Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mexico’s Endless War

Mexico's Endless War

By Michael Deibert

When 43 students disappeared last month amid a wave of shootouts and assassinations in the Mexican state of Guerrero, it demonstrated in vivid fashion the insecurity still plaguing the country nearly two years into the mandate of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

One of Mexico's most violence-wracked states, where the beach resort of Acalpulco once played host to the rich and famous, Guerrero has in recent weeks seen mass fatality gunbattles in the capital of Chilpancingo, the decapitation of the brother of a federal deputy and the gunning down of the state chief of an opposition party as he sat in an Acalpulco restaurant. Last month, at least 21 people were killed by Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya, just across the border in Mexico State, in what witnesses charge was an execution of disarmed criminal suspects who had already surrendered.

Some of the missing students - only 14 have reportedly been located at the time of writing - were apparently driven away in custody of the state police after attending a protest in the city of Iguala, while others were fired upon as they attempted to talk to reporters. At least six people died in the initial attacks, which for many Mexicans bring back memories of such state-sponsored violence as the July 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the June 1971 El Halconazo killings, also in the capital.

After the discovery of mass graves in the state, two hitmen, connected to the Guerreros Unidos criminal group, have allegedly confessed to killing at least 17 of the students with police complicity.

But today's violence is not confined to Guerrero. In the border state of Tamaulipas, birthplace of the Gulf Cartel - the country's oldest criminal organization - gunbattles and roadblocks flare up with terrifying regularity, and only last week gunmen attacked a police station in Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. In the coastal state of Veracruz, at least four mass graves have been found so far this year. In the western state of Michoacán, violence is rife and hardly a week goes by without another video or photograph surfacing of Servando  "La Tuta" Gómez Martínez, leader of the state's Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug gang, meeting in apparent amity with a local official or journalist.

Though much was made of the supposed different approach Peña Nieto, from Mexico's long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), would take to the drug war from the militarized battle that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN),  had waged, the results have not been encouraging.

More people were murdered during Peña Nieto's first 20 months in office than during same period under Calderón, with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (Inegi) also measuring an increase in kidnapping, robberies and extortions. One of Peña Nieto's first moves - to dissolve a law enforcement unit that Calderón leaned heavily on and seek to replace it with a gendarmerie reporting directly to the Interior Ministry - appears to have had little positive affect.  Though some well-known drug traffickers, such as Los Zetas' Miguel Treviño and the Sinaloa Cartel's Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán have been arrested, others, such as former Guadalajara Cartel grandee Rafael Caro Quintero and Los Zetas' co-founder Rogelio "El Kelín" González Pizaña, have walked out of jail, with the government claiming ignorance about the circumstances of their release.

The United States, its ravenous appetite for illegal drug undimmed, has, for its part, also played and continues to play an integral role in abetting the criminal violence for which Mexico's citizens pay the price.

Much of the money Mexico's narcos make is laundered through the US banking system, with financial institutions such as Bank of America, HSBC and Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) found by US investigators to have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for groups like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. Border states with liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona have long served as a one-stop shop for Mexican drug cartels, with many weapons purchased in the US later found at the scenes of lethal confrontations south of the border. The US also continues with the fallacy of federal prohibition of drugs, despite the evidence of countries such as Portugal that have decriminalized personal possession of narcotics with no marked increase in addiction. Fortunately, states such as Washington and Colorado are beginning to chip away at this deeply cynical policy with their own more progressive drug laws.

Despite the cheerleading, backslapping and nativist incitement that goes on when it comes to the violence that has been wrenching Mexico for a decade, the last 21 months of the Peña Nieto administration have proven that the bloodshed comes from a broken system on both sides of the border, one that is beyond the ability of facile good guy vs bad guy scenarios to fix. Despite flickerings of popular rejection of the power of the cartels and corrupt officials in states such as Michoacán (often quickly and definitively co-opted by the federal government), the Mexican people remain largely at the mercy of powerful, organized bands of ruthless criminals and government players who often appear organically linked with the criminal groups they are ostensibly trying to fight.

While some U.S. publications have myopically lauded Peña Nieto as "saving Mexico," the reality on the ground suggests something far different. Both Mexico and the United States have a role to play in ending impunity, increasing transparency and reforming frankly deadly laws when it comes to the financial sector, drug policy and firearms, lest Mexico's next president also inherit a country in dire need of "saving."

Michael Deibert is the author of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bienvenido October!

Photo © Michael Deibert

Monday, August 25, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Miami Herald's Gaza Problem

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 20, I attended a rally on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard in support of besieged citizens in Gaza, where, in the course of the last several weeks, the government of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu has slaughtered over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including hundreds of children. The pretext was for this attack was the appalling kidnap and murder of 3 Israeli teens in the West Bank, but the result was an ethnic slaughter of which Slobodan Milošević would have been proud. As a U.S.voter and taxpayer, when my country provides billions of dollars of aid a year to enable such as policy, I feel it is my duty to speak up.

The rally itself was relatively uneventful as these things go, but what transpired since was illustrative to me about the rather sorry state of the media here in the United States at this time, and here in Miami in particular.

The protest was scheduled for around 3pm and I stood in front of the Israeli consulate. Two others arrived, one Palestinian, one Jewish, and then finally another man, a somewhat jittery fellow with a keffiyeh around his neck and a small camcorder also showed up. After standing in front of the consulate for a few minutes, we collectively realized the rally was in fact to be held at the Torch of Friendship and not at the consulate, so we ambled across Biscayne Boulevard to join the others assembled.

Shortly after we arrived, indicating the man in the kaffiyah, someone announced "This man is a Zionist [they did not say "Jew"] and he is here filming us to put it up on his Zionist website."

At this, a handful, I would say perhaps 4 to 5 people in a crowd that would eventually number about 200, started yelling at the man, who started yelling back at them. The man with the camcorder behaved in a fairly aggressive way, getting to within inches of the faces of the demonstrators and, it looked to my eyes, as if he might be trying to provoke some sort of physical confrontation in order to film it. However, having been around unstable types before in my work as a journalist in conflict zones, something about the man's demeanour alarmed me. At one point I advised the crowd "If you react, he wins" and "Don't take the bait."  Some however did, and engaged in prolonged back and forths with the man which involved some shoving. At this point, I wandered off to another part of the demonstration.

A few minutes later the police showed up, took the man to the side and extracted off his person and put on the hood of their squad car for all the world to see a very large handgun. When the footage the man shot was later put online, it was revealed that he was a member of a Lake Worth, Florida-based group called United West, an organization designated as an "Anti-Muslim hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights group. Some demonstrators later told me that they had recognized that he was armed.

Whether or not the man was trying to provoke a fight with the the protesters I cannot say. The man eventually went away, and I stayed at the protest for about two hours, joined, at one point, by a Moroccan and a Czech friend. They demonstrators chanted "Let's go Gaza" some slogans in Arabic I didn't understand and some chanted "Let's Go Hamas," which, in the context of the rally, seemed to me a statement of support for resistance to Israel's savaging of Gaza's population. For the record, as an avowed secularist, I do not support religiously-based parties, but, then again, it is not my place to tell people in other countries who they are and aren't allowed to vote for, no matter how ill-advised I may think their choice may be.

There were lots of young people at the protest, quite a few old people and quite a few toddlers as well. There were Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Latinos, basically a cross-section of different groups one finds in South Florida. A group of pro-Israel protesters - about half a dozen - also showed up, waving an Israeli flag and hurling what sounded like invective in Hebrew that I, at least, couldn't understand. Police kept the two groups well apart. I saw no physical altercations or actual violent acts on the part of either side for the two hours I was there.

I posted photos of some of the protest on my blog here.

A few days later, I was made aware of a blog post on the Miami Herald's website by a journalist named Marc Caputo, whom I had never heard of before but who is apparently the Herald's chief political reporter [Florida's ossified, corrupt political scene holds little interest for me, I generally turn to the Herald for its alas dwindling foreign coverage]. The Herald had published extensive coverage of a pro-Israel rally in Miami Beach that same week. To the best of my knowledge, Caputo's blog post was the only mention of the Gaza rally that appeared in the paper or on its website.

In the post, which didn't generally fall dramatically to either a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine slant, the author alluded to how the video I saw being shot that day was picked up by the extreme right-wing news source, which described the video with the words that a "Jewish reporter had been working undercover and was identified, then attacked by the demonstrators," which, as noted, is completely false. Caputo then quoted me by name from a comment I had made on the event's Facebook page about being proud to stand with  the people of Gaza and my query who the armed provocateur was, before concluding "as with any dispute rooted in the Middle East, it’s tough to tell who did what exactly, who started it, who’s more at fault and what the ultimate truth is. The video posted by The United West is edited. We don’t know the whole story. But we probably never will."

Caputo never made any attempt to contact me or, as far as I can tell, anyone else connected to the event, anyone who could have told him the cameraman from United West and the gunmen were one and the same. As neither Caputo nor any other journalist for the Herald had attended the rally, they missed making the connection that the man shooting the video and the man who had gun taken off him and registration checked by the police were the same person. To me, this seemed like a detail worth clarifying.

I wrote first to a Herald editor whom I had met and corresponded with before, explaining the situation and he thoughtfully put me in touch with the journalist in question.

Initially, Caputo was not receptive to this new information, and instead responded in a highly pompous, defensive and verbose tone that rather surprised me, but agreeing to contact the police to confirm my story that the cameraman was armed and that police had removed a firearm from him during the demonstration (I never said the man was arrested). I also found an additional attendee who confirmed my version of the story. The man apparently had a concealed weapons permit but, to me and others at the demonstration, at least, that doesn't make his behavior any less threatening. 

At the conclusion of our exchange, Caputo wrote that  "I think I'll do both: update and issue a separate post. The armed man is unreported and for search purposes on the Internet deserves a separate headline."

Had he done so, that would have been that. But up to this date (22 August 2014),  however, Caputo has done neither, hence what I viewed as the necessity of this posting. This is a detail that should be known. The Miami Herald, likewise, has, as far as I can tell, made no public acknowledgement of this glaring omission. They have had this information for a month and have chosen, for whatever reason, not to share it with the public. What has resulted is another instance in which the U.S. media can blithely paint. perhaps not even intentionally, those defending the human rights of Palestinian civilians as sympathetic or tangentially connected to violence and terrorism.

Though the Miami Herald is significantly diminished from the days when it was one of the world's great newspapers - with the gaping, destroyed facade of the publication's former home in downtown Miami providing some unflattering symbolism - there are still some fine reporters there, and it's a paper I have been happy to contribute articles to, both from abroad and here in Miami, from time to time over the years. But if friends of mine such as the great Irish photographer Andrew McConnell, who I reported with from the Democratic Republic of Congo, can cobble together their own often meagre resources to get into Gaza itself and cover the violence there, is it too much to expect a Miami Herald reporter to get into their air conditioned car and drive a couple of miles to town to cover a demonstration that they will later write about? Now that the Herald has moved from its downtown offices in the heart of Miami to the antiseptic and distant suburb of Doral, it is in ever more danger of being cut off from the people of the city it claims to cover authoritatively.

The temptation to sit behind a desk in an office with minimal effort, tweeting and blogging away, is great but, even in this digital age, reporters must go out among the people and, well, report.  If journalists want to wade into international reporting on fraught geopolitical issues such as this one, simply sighing those issues are "complex" does not cut it.

The Miami Herald failed the people of Miami and the people of Gaza in this instance.

These are matters of life and death.

Either do it right, or don't do it at all.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Michael Deibert interviewed about Mexico on KPFK

My interview with KPFK in Los Angeles about my new book on the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas and the price of America's drug war in Mexico can be heard here.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Frontera List interviews author Michael Deibert

1 August 2014

Frontera List interviews author Michael Deibert

Interview by Virginia Isaad

(Read the original article here)

Frontera List focuses on the number of deaths in Juarez which is higher than what’s often published. After writing this book, how do you feel about how the war and the casualties are portrayed in mainstream media?

I feel that the generally accepted figures of those who have died in the war in Mexico since 2006, which, if one takes into account the 2012 Propuesta Cívica report of around 21,000 people who have had disappeared in addition to more than 70,000 killed, are actually quite conservative. As I mention in the book, after the Tamaulipas massacres in 2010/2011, one Zetas lieutenant said they he thought up to that point the Zetas had buried up to 600 bodies around Tamaulipas alone. I think the full number of those killed in Mexico may be many, many more.  And people also like to forget, because of the drug trade and US drug policies, there are also bodies dropping in places like Miami, Chicago and New Orleans in the United States every single day.

You put yourself in some precarious situations while researching this book. What is one incident that stands out and why?

In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in late 2013, while finishing up some interviews with people who had been deported from the United States, a contact and I were driving though a cartel-dominated part of the city to another interview across town. As we began to leave the first neighborhood we ran headlong into a Gulf Cartel roadblock of half a dozen guys with automatic rifles stopping cars and deciding who could pass and who couldn’t. They let some go, and stopped some others. To me it looked as if they were scanning the cars for someone in particular, though my contact said that he thought they were actually coming out as a show of force to recruit young people in the neighborhood, something they do from time to time.

You quote an interviewee who says “a new culture and belief are taking hold.” How would you characterize the war now versus five years ago?
Unfortunately, I think now, certainly among border communities in Tamaulipas but also in other parts of Mexico, there is a kind of collective PTSD among many people who live there, and a fatalism verging on despair. You send your kids out for school in the morning and don’t know whether they wil be trapped there by a gunattle later in the day. You open up a business and someone shows up claiming they work for this or that criminal group and that you must pay la mordida or else there will be consequences. You get on the highway to drive from Reynosa to Matamoros and God only knows if you will get there alive or not.

America plays a large role not only as drug consumers but also gun suppliers. What needs to change in America in order to bring about changes in Mexico?

I think there needs to be a general decriminalization and regulation of narcotics in the United States similar to what what we saw with alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition.  Since Richard Nixon’s famous speech in 1971, which many view as the beginning of what came to be known as the war on drugs, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion fighting it, and yet we have seen violence related to the drug trade cut a bloody swathe through Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere. All these year later, I could still step out the door of my apartment in Miami and cop any drug I wanted in about 20 minutes. Over half of sentenced prisoners under federal jurisdiction in the United States are serving time for drug offenses, for which African-Americans are sent to prison at 10 times the rate of caucasians. Does that sound like a successful, equitable system of justice to you? It doesn’t to me.

In terms of the gun industry, I have a story in the book about a guy from Houston who helped facilitate the purchase of more than 100 military-style firearms, many of which ended up in the hands of Mexico’s cartels, including at such locales as a February 2007 assault on the Guerrero  state attorney general’s office in Acapulco that left seven people dead. It is not an unrepresentative case and, as I’m sure you, know, for many years, at gun shows in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, unlicensed dealers were not even obligated to record the buyer’s name, and in Arizona, no licensing or permit requirements whatsoever were imposed for purchasing  firearms, including limiting the firearms a person could purchase by quantity or time period. The US is a great one-stop shop for the cartels.

My hope is, building on the example we’ve seen shown by states like Colorado and Washington, US drug policy will go the way of Portugal, which in November 2000 decriminalized “personal” drug possession and use up to amounts generally thought of to be able to be consumed by one person over a 10-day period, including for drugs  such as cocaine and heroin. With an emphasis on dissuasion and prevention of drug addiction as well as treatment, in the 14 years since the law was passed, Portugal didn’t see a significant increases in drug use among the population and rather drug consumption among 15 to 19 years olds, a particularly at-risk group, actually went down. Portuguese police are making fewer arrests but are seizing larger quantities of drugs because now, rather than low level drug use and dealing, they are free to combat organized crime.

A lot of media coverage focuses on  capturing drug kingpins like El Chapo however you say it does very little to truly impact the drug trade. What needs to happen in order to cause the foundations of these cartels to unravel?

As I said, I think there needs to be a general decriminalization of narcotics, and we need to realize that it’s not productive to put people – the users – in jail, for basically beings sick. As Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, one of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel says at one point in the book, even if authorities might feel a momentary elation at the killing or capture of this or that drug lord, their replacements are already out there.

If there’s one thing you wish readers would take from this book, what would it be?

The the policies of the United States with regard to the drug trade – from the prohibition of narcotics to the free flow of firearms to the private prison industry that jails so much of our population to the US banks that launder billions of dollars of drug money – have corrupted not only drug producing and distributing counties like Colombia and Mexico, but the United States itself. And it is time that these policies change.