Mexico drug war worsened by organized crime's tight grip on politics

The Mexican government and police efforts in the Mexican drug war are often undermined by the control that organized crime has on the political system.

Edgar Montelongo/Reuters
People gathered around a peace dove outline made with candles at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico, last month. They were protesting the death of a university student who was hit by stray gunfire at a busy shopping plaza during what was probably a drug-related assassination.
Fernando Castillo /AP
Julio César Godoy Toscano (with hand raised) is sworn in as a Mexican congressman Sept. 23 after eluding police.

The unrelenting drug violence here has cast a pall over Mexico, with the brutality turning many numb to its menace. In one week alone in late October, three mass killings took place, including a massacre of 14 at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez, a shooting spree inside a Tijuana drug rehab center that killed 13, and an attack in a carwash in Nayarit that took 15 lives.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made the restoration of security the centerpiece of his presidency. That has meant 50,000 troops and federal officials dispatched to take on drug criminals, but violence continues unabated, with more than 28,000 killed in drug-related violence since he took office in December 2006.

The causes of the mayhem are manifold. But many experts, law enforcement officials, and ordinary Mexicans say that profound change cannot be accomplished until the government begins loosening organized crime's grip on officials and institutions at all levels.

"Organized crime has not just penetrated police bodies but [also] government spaces at all levels.… It is one of the biggest problems complicating the fight against drug trafficking," says Alberto Aziz Nassif, a specialist in democracy and civil society at the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology in Mexico City. "There are no clear boundaries. The boundaries have been erased by corruption and impunity."

In the past few weeks, Mexico has been captivated by an ongoing political drama that symbolizes the challenges the government faces in rooting out corruption.

In 2009, then-Congressman-elect Julio César Godoy Toscano went missing for 15 months after the federal attorney general's office charged him with having connections to La Familia, one of Mexico's most feared drug-running gangs.

Mr. Godoy, who is from the violent state of Michoacán and is the governor's half-brother, eventually showed up at Mexico's Congress of the Union in Mexico City in September. Armed with a court injunction that said he could take office provided he was not arrested first, he managed to elude police outside Congress and get sworn in – thereby receiving immunity for the duration of his three-year term.

A deepening drama

If the story ended there, it would be political drama enough. But days later, a top drug trafficker from La Familia was heard on a leaked audiotape pledging support for a man alleged to be Godoy. And now the political class is scrambling to determine whether enough evidence exists to remove Godoy's immunity, or fuero.

But whether Godoy turns out to be innocent or guilty, the events surrounding his arrest raise many troubling questions about how deeply entrenched drug gangs are within Mexico's political establishment.

Many experts say President Calderón's drug war is failing because organized crime has co-opted the political system, either by victimizing candidates and politicians – killing them, in many instances – or by paying them off.

Calderón has said no public official will be spared, but several factors complicate the government's ability to capture those suspected of moonlighting for criminal networks, including a lack of investigative expertise, a distrust of government motivations, and lack of political will.

For John Ackerman, a legal expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the main problem is the inability of Mexico to serve justice. For example, Godoy was charged in July 2009 as part of a roundup that had begun that spring in Michoacán. Mayors and state officials were accused of working with La Familia, but almost all of those cases fell apart due to a lack of direct material evidence.

Critics say that too often, authorities rely on confessions made under duress to build cases. According to various nonprofit organizations, 75 percent of crimes go unreported in Mexico, and of those that are reported, only a small fraction result in prosecutions.

"The big problem is not public security," says Mr. Ackerman, but the effective issuance of justice, including putting cases together in the advanced stages of a criminal investigation. "This is the real center of the problem," he says.

The Michoacán arrests, and others throughout the country, are held up as proof of Calderón's commitment to holding all public officials accountable. Although most of the suspects hailed from the opposition, including Godoy, some came from the ruling party. "Calderón was sincere about it; he wanted to nail them," says George Grayson, author of "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?"

But many others claim the arrests were political – a common concern in Mexico that complicates efforts to investigate politicians suspected of misbehavior.

A problem rooted in politics

The problem goes back to the 71 years of one-party rule by the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), says Aldo Muñoz, a political scientist at Mexico State's Autonomous University. One of the reasons the fuero exists is to shield sitting legislators from judicial harassment by opposition parties. It can be taken away only with a majority vote by legislators – the situation in which Godoy finds himself.

"As we do not trust the attorney general's office, we assume that the government is going after its political rivals," Mr. Muñoz says.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to cleaning up the system, say political analysts, is a lack of political will, sometimes because politicians are involved and often because they are turning a blind eye.

"The political elite in Mexico are not willing to take the hard medicine that Italy and Colombia took," says Edgardo Buscaglia, a leading organized crime expert at Mexico's Autonomous Institute of Technology, referring to the pain politicians elsewhere have endured to root out organized crime. "You have to bring down a huge economic and political system."

Organized crime 'managing the state'

Indeed, corruption in Mexican politics is nothing new, but it has grown unwieldy. Under the PRI, pacts were made that allowed the state to manage organized crime. Now organized crime is, in essence, managing the state, competing for control over various facets of society, says Mr. Buscaglia.

After being sworn in earlier this fall, Godoy held a press conference to deny charges against him: "I am not a criminal," he told reporters.

No matter how it plays out, it is one more powerful blow to the integrity of Mexican institutions. "Innocent or guilty, that is not the point," says Buscaglia. "One way or another [the Godoy case] shows the system collapsing from corruption from within."

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