Drugs and democracy

Saturdays Financial Times carried an obituary for Maria Gorrostieta,  the former Mayor of Tiquicheo in Mexico.  It reminded me of the similar fate of an acquaintance in Italy.   Maria’s body was found by the side of the road. She had been tortured, her hand and  feet  had  been tied and she had been burned around her waist and her chest. She was  an attractive woman of  36, and  a mother with three children. They are now orphans, because their father was killed in 2009  in  the first attempt  on  Maria’s life  when the car they were  travelling in was machine gunned. Three months  later  she suffered severe injuries from bullet wounds in another attack on her car.

Finally the drug gangs have killed her,  in the most brutal and vicious way.  An old friend of mine currently works in Mexico, equipping and arming special units of the police whose job it is to take on these gangs. There is an irony in this, because the depravity  of the drug war  in Mexico exists because ten years ago thirty or so members of a Special Forces unit were persuaded to become the armed enforcers  of one of the  leading drugs families. Los Zetas, as these mercenaries  became known, injected a level of ruthless violence  into  the turf wars between the clans, and now every  gang  has to be as heavily armed and brutal or go under. My friend travels everywhere in a bullet proof vehicle. The obituary pointed out that according to some party leaders it was difficult now to get candidates to run for local elections in many parts of Mexico. With 60,000 people killed by the drug cartels this is hardly surprising.

Reading this reminded me of an incident two years ago.  I once spent some time in Acciaroli, a small fishing village south of  Naples and made the acquaintance of one of the extended families of fisherman, which owned three trawlers.  I went out on one of them, captained by the youngest fisherman in the family, Angelo Vassalo. We left port at four in the morning, paying out the trawl  after we had cleared the coast. We returned in the evening, with the catch in boxes in the refrigerated hold ready to be driven to market in Naples. We had eaten a fish stew, and drank homemade ruby red wine chilled from the ice. Its not something that you would ever forget.  They made good money,  but Angelo knew that their catches were slowly  becoming smaller and smaller. The Mediterranean was over fished. Angelo knew  that something had to be done.

He became active in local politics, and in the fishermans association, espousing  various environmental causes, for which there was strong support. A national park was  in the hills behind the village. Angelo  became  mayor some  seventeen  years ago, and continued to be relected.

In September 2010 a friend phoned me and said that Angelo  was dead. Driving home from a council meeting his car had been ambushed in the village. The first two 9mm calibre bullets to his head had killed him, but the gunman fired seven more, the final one straight into the heart. It was, they said, a sign.  From what I am told there were two reasons why he would have been murdered. One was  that various interests wanted to  build tourist developments on the land of the national park. Angelo had been a vociferous opponent of this. The second was that Acciaroli had been targeted by the N’dragheta, the Calabrian mafia, who wanted to use the port to enlarge their drugs trade, and that Angelo was trying to fight them. I have no way of knowing the truth. Only the killers know, and no one has been arrested. I doubt if anyone will be.   Before anyone thinks that this is just the normal course of events in southern Italy, its important to remember that this is the first time in Italy that an elected official has been killed for over  twenty years.  It begs the question of how many more give in to the demands of various mafias.

My friend in Mexico told me that as far as he knows there has never been any attempt to confiscate the assets of the drug cartels, although he is sure that they are generating vast sums of money. He did provide me with a surprising piece of information. As part of an operation by the US Drugs Enforcement Administration,   to ten banks carrying out business  in the US had been fined for failure to enforce money laundering provisions.  Amongst them was Lloyds which was fined $350m, UBS fined $780m, Deutsche Bank fined $553m, Credit Suisse fined $536,  ABN Amro fined $500m and Barclays, fined $298m.  $40bn annualy is estimated to flow through Mexico in the drugs trade.  I wonder what avalanche of money lies behind the murder of  Angelo Vassalo?






  • Terrific piece. Regarding Naples, it is a case of overturning a culture that is stronger than the various forms of democracy and entertainment that Italy has on offer. Perhaps they should involve a conclave of cardinals instead of Italian TV.

    • Well, maybe. There is still no Pope after the second vote. And there is no governemnt after the first vote. There is a very good book about Naples after the Allied invasion, which is a masteraly account of the way that the City functions. And I think, with some minor variations that the rest of the country functions in the sme way. And its nice to see it as charming and tupically italian, but sadly when the corruption does surface it does it in a very brutal way.


Leave a Comment

Next Post:

Previous Post: