Mexico - government and gangs against the population

Summer 2015

On the night of September 26th 2014, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, a convoy of buses carrying students from a nearby teachers college was ambushed by local police in the town of Iguala. The police shot and killed six people, wounded more than 20 and "disappeared" 43 students. At the time, this event was given a certain amount of coverage by the media. But it is only the visible part of a much bigger iceberg of violence against the population, in which a corrupt regime colludes with the drug cartels for the greatest benefit of big business - Mexican as well as American. On this subject we reproduce here an article which was originally published by the American Trotskyist group, The Spark (Class Struggle - #85 - April-June 2015).

The students were attacked because of their political activities. Their buses were headed to Mexico City to commemorate a famous government massacre of students back in 1968. They came from a teachers' training college with a long tradition of left-wing activism. It was one of a few schools set up by the government after the Mexican Revolution as part of a project to promote literacy among poor peasants. These schools admit only students from the same social background as the poor peasants they will be educating. Top officials didn't hide their hostility toward the college and its students. In a television interview in May 2013, Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre called the college "...a place that has been used by some groups to indoctrinate the youths and cultivate social resentment amongst them."

After the attack, the parents of the missing students, as well as other students, immediately began a campaign. They said they believed the students were alive, and they demanded they be returned immediately. They posted the faces of the missing students everywhere. This brought media attention. And this attention forced the state prosecutor to investigate, when ordinarily the state authorities guarantee impunity to the police and politicians.

A week later, state investigators announced they had uncovered four mass graves around Iguala, the town where the massacre had taken place. The parents of the missing students responded by bringing in forensic experts from other countries. The parents then led a series of fierce protests, calling for the return of the "disappeared" students. They blocked federal highways, marched through cities, set fire to the Guerrero state congress and the governor's offices.

Eventually, the authorities dug up 18 mass graves. Yet, of the hundreds of bodies that were found, DNA analysis confirmed that only one of them was that of a missing student, with his face ripped off - which is typically done by gangs. All the rest were bodies of other "disappeared" - hundreds of people.

This news spurred angry demonstrations throughout the country. To try to contain the unrest, the federal government stepped in, taking over the investigation. Federal police arrested the mayor of Iguala, Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who both have known ties to organised crime and who had in the meantime fled to Mexico City. President Enrique Peña-Nieto held a well-publicised meeting in the Presidential Palace with the disappeared students' parents.

At a press conference in early November, Attorney General Jesús Murillo presented his version of the events. According to Murillo, Iguala police had mistakenly thought the students were going to stop in Iguala and try to disrupt a political speech by the Iguala mayor's wife. So, the mayor gave the order for municipal police to fire on the students. The police then handed over the students they had arrested to members of the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug gang, who drove the students to another site, killed them, incinerated their bodies and threw their ashes in a river.

This explanation was based on the testimony of gang members, who had clearly been tortured, without any corroborating evidence. During the press conference, Murillo was confronted by reporters' questions that he could not answer. He abruptly walked out of the press conference saying, "I've had enough." His comment was picked up by protesters, who mocked and threw it back at the government as an accusation.

Obviously the federal government's version was meant to shift responsibility for the massacre onto local authorities. They tried to make it seem like an isolated, local affair. "A crime of state?... Iguala isn't the Mexican state," Murillo declared.

But the hundreds of bodies in Iguala's 18 mass graves showed this was not an isolated incident. On the contrary, it was typical. In Mexico over the last eight years, the government security forces and gangs have killed over 100,000 people, and "disappeared" an estimated 27,000 people. This violence has been punctuated by 1,300 beheadings and the discovery of corpses that are routinely found hanging in village squares.

Iguala may not be the Mexican state, but Iguala exemplifies how government authorities, police and criminal gangs have worked together to terrorise the population, and how that terror was used especially against those who oppose or protest against government policies.

Militarisation to crush the opposition

Certainly, violence by both government forces and drug trafficking gangs against the population is not new in Mexico. Behind the democratic facade, government authorities have a long history of carrying out harsh repression against trade union activists, peasant organisers, Marxists, Communists, students and teachers. Army troops were used against the Great Railroad Strike of 1958-59, carrying out mass arrests and assassinations. In 1962, police assassinated peasant leader Reubén Jaramillo, who had fought alongside Zapata during the Mexican Revolution and had continued to lead peasant land occupations. The police also slaughtered Jaramillo's pregnant wife and three sons. They murdered hundreds of students in 1968 at a demonstration in Mexico City just before the Olympic Games. And in areas that they control, drug gangs have long carried out a reign of terror, for example, by kidnapping and slaughtering thousands of migrants from Central America, with the gangs often working hand-in-hand with the police.

But this violence escalated tremendously in December 2006, with President Felipe Calderón's announcement that he was declaring war on the drug cartels. However, whatever actions the Calderón administration took toward the gangs, his primary targets were political opponents.

In the years before Calderón took power, widespread discontent and anger had been growing in Mexico, with scattered cases of social and political unrest. For example, in the town of San Salvador Atenco, a group staged protests against plans to build an airport, kidnapped police and threatened to kill them until the government backed down. In Oaxaca, striking teachers and their supporters had seized the state capital for five months. And the Zapatistas in Chiapas continued to organise poor peasants against large landowners.

During the 2006 presidential election, this opposition grew, as many put their hopes and aspirations in the candidacy of Calderón's main electoral rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In fact, López Obrador was a mainstream politician, but he resorted to a populist language to gain support. During his campaign, he promised jobs, better pensions and affordable housing. Huge demonstrations and rallies in favour of López Obrador made his campaign seem like a social mobilisation against the government policy of imposing sacrifices on the population in order to enrich the bourgeoisie.

After Calderón won the election by an extremely small margin, López Obrador accused him of electoral fraud and millions responded by staging protests in Mexico City. For two months, thousands of López Obrador's supporters blocked Mexico City's centre. In order to avoid protesters on his way to deliver his inaugural address, Calderón was forced to use the back entrance to the Chamber of Deputies. But he was still greeted with jeers and heckling.

After Calderón took office, he ordered troops to attack - not drug traffickers, but the political opposition. Calderón's troops arrested a key Oaxaca rebel leader. And Calderón got a judge to sentence an Atenco militant, who had led the movement against the construction of an airport, to 50 years in jail.

This war on drugs, which was really a war on the population, was never just Mexico's policy. The US government was a part of it from the beginning, providing military and financial support. Three months after taking office, Calderón sat down with President George W Bush in the city of Merida, where they signed the famous Merida Initiative. The US agreed to pitch in with hardware and "training" costing $1.6 billion, over three years. The aid included thirteen Bell helicopters, eight Black Hawk helicopters, four transport aircraft and the latest gamma scanners and phone tap gear. Some of the funds went for training programs run by US government agencies. Subsequently, the US Department of Justice's Project Diamante trained federal police and investigators. The Department of Defence's Western Hemispheric Institute for Security and Cooperation trained Mexican army officers. This outfit, which was formerly known as the US Army School of the Americas, changed its name because it had such a bad reputation for openly teaching different methods of torture and assassination, often used against trade union officials. US agents were directly embedded within the Mexican police and military, often dressing up in Mexican uniforms to participate in special missions, etc. After Obama took over from Bush, he renewed the Merida accords, adding drones.

The so-called "war on drugs" amounted to militarising Mexican society. The army was brought in to cities and towns in order to carry out military operations against the population. And, to all intents and purposes, it was a war inspired, if not driven, by the US.

With Operation Chihuahua, spawned by the Merida Initiative, the army replaced the local police force and occupied entire towns. Under the pretext of eradicating drug traffickers, soldiers targeted the leaders of land occupation movements. The Mexican government made similar charges against groups protesting against the expansion of transnational mining operations in the Sierra Madre mountains. Zapatista communities of La Garrucha, Hermenegildo Galeana and San Alejandro were also attacked by soldiers in an attempt to regain land taken by activists following the 1994 uprising. Over the past years, attacks on Zapatista rebel territory have intensified. Large landowners and developers have created paramilitary organisations which combined their forces with the army in Chiapas. In order to exploit rich mineral and lumber resources, as well as develop new tourist destinations, they worked to drive the peasants out. In all of this, soldiers claimed they were searching for illegal drugs.

In towns that the military and police occupied or raided, supposedly against drug traffickers, the military and police very often attacked the population. For years, human rights organisations have reported crimes committed by the federal police and army, including murders, disappearances, torture and rape. In a recent investigation, Human Rights Watch documented 149 cases of "disappearances" involving police or army officials.

This terror was supplemented by the terror of criminal gangs and drug traffickers, especially in the industrialised cities near the border, like Tijuana and Juárez. These attacks were often aimed at women workers who make up most of the workforce in the infamous maquiladora factories, which pay a wage of about $5/day (£3.20) in a city where housing and food costs are not much less than in the US. Hundreds of these women workers were raped and murdered every year with impunity. They were often targeted either on their way to work or returning home. The Mexican government does not keep official statistics on these attacks against women. But by 2009 and 2010, the number of women in Juárez who were kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered is said to have reached unprecedented levels. Around 10% of these murders were committed against children and teenagers.

To "discourage" journalists from exposing this organised violence, government forces and the drug traffickers resorted to murder, often threatening the lives of a journalist's family, as well. From 2006, when Felipe Calderón assumed the presidency of Mexico until the end of his administration in 2012, 96 journalists were murdered or had disappeared.

In other words, the so-called war on drugs was nothing more than an excuse to militarise Mexican society, crack down on dissent and opposition and silence all those who tried to expose it.

Co-opting the gangs into the state apparatus

This was never a war to eradicate drugs. Nor was it a war against the drug cartels. No, to the extent the Mexican government took on the gangs, it did so to co-opt the drug gangs into the framework of the state machinery, in any case, to make them subservient to it.

Mexican government officials and police chiefs have a long history of working with drug traffickers, selling what amounts to drug trafficking franchises in return for a cut in the profits. But over the last couple of decades, the drug traffic increased enormously and the gangs with it, with new gangs springing up. Effectively, the old system began to break down. Some of the bigger drug barons began to escape the control of government officials. As one senior DEA agent in Mexico City said two years after Calderón came to office: "The cartels are trying to make a statement to the authorities not to interfere with their enterprises. And they are also trying to send a message to the public saying they are in control."

In order to re-establish something comparable to the old accord between the drug trafficking gangs and their political masters, the government began to support the largest drug gang - the Sinaloa Cartel - and to use it against the other gangs, according to many experts, including Edgardo Buscaglia, a legal researcher with Columbia University and a consultant to the United Nations on crime in Mexico. Calderón's top cop and drug czar in this policy was Genarro García Luna, who is said to be linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. In 2008, a number of federal police agents drafted a letter to Congress detailing the result of an investigation showing that García Luna was closely linked to high-level traffickers: on the salary of a public servant, García Luna had been able to afford numerous vehicles, country retreats, luxury homes and to buy restaurants, while making large investments in property!

Needless to say, the alleged "successes" in the drug war were phoney. The occasional arrest of a supposed drug bigwig - even if true - only opened the door to a lieutenant or a rival gang to take over. The occasional large seizure of drugs or cash was merely a kind of government tax - part of the cost of doing business.

Certainly, the "drug war" didn't stop or even reduce the supply of drugs. By the end of Calderón's term in 2012, the retail price of pure cocaine was 74% lower than 30 years before, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data - meaning that supply was more plentiful than ever.

Neither did the crackdown reduce violence in Juárez, where the murder rate was higher than anywhere else in Mexico. It's true that went down from the previous 3,000 gang-related executions per year. But that violence had been caused by two cartels fighting over the valuable drug trafficking corridor along the Mexico-US border. As soon as the two warring drug cartels had come to some kind of accommodation under government tutelage, the internecine gang violence dropped, according to a 2013 US Congressional report.

A major source of power and wealth

It is no surprise therefore that the US and Mexican governments would not seek to reduce nor to eradicate drug trafficking. It's been too valuable for too many among the capitalist class.

Drug trafficking currently brings in between £20bn and £40bn per year to the Mexican economy. Estimates by different official agencies vary greatly, obviously because of the clandestine nature of the business. But experts generally agree that the revenue from the "drug industry" is comparable to Mexico's oil industry.

The money made from drugs doesn't stay with the drug cartels. Much of it floods into the legal economy. It is a large source of cash for legal businesses both in Mexico and the US. As the above-mentioned Edgardo Buscaglia writes: "One calculation links the Sinalola Cartel to 3,007 legally constituted companies, inside and outside of Mexico...." These include large hotel chains and resorts, cattle ranches, record labels, football teams, movie companies, racehorses, and more. "Obviously," adds Buscaglia, "the legal businessmen, who in part benefit from these assets, feel that the flow of capital which has been so advantageous for decades is what has fostered their expansion and enabled high rates of return from their activities in the legal economy."

Above all, drug trafficking is an enormous source of money for banks. "Global banks are the financial services wing of the drug cartels" aid a Guardian headline in July 2012. Banks charge the cartels a premium to launder their money. Says Mexican journalist Annabel Hernández, "almost any bank will accept huge deposits in cash, wherever in the world they come from, in exchange for a commission that varies between 3 and 7 per cent. None of this is reported anywhere." Laundering drug cartel money is highly profitable for the banks, even with the occasional fine.

This money helps stabilise the Mexican peso. And the hundreds of billions poured into the financial system by the Mexican drug lords along with the rest of organised crime worldwide, contributes to the flood of floating cash on which it depends. At the height of the 2008 global financial crash that practically shut down the entire global economy, the money from organised crime helped to keep the financial system afloat. At one point, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these proceeds were "the only liquid investment capital" available to some failing banks.

Drug trafficking money is enormously valuable to the capitalist classes. Rather than eradicate it, the Mexican and US state apparatuses want to protect - and control - it.

Open for business

The horrendous violence by the government and drug gangs helped open Mexico for much greater investment. The major US companies understand fully that they are not the target of this violence, which has not created any problems for them. They can even set up factories in the midst of it. The violence cleared the ground for these companies to come in and, today, they are throwing money at the Mexican economy to take advantage of workers who have been forced to accept poor working conditions and wages that are lower than those in China. As Gabriel Luna, chief Mexico economist at US banking giant Citigroup, explains: "The cost of the workforce in Mexico adjusted for productivity has become much more attractive. This allows you to draw more investment."

Over the past 20 years, the stock of US investment in Mexico has increased 6-fold, up to $101bn (£65bn). And much of this investment is along the 2,000 mile US-Mexican border, that is, cities like Tijuana and Juárez where are the focus of some of the worst violence. Once an economic backwater, these border cities have been growing faster than any other part of Mexico. They are a part of the centre of trade with the US, where each day thousands of trucks and a billion dollars of merchandise cross back and forth. They are also important manufacturing centres.

US companies have integrated Mexican industry into the production process of the US economy. At the heart of this industry is car manufacturing. Mexico now produces more cars than any other country in Latin America, bypassing Brazil last year - even though Brazil's population is 65% bigger than Mexico's. And while Brazil sells most of the cars it produces domestically, most of the cars that are produced in Mexico are exported - another indication that few among the low-paid Mexican workers can afford to buy what they produce.

In Mexico, among the largest manufacturers are Ford, GM and Chrysler. These companies depend on vast networks of hundreds of suppliers, as parts are combined into components, components into systems or modules, and finally modules into cars. As a result, in the process of the manufacture of a car, its elements cross the border not once, but multiple times. Often, the most labour intensive work is performed in Mexico. But 40% of the content of cars or car parts that are "Made in Mexico" come from the US

This economic opening and billions in foreign investment has not led to real economic development. Mexico's industrial development is artificial, based on the needs of multinational companies and not integrated into the rest of the Mexican economy - even though its industries grow and move from labour intensive production to more complex goods. And despite a growth in manufacturing, overall employment has not grown. This is because the greater number of manufacturing jobs does not even offset job losses elsewhere, particularly in the countryside - and also because of tighter integration with the US economy. Mexico used to be a major producer of corn, which is its main staple. But today, most of the corn consumed in Mexico is imported from the US, where production is heavily subsidised by the federal government. As a result, millions of peasants were forced off the land. Only a small fraction get work in the countryside - mostly as migrant workers, producing growing amounts of high quality fruits and vegetables for the US in giant, modern farms, where wages and conditions come straight out of the 19th century.

Neither has economic integration spurred spending on infrastructure beyond the narrow needs of the multinational companies. More than 40% of the roads remain unpaved, with most paved roads servicing the multinational companies. More than one-third of the population still lacks adequate sanitation and there are routine blackouts, particularly during the summer rainy season.

Because the workforce is so low-paid, there has been no growth in consumption, nor in the economy. GDP in Mexico has grown even more slowly than in other comparable Latin American countries, like Chile. Most of the workforce in Mexico still has to survive on jobs in what is called the "informal sector," which continues to constitute more than half the workforce. That is, most people do not have regular work - even low-paid - and lack health cover, pensions and other benefits.

This informal sector has been a fertile recruiting ground for the drug trafficking gangs. In fact, drug trafficking is the fifth largest sector of employment in Mexico, involving close to half-a-million people. The drug trafficking sector employs five times as many people as the lumber industry and three times as many as PEMEX, the oil company with the largest workforce in the world.

The "Mexican Moment"

The end of Calderón's 6-year administration, in December 2012, was meant to mark a big change. Obama congratulated his successor, Peña-Nieto, even before he was officially declared the winner. Within a week after Peña-Nieto took office, he and the leaders of Mexico's three main parties signed up to a package of sweeping new reforms, called the Pact for Mexico.

In reality, the reforms were another huge giveaway, especially to big multinationals. At the top of the list, the energy reform opens up exploration and production of Mexico's oil and gas industries to private companies for the first time since 1938. PEMEX, the state-owned Mexican oil company, was created in 1938 when the Mexican state took over control of the American and British oil companies' assets, following huge workers' strikes. Control of these vital resources meant that the Mexican state did not have its hands totally tied by US imperialism. Of course, over the decades, the US oil companies and banks ate away at this control. And with the energy reform, the big international oil companies and banks are about to take these resources back. Vast new tracts of oil and gas reserves are to be auctioned off to outside companies "like candy", said one oil executive quoted in the Financial Times. Besides that, the reforms will bring about electric power deregulation and privatisation. At the same time, reforms in education, which are backed by the biggest Mexican and American companies, constitute a big attack on students and teachers.

To impose these "reforms," the government has only one methodology - terrorism against the Mexican people. During Peña-Nieto's first year, the bloodbath initiated under the previous president, Calderón, has continued, with more than 18,000 violent killings and more than 2,500 kidnappings.

The continued flourishing of government forces working with gangs, buttressed by US aid, goes along with the lowering of the standard of living of most of the population, which is increasingly what imperialism has in store for the peoples of the underdeveloped countries. This shows the parasitic nature of imperialism in all its "glory".

Economic integration, a global division of labour and sharing of resources may have become an absolute necessity in this world for any kind of progress, but in Mexico, economic integration has become a form of plunder designed to enrich only the most powerful capitalist classes. The most modern and highly developed industry, technology and agriculture spring up in the midst of misery and squalor - and actually make it worse!

US companies as well as big companies from other countries are increasingly incorporating Mexico into the US economy, as the sector where the cost of labour is by far the lowest. And they are imposing this through militarisation, gang violence and terror. The violence that for decades has been unleashed against the female workforce in Juárez is indicative of what can happen to anyone.

Where is this going to end? Certainly, the Mexican population has a long history of resisting and fighting back. The problem is for these fights to be able to grow and spread in the face of the violence of the state and gangs. And nobody can say in advance how that will happen.

But one thing is certain: any fights that start in Mexico will have an impact in the US and visa-versa. Increasingly the working classes of the two countries are tied together, working for the same companies and on the same products. This is true of the three US auto companies, GM, Ford and Chrysler. It is also true of the European and Asian transplants, such as VW, Nissan-Renault, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Kia. It is true of all the parts manufacturers, including Dana, AC Delco, Johnson Controls, Global Electronic, Bosch, TRW. Mexican companies are also in both countries, such as San Luis Rassini, that makes springs for Chevy and Ford SUV's and trucks in Plymouth, Michigan and Montpellier, Ohio. Another Mexican transplant, Nemak, employs 2,000 workers in the US making engine blocks and transmission parts.

Workers from both countries have common interests that can only be defended in common.