Modern history



In 2000, having teetered since the late eighties, the PRI was toppled in that year’s presidential election. Its candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa was an experienced politician, having been a senator, cabinet member, and governor of Sinaloa, but he bore the burden of the PRI’s deep unpopularity.

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas again took to the hustings for the PRD, now more than ever identified with the democratization movement. In 1997, responding to popular demand, Zedillo had opened the mayoralty of Mexico City, hitherto an appointed position, to electoral contest, and Cárdenas had won.13 But Cárdenas was also identified with the PRI, of which he had been a longtime member (and his father a founding father) and he brought that baggage with him. He was also a man of the left, and there was a sizable block of voters who, while disaffected from the PRI, would prefer the devil they knew, if there was no other choice.

But most of all, voters were looking for a fresh face, and it was the PAN that provided one. Vicente Fox seemed a brilliant choice, perfectly suited to the moment. He was put forward by a right-wing party, but he was not a hardline ideologue or a Catholic militant. Raised on the family ranch, he had earned a BA in business administration, buffed his credentials at Harvard Business School, worked his way up to the presidency of Coca-Cola for Mexico and Latin America, and segued into politics by becoming governor of Guanajuato in 1995. Fox was forthright and folksy. He wore cowboy boots and jeans; even his name was refreshingly different. His personality promised change.

Still, he might have lost, had not a center-left coalition of public figures—calculating that Cárdenas had no chance of winning but could split the anti-PRI vote—decided to ensure a regime change by supporting Fox. On July 2, 2000, he won the presidency with 43 percent of the vote to Labastida’s 36 percent and Cárdenas’ 17 percent. For the first time in seventy-one years, an opposition candidate had won the presidency of Mexico.

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President Fox’s administration began on December 1, 2000. Three weeks later, on December 22, he went to Tijuana and declared war on the Arellano Félix Organization. He intended, he said, to recruit twelve thousand to fifteen thousand new federal police officers and dispatch them to Tijuana, the gateway to the rich California drug market, where he would “eradicate” organized crime. “We will beat them,” he boasted, and do so in six months flat.

Fox put the Arellano Félix brothers at the top of his hit list because they were the drug lords “most wanted” by the U.S.A. Eight months earlier, on April 10, 2000, the Tijuana capos had captured Pepe Patiño, one of the handful of honest and effective Mexican anti-drug prosecutors. Patiño had been working closely with the DEA and the FBI in San Diego and was entrusted with sensitive intelligence information. When he crossed the border to Tijuana, however, the Arellano Félix brothers, alerted by a corrupt colleague, seized him and tortured him by breaking virtually every bone in his body, before slowly finishing him off by crushing his skull in a pneumatic vise. This galvanized U.S. law enforcement. Not only was the Arellano Félix group considered Latin America’s most important criminal organization, having shipped tons and tons of drugs across the border; and not only was Ramón on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, having killed (as the gang’s enforcer) hundreds and hundreds of people; but now, as with Kiki Camarena, it was personal with the Americans.

Fox was eager to oblige. Especially since his old friend George W. Bush—another cowboy-booted, plainspoken, rich rancher and former governor—had agreed to make the first foreign trip of his ­presidency (2001–2009) to Mexico. He would be meeting Fox in San Cristóbal, in the state of Chiapas, on February 16, 2001. Fox had an agenda stuffed with asks—notably opening up the border, and winning legal status for the 3.5 million undocumented Mexicans working in the States—and he wanted to have his anti-crime credentials in order.

Then, embarrassingly, on January 19, 2001, El Chapo Guzmán escaped from jail. Having bribed his way into a comfortable-going-on-­luxurious prison life, he now bribed his way out altogether, and rejoined his colleagues in the Sinaloa Cartel. This was bad news for Fox, coming as it did on the eve of his presidential tête-à-tête with Bush.

His response came one week later, on January 25, when he went to Culiacán, heart of El Chapo’s Sinaloan domain, and repeated his Tijuana in-your-face challenge, escalating it to countrywide status. Announcing a “Cruzada Nacional contra el Narcotráfico y el Crimen Organizado,” he declared “a war without quarter against the drug traffickers and the pernicious criminal mafias.” The tough talk was enough to meet the immediate need. When Bush arrived in February, he expressed confidence that Fox was committed to fighting traffickers, and even admitted, with an unusual degree of candor, the obvious but uncomfortable fact that Mexicans were selling drugs north of the border because Americans were buying them.

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But when Fox visited the White House in September 2001—Bush’s first state visit—he was welcomed with open arms but empty hands. The bubble had burst, and the U.S. had sunk into a recession that dragged Mexico’s NAFTA-manacled economy down with it. Fox had promised to add 1.4 million new jobs, but instead lost nearly half a million. Bush had earlier talked of a guest worker plan but as U.S. unemployment surged, so did conservative opposition, and the idea was put back on the shelf. Then, five days after Fox addressed a joint session of Congress, the Twin Towers came down, and his plea for a more open border became an instant nonstarter. Worse, as Fox loyally pledged support for Bush’s global war on terror, a crackdown ensued on illegal crossings along the two-thousand-mile-long frontier. This in turn exacerbated the crisis of the Mexican countryside, making it ever harder to get a cross-border job and send south the remittances that were the life-support on which many devastated communities so depended.

Cooperation in the war on drugs became ever more central to Mexican-U.S. relations. On November 1, 2001, Fox replaced the notoriously corrupt Federal Judicial Police (Policía Judicial Federal [PJF]), with the Federal Investigations Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación [AFI]), modeling the new organization on the U.S.A.’s FBI. He also backed off a preelection vow to withdraw the military from the drug war in order to avoid deepening the corruption of its general staff, and to comply with Mexico’s constitutional prohibition on using the military for anything but national defense. The U.S. made clear it considered Mexico’s army its most reliable force, despite Fox’s 2001 arrest of generals who had been protecting gangsters. Fox also reneged on a campaign promise to investigate the military’s role in the Dirty War, as he was now unwilling to alienate those on whom he would be forced to rely.

Fox’s U.S.-backed strategy seemed to produce rapid results. On February 10, 2002, Ramón Arellano Félix was killed, but apparently luck had played a major role. He had been traveling aboard a Volkswagen sedan when he was pulled over by state agents, who did not recognize him. Arellano Félix fatally shot one officer twice in the chest before the officer fired a fatal shot of his own. But Ramón’s “John Doe” corpse was swiftly seized from the mortuary in Mazatlán, raising doubts about belated claims that Arellano Félix had been deleted.

These doubts were allayed a month later, on March 9, 2002, when Benjamín Arellano Félix was captured in Puebla—in this case the result of a months-long manhunt by GAFE (the Mexican Army Special Forces team that had spawned Los Zetas), working in conjunction with DEA agents in the San Diego office. The capture was perhaps facilitated by the loss of protection from corrupt state officials, booted from their jobs after the PRI’s defeat. In any event, by the spring of 2002, it looked like the Arellano Félix Organization was on the ropes. Fox seemed on the verge of making good his vow to vanquish the Tijuana Cartel.

But he had also opened a deadly can of worms. The Tijuanos’ distress was duly noted by other drug lords, particularly the Sinaloans. In October 2001 they had held a summit meeting in Cuernavaca, devoted to pooling their separate local efforts, thereby (hopefully) putting back together again the Humpty Dumpty fragments of the old Guadalajara Cartel. In effect they were out to re-cartelize the drug trade. Present in addition to the recently self-sprung-from-jail El Chapo Guzmán were Ismael Zambada, an old Sinoalese hand in the business since the 1970s who had first grown marijuana and poppies, then entered the coke trade. Also at the sit-down was Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza, a former federal police officer turned drug trafficker, who had also been part of the old Guadalajara Cartel. As had the Beltrán Leyva brothers, whose careers had paralleled El Chapo’s since they had been dirt-poor neighbors in Sinaloa. Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel represented the drugs of the future, ephedrine and methamphetamine, which his crew ­manufactured in clandestine labs in Jalisco.14

These allies, who now styled themselves The Federation, debated plans for expansion. There was considerable sentiment for attacking the weakened Arellano Félix crowd on the western end of the U.S.-Mexican border, but they held off on that approach. There was equal interest in taking over the central border plaza of Ciudad Juárez, stronghold of the Juárez Cartel, but instead the Federation reluctantly struck up an alliance with Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who had formally taken over the position of his departed brother, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies. What really attracted the Federation’s attention, however, was the far eastern plaza, centered in Nuevo Laredo (in the state of Tamaulipas), an incredibly lucrative and newly vulnerable border crossing, theretofore the exclusive domain of the Gulf Cartel. Here the major routes from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala arrived at the northern border with Texas, spanning the Río Bravo over Nuevo Laredo’s one railroad and four vehicular bridges. The daily, NAFTA-supercharged flow of freight cars and cargo trucks provided great cover for funneling narcotics into the U.S. rail network and onto Interstate 35, the highway to San Antonio and points north.

No western or central outfit had ever before thought of attacking the far-eastern Gulf gang, but a series of high-profile arrests by Fox’s forces seemed to provide an opening.

On March 28, 2002, Mexican troops nabbed Adán Madrano Rodríguez, the number two guy in the Gulf Cartel, first lieutenant to chieftain Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Once again, United States pressure and participation proved crucial. Back in 1999, in Matamoros, Madrano Rodríguez had confronted and nearly killed two U.S. agents, one FBI, the other DEA, backing off only when reminded of the fate of Kiki Camarena’s assassins. Once again, the professional had become personal, and the U.S. slapped a $2 million price tag on Madrano’s head, which helped lead to his capture.

The second takedown came in November 2002, when Mexican soldiers, again with U.S. assistance, cornered and killed in a Matamoros restaurant Arturo Guzmán Decenas, the ex-Mexican military man whom Cárdenas Guillén had recruited to establish and run his bodyguard outfit, the Zetas.

The third and biggest blow came in March 2003 with the capture of the big boss himself, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who had incautiously attended a birthday party for one of his daughters. He had been indicted in the U.S.; been put on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list (backed by a $2 million reward); and the Bush regime had been pressuring the Fox regime to bring him in.

To El Chapo and company, Nuevo Laredo now seemed up for grabs. True, Los Zetas—still only a rib of the Gulf Cartel—had come up with new leadership, another GAFE defector, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (a.k.a. “El Verdugo,” or “The Executioner,” for his gory predilections). Like Guzmán Decenas, Lazcano had been trained by the U.S. in combat and covert operations, partly at Fort Benning in Georgia. Still, it seemed a propitious moment and the Federation decided to invade.

Arturo Beltrán Leyva (a.k.a. “El Barbas” or “The Beard”) was put in charge of organizing the attack. Beltrán Leyva in turn recruited as chief sicario (assassin) the Texas-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as “La Barbie” for his blue-eyed Ken Doll good looks, though he was every bit as bloodthirsty as the Zetas’ new leader, Lazcano. Together Barbas and Barbie established Los Negros, the heavily armed strike force of the Federation, recruiting, among others, members of the notoriously cruel Salvadoran-American Mara Salvatrucha gang. This was an effort to build up an effective counter to the militarily sophisticated Zetas, who themselves had brought in as post-graduate instructors Guatemalan Kaibiles, the elite counter-insurgency commandos who were notorious for having committed horrific massacres in the 1980s, and for their sanguinary taste for beheading and ­dismembering victims.

From the first skirmishes in 2003, the firefights on the streets of Nuevo Laredo grew steadily until by 2005 spectacular battles, deploying ever more sophisticated and deadly weaponry, had become commonplace. In July, after the rivals had wheeled out machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, American officials shut down the U.S. Consulate.

The new levels of lethality appalled the Americans, but should not have surprised them as the “iron river” of armaments had been flowing more briskly, courtesy of the U.S. arms industry and the Republican Party’s powerful right wing. There had always been a vigorous and legal cross-border transfer of arms—some by sale or transfer from the U.S. federal government to the Mexican federal government, some by sale from arms dealers and licensed brokers direct to local governments and police forces—and some of both had been subsequently diverted by corrupt officials to cartel arsenals. There had also been a significant quasi-legal flow with drug gangs recruiting groups of “straw” buyers to purchase up to twenty weapons at a time from the 6,700 licensed gun dealers along the Mexican-U.S. border. Phoenix, a favorite shopping center for Sinaloan traffickers, had 853 of them, and Arizona was strong on the production end as well: in 2004, eleven companies produced more than one hundred thousand weapons. The straw buyer’s purchases were then smuggled across the border.

Back during the Clinton administration, an impediment to the southward flow had been put in place when in 1994 Congress slapped a ban on the manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons. Though it was scheduled to sunset in 2004, two-thirds of Americans (among them President Bush) supported extending the ban. Fierce opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and right-wing Texas Congressman Tom DeLay blocked this renewal. A grateful NRA invited DeLay to keynote its annual meeting in 2005 and, as he took the podium, he choked up slightly as he proclaimed the tribute “the highlight of my career.”15

Lifting the ban facilitated a growing cascade of powerful ­weaponry south, just at the time powerful weaponry began showing up in Nuevo Laredo—including such narco favorites as the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle (known affectionately as the cuerno de chivo or “goat horn” rifle), the AR-15 assault rifle (a civilian version of the M16, built by Colt), and the Barrett .50-caliber armor-piercing sniper rifle preferred by all the best professional assassins, along with machine guns, fragmentation grenades, shotguns, cop-killer pistols, and the like. Not only did the ability to shoot a massive number of bullets lead to hundreds of civilian bystander deaths, but the massive buildup of firepower—rivaling that of the Mexican Army—fostered an increasing willingness to tackle state authorities. In 2005, seven police commanders were ambushed and killed, seriatim, in Nuevo Laredo. The position remained vacant until a printing-shop owner accepted the post on the morning of June 8, 2005. Within six hours, Zetas toting AR-15 assault rifles had riddled him with bullets.

This latest slaying, coupled with pressure from the U.S. ambassador who was worried about murders and kidnapping of American citizens, spurred countermeasures from the Fox regime, despite some internal grumbling about “external meddling.” Fox decided to create a combined military and police strike force, the muscle behind a program entitled México Seguro (Safe Mexico). On June 11, 2005, three days after the latest police chief was gunned down, Fox sent six hundred members of the Federal Investigations Agency and the Federal Preventive Police, together with members of GAFE (the special forces of the Mexican Army), parading into Nuevo Laredo. They were met with gunfire from local police officers in the pay of the Gulf Cartel. Federal authorities removed almost one-third of the municipal police officers for failing drug tests or having alleged ties to drug traffickers, and suspended the rest, replacing them with federal police and troops. This was widely perceived as having all but no effect on the ongoing slugfest.

On August 3, 2005, a few weeks after the launch of President Fox’s Seguro program, two bodies appeared in Nuevo Laredo. The Zetas had left a written message on the corpses—a narcomensaje—a novel method of communicating with their opponents: “DAMN YOU BARBIE AND ARTURO BELTRÁN, YOU WON’T GET IN HERE NOT EVEN WITH THE SUPPORT OF THE SPECIAL FORCES OR BY KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE.”

And they did not. The Federation invasion was held at bay in the east. But now other fronts were opened, in the west, with the Federation butting heads with the Zetas in one state after another. As the war spread, violence went viral.

Tasked with invading new territories and taking over old plazas (or opening up new ones), the Beltrán Leyva brothers and their henchman “La Barbie” headed for Acapulco, the popular tourist city (and a major entry point for South American cocaine) in the state of Guerrero. There fighting broke out with the Zetas, still acting on behalf of the Gulf Cartel, but increasingly toying with the idea of striking out on their own. The ensuing bloodshed soon brought intervention by state authorities, to which the Zetas registered their emphatic objection by taking a leaf from the Kaibiles’ book. Decapitating the leading official of the police strike force and one of his men, they impaled their severed heads on a fence in front of police headquarters one morning in late April 2006. Extending their practice of making their narcomensajes hyper-explicit, a note was found alongside the victims, with words scrawled on a piece of cardboard reading: “So that you learn respect.”16

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Inter-gang warfare got wilder, and more complicated, in the adjoining state of Michoacán, farther up the Pacific coast. A resource-rich territory, with rugged mountains and lush valleys, Michoacán’s extensive agricultural sector (limes, avocados, etc.) had been hard hit by NAFTA and successive recessions, driving many farmers into growing pot and poppies, which they sold to an organization of home-grown drug traffickers who styled themselves “La Empresa” (“The Enterprise”). Led by one Carlos Rosales Mendoza, it plowed some of its profits into manufacturing methamphetamine in labs hidden up in the hills.

In 2001 Rosales Mendoza had called on his ally Osiel Cárdenas Guillén to help him drive out some local competitors, and the Gulf Cartel chieftain obligingly dispatched a number of his fearsome Zetas. For several years La Empresa and Los Zetas collaborated, but in 2006 war broke out between them. Los Zetas, edging ever closer to independence from the Gulf Cartel (especially with Cárdenas Guillén now in jail), had turned their attention to seizing control of the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas. It had been made newly and spectacularly profitable, thanks to the United States Congress, which in 2005 restricted bulk purchasing of pseudoephedrine, driving methamphetamine-makers to underworld suppliers. Legitimate shipping into Lázaro Cárdenas had grown dramatically, and along with the licit trade came a flood of contraband. Precursor chemicals from India, China, and Thailand were shuttled to dry land by fast launches that rendezvoused with ships anchored offshore.

Los Zetas applied their now usual tactics of beheading those who resisted them, whether commercial rivals or agents of the state. Those tactics were soon embraced by competitors.

La Empresa, now under the control of Nazario Moreno González (a.k.a. “El Más Loco” or “The Craziest One”), allied itself with local vigilantes who resented the Zetas’ power grab and brutalizing of the populace, and proclaimed itself the defender of Michoacánians against the foreign invaders. The enterprise rebranded itself in 2006, adopting the more homespun-sounding name of La Familia Michoacana, and spoke of siding with the poor, supporting family values, and fighting drug use (by locals; gringos were of course fair game). Moreno González also insisted on his rebel credentials, hailing Zapata and Che Guevara, and arguing that drug trafficking was a result of Mexico’s unequal system that gave the poor no opportunities. “They say that each society has the government it deserves,” he wrote. “I would also say that each society and government have the criminals that they deserve.”

La Familia presented a spiritual as well as a patriotic and revolutionary face. The Craziest One had lived in the States during the 1990s and become a follower of one John Eldredge, a self-proclaimed apostle who had forged a self-help, he-man, evangelical Christian sect. El Más Loco redeployed some of Eldredge’s tenets, added a few epigrams of his own, and came up with his own bible, Mis Pensamientos (My Thoughts), which was required reading for new recruits. Youngsters drawn from the abundant ranks of the unemployed were commanded to spurn drugs and alcohol and undergo months of motivational training, upon completing which they could do the Lord’s work.

The first inkling of what that entailed came on September 6, 2006, when a group of armed men rolled five heads—freshly hacked off low-level Zetas while still alive, using Bowie knives—onto a disco dance floor in Uruapan, Michoacán. Picking up on another Zeta practice, they left behind a written message describing the action as “divine justice,” retribution for what was believed locally to have been the rape and murder of a waitress/prostitute who had worked in the bar: “The Family doesn’t kill for money; it doesn’t kill women; it doesn’t kill innocent people; only those who deserve to die, die.” The Lord’s work also included, for narco-evangelicals who showed an aptitude for violence, being trained as professional assassins and backbone cadre for the methamphetamine business.

La Familia’s peculiar mix of motivations proved a potent one, and the organization succeeded in limiting Zeta incursions. And as its booming methamphetamine exports to the U.S. increasingly demanded the negotiation of passage rights with powers to the north, the Michoacánians began to cast their lot, at least tactically, with El Chapo and the Sinaloese.

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Faced with the expansion of hyper-violent cartel conflicts beyond their crucible in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, President Fox beefed up his México Seguro program. Hundreds of federal agents and troops were dispatched to the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Baja California, and Sinaloa, among others. Local police—more often than not in cahoots with the cartels—were purged and replaced with a combination of PFP federal police, AFI federal agents, and army units. These established military checkpoints, searched for drugs, and arrested addicts or street-level dealers. It was widely believed that México Seguro was having no impact on the big cartels.

More to the point, the big cartels were having a big impact on the federal forces sent against them. Fox’s shiny new (in 2001) Federal Investigations Agency (AFI) was badly tarnished by 2005. Fifteen hundred of the seven thousand AFI agents—nearly 25 percent of the force—were under investigation for suspected criminal activity. Some were believed to be actively working as enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel and 457 were already facing charges.

The army itself was disintegrating. Some soldiers were walking off out of fear, others were lured away by better offers. The success of Los Zetas underscored the benefits that awaited those who took their military skills over to the dark side, especially given the notoriously poor salaries, harsh living conditions, and humiliation by officers that were their daily fare in the barracks. Between 2000 and 2006, 123,218 had deserted, two-thirds of the 185,143 Fox had started with. And it was in these dispiriting circumstances that the Fox sexenio sputtered to an end.

13 Zedillo had also strengthened the IFE’s autonomy by dissociating it completely from the executive branch and any existing party, making it ever harder for the PRI to fix elections as it had so often in the past. And indeed in 1997, for the first time, the PRI lost control of the lower legislative chamber.

14 Amphetamine was isolated from the ephedra plant in 1887 in Germany, and methamphetamine, a more potent and easy-to-make variant, was synthesized in Japan in 1893; a crystallized version followed in1919. Marketed in the 1930s as a decongestant for sinus sufferers, meth was widely used by all sides in World War II to keep pilots and troops at peak efficiency. In the fifties, speed was used as a performance enhancer by night owls (college students, truck drivers) and athletes, and from the sixties on as a euphoriant and aphrodisiac. In 1970, Nixon’s Controlled Substance Act outlawed most uses, creating the demand that Nacho supplied.

15 The annual average of 88,000 firearms sent south during 1997–1999, during the assault weapons ban, rose to 253,000 during 2010–2012.

In1997 Clinton had signed CIFTA, the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials. The treaty required signatory countries to: reduce the illegal manufacture and trade in guns, ammunition and explosives; adopt strict licensing requirements; mark firearms when they are made and imported to make them easier to trace; and establish a process for sharing information between national law enforcement agencies investigating smuggling. Thirty-three members of the Organization of American States ratified the treaty. Three did not, one of them being the U.S., where the gun lobby successfully blocked Senate ratification.

The National Rifle Association had once promoted itself as defender of the little man’s right to protect his home and family, if need be against Big Government itself, and had prided itself for not being “affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers.” But over time, though it retained a politically significant base of support among gun owners, the bulk of its income switched to coming from gun makers. Corporate contributions (via “Ring of Freedom” sponsorships or ads in NRA publications) poured in from the likes of Arsenal, Inc. (of Las Vegas), Beretta, Browning, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. It was well worth it, as whenever a shooting massacre took place in the U.S., the NRA’s hunters and collectors could be trotted out to take the heat, sparing arms industry CEOs from the annoying demonstrations that had troubled tobacco executives. And whatever the merit of the gun lobby’s appeal to the Second Amendment might be in the U.S., it has zero applicability to foreign countries. Every assessment of weaponry confiscated from cartel killers in Mexico has found that between 75 and 90 percent of their arsenals come from the U.S.A.

16 Some analysts claim these first beheadings copycatted al-Qaeda killings that had been recorded on video and posted on the Internet.

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