Time to Call Them Terrorists - Mexico - 10 June 2010
Last weekend as we drove along the carretera that takes Mexico City dwellers south to Acapulco for the weekend, we passed through the city of Cuernavaca, and underneath the road bridge where a few weeks earlier four decapitated bodies were suspended by members of the local drugs cartel. This was in the same week that 72 bodies were found in a disused mine further north, and La Barbie the notorious blond blue-eyed narco-gang leader was arrested and paraded in front of the press by the Federal Police. Two days earlier, a hand grenade went off in the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta on the west coast (by accident according to the State Governor as he dismissed the incident as unimportant), and 8 people were killed in a bar in Cancun on the east coast.
The American Embassy has now ordered all the dependents of diplomats based near the border home, and the embassies in Mexico City are openly wondering when they might have to declare Monterrey, the second largest city in Mexico, a no go area. This is by any measure a country at war.
Living in the safe and glamorous international neighbourhoods of Mexico City the drugs war seems remote and somehow foreign, but the reality is that in this beautiful country bombs have been thrown into television and radio stations, thousands of police officers were this week dismissed as they were suspected of corruption, and after a shoot out this week on Mexico City’s equivalent of the M25, a gang of arms smugglers was shot to death.
Does this all sound familiar? I have been thinking about the parallels between the war here and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I watched the Andrew Marr interview with Tony Blair on BBC World, I found myself reflecting on the similarity between the techniques used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, and by the gangs here in Mexico to try and control the country and its government. When another gang leader was shot dead in Cuernavaca a few months ago, one Mexican marine was killed in the operation and foolishly he was named in the newspapers. Within 48 hours the gang had killed his entire extended family as a warning to others. The police here now routinely wear balaclavas in anti-cartel operations in order to protect their identity.
Yet nobody here trusts the police, and the government in most states is believed by most Mexicans with some justification to be thoroughly corrupt. It is time to acknowledge that cartel activity is terrorism, pure and simple, and not the commission of an economic crime.
The Mexican drug cartels are using the classic techniques of terror to try and win a political objective – to make Mexico ungovernable and law enforcement impossible. They may not be religious objectives, as in the case of the Islamic extremists, but maybe we have lost the true meaning of terrorism in the post-9/11 world. Terrorism is not a religious act, it is a political one. In using bombings and shootings and decapitation along with published threats to those that oppose them, these gangs are trying to control the population and the government with terror, and prevent any political interference with their criminal objectives. Religion is irrelevant: in the 1970s neither the Red Brigade nor the IRA were fighting for Allah or the establishment of a global Khalifate.
It is time for governments around the world to re-think their approach to narco-crime, and to proscribe these cartels under terrorism legislation. There are lawyers, and finance businesses, and service suppliers around the world that are funded by these gangs, and yet it is still possible to dismiss money-laundering as a white-collar economic crime. But that simply isn’t true, money-laundering is in reality the end of the trail that started with the murder of 72 desperate Latin American migrants in a Mexican mine, because they refused to smuggle drugs.
If the British and American Governments re-define these cartels as terrorist organisations then the international banks and law firms that support them with a blind eye will have to look again at their activities. It is not a crime in Britain to know that someone is a drug dealer and do nothing about it, but under the Prevention of Terrorism Act it is a an offence to know about a terrorist and to do nothing to report that fact – as the production team of Channel 4’s The Committee learnt to their cost nearly twenty years ago – when they refused to name their terrorist informant.
Presidents Calderon and Obama can send in more troops, patrol their borders more effectively, and continue to fight corruption, but the simple act of defining the Mexican narco cartels as the terrorists that they are, will be a major blow to them, and give law enforcement agencies around the world another set of weapons to use in the fight against them.