Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Report from a murder capital

I'm writing this from one of the world's most dangerous cities. Last night at 7:30 pm, a gunman sprayed bullets at a crowd, killing four and wounding at least five people. The initial belief is that it was drug-related, but investigators are pursuing all leads. An AK-47 may or may not have been used.

"All l I saw was bodies dropping," said one witness. "It was like Vietnam."

Welcome to Washington DC. According to Kevin Casas-Zamora of the Brookings Institute, Mexico had a homicide rate of 11.5 people per 100,000 in 2008. Washington DC, by comparison, had a rate of 31 per 100,000.

Andres Oppenheimer cited Casas-Zamora's research in a recent column, and quoted him saying the following: "In [Mexico] as a whole, [the homicide rate] doesn't come even close to Washington, D.C.'s.''

Of course, comparing a country with a city is like comparing apples and oranges, and most experts don't like to do that. But maybe they should: they're both fruits, and the homicide rate is calculated per capita, so it shouldn't really make all that much difference.

PS - Ciudad Juarez is still far more dangerous than DC. With about 130 homicides per 100,000, according to some calculations, it is definitely worse than Washington DC.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

terror alert

The killing of 10 Mexican kids in Durango over the weekend worries me immensely. I was pretty sure that more terror attacks after Morelia in 2008 would be unlikely; it never serves the cartels to attack innocents, even if their rather blase methods of killing (line up everyone and shoot them even if they only want one person dead, for instance) often do result in that.

But these were kids. They were between the ages of 8 and 21. Was there at least one narco among them? Perhaps. But did the rest have to be killed?

I don't believe this was a standard "line 'em up and shoot everyone" kind of incident. The killings occurred out in the middle of nowhere, so there would have been plenty of time to separate the target from the rest. Instead, the assailants peppered the truck with bullets and tossed grenades at it. They wanted to kill everyone.

I can only see one motive for that: to instill terror. Just like decapitations were once the rage, now it takes killing a bunch of kids or stitching people's faces to soccer balls to get the blood curdling.

The New York Times called the massacre "baffling." Unfortunately, at this point in the drug war, I'm not sure it is.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Role models

Had an interesting conversation the other day with a Mexican friend.

"Of the successful people in this country, can you name five who you respect?" I asked him.

His answer:

1) Joaquin Guzman Loera, a.k.a. El Chapo. Mexico's most wanted drug trafficker.

2) Jorge Castaneda. Academic and former foreign minister. Renowned for harping on about just about anything and changing positions as he sees fit, but always arguing well.

3) Jacobo Zabludovsky. Veteran journalist, I don't know much about him, to be honest.

4) Alfredo Harp Helú. Businessman and head of a foundation in his name. Unfortunately, one of his claims to fame is having been kidnapped (but at least he survived the ordeal.)

So we've got a drug trafficker, an academic, a journalist and a businessman. My friend couldn't name a fifth.

To me, that's a pretty worrying sign of our times.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Drug report

Looking through the National Drug Threat Assessment, I found some of the developments interesting.
On the east coast of the US, local distributors are now bypassing the Colombians for their cocaine and going straight to the Mexicans. That seems backward, given that Mexicans get their cocaine from the Colombians in the first place, until you realize just how powerful and organized the Mexicans are. Any Colombian supplier dealing directly with a US distributor is actually bypassing the now-traditional route through the Mexicans, so the Colombian isn't necessarily as secure a source. The Mexicans can better guarantee delivery and protection.

In the 1980s, the Colombians began giving Mexicans increased control over cocaine, to the point that now, Mexicans control much of the delivery all the way from Colombia itself. They've shored up the route; any Colombian who tries to revert to the old way is taking a huge risk. Impressive gains by the Mexicans.

Italian organized crime outfits are also decreasingly involved in drug trafficking, the report notes, as the Mexicans take over their turf too. I see this as possibly big news for the future: the Italian organizations in the US still have ties to much of Europe. If the Mexicans take over their drug racket in the US, and make some sort of alliance, they could use those ties to distribute cocaine directly to Europe, too. The Colombians would be relegated to mere producers, and the Mexicans would traffic it.

The last thing that I thought interesting was that Mexican traffickers are increasingly using ships and submarines to smuggle their drugs to the US. The Colombians have long used these; the Mexicans have largely stuck to overland routes and on occasion, planes.

The use of maritime vessels is interesting: getting drugs across the border is pretty easy, why the need to go by sea? My thinking is that this might be a pre-emptive move: noting that the border is attracting so much attention, the Mexican cartels are trying out new routes. When the US Coast Guard cracked down on the Caribbean in the 80s and 90s, the Colombians did the same and discovered Mexico. Now that the border is being scrutinized, the Mexicans are themselves eyeing new options.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

US Drug report

The Justice Department National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 has finally been released. (
It's normally released on Feb 1, which made me wonder about the delay; at a quick glance it looks pretty standard to me – it continues to warn of increased Mexican domination of US distribution, as the Colombians lose clout. Mexican drug cartels are the only drug traffickers who have a presence in every single US "region" (the US is split into 9 regions in the report.)

I'm going to read through this closely tonight for anything spectacular, but in the meantime, a couple of things caught my eye. 1) There is no map breaking down which Mexican cartels work where in the US, as there has been in years past. That could mean several things: the US authorities think it's irrelevant to the media and public; the authorities are working on the assumption that these gangs/cells are not as firmly tied to the cartels as once thought, and will work for whoever pays most. With the cartels in Mexico in such disarray these days, the latter would seem more likely.

2) Marijuana eradication in Mexico was down last year. The report paints this as bad news, but it may actually be good news. Eradication in most of Mexico is a grindingly slow, tit-for-tat process. The narcos grow a marijuana patch, the army burns it down. If the soldiers have to eradicate the same patch a few months later, it means eradication totals increase, but it also means the narcos are winning, because they've regrown the same patch. But if the patch is still destroyed, the eradication tally goes down, and the authorities are actually winning.

At least, that's how the Mexican army rationalizes it, and it makes more sense to me than the way the Justice Department interprets it.

Yet another prison break...

"One day, it's going to explode," said Matamoros prison warden Jaime Cano Gallardo when I met him early last year.

He was right: today, 41 inmates escaped from his prison. I don't know much more than that, will post again when I do.

For the record, Cano Gallardo seemed a likeable, honest guy. He carried a gun around for his own protection, but didn't come across as any sort of thug. He asked if I'd put a good word in for him with his superiors, as he knew full well what fate would likely befall him. He knew he didn't have much of a chance getting the prison in order, or preventing a major escape if one was organized. His priority was improving conditions and morale, in part by supporting the prison's baseball team, which won the city championship.

In the fine tradition of the Mexican judicial system, Cano Gallardo will likely be removed of his post and jailed, pending investigation. If there is a real investigation, then he'll probably be found guilty (most big escapes involve buying off the warden; whether he has a choice or not is another matter); if there isn't a thorough investigation, he'll likely be branded a crook for the rest of his life regardless.

I have to admit, I have sympathy for the guy, even if he was completely complicit. I just don't know how anyone in law enforcement or similar positions can do their job properly in this day and age in Mexico.

PS - photo above is the Matamoros prison in less tumultuous times.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Troops a-twitterin'

The Mexican military has taken its new transparency pledge to new heights: you can now follow Sedena's actions on Twitter.

Let's hope they don't put anything important out there, as I'm sure the enemigo is monitoring every tweet.

The money trail

Following Clinton and Co.'s visit to Mexico City, the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) put out a statement regarding the Gulf cartel/Zetas. They've "terrorized innocent people in Tamaulipas and throughout Mexico," OFAC Director Adam J. Szubin said.

Which begs the question: Chapo and his gang haven't? La Familia hasn't? Suddenly, the Gulf cartel is Public Enemy No. 1 and the others don't even warrant a mention?

And so goes the drug war. Chapo and his crew are actually already listed by OFAC, so it's not really a matter of anyone protecting them. But it does make you wonder...

The way I see it is this: the northeast of Mexico is back on the radar now that Osiel Cardenas Guillen has been sentenced to 25 years. The authorities likely have tons of info on operations in the region thanks to his cooperation; Los Zetas are already on the outs with the Gulf leadership (which has struck up a loose alliance with Chapo against those very same Zetas, remember).
Los Zetas, like La Familia before them, also represent an achievable target for the authorities. So much easier to go after a bunch of yahoos with guns than a seriously established organized crime outfit.

So that's my explanation for the OFAC report focusing on Gulf/Los Zetas.

My prediction for the next bigshot to go down in the drug war? Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, a.k.a. "El Lazca." He became head of Los Zetas after the war for Nuevo Laredo brought down a couple of his superiors.

PS - Clinton and co were surprisingly silent on the issue of human rights during their visit to Mexico City. Unless I missed something (and I may well have) this is about all the Sec. of State said:

"Well, human rights is a core value and is a high priority in our discussions. Every meeting we have includes an emphasis on human rights because we know, both of our governments, how important this is. And we know that in a violent situation like the one created by the drug cartels, it is necessary to work even harder to protect and promote human rights. And when you deal with people who engage in beheading, who murder children who won a football game, who are total non-respecters of life and human rights, you have to work extra hard to maintain human rights, to maintain the rule of law. We understand that. And the Mexican Government and the United States Government are deeply involved in programs that promote and protect human rights."

Not enough, really, particularly as it comes just days after members of the Navy and/or police appear to be implicated in the torture and killing of a drug suspect in Monterrey. That case isn't clear at all yet, but a few more words about human rights from the US government wouldn't have been missed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Calderon gets World bank backing

Something that I don't think has received enough press recently is the World Bank president's support for Calderon's drug war. This strikes me as interesting: the World Bank doesn't normally openly support conflicts, to the best of my knowledge. It has backed US military moves discreetly, yes, but open support is another thing. This support also comes at a time when the Mexican economy is truly suffering, on account of both the crisis and the drug war.

The World Bank is not known for taking risks; I don't know of it taking a highly moral line either when it comes to the likes of drug trafficking. (It has certainly pointed out the economic devastation organized crime has caused in places like Afghanistan, however, so it does take stands.)

So to me, the World Bank president's statements come as a surprise. And they offer some interesting insights: this country's economy may actually be going in the right direction, in spite of the drug war and the crisis. Here's hoping... (At the very least, the World Bank doesn't think Calderon is sending his country into a tailspin; at the very worst, the World Bank is deceptively hoping that Calderon will ask for some sort of bailout. But I don't want to be too cynical.)

Drug war takes new turn

There's been a lot of talk about whether the killing of the three U.S. citizens in Ciudad Juarez represents a new phase in the drug war – whether it's a sign of Calderon having lost it or the cartels becoming bolder than ever, daring to attack the US for interfering.

It's certainly one development, but I actually think the blockades in Nuevo Leon last week are the more important one to watch.

The gangs were blocking major highways, which are usually patrolled (and controlled) by military presence. From my understanding, these blockades were not like the anti-army protests in various cities last year (which the government claimed were organized by the narcos.) These blockades shut down major transportation routes; more than 80 police officers were dismissed for allegedly being involved; Monterrey is a major commercial hub.

The cartels just proved that they might just be able to do to this country what the Colombian narcos did to theirs back in the 1980s – take control of major transportation thoroughfares and grind the economy to a halt.

So far in this drug war, Calderon has not been in the same position as his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe, in that major roads in Mexico have remained under government control. When he took office back in 2002, Uribe's first goal was to secure the main roads – particularly the one between Bogota and Medellin. Once he did, the country's economy got back on track. But it took him a while, and he used a lot of force while he was at it.

Calderon does not want to be in a position whereby he has to reseize control of his country's roads.

On a side note, I wonder how much money the narcos lost by closing off what are also major transportation routes for their business. Must have been calculated; must have been deemed worth it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Scared witless

Reuters has a colorful story about police turning to alternative faiths – a mix of Santeria, vodou and Mexican witchcraft, apparently – as a means of surviving the cartels' reign of terror. (Link in title of post.)

"Sometimes a man needs another type of faith," former Tijuana policeman Marcos tells Reuters.

Another cop says: "We all know that guns and body armor are useless against the cartels because they are well-armed and can attack any time. But this is something we can believe in, that really works."

Ok, if police reform in this country is going to be a possibility, this needs to stop now. I've spoken to dozens of cops throughout Mexico, municipal, state and federal, and they are all completely petrified. Sometimes they're scared of hired guns who come down from the sierras and shoot up their colleagues, sometimes they're scared of the military, sometimes they're scared of their own colleagues who are working for the other side. Sometimes they're scared of themselves, because they know they can't fend off the cartels and will pretty much have to go crooked.

They definitely need faith to help them through life, but it is not the answer to their problems. They need trust. They need guns and body armor. They need training. They need camaraderie. They need regular drug tests. They need federal databases. They need... and so on.

PS - I'll comment on the Nuevo Leon blockades and arrests if/when I know more than any of the other papers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

US talks tough

As the press and several bloggers have noted recently, US Ambassador Carlos Pascual has been quite vocal about Mexico defining the military's role in the drug war. He's called for strategies, plans, details, etc. There's been little negative reaction, which leads one to believe the majority of Mexicans are not too concerned with an American envoy telling their government what to do. After all, the Mexican government is struggling; Pascual is a well-respected diplomat who isn't known for meddling just for the sake of meddling.

Then there's US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. From an interview with Fox's Bill O'Reilly, follows this exchange.

O'REILLY: Calderon's a good man, unlike Fox. Fox was a crook.


Yes? A top US official comes out and agrees with a right-wing pundit that the former Mexican president was a crook? Personally, I find this infuriating. Good luck to the ambassador in smoothing this one over, unless the Mexican government chooses to simply ignore top US officials who slander a former president (who, incidentally, was possibly the least crooked in Mexico's history.) Unfortunately, you can't just ignore Napolitano given there's a drug war going on.

(A transcript of the interview is in the link in title.)

Malcolm the talking head

My thoughts on two important relevant issues, here:

and here:

I was once told by a friend that I sound like a leprechaun on TV/radio. Any thoughts on how to change that are most welcome.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

US to invade Mexico?

There's a lot of debate going on right now over whether the FBI should be in Ciudad Juarez investigating the killing of a consulate employee and two others.
I may be mistaken, but I don't remember there being this much fuss since the DEA agent Kiki Camarena was killed in 1985, and the DEA set up a special investigative team to look into it. (Mexican police were involved in the kidnapping/killing.)

So should US agents be on Mexican soil actually doing investigative work?

I think it's in the best interests of Mexico and the US. Relations between the two countries are good; they already cooperate a lot in terms of intelligence sharing. Bring in the FBI.

And in terms of the broader fight against the narcos, bring in more US help. I'm not suggesting Mexico invite US special forces, like Colombia did to kill Pablo Escobar. But I am saying that US technology, spies, and know-how could really help catch some big narcos, like Chapo. US-assisted wiretapping has already helped bring down the likes of the Arellano Felix brothers, why not use some of that impressive US technology in the Sinaloan hills? (Instead of buying useless equipment like the $10 million magic wands the NYT reported on the other day.)

Of course, the lefties will rightly scream about the apparent breach of sovereignty, but more US involvement on the ground in this drug war could possibly prevent atrocities, too.

Then again, I'm not sure how much success the FBI is having in Juarez right now.

The FBI claims the killing of the three Americans appears to be a case of mistaken identity. I do not believe that for one second. If it indeed was Los Aztecas, then it was a group of at the very least semi-professional killers. They had a target. They followed their target. They hit their target. For the FBI to make me believe it was a case of mistaken identity, I'd have to see evidence – like a written order showing who these guys were supposed to kill, why, when, where and in which car.

PS - The Washington Post apparently agrees with me, one some counts.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cover the war

How do you change the image of a country?

That's a question on the minds of many Mexicans these days. As Patrick Corcoran at ganchoblog points out, media coverage is "only a problem when you pull back and realize that 80 percent of the stories trickling to the States from Mexico are about security."

I lead with his point because it's the right one. These days, editors in the US are sending their correspondents down to Mexico with one instruction: "Cover the war."

Nothing else. Nothing about the arts, politics, lifestyles. And you wonder why the news out of Mexico is so grim. And once you get so set on one agenda like that, it's difficult to realize the difference between the reality of the situation and what you're covering. For instance: top officials have said that the homicide rate is actually lower in Mexico than it was a little over a decade ago. But you didn't see foreign journalists going crazy to cover every single killing then.

Today, when I go to any Mexican city, I look for drug-related news. I can't help it. I got caught up in the group-think and now that's the way I look at places. As a result, I'm having trouble finding interesting stories to write. Even if it's a positive story, correspondents tend to frame it in the context of the drug war these days. Which only contributes to the way the world looks at Mexico.

So how does one change the image of a country? First off, be responsible – that goes for governments and journalists alike. Don't pretend all's calm when in fact all is heading to hell in a handbasket. But be realistic, and contextualize. Mexico has always been a very dangerous country in comparison to the United States; but for more than a century, Americans have come here to retire, to travel, to enjoy the good life, to enjoy the warmth of the Mexican people. You can still do that these days, without any trouble. Step back and look at where and why the violence is occurring, and you'll see that there is plenty to do and see in Mexico without a worry. There are also many, many issues that resonate with the Mexican people other than security – most polls have in fact shown that security is not the No.1 concern, the economy is.

The government, too, needs to start a serious campaign. Mexico does run the risk of becoming a global pariah like Colombia was 20-odd years ago. When I wrote a story about Medellin's transformation 10 years after Pablo Escobar's death in 2004, it was the first English-language story to positively describe the city since the 1930s. (At least, according to my research.) It did wonders for the city, as news article after news article with the same angle followed; foreign investment followed that.

Mexico does not want to ever be in the situation that Colombia was in during the 1980s. But there is a risk it might fall that far. The Calderon administration needs to move the media in the right direction. It needs to acknowledge the violence, but also focus the media's attention on the positive. (There are some positives: social movements afoot in Culiacan, Ciudad Juarez and the like, for instance). It desperately needs to give the foreign press more access to its reform strategies – judicial changes, for instance, which are very promising. It needs to – without spinning in a blindly optimistic/naive way – highlight Mexico's steps forward, if it actually is taking them. (At times, I definitely believe it is; at others, not so sure.)

After that, I'm at a loss. I've tried to change people's minds about countries before, but in large part, even on a one-to-one basis, it hasn't worked. In this world, there are people who want to look at things the way they've always looked at things, and these are often the people with the most power/clout (in government or in any organization), in large part because they don't look at developments or changes or try to see things in a new light. They're the people giving orders; if you want to keep your job, you tend to just do what they tell you most of the time. So if they tell you to cover the war, you do just that.

Monday, March 15, 2010

On another note...

Seeing as everyone is talking about the Juarez situation, I'm going to write about something else. An article on the interesting site True/Slant caught my eye: a man defending watching porn. (Link is in title, I suggest reading it and the comments.)

I don't believe that porn is amoral, or degrading – in its essence. It's fantasy, and healthy, functioning people should be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and not expect their girlfriend or wife (or boyfriend, for that matter) to act like a pornstar.

But... (there's always a but in my posts, isn't there.) There is a really dark side to porn, that US and Western European consumers don't often see or know about. It's called human trafficking. There exist women around the world who are trafficked for the sole sake of becoming porn stars. (Except you never see these women win awards in Las Vegas at their version of the Oscars).

In markets in Mexico, Cambodia, Thailand, Senegal, and Brazil, to name just a few countries, you can buy porn featuring these young women. Some are children. Some are little children. There is something dreadfully wrong and amoral with that.

Some of these women don't make it to the "silver screen." They end up as prostitutes. Again, from a moral standpoint, I don't think prostitution is the most horrendous of ills. People pay for dates, they sleep with their dates. Prostitution is basically just cutting to the chase and making a business transaction. Not romantic, no, but not exactly evil either.

But... that's what happens in an ideal world where prostitutes have rights. In most of the world, they barely have any. I've interviewed some in my reporting on the drug trade (I was once told by a former military man that the first person you should interview in any neighborhood is the prostitutes, because they know everything – he's right) and some have told me just how dangerous life is. You don't really need to be told, to be honest, it kinda goes without saying.

On the beach in Guerrero once, I was also approached by a "pimp." (In quotes because he's not in charge of anything.) He actually worked for the government, as a lifeguard. The government paid him to watch the beach, while he approached tourists to sell drugs and women. He offered me a variety of ladies – from Japanese to Russian to Mexican – and even asked if I would like a "young" lady. I looked him in the eye, trying hard not to show my deep disapproval/rage/outrage/disgust, and asked how "young." He repeated, "YOUNG." I politely declined. He pointed me to the house where the girls were, just in case I changed my mind.

I thought about investigating it, but then thought better of it. A friend who has investigated human traffickers and child prostitution rings claims they are among the most dangerous people on the planet. I don't doubt it.

So next time you or anyone you know is at Pie de la Cuesta in Acapulco, stay well clear of the big yellow house on the hill, you can just see it from the beach. And watch out for those lifeguards. If you buy pot from them, you are also helping them run a side business in human trafficking. Just tell them to piss off.

And stop watching porn that isn't US industry standard. (I've been told the actors have rights there.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Juarez affair

Three Americans, all linked to the US Consulate, killed in Ciudad Juarez. Authorities are following the line that it was the work of Los Aztecas, the gang usually linked to the Juarez cartel.

I'm trying to make sense of this, and not getting much information. So I'll do a little speculating, given that this is a blog and I can do that.

MIchel Marizco ( backs up a theory I was told by a Juarez police source – that it was actually Chapo's people.

But everyone else is saying it was Los Aztecas. There is an explanation for this: as of relatively recently, Los Aztecas apparently have been working for both Chapo and the rival Juarez cartel – the reason being that the latter lost its grip on the gang, which like most gangs, isn't ideologically tied down.

So that could explain the apparently contradicting theories.

Now for the consulate connection. This is a pretty brazen attack, regardless of whodunnit. I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark, and say that I believe that at least one of the consulate employees was DEA. The fact that no one interviewed for the news reports who knew her actually knew what she did at the consulate seems a little odd to me. Either they knew and they're not telling or they didn't know because she never told them, but anytime anyone works at a consulate in a city like Juarez, most people they know at least ask what it's like to work there. Unless they aren't supposed to ask questions. Anyway, it's only a theory.

But one thing I was thinking (and Marizco points this out as well) is that this past week, there was a pretty big trial in El Paso, in which members of Chapo's organization testified. One witness was a former Juarez police officer, who spilled a fair amount of beans on Chapo's organization and the man himself. I don't know if these killings have anything to do with it, but I am quite sure it's possible.

Which would again bring it all back to Chapo.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Gore in Guerrero

No, not Al Gore, the other, bloodier kind.
As I predicted back in December, Guerrero has heated up. Twenty-eight people dead over the weekend; 17 killed in the Acapulco area alone. As I thought, it's a consequence of the fall of the Beltran Leyva brothers, who ran Guerrero before Arturo was killed in December. The question now is who is battling it out. One theory has it that it is La Barbie who is taking on remnants of the Beltran Leyva organizaion. Following from this, some in the area say that La Barbie is trying to take control on behalf of Chapo.

La Barbie split from Chapo to work for the Beltran Leyvas. Now everyone's wondering whether he's gone back to work with Chapo. Keep watching Acapulco, and we'll know pretty soon.

Some context: This is not the first time Acapulco has suffered a wave of violence in the drug war. In 2006, the city was one of the hardest hit in Mexico. Cops were killed, beheaded, etc. Tourists were scared off, and the city suffered a huge economic blow. Let's hope that doesn't happen this time around.

Friday, March 12, 2010

the road to complicity

As you drive past the splendid tomb reserved for Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca in Santiago de los Caballeros, Sinaloa, (pictured) you might have the fortune of spotting a gunman standing high above the paved road. It's here that four kids were killed by the military in March 2008. It's here that law and order effectively end in the Sierra Madre Occidental. It's here that most locals will tell you: It's time to turn around now. You won't spot the military here very often; you have a far better chance of running into a band of armed narcos. If you do spot the military, they'll likely be on edge – it's not their turf.

In my opinion, it's here that one can see the most evidence of federal government's support for El Chapo.

There are other signs: fewer arrests of Sinaloa cartel members than those of other cartels, a claim made by some experts (I disagree, personally, but it's hard to prove); the fact that three members of Chapo's family receive agricultural subsidies under the federal Procampo program (a fact that a major international donor had to take into serious consideration before approving the last batch of aid); the fact that Chapo remains free while almost every other top narco has been arrested in the drug war; the fact that Chapo has had at least a dozen informants outed from the Sinaloan military in the past three years; the fact that Chapo waltzed out of a federal prison nearly 10 years ago and still hasn't been caught; the fact that Chapo's war against nearly every rival in the country has apparently received an assist from the military's own crackdowns... and so on.

To me, Santiago de los Caballeros says the most about government complicity. It's not the graveyard (a very public tribute to the powerful narcos in the area, and a brazen middle finger to the government) or the gunmen, or the poppy and marijuana fields carefully hidden in the hills nearby.

It's the road. Two years ago, the road from Badiraguato to Santiago de los Caballeros was a dirt track. It took hours to navigate, like most of the roads in the sierra. But it's now been paved, and will be paved bit by bit until it reaches Chihuahua.

The federal government is paying for this road.

I wonder why.

The road, when complete, will open up the route between Badiraguato and Chihuahua. No longer will the Sinaloans have just one main road to transport their drugs to the US (along the coast of Sinaloa and up through Sonora), they will be able to zip right through to Chihuahua, which has a handful of highways and access points into the US. The growers in the Sierra won't even have to deliver their drugs first to a city; they'll be able to bring it straight to the new road, which is already in the foothills.

The government claims the road is part of a program to bring the people of the Sierra closer to Sinaloa's urban areas. But most people in the Sierra who want to get to, say, Culiacan, can already do so – it just takes a bit of time. This road won't help them much. No, I think this road is being built for trade purposes, and we all know what trade really drives Sinaloa.

It reminds me of a road paved back in the late 1990s in northeastern Burma. It was ostensibly paved (and wow, did it cut one's traveling time) to open up trade between China, Burma and Thailand. It was also heralded as a move forward for democracy.

But everyone knew the real reason it had been paved. The warlords had funded it so that drugs could be transported more quickly from Burma to users in China and dealers in Thailand. It quickly became known as "the Meth Road."

Maybe the new Sinaloa-Chihuahua thoroughfare should be called "Chapo's way."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Irresponsible journalism (but boy does it sell!)

I just want to rant quickly about two terribly reported news stories I heard/read today.

The first, from Al Jazeera. Correspondent Franc Contreras reports on the "new front in the war on drugs" – Reynosa. It's the latest front, or one of them, but it's hardly "new." Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo were the focal point of a war waged between Chapo and the Gulf cartel between 2003 and 2005. It then quieted down when Chapo's people left, but it remained a front. The army was deployed there during the Fox administration, and has been there since. There have been ridiculous shootouts in the city since 2006, and many reports of Zeta extortion. I last went there in early 2009, and everyone told me "All is calm." Which here in the drug war, essentially means everything is about to get really bad. The new news in Reynosa, as Contreras does point out, is that reporters are getting kidnapped/killed. But that does not make it a "new front."

I'm very used to reports like this from correspondents who are new to the issue and looking for a "new" angle, but Contreras is a good reporter and a veteran here in Mexico; I expect better context and choice of words next time.

The other report is from Reforma. Front page headline reads: "Narcos intensify executions in DF." Fair enough, given that there have been 46 narco-executions since December, compared to 31 in the same period last year.

But... La Barbie's push through nearby Morelos and the apparent interest in Mexico City aside, haven't we heard this before? In 2008, there was a lot of talk about the cartels making a move for Mexico City. "The cartels are operating here," top officials said after some major arrests back then. There was also a botched bombing attempt, attributed by many to the Sinaloa cartel. There were also some narco-mantas, or banners. A beheading or two.

Back then, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard rejected talk of bringing the army onto the streets of the capital, while a PGR source told me that there was no way the cartels would seriously make a move on Mexico City. After all, he said (and I'm paraphrasing here), there's nothing of interest for them in the capital. Their dealers work here, to be sure, but there are no smuggling routes, no territory to control, too many already established criminal gangs to try to co-opt. The big attraction of Mexico City is the fact that it is so big one can be totally anonymous – hence the reason most of the major narcos have homes there. But they don't bring their battles with them when they come visit, they want to lie low.

There's another reason for that: 70,000 police, all of whom are far superior to their provincial counterparts (in spite of corruption also existing in Mexico City). And they are not already in the pockets of the narcos.

Which brings me to my last objection to the Reforma story: an expert is quoted as saying: "Although the [authorities] deny it, Mexico City could become another Ciudad Juarez."

Seriously, how? In what way? I'm going to seek an explanation from said expert, but in the meantime, I welcome any evidence that might back this statement up. At risk of assuming anything before I know the whole story (he may have been slightly misquoted), what he said is absurd.

Everybody's helping Chapo

So now the authorities say that the conflicts within the Gulf cartel and the Beltran Leyva organization are likely to give a boost to none other than Chapo.

Is there anyone/anything that isn't helping this guy?

More than likely, it's Chapo's sense of strategy that is keeping him above the fray. According to the DEA, he recently made alliances with the Gulf and La Familia to head off Los Zetas. Chapo, as greedy and ambitious as he has always been, has also always been very pragmatic. He's always known when to cut his losses (he left Tamaulipas in 2005, after waging a brutal war, because he saw more opportunity in the meth trade) and when to move in on turf through alliances (after fall of Arellano Felix bros in Tijuana; when La Familia started gaining clout in Michoacan, for example).

He also knows when to forgive and forget. (Striking a deal with a traditional rival, the Gulf cartel, against Los Zetas.) Which brings us to the next bit of speculation: is La Barbie, the Texas-born narco who's getting a fair bit of press right now, ready to strike a deal with Chapo and re-enter the Sinaloa fold?

La Barbie was trained as a "bill collector" by Chapo and the Beltran Leyvas, and then became the Beltran Leyvas' primary sicario. When the brothers and Chapo split, La Barbie went with the former. He's now believed to be taking control of old Beltran Leyva turf in Morelos.

I reckon Chapo will let the past be the past, and make a deal with him.

TOMORROW: How the federal government is supporting Chapo, explained from my point of view.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lying about his age...

Forbes also gets Chapo's age wrong, listing him as 55. Admittedly, this is a debatable point, as his birth records are not on file anywhere and I have seen him listed as born in 1954 before (Also seen him listed as born on Christmas Day, which one expert likes to use to liken him to Jesus). But the authorities (both Mexican and US) usually list him as being born on April 4, 1957, which makes him 52.

Forbes ranking

It's that time of year again: Forbes has released its Billionaires' List, and at No. 937, is Joaquin Guzman Loera, a.k.a. "El Chapo."

He has dropped a couple hundred places due to an increase in global billionaires, but is still worth $1 billion – according to Forbes. Apparently the magazine's interns couldn't be bothered to calculate whether the economic crisis or the capture of top henchmen etc have taken a toll on his assets.

Let the squabbles over methodology begin, unless the Calderon administration has finally learned its lesson about addressing irrelevant issues and leaving that to the bloggers. Los Pinos, over to you...

Famous last words...

Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the head of the Gulf cartel, recently pleaded guilty in a US court. He got 25 years. These were his last words...

"I apologize to my country, Mexico, to the United States of America, my family, to my wife especially, my children, for all the mistakes I made. I feel that this time that I have spent in jail, I have reflected and I've realized the so ill behavior that I was maintaining, and truthfully, I am remorseful.I also apologize to all of the people that I hurt directly and indirectly. That's all, your honor."

Seriously, that's all? This guy, a man who murdered or ordered the murder of maybe thousands and sent thousands of others off to jail because they worked for him, is "remorseful"? This guy, who once threatened an FBI and DEA agent (‘You fucking gringos. This is my town, so get the fuck out of here before I kill you,’ he told them in Matamoros)? This guy, who has a stone cold killer's look that is so deep in his eyes that it appears his soul has completely disappeared?

I believe anyone has the right to repent and go good. I also believe that drug traffickers are not inherently bad people. (Although they certainly have a bad way of conducting business.) They are businesspeople, struggling to survive in a brutal world where laws don't apply.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'd have preferred a more honest admission of guilt from Cardenas Guillen. When the US judge shamed him by mentioning children, pregnant women and other innocents the narco has employed and effectively sentenced to a life behind bars or worse, I would have preferred he say: "Look, your honor, with all due respect, you and I live in two different worlds. In my world, we survive by fear, killing and exploitation. This is the reality of my world. In your world, you have law and order, meritocracy, and chances to start over. In my world, an apology gets you killed."

I've spoken to several drug trafficker prisoners here in Mexico, and they all expressed a remorse not unlike Cardenas Guillen's. They all admit they've taken the "wrong" path in life. They all express a willingness to go straight once they get out of prison. They all know deep down – and I know, too – that most of them won't, and that they're lying. But their faces can't hide the truth – their anguish, anxiety and conflict is obvious to the point that they appear tortured.

I would have liked to see Cardenas Guillen's face during the sentencing. I doubt it revealed any emotion or reality whatsoever.

PS - In the transcript of the sentencing, the judge makes an interesting freudian slip. Instead of saying "God judges you," she says "Judge judges [you]." Mistaking yourself for god now, are you?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Happy together

"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

So said Nelson Mandela. What if the Mexican government were to follow this line of thinking with the narcos? Imagine the scenario: the drug business becomes legal. It is taxed. (The narcos, like most Mexicans, would probably refuse to pay their taxes, but all that laundered money would still re-enter the Mexican economy, giving it a nice boost. Perhaps a financial arrangement by which narcos give a percentage of their profits to the public works/hospitals/education etc could also be hammered out.) Disputes are settled in special drug courts.

Violence drops. Some semblance of law and order are restored. The United States throws a political tantrum; the DEA leaves the country. The Mexican military effectively stands down, and goes to work in the sierras as a peacekeeping force – making sure guns aren't drawn, ensuring turf wars don't break out.

Legitimize what in the past has been illegitimate. I'm not a policymaker, but I thought I'd throw this one out there. Officials keep telling me about the need to rethink the drug war, and I think this might be one way to do it. If Mexico wants to move forward democratically, it needs to move on after having made some major achievements (top capos arrested, etc) stop fighting ancient, unwinnable wars and re-envision the way it both uses its military and views its narcos.

I think this would have to be done transparently. If the Mexican government is to broker a business deal with the narcos and endorse the drug trade, it should do it openly, and risk the backlash from the moralistic crowd (good luck, given that the president is one of that lot) and the US. It needs to openly say: we endorse this industry that exists. We do not tolerate the violence within it, or the corruption that it causes. Like all industries in this country, labour conditions and realities within the drug trade need to be examined and addressed. We will work with narco-representatives to hammer out a working arrangement.

Ok, so it's never going to happen. There's no way in hell Washington would allow Mexico to legalize an industry and openly allow tons of drugs to be trucked into the US. But it was a nice thought anyway. I welcome suggestions for what might actually work in reality.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Calderon's security strategy

Am not really in the mood to blog today, so will re-direct you to what I think is quite a good piece on Calderon's security strategy, or lack thereof.

Friday, March 5, 2010

the latest victims in the drug war...

History and context, it appears, are the latest victims in the drug war. An Associated Press article (link in title of this post) suggests that Red Cross workers are suddenly in the crossfire, and that this is something new. The headline ("Red Cross is Latest Victim in Mexican Drug War") doesn't even cast doubt on the supposed newness of this.

But anyone who's read Time, Reuters, The News, any Mexican paper, Global Post – to name just a few – knows that Red Cross workers in Culiacan and Ciudad Juarez started worrying about their safety two years ago. So what exactly is new about the story?

Instead of a lede that implies this is a new phenomenon, how about one that reads accurately: "After a Red Cross worker was killed in Sinaloa this week, employees are once again fearing for their safety in Mexico's drug war. Although Red Cross workers have protested in the past about the dangers of working in hostile conditions, Maria Genoveva Rogers is believed to be the first Red Cross worker murdered since 2006."

I like the AP, and I particularly like correspondent Mark Stevenson's reporting and writing. But a story and headline like this makes me wonder what the AP is up to. Journalists have a responsibility to have better memories than the general public (or a good database), and therefore be able to put news events into context. Our job, in my opinion, is to examine events with as much detachment as possible, and inform the public soberly with the best of our judgment. Our job isn't to prey on readers' fears, or hype up news events to attract readers or make a story sound sexy – let's leave that to the magazines, books and blogs and Fox News.

I love a bit of jazzed up writing myself at times, but from serious, well-respected journalism outlets like the AP, I look for news I can trust. Please keep it that way folks.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chapo in Honduras?

Rumor has it that Chapo is in Honduras. For the past few weeks, press reports citing Honduran officials like the security minister have speculated over whether Chapo is in the Copan region, near the border with Guatemala. Apparently he's resting; apparently he's attended a few parties; apparently Los Tigres del Norte played for him there.

Before anyone gets too excited, a DEA source says the rumors are just that – rumors.
A pretty reliable source in Sinaloa, meanwhile, says that Chapo's still believed to be hanging out in those parts.

What was the deadline for his capture– mid-April? I'm gonna put my bet on a frontal assault in the sierras of Sinaloa, rather than some hamfisted operation that leaves him dead and mutilated somewhere like Honduras. There would be too much mystery surrounding the latter; if the Calderon administration truly wants to wrap this up or give the appearance of doing so, it should hit Chapo at home – with plenty of witnesses.
(This time though, try not to desecrate the body, ok guys?)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

big fat liars, the lot of them

A few readers have commented on yesterday's post, asking: Why are the State Dept./Mexican government lying about the drug war going well, when the numbers clearly show the opposite?

Well, it's simple. First, they're not lying, they're spinning. To the best of their ability, they are trying to put a positive sheen on what clearly appears to be a negative. Because that's what governments tend to do. They have an agenda to follow, and will not yield in their conviction that they are right and headed the right way.

I don't necessarily see it as a bad (or wrong) thing. It's effectively one of the principal rules of leadership – don't tell the kids that everything is bad, tell them to look on the bright side and insist that everything is under control (even if, for instance, the family finances are going down the drain and mom and dad are unemployed and bickering. Tell the kids the truth, they'll start panicking and get anxious, which kids shouldn't have to do.) Makes some sense: you don't want your electorate deconstructing everything you do and realizing that things are not going the right way, right? You want them to feel they can trust you to make the right decisions, even though things may not be going smoothly at every given moment.

But there's the problem, too: journalists aim for a fair and balanced view, but often end up focusing on the negative. Politicians focus on the positive and the maintaining of balance/order, but often appear to be lying in the face of brutal facts. The amount of times I've seen this in my journalistic career, where there are two polar opposite perspectives and neither can understand/tolerate the other, and they all think the other is a total liar with an evil agenda... And then, the public ends up trusting no one.

What's a politician to do? Personally, I prefer honesty. But I know that honesty, like transparency, is in reality a death knell for a politician, particularly in a country like Mexico where there is no remedy to every solution. (Can you imagine an honest politician saying: "Look, we're focusing on fixing Ciudad Juarez right now, so we really don't give a flying fuck about Sinaloa and Chapo. They can have all the drugs in the world for all we care, we need to get the violence down in Juarez." Wouldn't sit well with anyone...)

In the case of the State Department's praise for Mexico and the dismal, conflicting numbers, one thing is obvious: US-Mexican relations are seen as more important than drug war realities. No one in the DEA or State Dept. ever wants to (or can, on the record) admit that there are problems on either side (even though in private, they will candidly admit that cooperation, while better than ever, is seriously problematic at times, mostly due to corruption and Mexican authorities' incompetence). The State Dept. has to continue praising Calderon and co. in public, even if the US is probably scolding him for some of his efforts in private. (rights abuses etc.)

So there you have it. Mexico and the State Department are spinning their little story the way they want us to see it, while the media is spinning its own version of events. You choose which to believe, when to believe them, which lies to pass off as just that, and decipher what parts are true or relevant.

Monday, March 1, 2010

la guerra fallida?

The US State Department's annual global drug trafficking report came out today, and the news is, well, pretty grim.

In 2005, the year before Calderon took office, Mexico cultivated 3,300 hectares of opium poppy. In 2006, it was 5,000 hectares. In 2007, it was 6,900 hectares. In 2008, it was 15,000 hectares. Figures aren't yet available for 2009, but you get the sense of where this is going.

It's the same story for marijuana: 5,600 hectares in 2005, 8,600 in 2006, 8,900 in 2007, and 12,000 in 2008.

And yet, the State Department manages to praise the Calderon administration. "Mexico’s aggressive campaign to combat drugs and confront major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) continued at an ambitious pace in 2009."