The Failure of Operation Chihuahua

What is happening in the State of Chihuahua, Mexico is a living (or dead) illustration of the failure of the Mexican government in the improvised struggle against organized crime that President Felipe Calderon started at the onset of his term.

Saturday, August 16: just before six o’clock in the evening, three luxury SUVs bearing a dozen gunmen pull up outside a warehouse, where teens and young adults are having a dance-party at Creel, an enclave in the Chihuahua mountains. They are apparently looking for two people to finish off, but they do not know what they look like. They open random fire at close range, taking additional lives. Among the victims is a one-year-old boy who dies in spite of his father’s heroic attempt to shield him with his body. The mystery is that there is no sign of the police or the army in Creel before or after the massacre. The only authority to witness the families’ outburst of pain is religious.

Jesuit priest Javier Avila is not only the shepherd of his trampled flock, he is also psychologist and even legal counsel. In the absence of anyone else, authorities request by phone that he take pictures of the massacred bodies, while police, public ministries, and experts come out of their hiding places.

Explanations for the absence of law enforcement forces in Creel in these moments fade before suspicions and allegations. Some elements of police allege that their superiors ordered them to leave the area because there were going to be executions there. This has not been confirmed, but what is certain is that at that time neither the military, nor the Preventive Judicial Police, nor the ministry police were in Creel. A highway patrol was the only one at the crime scene.

That day the government did not exist for families at Creel. Their fundamental human right to life, which gives rise to the social contract the state is founded upon, was not fulfilled. A grave violation of human rights was committed by omission, given the ineffectiveness at all levels of government. In total desperation and impotence, Creel locals now warn that justice will be taken into other hands. Lynching is sought as a substitute for the inefficiency, the cowardliness, and the complicity of the authorities.

In their flight, or stupor, state forces find no explanations during the subsequent days. The most they come up with are "interpretations." The prosecuting attorney attributes the massacre to "La Linea," a branch of the Juarez Drug Cartel that dominates the sierra and rural Chihuahua. She also explains the obvious: "It is an act of terrorism to intimidate the population."

The state governor, after dozens of deaths, finally gets the message, and hears the calls made months before, stating "Operation Chihuahua has to be reviewed because it is not yielding results."

He goes further, and states it is necessary to "revise our regime of individual liberties and citizen guarantees." In Congress, the anxiety of the Creel families is used by the supporters of PAN, the (Partido de Accion Nacional party) to call for the heads of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) officials in charge of security. The federal government is quick to cover the wells, once the children are drowned. They send dozens of soldiers to the mountains to chase after the killers who are surely safe and sound, not in security houses, but entire safe municipalities they have at their disposal.

The shake-up at Creel has not detained the river of blood. In the past few days, the death toll continues to rise, to the point where the population asks, "Why are the governmental forces unable to prevent the slaughter? Is it that they themselves perpetrate it?" The post-Weber state goes from monopolizing legitimate violence to monopolizing extreme inefficiency, or monopolizing all violence.

Echoing the August Creel incident, on Oct. 9 there was a massacre at the Rio Rosas bar in the city of Chihuahua. A seven-man commando group wearing hoods executed 11 people. Among them was journalist David Garcia Monroy. Four of those murdered had criminal records. The rest just had something to drink at the wrong place and at the wrong time. On their getaway route toward Ciudad Juarez, the hit men faced federal police, leaving a toll of two dead on each side.

So far, 65 people have been executed in seven massacres around the greater Chihuahua area. Desperate in the face of the operation he himself endorsed, Governor Reyes Baeza stated, "We have been abandoned by the district attorney," hinting that the government has not participated in investigations nor operations and, to date, the Federation has not sent 70 federal public ministry officers that it promised when it signed the National Agreement for Safety, Justice, and Rule-of-law, on Aug. 25. Then the state government hands the Attorney General’s Office 580 files on sanguinary acts related to organized crime to be investigated and brought to justice as is their task.

In stark contrast with the massacre in Morelia, Michoacan on Sept. 15, the state has not shown up, now nor after the Creel massacre. The governor himself complains that the Federation has "not even made a single call."

Now the executive branch has to recognize something that was pointed out long ago and was never recognized: The Joint Operation Chihuahua involving the army, federal, and state police has been a great fiasco. It has been characterized more by failure in containing organized crime activity and by human rights violations, than by efficient results. Even more, in reality, the joint factor is absent. There is no common strategy. For example, during operations the army turns to state law enforcement and not the federal police. During raids and arrests, federal ministerial agents are noticeably absent, in violation of the constitutional precept that military forces must always be under civil authority.

On the other hand, the total inefficiency of other federal offices is plain to see. The three vehicles the killers fled in had been stolen in El Paso, Texas a few weeks before. The weapons they bore were undoubtedly brought from the United States. Nevertheless, border authorities and federal police were unable to detect the vehicles or the murderous weapons when they crossed the border.

This lack of capacity, this lack of coordination, this mutual interference shows that the Calderonian scheme of joint operations has been a total failure, not only in Chihuahua, but around the entire country. Crowding soldiers together in different parts of the country, far from dissuading drug dealers and their hired gunmen, exponentially increases the risk for the civilian population, who now has to take care on all sides: hired gunmen breaking into their daily activities, stray bullets, and human rights violations by the police and the army.

Calderon’s strategy in the joint operations does not aim to recover or rebuild citizen security. Its basic objective is petty and much more paltry: by means of a great deployment of military forces and media stances, call for the unity of the population, and this way generate some of the legitimacy that was never won in the ballot boxes.

This brings to mind the 1982 war in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands off Argentina. A group of repressive generals came to power by means of a coup and tried to build national unity and legitimacy for themselves by calling the population to fight for a just cause: recovery of national sovereignty for the Falkland Islands. Lacking a consistent strategy, poorly armed, poorly positioned, fighting under commanders who were concerned more for their own safety and personal gain, dozens of young Argentineans were lead to their death on the cold desolation of the South Atlantic. An empty war, lost before it was declared, was not paid for by the generals but by the civilian population. This is what Felipe Calderon, dressing up in uniform, and his war against organized crime sounds like.