El Chapo Escapes Again, But What Is The Mexican Drug War All about? A very brief introduction.

This article was originally written for Tremr, a brilliant new social journalism website that everyone should check out. 

Two weeks ago, on the 13th July, Joaquin Guzman, better known as ‘El Chapo (Shorty)’, escaped his high security cell in an Altiplano prison. He fled in an underground tunnel to a safe house that had been purpose built several kilometres away, marking his second escape from a high security facility in the last 15 years.

It is expected that he will now resume his position at the head of Mexico’s biggest drug cartel, the Sinaloa group, which he has headed for a number of years. But who exactly is ‘Shorty’, what is the group that he runs, and what do we know about the drug wars in general?

A lot, and not much, almost simultaneously, is the rather frustrating answer. For the purposes of this article I am going to concentrate mainly on the conflicts and rivalries between various drug gangs, simply because the amount and levels of corruption that would need to be summarised are two long and complex for a piece such as this.

The Mexican drug wars have dominated the country’s politics for a number of years now, since then President Felipe Calderón took an official hard line on drug violence in late 2006, and it is he who has the ignominious honour of being branded the instigator of the conflict.

Sending the Mexican army into Michoacan drug territory politicised an industry that had been around long before the Calderón administration, and caused an all out war between gangs, soldiers, militia groups and civilians that has resulted in over 164,000 civilian deaths since the trouble began. Compare that with the 100,000 or so civilians that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined and you may begin to get a bit of a picture of the size of the conflict that Mexico is currently facing. At one point, in 2010 Ciudad Juarez was seeing as many as 10 homicides a day, most of which went unsolved.


A map of drug-related murders up to 2010

So how has this conflict developed, and who are the main belligerents? Well, unsurprisingly it’s a bit complicated, but to simplify things slightly, we will soon jump to the time period when the smaller gangs had been absorbed into each other to form collective alliances to fight both amongst themselves and the government. This process had begun long before the concentrated intervention of the government, but it certainly acted as a catalyst if nothing else. But in order to understand the position in 2009, we have to go back slightly to an action that would prove crucial to later events, the formation of the Zetas.

Creating the Zetas

In the late 90s, the two most powerful cartels were the Sinaloa cartel (of El Chapo fame), and the Gulf cartel, headed by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Realising he was in a losing position, Cárdenas formulated the creation of a new ‘professional’ armed wing of the Gulf cartel, to be known as the Zetas.

As such, he bribed Mexican special forces soldier Arturo Guzmán Decena (known as Z1) to recruit around 50 fellow special agents to come to fight for him and his cartel. These men had the training, the weapons, and the brutality to beat back the encroachment of the Sinaloa threat onto Gulf territory, which, if nothing else, dispels the myth of El Chapo being the all-powerful, all-consuming figure as which he is at times portrayed, particularly when captured by the authorities. The Zetas were the Gulf cartel’s ticket to dominance in the region.

However, the drug game is a fickle one, and the rising power of the Gulf group was curtailed in 2002, when their leader (Cárdenas Guillén) was captured by the Mexican authorities. This coincided with the killing of Zetas’ leader Guzmán Decena by Mexican special forces in the same year, and ties between the groups immediately suffered, as the original ‘treaty-signers’ were removed from their respective influences in the group.

Gulf-Zeta Split

All of which brings us back to the present day, with Calderón marking the official beginning of the drug war by invading the Michoacan region near Mexico City. At this point, the two biggest cartels by area remained those that had been in power 10 years before, Sinaloa and Gulf, though the Gulf Cartel’s relations with its armed wing had been weakened since 2002.

Finally, in 2009, things came to a head, though few know the true reason behind it. Whether it was Gulf looking for a truce with Sinaloa Cartel, or simply internal conflict and disagreement, the Gulf Cartel did something to upset its armed wing, resulting in them breaking away and forming their own group, under the Zetas banner.

Unsurprisingly given their military background and reputation for brutality, the Zetas had soon taken over almost all of the territory from their former employers, and in 2010 the Mexican battleground was firmly pitched.

The Zetas very quickly became Sinaloa’s main rival in the country, earning a particular reputation for violence and brutality, along with their aggressive expansion along the east coast of the country.

All of which brings us inevitably back to El Chapo. There were whispers last year that the Sinaloa cartel was the U.S.A’s cartel of choice, due to their perceived reputation of doing things ‘the right way’. Whereas the Zetas had a reputation for violence that preceded them, the Sinaloa group had a myth surrounding them that they were only interested in the drugs. While this wasn’t strictly true, the image helped them to regain control and begin to push back against the Zetas.

Chapo became a sort of cult hero, particularly in the region of Sinaloa, where he based his reputation, and there are ballads of legend sung about him. His cartel gained the upper hand against their rivals, largely through the non-hierarchical nature of their structure, and the fact that the organisation could cope with its head being repeatedly chopped off, whereas the Zetas went through great periods of infighting and internal rivalry every time a leader was killed. As such, though they still technically hold more territory, there is little the Zetas can do to compete with their long-time rivals.

The Current Conflict

Everything, then, was going smoothly for El Chapo until his arrest earlier this year. Drug violence in general had declined, and Chapo had established himself as the head of a drug monopoly through Mexico, something that, while not the stated aim of the government, at least diminished the violence seen over the last decade.

Now, however, his operations face a new threat. Not only is he facing competition from Central American gangs that once served as suppliers, notoriously violent gangs such as Mana Salvatrucha, he is also facing a tangible threat from within his own borders.

Seemingly not having learned from the mistakes of their Gulf rivals, in the early years of the drug war the Sinaloa group created an armed wing to combat the growing influence of the Zetas in the East.

This group was known as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and was created with the express purpose of fighting the Zetas for control around Jalisco. Predictably, however, since Chapo’s arrest and the uncertainty over Sinaloa, they have followed the example set by the Zetas and broken from their former employers, reigniting violence in the regions they control, which is growing fast. This is particularly worrying as a development for Mexico due to the group’s distinctly antiauthoritarian stance, which is perhaps even more extreme than that of its predecessors.



The war on drugs, then, has been a long and bloody one, filled with unsolved high-profile murders,  corruption, and betrayal, but what stands out above all else is the effect it has had on the lives of everyday people.

While drug controlling regions such as Sinaloa have been made relatively affluent and safe through their activities, regions of territorial dispute such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, near the U.S. border, have been devastated by the violence that Mr Calderón’s crusade against drugs unleashed.

El Chapo was a part of this, he has always been a part of this, and, what with the emergence of the new challengers to his reign of the king of the Mexican drug scene, it looks unlikely that the conflict will be ending any time soon. Indeed, if the emergence of the CJNG is anything like that of the Zetas, then the cycle of violence may only just be getting ready to begin again.

German-Greek War Reparations: The Story So Far

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greek’s incumbent Syriza party, is no stranger to populism in his own country, but even he may be surprised by the reaction within Germany to his latest demand. Last week, Tsipras re-opened the debate regarding the (non-)payment of war reparations by Germany in the wake of World War II, and, perhaps to the surprise of some, the claim has received a significant amount of support within Germany itself. But a number of questions remain only superficially answered amongst general reports on the issue. Precisely, what is it that Greece want? What is the debate over it in Germany? And perhaps most importantly, what are the implications?

Before we get going on the current stuff it’s probably best to just recap what all these arguments are about. The Axis powers occupied Greece from April 1941 to October 1944, during which time thousands died of starvation and extermination, as well as vital infrastructures being destroyed. Since then, Germany has paid reparations a couple of times, with a voluntary payment of 115 million Marks in 1960, followed by the so-called ‘Two-Plus-Four’ treaty in 1990, in which Germany ‘finalised’ its reparations with the four main allied powers; the U.S., the U.K., The Soviet Union, and France. Now that the historical detail is out of the way, let’s get our teeth into what’s happening now.

What Greece Want

Let’s start by looking at what Mr Tsipras has actually said. A full translated transcript of the speech, which was given to the Parliamentary Committee for the Claiming of German Reparations can be found here by The Greek Analyst, but there are several notable points to be taken out. Firstly, as you might expect from a leader such as Tsipras, the speech itself has its basis in demagoguery, starting off with that old rhetorical chestnut of asking the following.

‘What country, what people can have a future if it does not honour its history and its struggles? What people can move forward, erasing the collective memory and leaving historically unjustified its struggles and sacrifices?’.

Hardly a surprising angle to take, and certainly nothing new, but it does not mean that he does not make some pertinent points. By acknowledging the legitimacy of the London treaty, which wrote off the German WW1 reparations that helped to spark WW2, he avoids giving the impression that this is merely an unlikely money-grabbing scheme, and actually makes his case all the stronger. Tsipras furthers this by claiming that the Bilateral Agreement of 1960, in which the Germans paid 115 million Marks, ‘did not have to do with the damages that involved the damages suffered by the country, but with the reparations to the victims of Nazism in Greece’. He plays a clever game of admitting that some reparations have indeed been paid, but only a limited amount, and not to the state itself, but rather to the people who were made to suffer.

So what does he actually hope to gain from this tactic? Well, by claiming that the 115 million Marks paid during the Bilateral Agreement was merely reparations to those who suffered at the hands of Nazism, he leaves the road open to reclaim the money he says is due to Greece for the ‘almost-complete destruction of the infrastructure of the country, and the destruction of the economy during the war and the Occupation’ along with the so-called ‘Occupation Loan’, which alone totalled around €8 billion in today’s money. In total then, Mr Tsipras is attempting to claim back as much as €170 billion by basing his case on the fact that Greece never recovered from the Occupation and was left behind by Europe and Germany for that reason. Given the fallout over the proposed restructuring of Greece’s €260 billion bailout, this is hardly an insignificant amount and is bound to have turned a few heads, particularly given the threat to seize German assets in Greece if the demand is ignored.

The View from Germany

In perhaps a surprising twist, the claims have received some significant support in Berlin. Senior Social Democrat officials such as Gesine Schwan and Ralf Stegner have spoken on the subject, with the former claiming that ‘it’s a mater of recognising that we committed terrible crimes against Greece’.

The situation remains a delicate one, however, as Germany has previously refused to respond to war reparations requests since the signing of the ‘Two-Plus-Four’ treaty in 1990. As such any response to Greece could cause a potential domino effect, with any number of countries perhaps using it as a precedent to claim their own reparations, particularly those countries of Eastern Europe such as Poland that suffered most under Nazi occupation and had no real say in the signing of the treaty due to being part of the Soviet Union until after the treaty was signed. This could cause issues not only economically but also politically as the past is dragged into the light once again and old wounds are torn open once again after decades of silence.

What Will Happen

This still remains anyone’s guess really, but Germany have been growing increasingly impatient with Greece over their recent economic manoeuvring, and this claim will not aid that, despite the support it has garnered among some politicians. Reparations have always been a tricky issue, and the number may be seen to be too close to the bailout negotiation amount to be taken as seriously as it perhaps otherwise might have been.

The official response from the office of Ms Merkel this week re-iterated their previous position that war reparations were not open to re-negotiation, but it is certainly a debate that deserves to be had, and how it plays out may well have a huge effect on the future of Europe itself. This would be particularly true if there is any ruling that Germany does still in fact owe reparation money, which could well result in a scramble of claims to follow Greece’s example. Either way, it will certainly be an interesting few months for German-Greek relations, and it will remain one to watch as long as Mr Tsipras is in power.

N.B. This post originally appeared on http://www.tremr.com

The View from Brazil: The Reaction to the Petrobras scandal.

The Background

The last month has been an interesting one for Brazil and its economy, if by interesting we may also imply the institutionalised corruption that has lasted decades which has recently been revealed in the country. For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, Petrobras, the state-owned former jewel of the emerging Brazilian economy, has been embroiled in a ‘kickback for contracts’ scandal after a former manager of the company, Pedro Barusco, told the country’s congress of the ‘institutionalised corruption’ that had been taking place. In fact, the scandal has become so bad that it has now expanded to implicate as many as 57 politicians. 

Now, this has all been fairly widely reported in the past few days, but there was something that struck me about the coverage. The fact is, probably largely for logistical reasons, rarely do we get an accurate picture of public opinion in the country where these momentous events take place, so I am here to change that. I would like to offer a brief breakdown of what Brazilian journalists have been saying of the events, rather than making sweeping claims on what the Brazilian populace feels about its politicians’ corruption, so if you would like to come on that journey with me, then read on, dear reader, read on.

Political Reaction

The first thing to say is that, whilst there has been some support for Dilma Rousseff herself, the general reaction has unsurprisingly been overwhelmingly negative. Ms Rousseff, the current President of the country, headed Petrobras for seven years and, while her name has not been directly linked to the scandal, there have been many questioning her leadership credentials, given that she has overseen both of the major parties involved in the corruption.

Journalists have at times been savage in their criticism of both Ms Rousseff and her government. José Neumanne, writing for the Estadão newspaper, lambasted her for her weak speech following the breaking of the news, saying ‘to ask for patience from a public that has only heard self-indulgent lies from her cannot fail to sound foolish, useless, arrogant and alienated’.

Strong language indeed, but he was not even the most vocal of her critics, the title of which goes to fellow Estadão writer Fernão Lara Mesquita who categorises Ms Rousseff as a farcical, incompetent, ‘supreme-leader’ type with delusions of grandeur. But he does not stop at criticism of Rousseff, going on to lament the whole political system in the country, saying that ‘those who play the political game must always be reminded who is in charge of whom – “Of the people for the people and by the people”‘.

Perhaps most significantly of all he questions the actual democratic nature of his country by claiming that you cannot call Brazil a democracy ‘without putting quotation marks around it’. Mesquita’s  opinion and tone have been echoed by many, and a number of people have called for the impeachment of Ms Rousseff less than 12 months after she won the presidency once more, with mass protests planned for this weekend.

Economic Impact

It is fair to say then, that politically this is one of the worst scandals to have hit South America in decades, but we must also not underestimate the economic impact of these events. It has been a widely held view that Brazil’s economy, which had appeared to be one of the rising stars in the world theatre, has stalled in recent years, and many commenters have linked this to the mistrust caused by the poor management of the state-owned oil company.

Fernanda Guimarães wrote soon after the news broke that ‘the poor governance of Petrobras was responsible for the exit of investors in all of Brazil’s economy’, while Míriam Leitão wrote in O Globo that the Petrobras situation was a tumour, and that ‘the economy is paralysed while Petrobras completes the surgery that it is having to go through’, which has implications for Brazilian business at every level.


Commenters then, have not held back their disgust at the way the news has affected their country, with wide-ranging economic and political criticism emerging as the scandal widens. It will undoubtedly have a huge effect on Brazil for many years to come. It remains to be seen how this will affect Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, or even if she will manage to hold on to her recently re-acquired power as more and more bad news emerges from the woodwork. What is certain, however, is that the words of Míriam Leitão offer the most poignancy here. Yes, it is a horrific abuse of power by those involved, and they should be summarily and swiftly dealt with, but the important thing for Brazil is to get its economy back up and running. To do this it is vital to find where Petrobras went wrong, fix the problem and make sure it never happens again. Easier said than done, of course, but we can only live in hope that this will be a learning experience, and that this will remain the biggest corruption scandal in South America for many, many years to come.

N.B. All Brazilian opinions were originally written in Portuguese, and the translations are my own. This post originally appeared on http://www.tremr.com

Why I’m sick of news ‘stories’: A rant on media narrative obsession

It’s fairly obvious that sensationalism sells. How else do you explain the otherwise baffling popularity of some of this country’s most popular ‘news’ sources? This should not be, however, an excuse for sensationalising every detail of every single news item, which I shall refuse to refer to as ‘stories’ so as not to perpetuate the practice. In this age of 24-hour news cycles, every factual detail is poured over until there is nothing new to say, so extra irrelevant detail must be added, and it seriously detracts from the quality of the news being reported.


This feeling is brought on specifically by the treatment of Mohammed Emwazi, the ISIS-affiliated murderer who was recently unmasked by The Washington Post. Most media outlets have continued to use the nickname that they gave him before his identity was known, in order to continue the narrative that they have spent months working on building – that of ‘Jihadi John’. This is not only factually misleading (if you know his real name, use it!) but also disrespectful to the man’s victims. It perpetuates the myth that he is fighting for a cause that people may want to join rather than being the sadistic snuff video participator that he is. It’s akin to calling Osama bin Laden ‘Crazy Uncle Ozzy’ and not expecting it to have an effect on the way people perceive the news. Frankly, journalists should know better, they should be aware of the power words can have over people and should be more careful how they use them. This refusal to exclusively use his real name in many stories, along with the excess of useless information that have hit the headlines this past week, have served to do nothing more than to add to his personal narrative. What does the fact that his family may have claimed benefits in the UK, or whom his brother liked on Facebook, or interviews on national media with people who have met him in passing once three years ago have to do with what is going on in Syria? Absolutely nothing, and yet there they all are, helping to add to his fame, whilst even the names of his victims, who were, for the most part, trying to do good in the region, are slowly forgotten. I wonder how many people could name any of those killed right now without looking it up? My guess would be not many, and that is the real tragedy, and a consequence of how our attitude to news functions.

Cliff Richard

Not necessarily the first pairing that you might think of in an article like this, but bear with me. For it is not only the tabloids that suffer from this over-eagerness to cultivate a story where there may not be one. Even our dear BBC has been guilty of this. Take the raiding of Cliff Richard‘s home as part of the national paedophilia scandal in August of last year. Now, whether Richard is guilty or not, and he is yet to be arrested or charged, it is, in my view, not the role of any news organisation to film the first police raid of a property when the alleged criminal is not there to defend themselves. Facts should be reported, not speculation. This was trial by media in the crudest sense, and should not be considered a proud moment in the organisation’s history. Let’s be clear once more, this is the BBC we’re talking about- a national institution, not some throwaway tabloid. To make matters worse, this non-story took up the first ten minutes of a half-hour news programme on what was far from a slow news day, with Ukraine and ISIS massacres also featuring prominently. The segment included a bizarre cut-away to Portugal, where Richards had been the day before the incident took place, where the same speculation was repeated, once again with no factual evidence to back it up. Now, I’m all for journalistic investigations outing potential criminals, but there are proper channels for this process. To the Washington Post’s credit, we saw this in action with the unmasking of Mohammed Emwazi. Should these processes not be pursued fully before the information is launched, unfinished and unrefined into the public domain, all in pursuit of those mythical ratings? The answer would appear obvious, and yet it continues to happen.


I don’t know if journalism has ever not been this way, if the irrelevant stories of the past have just been lost through natural processes without any means to record them. Now, however, in the age of the Internet and rolling 24-hour news, there must be even more of a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism. Yes, we know it sells the papers in a declining industry, but it does not mean you have to make everything into a narrative for weeks on end. If all news organisations began to report only the facts, and have sensible, reasoned discussions about the topics of the day, then I for one would be much happier, and that is one paper I would certainly buy. N.B. -This post is an adaptation of a previous post ‘The Trivialisation of a Cold Blooded Killer’ and appeared first in this form on http://www.tremr.com

Boko Haram lose Baga, what next?

Baga, a key Nigerian town on the border of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, has been retaken from Islamist splinter group Boko Haram this weekend, according to Reuters.

This marks a significant step in the conflict against the group, but is it enough for the Nigerian government to begin to claim victory in the war? There have recently been major military offensives in many parts of the country, as the general election has been delayed six weeks in order to concentrate more firmly on the scourge that has swept Nigeria over the last few years.

Sadly, however, we only need look at history to know that, whilst useful, this victory may not be enough to break the group permanently.

First, let us look at the story of the group itself. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram (translated roughly meaning Western Education is Forbidden), has swiftly become one of the most high-profile anti-state groups in Africa, and perhaps even the world. In 2014, they claimed world headlines and inspired the #bringbackourgirls campaign, after the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls to make a political point.

More recently, in early January of 2015, their own assault on Baga resulted in huge massacres, with estimates ranging between 150 and 2000 people dead.

All of this points to a highly organised military organisation with political motives, one that picks its targets carefully and has a highly organised chain of command. It seems unlikely, then, that the simple recapture of Baga will result in the capitulation of the group. Hundreds of militants are considered to have died in the resulting attack, but this may well only have the counter-intuitive effect of making the group all the more elusive.

Past wars have shown how effective guerrilla warfare can be. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been repeated examples of how a well-drilled organisation with established leadership can win against an established power. In Africa itself, the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in Uganda serves as an interesting parallel as to how effective these tactics can be.

Boko Haram may have lost a significant chunk of their fighters, but they will never struggle to attract new followers to their cause. They can achieve this in a number of ways, but much of the disaffected youth of the country is likely to be attracted to the self-styled Islamic freedom fighting that the group offer, while kidnapping and brainwashing from a very young age in the manner of the LRA is another option.

The loss of Baga is a significant strategic blow to the group’s ambitions, but it is far too early to proclaim it as a victory. It may put the group on the back foot, but for now it is likely that they will use the time to replenish their numbers and plan their next move while maintaining their guerrilla strategy. Since the loss of the town, the group has already used a young girl to commit a suicide attack, as per The Guardian. This shows that, whilst they have lost the key town of Baga, it has merely caused an evolution in their tactics to an even more extreme length.

The key to the defeat of the group is to remove its leadership. Until then, they will remain, evolving in the shadows, waiting and planning their next attack, which will almost certainly be unexpected. The recapture of Baga, then, to use an old phrase, is a battle won, but certainly not a war.

This article was originally published on The News Hub – https://www.the-newshub.com/international/boko-haram-lose-baga