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Saturday, 11 February 2012

Twenty seconds of shooting, 432 bullets, five dead policemen.

16:19 | , ,


 Four of the corpses are sprawled over a shiny new Dodge Ram pickup truck that has been pierced so many times it resembles a cheese grater. The bodies are contorted in the unnatural poses of the dead - arms arched over spines, legs spread out sideways. The bloodied fifth man is lying three metres from the pickup. His eyes are wide open, his right hand stretched upward clasping a 9mm pistol - a death pose that could have been set up for a Hollywood film. It is a balmy evening in Culiacan, Sinaloa, near Mexico's Pacific Coast. The policemen had stopped at a red light when the gunmen attacked, shooting from the side and back, unleashing bullets in split seconds. A customized Kalashnikov can fire 100 rounds in 10 seconds. This is a lightning war. I arrive 10 minutes after the shooting and a crowd of onlookers is already thickening. "That one is a Kalashnikov bullet. That one is from an AR15," says a skinny boy in a baseball cap, pointing at a long silvery shell next to a shorter gold one. Besides them, middle-aged couples, old men and mothers with small children gawk at the morbid display. The local press corps huddles together, checking photos on their viewfinders. They are relaxed, cheery; this is their daily bread. A battered Ford Focus speeds through the crowd. The wife of one of the victims jumps out and starts screaming hysterically. Her swinging arms are held back by her brother, his eyes red with tears. It is only when I see the pained look on their faces that the loss of human life really sinks in. Anyone with half an eye on the news knows that Mexico is in the midst of a drug war, with rival cartels battling for control of a multibillion-dollar trade in the United States. The country is so deep in blood it is getting harder to shock the locals. Even the kidnapping and killing of nine policemen, or a pile of craniums in a town plaza, isn't big news. Only the most sensational atrocities now grab media attention: a grenade attack on revellers celebrating Independence Day; an old silver mine filled with 56 decaying corpses, some of the victims thrown in alive; the kidnapping and shooting of 72 migrants, including a pregnant woman. In the five years of President Felipe Calderon's administration, the government admitted earlier this month, the drug war has claimed 47,500 lives, including 3,000 public servants - policemen, soldiers, judges, mayors and dozens of federal officials. Such a murder rate compares to the most lethal insurgent forces in the world - and is certainly more deadly than Hamas, Eta, or the IRA in its entire three decades of armed struggle. The nature of the attacks is even more intimidating. Mexican gangsters regularly shower police stations with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades; they carry out mass kidnappings of officers and leave their mutilated bodies on public display; they even kidnapped one mayor, tied him up and stoned him to death on a main street. I originally travelled to Latin America with the goal of being a foreign correspondent in exotic climes. The Oliver Stone film Salvador inspired me with its story of reporters dodging bullets in the Central American civil wars. But by the turn of the millennium, the days of military dictators and communist insurgents were no more. We were now, apparently, in a golden age of democracy and free trade. I arrived in Mexico in 2000 the day before Vicente Fox, the former Coca-Cola executive president, was sworn into office, ending 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. This was a titanic moment in Mexican history, a seismic shift in its political plates, a time of optimism and celebration. The clique who ravaged the country and lined their pockets for most of the 20th century had fallen from power. Ordinary Mexicans looked forward to enjoying the fruit of their hard work along with freedom and human rights. In the first years of the decade, no one saw the crisis ahead. The American media heaped high expectations on the cowboy-boot-wearing Fox as he entertained Kofi Annan and became the first Mexican to address a joint U.S. session of Congress. The first wave of serious cartel warfare began in the autumn of 2004 on the border with Texas and spread across the country. When Calderon took power in 2006 and declared war on these gangs, the violence multiplied overnight. The same system that promised Mexico hope was weak in controlling the most powerful mafias on the continent. The old regime may have been corrupt and authoritarian, but it could manage organized crime by taking down a token few gangsters and taxing the rest. Mexico's drug war is inextricably linked to the democratic transition. Its special-force soldiers became mercenaries for gangsters. Businessmen who used to pay off corrupt officials had to pay off mobsters. Police forces turned on one another - sometimes breaking into shootouts. Following the rise of the Mexican drug cartels has been a surreal - and tragic - journey. I have stumbled up mountains where drugs are born as pretty flowers; dined with lawyers who represent the biggest capos on the planet; and I got drunk with American undercover agents who infiltrate the cartels. I also sped through city streets to see too many bleeding corpses - and heard the words of too many mothers who had lost their sons, and with them their hearts. I have met the assassins, too; men like Jose Antonio from Ciudad Juarez, probably the most murderous city on the planet - just 11 kilometres from the border with the U.S. Jose stands just five foot six and has chocolate coloured skin, earning the nickname "frijol" or bean. He has a mop of black curly hair and bad acne, like many 17-year-olds. But despite his harmless demeanour, he has seen more killings than many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frijol came of age in a war zone. When Mexico's two most powerful gangs, the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, began fighting in 2004, he was just 12 and joined a street gang in his slum. At 14, he was already involved in armed robberies, drug dealing and regular gun battles with rival gangs. At 16, police nabbed him for possession of a small arsenal of weapons and being an accessory to a drug-related murder. Frijol is typical of thousands of teenagers and young men. His parents hail from a country village, but joined the wave of immigrants that flocked to work in Juarez. They sweated on production lines making Japanese TV sets, American cosmetics and mannequins, for an average of $6 a day. It was a step up from growing corn in their village. But it was also a radical change in their lives. Frijol's parents still celebrated peasant folk days and macho country values. But he grew up in a sprawling city of 1.3 million where he could tune into American TV and see the skyscrapers of El Paso over the river. Contraband goods and guns flooded south and drugs went north. He was in between markets and in between worlds. While Frijol's parents slaved for long days in the factories, he was left for hours at home alone. He soon found company as part of a Juarez street gang or "barrio," the Calaberas, or skulls. "The gang becomes like your home, your family. It is where you find friendship and people to talk to. It is where you feel part of something. And you know the gang will back you up if you are in trouble." These barrios had been in Juarez for decades. New generations filled the ranks while veterans grew out of them. They had always fought rival gangs with sticks, stones, knives and guns. But a radical change occurred when the barrios were swept up into the wider drug cartel war. Frijol learned to use guns in the Calaberas. Arms moved around Juarez streets freely and every barrio had its arsenal. "There was a guy who had been in the barrio a few years before and was now working with the big people," explains Frijol. "He started offering jobs to the youngsters. The first jobs were just as lookouts or guarding tienditas (little drug shops). Then they started paying people to do the big jobs ... to kill." I ask how much the mafia pays to carry out murders. Frijol says one thousand pesos - about $77. The figure seems so ludicrous that I ask other active and former gang members. The price of a human life in Juarez is just $77. To traffic drugs is no huge step to the dark side. All kinds of people move narcotics and don't feel they crossed a red line. But to take a life for what amounts to enough to buy some tacos and a few beers over the week shows a terrifying degradation in society. I ask Frijol what it is like to be in fire fights, to see your friends die and to be an accessory to a murder. He answers unblinking. "Being in shootouts is pure adrenalin. But you see dead bodies and you feel nothing. There is killing every day. Some days, there are 10 executions; other days, there are 30. It is just normal now." I speak to Elizabeth Villegas, a psychologist. The teenagers with whom she works have murdered and raped. I ask, how does this hurt them psychologically? She stares at me as if she has not thought about it before. "They don't feel anything," she replies. "They just don't understand the pain that they have caused others. Most come from broken families. They don't recognize rules or limits." The teenagers know that, under Mexican law, minors can be sentenced to a maximum of only five years in prison no matter how many murders, kidnappings or rapes they have committed. Many convicted killers will be back on the streets before they turn 20. Frijol himself will be out when he is 19. But the law is the least of their worries; the mafias administer their own justice. Juarez cartel gunmen went to neighbourhoods where gang members had been recruited for the Sinaloans. It didn't matter that only two or three kids from the barrio had joined the mob; a death sentence was passed on the whole barrio. The Sinaloan mafia returned the favour on barrios that had joined the Juarez Cartel. Frijol recognizes that youth prison may be hard. But it is a lot safer there than on the streets now. "I keep hearing about friends who have been killed out there. Maybe I would be dead too. Prison could have saved my life." On the streets of Mexico, death was never far away. Five sources whose interviews helped to shape my book were later murdered or disappeared. One of them, the Honduran anti-drug chief Julian Aristides Gonzalez, gave me an interview in his office in the capital Tegucigalpa. The officer chatted for hours about the growth of Mexican drug gangs in Central America and the Colombians who provide them with narcotics. In his office were 140 kilos of seized cocaine and piles of maps and photographs showing clandestine landing strips and narco mansions. I was impressed by how open and frank Gonzalez was about his investigations and the political corruption they showed. Four days later, he gave a news conference showing his latest discoveries. Next day, he dropped his sevenyear-old daughter off at school. Assassins drove past on a motorcycle and fired 11 bullets into him. It turned out he had planned to retire in two months and move his family to Canada.

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