7 Feb 2007
On Tuesday, gunmen disguised as soldiers attacked two offices of the attorney general in Mexico’s Acapulco city and killed seven people mostly police officers. President Felipe Calderon summoned a security meeting and fingers were pointed at the narco-traffickers. The Mexican government of Felipe Calderon had sworn to wage a merciless war against narco-terrorism that was responsible for the loss of more than 2000 lives in the country last year. At the end of the security meeting, the government issued a statement reaffirming her resolve to confront the drug barons head on. “The federal government will not withdraw nor cede in the face of attacks by organized crime.”
Violence associated with organized crime is a common occurrence in Latin America. In neighboring Brazil, powerful crime bosses even command foot soldiers to engage the authorities militarily from their prison cells. What is happening in Brazil and Mexico now is child play when you look at Colombia in the 1980’s and 1990s. The Cali and Medellin cartels that controlled most of the illicit drug trade in Latin America were more powerful than the Colombian state. The Medellin cartel led by the legendary Pablo Escobar controlled about 90% of the cocaine trade that netted them an estimated $30 billion annually. The narcotic money infiltrated every facet of Colombian life. Pablo Escobar used to give Colombian authorities and politicians the option to choose between ‘Silver or Lead’ (bribe in cash or bullets). He did not hesitate to intimidate or murder police officers, judges and politicians. At one time he killed three presidential candidates that were contesting in the same election and intimidated the justice minister to the extent that she fled to the U.S.
When Escobar was eventually killed in 1993 and his organization weakened, the rival Cali cartel took over as the main distributor of cocaine. They enlisted the help of Mexicans in ferrying the products across the U.S border. Drug cartels immediately sprang up in Mexico in the 1990s and Carrilo became the most prominent cartel leader. The Mexican cartels gained centre stage as the power of the Cali cartel waned in the late 1990s. As to be expected, narco-money came to Mexico along with all her ills. Corruption and violence were prominent. State institutions ranging from the police, army, judiciary and even the presidency became severely compromised. Highly placed members of president Carlos Salinas cabinet (1988-1994) including his brother were associated with drug traffickers. In March 2004, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio (an avowed enemy of the drug traffickers) was assassinated. The drug traffickers were suspected of masterminding the killing. In his testimony before the U.S Congress in February 1997, the then US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Administrator, Constantine said, “there is not one single law enforcement institution in Mexico with whom the DEA has an entirely trusting relationship.” The same month, the head of Mexico’s anti-drug agency, General Gutierrez Rebollo was arrested for involvement with drug traffickers.
The following conditions do generally favor the growth of drug-related organized crime all over Latin America.
1) Addiction: Products like cocaine and heroine that largely enter the U.S through Latin America are highly addictive. This means that consumers tend to get hooked to the products and thus guarantee a steady customer base. It must be noted that apart from trafficking in the illicit drugs, many South Americans are themselves consuming the drugs.
2) Proximity To the U.S: As neighbors to the U.S (largest consumer of narcotics), the fate of Latin American countries is somehow tied to the consumption of illicit drugs in the U.S. It is estimated that there are close to 2 million heroine addicts and more than 2 million cocaine addicts in the U.S. Many more are depended on marijuana and other drugs. It is estimated that 75% of cocaine consumed in the U.S comes through Mexico.
3) Poverty: Grinding poverty is luring peasants in Latin America to get involved in the cultivation of illicit drugs that seem to give better returns than any cash crops.
4) Bad Governance: Many countries in Latin America are afflicted by the typical ills associated with poorly governed countries like corruption and indiscipline. States so affected become weak and provide fertile ground for organized crime and rebellious groups to thrive.
The governments in the region are employing heavy-handed methods to try and contain the drug traffickers but are meeting with little success. For example, since taking over office in December, Mexico’s president deployed 25000 troops to go after organized crime. The statistics show that 190 drug-related killings took place in January 2007. This figure is not much different from the monthly numbers of last year. The problem, it seems, is more complicated for military might alone to solve.
As long as the demand for narcotics in the U.S remains high, the ills associated with drug trafficking will keep haunting Latin America. They may affect different states in varying degrees from time to time but the problems will always be around.
Njei Moses Timah