- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

MEXICO CITY The violence of Mexico's drug trade is beginning to seep into all levels of society. No longer confined to high-rolling drug lords in rough border towns and addicts on the streets, it is striking at lawyers, judges, police, soldiers, even doctors.

The latest attack came Nov. 11, when two federal judges and one of their wives died in a hail of gunfire in the Pacific coast resort of Mazatlan, in the worst attack on the courts in recent memory.

Judges Benito Andrade and Jesus Ayala were on their way to a baseball game with their wives when they were ambushed. Authorities quickly put police guards around judges in drug- and violence-plagued Sinaloa state, and there were calls for the kind of anonymous "hooded judges" that Colombia used to try dangerous suspects at the height of its drug wars.

The two judges had presided over drug cases in another northern state, Tamaulipas, and the nature of the slayings a lone gunman sprayed their van with 40 rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle led police to believe jailed drug traffickers may have ordered the attack.

Three days later, in the northern city of Monterrey, lawyer Silvia Raquenel Villanueva, who has represented drug informers, survived her fourth assassination attempt. In the last 13 years, she has had a gasoline bomb thrown in her office; suffered three bullet wounds in a 1999 attack; had 13 bullets fired at her in her office last year; and, most recently, ducked a barrage of shots on a Monterrey street.

Mexican Supreme Court Chief Justice Genaro Gongora says criminals are trying "to take Mexican society hostage."

To some, the social damage was already clear before the killings of the judges last month. The industrial-scale drug trade has transformed the once largely nonviolent trafficking of marijuana into one of Mexico's deadliest activities, while making more common crimes like kidnapping ever more violent.

The trade's most insidious effect is its ability to warp society, said Jorge Chabat, a drug expert at the Center for Economic Development Research in Mexico City.

"The drug trade is like AIDS it attacks society's antibodies, the immune system," Mr. Chabat said. "The corruption focuses on law enforcement agencies and makes them extremely inefficient at combating any kind of crime."

Even something as seemingly unrelated as environmental law has become susceptible to drug-related violence.

Navy patrols are wary of stopping and searching dozens of boats that practice illegal dragnet fishing off the coast of Baja California because that area has become a favored route for drug traffickers.

"The navy and the army send out patrols, but the problem is that they never know what's going to happen when they stop a boat. It could be full of smugglers," said Adan Hernandez, who helps run a sea-turtle conservation center in Magdalena Bay, near the southern tip of Baja.

And at least eight doctors are known to have been murdered in recent years after operating on suspected members of drug gangs.

Other crimes also have become more violent and destructive under the influence of the drug trade. In many cases, common criminals seem to have picked up the kind of secrecy and eliminate-all-witnesses attitude long exhibited by drug traffickers.

Some kidnappers in southern Mexico, for example, are killing their victims even after ransom is paid, apparently in order to cover their tracks.

Most attention directed toward the drug trade has focused on wildly violent, cocaine- or heroin-fueled crime like the "narco-satanic" dismemberment killings carried out by a pseudo-cult of addicts along the U.S. border in the late 1980s.

But the biggest change has come in activity present for centuries in Mexico: the small-scale growth and consumption of marijuana, a tradition immortalized in folk songs like "La Cucaracha."

Traditionally, marijuana caused little violence and seldom spread beyond the mainly lower-class users.

Luis Hernandez, 68, remembers the smell of marijuana smoke drifting over the rooftops of his rough-and-tumble Tepito neighborhood in the 1940s.

"Mothers would just lie and tell their kids that somebody was burning the 'hooves of the Devil,'" he said.

"If any little kid happened to find a guy smoking marijuana, the guy would try to hide it, or scare the kid off. Now they just offer the kid some, try to get him hooked," he said disapprovingly.

Nowadays, marijuana smoke wafts through the streets of Tepito as young men smoke it openly on the sidewalks.

The increasing industrialization of the drug trade has made marijuana a big business, with tanker trucks carrying multiton shipments north to the border.

And as profits soared, the marijuana trade became deadly.

The biggest and bloodiest drug massacres in the past three years have involved marijuana, not harder drugs like cocaine or heroin.

Rather than killing a few rivals at a time, as the big cocaine cartels do, marijuana traffickers wipe out entire extended families.

In February, a gang of gunmen stopped a truck carrying farmers to a town festival in Sinaloa, and methodically shot to death every passenger 10 men and two teen-agers. The motive, according to police: One group of farmers was believed to have stolen marijuana from another.

A year earlier in the western state of Michoacan, an entire family was gunned down in the rural home they used as a marijuana storehouse.

In September 1998, near Ensenada, gunmen rousted from bed a marijuana trafficker and 18 members of his family, including eight children.

They were lined up against a wall and shot with semiautomatic rifles. The motive: The trafficker had infringed on rivals' business.

"Unlike the cocaine trade, where a few professionals pass imported drugs through Mexico, marijuana involves a lot of farmers, a lot of peasant growers," said Chabat, the drug expert. "That means there is a lot more friction between the growers themselves and the police."

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