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Thursday, 20 October 2016


I travelled with my family to Mexico back in the summer of 2009.  We hadn’t been and airline tickets 
Puerto Villarta - hot, hot, hot
to Puerto Vallarta were less than $500 each.  The summer can be hot with temperatures reach over 40°C with levels of humidity over 90% but we weren’t going to stay on the coast.  Our plan was to rent a car and drive up to Tequila on the high, inner plateau where temperatures would be more moderate for this time of the year.  From there we would move down the plateau to Guadalajara onto Mexico City and down to Oaxaca on the southern end of the country.  For some reason, we were oblivious to the scale of the drug war being waged between rival cartels and between the police and the cartels.  We certainly had no idea of the animosity felt by the people toward the police.  As far as I can remember, the Government of Canada hadn’t even placed warnings on its website regarding travel to Mexico.  How quickly we learned. 

Taxco, Mexico - Religious Celebration
We purchased comprehensive auto insurance from Alamo Car Rental that covered damage to any part of our rented Volkswagen Passat except the tires and rear view mirrors.  Weird.  Driving out of Puerto Vallarta, we were passed by police in balaclavas riding in the back of pick-ups carrying automatic weapons looking down into vehicles as they passed.  In Mexico City, we were stopped by a policeman who took my driver’s license and passport and demanded $100 U.S. before they would be returned.  Leaving the outskirts of Acapulco, we passed through a police road block where police were dismantling a van owned by a young Asian-American family.  We admired the splendid flood-lit, baroque-style cathedral of Morelia as we walked through the square where eight people had been killed the previous September by grenades thrown into the crowd during Independence Day.  The cartel, La Familia Michoacán, was first blamed but later, three men from the Zetas were arrested.

Not until I finished reading “Gangster Warlords” by Ioan Grillo
did I realize the full extent of the drug wars being waged in Central and South America.  Of British decent, Ioan lives in Mexico City and has been reporting on Latin America since 2001 for Reuters, CNN, CBC, the BBC World Service, Time magazine among others.  What I learned from the book was that the cartels control vast territories across Central and South America.  In Brazil, the Comando Vermelho or Red Commando is one of the largest drug gangs in Brazil and controls many of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

The Commandos originated in the jails of Rio where college-educated political prisoners were confined with criminals.  At first, they would just fight and get abused by the guards.  Then they reached a truce and created a united front against the guards. The street smarts of thugs, thieves, drug dealers and killers combined with the organizational skills of leftist ideologues created a powerful alliance that basically took control of the prisons.  They then used that affiliation in the street to control entire slums otherwise known as favelas.  Today, they use they use funk and funk parties as a tool for recruiting new members. This video  has over 146 million views.

Favela in Rio de Janeiro
Police would not venture into these areas until Brazil won the right to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.  Then, they had to be prepared to wage an urban war in order to gain control of favelas located closest to the centre of Rio de Janeiro that could most impact the security of the games.  Narrow alleys bordered by cement hovels with multiple window openings two and three stories above street level provide many possible points of attack for gang members to shoot at police.  It was for this reason that Rio’s Special Operations Battalion or BOPE was created to wage was created for the purpose of taking back the streets from the cartels.  The “Call of Duty” game “Modern Warfare 2” was based on this battle for the favelas.

Like the game, many of those who inhabit the favelas are killed by police in these raids.  Children and the elderly as well as gang members are killed, one for every 23 arrests in Brazil.  In the United States, that number is one death for every 37,000 arrests.  The police have achieved some success with this tactic however, When gangs like the Red Commando are forced out of one favela, they simply move to another. With over one million crack addicts in Brazil, there’s too much money to be made for them just to give up. In 2011, Carlos Antônio de Oliveira, a Rio deputy commissioner of police, was arrested for selling confiscated guns and drugs back to the gangs they were taken from. 

Trivoli Gardens, Jamaica
Like the favelas in Brazil, the cities in Jamaica are also broken into fiefdoms.  These are controlled by powerful drug lords.  The most powerful was Dudus, nicknamed The President  Unfortunately, for Dudus, the activities of his Shower Posse caught the attention of the FBI in the United States which then filed for his extradition. Realizing the profitability of vertical integration, Dudus had used his members to sell marijuana, cocaine and guns on the streets of major U.S. cities such as Washington D.C. and New York.  At first, Jamaican Prime Minister Golding had refused to extradite his major benefactor, “The President,” claiming the FBI had used illegal wiretaps in his country.  Then, after pressure from the opposition and the United States and with much bloodshed, Dudus was removed from his stronghold in Trivoli Gardens in Kingston.  (Ironically, Trivoli Gardens is the name 173-year-old amusement park in Copenhagen, Denmark.)     

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala - another festival
Brazil may have the highest number of murders in the world but the honour for the highest murder rate goes to Honduras and then El Salvador with Guatemala ranking seventh.  Mr. Grillo calls these three countries, the Northern Triangle.  With my family, I travelled through Guatemala and Honduras back in summer of 2006.  We started in Guatemala City and bussed our way south.  In Antigua, Guatemala, we had to wake at 3:30 a.m. to take the 4:00 a.m. minibus from there to Copan Ruinas in Honduras.  At the time, we didn’t know the reason for the early start was to avoid possible bandits on the road.  We were equally naïve about possible hazards in Honduras until we arrived in the capital, Tegucigalpa where we’d barely opened the door of our taxi when our children were accosted by local youths of about the same age and size trying to grab backpacks from their hands.  We quickly retreated to the safety of a nearby Burger King guarded by what appeared to be a 13-year-old boy carrying an AK47.  All we could think was, we have to get out of here. 

When did all this violence start? Back in the late 70s and 80s, young men of El Salvador had sought refuge in Los Angeles from the civil war taking place in their country.  The United States was supporting a military junta that was waging a scorched earth policy against the Contras who were trying to overthrow them. The tactic was borrowed from one the U.S. military used to fight the Vietcong in Vietnam.  Mao Zedong’s advice to his guerillas was that they must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.  Using that same logic, the job of the opposing army is to drain the sea.  This meant burning villages and killing 70,000 of its own people.  To accomplish this task, the army needed soldiers so they enforced a policy of conscription on young men and even children.  As a consequence, parents arranged for their escape to the United States using coyotes to smuggle them across the border.    

In Los Angeles, displaced young men from El Salvador joined gangs like Barrio 18 and the Mara

Salvatrucha that gave them a sense of belonging in a country where they were not welcome.  The gangs also provided them with a means for earning a living.  That is, by selling drugs.  As a result, criminal activity and murder rates went up in the L.A. area.  Their subsequent arrest and incarceration added a significant expense for the government and so, in 1992, when the Sandinista Contras signed a peace treaty with the government of El Salvador, these young men were sent packing back to their country of origin.  Murder rates immediately dropped in L.A. and rose in El Salvador.  With their muscles, tattoos and gang lingo these fugitives became instant celebrities among their fellow countrymen as well as those in neighbouring Honduras where the release of an American film, Blood In, Blood Out inspired its young men.  The grisly portrayal of gang life in L.A meant to caution those seeking to mimic the lingo, dress and lifestyle of those involved actually became an inspiration for the young men of Honduras.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras now oscillates between the most dangerous and second most dangerous
The sleepy town island of Utila, Honduras
city in the world. And yes, we did travel through this, at the time, quiet, little city.  While waiting for our next bus, we watched a little train pulling Mexican children in cars around the square.  We wandered the streets and I bought Cuban cigars I never smoked.  (There was quite a bad shooting there just after we left.)  Our next destination was the island of Utila where the people speak like pirates, literally.  A colony of pirates lived there and then the Spanish killed the pirates and then dumped recalcitrant slaves.  The resulting language sounds like English and you think you’ll eventually understand it but you won’t.

Mr. Grillo’s book describes the rise and fall of Mexican gangster warlord, Nazario Moreno González, otherwise known as the Crazy One, The Maddest One or Saint.  “Crazy One” began life in the Michoacán state of Western Mexico and then caught the coyote express to California as a restless teenager.  He converted from Catholicism to become a Jehovah Witness drug dealer.  When a warrant was issued for his arrest, he returned home to eventually lead the cartel he joined, La Familia Michoacán.  Inspired by The Art of War, he was ruthless in his dealings with others as well as a tad loco.  In 1989, a doctor refused a request to hand over the keys to his car, so Nazario shot him.  The doctor lived but Nazario spent a year in a Morelia jail. 

La Familia Michoacán fortunes blossomed with the production of methamphetamines.  It didn’t have to be imported.  He could make it in-house and control its distribution both in Mexico and the U.S..  A skewed sense of morality prevented him from selling it in his own state of Michoacán or allowing gang members to use it however, he had no problem peddling it to other Mexicans or gringos across the border.

Demonstrating for La Famila after Nazario's supposed death
Gangster Warlords have been a thorn in the sides of Mexican presidents. Worse for Felipe Calderón was the residency he shared with The Mad One in the state of Michoacán.  By devoting considerable resources to accomplish his capture, police tracked Nazario to the village of El Alcade where sources had confirmed that he would be attending a Christmas party.  Thousands of federal police surrounded the village with Blackhawk helicopters borrowed from the United States providing reconnaissance overhead.  Unconcerned that he was outnumbered and perhaps a bit loco, Nazario ordered a counterattack.  Although government forces claimed to have killed Nazario, they had no body.  The Mad One, in the commotion of a ferocious gun battle, escaped.    

Shrine to Saint Nazario
As a dead person, Nazario reinvented himself as the Saint and renamed his gang, the Knights Templar.  They had their own religious symbols, a coat-of-arms and religious ceremonies.  Statues were built in his honour.  A pamphlet printed in the style of a Catholic prayer book reads “Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, protector of the people, Saint Nazario, give us life.”  Ceremonies involved he and his soldiers dressing up like knights with plastic helmets holding gold guns with precious stones shaped like words and pictures.  Then, they’d have initiates cut up victims and then eat them.  

With wealth and power, multinational agriculture and mining companies paid for “protection.”  The cartel forced taxes on the farmers for their avocados and limes.  This affected prices not only in Mexico but in Canadian and American bars.  Villagers paid taxes based on the square footage of their house and with the purchase of a new car or television.  However, for the people, the straw that broke the camel’s back or, as the Mexicans would say it, the drop that spilled the glass, occurred when the Knights began terrorizing villagers by raping their women. 

The vigilante movement began in 2013 as indigenous community police in Guerrero, a neighbouring
state of Michoacán.  They did what the police, who were controlled by the cartels, would not.  They took control of village after village and with each purging, their number grew. By the time, vigilantes on converged the Knights Templar’s last stronghold in the village of Apatzingan, President Peña Nieto had been forced to accept their legitimacy.  The vigilantes were no longer considered outlaws but a part of the police force.  On March 10, 2014, vigilantes, federal police and the army converged on Apatzingan where they outgunned the Knights Templar and, following a brief chase into the countryside, Saint Nazario was killed.  (Vigilante efforts are documented in the film “Cartel Land” available on Netflix.)      

Mr. Grillo concludes his book with three suggestions for ending the drug wars.  First, drug policy reform.  Criminalization makes the illegal trade of narcotics too lucrative to control.  This would include the legalization of drugs such as has occurred in Bolivia, Holland, Portugal and a number of U.S. states.  In Portugal, narcotics use has remained relatively stable even with decriminalization while both drug-related deaths and HIV infections have gone down.  His argument, why not legalize them if there’s no obvious resulting harm and removes the most lucrative stream of revenue for the cartels.  See Ioan Grillo’s video on the profit margins earned from drug sales.

Second, deal with police corruption and the corruption of politicians.

Third, win hearts and minds by providing young men with alternative activities and hope beyond the taking and selling of drugs. 

With international attention focused on the Middle East, the growing problems of South and Central American have largely been left ignored.  Ironically, this is where political action by the U.S. and Canada can actually help. 

Even with its dangers, I look forward to vacationing again in Mexico and Central and South American.  They’re culturally diverse, beautiful and affordable for travel.  Except for our confrontation with the police in Mexico City, our biggest aggravation was the speed bumps that litter the roads and make driving difficult but safer.  Everywhere we went there was a festival.  The beaches are gorgeous and the snorkeling incredible.  Unlike our previous journey, I will investigate the hazards I might be confronting.  Here’s a list of safe and not safe areas in Mexico. .