It was, even by the usual high standards of The New York Times investigations, a story that took my breath away.
On Saturday, my Times colleagues Natalie Kitroeff and Ronen Bergman published a story that used a vast cache of text messages, investigative logs, and other secret documents to shed light on one of Mexico’s most notorious cold cases:
In 2014, 43 university students disappeared after police stopped their buses, forced them into patrol cars, and handed them over to a drug cartel.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during his daily press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)
They were never heard from again.
The attack shocked the nation, not just because of the scale of the disappearances, but because of the questions it raised about who was involved.
After all, as Natalie and Ronen wrote, “how could a relatively unknown gang carry out one of the worst atrocities in recent Mexican history, with the help of the police and military watching the mass kidnapping unfold?” in real time?”.
On Friday, August 19, 2022, to former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, responsible for the questioned investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in 2014 and the highest-ranking official detained so far in this case, the Attorney General’s Office reported. (Photo by Yuri CORTEZ / AFP)
The answer, as they painstakingly documented, was that the cartel, known as Guerreros Unidos, was in cahoots with nearly every local branch of the Mexican government, including the military.
The band had all the resources of the State.
According to experts, this level of collusion may be unique to the state of Guerrero, where the long history of drug trafficking and a heavily militarized state presence would have created fertile ground for this type of relationship.
But in Mexico, the lines between drug trafficking organizations and the state have long been blurred, experts say.
And that has had profound consequences not only for organized crime, but for the development of the Mexican State itself.
Construction of the criminal state
“There really isn’t a division between the ‘bad’ cartels and the ‘good’ state,” says Alexander Aviña, an Arizona State historian who studies drug trafficking in Mexico.
“I think those of us who work on the history of drugs in 20th century Mexico will say that drug trafficking actually arises within the confines of the Mexican state, particularly the long-running PRI party that was in power from 1949 to 2000. “.
In the popular imagination, collaboration between cartels and state officials usually takes the form of corruption:
criminals pay bribes to officials, who then condone drug trafficking in exchange for private wealth.
But that story doesn’t quite fit Mexico, says Benjamin T. Smith, a professor at the University of Warwick (United Kingdom) and author of a book on the history of Mexican drug trafficking.
In his opinion, there is a long history of Mexican officials receiving money from drug traffickers to finance the government, not just personal bribes.
He described it as a kind of “criminal state-building.”
But this construction of the State later proved to be dangerously fragile.
Documents from the 1940s show that police in the state of Sinaloa, for example, extorted opium farmers, Smith said.
But then they turned the money over to state tax collectors to put into the public coffers.
Later, after increased demand for drugs in the United States in the 1970s, which made the trade far more lucrative, federal officials took over from state police, often with violence.
But traffickers continued to pay for state protection, and that money went, at least in part, to finance state operations.
In a 2000 interview with NPR, Guillermo González Calderoni, then a senior official in the Mexican federal police, described the agency’s work as “taking money from some traffickers to fight other traffickers.”
(A few years after the interview, he was shot and killed.)
That system was possible in part thanks to the political stability brought by the one-party regime.
“The democratic system in Mexico didn’t fully open up until 2000,” said Rachel Nolan, a historian at Boston University who studies violence and conflict in Central America.
“So when you have a one-party government, it’s very easy for there to be collusion with the cartels because you have a lot of stability.”
But then things began to change.
The Party of the Institutional Revolution, or PRI, whose single-party regime had held power for decades, began to split in the 1990s and 2000s, giving way to democracy and new political competition.
At the same time, there was a change in the drug trade. Small traffickers consolidated into large cartels, which took control of the main smuggling routes, Smith explained.
Drug trafficking and the State remained closely intertwined, but the traffickers now had more power than before.
“It’s a tension that still exists today,” says Smith.
“Who is the boss, who is subjugated?”
The experts I spoke to cautioned against drawing too broad conclusions from the spate of text messages about the disappearance and murder of the 43 students.
These messages are not proof that other officials or state agencies, particularly in other areas of the country, are involved in drug trafficking or organized crime.
But according to them, the cartels cannot succeed without the help of the state.
“No one has become completely autonomous,” says Smith.
‘The scarce good is the protection of the State’
The complicated power dynamics between the Guerreros Unidos cartel and the different branches of the Mexican state are clearly seen in the messages about the 2014 murders.
The cartel members seem to treat the local police almost like subcontractors.
One of the emergency response teams referred to a Guerreros Unidos leader as “boss,” sending him minute-by-minute updates on law enforcement actions.
By contrast, some of the cartel members’ conversations about the military seemed less safe:
in some messages, members grumbled about the army’s demands, while in others they described trusting the army to keep rivals out of their territory.
It is the paradox of drug trafficking:
The weakness of the State, and its inability to maintain control over its own security forces, allowed the cartels to flourish.
But at the same time, access to state power, and particularly the coercive power of the armed forces and police, is one of the most valuable resources a cartel can control.
“Another narrative that we’ve heard about Mexico since at least 2017 is that it’s potentially a failed state, that these drug organizations are more powerful than the state.
And I think that’s a really wrong way of looking at this,” Aviña said.
“The scarce resource, or the scarce good, in this case is the protection of the State.”
State protection was, of course, even scarcer for ordinary civilians who found no protection from cartel violence.
The messages suggest that the 43 students were the victims of an identity mistake.
They had requisitioned several passenger buses to attend a protest in Mexico City, a practice that local authorities had long tacitly consented to.
But the buses appeared similar to those used to smuggle drugs into the United States, according to investigators, and the cartel, paranoid about encroaching on its territory, mistook them for invading members of a rival group.
They ordered the police – the same agents who were supposed to protect citizens like the students – to attack.
And the documents show that days after the students were taken, when some may still be alive, the military knew the location of two suspects in the attack but did not intervene.
“Instead of looking for our children or telling us the truth, they protected themselves,” Cristina Bautista Salvador, mother of one of the missing students, told the Times.
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