Friday, April 30, 2010

The drug war numbers

my latest thoughts on the drug war numbers: (link in title and below)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


As I'm not going to become an expert on immigration law/issues in the next few days, I think I'll just offer some personal views on what I think is going on in Arizona and what it means. I welcome comments, and please excuse the rambling nature of my posts....

I'm not sure when I first noticed it. I think it was around 2005, when people I knew as individuals began looking at others en masse. They didn't seem to be distinguishing one person from the other anymore. All middle-easterners were the same, so were all black people. Latinos – yup, all one of a kind. White people too: I found myself on the receiving end of broad-brush comments as well as being lumped into a category in which I belong because of the color of my skin.

This was in New York, a liberal bastion of American individualism. It seemed like a delayed reaction to post-Sept. 11 paranoia. I found myself wondering: Is America becoming a Nazi state? It seriously spooked me, and I didn't know what to make of it.

I had noticed instances of this before, obviously. Racial profiling in the USA is a long-standing tradition. Sure, it's illegal, but everyone and their mother does it. Cops do it all the time; after Sept. 11, almost everyone started doing it. It's rampant in business.

In journalism, I first noticed it when I couldn't find my "thing." Many of my colleagues had their "thing" – a black colleague was the race issues person, a latino friend was called upon every 4 years to write about the "latino vote," a gay colleague wrote about homosexuality. As a pretty run-of-the-mill white guy, I wasn't racially profiled. I should have written about US politics like the kids who went to Yale, but I really don't like US politics and I hate Yale. I liked sports, but I liked soccer – and that wasn't really an american sport, it's one of those things Latinos play, a colleague once said.

It wasn't just in journalism that I noticed it. I noticed that friends who saw therapists were being converted into little drones, learning to see things the way the authorities saw them. They had authority issues, you see, and that was bad. So the solution was to have them hide their personal beliefs, maybe even bury them, so that they might better survive. These may have been wackjob therapists, but they were licensed, nonetheless.

Or perhaps they were being converted so that they might better blend in and become loyal followers. Corporate America likes loyal followers, who don't rock the boat and don't blow whistles. And who don't show an ounce of individualism. Fair enough, if your MO is to make money. But outside the office, your life should be your own. I noticed these people becoming increasingly preachy in their real lives, and increasingly conformist and intolerant of those who don't conform. They reminded me of my more extreme religious friends, who would preach their way every time they had the chance.

Maybe I'm making too loose a connection between this – survival in the corporate, real world – and forced conformity and racial profiling. But I began to see it everywhere including socially among friends of mine. I found that some were hiding their beliefs more, and shedding their values to fit in, to not offend their friends, or their circle.

Being half-British, I've always been extremely wary about American patriotism-borderline nationalism, as well as the distinct lack of individuality beneath all the talk of individualism.

Two World Wars and a great depression created Naziism, not genes or some twisted inherent dislike of Jews. Racism, in my view, is possible from everyone, given the conditions. In 2004, more than 62 million Americans voted for George W. Bush – for a second term, after he had already fucked things up in Iraq. What followed were six more years of two wars, an economic collapse and a depression. We got a black president, but he inherited a lot of serious problems.

The Arizona law is not the first consequence of all this, nor will it be the last, in my view. Within the next two years, unless things really turn around economically and vis-a-vis Iraq/Afghanistan, we're in for the emergence of a Nazi America. Unless it's happened already and we didn't even realize it.

Arizona immigration law

A few people, journalists among them, have asked me for my stance on the Arizona immigration law. Some have wondered why I'm not commenting on it on this site (do I secretly support it?)

No, I don't. But I'm not very well-versed on the ins and outs of US-Mexican immigration issues/laws, so I thought I'd read up a bit first before mouthing off.

For now, here is my gut reaction to the law (apologies if this famous poem from Nazi-era pastor Martin Niemцller is not 100 percent accurate, i pulled it from some random site):

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Drug wars lead to war

Predictable, yet interesting findings on effects of drug crackdowns. (Link in title.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hitchens vs. the Pope

Chris Hitchens is crazy and non-believing as ever. And I love it. In his latest article he calls for the pope to be detained and/or subpoenaed for questioning in the "child-rape scandal." (Link to article in title of post.)
He also says that this whole affair is "a question of crime—organized crime".
He's got a point.

Organized crime is an easy tag to throw out; after all, definitions vary. But almost all international definitions of organized crime do at least have one common denominator: three or more people coming together and organizing to commit a crime repeatedly over a sustained period of time.

So, a one-off doesn't really count, which might unfortunately exonerate a few dirty priests (we've seen that here in Mexico, with some drug traffickers). But in the Church's case, it's clear that more than three people were involved in allowing these shenanigans to continue, and that the offenses did continue for a sustained period of time.

I back Hitchens on this one: bring the Church to justice. God shouldn't be the judge here, a jury of peers should.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mexican = Narco?

Excelsior online had a story on Friday about two young women who were gunned down in Chihuahua. They were apparently walking down the street quietly, minding their own business, when they were shot and killed.

The story continues to describe how more and more women are being caught up in the drug war – narcos are killing each other's wives and girlfriends as retaliation, for instance.

This is true. But does this insinuation belong in a story about two young women "whose bodies aren't even cold yet," as a journalist friend put it?

No, it doesn't. There is no evidence that these young women were mixed up in the drug trade. There is no need, journalistically, to link the deaths to the drug trade (In terms of tragedy value, the killing rates pretty high already; in terms of of shock value, the same – there's just no need to make it a drug-related killing to make it more readable.)

This simply plays into the fear that everyone and their grandmother is a narco. They are not. The Calderon administration has done its best to label – with a very broad brush – anyone involved in the drug trade as a narco, but this is not fair and it is not befitting of a democracy. The president, as the LA Times noted last week, needs to change his message. The press needs to be more responsible too. There are some seriously evil people in this country, but the majority of Mexicans – and the majority of Mexican narcos – are not inherently evil.

The government and the media need to stop linking everything and everyone to drug trafficking, and examine exactly what is going on.

A US official told me about a year ago that soon, Mexican passports will be viewed abroad like Colombian passports were seen in the 90s – and raise an immediate red flag.

Are all Mexicans narcos? Is every Mexican traveling abroad carrying drugs? Is every Mexican who gets shot these days a narco? Of course not. The media and government need to stop this profiling and start doing some work investigating. Otherwise the country will be headed to the dark ages, like Arizona.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What's going on in Juarez?

It's quiet in Juarez right now, a US counter-drug official tells me. The Sinaloa cartel has won the war for Juarez, another US official told the Associated Press. Some 5,000 federal police have taken over the streets from the army, the administration tells us. The development secretariat (SEDESOL) is pushing for the creation of new parks in the city in its bid for social reconstruction. Three human rights lawyers have come out and declared that femicides have actually increased since the arrival of the army in 2008. Local newspapers report the killings are continuing (an ex-cop on Tuesday, among them) and that there were 6 people killed yesterday – hardly evidence that it's really all that quiet.

So what's going on? I'm not there, so I can't really tell you with any real accuracy (and even if I was there, there are so many nooks and crannies in that city that there will never be any way of knowing completely what's going on). But for starters: there are plenty of officials and analysts denying Chapo's takeover, for a start. It's just not that clear-cut, they say – it will take a while for this to smooth over, as the recent killings show.

Fair enough, we know the AP went with its "SInaloa wins in Juarez" story because that's what you do when you get a quote like that.

Then there's the arrival of the federal police. From my understanding, we won't see major warfare in Juarez for a little while. The reason is that the narcos are watching the federales, figuring out how they operate and figuring out how to get around their new checkpoints, patrols etc. This happens every times the army or federal police come to a city; it usually doesn't take more than a week or two for the narcos to figure out ways around the new system. After all, the authorities are routine-oriented (that's how they're trained) and are also easily infiltrated. (The last time I was in Juarez, the army had to abandon plans for a raid because the major's classified briefing – with two other people – had been leaked within minutes. Not sure how many heads rolled after that one, but I assume at least two.)

So we can expect a drop in drug trafficking and violence for the next week or so. Six homicides yesterday doesn't bode well for the so-called "drop" that I'm predicting, however.

As for the creation of parks, I'm all for it. I've seen some of the parks that narcos have taken over in Juarez, and residents need these public spaces to live somewhat peaceful lives. However, parks are not the solution to places like Rancho Anapra, where residents live in what are effectively hillside settlements. These areas need constant police patrols by police the residents can trust. They need jobs, in the settlements themselves, if possible, to create a sense of community. They need health facilities and in some parts, the basics – running water, for instance. They need to break up the gangs, which are the roots of Los Aztecas on the Juarez side. It's all idealistic, I know, but it's better than parks – because those parks will not be built in neighborhoods like Rancho Anapra, I pretty much guarantee it.

Re femicides rising since the army came, I actually doubt that claim – or at least, doubt these activists have any proof of it. However, there is no doubt that women in Juarez continue to have no security or rights at all. This has to be addressed by the government in its reconstruction plan. A special police force (not just prosecuting team) has to be set up to protect women. Those thousands of women who bus back and forth to the maquiladoras have to have constant protection. There are so many little things the government could do. They may not work, but jesus, at least they'd be trying something instead of pretending everything's ok.

Oh, and last but not least, there is apparently a new plan to open up a trading zone between Juarez and El Paso, through which trucks will be able to pass without any inspections. I don't know the details of this at all, but it doesn't sound like it will help crack down on the drug flow in any way.


One of the more creative narco mausoleaums in Culiacan. (I took this photo late last year) Sadly, the story behind the Batman emblem is a very tragic one. A young boy, who was killed in a shootout while in the company of his father, is buried there.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


i haven't taken any good photos recently so am pulling the best ones i can find from the web. (the one above from a now-defunct blog)


The authorities are outraged that all sorts of information (personal credit card, official documents, etc etc) is for sale in Tepito, the notorious hub of illicit activity in central Mexico City where nearly anything is for sale. The authorities, for some reason, are also outraged that the rackets in Tepito got their hands on information from the government information agency, INEGI. (officially, the national institute of statistics and geography.) I know INEGI is not a transparency institute, but I still find this slightly ironic.

Monday, April 19, 2010

in defense of Scherer

A few more columnists and bloggers have taken Julio Scherer to task for his interview with El Mayo, saying it's too softball and he doesn't ask many insightful questions (or get insightful answers; or get anything, really.)

I'm going to spring to his defense again. As a journalist, it's tough enough to ask even a politician a tough question and get a decent answer. Think of the White House press corps, which gets easy answers to easy questions and quick subject-changes to tough questions. (Once in a while you get a character like Rumsfeld, which is at least entertaining until you realize he's serious.)

As for Mexican politicans... a few years ago, when I asked Jorge Hank Rhon about the murder allegations that have been leveled against him, he coughed for 8 seconds (seriously, i counted it on the tape) before continuing. All the while, he fondled a 4-inch letter opener and leaned over the desk toward me. I left the room about 10 minutes later, and as soon as I stepped out of his office building, sweat began pouring from every pore of my body. Eight seconds of coughing is a long time in politics – or anything, for that matter. Was Hank Rhon revealing signs of guilt? I'm not convinced of that. I've been accused of many offensive things in my life of which I was not guilty and it annoyed me immensely; if I was called a murderer and I wasn't, I'd be furious too if anyone asked about it, even as a formality.

Sometimes you don't get a threat, just a temper tantrum: a journalist friend once gained great respect in Colombia for daring to ask Alvaro Uribe about his alleged links to narcos years ago. Uribe simply stormed out of the hotel room where the interview was taking place.

As for narcos, I've had pretty positive experiences with low-level guys here, but I think that's because I've played it very safe. They know what they can tell me without getting themselves in trouble and I always know when to stop asking questions. (A simple look is usually enough to change the conversation; when asking about Chapo or another major capo, the person will usually turn and walk away when the conversation is over. Unless you're a moron, you get the drift very quickly.) And unless you're willing to fork over large amounts of cash for information (which of course, is what the authorities do for informants, and what the best dirt-digging papers in the country do too) you're going to get what they're willing to give you, and nothing more. Probe as much as you like, manipulate etc, it won't happen. These guys aren't big talkers. The ones who are are rarely worth listening to, except for colour's sake. They'd be highly unreliable as real sources.

A few years back, I interviewed Haiti's most-wanted man, Amaral Duclona, in one of his safe houses. I worked through an interpreter as he wanted to speak creole, and the interpreter changed several of my questions. (I could understand just enough to get that.) When I asked him why he was changing my questions, he looked at me as if I was a fool. "Are you kidding? Do you know what this guy will do if you offend him by insinuating something that he doesn't want to hear?" Fair enough really. There were what looked to me like bloodstains on the wall in the room next door, i didn't want to take any chances.

Which brings me back to El Mayo. When someone like that offers you an interview, you ask what you can but you tread delicately. You don't ask about anything that, if he was arrested, could be used in a court against him. You can ask the standard questions, there's no harm in that; but there's also very little point. He's not going to tell you anything you don't already know, or worse, he'll give you a politican-type answer (after all, he is a politician of sorts). The guy is not some low-level punk fool, he's one of the most powerful drug bosses who ever lived. He tells you what he wants to tell you, and you print that.

Interviews with terrorists in recent years have been far more enlightening, and the simple reason is that terrorists – at least most of them – have an ideology, a message, that they want to convey. They want to talk to you, spread their word. Even Osama bin Laden stands to gain by talking. He instills fear, reminds the US that he's still around, and reminds his devoted followers that he is still out there. El Mayo probably doesn't want to instill anything, he wants to do his business quietly, and remain under the radar. He wanted to make some point through this interview, but I now think it was aimed more at the people of Mexico than at the government; ie. winning over their support for this so-called man of the people. He doesn't want to shake things up. And neither does Scherer, who at 84, still probably enjoys his life somewhat.

If there's one quibble I have about the interview, it's the way Scherer wrote it up. I would have liked more colour, more context and background, more teasing out of the details. That way, the fact that El Mayo says almost nothing might have been moot.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mexican cartels go global

Above is a map I tinkered with to show the countries where the authorities have noted the presence of Mexican drug cartel operatives in the past two years. Black dot denotes presence.

I welcome any additions, this was done off the top of my head.

El Azul ("you're my boy, blue")

Proceso has another good story this week, profiling Juan Jose Esparragoza-Moreno, aka, El Azul. (Link in title)

For those who don't know him, he's the powerful man behind the power couple of El Mayo and Chapo. One could even make a good case that El Azul is actually the most powerful narco of all.

In the 90s, he forged a strong alliance with the Juarez cartel. He was so powerful – and known for his preference for profit above all else – that he managed to be No. 2 in the Juarez cartel and No. 3 in the Sinaloa cartel at the same time, according to the authorities.

For years, as Proceso points out, he's been a skillful operator: he's very discreet and not prone to outbursts or violence. He's never attracted too much attention (Proceso says that he was second on the FBI list of most-wanted, only Osama bin Laden outranked him – but I have never seen him placed so high so am skeptical, especially as the Proceso article also gets El Azul's age-relationship with Chapo and El Mayo wrong) and thus has been able to operate without the law enforcement pressure his partners and rivals garnered.

But that doesn't mean he hasn't been game for a bit of bloodshed in the interest of preserving his business. In early 2000, El Azul – infuriated by DEA moves against his operations – threatened retaliation against US law enforcement and US facilities inside Mexico, according to then-DEA Chief of International Operations William Ledwith.

He, Chapo and El Mayo made a similar threat in 2009, this time threatening to attack US law enforcement and/or facilities inside the US itself, according to the US Department of Justice.

Clearly, El Azul has no qualms about tackling his opponents head on. The guy should not be underestimated. I'd love to read more from Proceso on him, if they have anything to add.

PS - El Azul got his nickname ("Blue") because his skin is darker than many of his narco-counterparts, and at times is said to appear almost blue. Apparently, racism exists in the drug trafficking industry, too.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Just say no...

Keeping the kids off drugs is a concern of any parent, anywhere in the world. But in, say, the United States, it's a relatively simple matter: make sure your kids are informed about the risks, make sure they stay out of jail if they smoke a little weed, keep them off the crack and in school, and there you go.

What about in Mexico? Had a chat with a father of three yesterday, who lives in a Mexican city which is currently plagued by drug violence. Everywhere his kids go, there are drugs. It's not just a temptation, it's an opportunity, he says. He works in a store, he earns a pittence. His kids aren't greedy – they don't pester him for material things, for instance – but they do want to rise up economically. As teenagers, they already know they don't want to live in a one-storey house surrounded by auto repair shops, guard dogs and drug dealers. They know exactly how they can make money; it's a matter of whether or not they will succumb and cross the line. At least they, unlike gomeros in the Sierras, have something of a choice.

They're in school, the dad says, so that's a good thing. But at the university where one of his sons studies, drugs are everywhere, just like any other campus in the world. And the dealers are not just your average prep-school dealer – they're narcos, or one step away from it. Right now, heads are rolling in this city, and one of the recent dead is believed to have been a student. Not some low-level scum as the authorities like to portray the narcos – a middle-class university student who got caught up in the drug business.

At bars around this city, waiters deal coke under the table. Kids are highly exposed to it; these bars are filled with students on the weekends. Apparently, just like in the United States, students are often lured into the drug trade itself in order to support their habit, rather than make huge amounts of money. Except here, having a habit and doing a bit of dealing is dealing with a world far different from the one in the US. Here, if you get caught on the wrong side of any situation you get more than a slap on the wrist; you either wind up in a shitty Mexican jail on drug-related charges or you get your head lopped off.

Nancy Reagan's "just say no" slogan was totally useless, we all know that. But seriously, what is a Mexican kid to say, other than that?

PS - Patrick Corcoran at ganchoblog.blogspot notes the arrest of 10 federal policemen in Ciudad Juarez for extortion, usually a problem among municipal cops. If this is the government's new plan – take away the military and replace with feds like these – then Juarez, we have a problem.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cartels = terrorists?

My latest piece on the drug war, on (Link in title)

Sometimes, the grass isn't greener...

It's always interesting to hear how people throughout Mexico see the rest of the country, and drug violence in "other parts."
In one small city in central Mexico, which has experienced a rash of killings of late, a resident recently expressed his concerns about his city turning into Ciudad Juarez. "Here, we have beheadings now. You don't even get those up there."

Actually, you do. But his sentiments were very similar to those I've encountered throughout the country in the past two or so years. In Ciudad Juarez in 2008, people were saying that the situation is bad, but at least it's not like Tijuana. In Culiacan on various occasions, locals have expressed their comfort in the fact that although Sinaloa is bad vis a vis crime, at least it's not as bad as Mexico City. In Mexico City, residents look at you in awe/horror/shock if you tell them you're heading to Sinaloa or Ciudad Juarez.

The homicide numbers, of course, tell the real story of just how bad a place is; but that doesn't necessarily change people's perceptions. Almost always, until things get really really bad and out of control and fear takes complete control, crime and security tend to be bigger and more serious issues in "other parts."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

why i hate the press

"A gunbattle erupted on the main coast boulevard in the heart of this Pacific resort Wednesday afternoon, killing six people, including a mother and her 8-year-old child. None of the victims appeared to be tourists."

After writing that a mother and her 8-year-old girl were gunned down indiscriminately in Acapulco, The Associated Press writes that none of the dead appeared to be tourists, as if that mattered in any way whatsoever. Stop pandering to your audience – Americans care about kids dying, whether they're American or not – when you don't need to pander, you fucking idiots. Bury (no horrific pun intended) the pandering that I understand is necessary but really doesn't belong in journalism, put it further down in the story and provide some context that is actually worthwhile (ie, innocent children killed in drug war.)

The numbers game

Reliable numbers are hard to come by in Mexico... So goes the old foreign correspondent adage. Sometimes, this phrase is simply used because the correspondent couldn't be bothered to try and get the reliable numbers. (check out, it's incredibly useful at times.)

Sometimes, the truth is, reliable numbers can indeed be hard to come by.

For instance, the government is now reportedly claiming that 22,700 people have died since the drug war was launched in late 2006. This – and a new tally for last year's killings – is higher than estimates calculated by the media, who tend to add up every killing they report on after one phone call to the authorities. Given that reporters here determine the cause of death from that one call to the authorities in the immediate aftermath of a discovery, it's unsurprising that Reforma, El Universal and Milenio rarely agree with each other on the narco bodycount. (Followup investigations into killings are extremely rare; in large part because of media resources but also due to a "this is mexico, people die, and I don't particularly give a shit nor am I going to solve anything" attitude. If the guy on the phone at the prosecutor's office tells you it's drug-related, it's drug-related; subsequent news of the probe rarely warrants more print space unless it's a big case.)

This also isn't the first time the government's numbers have outpaced the media counts. Last year, Calderon's own announcement of killings was higher than the newspaper tallies. His estimate was also higher than that of the attorney general's office.

My question is why there is so little government coordination regarding these numbers. On another occasion, Medina Mora and Garcia Luna both came out and said the homicide rate was lower than it was in the 90s. Why not get Calderon to say this, too? Why have different officials (gomez mont, garcia luna, medina mora, the defense secretary etc) release contradicting numbers?

Maybe it's a lack of coordination between government agencies, but it could also be disagreement over how exactly the government should politicize the homicides, which of course, are rarely the result of serious investigation.

What constitutes a drug-related homicide, and how the government decides how to classify it? As one Sinaloan human rights activist likes to complain, investigators in Mexico tend to ask what the victim did wrong, and then close the case on that information alone. So, say young Jose gets shot, the investigators ask "did he hang out with any ne'er do wells" (yes, i did use that word) and if the answer is yes, well, it's a drug-related homicide. Never mind the fact that Jose might have just got caught in the crossfire, might have slept with the wrong woman (his friend's girl?) or robbed a liquor store and gotten paid back for his misdemeanor. A gomero in the hills gets shot or macheted to death? These days it's drug-related, even if it was actually the result of an age-old land dispute. Or whatever.

So I guess, after all this rambling, my question is why the government is releasing these new numbers. My sense is that the Calderon administration has decided that a high bodycount can and should be used as a sign that the government is winning its war, (not the first time it's made that argument) that the "bad guys" are getting killed by the dozen and killing each other relentlessly, and that it's time to declare the drug war "won."

Incidentally, the government also claims that more than 121,000 drug suspects have been detained since 2006. Either 40,000-60,000 more have been arrested since October last year when the government last released such data, or these numbers are about as suspect as the alleged narcos arrested.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The name rings a bell...

It's funny how the same old names always crop up when it comes to Mexican drug trafficking. Well, it's not funny at all, and it's simply proof of just how deep the culture of impunity runs, but you know what I mean.

The authorities believe that Rogaciano Alba Alvarez, the old-school cacique based in the hills of Guerrero, was the man responsible for brokering the current deal between SInaloa, La Familia and the Gulf cartel, against Los Zetas. Prior to his arrest in February, Alba Alvarez apparently acted as a conduit between the groups. He has long had close links to Chapo (who brought him into the fold back in the 1980s, to the best of my knowledge, allowing for easy passage of Colombian cocaine into the southern state of Guerrero) and has nurtured connections to la Familia, operating in neighboring Michoacan. I don't know how he approached the Gulf cartel, my guess is that he used his political connections (he's PRI, incidentally.)

The guy was arrested in February; we'll see how long he stays in jail, now that he's thought to be responsible for a deal that could clean up the mess Calderon and his PAN started.

PS - A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I thought Heriberto Lazcano, aka El Lazca, Zeta No. 1, would be the next capo to fall. According to the newspaper Milenio today, capturing El Lazca is now the No. 1 priority for both the US and Mexico. My question: am I reading their minds correctly or are the authorities reading my blog? Either way's fine by me. Now, let's see if they get him.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Drug war sitrep

With Chapo having taken Ciudad Juarez, it's a good time for a look at where the cartels stand.

Sinaloa/Durango/Sonora remain under the sway of Chapo and El Mayo. The Beltran Leyva remnants appear to be moving back into the fold. There is fighting up there, but it's low-level. Everybody appears to know who will end up being the winner.

Tijuana is under Chapo's control. The fall of the Arellano Felix brothers ensured he would take over eventually: Enedina, the Arellano Felix sister, is apparently nothing more than a token figurehead -- the Sinaloans and their local people are running the show.

Tamaulipas is a fucking mess, the reason being that the Gulf and Zetas no longer work side by side. The Gulf leadership (what's left of it, since the Zetas undercut their bosses and Osiel Cardenas Guillen was sentenced) has made a deal with the Sinaloa cartel to oust Los Zetas.

Los Zetas are apparently moving their forces back to Tamaulipas, mainly from Quintana Roo and Yucatan, to deal with the debacle. This will leave a plaza open -- Chapo's people have long had a presence in the area, and will likely take it back once the Zetas have gone. Expect bloodshed down those parts in the coming months. My bet is we'll see another Cancun police department overhaul, as Zeta-linked cops are replaced with folks Chapo can or already has bought off.

Juarez is controlled by Chapo's people, which will allow him to move in on Tamaulipas much more easily. He had a vantage point in this respect in 2003, when the Sinaloans and Carrillo Fuentes were allies, but he blew it by killing Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes and getting greedy. He doesn't need to worry about that this time around; my belief is that Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who was always seen as very weak, has cut a deal with Chapo too. This would lead to decreased violence, which is obviously what Juarez needs right now.

With the Gulf on Chapo's side, Tamaulipas is his for the taking. But it will be bloody as hell.

La Familia is crumbling in Michoacan. The reason is not that the authorities have done such a great job at arresting them (or all those politicians), but that they've been co-opted by larger groups. Both the Sinaloans and the Gulf have made deals with La Familia (an inevitability; a Michoacan-based group can produce all the drugs it wants but it can't get them to the US without allying with someone bigger). Oddly, I have also heard that Los Zetas and La Familia may have formed a loose alliance. The two groups who blamed each other for the Morelia attacks joining forces? I'm hesitant to believe it.

Guerrero and Morelos -- formerly controlled by the Beltran Leyva brothers on behalf of Chapo -- are now central points in the drug war. Guerrero is a key marijuana/opium production zone and transit point for Colombian cocaine, and is being disputed by La Barbie and what's left of the Beltran Leyva brothers. A new group, Cartel del Pacifico Sur, has emerged. It appears to be the Beltran Leyva brothers' new organization, separate from both Chapo and La Barbie. From what I can see, La Barbie is working on behalf of Chapo again, while Hector Beltran Leyva is trying to stay independent -- at least in the central/southern part of the country. US officials confirm this theory.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The phoenix

When I first arrived in Mexico in 2007, countless people told me that Chapo was a non-story; his time has passed, they said. He's no one. He's a symbol, officials said. He's washed up, said others. He doesn't even control Sinaloa, added some so-called experts.

I was convinced they were wrong; I don't know why, it was just a gut feeling. I'd heard a lot about his ability to bounce back, make the right deals, wage the right wars, etc. I figured he'd stay on the radar in some way. The more I learned about Sinaloa, Chapo's history, the drug war, the more I realized that I would be right.

It seems Chapo has now taken control of Ciudad Juarez. (See excellent AP story; link is in title.)

So much for being washed up. Maybe with all the current disarray in Tamaulipas, he'll finally finish off the remnants of the Gulf cartel and finish that war, which he started in 2003.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

what a tease...

I didn't even notice this the first few times I read the interview with El Mayo, but when Scherer asks to tape record it, El Mayo says no. But, he adds: "Another time. You have my word."

Given his position and reputation, I would have to assume El Mayo is a man of his word. In which case, the other interview has probably already happened, as it's highly unlikely the drug lord would arrange another of these meetings after the first interview was published. This may explain the delay in publication. It would also imply that we're set for a hell of an edition next week in Proceso. Will Chapo talk too?

It'd be like Simon and Garfunkel getting back together. (Inside joke: once upon a time, a now-famous and serious editor of mine was over the moon about their reunion, and asked that I interview both of them simultaneously. Guess which one said yes...)

More buzz on El Mayo

I think I will weigh in on some of the buzz about El Mayo, because it is what everyone's talking about this week.
There are a couple of key points that people have made that I think are worth addressing:

1) Is the interview propaganda?
Most definitely not. It's boilerplate, and rather dull, but what do you expect? Julio Scherer may have asked the drug lord questions about his guilt etc, and held back from publishing them. After all, they'd be evidence admissible in court, and El Mayo wouldn't want that. El Mayo could have spilled the beans on his entire operation, and Scherer would wisely respect the fact that this was completely off the record.
An interview with President Calderon would be much the same. It's not as exciting journalism, but it's fair. It's certainly not propaganda. The photo of Scherer and El Mayo is pretty self-promoting, mind you – but if you were Proceso and you got this interview, wouldn't you sell it for all it's worth? Even the grayest of gray ladies would capitalize on this one.

2) Conspiracy theories have arisen that this interview took place because the Sinaloa cartel or the government ordered it so. For some sort of PR reason. I can buy that, most definitely. As I commented the other day, El Mayo talking gives him some semblance of legitimacy: dialogue is often the first route to forgiveness. But as Michel Marizco points out at, El Mayo is not a lone gunman. He is one of the heads of an often very fiery bunch of narcos, who most likely wouldn't just let even their boss walk away, even in old age, even though his son is in jail and his nephew is dead etc.

Unless... both Chapo and El Mayo can negotiate a deal and ensure that their subordinates are protected if they are gone (by the possible future governor of Sinaloa, perhaps, who Mexico's spy agency has just cleared of narco allegations?). They turn themselves in (or get "caught"). The war is declared over. They also avoid extradition because Mexico sincerely wants to prove it can lock up capos and keep them from running their business. The US helps Mexico guard their cells, or something like that, as collateral. The two capos point fingers and name names of their suppliers outside of Mexico, and the DEA and international authorities go on to bigger fish, leaving Mexico's drug trade in the hands of smaller-time criminals, gangs effectively.
Let's face it, it's a possible scenario.

Who is a narco?

On a recent visit to the US, quite a few people asked me who the narcos are, what they look like, where they come from, etc. So for the next few days, barring any big news, I'm just going to post some pictures and anecdotes that describe "narcos."
The first, not necessarily in order of importance:

A 94-year-old woman was arrested while trying to cross into the United States... with 10 ½ lbs. of marijuana strapped to her body... The marijuana has an estimated street value of $5,250.

Courtesy of Nogales International (

Monday, April 5, 2010

El Mayo

So Julio Scherer of Proceso got an interview with Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. I still find this hard to grasp. Although the drug lord doesn't say all that much (pick up a copy of Proceso to find out exactly what – I'd like the mag to sell a billion copies from this and provide them with a budget that keep them in the black forever), this interview reveals so much in its own way.

1) When I arrived in Mexico in 2007, I went to Michoacan one of my first weekends. I was told by my bosses not to ask anyone about narcos, or drugs, as that would be risky. Of course, that's the first thing I did. And lo and behold, people talked to me. At least a little. They did in Sinaloa, too, and Juarez. People do want to talk about the drug trade in Mexico, rather than sweep it under the rug; they're just scared. Even narcos like El Mayo apparently don't mind talking, as long as it's to the right person. Scherer has certainly proved himself in that respect.

2) Narcos like El Mayo do not like living on the run. They don't really even consider themselves outlaws; for decades, their business was all but legal. The government changed the rules of the game, not the narcos. El Mayo would probably even prefer to clean up his money and invest in something else that could prop up Sinaloa's economy if given a chance to do so. So here's an idea, Calderon administration: open up a dialogue. Replace the drug economy with something else that Mexicans could profit from. Can't be a crop, that's not financially viable. But there must be something Mexico could produce en masse with a billionaire backer like El Mayo.

3) If Julio Scherer can get to El Mayo, so can the authorities. They're clearly not trying very hard.

4) The interview was conducted in February, but not published until April. My guess is that El Mayo told Scherer that delaying publication was a necessary condition for security reasons. But there may have been another reason: El Mayo may be getting what I call the Carrillo Fuentes condition – in his old age, thinking about giving himself up. Back in February, the pressure was really on to hit the Sinaloa cartel hard, and an interview with El Mayo may have roused enough criticism that the mexican army act – and kill him in the process of "trying" to capture him. El Mayo speaking publicly now opens a door to some sort of communication, and a deal that might allow him to spend the rest of his days in prison rather than in a coffin.

5) Chapo and El Mayo talk all the time on the phone, according to the latter. Again, the Mexican authorities (and DEA) are wiretapping like crazy these days, and should really be able to get a trace on these calls. If you really want to catch these guys, try a little harder.

Aside from these observations, I have to admit just how jealous I am. I've tried various routes to get an interview with Chapo, no luck, unsurprisingly. Scherer, on the other hand, was reached out to by El Mayo himself. What an amazing feat: to be such a well-respected and trusted journalist that one of the most-wanted men in the country contacts you himself because he wants to meet you.

Chapo, if you're reading this post, I'd still love a sit-down, anyplace, anytime.

PS - I guess my prediction about catching Chapo over Easter weekend was a bit off – unless the authorities simply haven't announced it yet, but that would be a tough one to keep secret.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Judgment day?

Ok, I'm going to make my crystal ball blog prediction: I believe Chapo will be caught in the next three days.

A few months back, a former DEA chief of operations told me (and a few other reporters, too) that he thought Chapo had about 90 days left. That would put the capture/killing at mid-April.

My sense (and this is just a gut feeling; it is not based on any reliable intelligence) is that the troubles in Tamaulipas right now might be a perfect smokescreen for the army or special forces to go in and get Chapo in Sinaloa. With all the attention on the other side of the country, Chapo and co. must be feeling nice and secure again.

April 4 is Chapo's birthday. He likes to throw parties, when he has the opportunity. He's also been known to switch dates of events (his last wedding, for instance) in order to throw the authorities off balance. So I'm predicting April 2, tomorrow. I'm predicting he'll be caught in Jesus Maria, the town where he once lived and where his son Edgar is buried.

Of course, I'm just guessing here. But as I've said before, it would be a coup for Calderon, and allow him to leave the drug war behind him with at least some dignity intact.