The history of organized crime in Mexico goes back before Mr. Carrillo, of course. As far back as 1916, in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, U.S. customs officials in Los Angeles reported that the government of Baja California, one Colonel Esteban Cantú, was selling leases to smuggle opium into the U.S. for a $45,000 down payment and monthly leases around $10,500. (Of course, the dollar isn’t what it used to be: $10,500 in 1916 dollars is worth about $212,000 today.) Cantú didn’t last — he became involved in a bizarro-world attempt to secede, which led to his exile — but the governors who followed him continued their involvement with drugs, even after the federal government of Mexico banned marijuana in 1920 and opium in 1926.
Somewhat amusingly (at least to me) the Baja criminals were under the thumb of a group of Jewish gangsters based in Los Angeles. Harold “Happy” Meltzer, connected to Mickey Cohen, arranged with the Mexican consul in Los Angeles to use Mexican customs agents to smuggle opium across the border.
When Enrique Diarte (their source of supply in Tijuana) tried to go into business for himself, an American named Max Cossman (aka Max Webber) had him killed. Cossman had the support of the state government, but ran afoul of the feds, and wound up in a Mexico City jail in 1949. Mexican jails being what they were (and, sadly, are) his wife had no trouble smuggling heroin into the prison, which Cossman resold. He escaped and continued to operate across the border well into the 1950s, using the moniker “Francisco Mora.”
Smuggling soon spread away from Baja. In 1931, President Pascual Ortiz Rubio (who was actually not the true head of government at the time — that position being occupied by the Jefe Máximo de le Revolución, Plutarco Calles) expressing worry over “the increase in national and international narcotics trafficking along the rail line joining Mexico City and Ciudad Juárez.” He went on to state that he was sending three “secret agents” who were “currently in Torreón” to combat the traffickers.
The head secret agent, Juan Requena, sent back a report stating that Torreón was the “main center for narcotics trafficking in the towns linked by the rail line from Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez and for the international trafficking carried out in this city.” It went on to say the main kingpin was a man of Chinese descent named Antonio Wong Yin, who was in continual contact with the mayor of Torreón (Francisco Ortiz Garza), a close friend of the governor of Coahuila (Nazario Ortiz Garza), and the head of the federal Army in the state, General Jesús Garza Gutiérrez. (It was good to be a Garza!) He went on report that the traffickers “have a complete espionage service prepared to do anything.”
At that point Requena was transferred to Los Angeles. Sadly, I have no records of what this Mexican secret agent did there.
The next year, General Rodrigo Quevedo became governor. His brother became mayor of Juárez. They shot the head of the smuggling cartel there, who fled to Mexico City, where gunmen killed him in a tiny little park that used to be next to the Casa de Azulejos in 1937. That same year, the head of the federal Department of Public Health, José Siurob, called Juárez “possibly the most dangerous center where traffickers operate who ... defend their trafficking with gunfire.”
By 1947, Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, declared Mexico to be U.S.’s main opium supplier. He also accused state officials in Sinaloa (where it was grown) of being in the drug business, including Governor Pablo Macías Valenzuela. Surprisingly, the Mexican press picked up the accusations. There must have been some sort of infighting between Macías and President Miguel Alemán, because once the President made a trip to Sinaloa, the accusations stopped. Macías finished his term and became head of Military Camp No. 1 in Mexico City. The feds made a show of capturing one of the traffickers Macías was accused of protecting — Miguel Urías Uriarte — but he was soon released.
In short, organized crime was tied up with the political system practically from the very beginning. The result wasn’t good for Mexican governance, but it did mean that the politicians were in control of the gangsters. There were violent outbreaks in the 1960s and then again in the late 1980s, but organized crime simply didn’t exist separately from the political system. There were individual gangsters and criminals, but no independent syndicates and no armies upon which the capos could draw to resist the state or intimidate the citizenry ... at least not without the active cooperation of the politicians.
That went away with the transition to democracy in the late 1990s. But violence didn’t really get out of the control until the last few years. So something else is going on. If that “something” turns out to be Sicilianization, then the end result will be a return to the bad old days of the PRI’s dictatorship, minus the protectionism. In Sicily in 2007, extortion rackets collected about 12% of GDP from businesses on the island — that’s more than the Mexican federal government collects in non-oil revenue.
In fact, it could get far worse. Sicily is part of nation that isn’t (despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts) completely corrupt, and receives large-scale transfers from the rich north and the European Union. In Mexico, though, it’s the richest part of the nation what would be Sicilianizing.
Still, there are two big issues that need explaining. First, why did gang warfare break out in 2008, instead of 1998 or 2000 or 2006? And second, why hasn’t it spilled over the U.S. border?