Friday, February 26, 2010

Equal rights and justice

Once again, President Calderon is in the spotlight for defending his government's stance against the cartels, saying the authorities are going after all top narcos with equal vigor.

Once again, one wonders why the president is answering these questions. During the Fox administration, every attorney general and top SIEDO official struggled with the Chapo question. Some effectively ignored it, saying he wasn't the end-goal. Some chose to answer it, admitting that Chapo was basically outwitting the authorities.

The press loved every answer, because every one played into their hands. They could write a headline screaming anything about the drug war and include the name of the one capo who was still roaming free.

The government really should learn this: to ignore some questions is not ignoring democracy. Calderon has the right, as president, to put the capture of Chapo into context, or to ignore the questions altogether. As elected leader, he should have a plan, and has a right to stick to it, even if the public and media disagree. (And as long as he adheres to the Constitution etc.)

What he should not be doing is pandering to the press, mentioning names of Sinaloa cartel operatives who have been captured long after the question was asked, in what comes across as a desperate afterthought and feeble attempt to prove he's telling the truth.

Memo to Los Pinos: Prep your president and top officials. Every time they go into a press conference or summit, give them a standard line (which hopefully honestly follows the presidency's agenda) and perhaps, a tidbit about Chapo or whichever drug lord they think will be brought up by the press. (These days it can pretty much only be Chapo or El Mayo.) Then answer the press with a confident, yet acknowledging statement that many Sinaloa operatives have been caught (preferably give a number, not names that no one knows), but admit that yes, Chapo remains at large. Then reiterate that he is not the priority, disrupting the cartels is, etc etc. Make sure every official gets the memo and sticks with it.

Some might cry that the government is stonewalling or lying, or not true to democratic process, but in my opinion, it'd be just fine. And rather than see their president fidget his way through press conference after press conference, the people would at least see a leader who appears to be confident of where he's taking the country.

Memo No. 2: Once you've got the official line in check, capture Chapo. It'll make life a lot easier. There will always be another capo to take Chapo's place, but at least you'll have got the guy who has made your public pronouncements a running joke.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

the big news

I've been out of pocket for the last couple days, so haven't been able to comment on the big news: Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the former head of the Gulf cartel who pleaded guilty to five counts (among them, drug trafficking), was sentenced to 25 years in a Houston court. He also will hand over $50 million to US authorities.

What's most interesting about this case to me is not his guilty plea; he's 42, when he gets out early on good behavior he'll still be able to live a somewhat decent life for a while – it makes sense.

Most interesting? The judge ordered the hearing to be closed to the media out of concern for Cardenas Guillen's safety. Normally, witnesses get that sort of protection. Cardenas Guillen was talking.

What I would give to be a fly on that wall.

PS - In a post the other day, I said Edgardo Buscaglia, the academic, is affiliated with the UNAM. My most sincere apologies to DR. Buscaglia and anyone I misinformed; he works for the ITAM and is not left-leaning. Unfortunately, I didn't adopt the critical eye that I suggested Al Jazeera and the Economist utilize, and just made a royal blunder. Doesn't change the point of my post but was a bit of screw-up, sorry about that.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Soft on Sinaloa?

Seems like it's once again time to address whether the Calderon administration is/has been soft on the SInaloa cartel. An Al Jazeera report (following a similar report by The Economist) claims Sinaloa has gotten off far easier than the other cartels during both Fox's and Calderon's presidency.

Academic Edgardo Buscaglia estimates that 941 of the more than 50,000 people arrested for links to organized crime the past six years had Sinaloa cartel connections. The numbers game in Mexico is always complicated, but government figures cited by most of the mainstream media put the number of Sinaloa cartel operatives arrested at 16,000.

So which is it? Your guess is as good as mine. But knowing the way the Sinaloa cartel operates, I can't agree with the 941 figure. I haven't asked Buscaglia about his methodology, but I am assuming his calculations do not include Sinaloa cartel operatives in Guerrero, Ciudad Juarez, Michoacan and Tijuana, who – if one is to use the word "cartel" – work on behalf of Chapo and El Mayo but don't necessarily have "Sinaloa Inc." on their business cards.

That's the way the Sinaloa organization operates. It has cells throughout the country, which only Los Zetas can match in reach. It has working relationships with La Familia and the remnants of the Tijuana cartel, and at various times, has worked with the Juarez cartel. This could account for the variety in the numbers game: if you catch a dealer, trafficker or sicario in Juarez, he or she is Juarez cartel – it's pretty obvious. If you catch a similar offender in Guerrero, he or she may well work for local groups who in turn work for Sinaloa. They may even work for multiple cartels – guns for hire, for instance. (The drug world is far more mercenary than ideological; it's not unusual for people to "switch sides" or not even know who their current employer is. Even El Mayo and Chapo operate through a loose agreement – which US officials specifically call a "non-agression pact.") The authorities may not know if the person arrested works for SInaloa; they may never be told that either.

So my sense is that a lot of narcos being arrested simply do not say they work for Sinaloa.

Now it's obvious that the big shots in Tijuana, the Gulf and Juarez have been taken down at a quicker pace than those in Sinaloa – which does make one wonder about efforts to get Chapo, El Mayo and El Azul. But the government hasn't exactly done nothing: El Mayo's son is now in the US in jail, his nephew committed suicide in jail, top members of Chapo's inner circle have been arrested. There are moves afoot. I wish I had a sense of what the authorities are planning/strategizing, but that is obviously the most confidential of information. And it has to be: the media can complain all it wants about Chapo still being free, but given the reach of that guy's intelligence, everything has to be kept under complete wraps. If I recall correctly, only three top officials knew about the plans to arrest Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2003, such was the need for total secrecy.

If the government is seriously planning to capture Chapo or El Mayo, you can bet that no one will hear about it until mission is well and truly accomplished.

Personally, I don't really believe the authorities are truly trying to catch Chapo. Soldiers up in Sinaloa admit that whenever they've tried to get him, he's received word and moved on. If they really wanted him, they'd launch a massive operativo on his current location and corner him in (all they need to do is shoot down any helicopter that flies out or vehicles that move out of the area; it's not that hard.)

I think that the military is so busy trying to keep Culiacan from erupting and diligently destroying drug plantations that they aren't seriously mounting an offensive. The administration, meanwhile, is so preoccupied with trying to respin the drug war in order to save the presidency (and the PAN) that at times it seems to be spinning itself in circles. The generals must not know what the hell their priority is anymore, and as a result, are not going to launch some independent, daring yet somewhat foolish offensive against Chapo.

I don't hear US pressure to get Chapo either.

But I've been warned of the possibility of an April surprise so I won't count it out.

After all, catching Chapo would be a major coup for Calderon. It would effectively allow him to close the book (or more accurately, this chapter) on the drug war with some dignity. He could claim the PAN got all the big guys (cardenas guillen, chapo, arellano felix brothers) and ignore the peanut gallery that would keep harping on about El Mayo and others still being free. Chapo could also bring the corrupt house down, giving a big boost to Operation Cleanup. Calderon could then move on to other objectives for the rest of his term without his drug war being deemed a totally futile endeavor.

Seems like it's worth the gamble.

Friday, February 19, 2010

terrorists and cartels

I just want to clarify a few things about the cartel-terrorist link allegations that I addressed a couple of days ago.

No one in DEA or US military is warning that the cartels will start blowing up big targets on US soil. As some readers have pointed out, that is not in the cartels' interests. These officials are warning that the terrorists and cartels are increasingly utilizing the same routes, the same resources, to further their two very distinct agendas. And that could bring them together in some capacity in the future.

This might seem obvious: smugglers of any kind use the same routes all the time. But the concern is that independent organizations and groups (cartels and terrorists, in this case) might decide to pool resources. Let's say a bomb needs to get into the US... terrorists who have solid Mexican cartel connections would know exactly who to turn to in order to get it in. It's not that easy without their help: a group of Islamist terrorists traipsing into Nuevo Laredo with any sort of loose nuke, for instance, would very quickly be arrested.

Slipping a bomb through one of Chapo's tunnels wouldn't be so difficult, however. Of course, to get to that stage, the terrorists would have to be quite close to SInaloa's top people, if not Chapo himself. Which is why the DEA etc are worried about any signs of connections now.

So that's the fear on this side of the hemisphere. The terrorist groups could then repay the favor to the Mexican cartels by supplying weapons (not really necessary, given US takes care of that) or helping protect/move major drug shipments from the middle east and southeast asia.

I agree with comments that ask what do the Mexicans have to gain out of all this (besides the above). It seems like the Mexicans are doing fine as it is. But part of the Mexican strategy in recent years has been to aggressively go for more, hence their global presence today. I do believe the argument that Mexicans (and other latin american drug trafficking groups) are increasingly looking at west africa, as a transit route to an increasingly hungry European drug consumption market. It would not be unthinkable for terrorist groups to finance their projects by selling Mexican produce in Europe, or linking up with them in West and North Africa to smuggle it there.

Do Mexican cartels want the sort of attention they would get by being affiliated with a terrorist attack? Definitely not. But they also know this: short of a major attack on US soil by a terrorist group linked to Mexican cartels, the US military is not coming into Mexico anytime soon. If the authorities found out that Chapo's people had indirectly helped fund a terrorist attack, in say, Madrid, would that have repercussions in Sinaloa? I highly doubt it would have serious ones. Borders might be tightened up a little etc, but even after Sept. 11, when that happened, the drugs kept getting through. I just don't think the likes of the Sinaloa cartel have all that much to lose from being linked to terror – they're already most-wanted people anyway, and yet they continue to prosper. A terrorist attack on Mexican soil is equally unlikely – we already had Morelia, but that was definitely a one-off.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

El Vicentillo: Welcome to America

Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of Sinaloan drug lord Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, was handed over to US authorities in Texas today. He's just the latest of hundreds of narcos to be extradited under the Calderon administration.

On the surface, this is another huge success in the drug war. (Expect a DEA or Justice Dept. announcement to that effect later today or tomorrow, praising extraordinary international cooperation etc etc yawn yawn.) A long-held complaint by US authorities is that cartel leaders can continue to run their operations from inside Mexican prisons, which they can't do in the US. Life inside a maximum security US prison has always been regarded as the worst possible fate for a narco short of death. (And even then, death is sometimes preferred.)

But what happens to alleged narco bigshots once in the US? In Washington, Zhenli Ye Gon's case was thrown out; the judge cited a lack of evidence.* Mexico is currently trying to get him extradited back to Mexico to face charges there. This has apparently happened on a handful of occasions with extradited alleged narcos.

But some of them talk in the US.

Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the Gulf cartel capo, is still awaiting trial in Houston; the trial keeps being delayed and delayed. He was extradited in 2007. This case is a weird one, because some of his accomplices have already fessed up, leading some to believe that he's talking too, behind closed doors.

Hector El Guero Palma was extradited in 2007, too, I haven't heard a peep from or about him since. Will check into that at some point in the near future. If he's talking, there should be no reason Chapo is still wandering around on the loose. He would know pretty much everything there is to know about SInaloa.

One of the Caro Quinteros pleaded guilty recently in Colorado, it's said he gave up some good information in the whole court process.

And now: El Vicentillo. Although only 34, he was a very high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel at the time of his capture. He had taken Mochomo Beltran Leyva's place since their split in 2008.

El Mayo has taken some serious hits of late. HIs nephew was cooperating with the feds before he killed himself; the protected witness killed at Starbucks late last year was doing the same. There's no way El Mayo's own son would turn on him – or is there?

The countdown until Chapo is caught: mid-April. I wonder if El Vicentillo will help bring him down.

* Zhenli wasn't extradited to US, he was arrested in Maryland. Point I'm trying to make is about narcos in US courts.

PS - there were a few good comments in response to my post about terrorists and cartels. Will post a followup tomorrow

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

cartels and terrorists

I had a meeting with a former DEA higher-up today, in one of those nondescript Washington DC office buildings where contracts are signed with the Defense Department, intelligence is gathered and shared (and probably shredded), and power is the only thing worth trading a favor for. (Yes I'm trying to make this sound like a Clancy thriller, not very successfully I might add.)

The former DEA man's eyes widened as he issued his warning: "The day when corporate Al Qaeda picks up the phone and calls corporate Sinaloa is not too distant in the future. It's gonna bite us in the ass."

There have been warnings about links between the Mexican drug cartels and revolutionary/terrorist organizations since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. (The DEA conveniently pushed this argument at the time, quite probably as a means of increasing its budget in the name of national security). But the evidence has always been pretty much lacking.

This ex-DEA guy and other agents maintain that the highest levels of Hezbollah are deep in the global drug business. They also believe that Iran's Quds force may be working with drug cartels from Mexico to Colombia, out of Iranian embassies.

And they also believe that the Taliban is on its way to becoming another FARC – originally a terrorist organization which ditched its ideological foundations years ago to purely pursue cold hard currency. The increased DEA presence in Afghanistan is evidence that the Taliban is considered a top concern when it comes to drug-trafficking.

Afghanistan aside, where the US military remains an occupational force, these are pretty strong allegations. There is still little evidence to back them up. (Mexican media reports that Chapo's people were training with Iranian Revolutionary Guard, for instance, proved unfounded.)

But rest assured, links between Mexican cartels and terrorist organizations will make headlines again in the near future. (El Universal, for instance, loves them.) Whether proof will be offered next time remains to be seen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Castaneda for president?

In his latest piece for Newsweek (link above, in title) about Mexico's new direction, former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda not only plugs one of his books but also takes a fair bit of credit for the shift in perception of the drug war.

"Through public debates with declared presidential candidates, meetings with students, and discussions with businessmen and political activists in many corners of Mexico, Aguilar Camín and I have begun to move the country away from the body- and head-count of the country's bloody drug war, and its understandable obsession with violence and organized crime."

Castaneda is one of hundreds of academics who have been trying to shift the perception. Fair enough, well done for pushing a new view. But...

"Little by little, attention is focusing on how to revive the country's economy, how to create a relevant social safety net, how to construct institutions that allow Mexico to make decisions, whether it should focus on North America or Latin America, and what it should do about security and law enforcement."

And so on. There's not much substance in the rest of the article either. Castaneda lays out a few points, which seem well-intentioned, but also mimic what every campaigning president has said before. Which leads me to believe that yet again, Castaneda will be running for president in 2012.

If he really wants to fix Mexico's problems, he's going to have to a lot better than the platform he's laid out in this article.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Juarez mess

Just a short post today: surely, the police dragging away protesters in Juarez upon President Calderon's arrival isn't the best way to send a message that the security of the people of Juarez is top priority?

Monday, February 8, 2010

The end of Mexico's war on drugs

The war on drugs is over.

At least, that's what I'm told by a few high-level officials in Mexico. (I can't name them, but two are former PGR and now occupy other posts.)

This moment has been coming for some time now; the government, realizing it cannot possibly stop drug trafficking completely (both Eduardo Medina Mora and Genaro Garcia Luna admitted this in the past year or so) has been seeking other ways to frame its apparent quest for a more stable and democratic Mexico. It has decided to go after organized crime.

Of course, the Mexican government has always been going after organized crime, but now, the focus will not be on the drugs, but human trafficking, I'm told.

For the past two years, we've seen increasing reports about Los Zetas, in particular, getting involved in human smuggling. They are apparently involved in underage prostitution rings, too. Contrary to news reports, this isn't actually all that new; Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel have long been involved in extracurricular activities like people-smuggling.

But still, the media's increased focus on human smuggling is the right one – especially in the eyes of the government. The government wants people to stop thinking about the drugs and start thinking about the people. Smart move: if you really want to get the Mexican people to hate organized criminals, make them or their relatives the victims. Innocents dying in shootouts isn't enough; it's random and still doesn't happen all that often. The government tried to push the argument that drug consumption was rising here in Mexico – so the stupid gringos weren't the only ones suffering from production – but that failed, because critics argued very vocally that consumption/addiction isn't really all that high.

So turn ordinary Mexicans trying to get to el otro lado into the victims.

And go after the money, which I understand is the real key part of the next phase of this war.

And ignore (or at least, not obsessing about) the violence. Both Medina Mora (who's now ambassador to the UK) and Garcia Luna have also downplayed the violence numbers recently, claiming that fewer people are getting killed than in the 1990s. That's sort of true: back then, the official homicide rates were lower. BUT... hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are believed to have been killed during those years, yet not recorded. Local media didn't always run out and cover each corpse back then; investigations were non-existent.

The reason for this is that the government doesn't necessarily want its people to think they are in the midst of a war anymore. I understand this: the bloodshed – and reports of it – has hurt business, tourism and society. It is pretty much confined to certain parts of the country (juarez, tijuana, culiacan, michoacan, durango, parts of guerrero) and that's it. So why scare people to death with daily reports of killings?

As they change the war on drugs to the war on organized crime, the authorities are also changing their definition of the war. As one former PGR guy tells me, it's all about how you look at it. (He refuses to call Mexico's current state a "war" by the way.)

The authorities are starting to look at organized crime through a new paradigm. Instead of thinking of the enemy as crooks, and trying to put them in jail, the government is going to increasingly look at organized crime as a business. Not an illegal business, but as a business.

And instead of focusing on putting them in jail, they're going to try and put them out of business.

"Let's bankrupt these motherfuckers," says one former PGR official. "We have the advantage," he adds, "We are the government. It's 10 times easier to put someone out of business. If you want to freeze a business, you freeze a business.You can do it, they can't."

The end goal: disrupt the money and cartels will no longer exist. (If you don't like the term cartels, let's call them organizations or syndicates.) You will simply have hundreds of bands of criminals (drug dealers, extortionists and the like) running around the country, which is just normal crime, and which the authorities believe is controllable.

This strategy still leaves some things unanswered, however. If you take away all the money from Mexican drug traffickers, won't someone else step in and take control over the drug trade – which will still going strong? The FARC and paramilitaries took over in Colombia after the fall of the Cali and Medellin cartels, someone would surely take over Mexico – not for production necessarily, but because that border is just too attractive and porous.

And lastly, what happens to the Mexican economy if as much as $40 billion a year is frozen? I think we'd start hearing talk about a "failed state" again.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chapo misinformation

I just want to draw belated attention to a column on Huffington Post back in March 2009, which claimed that Chapo was thanking George W. Bush for his help in making the drug lord billions. The article (link in title) cited a confidant of Chapo's and mexican government sources.

Of course, the article is bogus; it's a humorous parody by comedy writer David Henry Stern. It's funny too, if you know it's a joke; but some of the comments by readers imply it isn't clear to them. It mixes reality with ridiculousness, which could confuse the average reader. In addition, Huffpost doesn't say at the top that David Henry Stern is a comedy writer (his bio picture is the only real clue; you just know he's not an investigative type).

I'm all for comedy in the news, I was a big fan of Chris Morris' fake columns back in the day in the UK, for instance. But I think this one was pushing it a bit far – that is, if Huffpost ever wants to be taken seriously.

Mexican cartels in Africa

For a couple of years now, former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun has been warning of Mexican cartel presence in West Africa. He's not the only one; top US military commanders have also said the same.

The main reason: Europeans are snorting more cocaine than ever before, and West Africa is a great spot through which to move the drugs. In addition, in Europe itself, West Africans are taking over dealing positions formerly held by Moroccans, Algerians and other North Africans. (The logic behind this: the North Africans are more established in Europe, having been there a while, so have risen up; they can now either run trafficking cells or gain legitimate employment.)

About 500 tons of cocaine from Mexico and the rest of Latin America was shipped to Europe in 2009, much of it through West Africa.

The Mexican role, however, is still unclear. There are only four DEA offices in the whole of Africa, so monitoring specific activity is difficult. Mexicans have been arrested with cocaine, but have almost always been accompanied by Colombians and/or other Latin Americans. So saying the Mexicans themselves have a major presence may be taking it a step too far.

But West Africa is indeed ideal: experts and DEA folks point to its weak states, weak security forces and weak business regluations as its primary draws. As one expert who worked in drug control on the ground in Senegal and other parts of West Africa told me: anyone with a good government contact and bit of money can get a fake passport, set up a fake business and travel throughout Africa carrying tons of cocaine.

Fake fisheries (money laundering fronts) involving Mexicans have been discovered in Senegal, while the influx of foreign cash into Gambia has caught the authorities' attention. One Mexican expert believes there is evidence that Mexican cartel operatives have done business in at least 47 African countries.

Hard to track, really, given that African authorities aren't really up to the task, and the DEA is barely on the continent. I take dire warnings with a grain of salt, but there is no doubt that if European consumption of Latin American cocaine continues, we'll see more Mexicans throughout Africa. (As one newspaper here put it, expect more "narco-safaris.")

TOMORROW: Mexican cartels and links to terrorist groups.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

the massacre in Juarez

So the plot thickens over the recent massacre in Ciudad Juarez... authorities believe those killed were indeed innocent and had nothing to do with organized crime.

This slaughter highlights just how difficult the situation in Ciudad Juarez will be to resolve.

For those not following this story: a resident of one of the city's working class neighborhoods apparently phoned a group working for the Juarez cartel to alert them of a party that members of Chapo's gang were going to be throwing in the area; the killers arrived and fired indiscriminately, killing 16 students – who it turns out were probably not in the employ of the narcos.

A suspect who was arrested maintains that the students were working for Chapo's SInaloa cartel, but to me, that's not the important part of this story. (It will likely never be proven either, given investigation capabilities/efforts in Juarez.) The lack of communication is what worries me.

The authorities love to say how well anonymous tips are working throughout the country. But look at the realities of anonymous tips – first off, who's working for who? This killing occurred because someone tipped off a rival gang? Was this anonymous tipper working for the other gang?

Tips given to the army are also a problem. When the army went into Juarez in 2008, it received floods of phone tips, and had no idea where in town that particular place was. (No kidding: they would wander around town asking people for directions to so-and-so place – and anyone who knows Mexico knows that if you are an outsider asking for directions it's quite possible you'll get a purposeful, cheeky lie as the answer. If you're a soldier? Forget it.) So the soldiers began consulting the police – who in turn would tip off the narcos about any impending raids. I was there with the soldiers on one occasion their intel was breached – they received a threat instead and had to send their men scrambling in panic. There was no raid that night.

Residents also complained that the soldiers would indiscriminately barge into homes (the wrong ones) and on occasion, shoot the wrong people. Nothing proven, but quite possible.

Now, on the narco side, you have a similar but at the same time, different, problem. In Ciudad Juarez, you've got Chapo's people fighting the remnants of the Carrillo Fuentes organization. You have people tipping off the authorities about rival gangs, you apparently have people tipping off rival gangs about rival gangs. You also have threats of vigilante groups, which up to now have yet to make good on their promises to take the law into their own hands. And because of the astounding bloodshed in Juarez in the past two years, you have dismantled structures within organizations.

The Mexican cartels, largely, are not stupid, indiscriminate killers (bloodshed attracts unnecessary attention; if you were a multi-billion dollar multinational business, would you want to be in the headlines for beheading people?) so usually, when the higher ups make the call to kill someone, it's done right. (There's a good story about Chapo, and how he once allegedly had a guy killed for killing the wrong woman.)

With the structure of the organizations lacking, however, you now have bands of goons who don't calculate before killing, they just open fire and drive away.

In effect, you now have a wonderfully fertile ground for indiscriminate massacres like the one we've just witnessed. Sadly, I expect more of these kinds of incidents.

PS - the picture above is of a secretary at one of Juarez's police stations, after a threat last year. Crazy town...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

mexican cartels in europe

In 2008, a Mexican woman was arrested at London's Heathrow airport for smuggling drugs into Britain. She had taped 15kg of cocaine to the legs of her two children.

As astounding as the case was, the publicity it got was testament to the fact that Mexican cartel presence is not all that pervasive in Europe.

The Colombians still largely run the show there, transporting their cocaine directly to consumers in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland and Britain, among other affluent European nations. Mexican operatives do smuggle drugs to Europe, but in smaller quantities than the Colombians.

But according to experts here in Mexico and with the UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime), the Mexicans are increasingly using Europe as a money-laundering base. Post-Communist nations like Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic offer countless options through which to clean up illicitly earned dollars. Buying property is easy even without proper documentation, and setting up a fake business that is accountable to no authority is also easy.

Tourism developments, too, are said to be favorite of the Mexican cartels.

So, next time you go skiing in Bulgaria or take in the sun and sea on the Croatian coast, think of who you might be giving money to.

They may not run the European show now, but experts and officials warn that the Mexicans are likely to increase their presence in Europe in the near future. One DEA official told me that he expects a Mexican passport to soon carry more of a stigma than a Colombian one. (Carrying a Colombian passport upon entry into many nations can instantly pigeon-hole you as a narco in the eyes of the authorities.)

No surprise, really, given that people are strapping cocaine to their children and the like just to feed European demand.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

the generals in their labyrinths

I'm going to take a break from looking at Mexican cartel expansion again today because of a thought I had last night as I went to sleep. I was wondering what goes through the minds of Chapo and police chief Genaro Garcia Luna as they doze off each night.

Chapo, it's said, is more paranoid than ever. He doesn't trust anyone except El Mayo. Army helicopters buzzing overhead in the hills of Sinaloa and Durango, he must know that he can't continue this forever. He's nearly 55 years old, and has been on the run for 9 years. It must be taking its toll. (There was a rumor a while back that he had prostate cancer; but the authorities denied any knowledge of this). Former DEA chief of operations Michael Braun thinks he'll be caught or killed by mid-April.

But Chapo can't exactly stop. Due to his self-admitted determination never to return to prison or poverty, he's stuck on the run, running his business. In addition, I don't think he's in a position to really negotiate a deal with the authorities, whereby he would feed more info and stay untouched. The reason: he's already supposedly betrayed the Beltran Leyva brothers, the only people he could now betray are his closest allies, who wouldn't let him get to that point. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, in the days before his death from plastic surgery, tried to cut various deals, but found no buyers for similar reasons. He ended up dead after a botched plastic surgery operation.

What is going through Chapo's head right now? Is he counting the days, or just counting the money as usual? My guess is the latter: a man like him will go to the grave making money, it's his obsession, it's his need for control, it's his life's work. There is absolutely no reason for him to quit now, when he could have quit five years ago with the same amount of money.

And what about Garcia Luna? A year or so ago he told a visiting reporter that he wouldn't give up the drug fight, because it's his "life's work." He's been accused of corruption (unproven) and his consolidation of power has displeased many critics. His aides are said to be as paranoid as Chapo's, in large part because of his controlling, obsessive nature. A handful of his closest men have died in the drug war; although federal police killings have slowed this year and last, they always know they're in danger. I had a conversation with one recently, one of Garcia Luna's men, and all he could keep repeating in his paranoid state was that if you know anything, "they kill you, they fucking kill you."

Tragic but very true.

Garcia Luna is still in his late 40s, I believe. Mexico largely distrusts him; even the DEA has questioned his integrity in public. He must be tired, frustrated. And my thinking is that if he were to quit now, as other top security officials have done before him, the rumours would swirl that he was indeed corrupt. Imagine that being your life's work.

PS - As a reader commented, I omitted Costa Rica from my list of Latin American nations where Mexican cartels have a presence. Good point, thanks; I didn't mean to leave out Costa Rica simply because it's more peaceful and stable than so many other nations in the region – it actually could serve as a perfect hub for drug activity. It has no army, a not-so adept police corps, and large swaths of unpatrolled territory – ie, it's perfect for drug trafficking. There have been several reports of Mexican cartel activity in Costa Rica in the past two years; one even suggested the Sinaloa cartel runs the show down there.

Monday, February 1, 2010

mexican cartels in latin america

Apologies, i said I would address Mexican cartels in Latin America "tomorrow" when in fact I intended to take a weekend break and also got distracted by the case of the haitian kids.

So here goes: Mexico's drug cartels operate from Guatemala to Argentina. They have a "presence" in every single major Latin American nation.

But they're there in a variety of ways:

Central American nations like Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador are hubs for the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels (now also known as Los Zetas – the former paramilitaries now run the show). Cocaine is delivered from Colombia to Central American shores, as are meth precursors from Asia and other parts of South America. Marijuana is even grown by Los Zetas and allegedly, Chapo's people, in Guatemalan fields. Los Zetas have seized properties down there, and infiltrated the human trafficking business. Shootouts have taken place between Zetas and Sinaloans in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, to my knowledge. The cartels have reputedly taken to pilfering weapons from Central America, where caches of weapons have been left behind since the civil wars. (I'm hesitant to take this as fact; the weapons available from the US side are both more advanced and less rusty; buying guns and ammo in Central America would be like buying a vintage Apple IIC when you could get your hands on a MacBook just as easily.)

Further down south in South America itself, the Mexican cartels operate in various ways. In Colombia, for instance, the Mexicans are now top dogs. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mexicans were mere mules – they carried drugs on behalf of the Colombians. Then the Colombians began offering a 50-50 deal (it served the Colombians not to have to track every shipment all the way to the US; and if the Mexicans bought the product in Mexico and took responsibility, they could reap more reward) The Mexicans now call the shots on shipments, according to the DEA. They own properties throughout Colombia (just last summer, 70 properties of Chapo's, valued at about $50 million, were seized throughout the South American country). Colombian authorities say that the Mexicans are everywhere in their country, just sitting there. (ie, they're not just there doing a quick deal and getting out; they're established.)

In nearby Peru, the Mexicans are believed to be fighting for control of drug production with remnants of the Shining Path rebels.

Some authorities believe the Mexicans have made serious inroads into controlling drug production in Bolivia and Ecuador, too. Mexican operatives have been caught in Venezuela, but only passing through, really. In Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, which also borders Argentina and Brazil (and is a notorious smuggling hub) I was told by a former anti-smuggling official that the Sinaloa cartel was being investigated for using the city to smuggle in meth precursors, as well as a transit stop for cocaine deliveries throughout Latin America and eventually to Europe.

Uruguay is thought to be a money-laundering hub. Authorities say there are indications that the Mexicans are making their way into Brazil, where cocaine use is on the rise and gang wars are devastating certain neighborhoods.

Argentina, meanwhile, has become a major shipment point, both for meth precursors coming in all the way from Asia and for cocaine heading to Europe – primarily, Spain. The meth precursors, apparently, come in from southeast Asia via Chile (where authorities are investigating Sinaloa cartel presence) and from India via Africa; the cocaine, well that's obvious. I wish I could track this supposed route from India to Argentina – it seems like a hell of a way to go just to send some chemicals. Then again, the global meth market (according to the UN) is valued at $65 billion a year, so maybe it's worth it.

And there you have Latin America. Tune in tomorrow for Europe.

(The Mexican headlines about the Americans who took the Haitian kids across the border are quite interesting. One read: "Alleged traffickers fall" which reminded me of the presumed guilt factor in both Mexican courts and media. These people haven't been accused of trafficking yet by any authority.)