Losing the War
The discovery of a mass grave near Palomas underscores the cost of Mexico's drug war gone wrong.
Palomas didn't seem like the most cheerful place to do holiday shopping this year, after news reports of a mass grave discovered on Nov. 29 "in Palomas" or "on the outskirts of Palomas," as the articles put it.
At any rate, the streets of Palomas looked kind of hollowed-out to me on a weekday in mid-December.
The narcofosa ("narco-grave") was actually about 10 miles south of town, if that reduces the horror of it all. Twenty bodies were found in 12 sites at a recreational spot called El Capricho, known for its swimming pools and for horse races they held once in a while.
It sounds like there's been a big climax to the killings in Palomas, but in reality the murder rate has continued to drop from a high of about 70 in 2008. My rough guess is that there were maybe two-dozen killings in 2010.
While I sat in my parked car near a hardware store in Palomas I saw someone I knew striding down the street past me. I opened my car door to call to him and he came over. I started to ask what he knew about the narcofosa, but before I got the sentence out of my mouth he claimed he didn't know anything.
"It's that in Mexico, we're not allowed to tell people anything anymore," he said with a broad grin on his face.
On Dec. 8 a murdered man was found in the gazebo, or kiosko, of Palomas' central plaza with a knife in his chest and a message that was not disclosed to the press. A woman I know and trust told me that nobody wants to say it publicly, but he was a local drug dealer.
The Ministerio Publico, or representative of the District Attorney's office, in Palomas refers people who ask for crime statistics to an office in Juarez called Comunicacion Social. (I waited several minutes on the phone while a bouncy Mexican pop song played over and over, saying: "Chihuahua, get to work/ The sun will come out." And "United they go on/ With the courage that distinguishes them.")
The courteous man on the other end of the line said that the only people identified conclusively so far in the mass grave were two men from Deming — Lorenzo Renteria, 27, and Camerino Corral, 31, missing since October. Results of the forensic studies would be available in early January, he said.
One intriguing piece of information from the coverage of La Polaka, a feisty online news source from Juarez, was that the Renteria family located their son's cell phone by GPS at the army base in Palomas.
There are several possible interpretations of this, but it definitely provokes suspicion about the role the army played in the mass grave. La Polaka claimed the Renteria family was planning to bring charges against the Mexican army and police.
A leading writer about Mexico's drug war, Charles Bowden of Tucson, claims the Mexican army is the biggest drug cartel in Mexico. Bowden has incredible sources in the drug cartels and a huge sense of compassion, but likes going out on limbs and saying insightful things so provocative they make me uneasy sometimes.
Political-science professor Tony Payan, who teaches both at UTEP and UACJ of Juarez and still has a strong Spanish accent, passionately disagrees with Bowden. "The military has gotten a terrible rap," he says. "They're the cleanest thing there is." But he agrees, "Yes, they commit abuses — serious ones."
What Payan says may be validated by Mexican opinion polls that put the military near the top of the list as the "most trusted institution" in Mexico, second only to the family. He claims that the percentage of innocents dying in the carnage of Juarez is 10% -20%.
The US has always urged Mexico to make war against the drug cartels, and President Felipe Caldern very willingly took on the battle himself. He is being supported by the $1.4 billion aid package called the Merida Initiative. Whatever the truth about the army is, the armed attack on drug cartels is strongly criticized by many Mexicans because of the enormous toll it's taken on human lives.
The Wall Street Journal had an article in May about an international expert on drug cartels, Edgardo Buscaglia. In it he says, "Countries that have successfully attacked organized crime, like the US, Italy and Colombia, had four elements in place: a judicial system that worked, an assault on drug gangs' assets, an attack on high-level political corruption and a program to attack the 'soft-side' of the drug trade through education and work opportunities."
Mexico had none of these factors firmly in place when Caldern declared war on the cartels in late 2006. Buscaglia might have mentioned that they need a trustworthy police force, too. Violence keeps spiraling upward in Juarez despite repeated purges of their ranks. In early December the Diario de Juarez reported a sign painted on a wall that invited recently purged police to go to a place where they could enlist in the cartels.
You'd think the US and Mexican authorities would have read up on the subject before charging into armed conflict.
I recently met a woman from Juarez selling things at the flea market in Deming. I told her about some of Buscaglia's advice. When I got to my comment about the police, she plainly agreed. I asked her what she thought about Caldern, and she calmly said, "No piensa" — he doesn't think.
She thought the proportion of innocents being killed was about half. That sounded much too high for me (and I've been reading about the majority of killings for almost three years). But this was how it felt to her, and she may be close to right.
At this point she stopped talking and busied herself with other things. I didn't sense any anger, but she just didn't seem especially interested in talking after that, and I hung around for quite awhile. I think what she felt went beyond political rant.
This war has been going on for three years, with nothing but an increase in the cartels' power and violence. Though started by a decree in Mexico City and in the offices of the US embassy, it has reached all the way to the nearby border and into the lives of about 400 Palomas students in Luna County schools.
In one week in November there were three massacres in Mexico — in Tijuana, Juarez, and in the state of Nayarit. The governor of Nayarit, Rey Gonzalez, asked that the president fight the cartels "with intelligence." It couldn't be said any more succinctly.
Donations to the Our Lady of Palomas food project can be sent to PO Box 622, Columbus, NM 88029, or call (575) 531-1101.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.