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Nobody Writes Off The General

11 August 2008

I wouldn’t exactly call General Sergio Aponte Polito a victim of the “drug wars”.  He was a popular figure in Baja California, kicking ass and winning the support of even even “an old radical surfer from the 60’s fighting fascism.” Whether the General’s law enforcement techniques bordered on fascism or not, he was a  “clear and present danger” to democratic institutions.

I’ll concede that narcotics dealers are a danger to the Mexican State, but I’ve always thought the response has been out of proportion to the problem.  Defense Secretary Guillermo Galvan claims there are a half million people involved in narcotics, but when you look at his figures, 300,000 of them are just marijuana or opium poppy growers and another 160,00 are small time dealers.  Reducing the number of farmers might be better handled by the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of Development rather than the Secretary of Defense.  The small-time dealers might be a matter for local police (or maybe social workers or the health department).  The 40,000 others are not necessarily armed and dangerous.  This includes financers, couriers, suppliers (even narcos need car parts), packagers, etc.  None of these are the kinds of people that require a military response.

It was the Calderon Administration’s “mano duro” that set off a surge in violence among the various narcotics exporters.  Whether or not the massive crack-down on narcotics dealers was necessary, the already alarming death rate made military intervention popular in places like the Baja.  Whether this escalated the violence, or whether it can do more than provided a short fix to the problem (assuming narcotics exports are a problem), there were two serious — and related — dangers in using the military as law enforcement personnel.

First, there is no denying that local and federal police agencies are terrible.  Army personnel were only meant to back up the police departments as they cleaned up their act.  That is going to take a long time, and some cultural changes.  The huge scandal over the Fernando Marti kidnapping and murder (Marti was the 14-year-old son of a self-made millionaire with no known ties to organized crime) in Mexico City — which has led to calls for extreme measures like instituting the death penalty for these types of crimes — implicated Federal Police, not Mexico City policemen.  While Mexico City’s police still have their problems, the types of reforms that have been made in the Federal District — better pay and training, allocating resources in less-wealthy areas, and probably the most important, paying attention to social service needs in “at-risk” communities — are starting to work.

The Federal Government, however, has been looking to make immediate changes.  I tend to think it has to do with the political stability of the Federal District government.  With one political party pretty much guaranteed long-term control, it can afford to look at changes that will take ten or fifteen years.  The Federal administration, however, looks at the six-year Presidential term, and — given the tendency of Mexican administrations to try to impose their program in the first two years of the “sexennial”, soldify it in the next two, and instutionalize it in the final two — even during the “perfect dictatorship” of guaranteed PRI control — the Feds are going to look at making an impossibly complex change within too short a time frame.

I’d also add that the Federal District administration, being PRD, looks at bottom-up solutions, where the Federal PAN administration wants top-down changes.  The response to police corruption at the Federal level (and failures like the Marti murder) has been to change the management, but not the management style, nor the law enforcement culture.  Just appointing military officers to police command positions (as is done here in Sinaloa) is not wrong, and may bring in some needed experience in areas like command and control, tactical training or intelligence, but the improvements depend on the quality of the individual, and may not change the institution.  Rather than sitting down and figuring out what the staffing needs are for police administrators, and then recruiting or training the people needed, it appears the civil authorities are just taking whatever retired military officers are willing to take on police command positions.

A second problem is with internal control.  Most of the criticism of military policing has been the very real danger that the military will be used to crack down on legitimate dissent under the guise of anti-narcotics control, as it has in Colombia, and already has in Mexico. Military death squads are not unknown in Mexican history.  Most of the criticism of  “Plan Mexico” has come from the political left (though also from the extreme right) — mostly based on very real fears that militarization will be used for political ends .   The specific concern on the left (and in the mainstream) is that  the crackdown by the Calderon Administration could be used against organized dissent  to his government.  This is already happening n Chiapas, according to the Zapatistas)

But, outside of politics, there is another issue.  Mexico’s legal system is making changes, but there has been — and still is — a chronic problem with official abuse.  Citizens have SOME redress when it comes to police misconduct, but military misconduct is nearly impossible to address.  A major screw-up by the Mexico City police resulted in a police commander going to jail.  So far, serious screw-ups by military forces have resulted only in the prosecution of low-level offenders.  Military courts almost never punish the higher-ups, and human-rights prosecutions are rare.

General Aponte’s actions were unacceptable for two reasons.  It wasn’t so much that he complains that the Federal Police are corrupt (what else is new?) but that he saw himself (personally) as an alternative police force — encouraging people to directly go to the Army for police matters.  Secondly, when one of his own staff officers committed a serious breach of discipline (setting off a firearm in a restaurant) the General covered it up. I suppose it’s normal for a commander to look out for his guys, but on top of the General’s tendency to shoot from the lip (and let the Lord sort ’em out), he was becoming an embarrassment to the military establishment — and undermining civilian control of law enforcement.

What’s frightening is that the General has been transferred to a new post:  president of the Supreme Military Tribunal.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Rushing permalink
    11 August 2008 11:40 am

    Legalizing drugs is the capitalist solution to this problem. For some reason, people seem to love legislating morality on crimes where the victim is also the culprit of the crime. This is akin to anti-prostitution laws, anti-gambling laws, and other victimless crimes.

    Drugs made legal would cause the free market to virtually give them away. They would be so cheap because the supply would be in abundance and the demand for the drugs would more than likely stay the same. The profit margin would go down because there would no longer be a reduced supply with a constant demand. When you make something illegal, only the worst of people will do it. The cartels need drugs to be illegal. Without the law against them, they would have to move on to another area of employment… Human trafficking and bank robberies.

    The same approach to the “oil crisis” is used to justify the war on drugs. “We can’t legalize our way out of this” has the same BS weight as “we can’t drill our way out of this.”

    I wonder what the public’s reasons for supporting the drug war in Mexico are. Would they be the same as the United State’s and Canada’s?

  2. el_longhorn permalink
    11 August 2008 2:59 pm

    I fully understand your concerns, but I believe you are underestimating the threat and power of the cartels. I visited Laredo recently and spoke to a few friends who are very knowledgeable about law enforcement along the border. They tell me that the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel (Is that distinction even necessary anymore? Have the Zetas essentially taken over the Gulf Cartel?) have won the battle over control of Nuevo Laredo and are essentially in control of the city. Everyone pays a tax to the cartel for doing business, hasta los paleteros! Supposedly, the Zetas are charging a $1000/trailer tax on all tractor trailers passing through Nuevo Laredo and are in complete control of the I-35 drug trade all the way up to Dallas – they know about and tax all drug trade that moves through I-35.

    My question – how do you unseat the Zetas without a massive police/military response? The newspapers have been cowed into not reporting on any of this, the local and state police are helpless and/or corrupt, the federal police sweep in and out but never establish a presence, and the military does the same.

    I understand the macro perspective – legalization, treatment, reduce arms flow to Mexico – but what do you do NOW to get control of your city back? The Mexican government, for all practical purposes, no longer exists between Matamoros and N. Laredo. The local/state/federal governments are allowed to continue their day to day operations, but the real control is in the hands of the cartels.

  3. 11 August 2008 3:22 pm

    I’m not necessarily opposed to short-term ass kicking… but General Aponte was on well on his way to making himself the “indispensable man” and holding out the Army as THE only solution.

    If we accept the premise that the police and army need to disrupt the traffic and keep the various cartels divided, then we have to accept the violence. But, the public is starting to complain that the “surge is NOT working.”

    Given that the U.S. is unable or unwilling to do anything about reducing demand, or about controlling the gun runners and financial resources, maybe Mexico should just stop worrying about what’s best for their buyer, and concentrate on what’s best for them. While this could just mean focusing just on the minority of narcotics exporters that are armed and dangerous, it could also mean pushing the violence north.

    If I was going to suggest a radical solution, it would involve bringing down the U.S. bankers and gun runners “by any means necessary.”

  4. 11 August 2008 4:41 pm

    Hi Richard, sorry, I am in the middle of sanding the eaves, so this is not going to be a complete response. I just wanted to remind you that the Mexican people demanded that the Army be sent here, there were thousands and thousands marching through the streets of Rosarito, Tijuana and Mexicali imploring for the Army’s assist. Thousands, Richard. Whether you want to believe or not, it was total chaos here, a very very dangerous place to be, for anyone.

    Years earlier, Mr. Fox handed out a toll free phone number for people to call and report organized crime, and everyone just freakin laughed, he had given them a hotline to the PDF.

    Naturally, none of this was covered by the MSM in the States. It was only after four years of escalated attacks on gringo tourists it seems, that finally Polito was sent here.

    Meanwhile, the Baja Tourist Board and the greedy developers (American and Mexican) are constantly trying to sweep this violent and polluted environment under the rug, in a state of denial. Noone is buying their line anymore, noone is coming here, noone feels safe and they feel even less safe since Polito has left.

    Another tidbit on Polito, this is the fifth time that he has been transferred from a post for being “overspoken”. My cynical Mexican National neighbor tells me that, “…this is what always happens, they send Polito in to clean something up, he does do some cleaning up, then he speaks out, then he is transferred out. It’s a game.”

    Where are people complaining the “surge isn’t working?” Not here. I understand there are complaints coming out of the border towns of Texas, of course they are going to complain, the cartels controlled every aspect of economics there and they were being shook apart at the seams by Polito. Are these the same people who complained that Hank Rohn LOST the last election , despite the fact that he sent his goons out, ARMED to intimidate voters here? People are despondent here Richard, now that Polito is gone, even IF it turns out he was never a for real thing to begin with, which is possible.

    but I really have to get back to the eaves, this is the first break in hot weather and I need to get these done, I’ll talk later .


    I still love you.

  5. 11 August 2008 4:58 pm

    Another thing, this cartel rivalry was BAD before the Army got here, believe me. This has been going on for years. Ask the folks at Sauzal north of Ensenada about seven years back, who were trying to get in on the action of marijuana smuggling, oh you can’t, they are all dead, except for the one who hid in the closet. 15 people, men, pregnant women and children, lined up in the early morning hours in their courtyard and mowed down with automatic weapons. This happened long before the Army arrived.

    I was in town the day of the assault on the Rosarito Police Station, and this was BEFORE the Army arrived.

    Beheading after beheading and murder after murder of our best on the Police force, the most wonderful young Police Chief in Rosarito, a doll, so honest – shot dead, and our best journalists and editors, and this was BEFORE the Army arrived. Kidnapping after kidnapping, too many and too numerous to mention all of them.

    What you guys are finally seeing in the MSM has been going on for a long time here, if anything, after the last huge shootout in TJ it has been really QUIET. Prior to the Army arriving, noone went out after dark, noone, it was like living on the set of Nosferatu, and this is not hysteria, this is the reality.


  6. 11 August 2008 8:57 pm

    Okay, my final say. We are all aware and we all know that the Mexican Army has been used as a repressive force for political agendas in Mexico. We are all aware of the 60’s dirty wars, the use of the Army against the EZLN and more recently in Oaxaca.

    The democratic institutions in Mexico are presently under threat of organized crime, which includes the local Police forces,there is just no debating this, it is a fact.

    Polito was indeed the alternative police force, he was, there is no question about that. The Police Force in TJ and Rosarito were rotten to the core, who’s the fascist? People simply would not go to the Police anymore here for ANYTHING.

    TJ and Rosarito were in a stage of complete chaos and people, the ordinary Mexicans ,were living in fear.
    Who’s the fascist? It was not only just one or two little demonstrations of outrage from the people here over the criminal element and being constantly victimized by organized crime and the Police Forces, there were many, many marches and demonstrations of thousands of people just sick to death of saying ni modo, and they wanted protection.

    There will always be a danger of repressive control by the Military, anywhere. But there already existed
    repressive control by organized crime and the local Police Forces, and to try to minimize this historical fact is simply not accurate.

    We applaud the Mexican Military when they act in a positive way in a reactive situation, i.e., natural disaster. Polito’s mistake, if there was one, was to act in a proactive manner and give the people hope.

    Noone will ever know really, if this proactive behaviour was to garner power for himself and the Military, or if the whole thing was just staged to make people think that the government really cared about them, or was actually legitimate and his intentions were pure.

    But we do know this for sure, that after the last Presidential election, the Mexican people were hard pressed to trust anyone, and just the fact that they were oversaturated with oppression, Polito became for them an icon of hope. I might add, he was accepted willingly by the people here and with full knowledge of the Army’s past transgressions. There is no doubt and history has taught us that these saviours can easily fool us, that a deal made out of desperation can easily turn into a deal made with the devil.

    Finally. I know from my own experience, the Mexican people, business people, professionals, and the obreros were glad the Army and Polito were here.

    The future remains to be seen.

  7. 12 August 2008 10:44 am

    Good morning Richard, I came over to see if you had responded. I guess not.

    Another thing which I forgot to mention is that before the Army came here Richard, the small businesses of the Playas of Tijuana organized out of total frustration of not being able to have Police protection. They were being shook down by the cartels; strong armed – if they didn’t comply, they were robbed, kidnapped or killed.

    At any rate, they organized, and never have we seen anything like this since el barazon BTW, and protested by closing their doors for business. Playas was shut down, period. Of course, none of this was reported in the MSM, I don’t think even you reported it. The folks up in the USA were clueless, and that’s how the tourism people wanted to keep it. One of their leaders and former resident of the Playas, Alberto Capella went on to be targeted by the cartels and Police. He has managed to survive and is now working as Security Chief in TJ. Gee, should we wonder what his motivations are too?

    That took alot of balls, but they are reknown for that over there, that same community was instrumental in stopping the proposed LNG facility off of the Coronado Islands.

    It’s not as bad as we think? No Richard, it was worse. Not only are we talking about drugs and arms, murder and kidnappings, terror,add to that list if you will please the most filthy rackets usually associated with organized crime. The cartels have set up Gentlemen’s Clubs which never before existed here, at least south of TJ, and are in control of pornography, sex-slave industry, including that of children.

    I am misinformed? May I suggest to add to your list of links the local news sources, such as Frontera and AFN, even the University of New Mexico has good sources – and you know what, it might help you out to add Zeta, although of course, they moved their publishing facilities to San Diego out of fear. Remember Blancornelius?

    So, where was the great Zapatista movement when the both the low/poor and emerging middle class here were being abused? Shoot, Marcos showed up during his whirlwind tour to give a speech in TJ given a Police escort by Fox (hahahahaha) and noone showed, it was a bust.

    Let me know if you need to know anything else.

  8. 12 August 2008 12:04 pm

    Oh, and don’t be so frightened over Polito’s new post, he is a lame duck, he is due to retire in a couple of months.

    And, by Mexican law, his retirement cannot be postponed.

    See ya around Richard.

  9. Mr. Rushing permalink
    12 August 2008 1:06 pm

    Wow! Mexico is losing the drug war worse than the United States is. The US has been trying to reduce demand on a lot of things besides drugs. Everytime that we do, not only do we lose, the rest of the world does too. In a free country, you should be able to put anything that you want into your body. Cheaper Canibis, Cocane, and Opiates would make the crop less profitable. This would tremendously help Mexico and the US. The second ammendment (of the US Constitution) is needed in Mexico, when anything is made illegal, only the criminals will have it. Gun Control like drug control is bull crap. If Mexico wants to protect their people, then drug and gun laws must change to favor freedom.

  10. steve permalink
    23 April 2010 4:10 pm

    The zetas are in complete control of San Luis Potosi, according to friends who just returned.
    Maybe this is News, maybe not.

    Here in sleepy San Miguel, nobody thinks any
    cartel is “in control” however, last year’s murders on the outside of town suggested a battle. (don’t tell the Real Estate agents!)

    However, not every dying person writes “mata zetas” on their body as they lie dying… do they?

    I thought the zetas were moving into Monterrey and NL; but are they
    expanding south too?

    I never studied ‘strategy.’ Damn.

    What, pray-tell, are we going to tell the retirees in San Miguel? Oh, no!

    The new mayor has made it clear that she wants the military here. That’ll work for a while,
    but as you have said— they are basically immune
    if they shoot up a car full of drunk Austin, TX teens who roll through a checkpoint.

    (one hopes they
    shoot for the kneecaps)

    still, San Luis Potosi was in that middle part of the “narco map” which seemed unaffected, so far. But I think I was looking at an old map.

    Now, in the Blog de Narco… it’s a different map.

    I’d go along with my fellow expats here in ignoring all this, but I actually got a 3 1/2 hour tour of Monterrey last summer, along with my partner, courtesy of almost-uniformed police,
    who took us out of our car and put us into
    their squad car, and drove us (finally) to a bank,
    where I learned the fine for “speeding ” was:
    all your atm and credit cards, plus your friend’s ,
    and also the PIN numbers, plus if that’s under $2,000usd, then they take you to a remote area
    and urge you to call family in the US to wire more money.. or die… that’s a stiff speeding penalty
    for any city, no?)



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