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Courageous Reporter, Devastation in Mexico
on June 3, 2013
Nearly 100,000 people have been killed or have disappeared since President Calderon launched a war on cartels in 2006. At the time, less than 20% of those detained for drug trafficking were convicted, cops were underpaid and forced to rely on bribes to put food on the table, low rates of tax collection limited funding, and the education system was run by a corrupt union. (The country lost an estimated $50 billion to tax evaders, criminals, and corruption.) The murder clearance rate was less than 5% at the time.
July 2007 was the last time author Corchado felt safe in Mexico - that was when a U.S. investigator with informants inside the cartels told Alfredo, a reporter covering the drug wars, he'd been targeted for assassination. Alfredo been threatened three times previously, but this was the first time a timeline (24 hours) had been attached to a threat. Past threats brought bulletproof office windows, iron bars on his apartment windows, and a panic button connected to Mexican security consultants.
I particularly appreciated the author's coverage of how the drug trade got started in Mexico. Opium production began in the 1940s when the U.S. needed morphine for soldiers in WWII, even though growing it was illegal in Mexico. Pot cultivation also began at that time, and demand exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. A few Mexican families controlled the entire production and distribution chain (cartel men married each other's sisters), and law enforcement couldn't get past these family ties. By the 1980s, Americans also developed a taste for cocaine, and Columbia became a supplier. The easy route went through the Caribbean, but American ships and planes made that too risky. Thus, Mexico became the preferred, safer route. Tunnels crossing the U.S. border were dug as early as the 1980s, and migrants were often used as mules, sometimes unwittingly. Today the Sinloa cartel (the largest) can buy a kilo of South American cocaine for $2,000; its value increases to $10,000 upon entering Mexico, $30,000+ upon reaching the U.S., and $100,000 when broken up for retail distribution. An estimated 500,000 Mexican jobs are attributable to the drug trade.
Another key topic - why the explosion of violence that began in 2006? Corchado tells us that Mexico's long-time ruling party (PRI) had grown older, more divided, and weaker, leading to lessened authority on drug matters. Another factor - the new PAN government decentralized government, making it easier (per the author) for the rule of law to be taken over by the cartels. The cartels started running wild, fighting amongst each other as they too became divided. Mexico's murder rate had fallen 37% between 1997 and 2006 - by 2008 it had tripled. A key enabler - the Bush administration's rolling back Clinton-era restrictions on the sale of high-powered weapons such as the AR-15 quickly flooded Mexico with these weapons.
A third major topic explained in 'Midnight in Mexico' is how immigration into the U.S. evolved over the years. After the Great Crash of 1929, Mexicans within the U.S. were sent back by the busload, no questions asked. Then Mexican braceros helped feed Americans and worked in some factories during WWII. For example, in 1940 Nevada, there were about one million whites working in the fields; this fell to about 60,000 by 1942. After WWII came the Korean War, and a renewed need for workers from Mexico - especially to feed the growing baby-boomers. There were an estimated 430,000 Mexicans that entered the U.S. legally in 1957 - among them, the author's father. (All it took was 25 cents to cover a phone call to his sister in El Paso, the bus ride to her house, and a soft drink.) By 1964 the number living and working in the U.S. had doubled to five million. In 1993, Mexico's then President Salinas pushed for NAFTA passage among congressional leaders as a way to keep otherwise immigrants home and employed in Mexico. Instead, NAFTA brought in subsidized corn from Iowa that made it impossible for Mexico's two million corn farmers to compete - this both added to the number of immigrants to the U.S. and weakened the PRI at the polls.
Where did the directive come from to kill Corchado, and why? Eventually he learned that it originated from the head of the Zeta gang (Miguel Treviño Morales, aka 'Forty'), Mexico's #2 drug cartel. He was upset about Corchado's reporting of a government-brokered cartel peace, and also wanted to know Corchado's sources so they could also be eliminated. He didn't want government corruption brought out into the daylight as this risked their ability to conduct business. Corchado estimates the drug business in Mexico is a $10 - $40 billion business, compared to $22 billion in remittances. Kickbacks to the government ran as much as $500 million/year. (The peace plan fell apart after a few weeks.) Morales is now on Mexico's most-wanted list, with a $7.5 million bounty ($5 million from the U.S.) for his arrest and conviction, and reportedly sleeps in his car (along with hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe his way out of capture), protected by 15 layers of security, often travels in ambulances or low-flying planes, and likes to live in the forests.
Bottom-Line: It takes incredible courage to fill author Corchado's shoes. I wonder what would happen to the drug war in Mexico if drugs were legalized in the U.S.