expanded their operations to include organ trafficking, the evidence is thin. Speculation about organ-trafficking by criminals has a long history, but it often turn out to be rumors propagated to sow anti-Americanism or fear of criminal groups.

According to the Attorney General’s office, Mexican authorities freed five kidnapping victims and arrested 10 suspects in three separate raids in the central state of Mexico.

Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, a prominent leader of an autodefensa in Michoacan, strongly criticized the government for arresting Hipolito Mora, the leader of another autodefensa.

To Watch

Spanish police claim that Mexican cartels, namely Sinaloa, Los Zetas and the Knights Templar, have established a presence in the European country, possibly attempting to challenge Colombian criminal operations that have historically dominated the country’s cocaine trade. One reason Mexican groups are moving in may be that cocaine consumption in the United States has been falling, while in Europe consumption is on the rise and the drug sells for a higher price. The increasing fragmentation of Colombian organizations could provide an opportunity for Mexican groups to move in, but both they and the Colombians will also face competition from European organizations looking to diversify and globalize. As InSight Crime concludes, ” the future of drug trafficking in Spain is more likely to involve decentralized and fluid transnational networks, within which Mexicans, Colombians and Europeans all have a role to play.”

Transnational criminal networks in Latin America make more than $3 million per week on the illegal cell phone trade, according to a report from Interpol.


Popular Science has an excellent long read on the fascinating story of Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, the man who set up a massive secret radio network for the Zetas cartel.

Vice took a deeper look at the Knights Templar cartel’s involvement in the iron ore trade, which we reported last week. According to the article, “what the gang now earns from illegal mining and mineral smuggling makes its illegal drug profits look like chump change.”

Truthout highlighted the story of Yakiri Rubi Rubio, a 20-year-old Mexico City woman who was recently incarcerated for killing a man who she alleges kidnapped, raped and attempted to murder her.

An Overview of Mexico’s “Drug War”

It is difficult to say when Mexico’s “Drug War” began. For nearly a century, the United States and Mexico have been engaged in operations to halt the production of drugs south of the border as well as their shipment to the United States, which is the world’s largest drug market. However, the genesis of the current Drug War is commonly traced back to the mid- to late-2000s for a couple of reasons. Just days after taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon kicked off a veritable “war” against the cartels when he sent 6,500 soldiers and police into his home state of Michoacan to “battle” organized crime in the area.

By 2008, Calderon had upped the nationwide number of anti-crime forces to 45,000 and by the end of his term in office in 2012, it was estimated that the number of deaths from drug war-related violence had topped 100,000. Also in 2008, the United States began implementing the Merida Initiative, a $1.6 billion program designed to help Mexico “disrupt organized criminal groups, strengthen institutions, build a 21st century border, [and] build strong and resilient communities.” The following is a brief history of the Drug War and a synopsis of the current status of the conflict.


The roots of the current “drug war” can be found in the 1909 anti-opium conference held in Shanghai, which marked the first of many US efforts to push its domestic drug legislation as a model for the international community.

Shortly thereafter, during the era of alcohol prohibition in the United States, a persistent two-way black market trade pattern was born. Illicit substances (mainly alcohol, but also marijuana and opium, all of which were produced domestically in Mexico) were trafficked north as guns and money came south – a pattern that has continued to the present day.

In 1925, the United States and Mexico forged an anti-smuggling agreement, but it failed to achieve its desired results. In 1938, Mexico attempted to nationalize the production of intoxicating substances, to which the United States responded by embargoing all medicinal shipments to Mexico while simultaneously encouraging the Mexican government to allow for hemp and opium production to aid the Allied war effort.

After World War II, the Mexican government attempted many US-backed eradication efforts, which had the perverse effect of dispersing drug cultivation throughout a wider area of the country, beyond the reach of even the so-called “Grand Campaign” (“Gran Campaña”) of the 1950s.

The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by an explosion of drug use in the United States and increased bilateralism between the United States and Mexico on the drug issue, especially under US President Richard Nixon, who declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971. The Mexican government once again ratcheted up aerial eradication efforts in the mid-1970s and succeeded in drastically reducing the amount of drugs coming into the United States from Mexico until the latter half of the 1980s.

While some experts considered these efforts successful at the time, it is likely they would revise their analyses in light of present-day circumstances. These “mano dura” tactics likely pushed smaller, less daring criminals out of the market, accelerating the development of more violent, more powerful drug cartels. Also, trafficking simply shifted out of Mexico and into Colombia and other Caribbean countries, leading to the rise of groups such as Colombia’s Medellin and Cali drug cartels.

In the 1970s, free market reforms pushed many Mexican citizens out of the “formal” market and encouraged “informal” market activities such as drug production and smuggling. Displacement of rural populations due to socio-economic shifts, including deportations of criminals from the United States, demographic “youth bulges,” and a massive influx of drug money from the “coke craze” in the United States during the 1970s kick started the “globalization” process of drug cartels throughout the region.

US-backed crackdowns on the Colombian cocaine trade and a decline in the supply of Turkish heroin through the “French Connection” in the 1980s led to a relocation of narcotics production and trafficking to Mexico. This was accompanied by an increase in anti-drug spending by both the US and Mexican governments that continued through the 1990s, which focused on eradication and interdiction efforts in Mexico and heavy-handed prohibition and incarceration in the United States, which also continue to the present day.

The introduction of democratic reforms in Mexico during the 1990s chipped away at the long-ruling PRI’s one-party system. This created opportunities for new alliances between cartels and the government and police forces. The introduction of NAFTA in 1994 lowered trade barriers between Mexico and the world’s largest economy just to its north, spurring an expansion of the drug trade and other illegal activities by organized crime groups in Mexico. Today, these drug gangs have established supply routes in Africa and Europe and continue to terrorize citizens in Mexico with horrific acts of violent intimidation.

Current Situation

The drug trade is an international problem, but nowhere have its deleterious effects on citizen security and state governance been more brutally apparent than in Mexico. As Moisés Naím, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine for 14 years, wrote in a 2012 Foreign Affairs article entitled “Mafia States”:

[T]op positions in some of the world’s most profitable illicit enterprises are no longer filled only by professional criminals; they now include senior government officials, legislators, spy chiefs, heads of police departments, military officers, and, in some extreme cases, even heads of state or their family members…Increasingly, fighting transnational crime must mean more than curbing the traffic of counterfeit goods, drugs, weapons, and people; it must also involve preventing and reversing the criminalization of governments. Illicit trade is intrinsically dangerous, but the threat it poses to society is amplified when criminals become high-level government officials and governments take over criminal syndicates.

Journalist Anabel Hernández alleged in a recent interview with Democracy Now! that “in Mexico [there] doesn’t exist really a war against the drug cartels. What exist[ed] in the government of Felipe Calderón was a war between the cartels, and the government took a side of that war, protecting to the Sinaloa Cartel.” While this is far from being a commonly accepted assertion, the fact that drug gangs are intimately intertwined with the official Mexican government is nearly universally acknowledged. Even Calderon himself admitted that half of the state and local police were untrustworthy and that federal forces were rife with corruption.

Moreover, the “Drug War” may be a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, drugs play a major role in financing the cartels. Marijuana alone is estimated to bring in between $2 and $20 billion per year, accounting for up to 60% of drug gangs’ revenues (for comparison, Facebook took in $5 billion in revenue in FY2012). However, as Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron argues in a 2011 essay, prohibition of drugs is “almost certainly the worst possible” policy option for dealing with violent criminal organizations.  The real danger posed by the cartels is not the negative effects of the drugs they sell. Rather, it is the fact that money earned in the drug trade finances much more pernicious activities including – but not limited to – sex trafficking, human smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, murder for hire, money laundering, counterfeiting and identity theft.

The incredible amounts of money and power accumulated by those involved in these illicit activities can be used to bribe or intimidate just about anybody into silence or outright cooperation (the “plata o plomo” dilemma). Faced with a choice between mountains of money or swift and merciless death for them and their loved ones, every citizen – from judges, prosecutors, police, and prison guards to governors, mayors, and city council members-  has very little incentive to stand up to the gangs.

Last month, the Mexican government announced an initiative to “legalize” vigilante self-defense groups that have sprung up in response to drug-war related violence. The groups, known as “autodefensas” or “Rural Defense Units” have actually had some success in battling cartels and the government has been moving from leniency to outright cooperation with them over the past few months. However, there is a distinct possibility that the cartels will exploit this new policy to their advantage by using state-sanctioned groups as proxies in battles between themselves. Also, since the autodefensas will be working with police, opportunities for espionage and sabotage of state efforts against the criminals will likely become more abundant.

The most significant recent development in the Drug War is the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on February 23, 2014 by Mexican law enforcement. Guzman was the head of the most powerful cartel in Mexico, the Cartel de Sinaloa. However, the long-term impact of this achievement will likely be limited. While many hailed Guzman’s arrest as a major blow to the cartel, there is plenty of evidence indicating that belief is mistaken. For one, Guzman has escaped from custody once before. Also, the leadership of most cartels is fairly decentralized and Ismael Zambada, aka El Mayo, Guzman’s second-in-command, is likely to assume his former boss’s role.

Despite the decades-long struggle to quash the influence of the cartels, their operations have spread throughout Central America as well as Africa and Europe and many locations in the US. While many regional leaders have called for a serious reevaluation of Drug War policies, the historical record and current political climate indicate that these policies are unlikely to change in the near future. With billion of dollars invested in the status quo, politicians and other actors on both sides of the border have strong incentives to continue along the present trajectory.