By John Barham, International Editor
Drug cartels are becoming more violent and more politicized, creating a critical challenge for the Mexican and U.S. governments.
Last July, Mexican guerrillas blew up pipelines belonging to Mexican state oil company Pemex. They attacked again in September. The attacks took place in the dead of night and although they hurt nobody, they caused considerable material damage, interrupting Pemex operations and those of its customers such as Volkswagen. But the attacks did focus attention on the revival of Mexico’s once dormant guerrilla movements. The small People’s Revolutionary Army claimed responsibility for the attacks and demanded that the government release its leaders.
Now, confidential sources–partially corroborated by statements in Congress yesterday–suggest that the attacks may have been carried out on the orders of Mexico’s increasingly powerful drug gangs. Analysts fear that Mexico is undergoing a gradual “Colombianization.” In Colombia, guerrilla armies have given up their struggle for political power and instead joined forces with drugs cartels. In recent years, profit-driven guerrilla warlords have taken over control of the country’s drug infrastructure.
A U.S.-based corporate intelligence consultant with extensive Mexican contacts, has told Security Management that, “There is a fair amount of consensus in Mexico and among my clients that these bomb attacks were carried out for and on behalf of the traffickers.” He said, “These attacks were politically motivated. They wanted to find a way of sending a message to [President Felipe] Calderón, and that message is: ‘Leave us alone or face the consequences.’”
The intelligence consultant said, “It is notable that the attacks were against Pemex and not some foreign multinational. Pemex is the largest, most powerful company in Mexico. It is a symbol of state power. Attacking Pemex was their way of giving Calderón a clear message.”
Calderón, who took office last December, made combating drug cartels and drug violence his administration’s priority. He has said the drug gangs are a threat to the Mexican state, and sent 24,000 soldiers and federal police to nine states to combat the cartels. Mexico has also extradited suspected drug lords to stand trial in the United States. Calderón is negotiating a $1 billion U.S. assistance package to combat drug smuggling.
In testimony before a foreign affairs committee of the U.S. House of Representatives analyzing the package, a Georgetown University professor also said the bomb attacks may have been carried out on orders of Mexican drug bosses. John Bailey, director of Georgetown University’s Mexico Project , told the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere yesterday that, “There is basis, I believe, to hypothesize that some criminal groups may have been involved in terrorist acts, such as the recent bombing of oil pipelines.”
Joy Olson, executive director of the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America , told the committee that, “the drug traffickers now seem to be using sophisticated military tactics, intelligence gathering, and operational planning.”
Bailey said the drug “groups have become more political in the sense of targeting high-level police officials and elected and appointed public officials. Criminal groups openly defy the police and army in public statements. Murders have been carried out in ways to magnify their shock effect on the public.” The Congressional Research Service says in a recent report : “There were several beheadings in 2006, including that of a police officer in retribution for a shootout. In March 2007 the torture and beheading of a man with a Z on his chest, was videotaped and briefly circulated on the internet.”
These comments lend credence to rumors in Mexico City that the bomb attacks were carried out on behalf of the drug cartels. However, Calderón has ignored the gangs’ threats and is ramping up his anti-drug strategy as well as negotiating a narcotics assistance package with Washington.
However, there is concern that a purely law enforcement and military approach will not stem the flow of drugs or rein in the drug gangs. Olson said that without a long-term strategy, “there should be no expectation that this package will stem the flow of drugs into the United States.”
Mexican drug bosses are also extending their activities into U.S. border regions, specifically with regard to kidnappings. The U.S. intelligence consultant says, “I have knowledge of 50 cross-border abductions in Chula Vista, California. CCTVs in San Diego have filmed drop-offs of money left by dual nationals who were targeted for extortion and kidnapping by gangs in Tijuana. It’s really tragic because they had left Mexico to escape violence, but it’s easy for the gangs to take these people back to Mexico and hold them there until the money is handed off in the U.S.”
Armida González, general manager of Tijuana-based SPS Security, says, “This has been going for two or three years, but it’s ignored by the U.S. media. Drug trafficking has moved out to the east, and the drug infrastructure here has nothing to do so they are diversifying into kidnapping.”