Mexico: 230,000 are displaced by the “drug war”

Some 115,000 Mexicans fled their homes last year because of drug-related crime, according to a report released on March 23 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). The Geneva-based group, which was established by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in 1998 at the United Nations’ request, estimated that the total number of people displaced by drug violence in Mexico since 2007 has reached about 230,000. Some 35,000 people have died in fighting among drug gangs and between the gangs and the authorities in the four years since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa militarized the fight against drug traffickers shortly after taking office in December 2006.

The refugees are largely from the northern states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, but the violence has also affected residents of Nuevo León, Baja California Norte, Sinaloa and Michoacán. Ciudad Juárez and Valle de Juárez, in Chihuahua near the US border, are the areas that have been hit hardest. According to statistics from local authorities, up to 116,000 houses have been left vacant there, 11,000 businesses have closed and 11,000 students have dropped out of school. Of the 230,000 displaced, about half have moved to the US; the rest are mostly living in Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila and Veracruz.

Colombia was the country with the highest number of displaced people in the world last year—3.6 million to 5.2 million, according to the report. The country has experienced decades of fighting between government troops and leftist guerrillas; more recently, it has undergone a US-backed “war on drugs” similar to Mexico’s. After Colombia, Sudan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Pakistan had the largest displaced populations. (IDMC press release, March 23; Fox News Latino, March 25; La Jornada, Mexico, March 26)

As the toll mounted in Mexico, anger continued over Operation Fast and Furious, a US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) program that allowed some 2,000 firearms to enter Mexico illegally in what appeared to be a bungled effort to trace the activities of US gun smugglers in the Southwest. Many of the weapons presumably ended up being used by Mexican drug traffickers. In a March 22 interview with the Spanish-language Univision television network, US president Barack Obama told correspondent Jorge Ramos: “Well, first of all, I did not authorize it. Eric Holder the attorney general did not authorize it. He’s been very clear that our policy is to catch gun runners and put them into jail.” Ramos asked Obama if he had been informed. “Absolutely not,” the president answered. “There may be a situation here which a serious mistake was made, and if that’s the case, then we’ll find out and we’ll hold somebody accountable.”

But a number of top US officials certainly knew about Fast and Furious. Darren Gil, the lead ATF official in Mexico at the time of the operation, said to CBS News on March 25 that his supervisor told him that ATF director Kenneth Melson was aware of the program and that knowledge of the program wasn’t limited to the Treasury Department, which operates the ATF. “Not only is the [ATF] director aware of it, DOJ’s aware of it,” the supervisor said, referring to the US Department of Justice.

Gil, who retired from the ATF in December, said he was instructed not to tell his Mexican counterparts about Fast and Furious. Gil says he warned his supervisor: “When is this case going to shut down? The Mexicans are going to have a fit when they find out about it.” (CBS News, March 25; LJ, March 26)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 27.

See our last post on Mexico.

  1. Correction on ATF and Mexican “drug war”
    This item mistakenly referred to the ATF as part of the Treasury Department. The ATF was transferred under the Homeland Security bill from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department on Jan. 24, 2003, according to the bureau’s website.