Following Mexico’s drug money trail

After a student protester is shot by police on campus, critics demand an end to militarisation and money laundering.

Juarez students
Mexican security forces have been criticised for corruption and human rights abuses in the drug war [Reuters]

A rally and conference against Mexico’s drug war poured fresh blood onto the streets of Ciudad Juárez over the weekend, when police shot a 19-year-old student in the back with a high-powered assault rifle.

Laura Carlsen, who spoke at the anti-militarisation event which had been billed as a “march against death”, said the shooting of the student on a university campus was “a game changer” in the country’s spiralling violence.

“It was really the first time [during the latest violence] the police had targeted a peace protester and the cartels were not involved at all,” said Carlsen, who directs the Americas programme of the International Relations Center from Mexico City.

The wounded student, José Dario Álvarez Orrantia, is expected to recover, although his injuries will likely plague him for the rest of his life.

Activists say the shooting underscores their point that brute force is not the best way to tackle  violence that has claimed almost 30,000 lives since 2006.

Climate of repression

Carlsen said many who attended the forum thought the shooting “had been a planned incident to stop people participating” in events critical of the Mexican government, the cartels and the US, which has pledged about $1.3bn to fight its neighbour’s drug war since 2007.

Some witnesses say students at the march spray painted anti-government graffiti on walls, prior to the shooting at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez.

Federal police say that after firing warning shots into the air, a “shot accidentally got away”. But many Ciudad Juárez residents say the attack reflects a broader climate of repression at the epicentre of the drug war.

“We denounce this repugnant crime against one of our university students and demand that those responsible be punished with all the force of the law,” the university’s rector and other staff wrote in an open letter to Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president.

About 24 hours after the incident, Carlsen accompanied students back to the site of the shooting, but found that “there was no crime scene investigation [by the police]”.

“The students had to form a commission to pick up the bullet shells themselves,” she said, although police later began to investigate the incident.

Putting out fires

While feuding drug cartels are responsible for much of the violence in Mexico, abuses by security forces are not uncommon.

An April 2009 Human Rights Watch report identified 17 cases of abuse by the Mexican military, including “killings, torture, rapes and arbitrary detentions”. And, activists say the line between the state and the cartels is often blurred by corrupting infusions of drug money.

In August, the government fired more than 3,200 police officers – almost 10 per cent of the federal force – including the police chief in Cuidad Juárez, because of widespread corruption and links to cartels.

But despite this widespread evidence of human rights abuses and corruption, Mexico and the US are moving to increase militarisation.

“I think that by sending in force into Juárez, you would be providing security to the population in that city,” said Craig Deare, a professor at the US National Defence University who believes Mexico’s murder capital needs more boots on the ground.

“I always use the simple analogy of a house,” explained Deare, the former country director for Mexico at the office of the US secretary of defence. “The house [Mexico] has foundational problems, including poverty, corruption and all sorts of development issues. You need to fix those over the long-term. But if the house is on fire you need to put out that fire now.”

To some Mexico watchers, Joaquin Villalobos is the fire chief. The former leftist rebel leader from El Salvador, who was once described as the “baby faced killer” by US officials, is a key adviser to the Mexican president.

“Villalobos says that what happened in Colombia, and what’s happening now in Mexico, is that when you confront these cartels, it generates a process of self-destruction that, clearly, weakens them,” Calderon told an interviewer earlier this year.

But some analysts bristle when Mexico is compared to Colombia in the early 1990s. “There was an uprising [in Colombia] with the intent of changing the political system,” Carlsen said. “Mexican drug cartels have no interest in becoming the state, they are economic operations above all else.”

Carlsen also insists that the notion that the current surge in violence represents the “darkness before the dawn” is widely rejected in Mexico. “When they [security forces] take out a leader of one cartel, another one comes up and a turf war ensues,” she explained.

The money trail

Carlsen’s organisation and dozens of other rights groups recently signed a letter calling for an overhaul of the US-backed drug war.

“The Merida Initiative supports a reckless strategy that has led to massive bloodshed in Mexico and failed to achieve goals to reduce illicit drug flows, assure public safety or significantly weaken cartels,” the letter stated.

Instead of greater militarisation, rights groups want better treatment for drug addicts, a weakening of demand in the US and more resources devoted to following the money trail – where massive drug profits are invested in US and offshore businesses and bank accounts.

Wachovia (now owned by Wells Fargo) and Bank of America, two of the largest banks in the US, admitted that they had not done enough to spot drug money when handling $378.4bn for Mexican currency exchange shops between 2004 and 2007.

In March, the US justice department charged Wachovia with violating the Bank Secrecy Act, legislation which prohibits money laundering, and the bank’s new owner paid $160mn in fines and penalties, Bloomberg News reported.

Drug cartels also used shell companies to open accounts at HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest bank by assets, according to an investigation by Mexico’s finance ministry.

“In order to weaken organised crime, it is far safer and more effective in the long run to erode its financial base,” Carlsen said. “Rather than sending military equipment and private security contractors like Blackwater [now Xe Services] which have terrible human rights records, they [the US] should fund drug prevention and rehabilitation. These programmes have not seen an increase in funding despite added concern.”

Deare, who supports greater US military “co-operation” with Mexico, agrees with some of the recommendations made by rights groups. “If Mexico is looking for a long term solution, I would be willing to bet that there will be demand for drugs in the US over the next 20 years,” he said.

Vincente Fox, Mexico’s former president, recently added his voice to the list of leaders calling for the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs.

And even if the battle is “won” via military means in Mexico, there is concern that the global war against drugs would simply move to a new battlefield, for as Deare explained: “If Mexico is successful, it would no longer be Mexico’s problem, it would be someone else’s problem.”

This is the second piece in a two part series examining the issues behind Mexico’s drug violence. Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris

Source: Al Jazeera