This piece appeared on Salon.com on November 14, 2011
CIUDAD MIER, Mexico — A Mexican army commander sent to protect a region of villages and ranches in northern Mexico from the Gulf Cartel and Zetas can describe, in detail, the profile of his assigned enemy, the country’s notorious drug cartels.
“These guys are sick in the head,” he says, gazing at the brush and mesquite from behind his aviator sunglasses, toward the camps of the “enemy.” “They follow a sick ideology, they’re animals.” Without missing a beat, he continues, “Look, there’s no jobs, the poverty is bad; there aren’t enough schools. There is nothing for these boys and the cartels offer them a job. They tell them, ‘You can have any kind of pickup truck you want,’ he says. “They get paid more than we do!”
The commander and his soldiers have staked out a lakeside park near this colonial village, providing security for the annual fishing tournament. Bureaucrats from the state tourism department and soldiers, some manning gunners mounted on military trucks, vastly outnumber the few tourists. Even so, reporters from TV Azteca prepare a promotional report about the event, an image that makes an effort to convince tourists that the “frontera chica” (small border), the nickname for this swath of the border, is secure and ready for tourists. Last year when the Gulf Cartel and Zetas launched their siege on the frontera chica, the then governor of Tamaulipas dismissed the reports of decapitations, incinerated cars and shootouts as merely a “collective paranoia.”
Such is the panorama of Mexico’s violence, a distorted battleground of propaganda, impunity and duplicity amid death. Such is the conflict in which the U.S. government has become firmly entrenched over the last four years since newly elected President Felipe Calderon launched his controversial U.S.-backed “war against the drug cartels.” The conflict has cost between 40,000 and 50,000 lives and violence has worsened with the U.S.-Mexican military deployment, according to a recent report on global violence by the Geneva Delegation. Violence in some parts of Mexico now outstrips the levels of many war zones.
–This piece was reported from Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, Chicago, Mexico City.