Why Operation Fiela scares me


I am a South African citizen who, for the most part, bar a few speeding tickets and other minor transgressions, is law abiding. I’m not involved with the drug trade, gang disputes and I do not own any illegal weapons. What then do I have to fear?

When government spokeswoman Phumla Williams recently wrote about the intention to intensify Operation Fiela, it makes me think of the violent mess that is Mexico. This terrifies me.

According to Williams, Operation Fiela is a multi-disciplinary and interdepartmental operation “to rid our country of illegal weapons, drug dens, prostitution rings and other illegal activities”. She says the initiative is meant to make us all feel safe.

Yet the recent history of similar types of initiatives do not bode well for our expectations of safety. The most prescient example comes from the “narcoland” of Mexico whose so-called War on Drugs, funded in part by the US government, provides us with an important reference point.

SAPS members, traffic officials, metro police, brand specialists, immigration officials and SANDF members at work as part of Operation Fiela. From Pretoria News.

The War on Drugs was a joint programme between the US and various Latin American governments that began in the 1980s under Ronald Regan and was expanded by the Clinton administration.

It sought to undermine drug trafficking through the co-operative involvement of many government agencies in the various countries.

Most significantly, it featured the militarisation of such agencies and, in places like Mexico, the direct involvement of the army.

By the early 2000s, however, Mexican drug cartels dominated by The Federation under El Chapo Guzman, were not only stronger than ever, but controlled significant portions of the Mexican state — including the feared and highly militarised Federal Police.

How did the degeneration of the Mexican state get to that point?

Once the stuff of conspiracy theories, the rise of narco-trafficants in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s has been linked by investigative journalists such as the recently vindicated Gary Webb and also by the US Congress’s Kerry Committee Report to CIA funding for Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Thus, from the very beginning of the War on Drugs, various government agencies both in the US and in Mexico were already highly compromised in their relation to drug trafficking.

The more the Mexican state ostensibly involved itself in the drug war, the more organised cartels needed to find a way to protect themselves. They did so in two ways: they militarised their own organisations and they began buying off relevant units of the Mexican state.

By the time El Chapo “allegedly” walked out of Mexican prison in a Federal Preventative Police uniform and then, with his partner El Mayo, created The Federation, many drug bosses began to boast that the Mexican state, in fact, worked for them. They proclaimed their untouchability.

In 2006, when Felipe Calderon rose to become president of Mexico, one of his first acts was to “intensify” the drug war. He restructured the Federal Police, and then, with the help of the US, put billions of dollars into funding an expanded war on the drug cartels. The Mexican army became a key role player in this war.

The result of the expanded crackdown on the cartels was not what the Mexican public had hoped. The violence, rather than diminishing, shot through the roof.

Ciudad Juarez, gateway city to the US and therefore a key trafficking point, became the epicentre of this narco-war with the Juarez and Sinola Cartels battling with each other and the Mexican army for control over the turf. At 130 murders per 100 000 inhabitants, Ciudad Juarez became for many years the most dangerous city in the world.

What those who have investigated Calderon’s expanded drug war have found was that the initiative was not quite a war on the cartels as it had been portrayed by government propaganda. Instead, it was war between the cartels with Mexican security forces and the army itself being used as its proxies.

There are even allegations that the killing of the powerful narco-boss Arturo Beltran-Leyva in 2009 by the Mexican Navy was ordered by El Chapo himself.

In other words, various divisions of the security forces, allied with specific narco-associations, were being sent to take down their rivals thereby raising the stakes and plunging the entire country into violence.

President Calderon’s assertion of law and order became its opposite.

Despite high-profile arrests of most of the major cartel bosses in recent years, including the once untouchable El Chapo, the narco-state of Mexico remains and security forces continue to be complicit in dozens of massacres including that of the now infamous 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

Here in South Africa we run the risk of going down exactly that route. While organised crime and drug trafficking is not nearly as dominant here, Operation Fiela, through its militarisation of the fight against crime, endangers our whole country.

I am not only speaking about its reprehensible criminalisation of protest or its prejudiced targeting of black foreigners.

Just as worrying, Operation Fiela raises the stakes for criminal syndicates that will inevitably choose to defend themselves through their own militarisation and by deepening their already significant corrupt relationship to those in government.

Gangs will begin to resemble paramilitary armies and the number of Jackie Selebis in government will multiply.

You can see indications of this in the renewed outbreak of violence in Manenberg that occurred following Operation Fiela’s recent “crackdown on gangsterism” in that community.

Many reports indicate that the operation has backfired and some community leaders have denounced it as setting off a gang war.

While this alleged failure is denied by the police, we will only know the outcome in time. If Mexico is any indication, however, these gangs will intensify their own operations to protect themselves.

They will, in all likelihood, try to build stronger links with regional organised crime syndicates and through them strengthen their relationship with various facets of the security cluster thereby further degrading the state apparatus.

The likely outcome is that residents of Manenberg and the wider Cape Flats will continue to be the ultimate victims.

This could be an example of things to come throughout South Africa. As we know from the history of apartheid, a police state in the name of law and order is not actually a situation of safety and security.

Instead, it is a regime on the edge of chaos.

This is exactly what President Jacob Zuma demonstrates in the threat he made just a week ago: “Do not use violence to express yourselves or I might be forced to relook at the apartheid laws that used violence to suppress people.”

In a country in which organised crime has already infiltrated the increasingly militarised state, we are likely to find that Operation Fiela’s unintended consequences will put our entire society at risk.

This is why I find the prospect of Fiela’s intensification absolutely terrifying.

Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based social justice activist, editor of the anthology No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way and a founder of a non-profit organisation. A version of this article was also published in The Star and Pretoria News.