February 23, 2015

If you’ve never been to Mexico, you probably think of white sand beaches with crystal-clear turquoise water, exceptionally delicious and ridiculously spicy food, and brutally violent drug cartels. For most people who have not actually experienced the real country, this is all that exists.

The reality is that all of these things do exist in Mexico. The food is to die for, and it’s more than just tacos. There is so much more nature to explore than just the beaches. The culture is rich, the people are good, and the love for the virgin Guadalupe brings the country together in a way that you’ve probably never seen. But unfortunately, the last part is also true. There are brutally violent drug cartels.

The cartels in Mexico control drug trafficking from South America to the United States. The main cartels are; the Zeta Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Knights Templar (La Familia Michoacana), Beltran Leyva Remnants and the Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generación. In some areas it is very clear which cartel is in control, but there are many areas in Mexico where cartels are competing for control of drug trafficking routes. In those areas especially, violence is rampant.

While it is impossible to know the exact number, it is estimated that since 2006, there have been over 100,000 deaths associated with organized crime. Many of these deaths are between rival gang members. Disputes for territory or vigilante groups that have separated from the big cartels lead to violent and brutal conflicts that leave thousands dead. Rival gang members are frequently tortured, mutilated, and left in conspicuous places such as hanging from a bridge or in the middle of a public plaza to send a message. Other times, the bodies are disposed of and never seen again. In 2009, a man in Tijuana admitted to disposing of over 300 bodies over 9 years by dissolving the corpses in acid, never to be identified.

Many people say that the crime in Mexico is just criminals killing criminals, but unfortunately there are also numerous innocents who have been involved. While the main income for these cartels is from drug trafficking, they also make money by kidnapping and holding people for ransom. The victims are anyone from children of rich and/or famous high-powered people to immigrants from Central America, making their way to the U.S to avoid the violence in their own country. Some families are victims of something called “virtual kidnapping” in which callers contact a family member and tell them that they have abducted someone from their family. The callers use scare tactics to keep the victims on the phone as long as possible, before they realize their loved one is not in fact taken hostage and get as much ransom money as possible.

Although this is something that the people of Mexico are all too familiar with, according to the 2015 United States Department of State review of crime and safety in Mexico, in 2013 there were over 131,000 kidnappings, including virtual, and of those, only 1,698 were reported to the police.

Plata o Plomo

It is common knowledge that police there are corrupt. It is just how it is. If you get pulled over, the police scare you into thinking you are going to jail or that your fine will be incredibly high. So people bribe the police to get out of a ticket. Everyone has a story about this. I myself got pulled over in the Mexican state, San Luis Potosi, for speeding. However, my story ended a little differently. I was traveling with my Mexican friend Jesus, who is from Torreon. In Torreon, there is a lot of corruption. He is tired of it. He saw his city turn from a fairly safe, nice place to live, to a place where heads of gang members were found tossed into the empty lot next to his uncle’s gordita restaurant on a fairly regular basis. When I stopped the car, Jesus did all the talking and in the end, I was stuck with an official ticket and my friend was thanking the cop for playing by the rules and not asking for a bribe. Paying the ticket later in Mexico City was a huge hassle and it cost me about $150 US dollars. Part of me was upset that I didn’t just offer him 200 pesos (about $16 US dollars) and call it a day. But for my proud Mexican friend, it was important that we followed the rules and not gave in to corruption. Today I am also happy that I didn’t contribute to the corruption, but honestly, it would have been so much easier at the time.

Besides the day-to-day police corruption that virtually all Mexican citizens see, there are also much bigger problems within the government and police. “Plata o plomo“ translates to “silver or lead” but can be more accurately translated to, “bribe or bullet.” It is common practice that a member of a drug cartel will approach the official and say “plata o plomo.” If the official accepts plata, he is now on the pay roll of the cartel and he will need to help the cartel in whatever way possible. If he chooses “plomo,” he will most likely be killed on the spot. According to the online newspaper, Latin America Herald Tribune, cartels pay corrupt cops over $100 million US dollars per month.

On September 26, 2014, 43 students from a left-winged all-male teacher college went missing in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. It is thought that they were planning a protest demanding more money for teachers (they were receiving 50 pesos per day, about 4 US dollars) at a speech that governor Jose Luis Abarca‘s wife, Maria de Los Angeles Pineda, was going to give. But the students never arrived at the speech.

Investigators have stated that the police were ordered by the mayor to round up about 80 students to prevent them from interrupting his wife’s speech. The police took 43 students and then gave them to the Guerreros Unidos gang and told the gang that the students were all associated with a rival gang. Members of the Guerreros Unidos have given gruesome details about how they killed the students and then burned and disposed of their bodies. All of this happened because of the orders of the governor of the city and with the help of the police.

Another story of police corruption is told by my friend Jesus from Torreon, Coahuila. According to him, the city had been in peace for many years under the control of the Sinoloa cartel until the Zetas started challenging them for control of the territory. Once the fighting between the two cartels started, the entire city changed for the worse and innocent people started dying. According to Jesus, the truth about this case will not be easily found online or in any police records, but the people of the city know what happened.

In May 2010, a friend of Jesus’, Mauricio Murra, was at the grand opening of a bar called Las Juanas. At about 1:00 AM, 3 or 4 men entered the bar and shot into the crowd, killing 8 people including Mauricio. This was one of 3 bar shootings that happened around the same time by the same men. Jesus is not sure why it was done. He speculates that maybe the bar didn’t agree to pay the Zetas, or that they were searching for 1 person and killed everyone who got in the way, or that maybe the bar was a front for another criminal operation such as money laundering. But the thing that makes this case different is that according to Jesus, the crime was committed by known members of the Zeta cartel who were being held in prison at the time. Apparently the men were regularly out on the streets at night, and back in prison during the day. Let out and in by the prison guards.

Jesus tells me that before, maybe 10 years ago, he trusted the police in Torreon. If he felt threatened or in danger, he would run to the police for help. But lately, not only does he rarely even see the police, when he does he does not trust them to help him. He is scared of them.

Another Mexican man, Alberto, from Mexico City, tells me basically the same thing. “I’m more afraid of the police or the army than of the cartels.” Alberto goes on to say that drugs are one of the principal sources of the Mexican economy and the politicians want to get in on that money. He also thinks that police and government are responsible for the crime that is not directly related to drug trafficking, such as kidnapping and extortion, but that they blame the cartels because everyone believes it. He then asks me, “Why are you writing about this? People get killed for publishing this kind of stuff. That’s why I don’t like to even talk about this topic.” At this point I decide to change everyone’s name including my own. Maybe it’s an overreaction, but he’s not the first one to say this to me, and I know he has a point.

Despite what it looks like from the outside and the scary numbers, in most of Mexico, citizens live their day-to-day life without anything bad happening. The friendliness and love of the people is palpable. As a US citizen living in Mexico, I always felt extremely welcomed by each city I lived in, including Torreon, and I didn’t walk around in fear. I walked on the street alone, I took the metro, I took the bus, I took taxis. I had friends that had had things happen to them, like missing cell phones from a club, or money stolen from a bus, but that happens everywhere. What I took away from Mexico was definitely more about the amazing food, beautiful colors, and unbelievably friendly, good-hearted people. Maybe one day these will be the only stories to tell.