Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

As it's New Year's Eve, I figured I'd reminisce on some of the big fails of the past decade and make some predictions for the next decade. Here goes, my bottom ten moments of the decade:

1) "I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." – Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003

2) "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." – Dick Cheney, on the Iraq insurgency, June 20, 2005

3) “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories. For those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them." – George W. Bush, May 29, 2003

4) “I recognize we didn't find the stockpiles [of weapons] we all thought were there.” – George W. Bush, Sept. 9, 2004

5) "It's a slam-dunk case." – CIA Director George Tenet, discussing WMD in the Oval Office, Dec. 21, 2002

6) “We’re busy exporting Democracy abroad to Afghanistan and Iraq, which is fine, but what we really need to do is a better job at making our Democracy work right here at home.” John Kerry, May 22, 2005

7) "All of 'em, any of 'em that have been in front of me over all these years." --Sarah Palin, unable to name a single newspaper or magazine she reads, Oct. 1, 2008

8) "[The Federal Reserve] utterly failed to prevent the financial crisis." – Commissioner Brooksley Born, questioning former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, April 7, 2010

9) "You could not construe what [Goldman Sachs] did as anything other than deliberate and disruptive... We're not going to let the American people be played for chumps here." FCIC Chairman Phil Angelides, June 7, 2010

10) "To the passenger who called me a motherfucker, fuck you., I've been in this business for years and that's it I've had it." – Air steward Steven Slater, who grabbed two bottles of beer and slid down the emergency chute after being abused by a passenger. (OK, this isn't a fail. Kudos to Slater for pulling a Zidane.)

Here are my ten predictions for the next decade (bear in mind that I have no crystal ball or insider info, and am speculating – this is, after all, just a blog):

1) With Chinese influence growing rapidly in Latin America, the Western Hemisphere becomes divided by a frosty cold war-style relationship. The threat to the US is not nuclear, it's economic. The Left in Latin America grows stronger than ever thanks to Chinese backing. Migration to the United States slows, as Latin Americans move increasingly within Central and South America, and to Mexico.

2) The European Union collapses, Germany tries to lead its neighbors out of the muddle.

3) After US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, China and Russia move in to exploit all mineral wealth in the region. (They're already doing this, but I am predicting increased on-the-ground activity and collaboration/deal-making). The Taliban grows stronger and the Afghan people don't profit from any of this.

4) The white American upper-middle class begins to move out of suburbia, being replaced by Asian-Americans and Hispanics, who are striving harder than ever to achieve that dream.

5) George P. Bush is elected president of the United States in 2016. After 8 years of Obama (and a highly successful second term), Republicans manage to take power again and make people forget about the previous Bush era by bringing in a Latino Bush.

6) Mexico "conquers" its cartels, and Chinese organized crime syndicates take over the gangs still smuggling into the United States. Consumption does not diminish. Colombia remains the major producer in the region.

7) The economic crisis and post-war years spur a period of innovation in the United States. Small business, entrepreneurialism, community and the arts flourish, ushering in a new era of what I will call compassionate capitalism.

8) China finds itself at risk of collapse, as its political regime continues to clash with its increasingly powerful capitalists. The United States, sensing an opportunity, steps in to smooth over the conflict and regain leverage over the Chinese. (How it does this is beyond my realm of knowledge, I just like the sound of this.)

9) Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish factions fail to maintain a cohesive government in Iraq. But fears of Iraq descending into civil war do not materialize – Iran's silent hand manages to prop up Shi'a power in the country just enough to ensure stability.

10) West Africa emerges as a hub of terrorism and organized crime. Countries like Yemen, once believed to be threats but under constant surveillance, simply slip into the background.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Giving something back to the motherland

Mexicans drug trafficking presence is growing in Spain, according to a story in El Universal (link in title of post). In 1998, two Mexicans were in jail in Spain; this year, it was 302. 98 percent were in on drug-related charges.

Spain's interior minister apparently believes the reason for Mexican cartel expansion into Spain is due to the US market being saturated and increased vigilance on the US-Mexico border. This strikes me as nice diplomatic talk, praising US-Mexican counter-drug efforts rather than actually looking at the reality.

The reality: drugs continue to flow unabated into the US, regardless of the Calderon administration's successes and failures in Mexico.

Spanish consumption of drugs is on the rise, as is consumption in much of western Europe. It's a nice place to ship drugs to these days.

Spain is a very attractive destination for drug flow. Lots of coastline, lots of little towns with very little policing through which to move the merchandise, lots of unemployment; and a network of gangs is already established to distribute (this now falls to the West Africans, as the North Africans have moved up the economic food chain in recent years, according to counter-drug officials) and European organized crime syndicates can move larger amounts of drugs throughout Europe quite easily.

In any case, the El Universal report is not really surprising, and is likely true throughout Europe. In researching the Last Narco, I talked to several experts who had studied arrests and seizures in Europe, and they all had evidence that the Sinaloa cartel had bought property and made criminal connections in Eastern Europe in order to expand. How many Mexican traffickers there are running around Europe right now remains to be seen, but if reports that they are taking over distribution operations more and more from the Colombians, well, it's kind of a given that they'll be operating more and more in Europe.

What will be interesting to watch in the coming years is how the Calderon drug war affects expansion to Europe. We've already seen Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel spilling into Guatemala and other Central American nations – as a result of the crackdown in Mexico, as the authorities see it – but if the Mexican cartels continue to expand in Europe, it'll be a pretty clear sign that the drug war is quite futile.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


One of the Gente Nueva suspects just caught in Durango apparently went by the alias "Guilligan," an "apparent reference to the 1960s television series Gilligan's Island," as The Associated Press puts it.

Mexico's narcos are highly creative when it comes to nicknames, or apodos as they are known in Spanish. Some are funny, others are a clear sign of the narcos' sociopathy. Here are some I've come across:

La Hamburguesa - a notorious human trafficker

El Chuck Norris

El Petardo – the firecracker, known for his explosive outbursts

Mochomo – Fire ant

El Mas Loco - The craziest one

El Chucky

El Taliban

El Mono – the monkey

El Senor de los Cielos – Lord of the Skies (known for flying jet planes full of cocaine into the US)

La Barbie – the blonde hair, blue-eyed Texan apparently got this nickname from his high school football coach

El Pozolero – The Stewmaker (dissolved up to 300 bodies – this is not funny in any way)

Los Gotcha – a Mexico City-based kidnapping gang

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wikileaks and Chapo

Courtesy of the Washington Post and Wikileaks, a glimpse into US officials' view of catching Chapo:

"Mexico's defense secretary, Gen. Guillermo Galvan, told Adm. Dennis C. Blair... that the Mexican army was implementing plans to capture [Joaquin El Chapo] Guzman, 'but that Chapo commands the support of a large network of informers and has security circles of up to 300 men that make launching capture operations difficult,' according to a report sent by U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual on Oct 26, 2009 and released by WikiLeaks..."

"In his meeting with U.S. counterparts, Galvan complained that it was difficult to mount joint operations with Mexican police because 'leaks of planning and information by corrupted officials have compromised past efforts'."

All very true. What's most interesting to me is the timing: shortly before this cable was sent last year, I was in Sinaloa, in Badiraguato, doing some research on Chapo. Some good sources told me that Chapo was moving around more frequently than ever, and that actually, he was often traveling with only one other bodyguard rather than a big security detail as he usually did. On occasion, I was told, he even drove the truck himself – no authorities would ever suspect a major drug lord of driving his own truck and appearing to be just a farmer.

Still, the information about security circles is no doubt true in general terms. It's quite commonly known that when Chapo arrives in a certain location, that location is vetted (kind of like when a politician or diplomat visits an area) to make sure there is no room for error. I've always maintained that one reason Chapo hasn't been caught is that it's impossible for the Mexican military to simply bomb the village where he happens to be hiding out, because innocent casualties would be far too high. Chapo's said to be smart like that – he not only surrounds himself with loyal henchmen, but also with ordinary locals.

Regarding the mention of informants, this is the real problem and probably not highlighted enough. In 2008, the bodyguard of the general in charge of Sinaloan anti-drug operations was arrested for leaking information to Chapo's people. That bodyguard knew the military's EVERY move – how can one expect the army to catch Chapo if he knows what the general is planning even before the general announces it to his own men?

This is why the marines have been so useful in anti-drug operations, and why they'll definitely need to play a role going forward, particularly if Chapo is to be caught or killed before the end of the Calderon presidency.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Dakar, Senegal. I of course stopped by Isle de Goree, where a museum now rests on the site where African slaves were housed before being sent to the New World.

It's a fascinating place – even though this was not one of the primary slave-shipping points, as it's touted to be, it was still a prison for many Africans, the last time they would see their homeland before being shipped off god knows where. The experience of walking through is quite overwhelming; one can't help imagining hundreds of slaves crammed into the tiny rooms like sardines, with barely enough food or water to survive. The conditions were obviously awful; those who didn't survive the wait to get on the ships were simply thrown to the sharks below.

All of that, however, was lost on some visitors to the site. I overheard one African-American woman talking to her companion about one of the rooms where they kept the slaves. "My god, you couldn't even fit a washer-dryer in here," she said of a room that once housed up to two dozen women and children.

Ah, so very perceptive. I guess you can't help the way you see the world.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Remember back in 2003 when there was such debate over whether embeds were worthwhile for journalism, or whether they compromised the reporter's objectivity? I was thinking about that the other day, and recalled an embed I took in Sadr City in Baghdad in the summer of 2006. My objectivity was certainly compromised in some ways (I was told by the captain that I would be on "IED watch" – because I was taking the seat of one of his men in the humvee, I would have to monitor the roadside in his stead) but there's no doubt the embed offered me some insight into the military's day-to-day concerns over this volatile neighborhood in Baghdad.

Here's a story I wrote about it for Soldier of Fortune magazine...

As his armored humvee cruises down the Baghdad road known as Route Grizzly, Captain Troy Wayman of the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment looks out the window at Sadr City on his right. “The slum of all slums,” he mutters. The humvee turns into the decrepit Shiite neighborhood, and Wayman — in charge of the Military Training Team working with the Iraqi Army stationed in Sadr City — instructs his driver to step on the gas.

The U.S. military convoy hurtles through the slum’s streets at about 50 mph, passing row upon row of dilapidated buildings adorned with posters of Moqtada Al Sadr, dusty lots filled with burned out cars, a handful of moving vehicles and the occasional pedestrian. Suddenly, Wayman spots a group of young men standing on a street corner. “Was that Mahdi militia there?” he asks. His interpreter nods, and Wayman sighs, knowing that his convoy is now officially on the radar. “This is Sadr City. Nobody shits here without the Mahdi Army knowing about it,” he says.

The streets are lined with sewage water—“It ain’t rained here in months,” notes Wayman. “If we get pissed [at the locals], we splash them,” he says. Looking at his digital map of the area, Wayman instructs his driver to take a hard right, straight into the heart of Sadr City’s maze of dirt alleys. As his driver slows down to about 10 mph, Wayman realizes they’ve taken a wrong turn into what appears to be a cul-de-sac—and there’s no room for the humvees to turn around. “You see that little kid duck into the alley?” the captain anxiously asks his interpreter, who nods again.

Wayman hops out of his vehicle and proceeds ahead on foot, while his gunner retains a watchful eye from atop his vehicle. The captain passes a green metal gate covered in rugs hanging out to dry. A man holding his baby in his arms watches the intruders with concern, while two young boys stand behind their gate gazing out with curiosity. Returning to his vehicle, Wayman announces that there’s an alley to the left through which they should be able to squeeze—if the residents move the car blocking the path. They do, and as the convoy passes through, the two boys flash smiles to the troops. There are “a lot of good people in Sadr City,” says Wayman. “[But] as long as they have that fear of the Americans, it’s not helpful.”

Indeed, it is that fear—not to mention the hatred — of the Americans that makes patrolling Sadr City so difficult. The four square miles of shantytown on the eastern side of Baghdad is home to an estimated 2 million Shiites, all under the sway of the radical firebrand Al Sadr. The slum—a cluster of brick homes separated by dusty alleys and a handful of main thoroughfares—is deemed so lawless that U.S. soldiers dare not spend more than an hour or so in its boundaries. The standard patrol is conducted in a convoy of four armored humvees, and the U.S. soldiers rarely set foot on the dusty soil for fear of snipers. It’s in-and-out, says Wayman during a meeting at a Coalition base prior to his Saturday morning round of the Shiite slum. “Loose lips sink ships,” he says, explaining that within minutes of entering Sadr City, the Mahdi Army will know they’re inside. “They’re watching.”

At the meeting, the difficulties of keeping watch over Sadr City are evident. A group of Iraqi Army captains sit around the conference table discussing their respective Baghdad neighborhoods as they do at the end of every week. The mood is relaxed as these military men with nicknames like “Bokha” (“Rotten on the Inside”), “Olive Oil” (the smooth and lanky one) and “Piggy” talk about their latest efforts to crack down on the insurgency and crack jaded jokes about their successes and failures. But when the conversation turns to Sadr City, the banter grounds to a halt. Fifteen shootings, a mortar attack on Iraqi Army HQ, a fuel station blown up by an improvised explosive device, a firefight between militiamen and Sunni rivals at a traffic circle—and this is just a run-of-the-mill week, by Sadr City standards. A stern-looking American sergeant abandons his casual perch on the windowsill and addresses the room. “The reports we’re getting aren’t specific enough,” he says. “An explosion in Sadr City, that’s what I hear. That’s fine. But when a patrol’s been on site for 15 minutes, he should be able to call back ‘who, what, when, where, why.’ That’s taking a couple of hours. That’s where there’s an issue.”

Indeed, once on the streets of Sadr City, the lack of communication between Iraqi Army soldiers and the Americans is evident. As Wayman’s unit approaches a checkpoint manned solely by Iraqis, an angry look spreads across his face as he mouths the words, “Put your helmets on.” With more than a hint of dismay, he mutters, “These are my guys.”

Wayman admits the Iraqi soldiers who watch over Sadr City are doing their best. After checking in with Riadh Ahmed, a 25-year-old Sunni soldier stationed near the edge of the slum, the American turns to me and explains that they live in “hard conditions” in a dilapidated building with no air conditioning and “barely adequate food”—not to mention the constant threat of being killed by militiamen. “Do they need help?” asks Wayman rhetorically. “Yeah. But we’re working on that.” As for Ahmed, he’s forthright. “Honestly, I’m not comfortable,” he says in broken English.

But just because they’re doing their best doesn’t mean the Iraqi Army are necessarily doing enough. At a checkpoint which had been hit by an IED earlier in the day, Wayman has to repeat his basic mantra. After enduring the American’s reprimand for not shutting off the road after the explosion, the Iraqi soldier in charge smiles politely. “This time we’ll take it seriously,” he says. “Absolutely,” replies Wayman. “But you gotta put your helmets on.”

As the tense 45-minute patrol comes to an end, relief spreads throughout Wayman’s humvee. Cruising out of what appears on the surface to be a ghost-town, the captain explains that although Sadr City empties when U.S. patrols come through, it can turn on a dime. “The garbage is pre-positioned to block the roads—the Mahdi put that shit out there,” he says. “They don’t take long to organize. They communicate. A U.S. patrol took a wrong turn last night, and half an hour later they’d blocked off the street.” A few minutes later, Wayman’s convoy takes another wrong turn, and hits what appears to be another dead end. As the tension mounts, the forward vehicle scouts out ahead, passing a fruit-stand adorned with a poster of Diego Maradona.

The signal is given: it’s not a dead end after all, and Wayman’s team proceeds back to the Ministry of Defense in silent relief.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fajardo to run for governor

I don't normally delve into Colombian politics, but it appears Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellin, is planning to run for governor of Antioquia, the province in which Medellin is located. He is planning to announce his run in February.

This is good news for the province. Fajardo, a US-educated journalist/teacher/mathematician-by-training turned politician, is widely credited for having turned Medellin around between 2003 and 2007. Of course it's far more complex than that; he had serious help from Paisas (as Medellin residents are known) themselves, as their entrepreneurial spirit helped give the city the economic boost it needed. But Fajardo did institute social programs, invested in public works/parks etc to improve day-to-day life, and raised the city's international profile.

It needed this last effort badly: before I wrote about Medellin's comeback in 2004 (link in title of post), I remember looking into past news clips about the city. Given its notoriety during the era of hometown hoodlum Pablo Escobar, I wasn't surprised to find little positive written about Medellin during the 80s. But I was astounded to see that not one positive piece had been written about Medellin in the English-language press since the 1930s, when some travel writer had visited the surrounding countryside.

Good press, especially realistic and balanced good press, can do amazing things for a city that requires foreign investment and foreign interest in its exports to survive and thrive. Fajardo's main claim to fame may be the cable car system he built in order to connect one of Medellin's shantytowns to the city, but personally, I think it's his comfort and success on the international stage that has done the most to boost Medellin's image. I hope he can continue to do the same for the entire region as governor of Antioquia. And maybe someday in the future, he'll be president of Colombia.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vicente Carrillo Leyva

How tough is it to keep an alleged narco behind bars in Mexico? In April 2009, Vicente Carrillo Leyva, the son of the legendary Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was arrested in Mexico City.

On Friday, he was released after paying bail of 160,000 pesos (roughly $16,000 or so). Not enough evidence to keep him under the "arraigo" system, the judge said. The only charge left on him was one of using false ID papers – hardly a massive offense in a country where millions of people have fake IDs.

But also on Friday, new charges of money laundering emerged against Carrillo Leyva, and moments after he walked out of Almoloya de Juarez maximum security prison, the narco-junior was whisked off by federal police and taken by helicopter to Mexico City, where he'll once again be investigated in the so-called dungeons of the SIEDO, the nation's anti-organized crime prosecutors.

He'll be held for another 40 days under the arraigo system (and it will probably be extended); we'll see what happens.

PS - I find it interesting that the Mexican judicial system allows prosecutors 40 days to prove that the charges are sufficient to proceed. Does it have anything to do with 40 days of wandering in the desert, like Jesus?

More on Wikileaked cables

I was just reading through another of those Wikileaks cables regarding Mexico, and saw one that addresses Mexican cartel expansion around the world.

Spanish Customs Director Nicolas Bonilla, according to the cable, told a visiting Janet Napolitano that Mexicans were replacing Colombians as the primary cocaine traffickers to Spain.

This comes as old news to those who follow the developments of the global drug trade, but it is interesting to hear it from such high-ranking sources. In 2008, a US counter-drug official warned me that within a few years, Mexican passports would replace Colombian as the "red flag" du jour – because Mexicans were increasingly trafficking the drugs to other continents on behalf of the Colombians, they would account for the majority of busts, and any Mexican citizens traveling would, by default (and wrongly, unfortunately) become suspect simply because they were carrying a Mexican passport.

Which brings me to a bit of good news: some Mexican citizens will soon be able to get "trusted traveler" status. If they pass a background check in Mexico, they'll be able to then basically skip through customs on the US side, like a lot of other frequent US travelers.

Of course, this move has its share of critics; I read recently on Fox News (surprise surprise) that this might allow the cartels to exploit the status and use "trusted travelers" to bring in their drugs, for instance.

Ok, the cartels are quick to exploit most loopholes, but I honestly don't think they'd be able to exploit this program more than they exploit the current system. And individual travelers carrying a few kilos of marijuana, cocaine or heroin are small fry compared to planes flying into places like Stow, Ohio, with tons of drugs from Sinaloa on board.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Guatemala problems

Guatemala's government has declared a state of siege in the northern province of Alta Verapaz, a troubled area which has become overrun by Mexican cartels – namely, Los Zetas. I went down to that area (just a bit southwest of Alta Verapaz) in December 2008 to check out the situation, here's a report i did at the time. It has clearly only gotten worse. (photo above is a border crossing in the area)

* * * * * * *
In Tecun Uman, Ciudad Hidalgo's sister town on the Guatemalan side of the divide, media reports and rumors of Los Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf cartel, are rampant these days. Law enforcement officers don't deny any of it.
"The gangs here are more organized now, and there are more Mexicans working here, Zetas," said Marcario Maldonaldo, a policeman in Tecun Uman, adding that just day before, a Mexican had been detained in his town for carrying weapons and drugs. "Bus drivers are being killed if they don't pay a fee to the Zetas, and so are other business owners."
Reports of exortion by Zetas have emerged nationwide, from the State of Mexico to southern Veracruz, as the group has expanded its operations this year. Everything from local drug dealing to piracy to farming is reportedly being taken over by these armed men.
Tecun Uman and its environs are no exception.
An employee at a ranch near the border that boasts a small hotel as well as many acres of fertile land, told me that his boss had recently been taken in by an extortion racket. A group of armed men had come in two weeks before, and threatened the owner. If he didn't pay regularly, they would seize the property, the employee said. The men, he added, were not Guatemalan; they looked and sounded Mexican
The owner – who did not return calls for comment– isn't the first to have been approached.
Last weekend, the president of Guatemala's Chamber of Agriculture, Carlos Zúñiga, confirmed reports that landowners in the border region "are being pressured by drug trafficking."
"This was already happening in Izabal and Petén, but now, Mexican drug traffickers are pressuring all along the border for the power to [produce and store] drugs," he said.
Landowners have been offered handsome sums for their properties, he said, but if they refuse, they die.

Once the paramilitary wing of the Gulf cartel, rumored to have trained in the United States (the U.S. government denies any record of known Zetas having trained inside its borders) and incororated Army vets and even Guatemalan soldiers, Los Zetas have evolved into the nation's most widely spread out organized crime group. They've been spreading through the south of Mexico of late.
Their modus operandi has evolved, too. According to Mexican and U.S. counter-drug officials, as well as security experts, Los Zetas no longer operate through a central chain of command leading all the way up to the Gulf cartel's top capo. "Los Zetas were the the primary reason for the Gulf's power, but reports of Zeta activity from this past year suggest that the much-feared group now operates independently," said U.S.-based security analysts Fred Burton and Stephen Meiners of Stratfor in a recent intelligence report.
"When a Zeta comes to town, he doesn't try to make a deal," said one Ciudad Hidalgo business owner, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. "He cuts off someone's head and says, this is mine now. It's non-negotiable."
Local vendors of pirated goods in Tapachula interviewed all denied that larger crime groups from out of state had taken over operations. They still work for the local bosses who provide them with their merchandise, they said, from which they take a nearly 50 percent cut off each item sold. The municipal police take a small cut every once in a while, they said – they only have to watch out for federal agents.
And who actually is a Zeta these days is up for debate. U.S., Mexican and Guatemalan authorities say the group has co-opted members of gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, as well as small-time crooks who'll do anything for a small amount of money and are easily controlled – and who also don't mind going around bragging about being Zetas.
It's not clear that the police know all that much either. A visit to the police station in Coatepeque, the Guatemalan city about an hour's drive from Tecun Uman where local police said a recently-arrested Mexican was being held, proved fruitless.
"No Mexicans here," one Coatepeque police officer said, checking the records and opening the door to the cells to support his claim.
In the station's main office, a billboard with a checklist of recent crimes and people arrested hung on the wall.
Ninety-seven arrests for illegal weapons possession since January, 23 held for rape, two nabbed for lynching.
Three foreigners arrested. But no Mexicans.
"They must have been mistaken in Tecun Uman," the cop said.
Back on the Mexican side of the border, fears are running high as clarity remains elusive.
Residents and law enforcement alike are pointing fingers and playing a guessing game as to who might be responsible for all the crime and violence, and how it might be quelled.
When a narco-manta, or banner, was posted on a Tapachula pedestrian bridge this past weekend – the first incident of its kind in the city – residents were abuzz over who had done it.
Some jumped to the immediate conclusion that it was Los Zetas – they and the Gulf cartel were the two major groups not mentioned on the unsigned banner – while other residents admitted they had no idea, but were nonetheless scared.
"This was the first narco-manta," said Bernadet Chávez, a father of three. No one took responsibility, he said, much like most the recent killings. "No one knows which group is responsible [for the violence], or which side [of the border] is worse," he said.
At the Ciudad Hidalgo border crossing, a Mexican immigration official was quicker to point the finger. "There are Zetas everywhere," he said, asking that only his first name, Mario, be used. "It's a mess over there [in Guatemala]."
Mario pulled out a series of photos he had taken two days before at his post. A man lay slumped behind the wheel of his car, riddled with bullets. Clutching his arm, his wife's face was filled with anguish, and smeared with blood. Blood had spilled onto her shirt, too, but she was unhurt. The next photo showed the windscreen of the car, shattered by a spray of bullets. In another, the Mexican side of the border crossing was in clear view.
Still, Mario insisted, "It's all happening over there."
Amidst reports that this lawless border region is falling into the hands of organized crime, the Mexican and Guatemalan governments say they have deployed more soldiers and federal police to the area in recent months to help local police prevent an infiltration by the powerful Mexican cartels and groups like Los Zetas.
But in towns like Tecun Uman, military presence is scant. Standing guard at his station in the middle of a rundown settlement right near the river that separates his nation from Mexico, Private Luis Gómez insists he and the other 31 soldiers who patrol the area and conduct anti-drug operations are doing their utmost.
"We're fighting here, too, just like the army is in Mexico," he said.
Just a few blocks away, Maldonaldo, the Tecun Uman police officer, lamented the fact that they only have 28 cops to patrol the town, and limited other resources. He might have shiny new boots and a natty new uniform courtesy of the government, he said, grinning, but "that's not enough."
About two hundred feet away in the other direction, just across the river in Ciudad Hidalgo, municipal policeman Hector Juárez de León shared similar sentiments. He's served for 24 years, and seen much in his time. He's noted the increase in crime in recent months.
And he's not sure his force of 40 municipal cops can handle it.
"There's been much more crime, and it's organized," he said. "Robberies, extortion, they're all professional now."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chapo woz 'ere?

The Diario de Chihuaha reports that Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, Mexico's most-wanted man and the subject of my book, The Last Narco, narrowly escaped the army's net the other day.

Apparently, Chapo was the primary target of a raid that led to the capture of Enrique Lopez Acosta, aka El Cumbias, in the Chihuahua town of Delicias. El Cumbias was allegedly responsible for a horrendous massacre in Creel earlier this year; he allegedly worked for Chapo in the area, as a leader of la Gente Nueva, one of Chapo's sicario groups.

The Austin-based private intelligence firm, Stratfor, cites the Diario de Chihuahua in a new security briefing; the state prosecutor and governor of Chihuahua, meanwhile, have denied the report of Chapo being anywhere near their state.

A few things spring to my mind here: first off, it's hard to know whether Chapo was indeed there. El Diario de Chihuahua cites off the record military sources in its piece; it's a pretty decent paper most of the time so I believe its sourcing. Whether or not the source actually knows anything is another matter altogether. Time and time again the leaks in Mexico about captures etc turn out to be sources misleading the reporters or the reporter desperately trying to make a story out of nothing.

Second, what would Chapo be doing in Delicias? The town is pretty far from his strongholds in Durango and Sinaloa (link to map in title of post); I find it unlikely that he'd be roaming around in central Chihuahua, even if the state is rapidly becoming his, thanks to la Gente Nueva's successes against the Juarez cartel. That said, if he's becoming more confident that his people are in charge, and that the authorities' efforts to catch him are failing, then maybe, just maybe, he was there to check up on operations. It wouldn't be the first time he's reportedly visited plantations and the like in Chihuahua – who knows, maybe he's back in leadership mode.

Or maybe Chapo was simply indulging in one of his culinary excursions? Reports of Chapo entering a restaurant to have a meal (and pay for fellow diners in return for their silence) have abounded since 2005; he's said to have stopped in for a meal at restaurants in Culiacan, Nuevo Laredo, Mexicali, Guadalajara and a few other places. Delicias, I've been told, has the best burritos in Mexico; maybe Chapo made the trip for one of those. And maybe, as he said when he was in prison, he's "just a farmer."

Prison break in Nuevo Laredo

So 141 prisoners escaped from a Nuevo Laredo state penitentiary on Friday. Seriously, folks, this is getting ridiculous. In the past two years, there have been major breaks from prisons in Zacatecas, Nuevo Laredo, Culiacan, Juarez, Tijuana, Matamoros, Reynosa and a few other cities. Even Puente Grande, from which Chapo made his infamous laundry cart escape in 2001, suffered a breakout earlier this year.

Wardens lament that their facilities are not equipped to handle federal criminals (ie, organized crime). I understand this, and they're definitely in the right. But is NOT that hard to keep these prisons well-guarded, at least temporarily.

It's simple: use the military.

All one needs to do to secure these prisons is keep the military on constant patrol outside. You don't need more than a few humvees and well-armed soldiers, and you will provide a serious deterrent. I'm not saying that no one will try to break out, but it will be that much harder. Meantime, one can get on with cleaning up the prisons on the inside.

I have to admit I'm a bit tired of hearing how the military "arrived" on the scene of an escape or riot, when they should have already been there. I understand that Mexico prides itself on its rather open prison system (rehabilitation rather than simply incarceration) but having the military patrol OUTSIDE will not infringe on prisoners' rights, and would do nothing to affect activities on the inside. It would simply make waltzing out of a medium-security facility and hopping onto a convoy of awaiting buses, as happened in Nuevo Laredo, that much more difficult.

The Mexican government has pledged to improve prison facilities and security, and build more maximum security penitentiaries by next year. Yes, that's necessary. But so is securing the god-awful prisons that exist now.

Instead, what we have is the usual: state authorities are blaming the federal gov't, and vice versa. Get on with it, guys, stop bickering and just make things better.

Who's the bad guy?

When thinking of the Mexican drug war, it's so easy to resort to an Us vs Them mentality, and think of it all in terms of good guys and bad guys. I admit that in my book, I did just that at times, because, well, I wanted to come out in favour of the good law enforcement officers who are trying to improve the country for their people.

But at times during my reporting, I did very much sympathize with the "bad" people. During one trip to the Sinaloan hills, I drove with a companion through the winding hills to the resting place of Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca, just outside of Santiago de los Caballeros.

Don Neto is one of the old school Sinaloan narcos. He is currently in prison on charges related to the killing of DEA agent Kiki Camarena. The mausoleum pictured above is where he will be buried. He's 68 years old, so is unlikely to ever see his homeland as a free man again.

But in that homeland, he's seen as a hero. There is no doubt that he has put more money into the community, created more jobs, and given people more hope than the government has ever tried to do. There is no doubt that he is the patron, a man who kept crime down (even if by force and brutality) and kept society (albeit one founded on illicit activity) running. The graveyard in which he will rest is sacrosanct, and villagers know not to disrespect the dead who lie there.

"Why would you want to support a guy who’s poisoning your society?" asked one US official I talked to a while back in Mexico City.

He's got a very valid point, especially as addiction rates rise in Mexico and gringos are no longer the only consumers. But one look at Don Neto's history, his place in a society neglected by government, and one can begin to understand just why the average Sinaloan might support a guy like that.

I'm not saying it's right, but I do understand it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Visiting Mexico

Ok, so I was going to avoid this topic, because it kinda gets on my nerves. But given that the holiday season is upon us, and a number of people have asked me whether it's "safe" to visit Mexico, I will weigh in.

First off: Mexico is a big country. So be specific in your research before planning a trip, and don't heed news reports of "Mexico is falling apart." I'd estimate that for a tourist, 99 percent of it is safe (just a blind guess)

Second: Where is it not safe? Ok, I would advise against visiting Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Reynosa, Tijuana and Culiacan, unless you know the cities and/or know people who live there. Along the border, the safety situation is fluid and ever-changing in every small town too, so check in with local authorities (and the authorities on the US side; maybe a local consulate if that makes you more comfortable).

Resorts? All pretty safe. There is no war being waged against tourists in Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, or Acapulco. These places suck as far as holiday locales go, and there is every chance you'll get mugged or ripped off somehow, just as you might get mugged walking down the streets of Boston. But the chances of being caught up in drug violence are slim to none. There was a shootout on the main drag in Acapulco earlier this year; life goes on as (close to) normal in the city today.

Inland pueblos: Safe as can be... Be cautious if driving long stretches on open roads (I'd advise taking the bus, personally, but if you must drive, don't drive at night, watch out for crazy drivers and be sure to stop at military checkpoints and not use your cellphone near them.) Steer clear of SUVs and any vehicle with tinted windows/no license plate, and do not, under any circumstance, get into an argument with another driver no matter how much he or she might piss you off.

In the towns themselves, adopt a policy of silent respect. Ie: don't ask about narcos or drugs, and people won't bother you, by and large. If you're a nosy journalist like me, ask about drugs, but do so at your own risk. And know that you probably won't find out much more than you would read in the papers.

If there is a party going on outside or near your hotel and it's driving you crazy, put in some earplugs and just deal with it. It might be a bunch of fun-loving locals having a family affair; it might be the local narco. Let them be.

Mexico City: Take taxis from sitios, or stands, or have your hotel call a car for you. Street cabs are fine for those who have some street sense, but it's probably not worth the risk (and it's not all that much more expensive to just call a cab).

Absolutely forbidden: Don't buy drugs. I don't say this from a moral standpoint, I couldn't care less if you do smoke weed or do coke. But in Mexico, buying drugs right now could a) conect you to the very people you should be trying to avoid or b) get you in a lot of hot water with the authorities. So best to just stay well away from all that.

Lastly: If you have a problem with some sort of crime, many cities now have tourist hotlines and/or consulates. Go to them, and skip the local cops.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Party problems

So apparently Nazario Moreno (El Mas Loco) was killed after La Familia organized a massive party in Apatzingan, one of its strongholds in Michoacan. President Calderon told W Radio that "with a certain amount of insolence, they organized a party, a gathering of hundreds of their people. ... Everyone found out about the party."

This isn't the first time a party has led to the demise of a top narco. On December 11, 2009, Arturo Beltran Leyva hosted a Christmas "posada" (holiday party) in Ahuatepec, Morelos, just outside the lovely haven of Cuernavaca. He hired musicians (Ramon Ayala among them) and escorts to entertain his guests. The Marines swooped in and tried to capture him, to no avail.

But they kept on his tail, and five days later, gunned him down in a Cuernavaca high-rise.

This time around in Michoacan, the authorities weren't lucky enough to leave with Moreno's corpse, which will no doubt lead to rumours that Moreno's death has been fabricated. We'll see. Already, the people of Apatzingan have taken to the streets to protest his death and rally around La Familia.

According to an AP report: One man held up a sign that said: "Nazario will always live in our hearts." A boy in a checkered shirt held another saying "Mr. Nazario, for students your ideals live on." A little girl in pigtails held a sign reading "La Familia Michoacana is more than one state." A woman held one high over her head proclaiming: "Long live La Familia Michoacana."

Locals have been paid off by the narcos to protest before, throughout Mexico; the fact that a little girl in pigtails was carrying a sign makes me wonder if the same hasn't happened here.

Seriously, the Calderon administration really needs to get its message across immediately, that it truly is trying to help its people. The army has been engaged in reconstruction and heart-winning exercises in Michoacan, why not highlight those activities before the people turn once and for all to a bunch of pseudo-religious quacks who peddle meth on the side. It'd be a start.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mexico – land of opportunity for private security companies

I've been in contact with a couple of western private security contractors recently, and they say that folks out in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly looking at Mexico as a good future option. "The future of western private security companies in Iraq is bleak," says one contractor. "If we can establish a toe hold in Mexico and South America it could evolve into a bright future for all concerned."

This isn't particularly surprising, but it does make one wonder what Mexico could turn into. What no one wants is a Blackwater-type situation there, where private security folks simply go in guns blazing and enjoy shooting up shit (not to mention, people). There's the issue of sovereignty, of course, and no doubt some Mexicans would come out strongly against private security operatives on their turf (when Blackwater started building its training facility near the border outside of San Diego a few years back, the press in Mexico went crazy out of fear, and rightly so, in my opinion.) In addition, there are already enough vigilante-types operating in Mexico; the last thing anyone needs is a bunch of trigger-happy foreign mercenaries taking potshots at anyone who looks, talks or walks like a narco. Or just someone they don't like the look of.

That said, if all is done by the book, then these companies could very well be welcome and should be: Pemex has had pipelines pilfered by Los Zetas and other rebel groups in the past, while most US firms insist their employees ride around with security these days. With fake military and federal police checkpoints apparently becoming increasingly common, having some serious security guys on the ground would do everyone wonders. While most foreign investment to Mexico has continued to flood in despite security concerns, a survey of 220 private U.S. companies (conducted by the State Department) showed that 15 percent of those companies have postponed investments or other plans, Reuters reported recently; nearly 80 percent of the companies saw the drug war as a long-term threat to Mexico's political and economic stability.

"If we don't take seriously the tension that is being created by the insecurity and work in a very deliberate and accelerated way to reduce it, then there is a very serious prospect that the spillover into the investment climate can become more significant," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual told the news agency.

Indeed. Perhaps it's time to bring in the mercs. Readers, what do you think?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sleepless nights

I can't sleep, so I figured I'd blog about another sleepless night I had a few years back. I was camped out with a unit from the 101st Airborne in Adhamiya, downtown Baghdad. They were scheduled to do a raid with their Iraqi counterparts the next morning, before dawn. A group of alleged insurgents had been located, Col. Tarek Abed Alkreem and his men would go after them – with a little help from their American friends, led by Capt. Josh Brandon.

We sat in Col. Alkreem's office about five hours before the raid. He was clearly overwhelmed – and had no qualms in admitting it. “We don’t have the equipment, technology, ammunition and intelligence that the Coalition has,” he said. Adhamiya was full of Al Qaeda, Baathist insurgents, criminals – “all sorts of groups, each with their own aims,” Alkreem explained. He looked flustered. “There’s too much happening here,” he said.

The Americans I talked to that night didn't really feel that way. They admitted to being a bit tired of training – they knew they could get the job done themselves, but they'd been ordered to train, not actually fight. They were antsy, and knew that if given the green light, they'd be able to take on the insurgents.

On the roof of the compound (a Forward Operating Base, or FOB, in military parlance) I stood by while a couple of soldiers pointed their turret gun at a nearby mosque. That's where the insurgents take cover, one said. He could blow the insurgents out from there, without even leaving the base, he said. But no, that wasn't his directive...

A few of the soldiers were getting a little sick of the whole situation in general (bear in mind this was way back in 2006). One private grumbled about the war being purely ideological, while another joked about how long it took him to get used to “all that man-kissing." Most of the soldiers I talked to admitted they had enjoyed learning the ways of their foreign counterparts. But sometimes the frustration was inevitable: “the word 'hope' doesn't exist in the military,'" said one soldier, griping about his counterparts' fatalistic sensibilities.

Shortly after the meeting in Alkreem's office (which, incidentally, was inside what once was one of Uday Hussein's whorehouses), I bunked down with Capt. Brandon. To this day, I am grateful to all the guys who offered me their spare bunk. At least three of them did so, but Brandon said that I should sleep in his quarters, which of course were more spacious and, well, given the circumstances, luxurious.

I got into my sleeping bag, and tried to imagine what was going on inside the head of my one-night roommate. With the raid about three hours away, I didn't probe, I figured it'd be right to just let him be. (Even a reporter has to know that at times, there is nothing more annoying than a reporter.) He was watching DVD episodes of Smallville (a self-admitted addiction of his) and clearly kinda missing home. He mentioned something about ending his tour pretty soon. Then he turned back to Smallville.

I fell sound asleep, thinking, yeah, I owe these guys my life. There are hundreds of other journalists out there who I am sure think the same.

Is America bonkers?

I've been back in the US for a while, and most of what I've seen/heard has got me thinking: this country is going bonkers. I don't really get much of what I've witnessed. OK, so the country is going through a period of reinvention – I think I get that. It is trying to bring itself out of an economic hole, and reinvent its image abroad as well as at home.

But is it actually trying? In bookstores, Glenn Beck is a big seller. Sarah Palin's reality TV show has prompted more than a handful of people to whisper to me: "I think she's going to win in 2012." I see and read a lot about Obama hatred – some of it crazy rabid talk, other times it's quiet mumbling about how he simply isn't getting anything done. I read journalists' columns in which they lambast other journalists' work and think: Whatever happened to the old maxim of 'don't say something unless it's worth saying'?

I also hear the same old stories: racism and sexism in the workplace abound, you can only get ahead by knowing the right people or sleeping your way to the top, hard work doesn't get you anywhere, blah blah blah.

A lot of it is pure moaning, in my opinion, focusing on the negative instead of the positive. Some of it is simply people desperately trying to use their disadvantages as advantages, to game the system by pulling the victim card. Some of it is justified. But I've heard it all before.

I think something's wrong with the system, personally. I think people are getting "enlightened" at US universities and through their therapists in order to learn how the world isn't fair and how they've been treated badly, rather than how to navigate the world and make it work to their advantage and just deal with it. I look at the national conversation, and all I hear is hate, vitriol or woe-is-me talk. Did the United States not learn anything from its misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq? Did Americans not learn that in parts of the rest of the world, and even in parts of this country, some people have no opportunities? If American democracy is so bad, why do we want the rest of the world to have what we have? And why do we wonder why India and China are rising past us, when we're so mired in our own negativity?

During a recent visit to Austin, Texas, an old guy looked at me and lamented: "Americans never learn," he said with a sad smile.

Too true, too true.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Not everything in Juarez is ugly

I took the above picture outside of Ciudad Juarez, in the sand dunes of Samalayuca, in 2009. I remember walking over the dunes and thinking about how many bodies had been buried there in the past few decades; how many Ni Nombres (the unnamed dead in the drug war) lay beneath my feet. Narcofosas (mass graves) have been discovered there in the past; I knew full well I might be treading on someone's sacred turf.

Then I saw this little kid, jumping around on the dunes. I talked to her and her parents – like many locals, they came there from Juarez every weekend for a long walk. They didn't think about the deaths, they said, they thought about their own footprints, the steps they were taking toward the future, steps toward a better future for their little girl.

I walked back to the car with that in mind. I didn't think about the dead bodies anymore, I thought about the future, a future where one wouldn't have to walk over dead bodies in order to enjoy one of the most beautiful spectacles on the planet.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reflections on Haiti

I wrote this piece after a visit to Haiti in 2004. It was not a good time for the country; the bicentennial had just passed and although the island nation was still standing (threats of riots and even a possible coup had dominated discussion prior to the date). But the future definitely looked bleak. Six years later, after a successful election in 2006, an earthquake, a cholera epidemic and god knows what else, I'm glad to see Haiti still surviving, somehow. My obituary was premature, as I had hoped.

Adieu, Haiti? 

Special to The Haitian Times

I will always remember Haiti as a country that embraced me, a nation where so many of the 3 million or so citizens of Port-au-Prince always said "bonjour" to the blanc as they passed me by on the busy streets, a place where pride has long ruled in the stead of leaders who couldn't or wouldn't.

It pains me to write an obituary – even a speculative one – for a country that once held so much promise. Haiti became the world's first black republic in 1804. To this day, it remains the only former slave nation to have overthrown its rulers on its own. This year, the bicentennary of Haiti's birth, was supposed to be one big celebration. But deep in their hearts, Haitians seemed to know it was always going to mark the end of a troubled history. Even in April 2002, when I was last in the country, many Haitians already shared a pessimistic and fatalistic sentiment: "If things are not fixed by 2004, then Haiti is finished," they forewarned. Melodramatic as this statement may have seemed then, 2004 is now here, things are not fixed, and yes, Haiti as we know it may be finished. Even foreign observers seem to agree. In a recent report, Council on Hemispheric Affairs research fellow Jessica Leight – recently returned to Washington from the country – declared that Haiti is entering its "final destructive phase."

It pains me to think in black and white about a country where even the color of one's skin was never that simple to delineate. But Haiti has been headed this way for a long time. The country has never been able to rule itself democratically-ironically, most experts agree that it was during the Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier dictatorship that the country functioned best economically, albeit at the expense of human rights and the people's freedoms. Priest-turned-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was Haiti's last chance. And he has squandered that opportunity.

Aristide is not solely to blame. Washington, having placed him in power in 1994, promptly turned its back, fearing his leftist slant. During the 1990s, the U.S. military intervention in Haiti focused its strengths on stabilizing the cities, but neglected to go into the countryside and disarm rural rebels. It also left Aristide with a woefully inadequate police force of less than 4,000 men to provide security for a population of nearly 8 million. With the military disbanded, the police and a weak court system were left to fend for themselves.

U.S. policy towards Haiti has always been a shambles. In recent years, Washington has led efforts to freeze some $500 million in international pledges to Haiti, even using its veto rights in the Inter-American Development Bank to assert pressure on Aristide's government. Most recent CIA involvement in the country is unproven but rumors still abound. In April 2002, the most popular tale going around Port-au-Prince was that CIA planes were regularly dropping drugs into the countryside, which the police would seize and sell, or plant on influential pro-Aristide supporters. While dismissing most of the rumors, COHA Director Larry Birns acknowledges that "certainly, the CIA is crawling all over that place." And the less one knows, the more one imagines; thanks to intimidation tactics and worse towards those who try to speak freely and truthfully in Haiti, unbiased journalism isn't readily available to debunk tall tales. "With everything that happens in Haiti, there's more and less to it than meets the eye," says Birns. And of course, the CIA is everyone's favorite scapegoat. But consider that human rights abuser former death squad commander Emmanuel Constant-who lives happily in Queens, New York without real fear of deportation despite extradition requests from Haiti's courts and an INS deportation order-has admitted that he was employed by the CIA (The CIA denies this claim). It's no wonder Haiti is rife with stories of spooks.

In recent weeks, the news from Haiti has been about anti-Aristide thugs literally taking over towns in the North, killing anyone who gets in their way, and threatening to march on Port-au-Prince to oust Aristide. For some reason, Aristide is being called on to answer for this, even if he is not to blame. He does rule by decree, but only because the opposition will not allow parliamentary elections to be called until he leaves office. The opposition-known as Group 184 and the Democratic Convergence, the tiny economic elite and disillusioned defectors from the Aristide camp-has a simple strategy: Get rid of Aristide. They know they don't have the votes to win an election, so he must be gone.

So, what’s next? The Pentagon wants nothing to do with Haiti. The country's neighbors in CARICOM are considering sanctions as well as diplomatic mediation efforts. The U.S. administration is backing these proposals, also warning Aristide to ensure his supporters do not use violence to crush opposition. Meanwhile, time is running out for a peaceful solution, as the United Nations warns of an impending humanitarian crisis. The opposition continues to call for Aristide's resignation. But his term expires on Feb.7, 2006, and he has vowed not to leave the presidential palace until that day.
It is difficult to imagine how Haiti can pull itself out of this mess, but one has to hope that the international community will intervene, and set this country back on the track from which it began to veer in 1804.

Nearly two years ago, standing in an empty playground on the corner of the Place des Heroes de L'Independence in Port-au-Prince, I gazed at a statue of former Haitian leader Alexander Pétion. During his rule between 1807 and 1815, the nation became divided as Pétion, a wealthy mulatto, turned his back on Haiti's blacks. His back turned to the playground, I considered the unintentional symbolism: he had turned his back on Haiti's children. The world cannot afford to pull a Pétion on Haiti.

I hope this obituary turns out to be premature, melodramatic, fatalistic and above all, wrong.

Copyright: The Haitian Times, 2004

New focus for blog

Now that I'm no longer in Mexico, I've decided to refocus my blog to reflect what I'm working on/where I am at the moment. And given that my time is currently being spent on a stay-at-home project, I figured I'd use the blog to post about some of my past experiences as a reporter – take a trip down memory lane, if you will.
Hope you enjoy it...

El mas muerto?

El Mas Loco (The craziest) is believed to have died in a shootout in Michoacan. Born Nazario Moreno, he was one of the leaders of La Familia. (He's usually called the leader by the press, but back in 2006 he was known more as a spokesman, so it's up for debate exactly what his position was.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Human rights be damned...

Another interesting nugget from the diplomatic cables: The operation that resulted in the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009 was "a clear victory for the Mexican Government and an example of excellent USG-GOM cooperation."

Really? I understand the reasoning behind praising the intelligence shared and the way the marines caught up to the guy (they raided an "identified" location and barely missed him; then they followed him for a week and caught up to him in Cuernavaca thanks to perseverance and US intel). But the way he was treated posthumously leaves much to be desired. For those who don't recall, Arturo Beltran Leyva's trousers were pulled down, while dollar and peso notes were scattered on his bullet-riddled body.

I don't care if he was the scum of the earth: if the US government is going to push human rights on Mexico and its military, it should be condemning this sort of treatment of dead traffickers. Otherwise, expressing shock at the savagery of the narcos themselves kinda falls short.

Interestingly, the cable also mentions that Embassy officials believed at the time that Hector Beltran Leyva was also killed in the Cuernavaca shootout, which as the cable states, "would mean that all Beltran Leyva brothers are either dead or in prison."

Until today, most of Mexico (myself included) had been operating under the assumption that Hector was the last Beltran Leyva standing, and that he was now running the show. Will have to check into this, stay tuned...

Concerns for US agents

One interesting thing to emerge from the Wikileaks cables from Mexico is the threat to US agents/officials. Back in March 2009, Chapo and various cronies allegedly "discussed the use of violence against American and/or Mexican government buildings," according to a US Justice Department indictment. Chapo also reportedly ordered his people to target US law enforcement if they got in the way of shipments. According to a high-ranking DEA official in Washington, threats have also been made toward DEA agents in Mexico, but no one has reached the point of taking serious action – the thugs have been more of the yahoo variety, lobbing out threats but never following up.

According to one US Embassy cable, 10 Mexican law enforcement officers who work with DEA in Mexico have been killed since 2007; 51 FBI contacts have been killed.

Lastly: "We do know from sources that cartel members have at least contemplated the possibility of doing harm to both our personnel and institutions, but we frankly don't know enough about how DTO members think and operate to know what factors might trigger a decision to mount such an attack, but the potential threat is very real."

Here's one possible scenario: My belief (and it is just a belief and an unfounded one at that) is that Chapo has made contingency plans for his eventual fall. If and when the military capture or kill him, my belief is that the repercussions will be felt in Mexico City and elsewhere. I can well imagine Chapo ordering that should he go down, his men should attack PGR headquarters or target high-ranking officials, for instance.

Just a thought, and hopefully the Mexican authorities will seriously think through the consequences before taking him on in the hills of Sinaloa or Durango, or wherever he is.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse...

A group of thugs torched a kindergarten in Ciudad Juarez after the proprietors refused to pay extortion fees. It was set alight at night, so no one was hurt, but this is still obviously horrific. Day care centers have been linked to narcos before as money-laundering fronts, but this takes it all one step further.

Reflections on dirtyness

Since writing my book and basically wrapping up my reporting on the drug war, I've been doing some reflecting on what I witnessed and have tried to understand.

"Democracy cannot endure if the roots of its system have rotted," Alejandro Junco de la Vega, chairman and chief executive of Mexico's Grupo Reforma, said at a summit on violence against journalists today.

Indeed. Over the past three years, I've encountered some of those rotten elements. Sometimes I've sympathized with those involved. After one visit to the prison in Culiacan and talking to low-level narcos, I found myself quite saddened by their plight. One inmate I had talked to was clearly intent on making a better life for himself once outside; but deep inside, he knew he wouldn't have a hope in hell. You could tell by the look on his face, the anguish he expressed as he talked of going straight, of betraying his drug bosses, of the reality of his chances. He knew he wouldn't be able to do the right thing; he had no real choice in the matter.

I witnessed a similar sentiment from a cop in Juarez. We were talking in a near whisper in the police station (which at the time was controlled by the army) and he mentioned how he had worked for the narcos. He would again once the army was gone, he said. He looked at me without expression. He had no choice, his fate was chosen. They know where my family lives and kids go to school, he whispered. He knew on which side he would end up, and he had just as little real choice as the narcos I had talked to in prison.

I've talked to dozens of Mexican officials in the past few years, and most of them accept the reality of the game they're pawns in. Some are really good cops, whose stories I believe. Others are not, but they are controlled by powers far stronger than they. Most often, their choice is money or death. I can sympathize with their plight, even though I can't condone it.

Then there are the officials who act in a blinding state of total hypocrisy. The Noe Ramirez's of this world, who pledge to crack down on drug trafficking and then are found to have taken $450,000 from the narcos themselves. I simply don't understand the level of hypocrisy in the brains of these sorts of people. I'm no saint or preacher myself, but these guys purport to be exactly that, crusaders for justice. And then they work with the narcos? It's beyond wrong. It's not the average guy breaking his own rules in a moment of weakness or temptation, it's the powerful, respected crusader breaking everything he stands for.

And they exist everywhere, not just Mexico.

They range from the small – U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Michael Gilliland, for instance, knowingly waved cars full of illegal aliens through his border entry point – to the bigger – customs man Richard Padilla Cramer, who pleaded guilty on trafficking and corruption charges but later cut a deal for obstruction of justice – to the top dogs...

I recently had the opportunity to appear on CNN International in New York, and while getting prepared beforehand, found myself sitting next to Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York and attorney general famous for fighting organized crime. Oh, and he's also the guy who solicited a prostitute from a ring and took her across state lines, breaking a law he had so fervently sought to enforce.

We had a quick chat about Mexico, and organized crime there. I listened to his opinions, because, well, he does know a lot about organized crime and he's an extremely sharp guy. But throughout the chat I felt myself moving away from him, shifting uneasily. I couldn't understand this man. He was a crusader, a good tough guy, and had a moment of weakness. I get that. We all have moments of weakness. But most of us don't break every rule we stand for when having them. Most of us get drunk, or do something else that is wrong or stupid. People like Eliot Spitzer are not just "the average guy," they're supposed to be the man fighting against the bad things so that the weaknesses of "the guy" are not exploited in life.

Just my makes me wonder sometimes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

14-year-old killer

This story about Edgar Jimenez, the American-born 14-year-old who says he was kidnapped and forced to work for the Cartel del Pacifico Sur is tragic. He allegedly beheaded four victims during his time working for the cartels. Every time I read about one of these kids who has been co-opted and turned into a monster I get the shivers. Some psychologists believe that these kids are already devils, capable of killing and torture. But I'm not convinced: I think that a lot of them are simply at an age where they are easily influenced, easily swayed and turned into monsters by their bosses – knowing full well that they'll simply be killed if they don't do the bosses' bidding. It's very like child soldiers in Africa; they barely know better so get turned easily, and their senses and emotions are subsequently numbed through drugs and other substances.
Tragic, that's all I can say.

Friday, December 3, 2010

La Reina del Pacifico

Milenio is reporting that all charges have been dropped against Sandra Avila Beltran, the so-called Reina del Pacifico who was arrested in late 2007.

Avila Beltran's arrest was the stuff of a great novel: the cops tracked her down through the fancy restaurants/cafes in Polanco she was known to frequent; when they caught her she simply smirked at the cameras and claimed she was a housewife with business interests. She had allegedly risen through the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel by seducing various capos, striking allegiances and having relationships with top Colombians and just generally, being an impressive go-getter.

She was indicted in Florida in 2004 on charges of conspiring to import cocaine in connection with a 9.6-ton seizure of the drug. And according to former DEA special agent Mike Vigil, Avila Beltran was "very ruthless," even by narco-standards.

During a visit to Santa Marta Acatitla penitentiary in 2008, I had the fortune of spotting Ms. Avila Beltran making a phone call from the prison yard. She had just recently filed a complaint with the human rights commission: there were cockroaches in her cell, she protested. Life in the prison was clearly tough: there she was at the payphone, wearing a very sleek beige pantsuit (beige is for inmates who have yet to be convicted, they can basically wear anything if they can afford it) and a pair of Jackie O-style sunglasses and high heels.

I didn't get to talk to her unfortunately, but I chatted to some other inmates about her. "Look," said one 20-something inmate, her eyes lighting up and her jaw dropping slightly. "La Reina."

La Reina del Pacifico's cellmates spent much of their time gossiping about her, they admitted. "She's so cool," one said to me. She's a "hero" who worked around the system.

But even then, there was skepticism from inmates about her true status, and even her identity. One inmate frowned as she spoke to me. "She's just one more here in the prison," she said, cynically. "If she's really La Reina, then why is she still here? Why haven't her people come and rescued her yet?"

I guess they didn't need to.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chapo and Mourino

Proceso magazine has a piece this week by journalist Anabel Hernandez, the author of a new drug book, "Los Senores del Narco."

Hernandez has done several years of reporting on this, and done a fair amount of document investigation pertaining to Chapo. I'm excited to read her book, although my guess is that it will contain much that many of us already know. (Full disclosure, my book does the same.)

But a few bits of the excerpt in Proceso are enlightening (link in title of post). For instance, Hernandez recounts a meeting in early 2008, in which an unnamed general over the age of 65 met with Chapo on orders of Los Pinos, to discuss a pact. The general allegedly had been a close confidant of the late Juan Camilo Mourino since 2007.

There have been reports of a meeting between Chapo and local officials before. These reports also had it taking place in 2008, but I've never read about a Los Pinos/military link. The meeting allegedly took place in the hills of Durango, according to previous reports.

The revelations about Mourino are bound to cause a stir in Mexico. First off, he's dead – no way to issue an impassioned denial. Second, Mourino was one of Calderon's top aides and friends. If he ordered any pact, then Calderon would most likely have been complicit.

I don't buy any of it, personally. First off, I genuinely believe Calderon is trying to fight this war, and that includes taking down the Sinaloa cartel. Second, to send a high-ranking general to meet face-to-face with Chapo would be akin to the White House sending Gen. Petraeus to have a fireside chat with Osama bin Laden.

I know that generals have been linked to the narcos in the past, and I know they've met with them before. But for Los Pinos to send their man to meet with the enemy to discuss a pact? I just can't see it happening, sorry.

Wikileaks and Mexico

I've just been reading one of the more "sensational" Wikileaks cables from Mexico, one of which was written by US Charge D'Affairs John Feeley. I've met Feely, and he seemed quite a positive/optimistic guy, so some of this does come across as quite dire. But the headlines ("Mexico is losing drug war, US says" for example) are a bit overblown.
A sampling of one of Feeley's cables (my comments are in all capitals):

Calderon has aggressively attacked Mexico's drug trafficking organizations but has struggled with an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency and spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed. Indeed, the GOM's [Government of Mexico's] inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere - the nationwide total topped 7,700 in 2009 - has become one of Calderon's principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security.

Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency's success is viewed as another's failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of.

Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among "clean" law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants.

The military was not trained to patrol the streets or carry out law enforcement operations.

Below the surface of military professionalism, there is also considerable tension between SEDENA and SEMAR. SEDENA has come to be seen slow and risk averse even where it should succeed.

What SEDENA, and to a lesser extent SEMAR, need most is a comprehensive, interactive discussion that will encourage them to look holistically at culture, training and doctrine in a way that will support modernization and allow them to address a wider range of military missions.

We are having some success in influencing the GOM to transition the military to secondary support functions in Juarez. But in the near term, there is no escaping that the military will play a role in public security.

So, a pretty interesting look at how the Embassy sees the situation in Mexico. But it doesn't exactly say that the Mexican government is losing, does it? And in fact, nowhere in the cable does Feeley even call it a war. Which I believe is quite interesting too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapo caught in Colima?

There are some rumours floating around that Chapo was captured in Colima on Monday and transferred to Mexico City. A US source says it's not true; I also would find it hard to believe that Calderon wouldn't have mentioned it in his speech today.

Unless they're awaiting DNA test confirmation, of course.

Incidentally, the government also released numbers on arrests since December 2006: 24 percent of those arrested have been from the Pacific cartel (Sinaloa), 28 percent from Gulf-Zetas, 16 percent were Beltran Leyva, 4 percent from La Familia, 12 percent Tijuana.

That's the exact same percentage of Sinaloa cartel members arrested that the administration released around April. The percentage has remained exactly the same over the course of 8 months? Hmm...

Good story on drug war

AP has a very good story about the drug war and the futility of it all. Aside from the fact that David Gaddis' name is spelled wrong, it's a very accurate piece (Link in title of post).

The best part, for those who have wondered about all these "cells" and "operatives" being caught regularly in the US:

Otis Rich, a 34-year-old career criminal from Baltimore, Md., was arrested after he was connected, via cell phone calls, to another Baltimore cocaine dealer, who had his product shipped from an Arizona trafficker, who got his product from Mexico.

When asked about the Sinaloa cartel, Rich said, "Sina-who? I don't know anything about them guys." He's serving 15 years in federal prison in Atlanta for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.