Off The Margins

by by by Sofia Castello y Tickell

illustration by by Diane Zhou

At approximately 6:00 am on January 11, 2012, the decapitated bodies of an unidentified man and woman were found in a burning black Honda SUV at the entrance to a luxury mall in Mexico City. Two heads—presumably those of the victims—were found a few meters from the car, along with a note written on hot pink cardboard and signed by the gang Mano con Ojos. The discovery ignited fears of a shift in the Drug War’s zone of influence from border cities and outlying states to Mexico’s busy capital.

The two bodies were found in the city’s Santa Fe district, a busy and highly policed area that is home to diplomats and wealthy Mexicans, and contains one of the country’s top private universities, in addition to upscale bars and restaurants.

A few hours after the January incident, the Mexican government released the first set of statistics to quantify drug-related deaths since January 2011, when it ceased to provide such information in the interest of “national security.” After receiving repeated demands for information, the government acknowledged that 47,515 people had died in drug-related violence since 2006. The figure reflected informal media tallies, although the reliability of these estimates is up for debate because it can be difficult to determine whether some deaths are directly related to the drug war.

“Everyone’s obsessed with the drug count in Mexico,” Peter Andreas, professor of political science at Brown University, told the Independent, as he discussed the shock impact of the deaths in Santa Fe. “Fancy mall, right? Beheadings. Telling you two people died in Mexico doesn’t capture that.”

Attacks have generally been limited to areas outside Mexico City, which was considered to be relatively sheltered from the violence. Statistics compiled by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego reflect this; the capital saw 181 drug-related homicides last year, compared to 1,940 in state of Chihuahua and 1,536 in the state of Guerrero. A total of 12,386 drug-related homicides were recorded last year.

The attack’s visibility was the largest factor in its impact, argued Angelica Duran Martinez, a PhD candidate in political science at Brown University whose dissertation focuses on drug-related violence.

“The biggest objective of high profile violence is basically to infuse fear, create a sensation that whoever is carrying out that violence is powerful… that the state is not powerful enough to attack them,” she said.

Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, of the Trans-Border Institute, viewed the attack as more of an interaction between cartels than a jibe at the government.

“This is obviously a message, and the organizations are using the bodies to send messages to their rivals,” he said. “I didn’t see this particular event having a huge impact on the general situation of Mexico City. I see it more as some sort of message directed to someone in a very violent way.”

The attack was carried out by Mano con Ojos, a splinter group derived from the Beltran Leyva cartel, which has been responsible for a number of publicly displayed decapitations on public roads, by football fields and in back alleyways. Extra forces have since been dispatched for additional vigilance in the neighborhoods where the gang is known to operate. Many had hoped that the capture last August of Oscar Osvaldo García Montoya, the gang’s leader at the time, would serve to weaken the group.

“The thing with these splinter cells, I think, it is not clear how long they can last,” said Duran Martinez. “You see on the one hand the strengthening of the bigger ones, like the Sinaloa cartel, Los Zetas, and then you see the proliferation of smaller cells, but I’m not sure these cells can be as powerful.”

No one will contest that struggles for dominance, maintained by a combination of bribery and violence, and bolstered by the work of long-term informants, have led to grisly shows of power throughout the country. Nonetheless, questions of whether drug-related violence is moving to the capital, and the impacts such a shift would have, remain to be fully answered.


In many ways, Mexico City, colloquially known as “DF” (short for Distrito Federal), is markedly separate from the rest of the country. This carpet of lights strung between volcanoes—a sprawling cultural and financial center, home to 19 million people at last count—represents a disproportionate sector of wealth, power, and government influence.

“Mexico City is the brain and the heart of the country,” said Rodriguez Ferreira. He argues that the capital is too well staffed and coordinated to suffer from the problems that have spiraled out of control in other parts of the country, and that the costs of operating visibly in the capital would be too high for cartels.

But cartels do have a presence in Mexico City, said Duran Martinez, both for money laundering purposes and because there is a large market for drugs. Some have credited the lack of high profile brutality to an informal truce between cartels not to infringe upon the capital, but a number of other factors have likely prevented violence from gaining a foothold.

“The problem is not that there are no trafficking organizations,” she said. “It’s more that the conditions—geographical, political, the conditions of law enforcement—are extremely different in DF than in the rest of country.”

Levels of general violence in Mexico City have dropped significantly in the last twenty years. This has been largely attributed to a series of police reforms. All officers now respond to a centralized command, and the installation of 13,000 CCTV cameras around the city last year has likely detered violence.

“Using violence in Mexico City is not really smart,” said Duran Martinez, adding that its dense geography does not allow for the level of isolation that occurs in dispersed cities like Juarez. “It’s a city where if someone commits a very visible act of violence, the police can arrive very quickly.”

As for the police forces themselves, “it would be naïve to think that there is no corruption in Mexico City’s police, but maybe it’s not as bad as it was in the eighties and maybe it’s not as bad as it may be in other parts of the country,” she said.

In a controversial move last December, the entirety of the state of Veracruz’s police force—800 police officers and 300 administrative staff—was dismissed and replaced by the navy, due to corruption. Drug-related homicides had risen from 52 to 350 between 2010 and 2011, according to data complied by the Trans-Border Institute.

In a public address on February 9, Mexico’s Secretary of Defense, Guillermo Galván Galván, made a rare public admission that while the government continued to fight for control in some areas, it had lost control in others.

“Of course there have been errors,” he said. “It is evident that in some areas of our national territory, public security has been totally overtaken.” A statement of this magnitude—from the Secretary of Defense, no less—indicates not only the breadth of the problem, but also rising awareness and accountability.

The last six years of the Drug War have had a deep impact on Mexico’s international reputation, leading to a decline in tourism from 3.28 million international visitors in 2005 to 2.07 million in 2011, according to the Secretary of Tourism’s official figures.

The US State Department issued a travel warning on February 8, advising against travel, in whole or in part, to 14 of Mexico’s 31 states. No advisory is currently in effect over Mexico City. Government officials have stressed that the majority of violence does not take place in tourist spots, but caution is advised given the scale of the violence.


Rodriguez Ferreira maintained that “Mexico City is very safe in comparison with other states.”

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that levels of safety can be carefully zoned. Many surrounding municipalities, which for all purposes make up a part of the capital, have experienced significant episodes of violence that do not enter the consciousness of the larger population.

“Usually what happens in the outskirts of Mexico City, and of any metropolitan city for that matter, doesn’t get into the news as much as other things,” said Duran Martinez. “Those two beheaded bodies in Santa Fe created a wave of articles about how violence was spreading over to Mexico City, but they were really just two beheadings.”

The extremely public placing of the bodies in the center of an affluent neighborhood engaged the Mexican elite, a sector of the population that has only rarely had to deal with drug-related violence.

“Much of the power in Mexico is in Mexico City,” Andreas said. “Business as usual has been able to take place there without thinking too much about the drug war and the drug trade.”

Relationships between drug traffickers and the elite have varied from complete separation to unnerving proximity in a 2007 drug bust in an upscale neighborhood, which yielded $200 million.

Impacts of the drug war on elites have been minimal  in comparison to other groups—most consisting of stories of kidnapping or unfortunate run-ins, rather than targeted drug homicides—and have prompted increased security measures.

“I don’t think that they have taken the toll of violence that much, and when they do they react somehow,” said Duran Martinez.

Parallels might be drawn with the northern city of Monterrey, which was known for its wealthy inhabitants, quality education, and safe streets until a battle between the Zeta and Gulf cartels exploded onto the scene. The number of drug-related homicides in its state, Nuevo Leon, rose from 610 in 2010 to an astounding 1789 last year. Many privileged inhabitants left the city for the United States or Mexico City after a slew of murders, kidnappings, and open battles between the cartels led daily life there to be too dangerous.

“This is a war between the cartels. You don’t want to get caught in the middle,” said Teresa Canales, admissions officer for the American School in Monterrey. “You need to be very careful about where you go, who you see, and these are things you didn’t really think about before.”

The kidnapping and murder of the 14-year-old son of Alejandro Marti, a Mexico City businessman who owns a series of sporting goods stores, prompted the creation of an organization called México SOS to counter violence and corruption in the legal system.

Duran Martinez described such moves as “highly individualistic efforts, like people were somehow affected by criminality, so they ended up creating these highly public organizations, supposedly to combat crime.”

A different attempt to spark a movement for peace was made by Javier Sicilia, a poet whose son was kidnapped, suffocated and gagged along with six of his friends outside a nightclub in an act of drug-related violence in March of last year. He organized two marches—the first, on April 6 of 2011, drew 25,000 supporters, and the second, on May 5, was replicated across the world in 17 major cities, and in 20 cities in Mexico. This is the largest protest so far against drug violence.

“The government, up until the emergence of that movement, kept saying that the only people dying in Mexico were criminals,” said Duran Martinez. She added that Sicilia’s largest achievement was “to start visibilizing the victims of violence, and showing that not all the people who were losing sons and relatives and family members were criminals.”


The fate of Mexico is closely tied to that of its capital, and in this sense, Mexico City’s resistance of drug violence is a good omen.

Upcoming presidential elections, which will take place on July 1, will provide fertile ground for dissent on the drug war. The fact that violence has escalated so significantly during the term of the current president, Felipe Calderón, has led many people to doubt the virtues of his party. Promises of peace will likely play a large role in the campaign.

Despite what Duran Martinez called a “window of opportunity for changing policies dramatically,” she cited a lack of specific and particular proposals for a change in strategy, and therefore doubts the government’s strategy will deviate.

With regard to consistency, and continued stability in the capital, Rodriguez Ferreira’s predictions are somewhat hopeful.
“Violence is starting to at least stabilize, nation-wide,” he said, pointing to a shift in the trends of violence. “Maybe in two or three years, we will start seeing a little decrease in the intensity of violence.”

SOFIA CASTELLO  Y  TICKELL B’12.5 is watching escalation.