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Worse than a crime, it was a blunder?

20 October 2019

Last Thursday’s shoot-out … or, according to some, “war”… in Culiacán was a disaster, but perhaps not for the reasons the foreign media (and, initially, most of the Mexican media as well), reported. There have been botched attempts to capture “narcos”, and running street battles in urban areas before, but never, it appears, as long running (about 11 hours of mayhem in the streets), and never before ending in a “truce”.  AS FAR AS WE KNOW, that is.

LA TImes

Narcotics smugglers have enjoyed an “understanding” with the government (after all, there isn’t much of a market for narcotics here, while a quarter of the world supply finds an avid market just north of Mexico) and during the so-called “war on drugs” we only heard about “successful” operations, or operations that were reported as achieving their goal (which, for all we know, was a goal defined after the fact).  And mostly in rural areas.  We’d read about a dozen or so “sicarios” being eliminated, and, to this day, have no idea whether they were bad guys, innocent bystanders, or inconvenient witnesses.  Famously, Joaquin Guzmán, aka “Chapo” is said to have escaped near capture on several occasions.  Escaped, or …?

1. Guzmán was the Lex Luthor of the narcotics industry. Or, given the breathless media stories, movies, and political posturing in the United States (isn’t blaming others one of the hallmarks of addiction?)… “PubliC Enemy #1″… and all that, it has always been troubling that … just as the Peña Neito administration was running into trouble, and needed the United States to help cover up its corruption and ineptitude… Chapo was miraculous “captured” at a resort hotel in Mazatlán. More troubling was that, during his trial, the defense was forbidden to raise possible collusion between the Sinaloan exporter and the Mexican government and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Whether Chapo was a wealthy as claimed (his operation had a very high overhead, and … whatever money there is, is morely likely in the US and European banking system than it is a treasure buried in the Sierra Madres) … but he remains a boogie-man, and good press, We are fascinated by Chapo, but… his son? Honestly, I’d never even heard of Ovido Guzmán, the intended target of the Culicán operation, and, given that the Sinaloa cartel has been fighting among itself for control of what was once considered the largest narcotics exporting business in the world (not a hierarchal business, but an informal and loosely a cartel of several different organizations), how imporant a figure Ovido even was, or is, is questionable. Had the target a different surname, the story certainly would have been reported, not as “OMG!  Gangsters (or, rather “cartels”, which is meant to sound more sinister) have taken over the state!!!”, but as what it was:  a botched intelligence operation.

George W. Bush was elected President of the United States following a questionably tainted election (decided by the Supreme Court based on confusing returns in the state where his brother happened to be the Governor) in 2000, taking office in January of the next year… and, his legitimacy in question, was “saved” when Saudi Arabians flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, allowing him to “unite the country” in a war against… not Saudi Arabia, but Iraq. Felipe Calderón was elected president of Mexico in July 2006 (after Bush had won a second term), . Even more so than Bush, Calderón’s election was marked by controversy, depending on a dubious vote count in one state (Oaxaca) where… while he didn’t have a brother holding the governorship, his party had an ally in the highly corrupt Esther Elba Gordilla, who had formed her own party, and run a candidate able to siphon off enough votes in Oaxaca to give Calderón a very slight (and statistically questionable) plurality over his nearest rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Although Calderón was able to take office (in a hasty, and almost surreptitious ceremony when the opposition refused him entry into the Chamber of Deputies) on 1 December of that year. As with Bush, his administration was in trouble from the start, and in need of a national emergency to salvage it. On 22 October (a month and 10 days longer than BUsh took to find his “crusade”) during a meeting of the two presidents, “Plan Merida” was announced. In return for massive financial infusions by the United States in their security and defense industries, Calderón would have the wherewithall to fight his “war”… at home.

Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Plan Merida” achieved two goals. In the United States, besides the financial windfall for those industries that generally supported Bush, it revived the flagging “war on drugs” that more and more U.S. citizens were seeing at the time as a war on their own people, especially persons of color. And… it allowed the largely conservative American middle class to put their country’s drug use problem at a distance, seeing the supplier, not the consumer, as the source of the problem. For Calderón, it meant giving the military a mission, and a handy tool for cracking down, not just on narcotics smugglers, but on dissidents of all sorts. the results were about what you’d expect.

2. Annibel Hernandez was not the only one to notice that some cartels are different than others. It seemed (and there is evidence to back up her claims) that Calderón administration officials were working hand in glove with the Sinaloan cartel (as, one suspects, so was the DEA, and possibly the CIA). As the “collateral damage” piled up, generally attributed to the “cartels”, people began to distrust the government forces as much as the cartels. As they soon figured out, the “strategy” of the administration, if there was any strategy involved, was simply to throw massive amounts of firepower at cartel leaders… to the surprise of no one… rivals to Chapo Guzmán.

With rampant state violence, violence of all kinds accelerated. That indigenous communities, especially those opposing foreign corporate interests, were targeted by (literal) corporate raiders (i.e. mercenaries and hitmen) was easily written off as “drug violence”. And, with the various gangs under attack, they responded with their most powerful weapon… the money they were receiving from narcotics sales to the United States. Corruption of all kinds was rampant, and, facing increased firepower from the military, the narcos also upped their arms purchases… something easily done, given the complete lack on any meaningful controls in the United States.

Never popular, and with the “powers that be” recognizing that the “bleeds it leads” media coverage of Mexico was damaging the bottom line, their support, and that of the new Obama administration in the United States, went to the opposition. And, despite the ballyhoo about Peñs Neito “Saving Mexico”… nothing substantial changed.

3. Although Barack Obama was popular in Latin America… an eloquent speaker (and one able to at least pronounce Spanish correctly), a person of color and well-mannered, a refreshing change from the often inarticulate and sometimes boorish Bush, his foreign policy with regards to Latin America (and, in particular, Mexico) was a combination of the “dollar diplomacy” of William Howard Taft, combined with the contempt to Latin America sovereignty of Woodrow Wilson. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was obsessed with reversing the leftward trend in Latin America, culminating in her active role in the impeachment of the presidents of Brazil and Paraguay, not to mention the coup in Honduras. In no way would the United States have supported, tacitly or openly, the radical change in the direction of the “drug war” (supposed, Obama said, ended in the United States) or anything else, when it came to Mexico. That Peña Neito was obviously buying votes was conveniently overlooked on the night of the First of July 2013, when the US President called to congratulate the former State of Mexico governor on his election… before the vote count was announced (you figure it out!).

Peña Neito has been compared to General Santa Anna when it comes to corrupt regimes, but there is another comparison as well. Santa Anna’s secret to political success was a calculated appeal to the “average voter”, in his day, appealing to the patriotism of the “low information voter” (the peasants) and the interest of the “insluencers” (the rural middle class). Peña Nieto combined the two, having mounted a huge media campaign (including buying positive news coverage on Televisa) with outright bribery for the lower information voter, and calls for modernizing education and business practices to the benefit of the “influencers” managed to give him a six percent victory over Lopez Obrador, the voters massively rejecting Calderón’s intended replacement the relatively unknown Josifina Vasquez Mota, seemingly chosen for the novelty of a woman candidate on a major party ticket.

Giving Peña Nieto his due, he united the three mainstream parties in a “Pact for Mexico”, bringing about the changes being proposed by the “influencers”and … incidentally… giving them all a shot at stealing government funds and indulging in the ostentatious corruption that followed.

“El FIsgón”

Peña Neito was indeed “saving Mexico”… pushing the “drug war” off the top of the news while using the now extensive security apparatus to spy on journalist and investigators, harass dissenters, and saving the country from any threat to foreign corporate interests. And, now and again, mounting a succeszful or “almost successful” attack on those pesky drug lords.

Trotsky supposedly said “the comfortable seldom rebel”, but Peña Neito was making a lot of Mexicans uncomfortable as they saw their own economic and personal security threatened while the elites enjoyed the fruits of legislative “reforms” and the President failed to deliver on his promises.  Lopez Obrador, having led the PRD to its position as the third major party, was extremely uncomfortable.  Moving to a minor party, he began to build a coalition that, by the end of Peña Neito’s term was positioned to become the majority party.  At the same time, a perverse twist of fate meant the United States was unlikely to interfere in Mexican elections (as it consistently has done since 1828).  Hillary Clinton, the foe of Latin American progressive movements, was defeated in her run for the Presidency by the odious Donald Trump.  Ironically, the reactionary Trump was a boon for the Mexican progressives, making any US support for a candidate the kiss of death.  In addition, the rampant corruption of the Peña Nieto years, combined with disgust at the violence of both the Calderón and Peña Nieto administrations made it nearly impossible for their respective parties to find candidates who might be acceptable to the public.  Immediately following Lopez Obrador’s 1 July 2018 election, and even though he wouldn’t take office until the First of December, Peña Neito, and his programs, was irrelevant.

The news during the transition mostly dealt with the promises to adhere to “republican austerity” (famously putting up the Presidental airplane for sale as soon as he took office, and cutting his own salary by 605) , “AMLO” had run on a platform of massive reforms, and reforms to the Peña Nieto reforms.  Among them was an end to the drug war in favor of protecting citizens while providing alternatives for the poor who would otherwise find the narcotics trade their only viable means of support,, taking the military off the streets, incorporating the military’s internal security apparatus and the national police into a national guard, abolishing the “secret police” intelligence service, CISEN, and adhering strictly to the law.

A hugely ambitious plan to “save Mexico”.

Change takes time.

4. The military appears to have jumped the gun… coming for Ovido before the judicial order was finalized.   Proceso suggests the presumed head of the Sinaloa cartel, “El Mayo” Zambrano saw a benefit in “dropping a dime” on Ovido. Corrupt practices are not likely to end overnight. While waiting on the judge may have been a “technicality”, in the end upholding the letter of the law not only proved the administration takes the law seriously, it offered an out to an otherwise disastrous operation.

That the cartel was better armed than expected suggests an intelligence failure… and, highlights a security issue that has been subject to attention by the AMLO administration, the easy access to US weapons, that so far the Mexican government has been able to receive any cooperation from the United States in curbing.

With the priority being to protect civilians first, and punish the wicked a far second, getting people off the streets and hunkering down in safety was, or should have been, the first order of business.  Innocent people were killed, but the body count is nowhere near would could have happened, and what has happened in smaller communities where “kill em all, and let the Lord sort em out” seems to have affected military thinking.  Was the Army and police expected to call in a helicopter gunship in a city of 800,000 people?

What happened in Culiacán was part of the “learning curve”… a blunder perhaps, but also the end result of years of criminality by previous governments.


Jesús Esquival, “En el narco operativo de Culiacán, la mano del “Mayo” Zambada“, Proceso, 19 October 2019

“El día en que El Mencho fue supuestamente arrestado y liberado después”. Reporte Indigo, 18 October 2019

Esta noche en Culiacán siguen bloqueos, quema de vehículos y grupos armados (videos)“. Rio Doce, 17 October 2019

Video: El Chapo son FREED to safeguard” citizens in Culiacan“, Mazatlan Post, 17 October 2019

Culiacan on fire: the final whip of El Chapo and the most painful defeat in modern Mexican history“, Mazatlan Post, 18 October 2019

Jo Tuckman, “‘We do not want war’: Mexico president defends release of El Chapo’s son“, The Guardian, 18 October 2019

Kate Linthicum, Cecilia Sanchez, “Eight killed in Mexico as cartel gunmen force authorities to release El Chapo’s son“, Los ANgeles Times, 18 October 2019

Culiacán: ‘Decisión de liberar a Ovidio fue la correcta’, Buscaglia“, Regeneraión, 18 October 2019

Jorge Covarrubias, “Con Calderón, Policía Federal trabajaba para el Cártel de Sinaloa: Anabel Hernández”, Polemon, 8 July 2019

ADN40 and France 24 television news programs.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Browne permalink
    20 October 2019 1:06 pm

    Rich, on the news in Canada are reports that there were images of military and cartel capos high fiving and that appeared to be a coordinated and rapid response by the cartels as if they were given advanced information.

    Does the rot persist, unaffected by anything the Amlo regime tries?

    • 21 October 2019 12:40 am

      There are unconfirmed reports (i.e. rumors) that the PAN governor and the DEA never informed the Federal security people about the raid, and(or that Sinaloan state police leaked information (accidentally or on purpose).

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