BOSTON — Bullets, drugs, gangsters. The news out of Mexico has been a steady stream of violence since President Felipe Calderon began his war on the drug cartels.
Several hundred Mexicans have died in the last few weeks alone — adding to the toll of nearly 23,000 drug-related deaths since 2006.
Beyond the warring gangs and struggle for drug-trafficking routes, here are five things about Mexico’s drug war that may surprise you.
1. It’s called gangster chic
With the police cracking down on drug lords, all the confiscated loot has to go somewhere. Where? A Mexico City museum. The treasures on display include machinery confiscated from clandestine labs, high-tech spyware, gold-plated guns and diamond-encrusted pistols. It’s a closed-door museum, but GlobalPost’s Ioan Grillo got inside for a tour. Watch what he learned about the wealth, workings and bizarre culture of the narcos.
2. All those guns are coming from somewhere
It’s not just U.S. drug users fueling the conflict. A record number of weapons confiscated in Mexico were traced to U.S. retailers in 2008, the most coming from Texas. The bullet trade is booming as well, with gang members traveling across the border on shopping visas and returning with thousands of dollars in ammunition. There’s little U.S. authorities can do — bullets are as unregulated as milk or bread and gun retailers are protected by lax sale laws.
3. Even Twitter and pinatas can’t escape the drug war
Apparently dangers lurk everywhere when you’re fighting a war against powerful drug interests. Mexican Twitterers — known as “Twitteros” — were using the social networking site to avoid drunk-driving checkpoints. The police tried to crack down and an argument exploded over whether public safety takes priority over free speech during a drug war. Arguing that kidnappers and cartels use Twitter, Facebook and MySpace to communicate, the government considered restricting use of the sites.
Now Spider-Man pinatas are disappearing from Mexican party stores. Authorities say Mexico’s counterfeiting business — which extends to pinatas, since foreign corporations own the rights to many characters — is providing profits to drug gangs. So they’re cracking down.
4. It helps to be a “business class” refugee
A growing number of Mexicans are fleeing north to escape the violence. The most affluent and entrepreneurial are securing a special class of U.S. visa that allows them to invest in American enterprises. Some are comparing the exodus to the flight from Cuba after the 1959 revolution. But those who cross the border claiming political asylum aren’t finding the same success. Instead, U.S. immigration judges are expelling the asylum seekers, sending them back to face their fate in Mexico.
5. The implications are global
It’s not just Mexico’s problem. The cartels are expanding throughout the region with the Caribbean becoming an increasingly dangerous way station for drug traffickers. And their reach extends even to Africa and Muslim countries, where cartel emissaries are securing the raw chemicals used to make methamphetamines and then shipping them back to labs in South and Central America.