Policeman stands guard international airport in Mexico City. (AFP)

Becoming mayor in Mexico can cost your life

The assassination of two Mexican mayors is the latest episode of a drug war which has claimed more than 60,000 lives so far

Becoming the mayor of your city, the place where you grew up, is an honour. It is a victory, often coming after a fierce political battle. You finally have the chance to do your best to improve the daily lives of your fellow citizens.

It is not an easy path though, it requires a lot of effort. Not everybody will be happy with your actions, and many will stand on your way ready to stop you every time they can.

When Ambrosio Soto won the elections in the small Mexican town of Pungarabato, he knew all this. And he also knew that for him, as for many other mayors in the country, things were going to be more complicated.

Being a good mayor in Mexico can get you killed in cold blood at any time. It is what happens to the ones who do not want to surrender their territory to the local powerful and brutal criminal organisations, the so-called drug cartels. There is no possible middle ground: if you are not for them, you are against them.

Against them was where Ambrosio Soto decided to be. During his office, he firmly refused to give a share of the municipality public funding to the cartels. A choice he payed for with his life. On the night of July 23, a masked commando showered his car with bullets, killing him and his driver.

He knew this could have happened. Indeed, he wrote it on Twitter two weeks befor his assassination.

Ambrosio Soto @BOCHOSOTO1

Mataron a mi primo, estoy amenazado por la delincuencia organizada. Ya es hora de actuar señor presidente @EPN.#TierraCaliente lo necesita.

Translation: “They killed my cousin, I am threatened by organised crime, it is time to act Mister President”

Domingo Lopez Gonzalez, the Mexican mayor of San Juan Chamula, was meeting his citizens in the main square, to collect requests, suggestions and complaints. It was a normal Saturday afternoon, until a group of armed men attacked the venue and killed Gonzalez, his deputy and two staff members.

These two killings are only the last on a long list. Eighty three mayors and ex-mayors have been assassinated in Mexico since 2006.

Mexico is, unfortunately, also this. A country where extremely wealthy, armed and influential criminal groups have built an unscrupulous parallel state where being a local politician is a dangerous job, even after retirment.

Their rule is one of fear and money.

Assassinations and bribes are their control levers.

Their cruelty is notorious around the world: if you make a mistake they do not just simply shoot you. They torture you, chop you into pieces, burn you alive, melt your limbs in acid and deliver what remains to your family.

Such brutality makes corruption very hard to uproot. It takes guts to refuse a bribe knowing what will happen after, and most citizens want to live. Corruption is a pervasive element in the Mexican society, from the streets up to the higest political offices. Many of the law enforcement agencies are also believed to be on the criminal’s payroll.

From a business perspective their location is their unique selling point. Being on the North American border provides access to a wide and wealthy market, where the appetite for drugs is insatiable. On top of that, there is no other land route to the United States than Mexico. Not surprisingly, currently, the most influential cartels are the ones located on border areas.

For these organisations, controlling the territory is fundamental. All Mexican cartels have well organised fire batteries, in all similar to regular army units. They carry last generation weapons of all sorts, from small pistols to anti-tank machine guns. The majority of those weapons, nearly seven out of 10, are legally purchased in the nearly 7,000 gun shops located just across the US border. The smuggling network then takes care of the delivery.

Drug dealing is the cartels’ core business, and cocaine is, as always, the majour source of income. Cartels buy it from Colombia, Peru or Bolivia, then manage its sale and distribution in the United States. The price at source for a kilogram of powder is around $2,000, which can be sold to wholesalers for $30,000. The gross profit is 1,400 per cent, way more than any legal business on earth.

Like any other corporation, the cartels diversify their investments.

In the last decade, methamphetamine has proved to be an excellent substitute for cocaine: it is more addictive and cheaper to produce. Meth can be prepared in any chemical laboratory, it does not need a natural precursor. The entire process, beginning to end, takes place in Mexico and there is no need to pay foreign organisations for the raw material.

Marijuana used to be a majour source of income, but things have slightly changed after the decision of several states in the US to depenalise both the recreational or the therapeutic use of cannabis. Recent figures show a decrease in US seizures of Mexican weed.

Nevertheless, the Central American country still has thousands of hectares of well-guarded and hidden ganja plantations. Their harvest, with its intense perfume and typical orange shades, is commonly appreciated in many South American countries.

According to estimates, the whole Mexican drug trade is worth $30 billion a year. More than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Nepal, at $21 billion, and Afghanistan, at $17 billion.

Some of the top 500 companies of the world have smaller revenues. The Japan-based corporation Suzuki Motors, for instance, makes $26.5 billion a year. The French cosmetic company l’Oréal has a yearly flow of $28 billion.

The Sinaloa cartel, which rules over the Mexican west coast, is currently the most powerful. It controls roughly 50 per cent of the country’s drug trade, and its turnover is higher than the GDP of Zimbabwe, at $14.6 billion, and Jamaica, at $14 billion.

All these figures have to be considered carefully; by the nature of the business it is impossible to have exact data. Criminal organisations do not file tax papers nor regular balance sheets, and their transactions happen mostly in cash. The only way to estimate their assets is on the basis of seizures and investigations, so what we have is most likely a conservative figure.

The Mexican government response has, so far, been mainly military. In 2006 former President Felipe Calderón declared his intention to destroy the cartels and deployed more than 6,500 soldiers in what has become a constant war.

The military aspect is not the only one of this conflict. The cartel’s solid power has much to do with the perception that part of society has about them. It is a also a cultural battle.

Drug lords, and affiliates in general, are often perceived as examples of success, powerful people who fulfilled all their dreams. They have luxury cars, villas, money and everything one could possibly desire. Many young Mexicans look up to them, want to be them. This appeal is a very powerful tool in the criminals hands. They create and manipulate this mythology expertly.

Cartels keep fuelling an underground narco-culture, ranging from tatoos to songs. Music plays a very important role in this game, there is a vast musical repertoire representing criminals as folk heroes fighting bravely against the police for the good of their land and their people. Hundreds of these songs, the so-called “narco corrido”, drug ballads, can be heard in the many small tavernas in the North of Mexico.

The control that cartels are able to excercise in many Mexican regions is also a matter of employment. It is believed that the organisations employ some five hundred thousand people, at least. It means that entire families are surviving “thanks” to the drug money, a fact that works heavily in the criminals favour, building a spirit of gratitude that passes on generation to generation.

Many perceive the cartels as positive organisations, granting them salaries and thus a dignified life. Too many times a short one, though. Most of the people who join the cartels die very young. The cartels are involved in a constant war, both against their rivals and against the state. This spiral of violence has claimed more than 60,000 lives by now, suffocating Mexico’s positive energies and depriving the country of peace.

(With inputs from Vrinda Aggarwal)


Daniele Pagani is an Italian reporter who ended up in South Asia, writes for WION. Holding a Master Degree in Contemporary History, he is an investigative journalist specialized in criminal economies and transnational crime.
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