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.


  1. Edition 1737 of Proceso, dated 14 February this year, has a very interesting article about the Calderon government going soft on 'Chapo' Guzman, and claiming he is 'intocable'.

    Interestingly, the main accuser is Manuel Clouthier Carrillo, a PAN Federal deputy and son of a former PAN presidential candidate

  2. What type of direct military action will the Mexican Constitution allow President Calderon to take against the cartel? Have you seen clear and present danger?