AMEXICA: War Along the Borderline

Dec 14, 2010

In a horrific account, Ed Vulliamy describes the ultraviolent, nihilistic narco-traficante culture of the Mexican-American border, a land of drug addicts and cartels.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I want to thank you all for joining us.

Today our discussion is about a topic that should interest all Americans because what happens on the border between Mexico and the United States has the potential to affect us all.

In the 35 months or so since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a war against his country's drug cartels, thousands of people throughout Mexico have been killed, with most of the deaths recorded along the borderland between the United States and Mexico, especially in the city of Ciudad Juarez. Although this city has become the poster child for the rest of this border frontier, with gruesome news bulletins about carjackings, kidnappings, and killings, it isn't the only city where gang warfare and terror reign supreme.

In addition, human trafficking is on the rise as desperate migrants seek entry into the "land of golden possibilities," which has, in turn, resulted in a lockdown by U.S. Homeland Security.

In Amexica, which is an Aztec term chosen by our guest to describe the 2,100-mile-long and 60-mile-wide swath of land on the U.S.-Mexican border, our speaker, veteran journalist Ed Vulliamy, traveled west to east, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, in order to observe and record first-hand life of the people living there.

What he found was a place of paradoxes, an area of opportunity and poverty, promise and despair, love and violence, sex and church, beauty and fear. Along the way he chronicles the efforts of government, law enforcement, the military, and private individuals as they work to stop the fighting and end the escalating drug wars.

While there is no doubt that this borderland has become a battleground for various cartels, the story as told is also one about the negative results of globalization, free trade, sweatshops, illegal immigration, and arms dealing.

As our speaker brings together the economic and cultural factors that have led to the mounting violence, it appears that this problem is one that can no longer be seen as belonging to one country alone. Neither the United States nor Mexico can continue to blame the other.

The question then becomes: What should we do, and can it be done? The answer is not that simple, as our speaker well knows.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to this intrepid journalist, our speaker today, Ed Vulliamy. Thank you for joining us.


ED VULLIAMY: Thank you, Joanne, and thank you all for coming out on a cold night. It is a great honor, it really is. International policy institutes, think-tanks, come and go in proliferation. This is the real thing, and you have a centenary coming up.

The urgency of what is happening along the border between the United States and Mexico is cogent and speaks for itself for many reasons, the most obvious being that most of the violence and some of the worst of the violence is literally a 20-minutes' walk from the United States. Ciudad Juarez, as Joanne mentioned, is opposite El Paso, Texas. It takes about five minutes on foot to get from Main Street El Paso to Main Street Ciudad Juarez, if you fancy the walk.

It matters an awful lot because we are nowhere near the end of this. Mexico is descending into a murderous abyss. The bottom is not yet in sight.

Thirdly, it matters—and I don't like it mattering for this—but I have this awful feeling that in 50 years' time this violence/war/conflict will be most famous for the ways in which these 28,000-30,000 people have died since December 2006. There is an element of pornography in the way that the violence is reported. When I was in Ciudad Juarez in October this year, 2010, there were two decapitated corpses in a car with the heads on the hood of the car—this is sick, grotesque.

It matters not for the reasons that the tabloid newspapers think these modes of execution matter, but because they are sign languages and sign anti-languages. There's a nihilism, a decadence almost, to this violence, which is very important to understanding it.

But actually some of the worst of the killing for me is when in the barrage of daily bad news, there's yet another massacre of young teen-agers and youths, and even children, in the rehab centers. These are ramshackle buildings made of cinder blocks in which young people, usually under the guidance of pastors who often were themselves gang fighters and drug addicts, have converted and run these rehab centers. Death squads literally just go in and wipe these children out.

There was one incident quite recently, in October, in Ciudad Juarez. There was another one in Tijuana, which was a first of this kind of killing in that city.

This is flashbacks for me. On the morning after the Grito de la Independencia last year, September the 16th, the day of Mexico's independence, a colleague and I climbed into a place called the Anexo de Vida (Annex of Life), but there wasn't much vida in there. In the courtyard ten people had been killed. You didn't have to be a cop to work out what had happened.

A squad had literally gone through the flanks of these two places. The blood was still sticky on the mattresses. The CDs that they had been listening to when the killers arrived were still there, in the blood, on the sofas. Boot prints were stamped through the courtyard, bloodied. Clearly, the authorities had no serious interest in finding these people or explaining what had happened.

But I just think: Who are the people who are living here—never mind the killers?

I spent a couple of nights, perhaps rather unwisely—I didn't sleep very well—staying in one of them, in a place called Visión de Nación, right on the chewed-up outskirts of Ciudad Juarez. They go twice a week for a walk three kilometers down the road and back again. It's an extraordinary sight, 113 of them. These people have gone [lost their minds]. They've got some diapers flapping around their not-so-private parts, and they either scream or laugh or shout at whatever they can see in their minds' eye. There's a sort of element of black comedy to the whole thing. Some truckers know them. They hoot and wave at the sign of the Oxo Supermarket chain on the side of the truck. They go, "Hola, Senior Oxo."

At the front is this man, the pastor who runs this place, himself a former addict, who has found the Lord and now runs this. He's got his staff to give this crazy exodus a kind of Biblical feel. He said, "This is the human junkyard that we've got here. This is trash that nobody wanted, but we bring them in here." He said, "Every night we're waiting. Are we next—and, if so, why?"

Ciudad Juarez is the place it is, and these people are everybody. All former addicts, but they're nurses and teachers. Some are gang members. Some of them are girls who worked as waitresses in the clubs when Ciudad Juarez was the racy town that could buy you anything, literally.

The the pastor stopped and he said, "No, this isn't the human junkyard. The human junkyard is out there. Here if your diaper is flapping around we'll give you a hug, we'll look after you. Out there it's different. Out there is the junkyard. No one is chopping each other up in here. No one's decapitating people in here."

So out to the human junkyard. What places these are! Let me try to sort of take you to one of them. Riveras del Bravo it's called. It's right up against Texas. At the end of the street there's sort of a marsh, a paddy field, where cotton was grown, then there is a little trickle, the Rio Grande. The bank, as near as that wall, is Texas.

When I went in 2009 to this place, the houses had started to depopulate. About a quarter of the houses in most of the streets were incinerated, empty. People had fled. This is because—and we'll come to this later—the maquilladoras, the factories, the assembly plants, were starting to shed labor and people were returning to the interior whence they came. This left sort of a playground for gangs, crack dens, the rival gangs that run different blocks in this wreckage to contest one another.

We went to talk to the priest. As ever, the churches are havens in these places. I'm not trying to sell any other message in this. I'm just saying that's how it is.

"You're listening to a horror story," said Father Beto. He said, "In my first year here I had to conduct eight funerals for children who had been killed in accidents." And what accidents? Brace yourselves; forgive me. These were situations in which a woman had met a new man and the man's precondition for joining the household was that the children from the first marriage had to be killed. And they were.

This is drugs. It's all drugs. These people are out of their minds on crystal meth, methamphetamine, crack, heroin—the lot. This was the first thing that one realized in these complications.

The headline is that this war is narco-cartels fighting each other for the smuggling routes for drugs into the United States. Yes, that is the bedrock, that is the theme. But the variations on the theme are what interested me.

The first thing that you notice, you can't avoid it—and it's not taken seriously enough perhaps in the United States; it's almost taboo, disgracefully, in Mexico—is that these vast, crumbing metropolises along the border on the Mexican side are the signs of catastrophic addiction to hard drugs, for reasons that are terribly important to the debate about the legalization or otherwise of drugs. We need to understand why these people are as far out of their heads as they are. Where the river flows through, people will drink, and they are. That is a calamity.

So what is going on? I don't know exactly what's going on. Nobody does. Nobody knows the answer. If there is a room in which the answers lie, where people know who these killers are, why these children have to die in the rehabilitation centers, no one has found it yet—which is difficult. The New York Times gives you a hard time for not coming up with any answers, and The Independent praises you for not having any answers. But we have to try and explain it, or else there's no point in me being here at all.

There are layers of reasons. There is the immediate series of explanations, which I'll call the criminal heritage. Then there are the riptides beneath those surface reasons, which are the economic backdrop of how this came about—it's not political. This is sort of a post-political non-economy, rather than a political economy, in northern Mexico. Then there are the cautionary tales for all of us, which are not unique to Mexico, which tell us about really what happens when de-industrialization happens as fast as it is happening along that borderline.

I'm going to beg your indulgence for a bit of trend-spotting, a bit of stamp collecting, and look at these cartels and their heritage. I think this matters.

We know about Lucky Luciano, Corleone, the dons, the Sicilians, and all of that stuff. It's interesting that the criminal heritage, as I'm calling it, of the Mexican cartels are not household names, and they should be. If they are for any of you who know all this—and I'm sure they are—then I apologize. This is an ABC book to you.

But it's important also because the cartels are pastiches of the legal economy in many ways, and they're also pioneers of it. What they do tends to be followed by the corporations in the legal economy in some ways, and in quite alarming ways.

Going back to the 1980s, in what we can call sort of the classical period of the narco-cartels, comparable to that of Cosa Nostra in Sicily and Italy with which we're perhaps more familiar, there was a don, and his name was Félix Gallardo. He had a mentor, called Pedro Aviles, who was killed in a shootout in 1978. Félix Gallardo operated a system which integrated with the 72-year rule of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico, in much the same way as Cosa Nostra integrated into the postwar democracy in Italy. The politicians knew their place, the narcos knew their place, the police forces sometimes knew their place. The military we have to come to later. But they maintained what in Italy gets called the pax mafiosa, the Mafia's peace. The product keeps rolling.

Gallardo took great lengths to make sure that all the different components in his Guadalajara cartel had their pieces of turf, had their plaza on which to operate.

Then a number of things happened in the 1980s.

Firstly, the Americans, with the Mexican government—it was a strange thing for the Mexican government to undertake because they were convivial really with this cartel—began burning the heroin poppies in the state of Sinaloa, where this cartel was based. That was the first thing that happened, shifting the emphasis from heroin to cocaine.

The second thing was that the United States very effectively shut down the Caribbean route for Colombian cocaine, the "Miami vice" route if you like. But conversely to that, there was the whole strange saga of the Contras and Nicaragua, who needed payment in a currency that wouldn't show above-board—that currency, as we all know, was white powder—and the Mexican Gallardo cartel operated in some ways as a middleman in that.

Then there was a meltdown moment when a DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency] agent called Kiki Camarena—if two-thirds of you know this, I apologize—was tortured and killed by Gallardo's people. Washington said to Mexico City, "You must do something."

That something was to arrest Félix Gallardo.

The pax mafiosa collapsed, it fragmented. He tried to keep this pyramid that he had constructed together, but narco-criminals being what they are, why would they keep their own law when their instinct is to break laws? The pax mafiosa shattered.

The nephew of Gallardo's mentor, Avilas, is a man called Joaquin "Chapu" Guzman. He felt himself to have a sort of divine right to the border, and started to pick off one by one the other factions that took up their positions.

There was the wave of violence through the 1990s, comparable to that now, that ensued. He hit Tijuana first, the five nephews of Gallardo, called the Arellano Félix Brothers, in Tijuana. There was a confrontation there. In the mid-1990s in Juarez he tried to pick off the Juarez cartel.

But, crucially for us and our purposes tonight, he took on the Gulf cartel in Nuevo Laredo in 2004, and that's where the current phase of the war began.

This is where I began, for what it's worth, working on the border. I just wasn't going to write about this war at all. I'm sort of an accidental war correspondent. I went to live in Italy and was told to keep an eye on Yugoslavia next door in 1990. I ended up in Bosnia keeping an eye on Italy, but not much of one. I came here to try to have a second attempt at la dolce vita, and then al Qaeda paid a visit 20 blocks south of where I lived one morning and I ended up in Iraq. I actually didn't want to write about a narco-war. I went down to write about the border.

You may remember when President George W. Bush decided that he wanted to allow Mexican trucks into and across the United States, instead of the shuttle system that operates at the moment. I thought it was a fascinating situation. I went down to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. I thought, "This place is fascinating."

Time out. Before the war started, before Guzman hit Nuevo Laredo, here was this strip of land, as Joanne kindly said in the opening, full of fascinating contradictions.

It's a line in the sand—needs must be, even more so now—and yet it's utterly porous. A million people cross it every day to shop; families go to church, school even. It's the busiest commercial border in the world. Nuevo Laredo and Laredo account for 40 percent of that trade, worth an estimated $350 billion a year. That's a lot of trade.

My own intentions to write about this richness started twisting and went all wrong when I found myself back down in the area to cover the feminicidio, the mass abduction/mutilation/murder of young women in Ciudad Juarez.

But in some ways Nuevo Laredo was the right place to start. Little did I know that this war would start in Nuevo Laredo. It's the busiest commercial border crossing in the world and will get busier. We haven't got the time to get too nerdy about transportation, but there is a post-Panamax generation of ships that can't get through the Canal, so that they dock in a port called Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, and more and more of this trade into the United States from China is going to come up by rail through los dos Laredos, and some of it will go out to Europe as well as that imported into the United States itself. This is teeming.

These two little towns—Nuevo Laredo hardly lit the streets until recently, and Laredo, Texas, is a dusty town most famous for a cowboy song. But not anymore.

They operate an ambassadorial system between the two city halls. They have a representative mutually between each other. He's a good man, the Mexican on the Texas side. He estimates that 3 percent of what's going across through those towns is contraband. It's only 3 percent, but if you're talking about 40 percent of the entire trade between these two countries across the border, that's a lot of contraband.

In a way one was in the right place. In that sense, I started to think of this Gallardo cartel and now the battle for Nuevo Laredo between Guzman and the Gulf Cartel.

There was a sort of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] before NAFTA going on in this ghastliness. I was thinking about that in a way these cartels do pioneer a lot of the things that happen in the legal economy, and they have mutated in the same way.

That old patrician order of the don, the Mafioso who gives flowers to the ladies on Mother's Day, who lights the village to demonstrate his authority, that started to go too. They've become leaner and meaner. They're outsourced. They don't bother to do the dirty work themselves, killing and kidnapping in places like Ciudad Juarez. Why would they want to get involved with that?

Now, they outsource. The street gangs have to fight for the tender, much as a cleaning company has to fight for the tender to wash the streets. They have mutated in much the same way as a legal corporation has mutated.

In that way we can see how the old idea of the don has moved on several generations. They have adopted sort of a grotesque variation of the free market. They don't have patronage or monopolies anymore. They do things more meritocratically, only the meritocracy is rather more savage than the street-cleaning contract.

There's another thing that was NAFTA before NAFTA. We have to talk about these maquilladoras for reasons that are sociological if nothing else. There is a sort of constituency on the left that seeks to explain the whole thing through exploitation of the maquilladoras. I don't think that's adequate, but they are important.

Roughly speaking again—I'm probably talking to people who know all this already, but it has to be said—in the 1960s an idea, a treaty was signed between Washington and Mexico City, that this necklace of assembly plants would be built along the borderline. They are bonded. They are duty-free. It's like having a third world on your doorstep.

Crucially, although the wages are appallingly low by American standards and threatened American jobs, they were money indeed by the standards of the Mexican interior. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people came to the border not to cross it but to work on it.

These cities burgeoned, but they had no infrastructure to match the arrivals. There were sparse attempts to light their homes or heat them in winter. Crucially, there was no real attempt to educate the children or to enable the people in the different satellite towns to get from one to the other and to go to school in under five hours round-trip a day. That's what happened when they arrived.

The maquilladoras also played a part in the emerging violence, and the feminicidio [killing of women] ensued, horrors which I'm sure people know about.

At the beginning, most of the workforce in the maquilladoras were women. It's now more 50/50. But you had a situation in which, as my dear colleague Julián Cardona in Juarez puts it, the women had a job, the girls were earning money.

They could go out and spend that money. The boys at home, as Julián put it, were economically impotent, sexually potent. Something horrible happened. This relationship became a sort of a playground for misogynist violence of the most grotesque and appalling kind.

A very good sociologist and anthropologist, called Cecilia Balli, at the University of Texas at Austin, talks very eloquently about this crisis of masculinity and the violence of the feminicidio as a kind of rehearsal for the nature of the nihilist violence that characterizes the narco-war.

The result of this shedding of labor—we're talking about more maquilladoras actually in the last ten years than there were before, but some 60,000 fewer jobs in Ciudad Juarez alone. Multiply that along the border and you're talking several hundred thousand fewer jobs. That's several hundred thousand people without work who came there to work in these shantytowns. That in a way is why people turned to drugs. That's also where the battle for these local plazas, that now accounts for much more violence than the smuggling routes, begins, in this mutation of the marketplace.

There is a new wage structure that emerges. You are paid in kind, not in money, to start doing petty jobs for the narco-cartels. You consume and you cut and you sell on, so that your addiction becomes an activity in the marketplace. On the pay scale you can earn more if you get involved in driving a getaway car for kidnappers or executioners. Then you perhaps get involved in doing that yourself. At the top of the pay scale is killing. But because there's so much of it now, you have to kill an awful lot to go further up that pay scale. There is an economy of crime, if you like. Beyond just the profits from crime, there are job opportunities.

When I set off to do the first two long trips zigzagging the border, one about 5,000 miles, the other about 11,000 miles, loop to loop, the first thing is Juarez—and I'm grateful for Joanne at the beginning for saying that we always think of Juarez, and rightly so. It is the kernel and the core of what's going on, and it illustrates the themes more clearly. But the whole situation does mutate along the border.

Let's just start with San Diego/Tijuana. It's an interesting place, because that's where the model of the narcos, the cartels, fighting each other for the smuggling route does still hold. There is a battle going on between Guzman and the Arellano Félix cartel in Tijuana.

It is the place also—people might have seen a good article in The New Yorker recently by Bill Finnegan—that is also where the army has tried to militarize the police, took over the police, put a colonel in, and, according to Bill, he has basically used torture and any means necessary to purge the police. The public are fine with that. Readers of The New Yorker are not fine with that.

But something happened just recently that sent a shiver down my spine. When they massacred a group of young people in a rehab center in Tijuana for the first time just recently, October 2010, the message, the narcomensajes, the banners, and the hacking into the radios and the different means of communication, very interesting means of communication that these cartel use, they labeled that massacre as "a taste of Juarez."

So whereas the aspiration has always been what is called a Tijuanaficacion of the other cities along the border, an imitation of this success through fairly dubious means by the army of establishing order in Tijuana, we have the specter of the opposite happening, a Juarezificacion if you like of Tijuana.

Moving along east, Sonora, Arizona. The theme that most preoccupied people here is that of migration. It's a long and complicated story, but basically I think we all know that most migration routes were through the cities—Tijuana/San Diego, Juarez/El Paso, and Matamoros up into the Rio Grande Valley, deep south Texas.

The Clinton Administration, as you know, mounted three operations—Gatekeeper, Hold the Line, and Rio Grande. And what? It stopped those migration routes, made them much, much harder to cross. But they didn't stop coming. What happened was they went out into the deserts, and Arizona/Sonora now accounts for something like 40 percent of all migrants coming across through the deserts, with all the obvious perils of death through hypothermia in winter through exposure, and dehydration in summer.

But what concerns us here I think more than something that an awful lot has been written about was this takeover of the migration business, which is what it is, by the cartels.

There is a place called Alta in Sonora which has become the hub, where the coyotes meet the people off the buses, these wretches, and offer them their guides through the desert—or not guides. And everybody talks about how the cartels—in that area it's the Sinaloa and the Beltrán-Leyva cartels—are taking over.

Talking to the migrants is actually very interesting, because some think this is a very good idea. The coyotes know what they are doing, they know the way through the desert, which they never did before. You pay more, claro, but the women keep their honor, which doesn't need much interpretation. But it suddenly can all go horribly wrong.

The biggest single massacre since this war began in December 2006, this phase, that was not actually drug related, was the massacre, you may recall, of 72 Central Americans in a holding station in Tamaulipas who refused to pay the extra, claro, it costs more, and were summarily executed, all but one of them.

I met a man in Salt Lake City who had been held in Phoenix. His story was quite illustrative. They arrive, they think it's all over, they've paid their money, they've gone through the desert, they've made it, and suddenly, "Oh no, you're staying right here. Telephone numbers, all of you, please." Next thing he knows is his brother in Denver is getting a call and shaken down for another $5,000. These two men were lucky. The police busted that safe house, that holding house—unsafe house I should say.

So there is that, in a way, I think, the unresolved development in the migration story.

Juarez—we could go on all night talking about Juarez, so we won't. But what to say? That's where this thumbnail account of what's going on as a battle between cartels for the smuggling routes has imploded. It is a miasma of killing interests really.

It's the street gangs. There are about 500 of them, all fighting for their own little plot of land, their domestic plaza. They are fighting each other for the tender to work for the cartels. So there's another story.

There are gangs affiliated to the cartels. Guzman has one called Artistas Asesinos, and the Juarez cartel has another one, called the Aztecas, whose leader was arrested a couple of weeks ago, November 2010. Yet another major coup for the authorities, yes, but there's so many more fish in the sea than ever came out of that one.

Then you have the various layers of police. The implosion of the cartel structures has liberated the municipal police forces who were incumbent to some of the factions. They can operate on their own if they want now. Likewise the state police, the Federales, no one really knows what they are doing.

The army is quite another matter, always a mercurial force in the history of the Mexican 20th century, always with a life of its own at times. There are speculations that something called limpia social, social cleansing, is going on, whereby the army is actually ridding Juarez of the mallandros, the gutter, the people at the bottom of the pile. Some people posit that this explains the massacres in the rehab centers. I don't think it does explain everything, but I think it is probably yet another little piece in the kaleidoscope.

But the crucial thing is that all this happens in an atmosphere of complete impunity, impunity for the people who did the dirty deals, that built Revisto Bravo in a swamp between the landowner and the politicians who gave them the contract to build, and impunity between—a friend of mine, Sandra Rodríguez, who writes for El Diario, which wrongly asked the cartels for advice on what to do and was wrongly reported as having capitulated, to the complete media silence they carry on. She is writing about a boy who killed his parents and sister "just because I could," he said—completely out of his head on drugs. Total impunity. It's because you can.

We'll go east again and stop, if we may, for a little while just to talk about the Gulf Cartel. We all hear about Chapu Guzman. He's the most famous one. He's the guy that everybody loves to write about, because he arrives with his entourage in a restaurant and bolts the doors, takes the mobile phones, treats everybody to dinner, bows out, and off he goes into the night, and they all sing some ghastly narcocorrido about how wonderful he is.

But the Gulf Cartel I think is more interesting. We hear less about them. They were founded—well, they weren't founded, but as they are now, they were construed by I think one of the most important criminals in the world, Osiel Cárdenas. He's in jail in Texas now. He was convicted earlier this year, tried and convicted completely in secret, completely behind closed doors. So goodness knows what deal he has done.

He has changed, if you like, the style of the drug smuggler in this age. He has completely thrown the don idea out of the window. Style, unfortunately, is an important word in our society nowadays anyway. But it matters in this world. He doesn't have interest in political power really. He'd rather have an appointment with a martial arts trainer, one feels. You don't have a fedora if you're Osiel. You would rather go and get another tattoo done.

What Cárdenas did is he set up what is basically the first narco army, the first narco militia. They're called Los Zetas. There are between 4,000 to 6,000 of them. They are recruited mostly from the Mexican military. The first ones were recruited from the special forces and the police forces.

They have a black sense of humor. They hang these mensajes, these sheets, up. There was one in Matamoras quite recently. It said, "If you have military experience, dial this number. Join Los Zetas." At the bottom it said, "and we serve better food than pop noodles," which is what the soldiers in the barracks get.

The style is interesting. They're masters of the Internet. They love YouTube. They interrogate on YouTube. They even execute on YouTube—it doesn't stay up long. But they know what they're doing. They play with the Internet. They have, yes, this black humor.

Crucially, in the history of the criminal heritage, as I'm calling it, they were nothing to do with Sinaloa. Alone they come from Tamaulipas, they're indigenous to Tamaulipas, they're proud of Tamaulipas. They almost conduct themselves like sort of football fans. They have "Ariba Tamaulipas" on their wallets, their mobile phones, their car windscreens. And they're terrifying.

They are also important because you hear quite a lot on the susurro—that wonderful border word that means "a rustle of leaves," but they use it to mean "the word on the street"—that a way out of this is for the Mexican government to do a deal with Chapu Guzman and to restore the pax mafiosa—"Let's get this under control. Back to the good old days of Felix Gallardo."

But it's too late for that now, because the Zetas has—the word "insurgency" gets used. I think it's wrong. I think "insurgency" is a political word, and these people are crucially post-political.

This brings me to this man Treviño [a human rights activist whom Vulliamy interviewed]. He said something very interesting. He's in Reynosa, which is a Zeta fortress town, although nobody mentions their name. The Zetas, by the way, shut down the media. We can talk about newspapers later if you like. Mañana in Nuevo Laredo doesn't report anything. Even when the police chief was assassinated after seven hours in office, nothing in the papers, nada. You just don't.

It's very odd. Interestingly, for the journalist it's quite odd, because in our profession we're used to the fact that people like Bosnian Serbs, even al Qaeda, they have something to communicate, they want to talk in their weird, crazy way.

These people don't. They have no interest in talking to us at all except, as I said before, in their own way, in their own language, on YouTube. They don't want journalists to interpret what they do. They'll say it their way.

But this is what Treviño said. He said, "These people, they're disgusting people, they're all high, they've very violent, but you must understand that they can't be seen in the Armani T-shirt that they had last year, that everyone knows cost them $400. They've got to have the Valentino one that everyone knows cost them $1,000; and that mobile phone application, not last year's one, because that chica is not going to stay with you if someone else has got the Valentino T-shirt that is better."

This can't explain 30,000 dead people.

This man Treviño said: "No, but take this seriously." I did, slowly, and thought yes, this is very cogent, this matters. These people, they started killing for money, but the money gets less and less. They're doing this for smaller and smaller patches of turf and smaller and smaller reasons.

In trying to develop some sort of notion of what's going on, I came to an experimental conclusion that this is very much a war of our time. It's post-political. It's post-moral. It uses the icons of paper materialism, which the leaders of society and business are not exactly discouraging, and they mutate it in their own way.

The notion that this war is in the end about nothing gives it a sort of 21st-century post-ideological—it doesn't have a cause, it doesn't have even a window-dressing excuse for a cause; it just is what it is.

That's why I was particularly struck by this young man—and he knows them better than I could ever hope to know them—these icons of social kudos, from their point of view, out of their heads as they are, drugged-out reasons for this orgy of violence, a kind of nihilism.

What to do? Well, we didn't need WikiLeaks to tell us that throwing the Mexican army at this isn't going to achieve what Felipe Calderón set out to achieve. In Juarez at least and in Tamaulipas now, it's almost like the Newton's cradle, it's reaction/counter-reaction of equal force.

I think we must recognize where the resistance is and take it very seriously.

It's a materialist war, and the resistance comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the clergy. The media is avowedly secular and sometimes gets quite uncomfortable with this.

There are priests working with heartwarming and spine-chilling bravery, crazy pastors, crazy converts, who were themselves addicts and gangbangers. I think that has to be acknowledged. We're going to get a lot more out of helping those people than with the Merida Initiative, tooling up an army substantial sections of which are going to desert to the Zetas.

It's a male war, for reasons that Ms. Balli talks about, and the resistance comes from women, crucially, woman organized in the maquilladoras, woman in civil society, women in the home, trying to defuse this atmosphere.

Schooling—it sounds worthy, it sounds simple, it sounds trite. It isn't. It's absolutely crucial. There are too many children only going to school until the age of eight or nine, or not going at all. If you could sit down with people and say, "What is an aid package?"—instead of all those helicopters, help them build schools and train teachers. This is a black hole in these vast communities.

Another one is just this: follow the money. This is something one can do.

Clamp down on gun running. One change in the language north of the border has been that by Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, this word "co-responsibility" now. We are taking these drugs, and 90 percent of the guns that are traced come from the border states. But there's something tedious about Europeans who go on about guns in America. I think we should shut up and let the Americans get on with it.

But follow the money. Giovanni Falcone, the great anti-Mafia judge in Sicily who was blown up in 1990 by Cosa Nostra, wasn't killed because of the 517 Mafiosi he banged away. He was killed because he was starting to put names to numbers in Zurich.

There was a case earlier this year where a bank that had been taken over by another bigger bank— which had done nothing wrong, by the way, but which became a subsidiary—did settle out of court over $110 million which had been proven to be linked to cocaine dealing but had failed to apply the appropriate strictures, or admitted that it had, to $376 billion coming in through casas de cambio and exchange houses in Mexico over a four-year period. That is a mind-boggling amount of money—and this was just one bank.

This strikes me as something that really could be done. If you throttle that—I mean I find it grotesque morally anyway that hundreds of billions of dollars of drug money are swilling around the banking system.

Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna, talks about this quite a lot, that in difficult times there's a lot of liquid criminal money swilling around. It's very tempting in the culture of the financial world to not perhaps be as rigorous about this as they should.

But that's the way law enforcement wants to go. Anyone here with friends or contacts who are working in law enforcement knows that's where the DEA and the FBI, the professionals, want to go. They want to go after this money.

But let's end on a sort of inverted upbeat, if you like.

The reason why this matters is because the borderland is such a wonderful place. It's where these two countries come together. One can't say "two cultures" anymore, because it's part of my argument in the book—or it's not an argument, it's a piece of reportage really, it's just faces and places, and this place is meant to be a sort of rollick along the borderline. But there is a richness. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

As Joanne kindly said, it's the United States and Mexico neither and both, all in one. The contrasts between light and shadow are remarkable. I don't need to persuade you of its physical beauty. It's breathtaking. It's the most beautiful place in the world. The people are lovely. That's why it matters.

What a terrible thing it would be if the next generation after ours was the first in the history of both countries not to savor and enjoy the richness of that border, had not had the chance to be one of those million people crossing it every day to live the lives that they do. I hope this isn't the end of that.

Questions and Answers:

QUESTION: Thank you. James Starkman.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the Colombian experience? Also, are you in any personal danger as a result of your reportage? Finally, is the legalization of drugs even a partial answer to this terrible problem?

ED VULLIAMY: You pointed to three 500-pound gorillas.

I'm not an expert on Colombia. From the little I know, there are some lessons, inasmuch as deals were struck.

I don't want to libel Mayor Fajardo of Medellín, but he has obviously done something quite remarkable. How on earth he did it, I don't know. Where did the Medellín cartel go? What kinds of deals were struck?

My concern would be that in Colombia, so far as I know, those pyramidal structures are still more or less intact. If the leaders of the Cali and Medellín cartels did cut a deal or agree to a truce—whatever reason it is that the bomb subsided, apart from being hammered by the Colombian army and Uribe's "no mess" approach to it—there was some sort of structure. To take that awful scene from The Battle of Algiers, there was a diagram to fill in as Uribe went at those cartels.

In Mexico the problem is that that structure is not really there anymore. In the Zetas and in the Gulf Cartel it is, but in places like Juarez and across the rest of the country, it's so fragmented now.

The premise when Felipe Calderón sent in the army—and the DEA to a degree subscribed to this—is that if you smash the ball of mercury until it goes off into lots of little beads, that will weaken the criminals. That hasn't actually happened. The fragmentation in a way has perversely devolved the violence, if that's possible.

I'm not hurrying to go back to Tamaulipas for sure. There are Americans bravely working on this day in and day out. So far everything's okay. There have been estimates between 38 and 50-something journalists killed. They have all been Mexican. I'm not saying that is any comfort.

Thirdly, legalization is a huge issue. It always comes up as a debate.

I started out thinking that decriminalization at least would help. There is an optimism in this premise that it would.

Regarding why people take drugs, there's almost a sort of a kind of neo-hippie approach, and an idea of recreational drug-taking. That may explain why some people take drugs, because it makes the party go with a bang, it makes you horny, makes the rock 'n roll sound better or whatever.

But that's not actually why people are taking drugs in Ciudad Juarez or Rio de Janeiro. When they take drugs it's self-obliteration and self-destruction.

How do the legalizers see it? Let's say we regulate and legalize a brand of crystal meth—marijuana can be out of this; that's a different discourse—we legalize and regulate a brand of crystal meth, methamphetamine, or crack that screws up your brain 70 percent and costs $5 a pop. I have a terrible feeling that our children probably will go out to Walgreens and buy this stuff. The premise is that they won't, but I think they will.

What's also to stop the criminals from saying, "We've got another brand of crystal meth that screws your brain up 95 percent and it's only $1.50 a pop." If I was a drug dealer, that's what I'd do. I'd look at what was regulated and find something that was cheaper and better.

I don't think the slightly neo-hippie and well-intentional legalizing has really got to this point. Do they really want their kids to go down to Rite-Aid and buy crack? I don't. I think if they could, they would. That's just a personal opinion. But I stand to be corrected.

QUESTION: Larry Bridwell.

I grew up in Orange County. I have a brother who lives in San Diego. I used to go to Tijuana when I was in college. Kids are not going to Tijuana anymore. So your last comments to me were quite interesting.

My question is: What about the role of government in general in Mexico? One of the issues when it's brought up that makes Mexican citizens a little annoyed is when people start referring to Mexico as a failed state.

I've listened quite carefully during your remarks. You said very little about the government. You mentioned Calderón.

What is the role of the Mexican government, and is Mexico becoming a failed society?

ED VULLIAMY: Thank you for that question, because it gives us the opportunity to appease those Mexicans who are quite rightly fed up with being called a failed state. McCaffrey before he left used that kind of language.

It's interesting and it's complicated. The way that Mexico responded to swine flu shows that it's not a failed state. It was brilliant compared to the shambles in Britain with regards to health. It was a model response.

Some of the child literacy programs that they've got going are estimable. It demonstrates that it is anything but a failed state. But there's something about Mexico's relationship with drug cartels.

You're right, I haven't talked enough about the government. Sorry. I apologize.

Tony Blair is not someone I particularly want to paraphrase, for all sorts of reasons beyond the remit of this discourse, but he did use this phrase once: "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." He ended up being neither. I never voted for him, unlike most of the people I know.

"Tough on drugs, tough on the causes of drugs" would be quite a good mindset for the Mexican government to think about. What are the causes of all this? Apart from the American demand, which is beyond their control. But this is not just about American demand. This is about their own social structures.

The causes of drug addiction are connected to the speed with which collective land was privatized, and the speed with which these maquilladora satellite towns were built through corruption. There's no holding these companies to account. We're not asking them to be like Victorian patrician employers building ideal towns at Port Sunlight. But some accountability, please, to the people that they leave behind.

The government doesn't seem to understand that language. They don't seem to understand that there's a connection between de-industrialization and no-urban un-planning as a cause of drug taking.

You hear it from the intellectuals, you hear it in Letras Libres magazine, you hear it in universities, but you don't hear it much in politics.

It's not a failed state. It's also a wonderful place. I wouldn't necessarily want your children to go to Tijuana for Saturday night, but there are places that are perfectly safe. Mexicali on the border opposite Calexico is fine; you wouldn't want more. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to recommend places for anyone to go for a jolly weekend and be held accountable.

It functions, but it's got this blind spot. All countries have blind spots. But this is Mexico, so it gets the drug policy and the drug cartel policy wrong. In a way they've got to be tough on the causes of drugs, as we are in the United States and Britain. They're all related.

The cautionary tale I was trying to tell is about de-industrialization. The coal mines in South Wales are like car factories in Michigan. They are social adhesive. The union has a scrap with the management and then the head of the union gets the job as the head of the HR department. He changes cigars. That's the way it has always gone.

This is a different thing. In Mexico it has happened much quicker, and they're not on top of that. I simply offer that as a thought.

QUESTION: Michael Schmerin.

Thank you for enlightening me about this ravaging drug problem . Does it exist in the rest of Mexico other than along the border, and is it in essence a problem from north and south throughout the country where there has been the failure of society?

ED VULLIAMY: Thanks. There's a dearth of data on this. NGOs, church groups, and the like trying to assess it.

I don't know the rest of Mexico as well as I know the border. My impression—and it is just an impression—is that it's bad in the big cities, in particular in Mexico City. If you go to Puebla or Veracruz, yes, there are drugs, Monterrey even, but not like along the border.

It has to do with the abundance of what's around. As it gets harder for them to cross the drugs into the United States, which it is, like sticks in a dam, it gets blocked and there's a surfeit of drugs. It's much worse along the border.

But there are plenty of drugs in Rio de Janeiro or Caracas. It's a nightmare. Britain, by the way, has overtaken the United States and every other country in the world in cocaine consumption per capita, and boy do you notice it in the ghastly belligerence of the place these days. So it's a global problem.

It's a problem of what I'm trying to call sort of post-political de-industrialized society.

I got the impression that the calamitous levels of addiction are in these border towns. I've never seen anything like it, and that includes going to some really grim places. Juarez in particular, Reynosa, Tijuana—it's everywhere. That place Riveras del Bravo where they killed the kids because the guy's jealous of the first marriage is one small story but it speaks volumes to me.

QUESTION: My name is Sheila Stone.

I was wondering if they manufacture drugs along the border, and why can't the army just go in and storm the barricades there?


Synthetic drugs are manufactured throughout Latin America. There was a bust of a big methamphetamine operation in Argentina. I'm not trying to get at Mexico—I love Mexico—but I think they arrested 18 people at this factory in Argentina and 13 happened to be Mexican. It's not because all Mexicans make methamphetamine, but they just happen to be very good at making it. The cartels make the best stuff.

It's manufactured all over, and it gets stronger and stronger. The scientists are very competent at what they do. They know what they're doing, they're good at it, and they refine it.

The army does occasionally bust drug operations. They tend to go for marijuana, but that's not the problem. There are conspiracy theorists who say that the reason they don't bust it is because they are part of it. Certainly the police force is a part of it. I'm not the only person who suggests that that might be an answer.

On the other hand, we must be clear, for anyone who is Mexican here, there are some very straight, good cops in Mexico. There are some very good colonels who want to crush these people, purge the country of what's happening, and roll it back at least.

You raise a million-dollar question. For every ten major drug lords arrested and paraded with all the guns and the packets of pills and whatever it is that they do, there's a maximum of one big bust on a factory. They got one in Monterrey recently that was making methamphetamine. These busts are spectacularly noticeable by their absence. We don't know why. But there are theories, and one of the theories is that they don't really want to.

I had an interesting conversation with President Calderón's sort of flack, a bright woman. I'll paraphrase what she said on the record, "We understand that this is a war against the cartels, not against the drugs. We know that the drugs are going." The implication is "we know we can't really stop the drugs, but what we can try to do is stop the violence," which is pretty frightening.

Thank you very much for introducing us to a new reality.

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