By Melanie Emr
On April 23, UCSD hosted Adela Navarro Bello, a pioneer in the ongoing war against drug trafficking in the conference “Mexico: Between Politics and Organized Crime.”
Bello is a Journalist and co-director of Tijuana-based weekly magazine “Zeta.” Created in 1980, the monthly magazine confronts corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking in Mexico’s northern states, “where self-censorship is rampant.” Zeta’s radicalism poses a direct confrontation to the inner working of the institution of drug trafficking, where warring cartels seek to quell all oppositional movements and fight to control a larger Mexican territory than the other cartel.
Bello’s conference presented both an enlightened and concerned exposure to Mexico’s strategy in fighting organized crime and narco-traffickers. This conference revealed the struggles that everyday innocent civilians face in towns plagued by the war on drugs and how investigative journalists, like Bello, put their lives on the line to bring accountability and civilian security to an agenda of political reform.
Mexico is the “eighth deadliest country for reporters,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Investigative journalists pose a serious threat to the hegemony of the drug cartel in Mexico, as journalists seek to infiltrate the inner workings of the cartel to bring them to justice. Journalists like Bello exemplify how the “pen is mightier than the sword. ” The drug traffickers fear any written reporting, or dissemination of their activities, to higher government authorities and the army. Consequently, investigative journalists place their pen and paper in the “line of fire” to accomplish their dual role as human rights activists.
The drug war took the lives of fifty-nine of Bello’s journalist colleagues. Two of her close Zeta colleagues lost their lives due to their reporting against organized crime. Hector Felix Miranda, co-founder of the magazine, was killed in 1988, and co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco was assassinated in 2004 by the infamous Arrellano Felix cartel. In 10 out of her 21 years as a journalist, the government has placed her under armed guard protection. An infamous cartel also subjected her to an attempted assassination against her and her Zeta coworkers.
Since former president Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, he pledged to eradicate drug trafficking organizations. In order to prevent police corruption, the Calderon administration reinforced the role of the military to combat drug cartels. Militarization of Mexican law enforcement has backfired Calderon’s strategy. Instead of strengthening public security, human rights abuses abound, leading to the emergence of lawlessness. Seeing as how the Mexican military is historically constructed as a violent repressor of social movements, security forces have detained, raped, tortured and performed extrajudicial killings. Peaceful protestors, residents of Oaxaca, and even journalists are among the innocent civilians targeted by the military, “without prosecution.” During Calderon’s presidency (2006-2012), sixty to eighty criminal organizations emerged. Since 2006, 48 journalists have disappeared or been murdered.
During Calderon’s presidency, the US was highly involved in security affairs, “sending drone aircraft, intelligence agents, and police trainers worth $2 billion over a six-year period to fight the drug war” (Obama 1). Unlike Cardenas, however, the current Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has chosen to change strategies and demilitarize. Instead of focusing on eradicating prime cartel leaders, Pena Nieto wants to “shift Mexico’s drug war strategy” to prevent violence against civilians.
President Obama supports a US-Mexican relationship that is not founded on security or counter-narcotics trafficking, but rather a relationship based on increasing the economic capacity along border regions. Obama supports the new strategy of Pena Nieto and the PRI party who want to increase US involvement in economic development and decrease U.S. involvement in security affairs. Mexican officials claim the PRI plans to lessen US involvement in the attorney generals’ office as well as the Interior Ministry, both agencies that supervise police and intelligence. Pena Nieto is responding to Mexican officials’ critiques that the two areas of reform targeted by U.S. advisors have rebounded. A “series of high-profile corruption prosecutions” collapsed from lack of solid evidence. A “botched program of police vetting” failed to purge the police forces of corrupt cops.
Upon taking office in 2012, President Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI political party offered a strategy shift away from his predecessor’s policy, pledging to “focus more on reducing violence and less on catching cartel leaders and blocking drugs from reaching the United States”. In 2012, newly elected Pena Nieto created a six-point formula indicating an attempt by the Mexican government to increase transparency and accountability.
The first goal in the six-point formula is to ensure that public officials who promote honesty, capacity and effectiveness are allowed to continue providing their services to the Federal Public Administration. Permanent positions in service act as disincentives for the commission to commit acts of corruption. The second means of fighting corruption is to make high-level public officials undergo a strict monitoring, or auditing, of their assets accrued while in office to ensure that there is no connection to organized crime or other sources of illicit funding. The third method is to produce a National System of Account Yields that integrates and accommodates to the systems of each government power. The fourth means is to strengthen auditing organizations, both federal and state, to monitor the use and destination of resources. The fifth means is to promote the codes of ethic for public servants and to foster involvement of social witnesses in relevant governmental transactions. Finally, clear responsibilities must be assigned to all government levels so dishonest functionaries are punished and removed from office. The change in strategy of Mexican officials to fight narco-traffickers and government corruption without militarization of the police forces must be enforced by a legal binding to Pena Nieto’s six-point strategy (Pena 2).
Bello believes increased U.S. intervention in Mexico’s affairs will instigate conflict between activists and narco-traffickers and varying cartels while also continuing to promote corruption within the government itself. The ongoing drug war is a bi-national problem. The United States is a source of this ongoing crisis, seeing as how it provides the most demanding market for heroin, as Mexico feeds drugs over the border and the cash flows come in to Mexico. In addition, about 95% of cocaine “travels through Mexico into the United States” and “90% of weapons used by cartels come from the US.”
The Merida initiative under President Calderon was a way for the US to work with Mexico in addressing the issues of the violence and corruption fueled by the U.S. as a source market for narcotics. The initiative, created in 2008, saw a tenfold increase in the US military and police aid since 2007. The $1.5 billion in funds went to “military aircraft and drug interdiction and training for Mexican Police and military.” Nevertheless, only 15 percent of the funds were dedicated to pursuing “transparency and accountability in law enforcement, creating civilian trials to bring military leader to justice for committing human rights violations,” and to promoting human rights reforms in the constitution, which is still not accomplished.
The Merida initiative led to the most unsuccessful results in containing organized crime and drug trafficking because, according to Bello, resources and funding were directed only at one area of government. The Initiative failed to curb the limitless demand for drugs within the U.S., which fuels the drug trade. Bello believes that the United States must fix its own problems before investing in Mexico’s problems, like investing in rehabilitation and drug prevention programs.
To enable that citizens safely report their denunciations without persecution from cartels or corrupt government officials, Bello supports that autonomous and “strong” government institutions must be put in place. Pena Nieto recently established the Commission of National Anti-Corruption upon his election in 2012. The goal of the commission as an autonomous unit is to take denunciations from citizens and investigate irregularities at any level of the government.
However, Bello justified how the institutions may be present, but are not currently put into effect. Bello is discontent with the “progress” presumed by Pena Nieto’s new government. The recurring theme throughout Bello’s lecture was Mexico’s lack of government transparency, or “strong” government institutions. With an increase in violence related to organized crime since April, Bello remarked how Pena Nieto constructs the discourse of a “new Mexico,” one where there is a “superficial” safety, to presume a period of false security to the international community, mainly the United States.
Although his six-point plan is laid out, Bello notes how we have no information on how Pena Nieto is putting it into effect or how he is currently running the government, since he rarely addresses security matters. He does not take responsibility for what is happening in the country, mainly talking politics and only hinting at strategies to be taken against drug trafficking. All the Mexican people know at this time is the Secretary of State is “working” on the issues in the country. However, the government must act with celerity to counteract the recent spurts in violence documented in small Mexican towns.
In a world where the local police is in bed with the cartels, and where the press has been silenced from fear of violence, reporting to the federal army and the Ministry of Defense is a challenge of life and death. The internet and blogging have become a new line of defense taken on by desperate people eager to end the war, as in the town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Nuevo Laredo is a border town where the Zeta cartel has made its violent presence felt. The cartel transfers narcotics into Texas. The cartels have corrupted state police officials, causing the federal army to combat the cartel, creating a hostile war environment for its citizens. Usually, even in extreme cases where organized crime threatens reporters, they can rely on some information from the police, local government, or army to publish at least what “the government says.” In Nuevo Laredo, however, reporters do not even receive a government press release, so lack of an official statement leads to no action taken.
With a silenced press, there is no way of reporting the activity of the Zeta cartel in Nuevo Laredo to the army to assist them in investigating and infiltrating the cartel through armed means. Recently, however, a new anonymously-created website emerged in Nuevo Laredo to report on Zeta activities and request via the Internet the intervention of the army and the federal police. Innocent citizens have been uncovered gruesomely decapitated or hanging from telephone posts with notes left by the cartel condemning their affiliation to the website.
Investigative journalists along the U.S. – Mexico border put their lives on the line in the goals of helping to implement an accountable democracy and fighting injustices that run rampant in a society dependent on drug trafficking. Investigative journalists are the driving force behind ensuring narco-traffickers and drug kingpins no longer benefit from impunity and are brought to justice. Yet, most importantly, such journalists have taken on the dual role of human rights activist by assuming the responsibility of ensuring that honest citizens unfairly thrown amidst the violence of the drug war have the ability to live safe and secure lives. The current government, in addition to financial reinforcement from the United States must protect the “safety and integrity” of investigative journalists because a truly democratic nation respects and protects press freedom.
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