Torreón: What Connects Isis and Mexican Drug Cartels?


I’m sitting in a plush hotel bar in the northern city of Torreón (like a smaller, grubbier and emptier version of Monterrey) trying to understand baseball. I’ve enlisted the help of some Texans at the next table who are ably fielding my persistent enquiries (or, as they would call them, inquiries) about what’s happening on the TV, questions along the lines of: why, when the pitcher throws the ball, does the batperson almost never make the slightest attempt to hit it? and why, when he does deign to make contact with it, why does he almost never actually run to first base, but instead stroll nonchalantly? Surely it would make more sense for him to run? Eventually I give up asking questions about the game and try to watch it, which is hard because it appears to me to be extremely fucking boring, and it seems that the players agree, as at one point a massive fight is staged and as far as I can tell the whole thing is abandoned.

The following night I try again with American football (or, as Americans call it for fairly obvious reasons, football). I feel compelled to do this because in a few weeks I’ll be off on what is effectively (apart from an interflight wander around a bit of Queens a couple of years back) my first trip to the States and I want to learn some of the language in preparation. I’ve long noticed that whenever, let’s say, Larry David says something like ‘Hey, did you see that Nicks game?!’, I genuinely don’t know what he’s talking about, which is a bit ridiculous, as my very livelihood is based on my claim to have a perfect grasp of the English language, even though I was unable to get through Underworld by Don Delillo, apparently one of the greatest novels published in my lifetime, because it was basically a big book about sport, and I don’t really know what a quarterback is.

The key thing about understanding any sport is knowing some very basic rules so as to be able to follow what is actually happening. In the case of football this is made difficult by the very many stops and starts and by my not knowing anything about the roles of the people on the pitch (I think they call it a pitch). Who is supposed to be passing the ball to whom, and to what end? Why don’t they just get on with it rather than stopping to piss around every ten or possibly twelve seconds? In theory I don’t really need to know any of this stuff, but I am apprehensive about trying to join in sports conversations in bars and making a massive anglofool of myself. Also I would like to be able to read that particular Don Delillo novel one day after I’ve finished reading everything by Thomas Pynchon six or seven more times.

There’s also the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a massive amount to do in Torreón once you’ve eaten your way through a big pile of dead pig and read all the information on the internet. It apparently was quite a lively place until about eight years ago when a particular bunch of evil bastards called Los Zetas turned up and started contesting the territory with the Cártel de Sinaloa by, in their inimitable fashion, torturing and murdering (and, let’s face it, probably eating) as many people as they could. Torreón is located at a midway point between Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, all places synonymous with drug trafficking. In 2010 it was listed as the seventh most dangerous city in the world, although things have calmed down a good bit since about 2013, as, like in other areas of Mexico, the authorities appear to have taken the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, sitting back and letting them get on with the job of eliminating the Zetas and restoring some sort of uneasy peace.

The dynamics of these situations are no easier to understand than the rules of American sports, and unlike baseball and football asking people to explain to you what exactly is going on isn’t always a good idea. At least on TV you can see the ball being passed around, moves being made and attack and defence strategies being adopted, even if the adverts do get really annoying. With the drug trade there are an enormous amount of goods being passed around — the global narcotics industry is said to be worth over $400 billion a year (and counting), and a huge proportion of the produce which generates that revenue comes from or passes through the north of Mexico.

The official story of what happened on the 26th September 2014 in the town of Iguala in Guerrero State is that the corrupt local mayor handed over dozens of radical students who were getting on his nerves to a drug gang he was in cahoots with who then tortured, shot and burnt them. It is generally agreed by anyone with half a brain and a quarter of a moral conscience that this story is an utter lie. What is far more likely to have happened is that the student protestors, who wanted to commandeer a number of buses to take them to a rally in Mexico City, took one which happened to be stuffed with a huge shipment of heroin belonging to the drug gangs ready to be transported to the US. The municipal police, the army and the drug gangs therefore attacked the students, torturing and killing them and then burning their bodies in the incinerators in the army barracks, to which the military have steadfastly refused access. The official story therefore is a transparent attempt to cover up an intimate network of relationships between drug traffickers and very high levels of the State and army.

Of course, unlike in a film by Oliver Stone, there are no secretly signed documents recording all of this information. No-one had sat down and written out a detailed plan of operations which, if it could be found, would incriminate all the politicians and military figures involved. The fact that we know all this is thanks to very dedicated journalists and investigators who have painstakingly and at very great personal risk pieced together evidence which disproves the States’s explanation and posits a far more plausible one. Whereas I could, if I was so inclined, simply google and learn all about the rules of any sport I choose, in the case of the relationship between crime and politics successions of events and their causes are much harder to ascertain.

So far, so self-evident. The mere fact that corruption of this sort exists in Mexico is no revelation and is not worthy of a blog post based on tortuous and tenuous analogies. Bear with me.

It has become a minor trope of journalists over the last few years to refer to groups like the Zetas and the Cártel de Sinaloa as the ‘Isis of Mexico’, given the seemingly out-of-control growth of such organisations through the imposition of terror. In the case of drug syndicates, there is a clear meaning and purpose to their violence — a share of that $400 billion a year. The Sinaloa Cartel is said to have annual revenues of around $3 billion a year and although estimates that it employs more people than Walmart are downright silly it certainly has a huge number of people working for it. lists several similarities between the drug syndicates and Isis:

They behead people by the hundreds. They heap headless, handless bodies along roadsides as warnings to those who would resist their power. They have penetrated the local, state, and national governments and control entire sections of the country. They provide and services to an impoverished public, which distrusts their actual government with its bitter record of corruption, repression and torture.They seduce young people from several countries, including the United States, into their murderous activities.

However, there is something about this analogy which doesn’t work: the question of motivation. While drug gangs cause mayhem and kill thousands for money, Isis do so purely out of religious zeal. They have a barbaric interpretation of holy scripture and that is what inspires them to destroy entire societies of people they regard as ‘apostates’. In the declaration they released explaining their rationale for the horrendous attacks which took place in Paris last Friday they talked of killing ‘hundreds of idolaters…together in a party of perversity’. Clearly in the case of Isis the reasons for their acts of terrorism are ideological rather than mercenary.


In an article published over the weekend Oliver Tickell, editor of the Ecologist magazine, pointed to a revelatory FT report on how much money Isis earns from oil: something in the order of $1.5 million a day, or $500 million a year. If Isis was a Mexican cartel making that much money from drugs, it would be beheading probably about the same amount of people as it actually does in the Middle East. There is no quoted index of the value of a human head in dollar terms, but I would imagine the price in Northern Mexico and Northern Iraq must be comparable, and in the case of Isis, there is an additional holy premium to be earned.

So, as Oliver Tickell details, Isis has an interest in the price of oil. As we have recently discovered, oil producers will do anything to protect their profits. In the case of Exxon and the potential threat to their future income represented by climate change, they mounted a hugely successful decades-long campaign together with other fossil fuel corporations to cover up the facts — in the words of climate campaigning hero Bill McKibben, “no corporation has ever done anything this big or bad”. As for Shell, they attempted to go ahead with drilling in the Arctic even though their own scientists had specifically warned them that doing so would inevitably mean that any attempt to control carbon emissions and thereby limit global temperatures would be blown to pieces. It is simply impossible to imagine anything such companies would not do in order to protect their future incomes.

Next month in the French capital world leaders will come together and seek to reach a new agreement on carbon emissions. This is D-Day for fossil fuel companies. This could potentially have been be the point at which, after so many previous summits at which corrupt lobbying campaigns have successfully managed to stall any meaningful moves towards preventing a global ecoapocalypse, world leaders were forced by the pressure of millions of ordinary human beings to challenge the interests of some of the most powerful and dangerous corporations on the planet. The chance of that happening is almost certainly now reduced to zero. The very word ‘Paris’ now stands for something else entirely.

If I wanted to I could easily go online, find a list of rules governing the sports of baseball and American football and learn all about the different moves, strategies, and tactics, and then when I next watched a game I could look at the way the players try to move the ball around the pitch and score points while others try to obstruct them. In the case of financial interests and politics, most business takes place off the field and away from the cameras. I can only proceed by analogy, inference and interpretation, looking at results and surmising what the causes may have been. In the case of the climate talks in Paris, they have now been destabilised on two fronts by powerful forces which have specific interests in the continued production of fossil fuels. That is not remotely to suggest that there was a secret agreement between energy corporations and Islamic terrorists to murder people on the streets of Paris, but it is apparent that they share an interest in making sure that the talks are a failure.

This is not a conspiracy theory. It is the setting out of facts which seem to correspond in some way. Ironically, those people who instinctively shout ‘false flag!’ in response to any event of this nature are extremely unlikely to develop such theories about this particular topic. Those supposed radicals who pride themselves on consistently challenging the official version of events were long ago duped into thinking that the vested interests in the climate ‘debate’ were those scientists who patiently set out their reasons for grave concern rather than the corporations seeking to protect their profits at any cost.

The people who committed the atrocities in Paris are now dead. A certain kind of justice has been served. Whether the inhabitants of Raqqa, suffering under the brutal regime of Isis and now subjected to a massive retaliatory bombing campaign themselves deserve to be punished is highly debatable. In the case of Exxon, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will face justice in this lifetime. We saw a few months ago that the Mexican Government was unable (and, let’s face it, unwilling) to hold the CEO of the Sinaloa Corporation inside the justice system. As we sit and watch this game develop and try to figure out what is actually happening and why, what chains of events are triggered by particular moves, it seems to be the case that some players are simply too powerful to be punished. In the immortal words of Bodie, the teenage drug-dealer from The Wire, this game is rigged, man.

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