“These days the narcos think nothing of killing us for no reason other than marking their territory,” one police commander said after seeing fellow officers murdered.
From, “Firepower and Bloodshed: Houston’s Underworld Connection with Mexican Drug Cartels, ” by Clarence Walker, The New Criminologist.
In the end the war between civilization and gangsters comes down to one question. Who rules? Whose “marker” prevails?
I had occasion recently to hear the former governor of a Mexican state describe how the relationships among the drug trafficking criminal enterprises, the legitimate government of the state, and political geography had changed over the last decade or so. He is a man with painfully earned insight.
In the old days, he explained, criminals only wanted safe passage to do whatever they did. So corruption was pervasive but ephemeral. The criminals would bribe as necessity dictated: a customs officer here, a police chief there, another official elsewhere in order to make possible a specific transaction or set of events. The corrupted officials would look the other way. Drugs would move from point A to point B without hassle, and life went on.
The difference now, he explained, has several dimensions:
- The criminals now want to contest the legitimate government for total control of territory.
- Within that territory, they want to preempt the traditional roles of government and enterprise. They want to tax, administer “justice,” take over profitable business enterprises, and control the people as their subjects.
- Criminal factions — such as DTOs — battle with each other for control of territory, regardless of who or what is technically sovereign.
If the criminals can seize total or effective control of the law enforcement function (public safety, enforcement of the rules of civil society) the battle is over. They win. There is a spectrum of ways and means in which the security/law enforcement function (if not the bureaucratic structure) can be co-opted to criminality.
One way is to seize physical control by corruption or intimidation — members of the criminal enterprise actually hold office, or they can pay or frighten legitimate office holders into acting as surrogates of the criminals. The latter process is known as “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) in Mexico. It is in effect the axis about which revolves President Felipe Calderon’s fight to destroy the power of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Here is a succinct description from a longer pre-Calderon but informative discourse:
The necessary involvement of police officials at the local, state, and national levels, and the Mexican military, complicates the battle over turf. Corruption pollutes well-intentioned policemen and soldiers. The law of “plata o plomo,” a choice between accepting a job on a criminal payroll or accepting a bullet in the head, perennially compromises members of the Mexican security forces at all levels…Millions of dollars a year land in the hands of policemen, intelligence agents, mayors, port masters, pilots, and many other officials who face the infamous “plata o plomo” decision.
Mexican feathers are ruffled when the matter is put so bluntly. It is what it is. Some serious law enforcement officials in the U.S. worry that half of the equation — the plata — is already here. If the plata is here, can the plomo be far behind? Not yet. And perhaps never on a significant scale. Cop-killers in the United States tend to have short life expectancies. But this germ may be incubating. If the narcos win in Mexico, count on it — all aspects of their putrescence will ooze north, where they have already established substantial logistical and administrative operations in a number of cities.
Another way is to drive legitimate authority out of certain areas, establishing “no-go” zones where the state theoretically still rules, but the cops can or will enter only with a show of extraordinary force.
The final way is to establish a shadow government — let the pinche cops drive through and make an occasional sweep, but the people know that we’re always here, so we rule anyway. The graffiti of Latino criminal street gangs often includes the letter “R” or the word “rifa” (“rules”) — a leg-lifting marker aimed at other gangs — and at least implicitly at legitimate sovereign authority.
In the United States, by the way, some gangs and gangsters have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams by NOT fighting the power. They co-opted legitimate authority by conning government circles. Chicago is famous for having provided a culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which its current “super-gangs” rooted, were nurtured with government cash. More recently, in Los Angeles Hector “Big Weasel” Marroquin represented himself as a “reformed” 18th Street gangster. He established a group called “No Guns.” Its staff is said to have consisted mostly of his own family members. Here is how the authoritative blog “In the Hat” sums up the effect of Marroquin‘s post-reformation career:
Marroquin has basically been shoved down the throats of gang cops by their commanders for years as a person they should work with to quell gang violence and divert young people from the life.
But it turns out Marroquin was not so reformed after all! Busted by ATF last year, “Big Weasel” pleaded “no contest” to three counts of manufacture, distribution and transport for sale of an unlawful assault weapon. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. There is simply no telling what violence “No Guns” was responsible for.
An example of a gang shadow government was the area around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles that I write about in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press (June 2009), No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement. Mexican Mafia gangster Francisco “Puppet” Martinez bossed the Columbia Lil Cycos clique of the 18th Street Gang from his federal prison cell in the 1990s until the FBI and federal prosecutor Bruce Riordan broke up the party. But, like the poisonous Chinaberry tree, gangs “can form dense thickets that crowd out native vegetation.” They are “poisonous to humans and small mammals… [and] multiple treatments are usually necessary to successfully eradicate” them. Some eradication is still going on, I am told.
Few gangs in the United States have succeeded in totally controlling territory. But the Drew Street clica of the Avenues Gang came close. An excellent NPR radio story linked here describes how bad things had gotten — it’s a little over four minutes long and well worth listening to.
This excerpt from a federal RICO indictment — in the case of United States v. Francisco (“Pancho”) Real, United States District Court for the Central District of California, docket no. CR08-00688, filed June 12, 2008 — handed down against Drew Street and its members provides basic information about the Avenues Gang and the Drew Street clique. Note how the gang asserted “sovereign” control over territory and even plotted to violently confront law enforcement:
The Avenues gang is a multi-generational street gang that was formed in the 1940s and claims..[a defined area] as its “territory” in Northeast Los Angeles. The Avenues Gang is divided into a number of smaller groups, or “cliques,” based on geography and associations in the neighborhood controlled by the gang…
The Avenues gang has been traditionally loyal and committed to “Mexican Mafia,” also known as “La Eme.” Avenues leaders frequently extort money from local drug traffickers, members of other gangs, prostitutes, residents, and persons who maintain businesses in the area controlled by the gang. Avenues gang members also frequently intimidate, threaten and assault persons in the area as a means to intimidate and control the people in their neighborhoods, including potential witnesses who would testify about their crimes. Their crimes typically include acts of violence, ranging from battery to murder, drug-trafficking offenses, witness intimidation, alien smuggling, weapons-trafficking and, very frequently, hate crimes directed against African-American persons who might attempt to reside or be present in the ares controlled by the gang. Members frequently conduct robberies to generate funds for the larger organization and Avenues hierarchy.
The Drew Street gang is a recently formed clique with the Avenues gang. The Drew Street gang is part of the Avenues gang, and it authorized by the Avenues and the Mexican Mafia (aka, “La Eme”) to control the area of Northeast Los Angeles in the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Drew Street and Estara Avenue.
Members of the Drew Street gang enforce the authority of the gang to commit its crimes by directing acts of violence and retaliation against non-compliant drug-traffickers and rival gang members. The organization also directs attacks against law enforcement officers and witnesses who would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement for the prosecution of the crimes committed by members of the Drew Street gang….The Drew Street gang ordinarily is vigilant to the presence of “outsiders,” or persons not immediately known to the gang, who may intentionally or inadvertently attempt to enter the territory controlled by the gang. Gang members are likely to identify such persons and physically threaten or kill them.
Los Angeles city and law enforcement authorities finally had enough and moved in on the gangster empire with a “holistic” approaching, mobilizing a range of forces in a pincer movement and frontal assault to erase the gang’s dense thicket of poisonous power.
Fairly Civil will describe that in the next posting about the Drew Street gang.