Things south of the border are pretty wild lately. The combination of a weak government and an incredible amount of money has drawn staggering numbers of people into the drug trade, and it’s fair to say that the nation is virtually ruled by a few powerful criminal syndicates. If all you know about the Mexican drug war is what you see in the papers, here are 10 incredible facts that will shock the hell out of you.
Soldiers Turned Criminals
One of the most dangerous gangs in the Mexican drug scene is Los Zetas, and the reason for that lies in their origins. In 1999, the leader of the Gulf Cartel found himself needing muscle, so he reached out to a retired Mexican army lieutenant who had connections in GAFE, an elite special-forces unit. He managed to persuade 30 men to desert the army and come work for the bad guys. In 2010, the Zetas actually split from the Gulf Cartel and struck out on their own. Since then, they’ve expanded their territory to 11 Mexican states, making them the largest cartel in the nation.
One of the scariest things about the cartels is that nobody is safe from their reach. Lately, they’ve been using their deep pockets to recruit American children to do their dirty work. Known as “The Expendables,” six major cartels have started paying Texas teenagers cash money to perform simple tasks. Cops busted a 12-year-old in Laredo driving a stolen pickup truck with 800 pounds of marijuana, and say that hundreds of U.S. kids take odd jobs from Mexican cartels every year. Because they’re not in on any information, the kids aren’t a big loss if they’re busted.
The cartels use all kinds of methods to get drugs across the border, but did you know that they build their own submarines? Colombian smugglers working with Mexican cartels were crippled by the introduction of radar, which could detect their boats. Their solution was to build “narco-subs,” fully submersible vessels capable of transporting cocaine by the ton. Each one costs around $2,000,000 to build, and they’re assembled piece by piece in the jungle before being filled with their payload and sent to Mexico. Amazingly enough, they’re often abandoned to rust away in the ocean after a single successful delivery. Considering that their payload is worth around $400 million, that’s a reasonable sacrifice.
Forbes Billionaire’s List
2012 marked a fairly shocking moment in world economic history, as it was the first time that Forbes Magazine included a Mexican drug lord on their list of the world’s billionaires. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera made the list because of his stranglehold over the drug traffic from Mexico to the States. Some estimates say 25 percent of the smuggling over the border is controlled by Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel. Since escaping, his grip over his cartel hasn’t lessened, and they’re considered one of the most dangerous groups operating today.
Nuevo Laredo’s Bloody May
The central highway that runs from Mexico to the United States crosses through the town of Nuevo Laredo, and the vast majority of road cargo between the two countries passes through there. That makes it a very desirable piece of turf for cartels. The Sinaloa cartel and the offshoot Zeta gang are engaged in a running struggle for control of Nuevo Laredo, and on a May weekend in 2012, things got really ugly. First, drivers spotted nine people hanging from a bridge, and then police found 14 headless men in a van. They later found the heads in 14 individual coolers. Just days later, police found 49 mutilated bodies dumped by the side of a highway.
The primary agency investigating the cartels is the Federal Investigations Agency or AFI. Needless to say, all of that drug money works its way up the channel and makes good cops go bad. The extent of the corruption in the agency is shocking, however. A 2005 probe revealed that out of the 7,000 agents currently active, over 1,500 of them were currently under investigation for collaborating with one organized crime group or another. Facing such insane levels of graft, the AFI was dissolved in 2009 and restructured into the Ministerial Federal Police.
In 2006, the Mexican government announced that they were cracking down on the drug business, with newly-elected President Felipe Calderon sending the army out to Michoacan in the first of many operations to reduce cartel power. The end result of that action? Over 40,000 deaths in the next five years. Calderon’s strategy of direct confrontation has backfired on him, as every time they arrest a high-ranking cartel officer, a power struggle kicks off that leaves even more bodies on the street.
So how did all this cartel nonsense get started? With one man. Ironically, a government man. Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was a Mexican Judicial Federal Police agent who realized that there was way more money and fun to be had on the other side of the law. He funded the Guadalajara Cartel in 1980 and consolidated power, being the first Mexican to link up with the Colombian cartels to smuggle cocaine. They enjoyed the protection of the Mexican intelligence agency DFS, but after a bust in 1985, Gallardo decided to split up the business, creating the five major cartels that are still in business today. And just in time too, as he was arrested a few years later.
The Saint Of Dealers
In a heavily Catholic nation like Mexico, there’s a patron saint for everything, even drug dealers. Jesus Malverde isn’t technically recognized as a saint by the Church, but in the state of Sinaloa, he’s just as good as one. Details on the real Malverde -- if there even was one -- are sketchy at best, but the general consensus is that he was a bandit who died in 1909, shot down by the cops. Since then, he’s been adopted as the spiritual protector for people involved in the illegal drug trade, and busts of his visage are often kept in Cartel businesses.
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At What Cost
Needless to say, all of this violence costs a lot of money. Leaving aside the increased funding necessary for all of the police and military intervention, Mexican finance minister Augustin Cartens has said that the situation there is reducing the entire gross domestic product of the nation by 1 percent each year, or approximately $120 billion. Acapulco, once a major Spring Break destination, has seen tourism drop dramatically in the last few years. One survey said that over 60 percent of Mexicans refrain from spending money on items like cars to not draw the attention of the cartels. And with violence worsening, there’s no end in sight.