Monday, May 31, 2010

Sicario's story

Ioan Grillo has a very good piece on a sicario in Medellin, Colombia. (Link in title of post). Grillo writes for Time and various other publications, his reporting is top notch, and he always manages to find good narco characters. He's by far the bravest English-language reporter in Latin America right now, perhaps the craziest too but I leave that to the shrinks to decide. For anyone interested in the human (and often, darker) side of the drug trade, I highly recommend his stuff. He's also got a book coming out next year, which I'm sure will be pretty fascinating.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

In defense of Calderon

I feel like I'm turning increasingly PANista, in part in reaction to the ongoing criticism of Calderon's tactics in the drug war. I don't consider myself an advocate of his war or the tactics employed to fight it, but I do feel like the press is increasingly targeting him without good reason/sufficient evidence. There's a tendency, as a foreign reporter in Mexico, to get swept up in left-wing emotion, often because the government fails to give you straight answers/access, and I see this happening right now with allegations that his war on drugs is increasingly political. One quibble I have is the simple lack of coherent fact and argument.

In several pieces, I've read about how Calderon has "targeted" opposition members but not members of his own party. This simply isn't true or accurate. While the authorities have certainly targeted more members of the opposition, that does not mean that members of the PAN have not been targeted. A piece in the Christian Science Monitor argues:

"But [Calderon] has not targeted his own party’s elected officials. [Gregorio] Sanchez’s arrest has been compared to Calderon’s sweep of 10 mayors in PRD-held Michoacan during election season last year on alleged links to drug traffickers. Almost all of the mayors, who included two members of Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN), were later released from prison."

So there were two PAN mayors targeted in the sweep, contradicting the initial sentence arguing that Calderon "has not targeted his own party's elected officials."

It's true that the majority of targeted officials have not been PAN. And this is a dilemma the current administration faces, because historically, it's been the PRI which had the deepest ties to the narcos. In Michoacan, it's the PRD. The PAN doesn't have those historical ties to deep-rooted corruption. By default, it's going to be going after the opposition if it wants to fight a drug war.

In another piece a while back, in Newsweek, the author wrote: "Some of the other arrests seem even more craven because of their openly political flavor. The 10 mayors were jailed a month before the July 5 midterm elections last year—which Calderón's conservative National Action Party lost badly. All but González were members of political parties opposed to Calderón."

So there was one PAN mayor arrested? I thought it was two.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, wrote: "Several of the arrested mayors belonged to Calderón's own center-right National Action Party."

So there were several, ie, more than two but not many?

Where are these numbers/facts coming from? According to press reports at the time, 6 of the detained mayors were PRI, 2 were PRD and 2 were PAN.

If you're going to make an argument that a president is effectively abusing his power, please get your facts straight before you do so.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Smart piece on economic recovery

The Economist notes how security could affect Mexico's economic recovery. (Link in title of post.) Good piece, particularly as it focuses on the Nuevo Leon situation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Context is everything puts the "black tar heroin" scare stories into context (link in title and below). Next thing you know, we'll learn that homicides have long been a common occurrence in Ciudad Juarez, they've always grown marijuana in Sinaloa and that Mexican cartels have been operating in the United States for quite some time. Oh, and they still haven't caught Chapo, by the way.

Paulette again

In El Universal, Carlos Loret de Mola asks a few questions regarding the Paulette case. I couldn't have said it better myself. (Link in title of the post.)

How is it possible that from the 22nd to the 28th of March, two reconstructions took place but no one searched Paulette's bed, the last place she'd been seen alive?

How is it possible that Amanda de la Rosa slept in the same bed for four days without noticing anything unusual?

How is it possible that a corpse wasn't detected by one of the roughly 200 people – police, detectives, journalists, relatives, friends, the chief prosecutor – who entered the 300-square meter (thanks for noting my error David) apartment during the week that Paulette was missing?

He's got more questions, of course, which you can read in his piece. Keep the pressure on, folks. This case shouldn't be allowed to go away like so many have before it. Mexico needs to move forward, and moving forward by just letting things slide isn't the right way.

Friday, May 21, 2010


I'm going to take a break from organized crime and the like and blog about little Paulette today. Apparently, the authorities have concluded that the 4-year-old girl who went missing for 9 days this Spring and was then found in her bed, dead, died in that very bed, of her own accidental smothering. Apparently, she was actually in the bed the whole time. Apparently, she was there while the police searched her room, the house, detained the mom, searched some more, put up billboards and launched TV ads looking for her, while an aunt slept in the very bed where she was supposedly lying dead.... And so on.

This story is too fucking ridiculous to be true. It reeks of jesus, I don't know what. It reeks of some weird twisted conspiracy on a par with the Juarez femicide conspiracy theories. In my mind, there is no explanation for it. And I add this: If State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto doesn't solve this twisted shit before running for president in 2012, I hope it haunts him for the rest of his days. Note to anyone in the press reading this: Ebrard has been haunted by the fact that he froze when two cops were lynched in Tlahuac when he was police chief, and that will likely resurface if he runs for president. If Pena Nieto runs, the 4-year-old corpse of Paulette should be pictured alongside every cheery photo op he ever does.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I didn't have time to post my quibbles with this followup piece. Now I do:

I only have one, really. First guy quoted in the story is a police officer. That's better than a street vendor. Except... he's a 25-year-old former cop in a suburb of Mexico City. What in God's name does he know about Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel?

Rest of the story is good. It doesn't prove all that much but it's more thorough than other pieces I've read. And the headline expresses a decent amount of doubt: "Sinaloa Cartel Seems Favored In Mexico's Drug War."

NPR followup

NPR's followup story on Sinaloa cartel favoritism is much better than the first one. (Link in title of post.) Definitely the best I've read on the subject.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NPR "investigates"

Ahead of Calderon's visit to Washington, NPR has done an investigation into the widespread allegations that Mexico is favoring the Sinaloa cartel. It's the best piece I've read on the subject, but because it's so bad, it only serves to show how bad the other pieces were. So I'm going to do my own investigation of the data available, and will write something up in the next week or so.
Here are some of my observations about the NPR piece, for now (i'll add more as I analyze it more and do my own research):

First person quoted in the piece is "a woman in stretch pants and sneakers" who peddles CD of narco-corridos."La Linea is from here. It's the Juarez cartel," the woman says. "Chapo wants to take over Juarez, but those with La Linea don't want to give it up. This is why there's so much killing."
Hardly a reliable source, particularly coming just a paragraph after NPR said it based its investigation on "court testimony, current and former law enforcement officials, and an NPR analysis of cartel arrests." If that's what you based your investigation on, then lead with that.

The next bit of "evidence": "Everywhere in Juarez, people whisper the story about how the Mexican army and federal police are helping Guzman's gangs of assassins capture the city."
Well, yeah, people have been whispering that since October, but that doesn't make it true. It's good color, and belongs in the story, but again, this is supposed to be an "investigation."

Next, the accusations: "The presence of the army and the federal police has not resolved the problem," says Manuel Espino, former congressman from Juarez and former head of the National Action Party, the president's party. "On the contrary, it's gotten worse. El Chapo comes to town to take over the territory. It makes us believe there's a complicity with the federal government. Veteran journalists in Juarez see it, too."

Espino has been on the outs with Calderon for some time; maybe it would have been worth noting that, and a brief summary of their history? I think Manuel Clouthier, another vocal PAN critic of alleged leniency on the Sinaloa cartel, would have been a better source here, but of course, he's from Sinaloa, not Chihuahua.

The quotes from the former Juarez police commander are good. But not strong enough to be proof. "The intention of the army is to try and get rid of the Juarez cartel, so that Chapo's cartel is the strongest," says the ex-commander. "...during those three weeks, Chapo's people contacted the army and figured out what they were doing and how much money they wanted. They started to pay them off, and the Sinaloans just kept working."

This guy is most likely telling the truth in some respects. I've been with the army up in Ciudad Juarez, I know how they work. They are not all in the pockets of the Sinaloa cartel, but I'm sure some are. What is basically happening is that they pay informants, informants offer them information, and they act on it. The result is a bidding war. If the Juarez cartel gives more info, then the army will go after Sinaloa members. If the Sinaloa cartel offers better info, then they go after Juarez guys. At the same time, I don't doubt that some soldiers/mililtary intelligence folks make arrangements whereby they get info, turn a blind eye to the informants' business, and maybe make some extra cash while they're at it. Corruption exists everywhere, and everyone is corruptible. How corrupt and how high up it goes is really the key question at this point.

Then there's also the obvious logic, which a DEA official explains later in the piece: the Juarez cartel is based in Juarez, therefore will be the main and easier target.
"La Linea has controlled the [smuggling] corridor so there are more [Juarez cartel] operators in this corridor than any other cartel. Therefore, you're going to see more people from [that cartel] being arrested," Joe Arabit spells out.

My last quibble (for now): "In an effort to get a more precise picture of who the authorities are pursuing in Juarez, an NPR News investigation analyzed thousands of news releases posted on the website of Mexico's federal attorney general's office, the Procuraduria General de la Republica. The news releases document every arrest of a cartel member charged with organized crime, weapons or drug offenses."

I don't believe this for a second. Firstly, because I've read the PGR bulletins every day for the past three years, and am not even convinced that there are "thousands" of bulletins regarding arrests in Juarez. (I'll check when I have time.) Secondly, Sedena (military) arrests are not always registered on the PGR web site, so what about those? This is good reason to criticize Mexico for poor inter-agency sharing of information, but it's not enough to accuse the government of collusion with the Sinaloa cartel.

I've expressed my doubts about Sinaloa cartel favoritism before, mainly because I still believe in everyone being innocent until proven guilty, and that includes the government. I don't doubt that favors are being traded all over the place in the drug war, because that's how the drug war works. I think NPR should have done a better job before launching these accusations; especially as it's one of the only media outlets remaining that I still trust. Watergate, this investigation ain't.

Nacho Coronel update

A US official in Mexico tells me that the rumors of Nacho Coronel's capture/death are just rumors, nothing more. Border law enforcement sources tell Marizco at a different story, however: apparently Nacho is being held by the Navy under wraps, while they try to find out more about his military contacts. I think it's too soon to really pronounce this story true or false; my gut still tells me that they have him and are trying to get everything they can out of him. But of course, my gut is only my gut, it's not exactly the most reliable method of reporting.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Santa Muerte

I have yet to read a good investigation into Santa Muerte and the role it plays in Mexican underworld society, as well as how the government perceives it vis a vis drug trafficking. You get plenty of stories quoting Joe Schmoe saying "God doesn't do anything for me so I turned to Santa Muerte" but you don't actually get any real depth to their thinking, which I know they have. You also read about the government arresting people and seizing Santa Muerte statues (until recently, they were not displayed alongside guns and drugs after seizures, now they are); I'd love to hear why exactly the authorities think these statuettes are so dangerous.

In the new National Geographic, Alma Guillermoprieto gives it a go (Link in title of post). I'm a great admirer of her writing, but in recent pieces about Mexico, she's come across a little too much like the exoticist anthropologist for my liking. I get the sense that a lot of the people she's quoting are completely lying to her (as I know many people in Mexico have lied to me in the same way) and giving her nice romanticized quotes that they know will make her happy and leave them alone. For that reason, this piece is perfect for National Geographic, but not much else.

The photo above is of a prisoner in Matamoros who makes Santa Muerte statues. Prison representatives then sell them in the markets in major Tamaulipas cities; prisoners are supposed to get 100 percent of the cash, and can then put the work on their resume. Nice arrangement, if it works like it's supposed to.

The future is bleak

"One of my son's classmates told the children to bring pistols to school because they were going to form a drug gang and play at kidnapping children," said the mother of an 8-year-old boy in Ciudad Juarez.

This quote from a Reuters story about how some kids in Mexico are idolizing narcos and criminals (Link in title of post). This is the best story I've read on this problem. From my own reporting as well as other things I've read, I think it's still just a tiny minority of children who aspire to this sort of future, and is by no means cause for widespread panic. But with trust in politicians and businessmen so low, and with so few opportunities for ordinary people to work their way up within the system, convincing kids that crime doesn't pay is going to be increasingly difficult. It doesn't help that so many of their teachers are a bunch of racketeers either.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Nacho libre?

Guadalajara's buzzing with the news that Ignacio Nacho Coronel Villareal, one of Chapo's top sidekicks (aka the King of Ice, the King of Crystal, Nachito, and so on), may have been captured. Local officials are saying that the identity of the suspect has yet to be confirmed, which explains why no media are jumping on this; the officials say it will be the feds who make any announcement if it is indeed Nacho.
This would of course be big news, and make one wonder whether a) it's proof of the gov't finally coming down on Chapo and his Sinaloa crew or b) Chapo gave up Nacho Coronel, as it's said he did with Alfredo Beltran Leyva, in order to preserve his own freedom.

Incidentally, some locals in Guadalajara say Chapo made one of his famous restaurant appearances there about two months ago. No one confirmed this so it could well be just myth (like a lot of the stories about the guy) but worth noting I think. He's always considered Guadalajara a safe haven, and that would be one city where he might choose to hide out. But if Nacho got caught there, is it possible that Chapo was with him, or nearby? Is it possible they've caught Chapo and aren't telling just yet?

PS - Michel Marizco of fame is also reporting that border law enforcement sources are saying Nacho's been caught.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Griselda let go

Chapo's wife Griselda Lopez Perez has been released by the authorities, suggesting a) she no longer has much to do with the guy, at least not enough to warrant the authorities holding her b) she was let go because the authorities are favoring the Sinaloa cartel or c) she was let go because the authorities hope to use her to nab Chapo. They tried that last time when they detained one of his sons, Ivan Archivaldo, and Chapo apparently was furious about the attempts to lure him in. (There was also speculation that Chapo then turned in Alfredo Beltran Leyva in order to get his son out of prison.)

I'm betting on C. But interestingly, in the seven buildings the authorities raided in Culiacan (Ms Lopez Perez was in one of them), they didn't find any weapons or the usual narco junk – just a few laptops, jewelry and some nice cars. So maybe she's not that close to Chapo and his narco crew anymore after all.

Trouble and strife

So one of Chapo's wives, Griselda Lopez Perez, has been arrested by the SIEDO in Culiacan, according to Proceso. If this is confirmed, it could mean some serious trouble for Chapo: although they separated and he's remarried, she has always been in close touch and has allegedly worked for his organization both as a rep for laundering fronts and as an envoy to broker deals with rivals.

She's the mother of Edgar (who was killed in 2008) and three other of Chapo's boys, and was arrested in the swanky Colinas de San Miguel neighborhood of Culiacan, where other big local names have been arrested in recent years. More to come when I know more...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Piss-poor piece of the day

A completely unknown softball biographer/editor writes in the Daily Beast that Calderon is to blame for Arizona's immigration law. The link is in the title of the post, but don't bother reading it; my 7-year-old niece could have written a stronger argument, and at least she's been to Mexico. Read comments on and elsewhere in the web world for reactions.

TJ's back!

Richard Marosi of the LA Times had a good piece the other day on Tijuana's apparent revival. Worth a read (link in title of post)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chapo documents

The Reforma story on Chapo's documents continues to make headlines; of course, we already knew he had informants high up in law enforcement, but this latest evidence simply reaffirms just how well-connected the man and his organization are.

The most interesting thing about Chapo's connections is how they came about. In the 90s, Amado Carrillo Fuentes was the man who had all the contacts. He had generals, air logistics experts, and government officials in his pockets.

Chapo, meanwhile, didn't have all that much besides local officials. But he went to work, deploying the Beltran Leyva brothers to begin the corruption process. They apparently went about it slowly – first lower level federal officials, then mid-level. They apparently didn't even try to go right to the top – where Carrillo Fuentes and Juan Garcia Abrego of the Gulf cartel already had connections – because they were betting on the long-term. They were betting that their guys, not yet on the radar, would rise up the ranks and one day be on top.

How far did they get? So far, the highest ranking official arrested for alleged links to Chapo is Noe Ramirez, the former anti-drug prosecutor who is still being held for allegedly agreeing to take payments of $450,000 a month from the Beltran Leyva brothers.

Ramirez started working in the PGR in 1995; given their track record, chances are good that the Beltran Leyva brothers started working on him at around the same time.

The other element of corruption that I think is undercovered is just who these guys go after. They don't go on fishing expeditions, they pick their mark and then approach him with an offer. How do they know who to pick? I have no particular insight into their methods, but my guess is that they pick just like any predator would – but instead of the weak, they go after the ambitious. The ambitious young official who wants to rise up will do just about anything his boss says, but at the same time, will leave himself susceptible because rather than thinking with the law in mind, he'll think of getting ahead, moving up the ladder and getting rich. He'll effectively be too ambitious for his own good, so ripe for corruption.

Then there's the jaded old burned out law enforcement officer or investigator who's just fed up with his life going nowhere (and his official pension, which is likely close to non-existent).

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I also wonder how many of the officials/cops/generals who were signed up by the Beltran Leyva brothers jumped ship to work directly for Chapo when he and the brothers fell out in 2008.

PS - New York Times has a good summary of the document news (link in title) with some opining from yours truly.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The State of Mexico

State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto said today that his state is a "narco-lair." Indeed, analysts say that his big test (like that of all contenders for the 2012 election) will be security.

So let's take a look at the State of Mexico. Since 2008, it's been a battleground between Zetas, Beltran Leyvas, Chapo's people and La Familia. At stake, as officials always say, is distribution in Mexico City.

Fair enough, but there's also another reason: drugs from Guerrero, Oaxaca and other parts of the south come through the State of Mexico en route to the north. Especially when roads are checked on the Pacific coast by the army, the State of Mexico becomes increasingly important.

Hence the fighting. It's not just a problem caused by Mexico City (and rival Marcelo Ebrard). State of Mexico towns like Cuautitlan Ixcalli have suffered serious waves of violence in the past couple of years, prompting curfews and army presence. Not much has been done to seriously quell the constant tussle between the various groups, either, which makes me wonder what exactly Pena Nieto and his crew are doing to combat the narcos. With all the talk about the PRI planning to look the other way if it takes office in 2012, I'm wondering if Pena Nieto hasn't begun to do that already.

PS - The Villanueva trial in New York should be interesting. Meanwhile, Reforma has an interesting report on high-level corruption, citing documents it says were seized by the army in Culiacan. I'm going to check into this, but I believe these are the same documents Reforma reported on a few months ago.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


In my three years in Mexico, I always knew there was something missing from the stories about narco-corridos. It was this song. (Link in title.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Puerta grande

Where do Mexican prisoners in the war on drugs go?

Some go to the maximum security facilities in Ciudad Juarez, Culiacan, Matamoros and Reynosa. Some then escape, prompting prison wardens to become fugitives or be arrested themselves.

Some go to state facilities in the same cities, or elsewhere like Zacatecas. There, they mingle with members of rival organizations and quite often spark riots resulting in deaths. Some escape – in one instance last year, 53 walked out of the Zacatecas facility.

Some go to the medium-security facility in Nayarit. This is largely reserved for allegedly corrupt policemen, prompting jokes about how there are more policemen inside the facility than there are guarding it.

And then some go to either Almoloya de Juarez in the State of Mexico, or Puente Grande in Jalisco. The former houses MIguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Ernesto "Don Neto" Fonseca, among other aging dons of the Mexican drug trade.

The latter once housed Chapo Guzman, until he decided he'd had enough of being behind bars and hopped into a laundry cart and was wheeled out. The prison was unofficially renamed Puerta Grande.

Puente Grande received a "huge overhaul" after Chapo's escape, the government promised. But in 2008, a few prisoners escaped; last year, I believe there was another breakout.

Late last night, the Army searched Puente Grande. What did the soldiers find? Two AR-15 rifles, a kilo and a half of cocaine, 63 cartridges, 75 cellphones, two laptops, and a few more handguns.

The prison's chief of security is now missing. This was also the first time the Army had been asked to conduct a search on the prison, the regional commander said.

Everyone knows Mexico's prisons have long been problematic. But in the midst of a drug war in which some 121,000 people have been locked up, for this sort of thing to happen at Puente Grande is just inexcusable.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cuernavaca sitrep

It's been a hairy few weeks in Cuernavaca. First, beheadings. Then emails warning residents not to go out at night. More killings. More messages. Terror, at its worst.

A couple of years ago, a US counter-drug official told me he hoped the people would "rise up and say 'No More!"

Well, it's happening here right now. It's Sunday night. For the past two Sundays, since the first email warnings, a rock band has played concerts for peace in the Zocalo. Then at night, it's been wonderful, people strolling the streets – kids in tow, in many cases – and people are going about their normal lives as if the narcos weren't here. Friday and Saturday nights have been the same. As I write this, at 9:50 on a Sunday night, this cafe is packed and everyone is dancing salsa. (OK, so they don't have jobs to go to tomorrow because of the unemployment, but that's a different story.) There isn't even that much of a military or federal police presence. The narcos have simply backed down. They're still killing each other in certain neighborhoods, but the people in general refuse to be affected.

This AP story ( would have you believe otherwise. Don't believe the hype.

Oh, and I hope I'm right, and nothing bad happens tonight.

Calderon, right back at you

I find it weird that the very right-wing Washington Times has a very appropriate piece regarding the Arizona immigration law. (Link in title of pose.) It points out Mexico's hypocrisy. I believe some of the facts about Mexican enforcement are wrong, and the quotes from rabid republicans are gratuitous (as can be expected from this paper) but the overall point is a good one to make right now. (I tried with various liberal media, none accepted.) I wish the more liberal media outlets had the spine to point out hypocrisy when they see it, even if they condemn Arizona's law. It helps inform people of what's going on, of the politicking involved, and in this instance, could push both the government of Mexico and of the US to do something about treatment of immigrants in general, on a federal level.