Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
The Guardian, Monday 19 January 2009
Mexican drug traffickers not only shoot with their pistols, they make statements with them too. Take the Colt 45 that one hitman embellished with rubies and emeralds in the shape of a crown, or the inscription on the firearm of a high-ranking rival proclaiming: "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees." A third trafficker gold-plated his weapon and set 221 diamonds on its handle.
All three weapons now lie together in display cases alongside other examples of "narco bling" at the drug trafficking museum in Mexico City.
"This room has examples of the culture of people who traffic drugs; it can be a little eccentric," said Captain Claudio Montane, a guide at the military museum, whose exhibits include bulletproof clothes and a shrine to the popular folklore hero Jesús Malverde, a bandit turned "narco saint". The gallery also contains a wooden door carved with a smuggler ready for battle, and a photograph of a trafficker's baby posed in front of a dozen rifles.
The museum, first opened in 1985 and repeatedly expanded, has taken on added resonance in a country in the grip of some of the worst drugs-related violence in the western hemisphere.
Mexico's cartels control most of the Colombian-grown cocaine heading to the US. They also oversee local production of methamphetamines, cannabis and heroin, as well as supply in a growing domestic market. A recent report estimated that 500,000 Mexicans are directly involved. Last year, deaths from drugs-related crime more than doubled to a record 5,600.
The museum is used as an education tool for officers being sent off to face the traffickers. Its first rooms trace drug culture in Mexico, from the religious use of hallucinogenic cacti to the rise of some of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world.
The museum evokes the lower echelons of the industry with a lifesize recreation of a mountainside camp where a gun-toting mannequin guards fields of opium poppies. Another display exhibits letters written by growers threatening or pleading with the military to leave their crops alone.
A photograph shows a huge banner spread out across a remote sierra to be read from the air: "Sirs, we know it's your job but we want to negotiate."
Much is made of the satellite communications technology traffickers use in transporting drugs. But what catches the visitor's eye is the traffickers' creativity. A frame of a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe is stuffed with cocaine, as are a couple of dead armadillos. "They can be very ingenious," said Montane.
Demand is high for museum tours. The numbers of soldiers involved in anti-drug operations has grown to an estimated 25,000 since December 2006 when Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, launched an offensive to quell a turf war between rival cartels which has, so far, had the opposite effect.