Insight Crime and the Mexicanization of Cartel War Discourse

I know more than a few journalists who trust the work of Insight Crime, which aims to, in their words, ”increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to raise the level of debate about government efforts to combat it.”

The fact that Stratfor is not credible (not that the mainstream media ran with the story of how awful their “intelligence” is or anything), has allowed Insight to stand in as a go-to source of information for folks writing about the ongoing “war on drugs” in Mexico/Central/South America.

I think some of the work done by Insight can be accurate and/or useful, don’t get me wrong. But I cannot abide by any organization that churns out pages and pages of unsourced material in order to advance the dubious story that the violence in Mexico stems from cartels fighting each other. Unfortunately, this is just what Steven Dudley does in his recent report for Insight, called “Juarez after the War.”

This is far from a comprehensive review of the report, instead it’s just a few thoughts I had upon reflecting on what Dudley wrote while on a visit to Juárez in late February and again in early March.

The report begins so: “As the story goes, beginning in early 2008, the Sinaloa Cartel corralled the Juarez Cartel in the city and then used a hit-and-run strategy to attack it within the city’s limits.” The operative words here are thus: as the story goes. The beginning of the report talks about all of these state-promoted ideas of inter-cartel rivalry as though they’re fact, with few citations of any kind.

This is a seminal example of the cartel wars discourse I mentioned above.

I define cartel wars discourse (which is a form of official discourse) as something that includes few salient features, among them: an almost exclusive reliance on state/government sources for information, a guilty until proven innocent/victims were involved in drug trade bias, and a foundational belief that cops involved in criminal activity are the exception not the rule, and that more policing improves security.

Onwards with the report, in its full MS Word glory. (Long live Cambria 12).

“When the Sinaloa Cartel declared war on the Juarez Cartel in 2008, it did so by placing a banner on a monument to fallen police officers,” writes Dudley. Newsflash: just about anyone can make and hang a banner. We know that sometimes they’re hung under police supervision. In sum: banner shmanner. “Narco banners are like dead bodies: we don’t know who is responsible for them,” Juárez writer and photographer Julián Cardona told me in an interview in the city last week.

Dudley then goes on to the numbers. I quote:

Last year was the least violent 12-month stretch since 2007, with the state government registering 740 murders. Homicide levels are a fifth of what they were at the beginning of 2011.

Naturally, some analysts and authorities have focused on the criminal groups to explain why homicides have dropped so quickly.

Missing here is a crucial, crucial piece of information. That is the fact that by the end of 2011 the estimated 10,000 members of the federal police and the army sent to Juárez on the pretext of fighting cartels were leaving the city. The police and army arrive in 2008, violence and specifically murder goes off the charts, they leave, it falls. Not rocket science.

Anyhow, regardless of a situation he calls “chaotic”, Dudley manages to rustle up an analysis based “the common sentiment” (no hints as to his methodology in coming up with that) that the Sinaloa cartel is now dominant.

You know what?

I’ve talked to dozens of people in Juarez over the past couple weeks. I would still hesitate to use the near meaningless term appealing to “common sentiment,” but I will say that many of those I’ve talked to, including survivors and people who have lost family members, place the blame for what took place directly on Felipe Calderón and the 10,000 soldiers and cops that descended on the city. That’s right: the state. Not the Sinaloa Cartel.

The second phase of the report is something I see as an attempt to “Mexicanize” the cartel war discourse. (Mexicaniziation here from Colombianization as used by US lawmakers to describe the process by which the Colombian government takes over, for example, training pilots and doing maintenance on helicopters donated via Plan Colombia.)

After the sandstorm of chaos dies down, Dudley sees, with a fair amount of clarity, the “Barrio Azteca Gang Poised for Leap into International Drug Trade.” But Dudley doesn’t need the DEA or a US agency to tell the story. Instead, he relies on heavily cloaked Mexican intel folks to spew “information” about Barrio Azteca. The cartel wars discourse of Sinaloa vs. Juárez was spearheaded by the DEA in a two year project that came to an end in December. Ergo, the Mexicanization of the cartel wars discourse, as Mexican intelligence officials take up the task of creating a coherent narrative that helps to justify continued attacks on the people (especially youth) of Juarez. (And anyways, DEA peeps are extra busy now they’re in charge of US domestic drug intel).

The Barrio Azteca resurgence is not something I heard from anyone I spoke to in Juarez. Granted, I don’t talk to Mexican spooks, at least not on purpose.

All said, I think the best way to explain Dudley’s work in this section is simply cut and paste all of his references/sources for his Barrio Azteca claims.

Sources for information on Barrio Azteca activity in the US (number in brackets represents number of times source cited):

-US federal indictment (x3)

-FBI’s  2011 gang threat assessment

-Texas authorities (x2)

-Texas  Gang  Threat  Assessment

Sources for information on Barrio Azteca in Juarez:

-Gustavo de la Rosa, former prison director in Chihuahua

-intelligence officials (not clear if US or Mexican)

-Mexican intelligence official

-Mexican intelligence officials

-a map from Mexico’s intelligence agencies

Southern Pulse

-intelligence officials

-government official (x2)

Again, of the survivors of violence, grieving family members, journalists, researchers, activists, artists, students, etc, I’ve interviewed over the past week, not one mentioned Barrio Azteca (or Sinaloa, for that matter).

The first part of Dudley’s report is free of sources. The second part relies almost entirely on anonymous Mexican officials. It’s not clear from the report if Dudley spoke to anyone outside of the intelligence/police/jail circuit while he was in Juarez. He pays some heed to critics of militarization in the third and final part of the report, but generally presents the ex-military man at the head of Juárez police as responsible for a “security miracle.”

All said, “Juarez after the War” presents readers with one particular version of what is taking place in Juarez, and that is the version that Juarez police/intelligence sector wants us to hear. (Insert “truth first casualty of war” quote here).

And anyways (just a little detail) the war in Juarez isn’t exactly over yet anyways. Just few nights ago the offices of a local newspaper and TV station were shot up.

Finally, a note on the source of the cash money that helped make this lovely piece of scholarship happen.

“Research for this report was paid for, in part, by the National Institute for Justice and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.” Just in case folks are not aware, WWC was created by an act of congress and is essentially a US government funded think tank (2013 budget PDF). WWC members have recently participated along with the  Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in promoting the drug war in West Africa.

This story was originally published as a blog entry on Dawn Paley’s blog, Unembedded. Dawn is a journalist and researcher who regularly contributes to Upside Down World.