Silver or lead? It is an offer that is difficult, if not impossible, to refuse for thousands of Mexican police, judges, and politicians tasked with confronting Mexico’s powerful drug cartels. The silver is bribe money. Lead is a bullet to the head—if the victim is lucky. The murders of uncooperative justice officials, and others who cross the cartels, have become increasingly gruesome of late. Beheadings are common.
For decades, during the 70 years that Mexico was effectively a one-party state run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a tacit understanding existed between drug cartels and members of all levels of government and state institutions that it was better to choose the silver. This does not mean that everyone from the president on down was on the take. But there was a pervasive lack of political will to confront the cartels, and when drug lords could count on politicians staying in office regardless of how many elections they might face, it made sense to seek mutually beneficial arrangements.
Mexico’s transition to real democracy changed all this. Vicente Fox’s election as president in 2000 broke the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s grip on Mexico and shook up the status quo that allowed many cartels to prosper quietly. Their most serious challenge, however, came with the 2006 election of Felipe Calderón who, with the backing of the United States, has been more aggressive than any previous president about confronting the cartels and the police and politicians they have corrupted. He sent the army into cartel strongholds, and his government has purged thousands of compromised police and law enforcement officials.
But the more who are exposed, the deeper it becomes clear the rot has set in. Five members of an elite organized crime unit in Mexico’s attorney general’s office were arrested this fall on charges of taking large cash payments from the Beltrán Leyva cartel in exchange for secret information on anti-drug operations. Reports also emerged that the cartel had an informant inside the U.S. Embassy. Raids on cartels have netted high-profile drug lords, but these raids have had the same effect as throwing rocks at nests of hornets. The cartels are fighting back. And as cartel leaders are arrested or killed, their subordinates turn against themselves and against other cartels in a battle for influence and turf.
The amount of money at stake is enormous. Mexico is now a producer as well as a transitway for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. The restriction of narcotics traffic from Colombia through the Caribbean has increased the flow to Mexico. A bustling cross-border trade with the United States provides cover. Drugs in Mexico are now a US$25-billion-a-year industry.
The result is what one of Mexico’s most prominent daily newspapers, El Universal, calls a “war” and what John Bailey, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, describes as a “terrorist insurgency.” More than 4,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence this year. Drug cartels have established training camps in the badlands near the United States border. Deserters from Mexican special forces units, trained by the Americans and originally used to target the cartels, have switched sides and now form a paramilitary group known as Los Zetas that can out-gun and out-manoeuvre many of the legitimate soldiers sent to apprehend them. They are led by an ex-soldier named Heriberto “the Executioner” Lazcano, who is rumoured to feed victims to lions he keeps on a ranch.