the state of Sinaloa between the capital,Culiacán, and the well-known beach resort of Mazatlán.
The Sinaloa episode may have beenextreme, but hundreds of individuals haveperished in less spectacular incidents of vio-lence related to drug trafficking during 2005. And there is no sign that the pace of the car-nage is lessening.The principal hit men for the various car-tels have increasingly come from a onetimeelite force in Mexico’s military, the Special AirMobile Force. Those ex-military renegades,known as the Zetas, were originally sent tothe border with the United States to combatdrug trafficking. Instead, many of thembecame assassins for the cartels.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady, editor of the
Wall Street Journal
’s Americas column, describes the tac-tics of the Zetas. Noting that they are ofteninvolved in execution-style slayings of traf-fickers from rival organizations, O’Grady emphasizes that they have other functionsand serve a larger purpose.The Zetas are also known for theirintimidation of police and city officialsand extortion practices against localbusinesses. Their success depends heav-ily on terrorizing the population, whichexplains why slayings have now become very public events. Such brutality demonstrates that compliance with thedrug traffickers is not always a matter of greed. It can also be a matter of survivalfor public officials and their families.
That pattern bears an eerie resemblance tothe situation in Colombia—especially duringthe peak of drug-related violence in the late1980s and the 1990s. There, too, intimida-tion was a key goal of the cartels, and they were all too successful. For example, a succes-sion of Colombian governments evaded U.S.demands for the extradition of drug king-pins. The trafficking cartels had made it clearthat thwarting extradition was a high priori-ty and that lawmakers or other officials whodefied them on that issue risked incurring a death sentence.
The Nuevo Laredo Fiasco
The worst instance of both violence andcorruption in Mexico appears to exist in thenorthern border city of Nuevo Laredo, a metropolis of 350,000 across the Rio Grandefrom Laredo, Texas. Of the 850 killings overthe past year that Mexican authoritiesattribute to drug-trafficking violence, 228have taken place in Nuevo Laredo or the sur-rounding state of Tamaulipas.
The level of violence—and the level of police corruption—reached the point in early June that Mexico’snational government suspended the entireNuevo Laredo police force and sent in thefederal police to patrol the streets.
ForPresident Vicente Fox’s administration, thefinal straw came when Nuevo Laredo’s new police chief was assassinated on June 8, justhours after his appointment.
Federal authorities proceeded to purgethe city’s police force. After being required totake polygraph exams, 305 of the 765 policeofficers were dismissed. Indeed, 41 of themwere arrested for attacking the federal policewhen those units arrived in the city. The “new and improved” Nuevo Laredo police were putback on the streets in late July, wearing new uniforms with white shirts. White was cho-sen deliberately, according to Mexican feder-al authorities, to demonstrate that they werea trustworthy new entity.
Those officialsapparently were serious. Aside from the considerable doubt thatthe purge of the local police would have any lasting benefit, the federal takeover of law enforcement had no meaningful impact onthe violence in Nuevo Laredo. Indeed, thenumber of drug-related killings actually went
during that period.The situation has remained extremely vio-lent since the restoration of the local policeforce. “There really is a feeling that you can getaway with murder in Nuevo Laredo,” Michael Yoder, the U.S. consul general in NuevoLaredo, said in mid-August.
Tony Garza, theU.S. ambassador to Mexico, closed the con-sulate in Nuevo Laredo for a week in late July
The principalhit men for the various cartelshave increasingly come from aonetime elite forcein Mexico’smilitary.