Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Michael Deibert on drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico and Guatemala

My friend, the filmmaker and photographer Francesca Romeo, recorded me here in New Orleans this week talking about some of the challenges facing Mexico and Guatemala. In this short clip, I discuss drug trafficking, organized crime and some of the steps that the I think the United States could take to help lessen the violence in both countries.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Michael Deibert on KPFK Pacifica Radio

My interview yesterday with Suzi Weissman on KPFK Pacifica Radio about the violence currently affecting Mexico and Guatemala can be heard here. My segment starts around the 28 minute mark after the segment about Palestine. Also got to throw in my two cents about the arrest of Ratko Mladic.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mladic, Chomsky and Srebrenica: Time for an apology

By now the word that wanted war criminal Ratko Mladic has been arrested in Serbia has traveled around the globe. On the run for nearly 15 years, the former Bosnian Serb general accused of overseeing that massacre 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995 will face justice. But will the apologists for the violent Serbian expansion of the 1990s in the international community - the linguist and MIT professor Noam Chomsky chief among them - finally apologize to his many victims for seeking to scuttle their calls for justice all these years?

I first became aware of Chomsky's, shall we say rather unorthodox, views of the Bosnian conflict in connection with a campaign he and his supporters launched against the talented young British journalist Emma Brockes, whose October 2005 interview with Mr. Chomsky in The Guardian caused a great deal of controversy. Among other tough questions, it asked about Chomsky’s relationship with what The Times (UK) columnist Oliver Kamm quite accurately described as “some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.”

The furor at the time centered around Ms. Brockes confronting Chomky with the fact that he had lent his name to a letter praising the “outstanding” (Chomsky’s own words) work of a journalist called Diana Johnstone. Johnstone’s 2002 book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press), argues that the July 1995 killing of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was, in essence (directly quoting from her book), not a “part of a plan of genocide” and that “there is no evidence whatsoever” for such a charge. This despite the November 1995 indictment of Bosnian Serb leaders Mladic and Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for “genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war” stemming from that very episode and the later conviction by the same tribunal of a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica.

Johnstone also states that no evidence exists that much more than 199 men and boys were killed there and that Srebrenica and other unfortunately misnamed 'safe areas' had in fact “served as Muslim military bases under UN protection.” In 2003, the Swedish magazine Ordfront published an interview with Johnstone where she reiterated these views. Chomsky was also among those who supported a campaign defending the right of a fringe magazine called Living Marxism to publish claims that footage the British television station ITN took in August 1992 at the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia was faked. ITN sued the magazine for libel and won, putting the magazine out of business, as Living Marxism could not produce a single witness who had seen the camps at first hand, whereas others who had - such as the journalist Ed Vulliamy - testified as to their horror.

In fact, as recently as April 25, 2006, in an interview with Radio Television of Serbia (a station formerly aligned with the murderous and now-deceased Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), Chomsky stated, of the iconic, emaciated image of a Bosnian Muslim man named Fikret Alic, the following:

Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.

Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'

In taking this position, Chomsky seemingly attempts to discredit the on-the-ground reporting of not only Mr. Vulliamy - whose reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994 - but of other journalists such as Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and Roy Gutman. In fact, Vulliamy , who filed the first reports on the horrors of the Trnopolje camp and was there that day the ITN footage was filmed, wrote as follows in The Guardian in March 2000:

Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathized with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.

In his interview with Brockes, Chomsky stated that "Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."

In a November 2005 column, Marko Attila Hoare, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Kingston (London), wrote thusly:

An open letter to Ordfront, signed by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, stated: 'We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.' In his personal letter to Ordfront in defence of Johnstone, Chomsky wrote: 'I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important.' Chomsky makes no criticism here of Johnstone's massacre denial, or indeed anywhere else - except in the Brockes interview, which he has repudiated. Indeed, he endorses her revisionism: in response to Mikael van Reis's claim that 'She [Johnstone] insists that Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda', Chomsky replies that 'Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.'

Pretty astounding stuff, huh? But, faced with a relentless campaign by Mr. Chomsky and his supporters The Guardian, to its eternal shame, pulled Brockes’ interview from its website and issued what can only be described as a groveling apology that did a great disservice not only to Ms Brockes herself, but also to former Guardian correspondent Vulliamy and all those journalists who actually risked their lives covering the Bosnian conflict, to say nothing of the victims of the conflict themselves.

The caving-in focused on three points, the chief of which appeared to be the headline used on the interview, which read: “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”

Though this was a paraphrase rather than a literal quotation, the fact of the matter was that it did seem to accurately sum up the state of affairs: Chomsky had actively supported Johnstone, who in turn had claimed that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated and not part of a campaign of genocide. The Guardian brouhaha prompted, Kemal Pervanic, author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnia War, and a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, to write that “If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too. Mr Chomsky has the audacity to claim that Living Marxism was "probably right" to claim the pictures ITN took on that fateful August afternoon in 1992 - a visit which has made it possible for me to be writing this letter 13 years later - were false. This is an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself.”

Chomsky complained about that, too, forcing The Guardian to write in its apology that, ignoring the fact that it was Chomsky’s characterization of the Serb-run camps that seemed to outrage Pervanic the most, “Prof Chomsky believes that publication (of Pervanic’s letter) was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false…With hindsight it is acknowledged that the juxtaposition has exacerbated Prof Chomsky's complaint and that is regretted.”

So Emma Brockes (whom I have never met), in this instance, at least, was silenced.

But the history of what happened in the Balkan wars should not be so easily silenced and re-written. With Ratko Mladic, predator and killer, now in custody, Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and the others who have sought to deny justice to the victims of Bosnia's killing fields should apologize to those victims for working so long to make the justice they sought less, not more, likely.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Struggle for Kashmir

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference in Indian-administered Kashmir, was placed under house arrest today in India's latest move in its long colonial adventure there. I interviewed him in 2007 while reporting from the region and, at the request of a Kashmiri friend, repost my article from that time here today. To anyone who may read this, Kashmir remains the most beautiful place I have seen on this earth, and the story there is not at all what we have been lead to believe. Visit it soon, if you can. MD

The Struggle for Kashmir

By Michael Deibert

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the World Policy Journal.

In the bloody annals of the struggle for the Kashmir Valley, few chapters are as wrenching as that of the “disappeared.” Some 8,000 persons have been arrested or seized, the majority by Indian army and police units, never to be seen again. The conflict has thus far claimed at least 40,000 lives (local human rights groups put the number much higher), left tens of thousands wounded, hundreds of thousands displaced, and pitted the Indian state against Islamist militants, historically aided by India’s nuclear rival Pakistan. Amid this bitter conflict, another dark chapter has begun to surface, after nearly two decades of international silence and official denial.

In Ganderbal, a town in the heart of India’s Kashmir Valley, a visitor superficially encounters a winter idyll: rushing mountain streams ringed with snow-covered hills. But the sensation is fleeting.

“We have so many cases of people who have been disappeared, who have been killed, whose names are never known,” says Abdul Aziz, a 26 year-old merchant, standing with a group of men under a gray sky, garbed like the rest, in the region’s distinctive gown-like shirt, called a pheran. As he speaks, a horse-drawn cart pulls fire wood and produce down the road. “They are killed as militants, but they were not militants.” Steps away from the storefront where Aziz and a dozen others are gathered, there are three rises of freshly turned earth. These graves hold the bodies of three unknown men, say Aziz and the villagers, buried there by Indian security forces.

“Police or military arrest an innocent person and they label him as a Pakistani militant, as a foreign militant, as a local militant, and then they kill him,” says Gulam Hassan, a 50-year-old shopkeeper, as he observes the scene. “This is against the constitution, against the law, and against all humanity.”

When India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, vowed “zero tolerance” for the killing of suspected rebels in government custody while attending a May 2006 conference with local political leaders in Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, many hoped a new day had dawned for human rights in the region. India has engaged in intermittent peace talks with Pakistan since 2003, and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in late 2006 proposed a four-point formula which, he said, could form the basis of a solution of the Kashmir dispute. (Most salient among them, for the first time there would be no Pakistani claim to Indian-controlled Kashmir or a demand for full independence for the region.) These moves seemed to augur a more peaceful future.

This January, in what many interpreted as another hopeful sign, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of Kashmir’s Sunni Muslims and chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, which has historically advocated autonomy for the region, told a crowd in Islamabad, Pakistan, that he was calling for an end to armed struggle as a means of ending Indian rule of the region. “We are not prepared to sacrifice any more of our loved ones,” he announced

After a similar declaration five years ago, Abdul Ghani Lone, then leader of the Hurriyat Conference, was gunned down by unknown assailants. Mr. Farooq’s own father, Mirwaiz Mohammed Farooq, was slain in a similar manner in May 1990. But the politicians’ words have yet to filter to ground-level. A special investigating team sent by the Indian government has thus far arrested 11 policemen from Ganderbal—including the senior superintendent and deputy superintendent—for the alleged killings of civilians in staged gun battles with the security forces, here described as “encounters.” At least four bodies have been exhumed from graves as part of the investigation.

Police officers in Ganderbal said that they thought the stories of disappearances were exaggerated. “That’s not the entire police force, only one or two people may have done it,” said A. M. Reshi, the on-duty Ganderbal police station house officer. “I am of the opinion that the police, on the whole, are working on a good way, as per procedure, as per of the law of the land, as per the constitution.” A. R. Khan, the new police superintendent of Ganderbal, declined to be interviewed for this report.

How It Began

The roots of the Kashmir crisis stretch back to the twilight of Great Britain’s colonial rule and partition of India and Pakistan, when a Hindu Maharaja, Hari Singh, pleaded for Indian assistance to fend off an invasion of Pakistan-backed tribesmen entering Kashmir in 1947. He allowed Indian troops to rush to his aid, and signed a document agreeing to become part of the Indian state. Kashmiris, 12 million of whom make up the only Muslim-majority state in India, where a promised a referendum on the status of the region which was never held. A 1948 United Nations Security Council resolution posited that in a plebiscite, Kashmiris should only have the option to accede to either India or Pakistan, denying Kashmiris a vote for independence, the long-cherished goal of many. Despite later wars, the 1947 armistice border between Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir has remained largely along the contours one sees today, and is know as the Line of Control.

Though demarcating separate sections controlled by two separate armies, the Line of Control has never been recognized as an international border. India and Pakistan have fought successive wars along the frontier, the most recent in 1999. The Indian government refers to its portion of the territory as Jammu and Kashmir, referring as well to neighboring Jammu state, which falls within Indian territory, while the other side of the Line of Control is dubbed Pakistani Occupied Kashmir (POK ). The Pakistani government refers to its portion of the captured territory as Azad (Free) Jammu and Kashmir.

When 1987 legislative elections seemed likely to result in a victory for a coalition of Islamic and secessionist parties under the umbrella of the Muslim United Front (MUF), the Indian authorities responded with mass arrests of MUF candidates and party workers. This was followed by credible and pervasive allegations of vote rigging, and the awarding of the election to a rival, less radical, coalition. Many Kashmiri youths who had previously sought to change the status quo through electoral means felt they had no alternative but to turn to the gun, with Pakistan’s intelligence services—particularly the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency—more than happy to provide training and weapons. The dispute flared into open insurrection.

The Indian government faced large-scale protests and a sustained campaign of terrorism, including the murder of political leaders and mass-casualty civilian attacks, on a scale not seen before. In two incidents in 1990 alone, Indian police shot and killed at least 35 demonstrators attempting to cross Srinagar’s Gawakadal Bridge, and then opened fire and killed at least 21 at the funeral of Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq. Three years later, 37 people were killed when India’s 74th Battalion Border Security Force opened fire on a crowd estimated at 10,000 marching to protest extrajudicial killings in the town of Beijbehara. For their part, Kashmiri militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), which India has long accused Pakistan of supporting, retaliated with the December 2000 attack on the 17th century Red Fort in India’s capital, New Delhi, in which three died; a 2001 suicide attack on India’s parliament which left 14 dead; and, the Indian government charges, last summer’s bomb attacks on commuter trains in India’s economic capital, Mumbai, in which 187 people were killed. Fatal attacks by Islamic militants against members of the local Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference Party (NCP) because of their participation in Indian electoral politics are now routine. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, called Pandits, have been driven from their homes.

Many fear that if the opportunity for a lasting settlement to the Kashmir problem is not seized during the present era of relative détente, the region will have lost its last, best chance for peace. “This is a golden opportunity which needs to be taken now, it should not take years,” says Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP. Mufti’s party came to power as part of an elected coalition government in Kashmir in 2002. The post of chief minister (the Indian equivalent of governor) currently resides with Ghulam Nabi Azad, of the ruling national Congress party, which favors resolving the crisis in Kashmir within the Indian constitutional framework. “So many people have been martyred, so many people have lost their lives, so many homes have been destroyed, they would like to have something out of it,” Mufti contends. “If we don’t give the Kashmiris something today, this problem is going...to manifest again into some type of

Though India, a dynamic, hopeful country, is undergoing an economic boom that is the envy of other emergent nations, Kashmir remains a shaming stain. “The Indian government has ended some practices such as indiscriminate firing upon unarmed protesters,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But they have begun this system where soldiers just kill suspected militants, completely against the laws of war.”

In a September 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report condemning what it called “patterns of impunity” in Kashmir and neighboring Jammu state, and called for a “credible and independent” investigation into all disappearances and staged killings since the conflict began. Part of the problem, according to Ganguly, is a system of payouts and promotions whereby soldiers are rewarded for killing suspected insurgents.

Likewise, human rights monitors have pointed to Section 45 of India’s criminal procedure code, which protects any member of the armed forces from arrest for “anything done or purported to be done by him in the discharge of his official duties except after obtaining the consent of the Central government.“ Section 197(2) of the same code makes it mandatory for prosecutors to obtain permission from the federal government to initiate criminal proceedings against any public servant, including armed forces personnel.

The fate of Kashmir remains an intensely divisive issue in modernizing India. Facile political definitions become blurred as Indians talk about the fate of the restive region. “Kashmir could be solved tomorrow. If the Kashmiris wanted to join the Indian union, they would prosper like never before,” says Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian and author of the just-published
India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. “Independence or joining Pakistan are no solutions...and chasing this fantasy of independence will lead to the sacrifice of another generation of young men.”

Many Kashmiris, however, find such arguments unpersuasive. “For me, that’s a colonial way of looking at things,” says Idrees Kanth, a 28-year-old Kashmiri graduate student in New Delhi. “That was precisely how the British rationalized their rule in India.” Ideas like nationalism are “very penetrative,” Kanth believes, even to the Left and the intellectual class. “But, watching them during an India-Pakistan cricket match, you should see how they cheer.”

The Voices Seldom Heard

This past February, in the Lal Chowk neighborhood of Srinagar, a once-lovely city on Dal Lake now ringed with barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers, hundreds of Kashmiris stage a sit-in protest for three days against the human rights situation in the region. Beneath a tent, festooned with images of the dead and Urdu script quoting the Koran, is Yasin Malik, a secessionist rebel who underwent a transformation while in prison and now leads a non-violent, Ghandian movement called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF ). He lies on a mat during the second day of a hunger strike.

He threatens to fast “unto death” if the human rights situation in Kashmir does not improve. “The mothers and sisters want to know where their children are," said Malik. "If they have been killed, give us their bodies.” Nearby, sit relatives of the disappeared, many holding photos.

“I joined this organization because my son, Javid Ahmed Ahanger, was taken by national security personnel in August 1990,” says Parmina Ahanger, the 47-year-old head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a Srinagar-based organization. “I sent a complaint into the court and to the police. They established that he had been taken, but they pleaded their inability to act as the officers involved in my son’s abduction were of very high- ranking positions.”

Another woman, 50-year-old Rahti Razak, speaking through her tears, held up a photo of a young man with an impressive mane of black locks. “My son was taken from his bedroom when he was sleeping with his one-year-old son and wife in 1997. They came into his room, dragged him out by his hair and took him away,” she says. “He was abducted by the Special Operations Group (army and local police). I have been going all over this valley, to Uttar Pradesh and other places, but I have not been able to locate him.”

There are many such stories. Safiya Azad, whose haunting dark eyes are visible beneath her black burqa, tells the story of her husband, Himaynu Azad. “My husband was about 29 when he was arrested by Special Battalion 137 in 1993,” she says. “He was a political activist, and was connected with the militants. But even if he was a militant, they have punished the whole family. We’ve gone everywhere, to all authorities, we have put in reports with several police stations. They say that he escaped from their custody. We have a right to know what happened to him.”

As another family member of one of Kashmir's disappeared takes to the microphone and begins yet another impassioned appeal for justice, Yasin Malik rises wearily from beneath his blanket to say some final words to a visitor. "In Kashmir, there is no democracy," said Malik. "The government of India in Kashmir is existing in bunkers, and they're running their democracy through the barrel of a gun."

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Estado de Sitio Petén

Cartel Wars

Cartel Wars

May 16, 2011

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

MATAMOROS, Mexico—Of all the iconography that one encounters when traversing the border regions between the United States and Mexico—a land informed by the exploits of Mexican and American bandits and smugglers and which was part of a single country until 1836—two images stand out to a visitor.

Gazing out at passersby from clothing shops and discount stores on both sides of the border, the first is a visage of dapper, mustachioed solemnity: The face of Jesús Malverde. Often depicted today on T-shirts and baseball caps with marijuana leafs wreathing his face, Malverde was said to have been an outlaw from the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. The main shrine dedicated to Malverde—allegedly executed by authorities in about 1909 and revered as a quasi-saint by many in Mexico’s criminal underworld—is in the Sinaloan city of Culiacan, birthplace of the eponymous Cartel de Sinaloa, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, perhaps Mexico’s most famous drug trafficker.

The other image is that of a hooded, scythe-wielding skeleton, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Like Jesús Malverde, Santa Muerte—whose main shrine in the rough-and-ready Mexican city barrio of Tepito sees visitors greeted by the skeletal lady in a white wedding dress—has become an object of veneration among Mexico’s criminals.

Here in Matamoros, a community of about 500,000 that gave birth to the criminal organization known as the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel) and which sits just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, these figures, culled from the rich imagery of religion and crime, have now been joined by new depictions of transgression and loss.

At the Matamoros morgue, plastered to its glass doors amid a stench of human decay, the faces of dozens of people who have disappeared in this Mexican state of Tamaulipas over the last year gaze out onto the world. Relatives believe that they may be among the 183 bodies exhumed from 40 separate pits by Mexican authorities over the last month or so, likely victims of the Gulf Cartel’s erstwhile allies-turned-enemies, Los Zetas.

In the annals of a conflict that has killed more than 34,600 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized his country’s battle against drug traffickers in December 2006, the conflict in Tamaulipas is writing a new and bloody chapter.

Cartel Recruited Elite Army Unit’s Members

What would grow into the present-day Cartel del Golfo had its genesis in Matamoros and the enterprising diversification of a Mexican smuggler and bootlegger named Juan Nepomuceno Guerra. Born in 1915, Guerra and his nephew, Juan Garcia Abrego, had decided by the 1970s to expand the criminal band’s connections with Colombia’s Cali Cartel, and had developed an extensive web of corruption of local, state and federal government officials in Tamaulipas.

Garcia Abrego was arrested at a ranch in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon in January 1996 and subsequently sentenced to 11 life terms in the United States for drug trafficking. Guerra died in 2001 of natural causes. Control of the cartel fell into the hands of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, a former mechanic who promptly earned the sobriquet El Mata Amigos (Friend Killer) by dispatching a potential rival, a close personal acquaintance.

When Cardenas recruited as his lieutenants his two brothers—Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen (aka Tony Tormenta, or Tony the Storm) and Mario Cardenas Guillen—as well as Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez, a former Matamoros police officer, the modern-day Gulf Cartel was born.

Feeling under pressure from his rivals after his ascension to the head of the cartel, in the late 1990s Cardenas began to recruit active members of an elite Mexican army unit, the Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), to become the organization’s military wing. Trained originally in counterinsurgency and counternarcotics tactics, the GAFE deserters were also skilled in such tactics as rapid deployment, intelligence collection, countersurveillance and ambush.

Initially led by Arturo Guzman Decena, known as Z1 (“Zeta” in Spanish) after a Mexican radio code for high-ranking officers. Guzman Decena was killed in November 2002, and his successor, Rogelio Gonzalez Pizaña (Z2), was scooped up by authorities less than two years later. The leadership of Los Zetas then coalesced around Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Z3), a man whose violence caused him to become known as El Verdugo (The Executioner).

For a time, the arrangement worked. Los Zetas proved themselves to be so adept at killing and terrorizing the cartel’s enemies that they were even recruited to train members of La Familia, Gulf Cartel allies based in the western state of Michoacan and at the time led by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez. Known as El Mas Loco (The Craziest One), Moreno invested La Familia with quasi-religious overtones, even giving the group’s foot soldiers a book of his aphorisms to carry along as they committed such acts as hurling five decapitated heads across the floor of the Sol y Sombra (Sun and Shadow) nightclub in September 2006. Moreno would be killed in a gun battle with Mexican security forces in December 2010.

La Familia was outrageous and bizarre, but it proved to be only the smallest foreshadowing of what was to come. Shortly after the Sol y Sombra incident, Felipe Calderon was elected Mexico’s president and declared war on the country’s drug trade. In an equally significant corollary, although hardly commented upon at the time, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who had been running the Gulf Cartel from a Mexican prison cell since his arrest in March 2003, was extradited to the United States.

The glue that had held together one of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking operations for a decade was becoming unstuck. The center would not hold.

Pits Filled With the Dead at San Fernando

Following the extradition of Cardenas, relations between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas grew ever more strained. Members of the latter, high on their own sense of power and fortified by copious amounts of cocaine and Buchanan whisky (the cartel libation of choice), had little use for their former bosses, diminished as they were by the Cardenas arrest and a decentralized system that saw Cardenas’ brother Tony Tormenta and the former cop El Coss acting as co-heads of the organization.

The January 2010 slaying of Victor Mendoza, a Zeta lieutenant killed by a Gulf Cartel gunman in circumstances that are not entirely clear, proved to be the match that lit the bonfire of violence that now threatens to consume Tamaulipas.

Following pitched battles in the city of Reynosa, about 50 miles west of Matamoros, the Gulf Cartel claimed control of those two cities, with the Zetas ruling in the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, and in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican counterpart of Laredo, Texas. The space between these population centers consists of little-patrolled rough countryside, and became the scene of the most ruthless kind of war as each side tried to eliminate the other.

“The current levels of violence are indeed changing the entire culture of the border region,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville who has studied the conflict extensively. “The levels of violence have escalated to unprecedented levels, and the new practices by killers are extreme and had never been observed in the past.”

Correa-Cabrera is referring to the 183 confirmed dead recovered thus far from the San Fernando pits, roughly 80 miles to the south, but her observations are anything but distant and academic. The university campus where she works, just across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, has been struck on three separate occasions by bullets fired during confrontations on the Mexican side.

Almost unbelievably, before this latest outrage, San Fernando, surrounded by rural roads and ranches, had been the scene of a similar mass killing less than a year earlier, when a group believed to be the Zetas killed 72 Central American migrants outside the town in August 2010 after holding them for ransom. Since the most recent killings, 16 local police officers have been detained under suspicion of involvement.

“They recruit boys from 13 to 17 years old,” says a 19-year-old university student from Matamoros, speaking in hushed tones about the cartels. “The police are also involved in this.”

Since the February 2010 mutiny by the Zetas, two loose and broad-based cartel alliances have seemed to coalesce. One configuration consists of the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel and the now greatly diminished La Familia; the Zetas have aligned themselves with the Cartel de Juarez (based in the eponymous city in the state of Chihuahua in western Mexico) and the Beltran-Leyva Carte, which became famous for its use of 12-year-old hit men and has suffered the loss of its top leaders through killings and imprisonment at the Calderon government’s hands. The Zetas have also reinforced themselves by recruiting members of Los Kabiles, a special-operations unit of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics and that had a particularly ghastly record in that country’s civil war.

In Tamaulipas, at least, the federal government has often seemed little more than a hapless referee as the two sides have battled each other for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes with ever-increasing levels of savagery. The dumping of dismembered bodies in the state has become almost routine, while gruesome videos of the foot soldiers of various factions being beheaded or otherwise killed are posted to websites such as the anonymously run Blog del Narco as a way to send messages and spread fear among opponents.

Though several midlevel Zeta operatives have been killed or captured, perhaps the Calderon government’s most notable victory in the region was the killing of Tony Tormenta during an hours-long gun battle in Matamoros last November. Although the official reports said that four cartel gunmen, three marines and a reporter perished during a series of gun battles throughout the city, Matamoros residents put the number of dead that day at closer to 100.

In February of this year, banners addressed to the Zetas were hung from bridges in Tamaulipas and three other Mexican states. They contained the claim, among others, that the state “had already witnessed the killing and massacre of innocent people by the Zetas” and a demand that the group “fight like men.” The banners were signed Carteles Unidos (United Cartels), an apparent reference to the Gulf-Sinaloa-La Familia alliance.

An entire new vocabulary of neologisms—from narcocorridos (songs) and narcomantas (banners) to narcobloqueos (blockades)—has taken root in Mexican culture as the society at large seeks ways to label the pervasive influence of drug traffickers and their signifiers.

“People are tired,” says Mauricio Meschoulam, a professor at the department of international studies at the Universidad Iberoamericana in the capital of Mexico City, where an estimated 150,000 people marched against the violence this month. “They feel that the government’s fight is unsuccessful and that the government is not in control of the situation. This perception increased sharply in 2010, especially in the second half of the year.”

Endless Violence Fueled by U.S. Firearms

Though the violence in Tamaulipas is shocking, it is not isolated.

In Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city of 1.3 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, 3,000 people were killed last year during a power struggle between the Cartel de Juarez and the Cartel de Sinaloa and a general breakdown in law and order not lessened by the presence of the Mexican army. This past February, Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, was shot to death and his partner was wounded as they drove in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. A known member of Los Zetas was subsequently arrested for his killing.

On May 19, a gun battle between suspected Zetas and Mexican marines patrolling Falcon Lake, which sits on the border between Texas and Tamaulipas, left 12 gang members and one marine dead. Last September, U.S. boater David Hartley disappeared after being chased and shot by gunmen on the Mexican side of the lake’s border. The severed head of the Mexican police commander in charge of investigating the case was subsequently left outside a Mexican army post.

The policies of the United States, involved in a perversely symbiotic relationship with Mexico in which drugs flow north and weapons flow south, have not been helpful.

A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime concluded that the U.S., with a population of 310 million, consumed $37 billion in cocaine in 2008, while Europe as a whole, with a population of 830 million, consumed $34 billion. Over the past four years, as The Washington Post has reported, more than 60,000 U.S. guns have been found in Mexico, largely coming from gun dealers in states with conspicuously liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona. The AK-47 used to kill agent Jaime Zapata was traced to a legal purchase at a Texas gun store.

In the meantime, the brazen and highly ritualized drumbeat of violence continues, leading observers on both sides of the border to wonder just how deeply it is permanently changing Mexico.

“How can you justify these extreme new practices and massacres?” asks professor Correa-Cabrera. “How can someone justify to himself assassinating dozens of men, women and children?”

“The economic explanation is definitely an important one,” she continues. “But there must be more elements in these new and extreme forms of violence. A new culture and new beliefs are taking hold.”

Michael Deibert's writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Miami Herald, Le Monde diplomatique, Folha de Sao Paulo and the World Policy Journal, among other publications. He has been a featured commentator on international affairs for the BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, and WNYC New York Public Radio.

In his role as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University, which promotes processes of reconciliation by non-violent means at all levels throughout the world, he aids the Centre in its mission to increase and sustain dialogue on international peacebuliding and development issues, with a particular focus on Africa and Latin America.

A recognized authority on the Caribbean nation of Haiti, which he first visited in 1997, Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). His reporting currently focuses on drug trafficking, organized crime and insurgency in the Americas.

His blog can be read at www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com. He can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/michaelcdeibert.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Border region lives in fear amid Mexico cartel war

Border region lives in fear amid Mexico cartel war

By Michael Deibert

Thu May 12 2011, 1:12 am ET

MATAMOROS, Mexico (AFP) – Plastered to the front of the morgue in this border city, where only hours before a battle raged between Mexican security forces and gunmen believed to belong to a local drug cartel, the faces stare back, haunting in their silence and mystery.

Carlos Alberto Sanchez, 17 years old. Fernando Tejeda Loya, 39 years old. Kelvin Alvin Palomo Nava, 22 years old. Dozens of photos and names belonging to people who have disappeared in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas over the last year.

From inside the squat, gray structure, a sickly whiff of human decay is unmistakable.

Since Mexican authorities exhumed a total of 183 bodies from 40 separate pits in the state over the last month, the families of hundreds of missing people have offered DNA samples to Mexican authorities.

At this point, only three of the bodies have been identified.

This part of Mexico was once a booming hub for cross-border trade between the country and the United States -- which operates hundreds of low-wage factories on the Mexican side.

Today, it finds itself in the midst of a terrifying war of attrition between the city's indigenous Gulf Cartel, their former partners known as Los Zetas and the elements of government power that have not been bought or bullied into the drug traffickers' service.

Near the morgue, black-clad policemen, their identities hidden under ski masks, set up check points, their assault rifles at the ready, while convoys of Mexican marines speed down broad boulevards.

"There is practically an anarchy here," says a businessman from the nearby city of Reynosa. "Many people have abandoned their homes."

The Gulf Cartel, which came into force under the wing of a Matamoros crime boss who had made his money bootlegging, by the late 1990s was being led by former mechanic Osiel Cardenas Guillen.

It was Cardenas Guillen who recruited the group of 30 Mexican special forces soldiers that would become Los Zetas to act as the cartel's military shock troops.

The group has since changed and expanded through the killing or arrest of most of its founding members and the addition of elements such as rogue soldiers from the Kabiles, a feared special forces branch of the Guatemalan military with an abysmal human rights record.

With Cardenas Guillen in jail in the United States and the leadership of the Gulf Cartel having shifted to his two brothers and a former Matamoros police officer, tensions between the two organizations grew until they exploded into open conflict in early 2010, each seeking to control lucrative drug shipment routes heading north.

Though a substantial portion of the the Zetas membership appears to be drawn from around the state of Veracruz, the group as a whole lacks the deep regional roots connect to many Mexican drug trafficking organizations whose very names -- Cartel de Sinaloa, Cartel de Tijuana, La Familia Michoacana -- speak of their histories in the regions that gave birth to them.

"The introduction of the Zetas changed the whole panorama of drug trafficking in Mexico," says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville who has studied the region extensively.

"Because of these new paramilitary practices, other groups have been made to raise their standards of violence, as well."

In August 2010, the Zetas were blamed for the slaying of 72 Central American migrants whose bodies were found at a ranch in Tamaulipas.

In June of that year, the leading candidate for the governorship of the state -- brother of the its current governor -- was slain along with four others.

This past February, a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was shot to death while driving in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and a known member of Los Zetas was subsequently arrested for his killing.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized his country's battle against Mexico's drug traffickers in December 2006, more than 34,600 have died in drug-related violence.

Along with the violence has grown a pervasive culture of corruption and fear. After the discovery of the most recent mass graves, 16 police officers were detained under suspicion of involvement.

Many newspapers on the Tamaulipas side of the border have almost stopped covering drug-related violence entirely.

Now, with one of Cardenas Guillen's brothers having perished in a wild firefight with Mexican security forces in Matamoros last year and the command of the Zetas having passed to Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (known as El Verdugo, or The Executioner), Tamaulipas remains hotly contested and divided.

The Gulf Cartel controls the northeastern part of the state that encompasses the cities of Reynosa and Matamoros itself, while the Zetas maintain power bases in the state capital Ciudad Victoria and Nuevo Laredo.

Despite the government's promises of security and increased aid, many local residents remain unconvinced, and say that governmental control in the region is visible little, if at all.

"The president says that here are many federal forces between here and Ciudad Victoria," says a cab driver in Matamoros who frequents the road. "But it's just not true."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A few thoughts on the killing of Osama Bin Laden

Human emotions are complicated things. As someone who was in Manhattan on 9/11, I didn't exactly rejoice at Osama Bin Laden's death - thinking of all those lost on that day and since - but I didn't exactly feel bad, either. More like felt as if a murderous, deluded rich kid - which was all that Bin Laden ever was - got what he deserved. I'll definitely direct my compassion to more deserving recipients. From Tamaulipas, MD.