Battlefront Mexico by Lucina Kathmann of San Miguel Allende PEN

Lucina Kathmann of San Miguel Allende PEN recently traveled in the Mexico/US border area, one of the most dangerous in Mexico. Here she reports on the frightening climate in which ordinary citizens live and in which journalists work.

Mexico is in an undeclared civil war. It is not ideological, and there are not two clear sides fighting each other. It started out as a struggle among armed groups for territory, especially along drug smuggling routes from Mexico to the United States, the principal drug market.

In December 2006 newly elected President Felipe Calderón declared “war on drugs,” that is, on all the groups of drug smugglers who were fighting among themselves. He reasoned that since all the local police forces were in the service of one gang or another, he would send in a fresh force, people directly under his control without local ties. He sent in the army to the hotspots.

Since then there have been many gangsters killed and their drugs confiscated. However, this has done nothing to alleviate the situation. Quite the contrary. More and more desperate gangsters have jumped in to replace the fallen. Furthermore, with several years of experience in the border area, the army has integrated into the scene. Now many soldiers are as corrupt as the police. Many people no longer know which they fear more, the gangsters or the army. As of January 2012, the BBC estimated the total death toll in the war, since Calderón took the Presidency, at 47,515.

As in most wars, by far the largest number of deaths are of civilians, ordinary people who have somehow gotten caught in the disputes. They are victims of mistaken identity, they didn’t pay someone off or they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the deadliest spots is Ciudad Juárez, a city on the border just across the river from El Paso, Texas, where gun shops line the river’s edge, providing the weaponry for the war on the other side. In 2007 there were 300 murders in Ciudad Juárez, in 2010 there were 3000.

This city, which had a population of between 1.3 and and two million in 2006 (depending on the source of the statistics), now has about 800,000 (729,097,according to Team NAFTA). Those who could run anywhere else have done so. On March 9, 2012 El Diario de Juárez reported that since 2008, the electric company has suspended 23,000 accounts, mostly in the southeast of the city where there are the most abandoned houses. Those who remain in the city are the impoverished.

Murder is not the only problem. Kidnapping and extortion are rife. Popular restaurants that remain pay up to 200 dollars a day to stay open. Many professionals, like dentists and doctors, have painted over the signs on their facades so they do not appear to be in business, and thus ripe for extortion. They only attend the clients they already know.

Who is doing the shooting, kidnapping and extorting–drug lords, police or the army? Nobody can say. When I was in Ciudad Juárez many people told me, “It is dangerous to ask and dangerous to know.” Impunity reigns, particularly near the border, but also in various other crime hotspots around the country. The range of these hotspots keeps expanding; recent maps put out for travelers on the basis of US State Department warnings seem to include about half the country.

In this climate it is not surprising that many writers, especially journalists, have been killed. A University of Toronto Law School study says 66 journalists have been murdered since 2000 (as of June 2011); that figure does not include the disappeared, those whose bodies have not been found and probably never will be. Corpses are often left mutilated or dismembered, with a note on them labeling the journalist as a meddler, killed for not minding his/her own business.

On September 19, 2010 El Diario de Juárez, (two of whose employees had just been shot, one to death), published an editorial addressed to the directors of the criminal forces. It asked the drug lords to issue guidelines for what they could publish, a shocking and courageous way to expose what has happened to the public’s right to information.

The central government of Mexico, despite the dramatically worse situation, continues its line that it is “winning the war.” It flaunts its latest pictures of murdered gangsters daily. The people don’t agree. Everyone I spoke to in Ciudad Juárez said that her/his first-priority desire was for the President Calderón to withdraw the troops.

Nobody investigates the murders. Nobody is charged; nobody goes to jail. In response to international pressure, the President established a special commission (FEADLE) to investigate crimes against freedom of expression. This commission has been in existence six years. It has taken up only five cases, only one of which has resulted in a conviction. The reason cited is that the central government does not have jurisdiction; the murders are in the province of the state prosecutors.

This is not an isolated failure of the justice system. Mexico’s whole system of justice is deficient. Government statistics confirm that under 3% of crimes reported ever come to the attention of a judge. Fewer are punished. However Mexico has gotten along in the past, this deficiency is disastrous in the present situation.

I visited Ciudad Juárez in February 2010 and again in March 2012. In 2012, the mood of the city was quieter. There were still many corpses being thrown in vacant lots and everyone had at least one neighbor who was presently “out” (kidnapped), but there wasn’t quite the avalanche of bodies that there was in 2010. The major reason residents cited for the slight improvement was that the Sinaloa cartel had won the struggle for the Juárez drug route.

An encouraging story came from a woman from Colonia Insurgentes whose husband had been kidnapped twice, both times for $100,000 USD ransom. She had successfully gotten her husband’s kidnappers jailed by denouncing the crime directly to federal agents, not to local or state officials. Not only are the kidnappers behind bars, she and several of her neighbors no longer have to pay extortion every week. She cannot admit she denounced them, however, not even to her closest friend. She could tell me because I was from elsewhere, which is exactly the advantage of the federal agents. They and their families are elsewhere–unavailable for revenge.

Her husband actually recognized at least some of his kidnappers as the children of people he knew in his neighborhood. “Families have lost control of their children,” she commented.

That family was very lucky. A young man, kidnapped with this neighbor’s husband and chained for several days across a large chair from him, was beaten to death. His body was dumped in a vacant lot in their neighborhood.

I met this man and his son in their family business moments after hearing this story. I don’t know what I expected but I found it amazing that he still looked like a regular guy. His wife had already told me that he was “just fine,” except he no longer can stand to be in enclosed spaces and keeps opening doors. She said he was “very strong.” In Juárez these days, one has to be.

On March 13, 2012 the Mexican Senate finally passed a bill making crimes against freedom of expression federal offenses. This bill had been stalled in Congress since 2008. Now the majority of the Mexican states must ratify the bill for it to become the law of the land. Some sources believe that will happen this summer, although it is not certain. States don’t necessarily follow the mood in the capital. For example, in the 1930s voting rights for women were stalled another 20 years because the states did not ratify a bill passed by the national congress.

If the bill passes in the states, it could be very important. Some prosecutions of crimes against journalists might have as successful outcomes as the case of the Juárez woman’s husband. Veterans of the struggle for civil rights in the US in the 1960s remember the dramatic difference federalization made in that struggle. While Alabama or Mississippi agents were in charge, murders went unpunished. When the “feds” moved in to prosecute civil rights workers’ murders as violations of their federally guaranteed civil right to life, the age of impunity was over.

Lucina Kathmann is a US citizen who has lived in Mexico since 1978.

For more information

In June 2011, the University of Toronto Law School issued a report called Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists. This report labels the Mexican government’s attitude “minimization:”