Consumers and Guns, Assassins and Money: Mexico’s Transnational Violence

Three simmering scandals in Mexico, involving U.S. arms shipments to drug cartels, the presence of Guatemalan paramilitaries who had been trained under U.S. auspices, and money laundering by a prominent U.S. bank, have led many Mexicans to believe that that the guns, the assassins, and the laundered money that are at the heart of the drug violence, that has taken almost 35,000 lives since 2007, all carry U.S. fingerprints.

May 3, 2011

More and more, in talking about Mexico's out-of-control violence, many Mexicans, in public and in private, complain that the country has been fighting Washington's drug war and taking all the casualties. They have recruited us, the argument goes, and we have suffered nearly all the casualties. They have sold us a model for combating the drug trade and we have ended up killing each other and putting our small-time traffickers in jail. They—the gringos— sell guns to the traffickers and none of them goes to jail. They launder money for the traffickers and not one of them has gone to jail. They train death squads in Guatemala who sell their services to all sides in Mexico, and no one has gone to jail. (See, for example, historian Lorenzo Meyer on the televised opinion program Primer Plano, 4/11/2011).


Writing in the daily paper La Jornada this past January 15, novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo echoed the theme: "The war against drugs was not, and should not have been, a Mexican War. It was, and continues to be essentially a U.S. war generated by the greatest level of drug consumption on the planet—that which takes place in U.S. territory. Thus, the Mexican proposal should have gone no further than to offer to support a war that should have taken place in gringo territory, combating the distribution networks and the financial structures, and controlling the border. In their territory, not ours."


Now, three simmering scandals, involving U.S. arms shipments to drug cartels, the presence of Guatemalan paramilitaries who had been trained under U.S. auspices, and money laundering by a prominent U.S. bank, have led many Mexicans to believe, along with critical commentators like Meyer and Taibo, that the guns, the assassins, and the laundered money that are at the heart of the violence all carry a few U.S. fingerprints.


The first set of fingerprints is not, strictly speaking, scandalous. It is simply the market—the sovereign consumer demand for illicit drugs. According to the CIA Factbook, the United States is the "world's largest consumer of cocaine (shipped from Colombia through Mexico and the Caribbean), Colombian heroin, and Mexican heroin and marijuana…[and a] major consumer of ecstasy and Mexican methamphetamine." Drug researcher Paul Gootenberg estimates that U.S. consumers spend about $80 billion a year on illegal drugs, about half of that on cocaine, one of Mexico's major transshipments. About half of world usage of recreational cocaine, he estimates, is in the United States. (Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).


The second set of fingerprints is well known and generally conceded by U.S. authorities: the easy, legal purchase of U.S. arms, and their apparently easy shipment across the border, which has fueled the violence of both organized and disorganized crime in Mexico. But recently this story took a bizarre—scandalous—turn. It turns out that for 15 months, from late 2009 until March of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had overseen, without notifying their Mexican counterparts, the smuggling of more than 2,000 rapid-fire arms into Mexico. The operation, called "Fast and Furious," was designed to watch the smuggling process unfold in order to identify the links in the chain of illegal shipments of arms into the hands of Mexican users. The ATF watched, but did not intervene, did not notify their Mexican colleagues, and did not prevent the arms from reaching their destinations.


The third set of prints has to do with the drug trade's enforcers, who are by and large professional assassins called sicarios. Some are in the employ of one or another of the country's drug cartels, and some work for one of the guns-for-hire gangs contracted by the cartels. Among the most violent of these killers-for-hire are the Zetas, a group descended from a deadly Guatemalan paramilitary force called the Kaibiles.


The Kaibiles are another gift, though an indirect one, from the United States, having been formed and trained by the U.S.-backed Guatemalan government during the most murderous period of that country's civil war—a remnant of the Cold War that had taken on its own deadly dynamic. Specialists in counterinsurgency and irregular combat, the Kaibiles have been recruited both by the Mexican government—principally during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the early 1990s to train an elite force within the Mexican military— and later by the traffickers themselves.


The original Zetas were part of that elite force; they subsequently deserted from the military in order to go into business for themselves, hiring themselves out to be the enforcement arm of one of the cartels. They have since declared their corporate independence, declared war on their old corporate partners, and have branched out into a number of new areas of organized crime: kidnapping and extortion, for example.


The final simmering scandal (the fourth set of fingerprints) is the slap on the wrist given to the U.S. Wachovia Bank (now absorbed by Wells Fargo) following its admission that over a five-year period beginning in 2004, it had laundered some $378 billion of drug-trafficking money in the form of wire transfers, travelers' checks and cash delivered from Mexican currency exchange houses to dollar accounts in the North Carolina-based bank, with no attempt to monitor the source of the money and no anti-money laundering program in effect.


In the end, the case was settled out of court, with Wachovia agreeing to pay fines and forfeitures totaling $160 million, about 1.4% of the bank's profits for 2009. Nobody went to jail.


London's Guardian, in reporting the story, quoted Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime during the banking crisis of 2008, who said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were "the only liquid investment capital" available to banks on the brink of collapse. "Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drug trade," he said. "There were signs that some banks were rescued that way."


Meanwhile, a week ago, on April 22, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico, advising U.S. citizens traveling, working or living in Mexico to steer clear of certain areas to avoid getting caught up in the country's endemic violence, most of it either linked directly to the illicit drug trade, or to one of the spinoff activities (kidnapping, extortion, illegal arms sales, etc.) of the drug-trafficking cartels.


The State Department warning praised the Mexican government of Felipe Calderón for its vigorous pursuit of the war against the traffickers—essentially following the U.S. Drug War script—and lamented the fact that this Mexican problem was posing a threat to innocent U.S. travelers.


"Since 2006," reads the State Department's advisory, "the Mexican government has engaged in an extensive effort to combat transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). The TCOs, meanwhile, have been engaged in a vicious struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. According to Government of Mexico figures, 34,612 people have been killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico since December 2006. More than 15,000 narcotics-related homicides occurred in 2010, an increase of almost two-thirds compared to 2009. Most of those killed in narcotics-related violence since 2006 have been members of TCOs. However, innocent persons have also been killed as have Mexican law enforcement and military personnel."


There is a certain grim irony in the State Department's warning. Not only has Washington pushed its drug war model on the Americas; not only have remnants of the old Cold War model, the Kaibiles, shown up in unexpected ways at the most unnerving moments, but the United States has enabled — through its own unabated consumer demand, the easy flow of U.S. arms to Mexico and the laundering of narco-profits — the illicit drug trade itself.



Fred Rosen is a Senior Analyst at NACLA.


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