Feature: Wednesday, December 03, 2008
The driver of this car was shot to death as he waited at a traffic light in Juarez three weeks ago. Courtesy El Diario de Juarez
The banner on this bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border invites soldiers and ex-soldiers to join a drug cartel. AP photo
Only last week, the bodies of seven men were dumped next to a soccer field, a few yards from a Juarez school. Alongside them were “narcomantas” — banners with messages from a drug gang. Courtesy El Diario de Juarez
Castillo, at the DEA Academy: “They’ve got M-16s, hand grenades, grenade launchers.” Courtesy Celerino Castillo, Powderburns.org
Police officers survey the area in Juarez where the bodies of seven men, all shot in the head, were found recently. Courtesy El Diario de Juarez
A Border Under Siege

American military training and Texas guns are helping boost drug-war violence.


The sun is shining on the low rolling hills covered in Texas short grass and dotted with cattle along the southern end of I-35, the road that stretches from Duluth, Minn., to the Texas-Mexico border at Laredo. Little interrupts the bucolic scene for miles in any direction except for electric towers strung together like alien giants on a forced march across the vast plains. Towns that are little more than gas-stops appear and disappear beside the highway. On the other side of the Rio Grande, the countryside looks to be more of the same.
At the border, one way to cross is via a footbridge over the river. Last spring, a banner hung on the Mexican side of the bridge turned out to be a recruiting poster for the Zetas, a murderous drug cartel that had recently taken over much of Nuevo Laredo.
At the end of I-35, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo face each other across that shallow river. It’s a famously porous international border that, given the shared culture of people on the two sides, has always seemed seriously smudged.
And yet few countries could be as different as the United States and Mexico these days. The critical nature of that difference takes hold as soon as a southbound traveler sets a foot — and it had better be a cautious foot — past the border formalities. In Nuevo Laredo, the walls of many homes and government buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Some have high concrete walls, four inches thick, in front of their property — protection against grenades and assault weapons. Nuevo Laredo hasn’t had a police chief in two years. The last one quit in fear of his life after only three months in office. The one before that was shot and killed in broad daylight after seven hours on the job.
Up the river in Juarez, across from El Paso, about 1,200 people have been murdered thus far this year, and the total could hit 1,500. The brutality of many of the murders is stunning. Newspaper headlines announce decapitations, people being burned alive or tortured to death, mass murders. In early November, a headless body was hung from an overpass over the city’s main road.
The story is the same, with variations, all along the U.S.-Mexico border, as various Mexican drug cartels fight each other and the government: This is no longer the drug war that has chugged along for decades along this border, where there was always violence, to be sure, but where headlines were more likely to be about the size of drug shipments seized or the latest local Customs or Border Patrol agent found to be in cahoots with the smugglers. Nor is American involvement any longer limited simply (and profoundly) to providing the market for drugs that makes the whole narcotrafficking world possible, or to low-level corruption of the occasional border cop.
Interviews with agents in numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies, border residents, and drug-war journalists paint a picture of a war beyond anything anyone has ever seen here before, an epidemic of murder and sadistic violence that’s being waged with American weapons and aided by American government dollars, led by forces trained by the American military. The level of power of the Mexican drug cartels is completely out of control, and nothing the U.S. and Mexican governments are doing seems to be working to slow it down.
Instead, the money generated by the sale of drugs in this country is so impossibly vast that corruption in local Mexican police forces, the Mexican military, and even the federal government is at the saturation point — and many times more lucrative, not to mention healthier, than staying honest. The drug gangs are now recruiting and killing people on the U.S. side of the border, and murders and corruption are on the rise in towns from El Paso to Brownsville. Unless something changes quickly, it looks as though things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Already, the Mexican side of the border has become such a horror show that many Americans will find it difficult to comprehend, no matter how many movies about it they have seen. The transformation of Mexico into a drugocracy is nearly complete, with no institution completely free from its influence, including the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
Thousands of Mexicans have paid dearly to have tracking chips embedded under their skin, so that they can be located if they are kidnapped. More Mexican citizens than ever are showing up in hospitals on the U.S. side to be treated for gunshot wounds — because there’s less chance in the United States of their attackers following them to a hospital ward to finish the job. And record numbers of Mexicans are fleeing to Canada to seek political asylum.
The firepower of the cartels is as frightening as their ruthlessness. Where do they get their weapons? From Texas and other border states, where the gun lobbies have kept the gun laws weak. Texas is considered to be the number-one supplier of weapons to the cartels.
But their artillery goes beyond anything found at your local gun shop. The cartels have M-16s, hand grenades, grenade launchers — that is, U.S. military weapons, by the truckload.
Many of the most murderous units of the drug armies know very well how to use those weapons because they were taught by the U.S. military — on the assumption that they were going to fight against the cartels. Now they fight for the cartels — or control them. What’s more, American corporations are getting into the act, working under contract with the Mexican and U.S. governments to train specialized soldiers, including in torture techniques, and to act as private security agents on both sides of the border, a prospect that is as chilling to some as the drug lords themselves.
A recent government report said one Mexican cartel, angered at raids in the U.S. that targeted their people (including in North Texas) has threatened retaliation. The cartel is calling on the American gangs that are its business partners to “confront U.S. law enforcement agencies.” One cartel boss allegedly has ordered reinforcements to Reynosa, the report said, “armed with assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and grenades and … occupying safe houses throughout the McAllen area.”
What’s more, the sign on the bridge was just one example of the cartel’s new practice of brazenly advertising for foot soldiers. In Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, their fliers were plastered everywhere recently.
The banner on the bridge echoed the words of the old U.S. military recruiting poster, and it specifically targeted members of the military: “The Zetas operations group wants you, soldier or ex-soldier,” it read. “We offer you a good salary, food, and attention for your family. Don’t suffer hunger and abuse any more.” It listed a cell phone number to call to sign up.
In Nuevo Laredo, things are much quieter now than they were two years ago, when gunfights broke out almost daily. But even now, entering Mexico at Laredo is intimidating because the town is still tense with the memory of those battles. Stores are boarded up, international medical and dental clinics that used to cater to Texans have for-rent signs on their doors, and it’s not a safe place to wander around. The relative peace is not the result of any law enforcement victory over the drug traffickers, far from it. The warring cartels have simply reached a détente.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon came to power in 2006 vowing to eliminate the drug scourge and its attendant violence. George W. Bush’s administration handed over hundreds of millions to help with that quest. But all that’s happened since Calderon took office, despite his efforts, is that the violence and corruption have increased. It’s not just the death toll that’s up; robberies, extortions, and kidnappings are on the rise as well.
The next-to-last Nuevo Laredo police chief was murdered because he promised to crack down on drug violence, which claimed 170 lives in that city in 2005 alone, not to mention dozens of kidnappings or the assassinations carried out on the U.S. side.
“It’s a war zone,” Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores told ABC News at the time. “We’ve got level-three body armor; they’ve got level-four. We’ve got cell phones; they’ve got satellite cell phones that we can’t tap into. … We’re being outgunned.”
In the fight against drug-based corruption, there has been no détente. In the last five months, 35 agents with the Mexican federal prosecutor’s office were arrested for corruption. According to Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, each was being paid between $150,000 and $450,000 monthly by the cartels. In late October, two high-ranking officials with Mexico’s Office on Organized Crime, part of the attorney general’s office, were arrested for supplying a Sinaloa-based cartel with information on possible drug seizures. Each was being paid $400,000 per month. An Interpol agent working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at the American embassy in Mexico City, caught supplying the same cartel with inside information last month, was thought to have been earning $30,000 monthly.
The current rash of violence in Mexico, as well as the violence that erupted in Nuevo Laredo a couple of years ago, can be traced to Calderon’s policy of going after cartel leaders. His belief was that the cartels would be destroyed with their capos gone. So he sent 32,000 federal soldiers out across Mexico with orders to bring the peace by eliminating cartel bosses. Dozens were captured or killed, including many who have since been extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. But the push also had two negative side effects: First, the cartels were able to corrupt large segments of those military forces sent out against them, and secondly, the removal of the bosses created a power vacuum that’s led to the current violence among those seeking to become the new cartel leaders.
In many ways, it’s a repeat of what happened in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Medellin and Cali cartel leaders were eliminated. Violence in that country escalated to brutal heights. But interestingly, the victor in those internecine wars turned out not to be any of the Colombian cartel lieutenants, but the drug bosses in Mexico, who moved up from being middle men to running the cartels themselves.
The campaigns then didn’t stop corruption or even slow it down, and the same has been true of Calderon’s efforts thus far. Much of the violence in Nuevo Laredo was carried out by municipal police, including gun battles between them and federal officers. Eventually more than half of Nuevo Laredo’s 700-man police force was fired for corruption. In June 2007, Calderon purged 284 federal police commanders from all 31 Mexican states and the Mexico City federal district. All that did, one DEA source said, was to raise the cost of monthly payments to corrupt federal agents and prosecutors.
U.S. drug agents estimate that, every day, $10 million worth of drugs crosses over the Laredo bridges — not to mention the rest of the 2,000-mile long U.S.–Mexico border — and heads up I-35. It’s enough to pay for a lot of corruption and a lot of weaponry. Unfortunately for their victims, the drug lords don’t have to go far to do their gun-shopping.
The Texas-Mexico frontier has always been a smuggler’s paradise, and through the decades, the trade — in whatever goods were in demand at the moment — has gone both ways. These days, although the drugs traveling north grab most of the headlines, there’s an equally deadly trade, in weapons, going into Mexico, since that country has no arms manufacturing industry. According to U.S. officials, nearly all of Mexico’s drug-war violence is done with U.S.-manufactured weapons. The worst-offending states are Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, all of which permit almost anyone to purchase and own as many pistols, machine pistols, rifles, and assault rifles as they want, with no waiting time and no record of the sale going beyond the gun dealers’ files.
In those states, only an instant background check is done. According to Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, anyone who sells a gun in this country — with a major and troublesome exception — must notify NICS. “The buyer is required to fill out a form, and the dealer then calls an 800 number, enters the buyer’s information, and either gets an OK or a “red light.” If it’s the latter, Fischer said, “the information will get transferred to the FBI, and we’ll make a decision whether the transaction can go through or not.”
A would-be buyer can be turned down for things as simple as not having gotten a new driver’s license after a move or as serious as being in this country illegally or having a felony criminal record. But Fischer noted that the form does not include the number of weapons being purchased, “So in theory a person could buy 100 or more at a time if they want.”
He also said that information on green-lighted purchasers is purged within 24 hours. Red-lighted forms are kept until the FBI determines the cause of the warning flag.
One Texas gun owner, a former NASA engineer who asked not to be identified, said he sees the problem with a system that doesn’t flag purchases of multiple guns. “Maybe something should be in place even in Texas that would call that sale into question,” he said. “I mean, how many AK-47s does a person need to have fun target shooting?”
He himself owns an Uzi, a semi-automatic bought over the counter at a gun store. “But you go to any gun show, and it doesn’t take long to find someone who’ll offer to take your semi-automatic and turn it into a fully automatic weapon,” he said.
Mexican authorities have repeatedly called on the U.S. to pass laws to stop or slow the estimated 2,000-weapon-a-day pace of gun sales into Mexico. But gun restrictions are extremely unpopular in Texas and other border states, an easy way for any politician to get unelected.
“Texas is probably the biggest supplier of guns that make their way into Mexico,” said Tom Crowley, special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “That’s both because of that long border they share and the number of gun dealers in the state.” BATF’s job is to handle the investigation of illegal gun and arms sales, as well as to trace guns that have been used in criminal activity.
“Now let’s say I’m a Mexican cartel member or illegal gun dealer, and I want to get my hands on some weapons,” Crowley said. “I’ll get a friend to purchase the guns I want and have him deliver them to me in Mexico. That’s called a straw-man purchase, and it’s illegal, but it’s done. And until one of those weapons is recovered at a crime scene, no one is going to know about it. Of course, that’s where BATF comes in: If the Mexican government provides us with that gun — and they’ve been more and more cooperative — we can trace it back to the manufacturer. They’ll tell us to which gun dealer it was shipped, and that gun dealer had better have kept the paperwork. ... And with that, we’ll be coming after you, to ask what the heck a gun you purchased is doing in Mexico in the hands of someone in a cartel gun battle.”
The system is flawed, Crowley admitted, both because of people obliterating serial numbers and because of the “gun show loophole.” The exception allows individuals to sell their own weapons at a gun show, such as the regular events held in large coliseums in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. No NICS check is done, and often no names are exchanged. If the gun later turns up to have been used in a multiple murder in Juarez and gets traced back to the legitimate owner, he can just say he sold it at a gun show to a stranger. And that’s the end of the case.
But Celerino Castillo, the former DEA agent who blew the whistle on the U.S.-backed Contras’ arms-for-drugs deals during the Nicaraguan civil war in the mid-1980s, said the problem isn’t limited to weapons being sold legally by individuals and then being resold to the cartels. The author of Powderburns, an account of the cocaine-for-arms scandal, Castillo worked undercover with the DEA for 12 years, mostly in Central and South America, including Mexico.
“The majority of the weapons being used by the cartels these days are U.S. military weapons and explosives,” he said. “They’ve got M-16s, hand grenades, grenade launchers. Even in Texas you can’t buy those. Those are U.S. military weapons. Last year an 18-wheeler full of M-16s was stopped headed to Matamoros, a border town controlled by the Gulf Cartel. Our U.S. military is either supplying the Mexican military with that weaponry, and corrupt elements in the Mexican military are selling it to the cartels, or someone in the U.S. military is supplying them. Either way, those are U.S. military guns being used in very violent cartel rivalries.
“So the responsibility still lies with the U.S., whether it’s military or gun shop owners,” Castillo said. “Without the guns, there would be less violence.”
Whatever version of corruption or bad policy is responsible for massive amounts of American military weapons ending up in the hands of the cartel, there is little mystery about the more routine forms of drug-money corruption being practiced, another longstanding border tradition. In October, FBI agents arrested a South Texas sheriff and charged him with “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana” among several other offenses. Starr County Sheriff Reymundo Guerra, who faces life imprisonment, follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Sheriff Eugenio Falcon, who pleaded guilty to non-drug-related conspiracy charges in 1998. Among many other law enforcement officers caught dealing with the cartels, in 2005 former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu was sentenced to 24 years in prison for running a criminal enterprise out of his office.
The corruption extends as far as the drug supply lines themselves. In September, 175 people thought to have ties to the Gulf Cartel were arrested in several U.S. states, including 22 in north Texas. The raids netted $1 million in cash, 400 pounds of methamphetamine, and 300 kilograms of cocaine — and drew the anger of drug bosses.
The Gulf Cartel isn’t exactly subtle in its recruitment of the military and others to its ranks. The Gulf Cartel has been plastering signs all over Reynosa and at times in Nuevo Laredo and elsewhere, asking soldiers and police officers to desert their posts and join the Zetas. One sign posted recently in Tampico asked soldiers and ex-soldiers to “Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel. We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice.”
In Juarez, the war between cartels is still going full bore.
“What we have are factions of the old Juarez Cartel that were followers of Amado Carrillo Fuentes fighting it out with followers of Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo, head of the Sinaloa Cartel. And it is hell there,” said Diana Washington Valdez, a reporter with the El Paso Times. Juarez has been the site of some of the most horrific killings along the border.
“Our paper won’t even let us go across into Juarez for stories anymore because they have no way to protect us. The U.S. Army at Fort Bliss here has warned their troops to stay out of Juarez,” Valdez said. According to news reports, one of the 1,200 or so people killed this year in Juarez in the internecine drug war was an American living in Juarez who was assassinated in October after he posted a sign asking the cartels not to leave any dead bodies in front of his house.
“You’ve got to understand that these guys are hitting night clubs, burning tourist clubs, kidnapping people, targeting payroll trucks,” Valdez said. “People who are not involved at all with the cartels are getting caught in the crossfire. That’s what makes it all so dangerous. … If you’re in a club they’re going to burn down … well, that’s just that.”
Whoever can flee is doing so, she said. “Here in El Paso we’ve got a lot of people coming over to stay with relatives, but we’ve also got a lot of people just wandering around the bus station with nowhere to go, just to avoid being in Juarez.”
Along the California-Mexico stretch of the border, similar death tolls are being rung up in Tijuana, where the Arellano-Felix Cartel — headed by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, known as “The Engineer” — is being challenged by several other cartels. In all, more than 3,500 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico in 2008. Included in that number are several Mexican journalists who were killed in reprisal for writing about the drug wars or cartel activities. The most recent was Armando Rodriguez, a crime reporter for Juarez’ El Diario, who was shot numerous times while sitting in his car in front of his home three weeks ago. These days, many newspapers, radio shows, and television stations in Mexico won’t cover drug issues at all, for fear of deadly reprisals.
The violence associated with the cartel wars is spreading north of the Rio Grande in different ways than in the past. In April 2007, Gabriel Cardona, then 18, pleaded guilty to five murders carried out in or near Laredo at the behest of then-Gulf Cartel leader Miguel Trevino Morales. Cardona was part of a group of teens who acted as cartel hitmen on the U.S. side of the border. Among Cardona’s hits was the kidnapping and murder of a former Laredo police officer. Rosario Reta, a Cardona associate, was recently convicted of a separate murder committed in Laredo in 2006.
U.S. drug officials have suggested that Cardona and Reta were part of a group known as the Zetitas, or Little Zetas, recruited from street gangs in Laredo and trained by the paramilitary group that calls itself the Zetas. Cardona and Reta both allegedly began working for the Gulf Cartel by delivering weapons from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo, and were subsequently singled out for hitman training.
Javier Sambrano, the El Paso police department’s public information officer, said there is no such spillover happening in his city. “There has been no spillover [of the violence from Juarez] at all,” he said. “Those individuals on the Mexican side of the border committing those atrocities have no incentive to come here and commit those sorts of crimes.” It’s true that some murders in El Paso are linked to drugs, he said, “but we have solved them, which is further discouragement to people imagining they could come here and commit them” without getting caught.
That might be good public relations for El Paso, but it’s also nonsense, said one border-area journalist who asked not to be named — and who pointed out that members of an El Paso gang called the Aztecas have recently been found operating in Juarez as hitmen for the Juarez cartel. The gang started in an El Paso prison, with the idea of protecting prisoners of Mexican descent, but has been suspected of cartel ties for years, particularly in connection with drug distribution and weapons smuggling. “We’ve long suspected the tie between the cartel and the Aztecas from El Paso,” the reporter said, “but now that some of them are on trial, we’ve got it in testimony being given in federal court.”
In November, El Paso children on their way to school found the body of a man tied to window bars, his feet dangling just above the ground. He was wearing a pig’s mask. A sign above his head said: “This is going to happen to all Aztecas.”
Another sign of the spillover, the reporter said, are the number of people who’ve been shot in Mexico but brought to the U.S. for treatment: “The Thomason Hospital here in El Paso has received more than 30 people this year who have been shot in Juarez. They get shot there and brought here, because if those people were targets, the gangs will go into the hospitals [in Mexico] and make sure they’re dead.”
The rumor is that federal agents are allowing Mexican cartel victims to be brought to El Paso for treatment “because they want a chance to interview them,” the reporter said. “On the other hand, a lot of people here in El Paso are worried that they might be followed into Thomason Hospital and killed.”
Two days after the reporter spoke to Fort Worth Weekly, the El Paso Times carried a story about a wounded man whose attackers followed him into a Juarez hospital and finished the job.
If the paramilitaries in the Mexican drug trade are recruiting killers from American streets, one could say they are only returning a favor.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States began to train Special Forces for the Mexican government, called the Zetas, to enable them to better confront the emerging Mexican drug cartels. Earlier, in the mid-70s, the U.S. also undertook to train another Special-Forces group, in Guatemala, which then was in the midst of a civil war. That group specialized in guerilla warfare and counter-insurgency tactics.
In both cases, the American military training backfired. Many of the specially trained units defected from the Mexican and Guatemalan armies and went to work for the cartels. Then they became the cartels.
“A lot of Zetas broke away from the Mexican military in the 1990s,” said Castillo, the former DEA agent. The Zetas, he said, “began working as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, which controlled Mexico’s Caribbean coast and several inland border cities.” The Zetas were ruthless and fearless. “They were some of the best-trained Special Forces anywhere,” Castillo said. “Well now it’s gotten to the point where they pretty much control the cartels.”
When stories first broke about the Zetas working for the cartels, the Mexican government denied it. But in recent reports, Castillo said, Mexican officials have finally admitted that there is a “paramilitary arm in the Mexican military,” meaning that some members of the military are also active paramilitaries with the cartels.
And, he said, “don’t forget the Kaibiles” — although there are probably a lot of people in the U.S. government and military who would like to. The Kaibiles, named after a Guatemalan indigenous leader who fought the Conquistadors, were the Special-Forces unit the U.S. trained in Guatemala, many of whose members also went over to the drug lords, for much higher wages.
“The Kaibiles started working for the cartels, but they are now working for the Zetas, and they’re the ones responsible for the beheadings,” Castillo said. “That’s their trademark.” In one case last year, several human heads were tossed onto a dance floor in Michoacan. In October of this year, four heads in an ice chest were sent to the Juarez police headquarters.
The Zetas, Castillo said, have now realigned with corrupt elements in the Mexican army, a marriage that is spreading the infection in the military, particularly among the 32,000 troops Calderon sent into nine Mexican states specifically to stamp out the cartels. “And so the military is sort of running the whole show down there,” said Castillo. “You’ve got thousands of military put all over the country, a lot of them corrupt, a lot of them also working as paramilitaries. They’re operating under the guise of stamping out drugs when they’re actually moving [the drugs] and stamping out rivals for the drug trade.”
Calderon’s strategy of fanning out the army to try to regain some semblance of control from the cartels in those states has worked about as well as the U.S. Special-Forces training. Rather than restoring government control, in many areas the military has wreaked havoc with the citizenry, prompting calls for Calderon to remove them.
Bill Weinberg, an award-winning journalist who specializes in Latin American and drug-war issues, said the situation is incomprehensible for many Americans. “You’ve got to understand that the military and the cartels overlap, so the military isn’t necessarily worse than the cartels; they are the cartels,” he said. “Then you have the police, who in some places, like Reynosa — across the border from McAllen — have been completely co-opted.”
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission issued a report in July about four particularly grave cases of recent military abuse in different Mexican states, Weinberg said. “All of those cases involved torture of civilians, some of it very brutal, [including] electric shock and rape. … In Michoacan, soldiers at a roadblock shot up a car and killed some kids.”
The human rights commission called on the Mexican defense secretary to punish those who violate human rights. “Up until now, those recommendations have been ignored,” Weinberg said, “and so the abuses keep occurring.”
Human rights groups fear that another set of new players in the drug war won’t help that situation, companies like Blackwater and DynCorp that carry their own bloody baggage.
Blackwater USA, the American private security firm already accused of atrocities in Iraq, is negotiating with Calderon’s government to train specialized soldiers in the Mexican army and to also act as a private security force.
“But you know they’re going to be all over everything, doing a little busting of people, doing a little dirty work for people … . It’s what they do,” Castillo said.
Made up primarily of former members of the U.S. Special Forces, Blackwater, like DynCorp and several other private companies, has been used extensively by the U.S. Department of Defense in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to provide security and other services. Blackwater came under intense media scrutiny in September 2007 when several of its contractors opened fire on unarmed civilians in Iraq, killing 17 people. Nonetheless, with former CIA higher-ups in its ranks, the company continues to get lucrative federal contracts.
Blackwater will soon have a large presence on the U.S.-Mexican border: An 824-acre training complex in California, just 45 miles from Mexico, should be open soon. The company already has a contract with the U.S. government to train Border Patrol agents, and there is speculation that once their presence is established there, they will vie for contracts to work border security alongside U.S. government agents.
The Mexico Plan, or Merida Initiative, recently signed by President Bush, may ratchet up the use of mercenaries. It promises an immediate $400 million to Calderon to help fight drugs in Mexico, with an additional $1.1 billion in the next two years.
The plan includes an unspecified amount of money for contracts to U.S. private security companies. A year ago, the Army Times reported that the Defense Department had just given Blackwater a sizable chunk of a grant that, over time, could total $15 billion, “to deploy surveillance techniques, train foreign security forces, and provide logistical and operational support” for drug-war initiatives.
That could mean the U.S. government is already funding a mercenary force of former U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating on both sides of the border but not accountable to anyone in Mexico. Blackwater already employs 1,200 Chileans, former members of ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military, some of whom are thought to be working in Mexico.
“You have to be very wary of mercenary soldiers in a democracy, which is more fragile than people think,” U.S. Rep. Bob Filner told Salon.com last year. “You don’t want armies around who will sell out to the highest bidder.”
At least one other U.S.-based security firm is already operating in Mexico. In July, the day after Bush signed the Mexico Plan, two different videos of a torture training session for police in the city of Leon, Guanajuato, were released by the local paper El Heraldo de Leon. The tapes showed graphic images of torture techniques (as practiced on police volunteers), including images of one volunteer having his head forced into a pit of rats and feces, and another being dragged through his own vomit after he was beaten.
Kristin Bricker, an investigative reporter with NarcoNews.com, subsequently uncovered evidence that the trainers in the video were from Risks, Incorporated, a Miami-based private security outfit that specializes in, among other things, teaching psychological torture techniques.
“There is no question that the U.S. is involved in every aspect of the drug war in Mexico,” Castillo said. And if you don’t believe the author and former DEA undercover agent, how about the departing U.S. ambassador to Mexico? Tony Garza is now saying that they United States must accept responsibility for the gun trade and for providing the market for Mexican drugs. The Dallas Morning News reported last week that Garza said in a recent speech that Mexico “would not be the center of cartel activity or be experiencing this level of violence, were the United States not the largest consumer of illegal drugs and the main supplier of weapons to the cartels.”
But Castillo has an even darker vision of what sustains the drug war. In essence, he said, the economy of Mexico is addicted to drug money, and no one, not even Calderon, would completely shut off that spigot, even if it were possible. Castillo’s judgment of the United States is similar: The war on drugs provides a huge boost to the economy, via private prisons, the gun industry, and the federal forces arrayed against it.
Calderon “absolutely would not” stop the drug trade if he could, Castillo said. “Mexico’s economy depends too heavily on drug money.”
On a beautiful fall afternoon in Nuevo Laredo, sun sparkles off the pastel-colored walls. The streets are quiet. At an open-air taqueria not far from a border crossing, the staff is smoking meats and vegetables on flat grills, getting ready for a busy night.
The proprietor, Maria (she asked that her last name not be used), said she was lucky: The taqueria came through the violence of a year or two ago unscathed. But she worried when members of one cartel or the other would occasionally come in to eat, for fear that her staff and other customers could get caught in the crossfire.
“It was not good. Gunfights. Dead people. Crying mothers. It was having a war in your own house,” she said. “Wars are cleaner when they happen somewhere else.”
A customer at a nearby grocery store was equally glad the shooting war had quieted down on his stretch of the border for the moment.
“It’s much better that they stopped the gun battles,” he said. “Now everybody can get back to making money with the drugs instead of dying over them.”

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