In Mexico’s drug battle, the public is missing in action

Reporting from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico -- The mayor had good news: A notorious thug from one of the drug cartels had been found killed. Hector “El Negro” Saldana would no longer menace the people of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico.

Trouble was, Saldana’s body hadn’t yet been discovered when Mayor Mauricio Fernandez made the announcement with a flourish at his swearing-in ceremony in October.

How did Fernandez know about Saldana’s demise hours before investigators found the body stuffed in a car hundreds of miles away in Mexico City?

Without explicitly admitting that he had ordered the killing, Fernandez eventually acknowledged forming “intelligence squads” to “cleanse” his jurisdiction of undesirables such as “El Negro,” who by all accounts kidnapped and extorted with impunity and flaunted his untouchable status by driving around in a yellow Lamborghini.

The top judicial official in the region praised Fernandez’s crime-busting initiative as “fabulous.” Days passed before any senior government figure criticized the mayor.

The hit on “El Negro” raised a nightmarish prospect for the nation: Had the government’s war on the cartels brought Mexico to the point where vigilantism was sanctioned? And were ordinary Mexicans somehow complicit?

“We’ve all paid off a cop, bribed our way to a degree, been afraid to denounce the pusher at the taxi stand,” said Marcos Fastlicht, a prominent Mexico City businessman who is trying to rally citizens into collective action against crime.

“We are all born into this environment and we have not been strong, or courageous, enough. We’ve all helped this country fall apart.”

But many Mexicans would argue that it doesn’t pay to get involved. Governments have long discouraged or even punished those who speak out. Given that legions of police officers and politicians have been bought off by the drug capos, it’s safer to stay on the sidelines.

And a lot of people benefit from narcotics trafficking. The cartels “have offered work and opportunities and a sense of identity that we as society were not able to offer them,” Luis Cardenas Palomino, head of an intelligence branch of the federal police, said at a recent conference on citizen participation.

“They have offered them something that is the most serious of all: the chance for a social payback.”

Last year, when a 14-year-old boy from an affluent family in Mexico City was killed and crammed into a car trunk after his parents paid a ransom, an aggrieved public staged protest marches in many cities. But since then, there has been little sustained public action against organized crime.

In this drug offensive launched three years ago by President Felipe Calderon, more than 15,000 people have been killed. But that is not the only measure of the damage, or of the difficulty Calderon faces. The Mexican people have been reluctant allies in the struggle, key institutions of society have been silent or ineffectual, and democratic values that had been struggling to take root, such as independence of the press and the rule of law, have been eroded.

Dripping with money, some of it even legal, San Pedro Garza Garcia is the kind of place where residents put a high premium on safety and can demand it.

Fernandez, the mayor, says he is meeting those demands. He says he was forced to create “intelligence units” because of public anger and the ineffectiveness of authorities.

By acknowledging the use of vigilantes, Fernandez uttered aloud what had swirled as whispers in many parts of the country. From blood-soaked border states such as Chihuahua to drug-producing centers such as Sinaloa to the capital, Mexico City, a number of mysterious killings point to the settling of scores or removal of undesirables.

San Pedro, a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico’s industrial capital, boasts multinational corporate headquarters, Ferrari dealerships, pristine streets and parks, the top luxury hotels. At one typically orderly intersection rises a copy of Michelangelo’s David larger than the original.

In an interview in a City Hall office decorated with paintings by Mexico’s top contemporary artists, Fernandez dismissed comparisons of the intelligence units to death squads or Colombia-style paramilitaries, saying his units are “more like detectives,” albeit answerable only to him. He refused to provide any details as to who serves on the squads or how they operate.

“The important thing to know is that here in San Pedro we will do whatever it takes,” he said. “We are not willing to accept organized crime.”

Fernandez, scion of one of his city’s oldest families, said he enjoyed broad support and would pay for his special units with donations from rich businessmen, like himself.

And he said he was talking to Israeli firms about purchasing top-of-the line surveillance and security equipment.

“The important thing is to have the information,” he said. “How did we come by the information? Doesn’t matter to me. . . . Just bring me the information.”

He said that those who worried that the squads would run amok could relax because they would be under his control.

“It is not within the law, but it’s not against the law either,” he said.

Consuelo Morales, a nun who stands not quite 5 feet tall, was one of the people condemning Fernandez. No one wanted to hear her.

Not unusual, she says.

“Citizens are sick and tired of corruption and impunity and tempted to take justice into their own hands,” she said. “But if we permit citizens to form groups to settle scores, because the authorities don’t function at any level, then you create a monster.”

As head of a human rights organization, Morales for years has been trying to shine light on the misdeeds of officials, police and others, with little success.

On her laptop computer, the nun stores videos of vicious beatings of suspects in jails. In one, a young man sinks to the floor yelping and writhing in pain as uniformed police officers pummel him with a long, flat board.

The video was aired on television. The reaction? Zilch, Morales said. “If this doesn’t mobilize people, then I hate to say we are paralyzed.”

In Catholic countries torn by strife, the church has often served as a catalyst for change. But in Mexico, the Roman Catholic Church has failed in that mission, top clerics say.

Much like the broader society, the church is caught between fear and complicity, between the impulse to take a stand and the desire to avoid conflict.

“The church has been content to follow its same rhythm of always, when it should be revving its engines,” said Hector Gonzalez Martinez, archbishop of the tense, rough state of Durango.

Gonzalez made a splash this year when he said that Mexico’s top fugitive drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was living in a Durango mountain village and that “everyone knows” it, including authorities who had failed to capture him.

Four days later, two army officers were found slain in the area the cleric had singled out, with a sign attached to their bodies: “Neither officials nor priests will ever be able to handle El Chapo.”

This year, a priest and two seminary students were killed in the state of Guerrero, presumably by traffickers; in Durango, a region where gunmen “own the night” in village after village, “every priest has been threatened,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez continued to visit remote parishes up and down the Sierra Madre foothills that march through western and northern Durango.

Until August.

A village mayor ran to the visiting Gonzalez to report that gunmen in several SUVs were gathering nearby. Then Gonzalez’s cellphone rang. A state official in the Durango capital said U.S. drug agents had learned of a plot to kill the archbishop.

The official dispatched a helicopter to whisk him to safety.

Gonzalez now travels with bodyguards and is awaiting delivery of an armored car.

He laments that Mexican society lacks a sense of solidarity when it comes to facing drug violence.

“Every time there’s another murder, another headless corpse, another kidnapped person, the immediate family members are very concerned, but it doesn’t move society as a whole,” said Gonzalez, 70, who moves and speaks with grave deliberateness, as if he had a great weight on his shoulders.

“We have too rapidly become accustomed to having these evils in the middle of our society.”

In some parts of the country, priests have used money from traffickers to pay for church repairs, special chapels or other community projects. One senior priest was quoted a few years ago praising the drug lords’ propensity to tithe.

“They make us accomplices,” said an outspoken bishop, Raul Vera of Saltillo. “A steeple built with drug money has blood gushing from its rafters.”

Nuevo Laredo was once the most violent city in the country. It is an exhaust-choked trucking hub on the border across from Laredo, Texas, where four years ago spectacular gunfights between rival drug gangs left residents afraid to leave their homes. A police chief was assassinated hours after taking the oath of office.

The shootouts have largely ebbed, replaced by a calm that most residents attribute to a pact between the warring groups that left the city under the control of the Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf cartel that often operates on its own.

But the quiet in Nuevo Laredo is thick with fear and a feeling of helplessness.

The Zetas have proved to be ruthless overlords. They have kidnapped businessmen, demanded protection money from merchants, taken over sales of pirated CDs and DVDs and muscled into the liquor trade by forcing restaurant and bar owners to buy from them.

“Imagine this is 1920s Chicago and Al Capone is the boss,” said one longtime resident, who like others in town voiced his belief that the gang is protected by local law enforcement.

Jittery residents hesitate to say “Zeta” in public. A joke making the rounds has it that the gang, whose name is the Spanish for “Z,” left Nuevo Laredo with one less letter in the alphabet.

Many residents say they don’t trust the authorities enough to report crime or suspicious activity. Threats and attacks have cowed journalists into slanting their reports.

In October, local news outlets received ominous calls from a purported representative of the group after a rolling shootout that involved Mexican soldiers, according to a newspaper editor who declined to be named out of concern for his safety.

The gist of the message: Make the army look bad.

The news media obliged, reporting that soldiers had ignited the shootout, in which an elementary school filled with children was sprayed with gunfire.

“Soldiers Provoke the Clash,” read one headline. The accompanying article said troops had fired in an “indiscriminate” manner.

“Everyone published stories criticizing the army . . . because of pressure,” the editor said.

“It wasn’t necessarily false. It was manipulated, inaccurate, because of what the bad guys wanted known.”

Residents mobilized briefly during the carnage of 2005. Civic leaders held meetings and issued a decal bearing the image of a white dove and a plea for “Peace in Both Laredos.” Many residents stuck them on their cars.

Activists planned a peace march from the international border to a statue of 19th century Mexican President Benito Juarez two miles away. A few days before the march, gunmen opened fire in front of City Hall, where a group was protesting the arrest of police officers who were suspected of having criminal links. A man was killed.

Organizers called off the peace march.

“We considered the consequences,” said Carlos Martinez, who runs a secondary school called Nuevo Laredo City College. “It was the last serious effort by people to take action.”

Some residents call the atmosphere in Nuevo Laredo a calma chicha -- a fishy quiet.

Martinez said the drug trade will never end, so the best border residents can hope for is not to be bothered by the traffickers.

“We don’t care what deals they make,” Martinez said. “What we want in the city is peace. At least leave us alone.”

Wilkinson reported from San Pedro Garza Garcia, Durango and Mexico City. Ellingwood reported from Nuevo Laredo, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City.