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September 28, 2008 -- Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)

Mexico Reels As Killings Abound

By Jeremy Schwartz

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Mexico City -- Each week seems to bring some fresh horror in Mexico's interminable drug war: In Chihuahua, gunmen execute 13 during a family party; in the Yucatan, villagers stumble upon 12 decapitated bodies; in Michoacan, someone tosses a grenade into a crowd celebrating Independence Day, killing eight.

It is the worst bloodshed the nation has seen since the Mexican Revolution, and it leaves the unmistakable impression that Mexico's government is overwhelmed by well-armed cartels that control a $40 billion-a-year drug trade.

But other countries have passed through even worse outbreaks of organized crime violence over the past century and lived to tell the tale. Their experiences may offer a road map for Mexico.

From Chicago during Prohibition, to Sicily during the great Mafia wars of the early 1980s, to the near anarchy in Colombia during the 1990s, outbreaks of organized crime violence have periodically challenged governments and threatened chaos.

The good news is that in each of those cases, authorities were able to diminish the violence.

Violence in Mexico has spiked dramatically since President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military and other federal forces on the nation's rival drug cartels in 2006. Homicides related to the drug war have reached more than 3,000 this year, a record, as cartels have pushed back against the Mexican government. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges have been targets.

This month the violence reached a new and ominous level with a grenade attack on revelers during Independence Day celebrations in Morelia, Calderon's hometown.

With that act, experts worry, Mexico may suddenly have become a lot more like Colombia. Three men were arrested Friday in connection with the attack; authorities said they confessed to being members of the Gulf Cartel based in Matamoros.

"This is a new stage with attacks on the civilian population," said Jorge Chabat, a security expert in Mexico City. "It's a very disturbing change."

Before the Morelia attack, Mexican authorities had scoffed at attempts to compare Mexico to Colombia. After all, the violence in Colombia made Mexico's problems look like child's play.

While Mexican cartels largely directed their violence at each other or at suspected dirty cops, Colombian cartels, led by the now-deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar, embarked on a campaign of terror aimed at destabilizing the Colombian government.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombian cartels bombed shopping malls and police headquarters, blew up a commercial jet and assassinated governors and presidential candidates. More than 1,000 innocent Colombians were killed by cartels, and the country averaged 3,000 cartel-related killings a year.

That's similar to Mexico's current number, but in a country with less than half the population. Adding to the chaos was Colombia's guerrilla insurgency, which meant large swaths of the nation were beyond government control.

The fear among officials and analysts is that Mexico is just beginning to move down the same path.

In Colombia, cartels were resisting extraditions of top drug lords to the United States. In Mexico, the cartels are seeking an end to Calderon's military offensive and a return to the days when the government tolerated drug trafficking in return for lower levels of violence.

Eventually, Colombia succeeded in dismantling the largest cartels through the arrests and extradition of top capos and judicial overhauls that included anonymous judges using voice distortion equipment. In place of the Medellin and Cali cartels, though, hundreds of mini-cartels have sprung up. While considerably less violent than their predecessors and preferring to keep a lower profile, the so-called "cartelitos" continue to produce and distribute just as much cocaine.

A similar combination of police work and judicial will helped slow extreme Mafia violence in Italy. In the 1980s, the island of Sicily was ravaged by a war between the Corleonesi and Inzerillo crime families. In two years, an estimated 1,000 were killed in Sicily, an island of 5 million. Extrapolating for Mexico's population of 110 million, the Mafia violence would have equaled 22,000 executions per year in Mexico.

Italy quelled the violence in part by sending in police from other parts of the country that were less vulnerable to corruption and prosecuting hundreds of Mafiosi. The judicial victories sparked more violence against prosecutors and judges, but they marked an important shift in Italy's war on the Mafia.

But the relative successes in Colombia and Italy (although neither country has come close to stamping out organized crime) only highlight the problems crippling Mexico's anti-drug effort: rampant corruption throughout Mexico's judiciary and police forces.

"What's different is that you had honest prosecutors and judges in both countries," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary. "There is no tradition of a professional judiciary in Mexico."

Mexican authorities have talked at great length about ridding its law and order agencies of corruption, but they have made little headway. Officials have recommended insulating judges from drug cartel pressures through both anonymous trials and better personal security. And Calderon has proposed a unified national police force, made up only of vetted, well-trained and -- perhaps most importantly -- well-paid police officers to replace the present corrupt agencies.

Mexican officials also hope a $1.4 billion U.S. aid package, which includes training and high-tech equipment, will help build reliable police forces.

Chicago during Prohibition offers another road for Mexico, but one that is even less likely, analysts say.

Chicago, which was terrorized by alcohol cartels for a decade, mirrored Mexico in one important way: the bootleggers' ability to thoroughly corrupt local officials. Despite hundreds of killings during the 1920s, not one of Al Capone's hit men was convicted, according to some historical accounts. The feds eventually nabbed Capone on tax evasion charges, but the violence associated with alcohol trafficking didn't stop until the end of Prohibition.

With the Mexican cartels so powerful -- their income is estimated at more than 10 percent of Mexico's federal budget -- some see legalization as the only way out of the cycle of violence.

"The only way we can alleviate or look to control [Mexico's drug violence] is to look at how the Chicago mafias were dealt with -- either through legalization or special laws to deal with consumption of drugs," said Hector Dominguez, a University of Texas professor specializing in the literature of Mexican organized crime.

Dominguez said Calderon's policy of using the army to confront the cartels risks the rise of a militarized state and could hinder Mexico's attempts to build a functioning democracy.

But even experts who favor what some call the Chicago solution say that legalization has few political possibilities since it would have to come from the United States, the consumer of the vast majority of the Mexican cartels' drugs.

"Can you imagine if McCain or Obama even hinted [about legalization], what would happen to them?" Grayson asked. "[American politicians] are afraid the opposing party will make hay if they discuss it."

Even within Mexico there is little clamor for legalization: Although the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party favors it as a policy, few Mexican politicians talk seriously about it.

Some experts say that the best Calderon can hope for is a Colombia-like solution, in which the large cartels are fragmented into smaller, less threatening groupings. There's some evidence that is already happening as internal feuds within the dominant Sinaloa and Gulf cartels increase.

But experts say Mexico's future remains uncertain. Will the country turn ever more violent or will it hit upon a solution? If history is any guide, things are likely to get better -- eventually.

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