The End of the Drug War—Or a New Cartel of Cartels?

The End of the Drug War—Or a New Cartel of Cartels?

At a rally for the Ayotzinapa students, Mexico City, October 8 (Kinoluiggi/Flickr)

On August 29, both U.S. and Mexican intelligence sources reported that representatives of four major cartels had met to sign a pact of alliance. Held in June in the border town of Piedras Negras, the meeting had brought together the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), the Juárez cartel, the Beltrán Leyva cartel, and the Zetas.

The representatives included Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, the head of the CJNG; Vicente “el Viceroy” Carrillo Fuentes, the leader of the Juárez Cartel; Omar Treviño Morales, alias “Z-42,” the supposed head of the Zetas; and Fausto “el Chapo” Isidro Mez Flores, a key player in the Beltrán Leyva organization. According to the reports, members of the Sinaloa cartel were absent from the so-called “narcocumbre,” generating speculation that the four other cartels sought to ally and move in on Sinaloa territory.

The End of the Drug War

The Mexican government has spun the alliance as evidence that President Peña Nieto’s security policy has succeeded in debilitating the cartels. According to Omar Fayad, president of the Senate’s Security Commission, the pact was “a sign of weakness among the Mexican cartels due to the persecution of organized crime by the federal government and the cooperation and coordination with states and municipalities.” Fayad also predicted that the alliance, like many of those signed before, would not last long. “These alliances have not worked for them in the past because they betray one another. There is almost always someone who wants complete hegemony.”

In many of the Mexican newspapers, journalists have marshalled a persuasive list of imprisoned or dead capos to back up the government’s assertions. Over the past two years, President Peña Nieto has managed to imprison the leaders of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel. Other key narcos, like Nazario “el Mas Loco” Moreno González have died in confrontations with government forces; others still, like Juan José “el Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, have expired of natural causes.

This narrative of government triumph and cartel weakening certainly seems plausible. And the ruling PRI party has spared no effort in touting it to both Mexican electors and foreign investors. Since Peña Nieto has come to power, state authorities have run well-funded campaigns to downplay drug trafficking and narco-violence and highlight alternative stories of business entrepreneurship, artistic talent, and tourism. Journalists are paid off, warned, or killed if they threaten to reveal patterns of violence and state collusion; homicide rates are routinely massaged to give the impression of declining violence; and devastating discoveries of mass graves and human rights abuses are kept off the front pages. Meanwhile, the Mexican embassies in the U.S. and the UK give out expensive “bursaries” to journalists to write favorable spins on lighter subjects; the lifestyle guides and business pages of foreign papers abound with stories of Mexican enterprise. In the dying world of print media, the Mexican embute or press bribe clearly has legs.

Or a New Cartel of Cartels?

Reading the drug war is a tricky business—a strange mixture of reading between the lines of official pronouncements, parsing official silences, browsing online chatter, and drawing on historical knowledge. Just because the story ties in so well with the PRI’s stated purpose doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Perhaps the meeting does spell the death knell for the old cartels. Time will tell. But historical experience, contemporary rumors, and the strange absence of any major U.S. coverage of the alliance suggests that more complex forces are at play.

Since the Nixon administration dragged the Mexican government into the “war on drugs” in the late 1960s, successive Mexican presidents have sought to demonstrate their compliance (and hence gain U.S. funding) by taking out major traffickers during the first two years of their administrations. José López Portillo (1976–1982) inaugurated his presidency by announcing his support for Operation Condor, a U.S.–backed anti-narco campaign. Within a year of López Portillo’s taking office, Sinaloa kingpin Pedro Aviles Perez was killed in a shootout with the federal police. A decade later, President Carlos Salinas (1988–1994), eager to persuade the United States to sign on to NAFTA, promised to crack down on organized crime; Guadalajara Cartel kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was in jail within a year. Salinas’s successor Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000) arrested the head of the Gulf cartel, Juan García Ábrego, in early 1996.

Mexican officials invariably spun these high-profile arrests as proof of the government’s serious attempts to dismantle organized crime. In fact, they marked the state’s attempts to reorganize the drug trade and restore hegemony over the organizations. After Aviles’s death, the state security body, the Federal Ministry of Security, or DFS, allied with the Guadalajara Cartel to organize incoming shipments, distribute smuggling routes, and put U.S. investigators off the scent. President Salinas’s officials used the arrest of the head of the Guadalajara Cartel, Felix Gallardo, to shift administrative support to the growing Gulf Cartel. And on García Abrego’s arrest, official backing shifted pendulum-like back to the reconstituted Sinaloa Cartel. Just as PRI presidents kept interest groups on their toes by tacking between left- and right-wing policies, they also kept drug organizations in line by alternating between repression and support.

In such a context, recent events look less like a succession of official victories and more like a traditional play to bring favored organizations back under government control. Three of the organizations that met at Piedras Negras (the Juárez and Beltran Leyva cartels and CJNG) have undergone surprising resurgences under the new PRI regime—unlike the Sinaloa and Gulf organizations, which have lost many of their major leaders. A DEA agent recently described El Mencho, the head of the CJNG, as “the most important trafficker in Mexico.” Furthermore, the recent capture of Hector Beltrán Leyva, the only main capo not at the meeting, suggests that those who don’t sign up are being targeted.

The Piedras Negras meeting, then, may not herald the successful taming of the drug traffickers but rather the establishment of a new cartel of cartels. PRI officials hope that under such a system, inter-cartel violence will decrease, even if the volume of drug trafficking continues as before. Mexicans, especially in the northern states, probably hope the same. Here, they voted overwhelmingly for the PRI in 2012, not out of any sense of ideological allegiance but simply in the desperate hope that the old party would bring peace.

But, as the disappearance of the forty-three Ayotzinapa students suggests, while such tactics might have worked in the past, they no longer fit the profile of organized crime. Neoliberal economic policies, the war on drugs, and inter-cartel violence have fragmented relatively homogenous cartels into countless localized gangs. Groups like the Guerreros Unidos now combine the drug business with kidnapping, prostitution, human trafficking, and acting as the political heavies for unscrupulous local chieftains. Persuading the top-tier drug smugglers to limit activities and toe the PRI line is probably not enough.

The U.S. Response

Beyond the Mexican government, the cartels, and Mexican voters, there is another major player in this strategic game—the United States. And U.S. officials seem less enthusiastic than their Mexican counterparts about the possibility of a new state-led cartel pact.

The pact does, undeniably, present certain advantages for U.S. business interests. The end of catastrophic drug-war violence opens Mexico to further investment. U.S. oil companies are keen to take advantage of the government’s recent privatization of the petroleum industry and move into the oil-rich but cartel-controlled northeastern state of Tamaulipas. And foreign mining companies back the state’s campaign to bring mineral-rich Michoacán under control.

U.S. officials, too, are eager for a reduction in violence, fearing that continuing drug violence might generate another surge of mass migration. This summer, gang violence in Central America drove thousands of children north and opened up, however briefly, the question of offering refugee status to victims of the drug war. Members of both U.S. parties are keen to avoid repeating such scenes of desperation.

On the other hand, publicly offering the PRI government carte blanche to establish another state-led cartel is clearly untenable in terms of U.S. security. As a result, U.S.–Mexican relations are tense. U.S. officials seem keen to warn the PRI off such a plan or, at the very least, to have a hand in the eventual makeup of the new organization (as Anabel Hernández alleges it did in the 1980s).

When President Peña Nieto came to power, his administration immediately ended the partnership that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had established with U.S. drug enforcement officials. The move caused widespread disquiet among both State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives, who had enjoyed unparalleled access to the Mexican government’s strategic plans for the past six years. Many feared that Peña Nieto had pushed them out not only for reasons of political capital, but also because he wished to return to the old days of PRI–cartel collaboration.

As a result, U.S. officials have on several occasions intervened in Mexican security operations in order to reorient the Peña Nieto government toward U.S. aims. Although the Mexican minister of the interior later denied it, DEA agents were involved in both intelligence gathering and the actual operation that led to the capture of Joaquín “el Chapo” Guzmán. Furthermore, when Chapo was captured, U.S. media sources were the first to announce his arrest out of a fear that the Mexican authorities were going to simply let him go.

The Media Game

The war on drugs is now as much a media game as a combination of judicial, military, and police strategies. Just as the Associated Press’s announcement of Chapo’s capture gave us some insight into U.S. fears, so publicity surrounding the Piedras Negras meeting offers glimpses into the soto voce diplomacy of the U.S.–Mexican drug war.

Most Mexican newspapers reported on the meeting, but editorials and commentaries were few. Even the most confrontational papers, like Jornada and Proceso, repeated the government narrative of official success and cartel weakening. In the United States, reports on the pact were limited to the pages of perennial drug-war watchers like Borderland Beat.

Compare this to the furore that surrounded the announcement of a meeting of the cartels in 2007. Reports of that meeting not only made the front page of several major Mexican newspapers but also appeared in their U.S. counterparts. In fact the story was so hot that Alfredo Corchado, the Dallas Morning News journalist who broke the story, received death threats over the phone.

The much quieter release of the Piedras Negras story has been suspiciously convenient for the Peña Nieto government, and hints at the increasing power Mexican authorities have asserted over the press under the PRI. On the one hand, by allowing the story to get out, Mexican authorities flagged to both Mexican voters and potential U.S. investors that peace is being restored. On the other hand, the story has not circulated widely enough to invite more penetrating and potentially critical discussion of Peña Nieto’s anti-drug strategy. The official narrative is the only one on offer.

Media spin has a long history in Mexico. But now, combined with historical amnesia, it threatens to cover up the return to a policy of state–cartel cooperation. Will U.S. authorities just stand by and watch—or are they quietly writing their own script for the next phase of the drug war?


Benjamin T. Smith is an associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick. He is currently working on a history of the Mexican press and, together with Wil Pansters and Peter Watt, a history of the Mexican drug trade. His last book, co-edited with Paul Gillingham, was Dictablanda: Politics, Work and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

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