Poppa, Terrence, Baer, M. Delal, Insight on the News
Q: Is the Mexican government fueling America's drug plague?
Yes: Top Mexican officials sanction, control and profit from the drug trade and have for years.
To read the newspapers lately, it would seem that Mexico finally is getting its act together in the drug war. On May 4 dozens of Mexican federal police and soldiers arrested the second in command of the Arellano Felix gang after a shootout in Baja California. Mexico's top prosecutor trumpeted the importance of the arrest in a news conference: "This criminal organization has been put on the run. We are dismantling them," he said.
The Arellano Felix brothers, the notoriously violent crime lords of Tijuana, indeed may be on the run and ultimately may be arrested or killed. As desirable as that would be, Mexico's actions against them have nothing to do with law enforcement. They have only to do with the control and regulation of a lucrative criminal activity that the government of Mexico itself sponsors. What Americans have difficulty understanding about Mexico, and the relationship between Mexico and the drug plague in the United States, is that the Mexican government has been deliberately involved in drug trafficking for decades, using the federal police agencies and the military to pump vast amounts of narcotics into the United States. [See "The Narcostate Next Door, Dec. 27, 1999.] The Mexican government franchises drug trafficking and controls the franchises along the administrative lines established by the government for its federal police agencies and the military. Someone is given control of the plaza -- essentially an administrative area -- in exchange for a "quota" -- the protection fee based on the total volume of activity. For decades Mexican informants tried to explain the idea to their law-enforcement contacts in the United States. When somebody has the plaza, it means that he is paying an authority or authorities with sufficient power to ensure that he will not be bothered by state or federal police or by the military. The protection money goes up the ladder, with percentages shaved off at each level up the chain of command until reaching the Grand Protector or the Grand Protectors in the scheme.
To stay in the good graces of his patrons in power, the plaza holder has a dual obligation: to generate money for his protectors and to lend his intelligence-gathering abilities by fingering the independent operators -- those narcotics traffickers and drug growers who try to avoid paying the necessary tribute. The independents are the ones who get busted by the Mexican Federal Judicial Police, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, or by the army, providing Mexico with statistics to show it is involved in authentic drug enforcement.
True, drug seizures in fact are made, and headlines and photos prove it. Most of the seized narcotics then are recycled -- sold to favored trafficking groups or outrightly smuggled by police groups. Usually, the authorities protect the plaza holder from rival drug lords; in some cases they hold back and allow the bloody process of natural selection to determine who shall run the plaza. If the authorities arrest or kill the plaza holder, it usually is because he has stopped making payments or because his name has started to appear in the press too frequently and the trafficker has become a liability. Sometimes international pressure gets so strong that the government is forced to take action against a specific individual -- regardless of how much money he is generating for the system.
This was the fate of the Arellano Felix brothers. Though they once had operated under an umbrella of protection, they fell out of favor following the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal at the airport in Guadalajara in 1994 -- allegedly gunned down by hit men of the Arellano Felix faction in an ambush intended for a rival group. The brothers have not wanted to go quietly. They and the government of Mexico have been at war ever since, with government forces to date suffering more losses than the outlaw drug faction. …