Ghosts of Juarez

They found him in a car, his hands and feet bound. Emergency dispatchers reported a dead cop, but the responding officers knew he wasn’t one of theirs – just a nameless execution victim in a pilfered uniform – a corpse playing policeman. A news crew captured the scene, fine-tuning the focus. Though the lens, we see the corpse in his ill-fitting policeman’s blues. The EMT pronouncing him has her hair tied back in a bun. Masked federales with assault rifles set up a cordon.


Then the IED explodes. The camera wheels, bounces, and points at the pavement as the wounded cameraman runs. Its audio feed is a chorus of car alarms. It pans and re-focuses. The corpse’s car is burning. Two federal policemen, a city cop, and an EMT are dead. They are in good company – this is Juárez, 2010, and this year will see 3,000 narcotics-related murders.

Stop the tape. Rewind, double speed. Hold it.

This is Juárez, March, 2007 – a press conference.

“The game depicts Juárez and the border as a place where there are terrorists and it is not the case. Juárez is a city where we promote work and everybody is working to better the city.” This is the head of the state of Chihuahua’s Interior Department, explaining why the state has banned Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, and ordered all copies confiscated. The Mayor of Juárez, Héctor Murguía, has spearheaded the effort after labeling the game a “despicable” attempt to portray Mexico’s “best border region” as violent and unsafe.

The gaming press chalked it up to moral panic. Ubisoft released a statement pointing out that the story was fictional. No one was interested in exploring why the game had touched a nerve, and as a result, the gaming industry lost a crucial opportunity to examine the increasing overlap between military shooters and geopolitics.

In December, 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against the country’s narcotics cartels, whose brutal fighting over smuggling routes had become increasingly disruptive to the country’s security. Calderón’s plan was to use the military to fight the cartels, deploying tens of thousands of soldiers to the streets of the country’s most violent cities to keep public order and arrest cartel heads. GRAW2‘s plot, by luck or design, mirrored the country’s security troubles enough land it in a minefield of controversies.

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Though Juárez has now become synonymous with narcoterrorism, in early 2007 the drug war had not yet made a major impression. The city’s lucrative smuggling route was still firmly in the hands of the Juárez Cartel, and as a result, the killings were orderly, private affairs that did not threaten public safety. Unlike most border cities, the military was not patrolling Juárez’s streets, and the city was considered safe and business-friendly. As a result, Mayor Murguía was happy to downplay the rising violence – 301 murders that year – in favor of promoting the city’s low unemployment rate.


“It’s like any crime trend in any city, you’re not going to publicize it,” says Fred Burton, VP of Intelligence at Stratfor, former terror czar of Texas, and author of the memoir Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent. “Crime is a political hot potato.”[1]

But bad press wasn’t the only issue. In GRAW2, an attempted Mexican army rebellion backed by Central American mercenaries spreads to Juárez and spills over the border into El Paso. The game follows the Ghosts, a U.S. Army black ops unit that assists loyalist Mexican forces in putting down the insurgency. Though absurd to American audiences, this plot was incredibly provocative from the perspective of the Mexican government.

One major problem was the depiction of the Mexican army fracturing and battling itself, since to a certain extent this actually occurred. In 1999, a group of deserters from Mexico’s Special Forces Airmobile Group formed the paramilitary group Los Zetas, hiring themselves out as enforcers to The Gulf Cartel. Using military equipment and tactics, they revolutionized cartel violence, and soon struck out on their own to become the most efficient death squads in Mexico. By mid-2005, the Zetas had ramped up their recruiting efforts and were holding open auditions for any policeman, soldier, federale, or street thug who was willing to kill for money; they began hiring Guatamalan deserters from an elite counterinsurgency unit called the Kaibiles to school the new recruits in paramilitary tactics. This high level of training and discipline made the Zetas aggressive, professional, and unafraid to fight their old comrades, the Mexican military. Sensing success, other cartels copied the Zeta recruiting model, until the landscape of the drug war was defined by gunfights between former comrades-in-arms.

Another factor may have been the depiction of the Mexican military as enemies. Mexico is a major expanding market for games, and GRAW2 essentially allowed anyone with a console to shoot at the Mexican army, something highly subversive in a country with soldiers patrolling its streets. “That’s an internal hot button,” says Burton. The military is the key component of Calderón’s strategy, but human rights abuses have soured the goodwill of many civilians and caused some to question the military’s role in the war. There was also a potential for it to be played as violent glorification – especially in a city where poor boys often dream of becoming hitmen. “Back in the day,” remembers Burton, “we had decent intel that Hezbollah operatives liked to watch violent U.S. movies like Death Wish and Dirty Harry. So the question is: do Zeta enforcers sit around playing videogames?”

[1] Fred Burton, Interview on 11/11/10.

If utilizing the Mexican military was problematic, depicting U.S. troops on Mexican soil was toxic. Mexican feelings are still raw from two centuries of border conflict with the U.S., and even with violence spinning out of control, the idea of deploying U.S. combat troops is severely unpopular with the Mexican public. However, the U.S. is assisting the Mexican government in other ways, like providing training and technological upgrades for law enforcement, as well as sending U.S. soldiers to Mexico as trainers and advisors – fairly standard for U.S. anti-drug efforts in Latin America.


America’s intelligence commitment, on the other hand, has a foot in Clancyland. In November, a magazine article claimed that a diplomatic office in Mexico City actually houses the Office of Bi-National Intelligence, where a host of U.S. intelligence agencies have been given unofficial sanction from President Calderón to conduct espionage activities on Mexican soil, both against cartels and other intelligence targets, like Iran, who have a presence in Mexico City.

This intelligence partnership has yielded successes. The Wikileaks cables recently confirmed that the 2009 killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of Mexico’s most wanted drug lords, was a joint operation between American intelligence and Mexican special ops. In a scene more reminiscent of Rainbow Six than GRAW, a group of Mexican Marines, acting on information from the U.S. Embassy, inserted onto the roof of Beltrán Leyva’s apartment complex via helicopter and stormed the building’s 12th floor, braving volleys of grenades to engage and neutralize the capo’s bodyguards at close range.

But as much as GRAW resembles the cartel war, troubling differences remain. The Ghosts’ HUD, which denotes friend from foe, is absent. It would be useful in a country where the cartels dress like police, the police wear masks to avoid retribution, and soldiers moonlight as hitmen. Corruption is endemic – both the country’s drug czar and the head of the Presidential protection detail have been arrested for being on cartel payrolls. The President uses the Marines as his cartel headhunters because the army tends to leak information on upcoming raids. Casualties mount daily, and the thought that a squad of American Special Forces could resolve the issue with a black op seems charmingly naive.


The burning car is extinguished; the ambulances have left, CNN has moved on, but the tape in that reporter’s camera is still rolling. Fast forward. Present day.

Mexico saw 15,273 narcotics-related homicides in 2010. For perspective, that’s 3,657 higher than the number of U.S. Military deaths in Vietnam in 1969. It’s a lowball estimate.

Mayor Héctor Murguía now lives in El Paso. During his last campaign, someone dumped a decapitated body on his doorstep.

Ubisoft has announced Call of Juarez: The Cartel. It’s an action game about the drug war.

The Mexican government has already called for a ban.

Robert Rath (twitter: @robwritespulp) is a Hawaii-born novelist and freelance journalist living in Austin, Texas. He works as a Researcher and Security Analyst for an international tax and estate planning law firm, providing geopolitical briefings and security recommendations to clients living and traveling abroad.

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