Drug war 2013: The rise of vigilantes

2013-12-13 13:09
Forensic personnel work next to one of five bodies found in the Michoacan State, which has become a flashpoint in Mexico's battle against drug cartels. (STR, AFP)

Forensic personnel work next to one of five bodies found in the Michoacan State, which has become a flashpoint in Mexico's battle against drug cartels. (STR, AFP)

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Mexico City - Fed up with the relentless drug cartel violence, civilians picked up rifles in Mexico's countryside this year, battling gangsters and challenging politicians to finally end the spiral of death.

While Mexicans struggled anew with murders, kidnappings and extortion, Uruguay opened a new front in the debate over the global war on drugs by creating a legal, state-run dagga market.

Consumption continued to thrive worldwide, with new brands of designer drugs hitting nightclubs worldwide and a record 227 million methamphetamine pills seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, according to UN figures.

In Mexico, President Enrique Pena Nieto marked his first full year in power, pledging to reduce violence after more than 70 000 people were killed in the drug war during his predecessor's six-year term.

While the government says the number of murders has fallen, kidnappings and extortion have soared.

The inability or unwillingness of local police to stop the gangs prompted farmers in the mountains of south-western Guerrero state and lime orchards of neighbouring Michoacan to form vigilante forces.


Facing rising unrest in Michoacan, Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops to the state in May, continuing the policy of his predecessor Felipe Calderon of using the military to crack down on gangs.

But the vigilante militias, who are battling the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel, have vowed to continue their expansion, ignoring government warnings that they will not be tolerated.

"We couldn't take it anymore. They would steal everything, even animals," said Abraham Cifuentes, a 61-year-old lemon picker who now helps police the town of La Ruana, one of the first Michoacan communities to rise up on 24 February.

While Michoacan is giving Pena Nieto headaches, the new Mexican leader scored a major victory when troops captured Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the leader of the ultra-violent Zetas drug cartel.

The arrest of "Z-40" in July brought hopes that the ugliest scenes of violence would disappear, but it remains to be seen if the Zetas - known for beheading rivals and dissolving victims in acid - are on their way out.

While one major capo was caught, another got away when a regional court abruptly ordered the release of veteran drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, who walked out of prison in the dead of night in August and remains out of sight.

Caro Quintero had 12 years left on a 40-year sentence for the 1985 torture-killing of a US anti-narcotics agent. His release angered the US government, but the Mexican government insisted it was taken by surprise.

The failure to break the cycle of violence, trafficking and consumption has fuelled a debate over the drug war's direction.


An Organisation of American States report published in May called for taking a closer look at possibly legalising dagga in the region, a step backed by former Mexican president Vicente Fox.

Uruguay took the boldest step yet, with the Senate giving final approval this week to a bill authorising the production, distribution and sale of cannabis under state control.

"The war against drugs has failed," said leftist ruling party Senator Roberto Conde.

The US states of Washington and Colorado voted last year to allow recreational dagga - measures that raised concerns in neighbouring Mexico.

"It sends a very bad message to the countries that we pressure to take more aggressive measures against traffickers when we are legalising it," said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

The rethink has reached Morocco, where lawmakers hosted an unprecedented debate last week on legalising cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.

Even Pope Francis weighed in on the discussion during a visit to Brazil in July, saying that "a reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalisation of drug use".

A study published in September concluded that the global war on heroin, cocaine and cannabis was failing to stem supply, as drug prices have tumbled and seizures have risen.

Researchers analysed data from government-funded programmes that tracked the illegal drug market over more than a decade in the US, Europe and Australia.

"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market though law enforcement are failing," said the paper led by Evan Wood of the Urban Health Research Initiative in Vancouver, Canada.
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