Sunday, January 31, 2010

the case of the 33 Haitian kids

The case of the 10 American baptist missionaries who were arrested taking 33 Haitian kids across the border without the proper papers fascinates me.

On the one hand, they may have been trying to do something good, as they claim. On the other, they may be just the kind of sinister group that often gets overlooked when it comes to organized crime.

Christian groups have been accused of exploiting the people of weak nations before, and just because they are Christian doesn't mean they should be given a carte blanche to do what they like in a foreign country. I've always had a beef with missionaries in Haiti, because they preach religion and give bibles, but tend to ignore that the people really need food, jobs and better infrastructure. God is nice, but it doesn't really get you anywhere. (Disclaimer: I'm an atheist).

Now, did these 10 baptists have sinister intentions with the Haitian kids they took away from misery? At first glance, it doesn't seem so. They claim they were going to try and reach relatives once the kids were in the Dominican Republic. I think it would be the human thing to do to believe them.

But the authorities, in my opinion, still did the right thing. This group could easily have been planning to sell the kids off in the DR; even if their intentions were good, they could still have fallen prey to the numerous con artists that appear on mission doorsteps with fake IDs and claim to be long-lost relatives. Lacking proper security, too, the mission could be raided by armed members of crime groups in the DR who deal in trafficking of children. (IMagine you're a gangster, you hear that 33 kids have just been brought into the country, with no guards or paperwork – it's easy pickings.)

Even if you don't trust the Haitian government to do the right thing in a situation like this earthquake, you have to respect their rules, and calls from the international community to leave kids where they are.

One thing strikes me as particularly odd in the case; the woman in charge of the Baptist group, Laura Silsby, told The Associated Press that she had not been following news reports while in Haiti.

If she had, she would have known that the International Organzation for Migration was already warning of cases in which Haitian parents had given their children to known traffickers in exchange for financial assistance. She would have known about the government's fears of trafficking in these chaotic times. She would have known, as she put it, "exactly what we are trying to combat."

If she was trying to combat human trafficking, wouldn't it have been better to be abreast of the situation, so as to know what the rules are at this specific moment in time? That alone gives me reason to believe that although she is not necessarily guilty of a horrific crime, she is guilty of not being qualified to take 33 children across any international border.

I wish the Haitian kids, the baptists and the Haitian courts the best of luck in figuring this case out. I really hope the baptists didn't have sinister plans; that would just be very sad news indeed.

Friday, January 29, 2010

the Mexican cartels' global reach

Ahead of the release of the annual US National Drug Threat Assessment, it's a good time to look at the global reach of the Mexican drug cartels.

Because so much BS is often thrown out there, I'm going to go through it piece by piece.

Fact # 1 Mexico's cartels have a presence in Asia, Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australia. They are on every major continent. (Penguins have yet to report their presence in Antarctica).

The real question is, what exactly does "have a presence" mean?

I've done the best I can to interpret that, through interviews with DEA, academics, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reps (UNODC), regional law enforcement and newspaper articles. Here goes:

First, Asia: what are the Mexican cartels doing there?

In the 19th century, the Chinese introduced opium poppy to Mexico. The connection goes that far back. Chinese businessmen, too, have long had legitimate links to Sinaloa.

Once US heroin consumption took off after WWII, these connections became useful for smuggling more opium to Mexico to feed the growing demand. In the 1990s, as meth became popular in the US, Sinaloan narcos reached out to their Chinese, Thai, Indian and Burmese counterparts. The Asians were ahead on the meth craze, and could supply both the chemicals and the final product. They effectively helped Mexicans like Chapo and the Amezcua brothers (from Michoacan) get started. Then the Mexicans started producing meth on their own.

Mexicans do not have cartel operatives – as in killers, distributors etc – on the ground in Asia. Don't start imagining a bunch of pistol-wielding, sombrero-wearing narcos running around the streets of Shanghai. (Not that they really do that in Sinaloa either, but you know what I mean.)

The Mexican cartels have business representatives in Asia. These reps are allegedly normal businesspeople, who work for pharmaceutical companies and other multinational organizations. Since a Mexican ban on ephedrine and other substances used to make methamphetamine, the Asia reps have become even more important. They have global business connections with whom the Mexicans allegedly link up to bring the chemicals into Mexico through safer routes.

In the past, Mexican narcos like Chapo have also sought out Asian partners to smuggler heroin, according to U.S. authorities. Apparently, this has occurred when production in Mexico has failed to meet demand in the US. (This needs more investigation: I find it amazing that Mexico, combined with Colombia and of course Afghanistan etc way over there, could fail to meet US demand!)

These are the basics of the Mexican-Asian connection. I can't name names that I've heard because the evidence against said companies/individuals is scant. But check out New York Times/Wash Post/Proceso articles on Zhenli Ye Gon to get a nice specific case story.

Questions, anyone? Anyone? (sorry, i feel like a bad substitute teacher, am flashing back to Ferris Bueller)

Tomorrow: Latin America

P.S. - El Universal has a report out today on the global reach of Mexico's cartels, citing a new US Drug Intelligence Center Report. As far as I can tell, they're using last year's report.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

the narco-politicians

Is Mexican drug trafficking as bad as the situation in Afghanistan? At least one expert believes so. Having spent the majority of his career in the PGR and some time as head of the organized crime unit SIEDO, Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz was contracted as a consultant to work in Afghanistan a while back. He noted that 30 percent of the Afghan parliament was involved in drug trafficking business in the country.

"You can't be naive about these things," Gonzalez Ruiz told me. "If this happens in Afghanistan, the same happens in Mexico."

Allegations that federal politicians in Mexico are involved in drug trafficking have always fallen short. Beltrones bashed the New York Times for publishing DEA allegations against him in the 1990s, Carlos Hank Gonzalez always denied allegations (and certainly was never investigated, given his connections), and so on.

But there is no doubt that some politicians are deeply in bed with the narcos. The government basically used to run the drug business, back in the 1970s, after all. Last year, dozens of public officials were rounded up in Michoacan, alleged to have links with La Familia. Low-level politicians throughout the country admit that the narcos come their way, often.

The case of Jesús Vizcarra Calderón, the current mayor of Culiacan, is a particularly interesting one. Reforma recently published a photo of him standing next to Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada (the No. 1, 2 or 3 in the Sinaloa cartel, depending on your perspective). The photo was taken 20 years ago, but it has caused quite a stir, particuarly because Vizcarra is planning a run for governor of Sinaloa.

Vizcarra, according to Gonzalez Ruiz, is the first true "narco-politician" Mexico has seen. VIzcarra apparently not only knows El Mayo, but owns ranches in Nicaragua that are very near landing strips used by the Sinaloa cartel. Coincidence? Gonzalez Ruiz thinks not.

Gonzalez Ruiz also believes that Vizcarra has people on his staff who also worked for President Calderon when he campaigned in Sinaloa for the 2006 elections.

Gonzalez Ruiz is now affiliated with the left-leaning UNAM, so his political views have to be taken into account. And I'd be willing to bet the entire 2010 Mexican drug trafficking budget that Vizcarra won't be investigated. But a proven Calderon connection to the Sinaloa cartel, now wouldn't that be interesting?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

war, what is it good for?

A lot of people outside Mexico ask me why there is a drug war raging. To this I usually reply: Because Chapo launched one in the early part of the last decade, and because Calderon launched his own in 2006. (The DEA, too, must have played a part with some pressure, because its overseas budget was boosted after Sept. 11, when everyone and their grandmother wanted to link drug trafficking with terrorism.)

But the reality is that nobody wants war. Not the government, not the narcos. Not the DEA, who would really prefer to drive around in their diplo-plated cars and enjoy Mexico rather than trying to rattle cages and get themselves kidnapped or killed.

War hurts business, attracts unwarranted attention, Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at Mexico City's ITAM who covers the drug trade, told me yesterday. "They all lose money during war," he says.

Very true. The narcos, let's remember, are not hellbent on death. They are businessmen, first and foremost. (One reason the narcos are more scary than Al Qaeda and radical islamic terrorists, says a journalist friend who covers terrorism, is that they are only interested in money, and have no ideology).

"Legalizing assets is the goal," says Buscaglia, "not decapitating people."

So again, why war?

From my reporting, my analysis is that Chapo has become like the Arellano Felix brothers were in the 1990s. He was always ambitious, always greedy, always seeking control. He spotted an opportunity in 2004, killed Rodolfo Carillo Fuentes in Ciudad Juarez, and tried to take over. He also tried to take over the Gulf cartel's "plaza."

He hasn't managed to win, and he is unrelenting. His appetite is insatiable.

Calderon, at the same time, is just as unrelenting as Chapo. He hasn't managed to win either. And he won't give up, former DEA agents tell me. He is hellbent on winning, even though he has no concrete goal.

Buscaglia, by the way, disagrees. He effectively believes Calderon and Chapo are fighting toward the same goal: "With the help of the government, the Sinaloa cartel is trying to consolidate its assets, so that they have a common goal. They want returns coming in."

I would hate to be Calderon right now, accused of fighting a war with or on behalf of Chapo. I personally continue to believe the president, who maintains he is fighting for the good of the country and its people. Unfortunately, I also believed President George W. Bush about Iraq. I don't believe Iraq was solely about oil, I think it truly was about Bush's ridiculous ideals of inflicting democracy on the Middle East. And that is what made the whole war in Iraq such a goddamn disaster. If it had been only about oil (money) there would have been more planning, because that's what people in charge of money-things do; they strategize in order to minimize potential losses. Idealists and wacko faith-based politicians simply dive in HOPING for the best. In love, that's a fine thing to do, but in war, it's just stupid.

PS - Given that Buscaglia is clearly the man of the moment, being quoted everywhere, where is Jorge Chabat these days? Haven't heard from him in eons. Wonder if there's some cat-fighting going on in the Mexican narco-academic world.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

narcos and hooligans

Had an interesting conversation with someone today about the way Mexico is perceived because of the narcos; he compared it to the way hooligans ruin England's reputation.

Is every English person a hooligan? Of course not. Is violence bound to erupt at every football match? Of course not.

Is every Sinaloan a narco? Of course not. Are you likely to encounter a shootout or decapitation every time you visit Sinaloa? Of course not.

How you perceive the danger all depends on where you're coming from. I had a conversation years ago with a US journalist friend, who had just gone to an English football match for the first time. He said it was very tense. At times, scary.

I couldn't really grasp his view. I'd never experienced that sort of reaction myself.

A couple of years ago, before I first went to Culiacan, I asked a fellow journalist how their trip had gone. "It was intense. Scary," came the reply.

Shortly after, I went to see for myself. Culiacan was hot, bustling, noisy and, well, anything but intense. The army was all over the place, which kind of bothered me, but that's Mexico right now. I relied on locals to tell me their perspective – some were definitely shit scared, others just shrugged and said this was how the city always was.

The next time I went, I tried to view things the way I thought a US journalist (I was raised primarily in the UK). I was wary, watching for what might seem uncomfortable for someone born and raised in the US with only Mexico as a frame of reference for the abroad. Lo and behold, it was intense. Almost everyone seemed a bit shadier than before. The military presence was still a bit troublesome, but actually less so than before.

On another visit to the city, I tried to view things as a DEA agent might, based on conversations I had with agents. I became suspicious of people following me, i talked quietly on the phone and in person, avoided staying in one place too long, holy shit i nearly went crazy out of my mind. And I wasn't even doing any of the work they would have been doing. I very quickly went back to seeing things from my perspective.

I don't really know where I'm going with this but I thought I'd post it anyway. It always interests me to see how different people view different things.

Monday, January 25, 2010

addicted to war in Mexico?

In the 1990s, covering Mexico as a foreign correspondent didn't mean obsessing about the drug war. As Sam Quinones wrote in Foreign Policy a while ago, "it was a story, not the story." So why is it that all anyone reads now is violence?

There's the obvious: Calderon made the drug war a priority in December 2006. But now that he's said he's shifting gears, will that change foreign reporting? I haven't seen any evidence of that (obviously Haiti has been dominating the news recently), but we'll see what the English-language foreign correspondents write about Mexico in weeks to come.

Personally, I think it's also a symptom of the Bush years. Many US journalists who covered that period spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are now capable/willing to report on things in Mexico that previously were left untouched by the foreign media. (With the exception of Sam Dillon and Julia Preston from the NYT, they largely left the dirt-digging to Reforma.)

But beyond just being able, I think there are a number of journalists (i probably am sometimes among them) who are now simply obsessed with the darker side of the news. Don't get me wrong, news from Mexico has always had its share of violence, horrendous social injustice, etc. But as foreigners, it seems that sometimes we're seeking out the bad. What happened to the nice Washington Post stories about shopping for counterfeit documents in the Plaza Santo Domingo?

I've tried to pitch stories about the good: the arts, travel, turtle-saving, etc. But no one's willing to pay for them. Some editors I know have even asked for "fun" or "light-hearted" stories, but when I do pitch them, I get no response. It reminds me of one editor I used to work with who would change the conversation as soon as I said the word "indigenous."

Prior to getting fired from The News, (long story, feel free to google it) I had a few discussions with the editor there about covering the drug war. He wanted to ignore it completely, I said I'd be willing to tone it down (after all, we never wanted The News to be full of tabloid material even if it was tabloid format, but the drug war had to be covered a bit. In retrospect I think we covered it too much.)

As much as I disagreed with this editor (who is Mexican) about ignoring the bad, I did understand his gripe. Show people only bad, that's all they're going to believe. They will in turn leave the country, or worry every second they're here. I'm a big fan of the NYT, LAT and WashPost Mexico coverage, but I would like to read some more positive stories. They're harder to find, but well worth it. I'll start looking too.

Mexico may be a bit messed up right now, but let's try to maintain and give some perspective – and not let our obsessions get the best of us.

PS - Organized crime is reputedly involved in turtle smuggling now, too.

Friday, January 22, 2010

money laundering

Reuters has a good story on money laundering in Mexico, and the futile efforts to block and seize drug money. (the link is in the title of this post.)

Since December 2006, Mexican authorities have confiscated about $400 million, almost none of which was seized from banks, Reuters reports, citing the Attorney General's Office.

The U.S. Treasury, meanwhile, has blocked only about $16 million in suspected Mexican drug assets since June 2000, a Treasury official in Washington told Reuters.

Let's put this into context: In one single day, Mexico's narcos make as much as 7 times more than what the US Treasury has blocked in nine years.

Really want to win the drug war? Time to get to work on freezing up those funds and shutting down thousands of businesses across Mexico, and killing the economy outright.

PS - If anyone from Reuters or Bloomberg is reading this post, I'd really like to see more stories like this Reuters one by Jason Lange. The money laundering issue, as well as the economy of drugs, are fascinating, very hard to nail down, but vital elements of the drug war that are often overlooked. These two agencies could do well to help explain it, given their reporters' superior understanding of finance/economics.

even better than drugs

Mexico's narcos have traditionally grown heroin and marijuana. They've been the primary smugglers of Colombian cocaine since the 1980s, and in the 1990s moved into meth, to satisfy that insatiable middle-american market.

But all this time, they've been overlooking a real potential cash cow (or should i say, pig).

If the narcos had any sense, they'd start exporting cochinita pibil. It's highly addictive, dirt cheap, and can be ingested in a variety of ways.

Apologies for breaking off topic, but I needed to write something to brighten my day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

the chase for Chapo

Former DEA chief of operations Michael Braun firmly believes that Chapo's days are numbered. His 90-day prediction is not based on intelligence, but more on his analysis of the recent fall of various cartel leaders like Arturo Beltran Leyva, which proves to him that the Mexican authorities are doing a bang-up job and sparing no one. The Calderon administration is being "relentless," Braun says, and he believes that Chapo will soon be "in handcuffs or on a slab."

What we should watch for, in my opinion: more arrests of narcos linked to Ignacio Nacho Coronel (a few relatives got nabbed on Wednesday); more arrests linked to Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada (the Zambada clan has basically fallen, El Mayo is the last one standing); and obviously any arrests closely linked to Chapo himself.

I'm not going to hold Braun to his 90-day prediction because he's not basing that on concrete intel, but if his crystal ball is correct, let's hold our breath for a mid-April surprise.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chapo to be captured within 90 days

"We're aggressively going after El Chapo," former DEA chief of operations Michael Braun tells the Washington Times. "I'll make a prediction that he'll be captured within 90 days."

Quite a bold claim. For those unfamiliar with Braun, he's the guy who's been warning of Mexican cartel activity in West Africa and possible links with Islamist terrorist groups. He's also consistently praised Mexican efforts to go after the big capos, and brushed aside conspiracy theories about the government protecting Chapo. He always insists that Chapo will be caught or killed. (Late last year I talked to him and he said Chapo was a "dead man walking," which he also told the Wall Street Journal. He's former DEA, but still works closely with Mexican authorities in an advisory role.

Ninety days is a serious timeframe. I'm going to talk to Braun tomorrow hopefully, and try to shed some light on this. Stay tuned, the countdown to the capture begins.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

haiti and organized crime

Seeing as this blog is meant to address organized crime on a global scale, I figure it's about time I post something about a country other than Mexico; seeing as the world's attention is on Haiti, I might as well start there.

Reports are emerging about concerns over criminal gangs seizing on the earthquake to instill terror or take over. This is a bit belated.

Organized crime has already taken over Haiti. Colombian drug traffickers have long used the island as a transit point for cocaine heading to the United States. The government has long been complicit, if only by turning a blind eye to the armed groups who work with the Colombians.

The people of Haiti can't stop organized crime's influence, regardless of an earthquake. Neither can Haiti's UN-trained, 9,000-member police force. The UN peacekeepers themselves don't even patrol areas of Port-au-Prince known for their organized crime activity.

A few years ago I met with Haiti's most-wanted man in a slum in Port-au-Prince. It was election time, and he had pledged that there would be no kidnappings or murders of foreigners during the period. He offered me an interview; I took it.

He presented himself as a do-gooder (as gangsters so often do) and admitted that he controlled delivery of aid and rations to the hundreds of thousands of people who live in his slum, Cite Soleil. He said that he controlled the government, not the other way around. The people, he said, regard him highly and do as he "asks." Either through fear or bribery, he ran the show.

I believed him, given that neither the Haitian government nor the UN peacekeepers have control of Cite Soleil. (At the time the well-armed UN wouldn't even go in there.) When the people of Cite Soleil riot (acting on the gangsters' orders) the rest of the city trembles in fear.

These are the people who run Port-au-Prince; in the north of the island, it's a similar situation, with former rebels and bands of former government thugs running the show.

They are all allegedly linked with the Colombians, who bring in their cocaine unimpeded.

The one silver lining to Haiti's organized crime problem is that it isn't all that organized, and every few months, a new "most-wanted man" takes over the reign of terror. The smaller gangs don't bother rising up, they simply fall under the new umbrella. Governments come and go quite quickly too. Hardly a real silver lining, but the truth.

So what's the solution? The future? Not sure, really. The UN mandate has been extended until next year. If I were in charge of the peacekeeping mission, I would suggest more troops, more reconstruction teams (duh, in the wake of this earthquake) and a stronger military mandate in slums like Cite Soleil and the more lawless parts of the island (the north). Keep building those institutions, medical facilities, education, focusing on the economy, improving the country's capacity to police itself – Haiti has made formidable progress in recent years, proving that it is capable – if given a hand.

And of course, I'd opt for less UN peacekeepers who tarnish the good name of their mission by raping and having sex with underage Haitian girls. Hardly the best way to earn the trust of a people who have been buggered by foreigners for what seems like an eternity.

(I took the above photo in 2006; I hear this part of Port-au-Prince has completely collapsed.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Garcia Luna gets a mention...

The DEA and State Dept. love to celebrate big narco-busts with high-fiving 'mission accomplished' statements, thanking the "Government of Mexico" (why is government always capitalized? internally, they abbreviate it GOM, it's just odd) for unprecedented cooperation.

Today was no exception, following the capture of El Teo. What did strike me as different, however, was Ambassador Carlos Pascual's statement, which mentions federal Police Chief Genaro Garcia Luna by name, congratulating him.

I've rarely seen Garcia Luna publicly acknowldeged before; I have however heard/read DEA higher-ups publicly express their "concern" over allegations that he has been linked to the Beltran Leyva brothers.

I don't have time to research whether he has indeed been mentioned and I just missed it, and I have no qualms about throwing out some speculative BS, so... Could it be that since the fall of the top Beltran Leyva brothers, the US doesn't have to worry about Garcia Luna suddently being exposed as corrupt anymore, and can call him an ally?

Ah, the list of questions to ask Garcia Luna when I finally get an interview with him grows and grows... While the actual chances of getting an interview with him shrink and shrink...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

troops take down El Teo of Tijuana

The federal police have captured Teodoro Garcia Simental, ("El Teo") the former Arellano Felix lieutenant who has been at least partially responsible for the bloodshed in Tijuana over the past year or so. (It was federal police who caught him in La Paz, Baja California, not "troops," but I wanted alliteration in the headline, apologies for misleading.)

This is a huge bust for several reasons:
1) It's the third major success for the authorities in just one month (Marcos Arturo Beltran Leyva killed; then his brother Carlos, admittedly less important but still inner circle, arrested)

2) Tijuana was getting very bloody again. (Check out Proceso back in early December for Tijuana's turmoil –

3) El Teo was allegedly working with Chapo to take over Tijuana from the remnants of the Arellano Felix family. I don't have my ear to the ground in Tijuana in any way, but his fall means one of two things: the authorities there are not interested in playing into Chapo's hands; or Chapo has managed to take over TIjuana on his own, no longer needs El Teo, and gave him up. The latter theory will likely sit well with the many conspiracy theorists throughout Mexico.

4) El Teo is not heavily protected by the cartel higher-ups – he's a relatively new player and ran very independently, at least to begin with. As a result, it's quite possible he'll spill a lot of beans while in federal custody.

5) There are only five "major" cartel leaders still on the loose: Chapo, Hector Beltran Leyva, Ismael El Mayo Zambada, Heriberto Lazcano (El Lazca) and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.
Hector is a relatively unknown quantity; El Mayo and Chapo are basically untouchable; El Lazca owns the northeast and Carrillo Fuentes is and always has been considered a lame duck.

I'm betting on Carrillo Fuentes to fall next. Hector Beltran Leyva will ally with Chapo and El Mayo again. The Sinaloa cartel and Gulf (now really the Zetas) will split the country half and half, and lo and behold? Peace at last.

PS - I don't rate La Familia as a cartel or major power in its own right. Without strong allies up north, it has no way of shipping its product up there. It doesn't have the Colombian connection, nor does it have the US connections that the others have. (My firm belief is that the major US bust of La Familia members last year was actually a bust of Sinaloa cartel "members" who were working for a Sinaloa/La Familia alliance. No US or Mexican sources will confirm this suspicion; but La Familia is a priority on their list right now so there is incentive for them to play up the group's alleged clout)

Monday, January 11, 2010

the bloodiest January in 16 years

When 2009 ended with a bang (the death of El Barbas Beltran Leyva) we all knew it would mean bloodshed for 2010. But only 11 days into January, Sinaloa and Ciudad Juarez are erupting.
Sinaloa has registed 72 homicides already this January, more than the whole of January 2009.
Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, has 100 for the year so far.

An average of 5,000 people have died in the war on drugs and organized crime annually over the past three years, with the number rising. About 20,000 are being locked up every year. An estimated 500,000 people work in the drug trade.

The war should be over in 20 years. That is, of course, if nobody steps in the fill the vacuum, which of course, won't happen.

PS - Sinaloa's record for homicides occurred in 1993. Does anyone know what happened that year in the state? Chapo was arrested in June, but the killings began earlier in the year. I know the Arellano Felix brothers were encroaching on the Sinaloa plaza at the time, but if anyone can explain the high homicides that year with more clarity, please do.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Chapo's facebook friends

Ever wonder who the people are who create Facebook and MySpace pages for famous narcos? I chatted with one recently – he runs a facebook site for Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.
Why do you do it?
First of all, I'm not an admirer, he says. He joined a group out of curiosity (he's actually from Spain) and was "moved by the exoticism" of being able to support such a character. He then became the administrator.

The guy who runs the facebook site was surprised to see how Chapo is seen as an idol. "I don't deny that there is a certain romanticism surrounding this man, his novel of a life, his fight against the institutions, his way of figuring out how to win over disenchanted sectors of society..."

His argument is one i've heard a million times, in Mexico and beyond, and not always regarding Chapo. And I see it as a fundamental problem: everyone is admiring the wrong people. For some reason, we are always admiring and trying to follow in the footsteps of celebrities, criminals – people who operate outside of society's rules. While some of them are to be admired – and I will admit that I do admire some of Chapo's qualities, his perseverance, his business-savvy, his smarts – couldn't we simply admire the normal people of this world? The mother and father who both have jobs and manage to raise their kids and teach them decent values? The teacher who actually goes to class every day of the year? (no, Ms. Gordillo, not your bunch) The politician who is honest and actually does his best to improve his country? The hard-working, normal person who abides by the law and doesn't seek fortune or fame?

I know, I'm being an idealist and more than a bit preachy – sometimes opportunities/prospects and even role models are very hard to find in Mexico. But look harder – within every police department, there's at least one cop who won't take a bribe; not all politicians are crooks; some teachers decide it's not wise to go on strike even if their pay is abhorrent; plenty of taxi drivers won't rob you; and so on.
i think it's time mexicans (and the rest of the world) start looking up to the right people, and set society back on track.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

upping the gore stakes

Since 2006, Mexico's drug cartels have been trying to outdo each other with each act of violence. I thought they'd reached their peak with an incident in Caborca, Sonora, last year, when a group of narcos were sawed up limb by limb. Not so.
Hugo Hernandez, a 36-year-old from Sonora, was found in the Sinaloan city of Los Mochis last week. His torso was found in a plastic container in one location; elsewhere another box contained his arms, legs and skull, according to the Associated Press. Seven pieces in total.

His face, meanwhile, had been carved off and stitched onto a soccer ball.

There is no comment for this, really. But consider how far we've come since 2006: decapitated heads on a dance floor, grenades into a crowd of revelers, limbs sawed off, heads left in coolers, bodies hanging from overpasses, mass executions in rehab centers, decapitated heads thrown out of airplanes – what the hell's next?

One psychologist estimates that 90 percent of Mexicans are sociopaths. The country has always been violent in certain parts, that's for sure, but the statistic is probably pushing it. But what happens when people witness this stuff every day? When this becomes "normal"? They become numb to it, surely. At times, it might even filter through by osmosis. We're a long way from the average Mexican walking over to his neighbor's house and chopping his head off, but I do wonder how kids and other impressionable humans are being affected by all this.

ps - Mexico City, with its tolerance and peace-and-love approach to society (even if like any big city it has its share of crime), seems more than a world away from pockets in other parts of the country these days.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

biting the hand that feeds

So, one of the Beltran Leyva brothers' top logistics guys has been arrested in Mexico City, just days after Carlos Beltran Leyva was arrested and just a few weeks since the death of brother Marcos Arturo.

Ah, the beauty of corruption. The Beltran Leyva brothers were the guys who had corrupted their way through the ranks of the PGR, SIEDO and AFI. They'd poked their little dedos in pretty much everyone's files, including those of Interpol and the DEA.

But now the Beltran Leyvas and their people are being busted left right and center. Part of that may be down to Chapo leaking the intel. But my sense is that, lacking the solidarity and security they once had, the Beltran Leyvas are being sold out by some of the very same people they once had in their pockets.

I'll never get proof of this, but wouldn't it be a hell of a story if mexico's most crooked cops were now turning into good cops/national heroes? (rather than vice versa, which would seem more normal, unfortunately)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

another beltran leyva bites the dust

The Beltran Leyvas are falling like dominos. First Alfredo captured in 2008, then Marcos Arturo's death in Cuernavaca to close out 2009. Now brother Carlos gets busted in Culiacan. (Oddly, he admitted to being a Beltran Leyva after they quizzed him on his fake credentials; did he think name-dropping would help him? Quite possible, given the vast reach of Beltran Leyva corruption, but personally I would have stayed quiet.)

Last Beltran Leyva standing: Hector and Mario (who may be one and the same person).

Behind them stands Chapo, with an axe. A narco-manta was recently hung up in Los Mochis, saying "this territory has an owner." It apparently came from the Beltran Leyva goons. They apparently didn't get the memo currently circulating around SInaloa and Badiraguato, where Chapo's from.

"You tell everyone, you spread the word – Chapo is in charge here. Chapo's the law. There is no law but Chapo. Chapo is boss. Not Mochomo, not El Barbas. Chapo is the law."

That's what a young man who claims to work for Chapo told me in Badiraguato back in September. I don't doubt him.

New prediction/speculation for 2010: Chapo is working out a deal with the government to control the Mexican drug trade, like the one Amado Carrillo Fuentes tried to broker before he died in 1997. Chapo is feeding all the right info to the cops and military, knocking down his foes one by one.

Next to fall after Carlos? My money's on Carrillo Fuentes's brother Vicente in Juarez. Then the remaining Beltran Leyva brothers.

Friday, January 1, 2010

drug war sit rep

As we head into the fourth year of this phase of the drug war, here's where things stand:

Tijuana is being taken over by Chapo's people. There were 444 homicides in the city in 2008, mostly between Chapo's guns and the remnants of the Arellano Felix organization. Chapo and El Mayo Zambada have wanted Tijuana for decades, now's their chance. I don't doubt they'll take it by the end of the year.

Ciudad Juarez: In the entire state of Chihuahua, there were 3250 drug-related killings last year. Most of this is Chapo vs. Carrillo Fuentes. According to sources in Juarez, Chapo's people are basically now just operating as paramilitary squads, executing anyone they find affiliated with the Juarez organization. There is also a lot of (unsubstantiated) talk in the border city that Chapo has made a deal with the army in Juarez, helping the soldiers root out the Carrillo Fuentes organization.
Given that Carrillo Fuentes' group is now just basically hundreds of gangs who can be bought for any price (Chapo is buying them, for a start) I give this one until mid-year to sort itself out. I think it will remain bloody, but I think Chapo will end up with market share up there. Let's see if they catch Carrillo Fuentes or his right hand man, José Luis Ledezma (El JL); if they do, that'll be the giveaway.
Another possible outcome in Juarez: Chapo's people broker a deal with Carrillo Fuentes to keep him there as a figurehead, and move in that way. They've kinda done it before, through deals brokered by Juan José Esparragoza Moreno (El Azul), one of Chapo's top advisers. Wouldn't be surprised to see that sort of arrangement.

Culiacan: 932 death in 2008. Not too bad I guess, considering the mess Chapo and the Beltran Leyvas have made of their 30-year friendship. Residents of Culiacan were warned not to go out on New Year's Eve due to fears of violence, as police commanders are being killed and narcomantas are going up all over the place. The respected news weekly Rio Doce proclaimed that "El Barbas lost the war" after Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed, and I think they're right. But even though there is already a losing side, the war hasn't ended. Unlike in Juarez, where sicarios and smugglers operate more like mercenaries, in Sinaloa there are loyalties. These will play out until the death. Expect more killings this year, and perhaps a few more Beltran Leyvas killed or captured.

Guerrero: 672 killings, much of it Beltran Leyva vs. Chapo bloodshed. I think it'll be ugly down there for a while.

Michoacan: 356 dead in 2008. That's 10 percent of La Familia, if they were members. That organization, which according to some officials is the biggest threat to Mexico right now, will be buried by the end of 2010. I predict Calderon will hold up the fall of La Familia as his "mission accomplished" (perhaps toned down a bit). However: rumor has it that Chapo has actually taken control of Michoacan again, through a deal with the leaders of La Familia. He never broke his contacts in Michoacan, so this stands to reason.

In Tamaulipas, all is calm. Which means the Zetas and Gulf are completely dominant again.

I do wonder when the turf war over the Mexico City's airport will begin. It was largely controlled by the Beltran Leyvas and El Mayo Zambada's brother, who was captured. Surely Chapo must want it for himself now? A bag was found the other day, loaded with 11 tons of cocaine. It had come in on a flight from Peru; I bet the guy who was supposed to pick it up is shitting himself right now.