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Not surprisingly, this is all taking a political and economic as well as human toll. Mexico is far from being a failed state. Traditionally an inward-looking economy, it started to open to the world in the 1980s, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, wrote trade pacts with 42 other countries and is now Latin America's biggest importer and exporter. After a sharp contraction following the financial crisis, it enjoyed one of the fastest economic recoveries among Latin American countries last year, growing 5.5%. Mexico is not a BRIC the now ubiquitous acronym for top emerging markets Brazil, Russia, India and China, coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill. But it is part of O'Neill's latest catchy acronym, MIST, which brings together up-and-coming economies Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.
The unchecked violence could undermine all that. In Tamaulipas, the Zetas are, in effect, the law; they're the top suspects in last year's assassination of gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre. In once booming Juárez, from where thousands have fled across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, the commercial tax base has shrunk 40% since 2008, and many business owners refuse to pay taxes since they already fork over extortion "tolls."
Drug violence also harrows Monterrey, long Mexico's business capital, where kindergarten teacher Rivera soothed her students amid gunfire and where victims have been found hanging from bridges and overpasses. Commuters in Monterrey can find themselves trapped between roadblocks during rush hour, at the mercy of gangsters who storm through the paralyzed traffic to steal money or cars at gunpoint.
The gangsters' impact on civil society is just as significant. Garish music and fashion celebrating the drug lords are popular. Almost 70 Mexican journalists have been murdered by the gangs since 2007 most recently Veracruz newspaper editor Miguel Angel López, 55, gunned down with his wife and son on June 20. Many in the media now self-censor their drug coverage. The Catholic Church, too, has been linked to the cartels: Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, known as El Verdugo (the Executioner), funded construction of a chapel in his home state of Hidalgo, complete with his name on a bronze plaque.
Solving the Problem of Impunity
Can Mexico pull itself out of this living hell? Much depends on its ability to modernize the police and judicial system. As part of Calderón's reform package, federal and state courts are beginning to conduct oral trials, in which lawyers have to argue before the bench rather than simply push papers across a clerk's desk. It is hoped that the change will force police and prosecutors to improve their methods of gathering and presenting evidence. Mexico's Congress is considering Calderón's proposal to incorporate all the police into a more unified national network, similar to the one Colombia reconstituted to great effect in the 1990s. The belief is that a centralized police force will be better able to weed out corrupt members and ensure a coordinated offensive against the Hydra-like cartels. In April lawmakers passed a bill granting new powers and resources for money-laundering investigations: it's aimed at the web of corrupt politicians and businessmen who abet the cartels. And in early June, Calderón pushed through a change in Mexico's criminal-appeals system that makes it harder for the accused to frivolously block or delay prosecutions.
The harder task is changing a culture that was centuries in the making. "Mexico's biggest problem," says Sicilia's lawyer, Julio Hernández, "is still the problem that leads to all its other problems: impunity." Mexico's lawlessness is often thought to be a legacy of the Spanish conquistadors, who were more interested in pillaging than policing and who left the country with the warped sense that law enforcement is a private rather than a public concern. That civic negligence was a boon for the drug mafias that emerged after World War II. Their brutality was regulated only by the venal, authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for 71 years and was the cartels' tacit partner. When Calderón's National Action Party toppled the PRI in 2000, the cartels splintered and embarked on an orgy of violence that spawned soulless killing machines.
Tackling them will take a sustained commitment by governments on both sides of the border. But for all the horror, there are some reasons for hope. The homicide rate in Juárez is down this year. And the military recently arrested Jesús "El Negro" Radilla, the alleged leader of the gang that murdered Juan Francisco Sicilia and his friends. Juan Bosco, the police director in Morelos state, which includes Cuernavaca, was also collared for his alleged ties to the Pacífico Sur cartel.
That is not enough for Javier Sicilia, who had hoped to watch his son receive a business degree this month. Known to readers for his Catholic mysticism, he has given up writing poetry. "They choked it out of me when they choked Juanelo," he tells me. He's thrown himself fully into his movement against the drug gangs. "I'm doing this," he says, "because I believe it's the dead who are going to lead Mexico to the light." If so, his son, and the countless others in pictures being held up across Mexico, will not have died in vain.
With reporting by Roya Wolverson