In recent years Guatemala and Mexico have seen demonstrations in apparent support of convicted or slain drug traffickers. But is it dangerous to interpret these rallies as sincere expressions of solidarity with criminals?
In the most recent such demonstration, a reported 300 protestors gathered before Guatemala's Supreme Court on April 14, to demand the release of drug trafficker Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias "Juan Chamale." Police arrested Ortiz on March 30 in a joint operation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who have called Ortiz the number one drug trafficker in the country.
Ortiz has an extradition order in the U.S. but has not been formally charged with anything in Guatemala, which protesters cited as one of their main concerns, according to the Associated Press. Many of the protesters reportedly came from Ortiz's former stronghold, the northern departments of San Marcos, Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu. Ortiz owns at least ten estates in the region, where he cultivated local support by providing jobs, throwing parties and sponsoring beauty contests.
These are the kinds of strategies frequently employed by drug traffickers to drum up support in areas long neglected by the state. At times, this has led to rallies expressing solidarity with criminals, like one that took place after the arrest of Ortiz's number two lieutenant last October, or the mobilization of hundreds of people after the death of Mexican drug lord Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, leader of the officially defunct Familia Michoacana.
It would be risky, however, to interpret these kinds of rallies as sincere outpourings of support for characters like Ortiz or Moreno, who have, after all, brought violence, drugs and death to the same communities they proport to protect. The Familia has been known to organize such protests, including one demonstration involving an estimated 600 people in August 2010. Protestors blocked a state highway for two hours, demanding that the army withdraw from Michoacan.
The Familia also sent busloads of protestors to Mexico City in mid-2009, after a group of Michoacan mayors was arrested for corruption. "I'm just here because they told me to come," one attendee reportedly said at the time, according to a report by the Strategic Studies Institute. "I know they [the Familia] are really crazy. In fact, I think they are sick sometimes, but they are the only people in my town who can help you out if you get in trouble, so that's why I joined the group."
This was likely a similar reason behind the turnout for Ortiz's rally. In economically depressed San Marcos, where the most profitable legal commodity is cotton and the most profitable illegal good is heroin, Ortiz's organization basically functioned as a parallel state, much like the Familia did in Michoacan. The hundreds of protesters who show up at these rallies were probably not forced to do so at gunpoint. But for some, choosing not to show up may constitute a very real risk.
It is in the interest for drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) to win goodwill among the communities where they operate. No one doubts that local support in Sinaloa has kept Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," sheltered for years. Goodwill can be won by providing economic opportunities, as in the case of Ortiz, who promoted San Marcos' heroin trade, or by publicly criticizing certain social ills, such as the Familia's vocal critiques of military abuse and political corruption.
Protests, like Thursday's rally in favor of Ortiz, are basically demonstrations of the social capital won by these DTOs. This is something that can easily be translated into political capital. If characters like Ortiz are capable of mobilizing 400 people for a protest in the capital, how many would he be capable of mobilizing to the ballot boxes come election day? How many of those votes would be cast for politicians willing to turn a blind eye away from drug traffickers? With sympathetic political officials installed in office, drug gangs can continue to run their operations in relative peace.
Any time there is a protest expressing support for characters like Ortiz, it is a sign that the state is losing ground to the drug traffickers. The so-called "drug war," after all, is not just fought with military and police -- it is also psychological warfare.