Criminal anarchy on America’s doorstep

By Bernd Debusmann
September 24, 2009

Bernd Debusmann-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

When Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, ordered 2,500 troops and federal agents into border city Ciudad Juarez 17 months ago to tamp down drug violence, the monthly murder rate ran at an average of 66. In retrospect, those were the days of peace and calm.

Ciudad Juarez has become the most active front in simultaneous and increasingly bloody wars. One is between drug cartels fighting each other for access to the U.S. market. Another is between drug traffickers and Mexican authorities charged with imposing law and order. They have been singularly unsuccessful.

Despite a vastly increased military presence (now about 7,000, plus 2,500 federal agents), the monthly body count this year has averaged more than 180 a month. In August, the body count exceeded 300, a record. According to a study published in August by a Mexican non-profit group, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice, Ciudad Juarez (population 1.6 million) has become the world’s most violent city.

Nation-wide, almost 14,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon took office and declared war on the drug business. Casualties on the government side: 725 police and soldiers between the beginning of 2008 and mid-2009 alone.

But body counts tell only part of the story. To hear residents of Ciudad Juarez tell it, there is a third war going on, waged by common criminals against citizens who are fast losing what little faith they had that the state can provide security.

Common crime, from robbery and rape to extortion, auto theft and kidnapping for ransom, is up and Ciudad Juarez, divided from its Texan sister city El Paso by the Rio Grande river, has slid into what one long-time resident calls “a permanent state of criminal anarchy.”

Most killings fall into the category of “bad guys eliminating bad guys” and don’t inspire much, if any, investigative energy. And there is near-absolute impunity for murdering “malandros,” a colloquial term for an underclass of young addicts, small-time drug dealers, homeless people and others at the bottom of the social pile, according to Gustavo de la Rosa, a senior investigator of the Human Rights Commission of the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juarez is the biggest city.

“We estimate that between 300 and 500 malandros have been killed since July of 2008,” de la Rosa said in an interview. “Not a single one of these murders has been solved, which leads one to believe that what is going on is ‘social cleansing’ with the tacit permission of the state.” Oscar Maynez Grijalva,  a former state forensics chief, has talked about death squads whose activities should be, but are not, investigated.

In the most brutal act so far of what some suspect is “social cleansing,” gunmen wielding AK-47 assault rifles stormed into a drug rehabilitation center early in September, herded 18 youths outside, lined them up against a wall and shot them. For good measure, they also put a bullet through the head of the center’s dog. It was the fifth mass killing at a rehabilitation center in a year and it took place within sight of the U.S. border fence.


“Social cleansing,” the targeted elimination of groups considered undesirable, worthless or dangerous, has been practiced in a number of countries across Latin America, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Honduras, Argentina, and Colombia, where the victims are labelled “the disposable ones.” It has not been a Mexican tradition.

But now, looking too closely into the question “who is killing whom and why” is becoming an increasingly risky business, as is following up on citizens’ complaints about army abuses. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has documented rapes, executions, torture and arbitrary detentions in states where the army is fighting the drug cartels.

Since Calderon began using the military to bypass notoriously corrupt police agencies, around 50,000 soldiers and 30,000 federal police officials have been deployed in drug-producing states and border cities. If Ciudad Juarez is a model, they can be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Take the case of de la Rosa, who became an outspoken critic of the military in the course of his job – pressing the army to investigate complaints from victims or their families. That earned him ever more explicit warnings to cool his criticism, from telephoned death threats to the detention and beating of one of his bodyguards.

“I’m convinced my life is at risk and on August 25, I asked the head of the state human rights commission to arrange for protection for myself and my office,” he said.  His request was greeted with silence, until September 20, when he was suspended from his job because the commission saw no way to guarantee his safety.

He then sent a detailed, 3,100-word letter to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission urging it to take measures to protect his life and that of his wife and 21-year-old son. What effect that plea will have remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, “I’ve begun adjusting my life,” said de la Rosa. “I won’t be sleeping in the same place every night. I won’t follow a daily routine.”In other words, he is going into hiding in the city where he has lived for most of his 63 years. Criminal anarchy in action.

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Yes I think ALL drugs should be made legal. If you don’t want to smoke it or shoot it, then don’t. It’s a matter of personal choice.
Maybe America should start a war on the tobacco and alcohol companies next.

Posted by Dutch | Report as abusive

Though the article is a factual recount of what goes on, I disagree with the semantics of the title. Associating a political ideal (or anti-ideal) as anarchy to a drug “war” (so called to justify military investments in hardware) throws me back to 1920s Sacco & Vanzetti, where anti-Italian (the wetbacks of that time!) sentiment was let into the Courthouse and used to justify governmental actions against labor/anarchist organizers during a bubble period (pre crash). Any similarity to today’s situation is purely casual!

The article addresses the simptoms, not the cure nor the root cause. Today’s drugs are “needed” by a stressed-out society that has lived in function of an unachievable american dream (term coined by an investment banker in the post crash of 1929 to give some hope and induce people to use debt as a way to achieve it!), just like during bootleging liquor was a “necessity”.

In order to avoid the tangential problems of drugs and their distribution profits on the general population, legalize them and focus on the cure of societal imbalances that lead to drug use.

Posted by ross | Report as abusive

I am in favor of legalizing drugs. But that will have little effect on these criminal enterprises (both civilian and “official.”)

As for “closing the border”, well, I live in Arizona and have worked for years in Mexico in the mining business. Given the level of legal traffic, that is just impossible.

Phoenix is now the kidnapping capital of the U.S.

There was a shootout just recently at Tijuana as three vans full of illegals tried to rush the border under the direction of coyotes. Last year there was a running gun battle along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix where one gang was trying to steal the illegals in the possession of another gang.

Enormous amounts of money and guns go south every day–the fruits and means of kidnapping, extortion and human slavery.

All tightening up the border has done is make smuggling of all kinds more lucrative.

We happily went to and are still at war in Afghanistan (and foolishly in Iraq) over the deaths of less than 3000 innocent people.

“…14,000 have died…since Calderon came into office…” Some of them were no doubt “maladrones” and bad guys. But many, and many more to come, can only be described as people without opportunity, jobs, decent government and diminishing hope.

Al Quaeda and the Taliban have nothing on this time bomb.

Posted by ErikM | Report as abusive

The war on drugs has gained massive momentum favoring the biggest cartels. The optimal approach to the quell the most powerful cartels is a “top down” execution and containment. This can only be done with top investigators and under cover military agents. Once key players of the most powerful cartels has been cleansed, the malandros and be dealt with using state and local police forces. But don’t kid yourself, this must be a “TOP DOWN” approach to get effective results.

If Mexico cannot solve this problem in the next 12-18 months, it will emerge as another security crisis for the U.S.

Posted by Red Socks | Report as abusive

As long as there is demand for ilegal drugs in the US there will not be peace in Mexico and most of Central America. I can´t believe that the US’s addiction and denial is costing the lives of hundreds of thousands in Latin America. Legalization seems to be the only way out.

Posted by Byron | Report as abusive

And the only ones who lose are the malandros. Legalize pot. It’s the easiest, quickest and most cost effective solution. It should have been done decades ago. It’s evident the drug war has become a business not only for the cartels but for the ones fighting them. Army+Police=Thugs. Legalize marijuana. Grow it in-country, tax it and pay off that trillion dollar deficit! Mexico won’t be able to compete with home grown – they’ll have to find something better to do, like, I don’t know… go to school? Become a Doctor? A teacher?

Posted by Todd | Report as abusive

When Americans stop doing drugs then the drug wars will stop. Must be a horrible life to live, to think that drugs will make it bearable, or that the only way to enjoy it is to get high.

Perhaps some 20-21 days paid vacation after the first year of work will give the population some rest and time for recreation away from quick ways to release some steam.
Working 16 hours a day for years and with little time off makes for a depressed bunch of people and kids who start trying drugs because the (responsible) parents are unable to keep a close watch.

Posted by ikea goddess of victory | Report as abusive

It helps to understand the history of drug laws in America and the reasons why they were implemented.

The tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical companies in the US were the leading proponents of our drug laws. They don’t want competition from home-grown marijuana bcause it would hurt their sales and profits.

The illegal drug dealers have grown so large and profitable that they are able to coerce politicians to maintain our failed drug policies, guaranteeing themselves a highly profitable market.

The American public must educate themselves and realize that building border defenses is another policy doomed to failure. Imprisoning drug users leads to a huge tax burden on taxpayers for prisons. Prison workers are lobbying for tougher drug laws – thereby gaining job security.

Let’s get off this stupid merry-go-round based on drug prohibition. Tax the hell out of it, but make it legal.

Posted by Todd | Report as abusive

Criminals profit from crime. They make the drugs. They sell the drugs.

Who pays for these drugs?- Drug users.
Who finances crime?- Drug users.
Who breaks the law?- Drug users.
Who is to blame for drug crime?- Drug users.

Blaming the law for crime? Now that just takes the issue to a whole new level of stupid…

Posted by F.O.I.Friday | Report as abusive

Legalize marijuana, are you stupid or crazy or both? What would be the long-term social consequences of that for our children. How about stop using drugs and the problem goes away without destroying the lives of millions of people and watching society decay and rot away. What is wrong with people today? Why would someone think this way? – “let us do whatever we want to do no matter what the consequences. We don’t have any values morales and no connection or understanding with right or wrong – nobody can tell me what I should do – I decide and I get to do whatever I want – I really don’t care who it hurts or who it destroys”.
Does this sound right to you ? Use your brains – there just might be a better way to live your life. Try to think about it – it’s not that hard a concept.

legalise all drugs tax marijuana
make rehab free,junkies will either
die from thier disease or be cured (choice ?)
help mexico clean up a mess that is partly our fault.
(not a college of the americas style clean up ).
problems that affect our neighbors can easily spread to
us end violence and protect the innocent
hold mexican police,soldiers etc. acountable under int. law

Posted by phil | Report as abusive

If drugs are legalized here, the criminal gangs will simply move on to other activities. This is not just about drugs, it is about criminals being free to act with little fear of punishment.
Mexico has some problems which they must solve in order for this situation to go away. I believe a death penalty would be an effective deterrent there, much more so than in the US. Prisons are no deterent there for those who can make it to the top of the pile.
Also, when law abiding citizens cannot arm themselves, criminals who do arm themselves can do as they please. I know in my town if some thug tried to to strong arm people, a blind eye would not be turned and the police un-informed. Some old codger in a Korean war cap would put a bullet in the fellow right away!

Posted by blackarrow | Report as abusive

Hi there all. I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation but if you could just backtrack for me a bit. I missed the part about what the goal of the War on Drugs was. I used to think it was about saving lives and reducing crime and making society a more mature and safe place to think and live in. But obviously I am way off track having made that assumption and the only way I can get up to speed on this is to start over from the beginning of the thought process since my founding basis – see above – is totally wrong thus rendering all my subsequent reasoning faulty at best. Hope somebody can help. I know it’s terribly elementary, but perhaps someone has the patience to share their knowings. You can email me at

Posted by Unclue D. Nsanity | Report as abusive

wow, this doesnt ever make our evening news in ireland!

wha the hells going on there? Cannot beleive it!

Posted by SEAN | Report as abusive

Shame really.

The War on Drugs was begun in order to protect the vulnerable from being exploited by the drug trade. But America has yet to figure out one problem.

And that is the scum who purchase illegal drugs, and directly fund human suffering with the money they spend on their greedy little habits.

Way to go, drug users! Thanks for making the planet just that little darker! Don’t blame the law. Don’t blame the crooks. It’s *your* money, *your* demand that causes countless deaths.

And the worst thing? You do it intentionally. You spend your money on illegal drugs, knowing full well what it ends up doing. And that isn’t just bad, it’s evil.

But hell, I ain’t saying anything you don’t already know. If you can buy illegal drugs without a shred of remorse at what you are doing to others, you certainly won’t listen to any lecture. Your morality was smoked away long ago.

Posted by Hmmmm | Report as abusive

These criminal gangs would not exist without the money from drugs. Its that simple. Gangs of this scale cannot exist without massive amounts of money, and the money comes from drugs. Legalizing drugs would solve the problem; it would destroy the gangs and eliminate the undesirable consequences.


Posted by Chet Weger | Report as abusive

Also, the criminal gangs would not “simply move on to other criminal activities.” There simply aren’t enough other economically feasible criminal activities. And as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply for drugs be it legal or illegal.

Posted by Chet Weger | Report as abusive

If we legalize marijuana drug dealers will have a harder time making money since drugs are almost free.
Some drug dealers will move on to other businesses like stealing, car jacking and selling guns. These jobs give much less money to the suspect and less power. The stock market is full of drug money – lets stop this before it gets out of control.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

The purpose of the war on drugs is to kill the competition. The CIA controls a large portion of the drugs coming into the US to fund it’s black projects.

Posted by chris | Report as abusive

Why legalise anything? What right has anyone to tell anyone what they can and can’t do to their own minds and bodies apart from the fact that’s in the country in which they live? You’re all fecking crazy as it is so legalising grass wont make much difference will it?

Posted by P.P England | Report as abusive