Who Won and Who Lost in Mexico's "Narco Protests"

Calderon and the Military Become Heroes; Social Organizers and the Poor are Demonized


On February 9, 2009, several hundred young people with their faces covered blocked major highways in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, in a series of highly coordinated actions, paralyzing the city of 1.1 million people.  The protesters returned almost every day for over a week, their actions allegedly coordinated by young men on Nextel cell phones.  Each time the protesters came back to block the highways, more women with young children in their arms accompanied them.

At first, the protesters' motives were unclear.  Then the protesters made it known that they were protesting the use of the military in the war on drugs.  Specifically, they called for the withdrawal of the military from civilian policing functions and the resignation of the commander of the 7th Military Zone, Cuauhtémoc Antúnez Pérez.

Within days of the first protest, the Mexican military--which was deployed to Nuevo Leon by President Felipe Calderon in February 2007 to combat organized crime--arrested six alleged members of Los Zetas, the organization founded by Mexican military deserters who work for drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).  The government accuses the six men of leading the protests that shut down Monterrey.  Among those arrested is Juan Antonio Beltrán Cruz.  The military says it found illegal firearms and 71 backpacks filled with school supplies in his pick-up truck.  Beltrán Cruz allegedly went to poor neighborhoods with the backpacks to entice parents and young people into participating in the protests.

Some protesters also admitted to the government and the media that they were paid to participate--anywhere from $200 to $1000 pesos (USD $13-$70), with women receiving more money, and women with small children in their arms receiving the most.

On February 17, the day of the most intense protests in Monterrey, anti-military protest blockades occurred in Reynosa and Matamoros in the state of Tamaulipas; various cities in Veracruz; and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. 

On February 18, the military began to patrol the streets of Monterrey.  The protesters vanished

On February 19, President Felipe Calderon gave a speech commemorating Mexican Military Day on the 7th Military Zone base in Monterrey.  In his speech, he called the drug cartels "cowards" for paying women, children, and the elderly to protest, and he declared that the military would not return to its barracks until civilian police had the ability to carry on the fight.

Not Your Average Protests

Narco News spoke to an adherent to the Zapatistas' Other Campaign in Ciudad Juarez about the February 17 protests that shut down three international bridges in that city.  She actively participates in multiple city-wide organizing networks and says she knows most social organizations and hears about protests before they happen.  She wishes to remain anonymous for her own security.  The adherent tells Narco News that two of the three blockades were publicized before they happened and known organizations--taxi drivers and families of disappeared people--participated in them.  Their singular focus on the military was new--the taxi drivers generally protest the Secretary of Public Transportation's policies regarding licensing, a lack of taxi stands, and other work-related issues.  Likewise, the families of the disappeared generally protest violence, insecurity, and militarization, but they never focus solely on the military. 

The third protest, however, was "very strange," she says.  It was not advertised before it occurred.  The adherent says she knows most organizers in the city, but when she watched the protest on the news, she "didn't see a single familiar face."  While the adherent says that the February 17 protests were out of character for Ciudad Juarez, she says they weren't nearly as bizarre as the protests that occurred in Monterrey.

In Monterrey, local organizers knew immediately that the anti-military protest was not your average protest.  A Monterrey-based collective that is an adherent to the Other Campaign told Narco News that it is in touch with most social organizations in the city that hold protests, and none of them knew any activists or organizations who participated in the protests.  They didn't even know the protests were going to occur until they happened--there were no e-mail announcements and no fliers in the streets calling people to protest.

Don Hector Camero of the Monterrey-based NGO Land and Liberty also knew right away that this protest was different.  He told Radio Bemba that groups who participate in protests usually make themselves, their, organizations, and their demands known.  This was not the case with the anti-military protests.  The people who were protesting remained anonymous, even covering their faces.  They didn't make their demands immediately known, and they didn't express how they themselves have suffered since the military hit the streets in their city.

Camero knows at least some of the participants were paid.  He recounted to Radio Bemba how a family member of a friend accepted $500 pesos to participate in the protests.  The man of the house had just lost his job, and someone offered his wife $500 pesos to go particpate in a blockade.  She accepted the offer.

The Monterrey Other Campaign adherents also became suspicious when they saw the police reaction to the protest.  While this protest was one of the more aggressive protests Monterrey has seen in recent history, the police were more light-handed than they've ever been during previous protests.  Burning barricades don't happen on the streets of Monterrey durign normal protests, says Narco News' source.  But when 80 or 90 young people set a barricade ablaze on Fidel Velasquez Ave. during the anti-military protests, the police chose dialogue over repression.  "If social organziations did that there would have been very strong repression," says one Other Campaign adherent who wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal.

Camero agrees. "Young people gather in the Civil College Plaza in Monterrey.  As soon as the young people start to congregate, the police are on top of them.  They don't let the young people meet.  They [the young people] show educational, political, and civic movies there--which isn't a sin--and they [the police] don't let them carry out their cultural activities.  They run them out of the place.  But in this case [the "narco protests"], the police acted very prudently."

The police and military's "prudent" response to the protests is widely documented in Mexican media.  Approximately fifty people were detained during one of the protests.  They were freed hours later after paying a $500 peso bail.  Thanks to Mexico's draconian organized crime laws, these people, whom the government accuses of working for drug cartels, could have been held without bail--but they weren't.  Reforma reports that one young woman was detained on Constitution Ave, but was freed minutes later.  Soon thereafter she was seen blocking Gonzalitos Ave. 

It is unknown why the police behaved so prudently.  The local government's official reason is that so many women, elderly people, and children participated in the protests.  Narco News' Monterrey source reports rumors that the police had received threats.  That is a likely scenario: the day after police arrested alleged Zeta Beltrán Cruz with a 9mm submachine gun and 71 backpacks in his possession, a police commander involved in his apprehension was murdered in broad daylight.  The attackers shot him so many times that his face was unrecognizable. The shells recovered from the scene of the crime show that at least some of the weapons used--a 9mm submachine gun and an assault rifle--are limited under Mexican law as exclusively for military use (though law has not prevented these weapons from winding up in the hands of drug cartel members). 

The Winners and Losers in the "Narco Protests"

During the "narco protests," the world's attention was focused on one question: Who was behind the protests?  The government says the Gulf cartel and its armed associates Los Zetas organized the Monterrey protests.  Some have quietly speculated that the government itself set up the protests to boost the military's popularity.  The truth is that no one except the protest organizers themselves will ever really know who was behind these protests.  Therefore, the real question isn't "Who did it?" but "Why did they do it?"

The reasoning behind the careful planning and masterful execution of the Monterrey protests is best understood by evaluating who gained and who lost when the "narco protests" finally ended.

The Winners

President Felipe Calderon:  Calderon ran on a "get tough on crime" platform.  Within days of taking office, he made the highly controversial decision to deploy soldiers to states where he felt territory had been lost to drug traffickers.  Since then, drug violence has skyrocketed: in 2008, the number of organized crime-related murders more than doubled the 2007 total, making the drug war more deadly than the drugs themselves.  However, the day he arrived at a Monterrey military base to give his Military Day address was the first day in over a week that no "narco protests" occurred in Monterrey.  Whereas before Calderon was associated with surging homicide rates, chaos, and violence, he is now associated with peace and tranquility.  As the anonymous Monterrey Other Campaign adherent put it, "Everyone was talking about a 'failed state,' and then Calderon arrives and he brings order." 

The National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI):  2009 is an election year in Nuevo Leon.  Both the Monterrey mayor position and the governorship are up for grabs on July 5.  Monterrey is currently controlled by the PAN, while Nuevo Leon's governor is a PRIista.  Both contests have turned into races to see which politician can repress dissent better than the rest of the candidates.  The PAN, being the party behind the deployment of the military to combat organized crime, already has a proven "iron fist" (mano dura) track record when it comes to organized crime.  However, the PRI, which ran Mexico with an iron fist for over seven decades, won't be outdone so easily.  Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz, the PRI's gubernatorial candidate, proposed that the Nuevo Leon state congress pass a law making blocking a road "in a violent manner" punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of $7,500-$25,000 pesos (USD$492-$1,639). Monterrey's PAN mayor, Adalberto Madero Quiroga, delivered his own proposal to the state congress: street blockades should be punishable by six years in prison, but if someone dies during the protest, the sentence is doubled to 12 years.  Quiroga's proposal does not specify if the 12-year sentence applies only if protesters kill the person, or if it applies when police or the military kill someone, too. In Mexico, the police, the military, and pro-government paramilitaries are generally responsible for protester deaths, not the protesters themselves.

The Military:  The Monterrey protests have turned the military into heroes.  Press and eyewitness reports say that Monterrey citizens literally welcomed the soldiers with open arms when they began to patrol the city's streets just one day prior to Calderon's arrival.  People on the streets reportedly cheered and clapped when they saw the soldiers.  Narco News' Monterrey contact says that "the city is completely militarized"--and people seem to like it. 

If someone wanted to stage protests to boost the military's popularity, Monterrey is the perfect place to do it. The Monterrey collective told Narco News that there was never significant anti-military sentiment in Monterrey, despite the military's presence in Nuevo Leon for over a year.  Camero explains why: "In Monterrey there haven't been the sorts of violations committed by soldiers that there have been in other places.  I'm not saying they don't exist; we've had 150 or 200 PFP agents on top of us [the Federal Preventive Police, or PFP, are federal police that have also been deployed in the war on drugs and participate in joint operations with the military].  But in general, soldiers' patrols are carried out with caution.  There have been some complaints due to mistaken house searches or the military checkpoints.  But in general there haven't been a lot of complaints regarding their treatment of the population.  So these protests, where the young people have not only covered their faces, but they're also walking around with sticks threatening drivers or young ladies, have created a situation where the population is standing behind the military.  They're saying, 'We're with the military.'  So the protests are actually provoking the opposite" of their stated goal, which is the withdrawal of the military.

Indeed. Just two weeks after the protest ended, the federal government announced that it was sending an additional 5,000 soldiers to Ciudad Juarez, which is Mexico's most violent city and also the site of a protest the media linked to the "narco protests."  One thousand federal police and two thousand soldiers have already arrived.  Prior to the recent build-up, 2,000 soldiers were stationed in Ciudad Juarez, meaning that when all of the reinforcements arrive, 7,000 soldiers will patrol the city of 1.4 million people.  That's one soldier for every 200 civilians in a city with a population density of over twelve thousand people per square mile, or sixty soldiers per square mile.  While the federal government's announcement is probably not a direct result of the "narco protests," the protests surely didn't hurt military public relations prior to one of the more intense military surges in the country.   

Any DTO that Collaborates with Sectors of the Military:  In December 2008, Narco News correspondent Bill Conroy laid out the evidence that corruption within the Mexican military may not be limited to a few isolated incidents of (albeit high-ranking) officers on the cartel payroll in his story "Juarez Murders Shine Light on an Emerging 'Military Cartel.'" One source, former DEA agent Celerino “Cele” Castillo III, told Conroy:

During the presidential elections, El Chapo [Joaquin Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization, or DTO] supported [Mexican President] Calderon. Calderon then rented the military to El Chapo to take out Osiel [Cardenas Guillen, leader of the Gulf DTO, which controlled the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo]. Keep in the back of your mind, why has Chapo not been arrested?

Calderon took back the military and is now working hand in hand with El Chapo. … [U.S.] Iraq [War] veterans were acting as mercs for the Mexican military. Right now, as we speak, there are U.S. Iraq veterans work ing for this organization. They are doing the enforcement work on this side [of the U.S. border] for the Mexican military. They are collecting the … profits of drug sales in the U.S.  They [targets who owe money to the drug organization] are grabbed and given 24 hours to wire some of the money into Mexico bank accounts.  If not, they are executed. ...

The old M-79 grenade launcher uses the 40 mm round. The ones that were laying on the table in the picture [of weapons confiscated by Mexican authories] of today’s paper. What the story is not telling is these 40mm [rounds] are U.S. military issued. How about them apples?

Conroy goes on to write, "Castillo adds that he recently was provided information that indicates another group made quite famous by the media, the Zetas (a U.S.-trained Mexican special operations group that defected from the Mexican military) is now assisting the Mexican military in its narco-trafficking operations along the border."

In the same story, Conroy quotes Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, a former high-ranking member of the Juarez DTO who is an informant in the House of Death case, as he describes how the Mexican Navy ran drugs for his DTO from Colombia. 

Conroy's story does not point to one DTO that has control over the Mexican military.  He mentions three or four separate DTOs who are allegedly in cahoots with the military: El Chapo Guzman's organization, Los Zetas (who allegedly work for the Gulf DTO or anyone else who pays well), and the Juarez DTO. Rather, Conroy's evidence and sources show that in a clandestine industry where to survive one has to keep his friends close and his enemies closer; where alliances and rivalries change with the wind; and where politicians, police, and military officers go to the highest bidder, the military has emerged as another player in the game.  Just like other cartels, the "military cartel's" alliances shift as conditions change, and it finds new allies if the price is right.  Different military officers may choose to ally themselves and the troops under their command with different DTOs.  And even if rumors that President Calderon has a preferred DTO and is using his military campaign to take out that DTO's enemies are true, Calderon can't keep all of his troops in line any more than El Chapo can keep all the cells of the Sinaloa "Federation" in line.

So, while it is possible that one DTO or an alliance between a DTO and a sector of the military masterminded the "narco protests," no one knows which military officer and his troops are working with which DTO until someone snitches on the officer.  Even then, it's not certain that the snitch is telling the truth.  So the official and clear-cut winner in the "narco protests" was the military as a whole.  Whichever DTOs are currently aligned with sectors of the military just saw their ally's power, and therefore their own, increase. And because the military, which has been fighting a constant public relations battle over its involvement in the war on drugs, just increased its power and popularity, it may have also just increased the going rate for its loyalty.

The Losers

In addition to any drug cartel that is not aligned with the military, particularly in regions where the "narco protests" occurred, civil society suffered a significant blow thanks to the protests.

Social Organizers and Organizations: The "anti-military" protests in Monterrey succeeded in neutralizing very legitimate demands (that the military withdraw from civilian policing duties) and complaints (that soldiers performing civilian policing functions without an official declaration of war is unconstitutional). 

When anti-military protests broke out in areas that do have a history of legitimate protests against militarization, such as Veracruz and Ciudad Juarez, there was immediate speculation in the press that they were also linked to drug traffickers.  However, unlike Monterrey, no concrete proof has emerged that these protests were organized by anyone other than the protesters themselves.  While an Other Campaign adherent in Ciudad Juarez told Narco News that one of the anti-military blockades of an international bridge in that city was "very strange" when compared to other similar protests, she did say that legitimate social organizations were definitely involved in the other protests and blockades that occurred in other parts of Ciudad Juarez that day.  Even though the government verified that legitimate family members of persons allegedly disappeared by the military participated, the press reported--without citing further evidence--that unidentified "security agents" said people were hired to protest.  While the government has not presented any proof or made any official statements that at least some protesters in Ciudad Juarez received compensation for their participation, if someone did pay people to protest while legitimate organizations were also protesting, they have succeeded in ripping away all credibility that legitimate social organizations had in that city.  And even if not a single protester in Juarez participated because they were paid, the specter remains--the media discussed the protests in all four states as if they were the same, without a shred of proof that participants outside of Monterrey received any compensation.

Social organizations are thorns in the side of undemocratic power.  As such, these organizations can be as much of a liability for narcos as they are for the government.  In locales where the narcos own or are the government, or in regions where narcos are the caciques (local political bosses), social organizations threaten DTOs' power.  Whoever was behind the protests--be it the government or a DTO or a mix of both--has further consolidated its power by stripping social organizations of theirs. 

The "narco protests" didn't just serve to damage organizers' credibility; the government is also using them to push measures to repress protests and gain some control over them, much like the US government does.  As previously mentioned, Nuevo Leon officials have proposed 6-12 year prison sentences and high fines for blocking a road during a project, which is currently a traffic violation.  The one proposed exception to the law is if a legitimate protest group advises the government prior to its action that it wishes to block a road during a protest. This will effectively introduce a protest permit system to Mexico, in which protesters who wish to protest the government must first ask permission of the government to do so.  The system is widely in place in the United States and gives the government significant control over protests.  The government tells organizers where they may protest and when.  When the government does not want protests to occur, it outright denies permits to protesters, as was the case during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Philadelphia in 2000.  The city government granted protest permits to the RNC for the entire city for the duration of the convention, leaving none for social organizations (the RNC, of course, did not use the permits to protest itself--it simply wanted to lock out demonstrators).  The only permit given to protest organizers was in a "free speech zone" (implicating that "free speech" was only a right in that area, but not in the rest of the city) which was a fenced-off area in a corner of a parking lot so far away from the Convention Center that no one even noticed the few protesters who decided to use the zone.  If protest serves to raise the costs of a government policy or decision such as a war, permitted protests reduce the costs to the government to a minor and temporary headache.

Thanks to the "narco protests," public opinion in Monterrey has given the government and pro-government civilians the green light to kill demonstrators.  Narco News' Monterrey contact sent comments posted on online forums that he says are accurate representations of how many Monterrey citizens feel about the protests.  In a forum on the Monterrey newspaper El Norte's website, one poster says, "If you're in your car and one of them [the protesters] crosses your path, run them over and don't stop even if you leave them lying on the ground.  Don't even turn around, as if you'd run over a toad..."  Another poster says that after running over a protester, motorists should put the car in reverse "to see if they still want to act like clowns for a couple of backpacks."  Yet another says that if a citizen runs across protesters on a bridge, s/he should throw the protesters off the bridge.  No one on the forum criticizes comments that encourage murder.

Being an organizer in Mexico is already dangerous, even without public support for their murder.  This past February, the Mexican Supreme Court refused to hold accountable the police who killed Alexis Benhumea and Francisco Javier Cortes in the 2006 San Salvador Atenco protests.  In its decision, it didn't even acknowledge that police were responsible for the murders, even though a tear gas canister killed Benhumea and the gun that killed Cortes is of the caliber that is issued to state police commanders but is illegal for civilians to carry. Also in February, armed men "who appeared to be soldiers" abducted two indigenous human rights activists in Guerrero and tortured and murdered them.

Colonias Populares: Colonias populares are poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities. They have to fight for basic municipal services such as paved roads, running water, and sewer and drainage systems. 

Narco News has documented how the joint federal police-military operation in Michoacan is being used to repress colonias populares, particularly those who belong to social organizations. Given that there is proof that residents of colonias populares were paid to block roads during the "narco protests," it can be expected that government repression will increase in Monterrey's colonias populares--even in those that did not participate.

If the blockades provoked rage against protesters in general, it provoked a particularly fierce rage against Monterrey's poorest residents because it is known that some of them participated in exchange for school supplies and money.  One poster on El Norte's forum wrote that the military should be deployed against the protesters (it was deployed six days after the post) and that "if they [the soldiers] kill those people no one will miss them, they stream out of every trash dump or piece of poop...a couple of dead ones won't hurt anyone, it's better that way because we'd be doing society a favor by not keeping fucking people who are dying of hunger alive, because these idiots cost us in an indirect way."

The anger towards Monterrey's poor residents is misdirected, says Camero, because it ignores the conditions, created by the government itself, that led to people blocking roads in exchange for school supplies and cash.  "There is a crisis of unemployment and of abandonment of young people.  There's no guarantee [of employment for young people].  I'm not even talking about school or sports here--I'm talking about employment.  With this abandonment it's easy to make these sorts of offers [to get paid to protest].  This is a very strange, unimaginable scenerio, but it can easily happen because of the situation."

Camero blames the government for spending millions of pesos in public money on maintaining political parties when it doesn't adequately supply schools with basic necessities.  "How is it possible that the narcos are offering people school supplies?  We have a long-term campaign to get school supplies in [Nuevo Leon] schools.  These are conditions that the government has allowed to develop, and organized crime can take advantage of them."

 

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