Government Efforts to Control Drug Turf Wars Aren't Enough, Some Say; Mayor Promises to 'Clean Up' Organized Crime
MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's war on drugs took a grim twist this week, as a prominent mayor said he had created an undercover group of operatives to "clean up" criminal elements -- even if it had to act outside the law. Underscoring why the mayor may have felt compelled to take such steps, the new police chief in a neighboring town, a retired brigadier general, was shot and killed Wednesday, four days after taking up his post. Mexico's War on Drugs
The events shed light on the state of Mexico's battle to try to control powerful drug cartels and stop the turf wars between rival gangs that have killed an estimated 14,000 people since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. Frustrated with the government's approach, Mexicans are searching for other solutions.
Mayors and state governors across the country say they feel powerless to control the traffickers, who have corrupted local and state police to such a degree that they are considered part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Mr. Calderon has sent 45,000 army troops to various Mexican states to try to stem the violence, but the killings have continued, with more than 6,300 people dead in drug-related violence so far this year, according to Mexican newspaper estimates.
On Wednesday alone, 29 people died in killings in Mexico believed to be drug-related, including the police chief.
In a separate incident in the northern city of Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, masked gunmen walked into a strip club and killed six men. Among the dead was a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, the Air Force said.
Ciudad Juarez, where American companies such as car-parts maker Delphi Corp. and electric-controls maker Honeywell Inc. operate assembly plants, has been caught in the crossfire between two rival cartels trying to control drug smuggling across the border. There have been more than 2,000 drug-related killings in the city this year, making it the murder capital of the world, according to Mexico City-based Citizen Center for Security, a local citizens' group.
Also Wednesday, in the northern town of Garcia, near the industrial hub of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon state, the town's new police chief, retired Brig. Gen. Juan Arturo Esparza, was gunned down in an attack by some 30 assailants believed to be working for a drug cartel. Five of his bodyguards also died.
Mr. Esparza was responding to a call for help from Garcia's mayor, who told the police chief that five vehicles with heavily armed men had just sprayed his house with bullets. Mr. Esparza had just taken over as police chief on Oct. 31. He is one of scores of military men taking over policing duties across Mexico because of police corruption.
On Thursday, Mexican soldiers entered the town and held some 60 policemen for questioning about the killings, stripping the police of their weapons.
The events in Garcia highlight why mayors across Mexico feel under siege. Some appear to be taking matters into their own hands. The mayor of the nearby municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mauricio Fernandez, a scion of a wealthy and prominent family, said this week that he created a special group to "clean up" criminal elements in the municipality -- even if it had to act outside the law.
His comments came a day after four men who allegedly ran a kidnapping ring in San Pedro were found dead in Mexico City on Saturday. The men, led by Hector "The Black" Saldana, were believed responsible for multiple kidnappings in San Pedro and neighboring Monterrey, according to police in Monterrey and San Pedro. The four are believed to be tied to a drug cartel, police said.
The men's bodies showed signs of torture, Mexico City police said, and next to them lay a note: "That's for being a kidnapper. Signed: The boss of bosses. Job 38:15."The Bible passage from the Book of Job reads "The wicked are denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken."
Mr. Fernandez took his oath of office on Saturday, delivering a speech in which he told a crowd of supporters that he had good news: Mr. Saldana and his accomplices, who had terrorized the town, were dead. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, according to media reports.
Mexico City police discovered the bodies of the four men several hours after the mayor said they were dead, and the men weren't identified by police as the alleged kidnappers until two days later.
Mr. Fernandez was asked how he knew about the deaths before the police. He answered that it was thanks to his new group charged with cleaning up the municipality.
"We're tired of sitting around on our hands and waiting for daddy or mommy Calderon to come to fix our fights. We in San Pedro took the decision to grab the bull by the horns," Mr. Fernandez said in a radio interview. "Even acting outside the limits of my role as mayor, I will end the kidnappings, extortions and drug trafficking. We are going to do this by whatever means, fair or foul."
Asked if his new squad would operate outside the law, Mr. Fernandez said: "In some ways, that's right. What the criminals want is that they can break every law, but that we have to respect every law. Well, I don't get that."
A spokesman for Mr. Fernandez said the mayor wasn't granting interviews at the moment, and declined to comment further.
The comments ignited a firestorm. Analysts say that as local and federal officials in Mexico struggle to fight the cartels, they could be tempted to follow in the footsteps of Colombia, where paramilitary gangs and death squads killed thousands of suspected leftists, criminals, and drug traffickers in the late 1990s and early part of this decade.
"This is where we've come in our war on drugs," says Leo Zuckerman, a political analyst in Mexico City. "A mayor justifies, brags, and celebrates that he has carried out justice by his own hands, outside the judicial institutions. This is bad news for those of us who believe that a civilized society is one where criminals get due process."
Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont on Thursday criticized the statements by Mr. Fernandez, who previously served as a federal senator in Mr. Calderon's conservative PAN party. "The Mexican state, in its different levels, can't act above or beyond the law. Whoever does so is ... a lawbreaker, and we can't accept using criminals to resolve the problem of crime." The Mexican attorney general's office, which could investigate the killings of the four men, said it had no comment.
David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba
November 6, 2009
Wall Street Journal