Monday, January 31, 2011

Does marijuana matter?

There's been a lot of debate over how much marijuana contributes to the Mexican cartels' profits. New White House Drug Czar Gil Kerkowski said late last year that the figure often cited – 58% to 60% of cartel revenues come from marijuana — was introduced by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy in 2006, and based on research from 1997. He said it's too outdated to use.

Clearly. Kerkowski is right to suggest not using that data. "Everyone that recognizes these cartels clearly understands that their revenues have changed a lot since 1997," Kerkowski argues. "We strongly believe we see significantly less than the numbers cited from 14 years ago."

Really? According to the National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, the latest data available from the best law enforcement sources possible, "the amount of marijuana produced in Mexico has increased an estimated 59 percent overall since 2003... Contributing to the increased production in Mexico is a decrease in cannabis eradication, which has resulted in significantly more marijuana being smuggled into the United States from Mexico, as evidenced by a sharp rise in border seizures."

Ok, it is possible that because the amount of marijuana coming into the US from Mexico has increased since 2003, the price has actually declined, therefore actually giving less profits to the cartels. Possible. But it's highly unlikely.

The phrase "as evidenced by a sharp rise in border seizures" is important here. An increase in seizures should be regarded as evidence of an increase in production, according to the standard law enforcement argument in both the US and Mexico, (this is often contradicted by congratulatory diplomatic statements. The US loves to praise Mexico for its increased seizures, which everyone on the ground knows is not a success at all.)

Let's look at Mexico's own numbers for eradication and seizures of marijuana during the Calderon administration:

In 2007, 590,765 kg of marijuana were seized by the Mexican military
In 2008, 477,286 kg of marijuana were seized by the Mexican military
In 2009, 715,383 kg of marijuana were seized by the Mexican military
In 2010, 866,340 kg of marijuana were seized by the Mexican military

In 2007, 22,952.5220 hectares of marijuana eradicated in Mexico
In 2008, 18,394.4770 hectares of marijuana eradicated in Mexico
In 2009, 16,029.1848 hectares of marijuana eradicated in Mexico
In 2010, 17,998.7162 hectares of marijuana eradicated in Mexico

Indeed, the numbers do suggest that marijuana eradication is down in Mexico, while seizures are up. The Mexican military is not eradicating fast enough.

But marijuana is not the primary source of income for the cartels?

A recent and widely-cited RAND corporation study calculated that "Mexican drug trafficking organizations generate only $1 billion to $2 billion annually from exporting marijuana to the United States and selling it to wholesalers, far below existing estimates by the government and other groups."

RAND also found that "the often-cited claim that marijuana accounts for 60 percent of gross drug export revenues of Mexican drug trafficking organizations is not credible. RAND's exploratory analysis on this point suggests that 15 percent to 26 percent is a more credible range."

According to my calculations, the Mexican military seized about $2 million in marijuana last year (based on a roughly estimated US street value that US authorities often use). That means that by RAND's calculations, they seized 0.2-0.4 percent of the total marijuana produced in Mexico. (I'm not including US authorities' seizures of Mexican marijuana, and I'm sort of using apples and oranges to make a nice salad, but I think it's enough for these purposes.)

Above, I quoted Kerkowski as saying the cartel "revenues have changed a lot since 1997."

Are they getting rich off other drugs?

According to the National Drug Threat Assessment, cocaine availability has decreased sharply in the United States since 2006. So prices have gone up, and the Mexicans are increasingly taking a lead role from the Colombians, so they're making more money off it themselves rather than having to share.

Heroin, according to the National Drug Threat Assessment, "remains widely available and that availability is increasing in some areas..."

Seizures of opium gum and poppy fields have increased in Mexico, indicating an increase in production. Ok, so heroin might be making some more money for the Mexicans.

According to the National Drug Threat Assessment, methamphetamine is increasingly available in the United States. The Mexican military seized 22 meth labs in 2007; it seized 146 in 2010. Clearly the Mexicans are making more meth. Chapo and his Sinaloa cronies went into the meth business around 2003; they saw an opportunity and given their business savvy, they were right.

There has also been a "resurgence in MDMA (ecstasy) availability" in the US, according to the National Drug Threat Assessment. But it's Asian drug trafficking organizations who are responsible for the so-called resurgence, the authorities say, not the Mexicans. So no profit from that.

Something doesn't add up. Is Kerkowski right and I don't know something? Probably, but what he knows that I don't know is a complete unknown.

The timing in all this has been particularly interesting. For instance, the RAND study came out shortly before Californians voted on the pro-legalization of marijuana PROP 19. I highly respect RAND, and trust their objectivity, but for them to come out right before such a monumental vote struck me as odd; their widely reported data certainly weakened the argument that legalization might help quell the violence in Mexico. After the RAND study, the sympathy vote was lost and the legalization argument became a "moral America" one once again. Ie, all drugs are bad.

The shift away from marijuana's importance to the cartels could also be a justification for the authorities' pressure on La Familia (which has now apparently disbanded – I'll believe that when I see it). La Familia is a meth producer, and highlighting meth as a major source of income could better justify cracking down on that group.

Incidentally, who is the biggest marijuana grower in Mexico? Chapo and his Sinaloa cronies. And the battle over Guerrero right now, which has left dozens decapitated, is over the state's marijuana and poppy fields, as well as its vast coastline along which smugglers can drop cocaine from Colombia. Not meth labs.

I'm not sure what to make of all this really. It's all interesting, and doesn't all add up, and makes me think that everyone is pushing their own numbers without a clear agenda. I welcome thoughts.

For what it's worth, former Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora told me in September 2010 that he firmly believes the 60 percent marijuana figure. And he called for a bigger push than PROP 19 on the US side. "If you are effectively legalizing [consumption] but not legalizing production," he said, "you are fostering production in Mexico [and] fostering violence and illegality in Mexico."

Lastly, I find it appalling that the White House Office of Drug Control is using 2006 data. Another factsheet on the web site, concerning drug use in the US, is dated 2003. Surely, out of the several billion dollars being used to fight the drug war each year, a few million could be spent on researching this stuff and updating the info?

TOMORROW: Kerkowski and the use of the word "cartels."

Sinaloa cartel protection

Another reader recently asked whether I think political figures are protecting Chapo. An eternal question, and I am currently working on an essay about that very subject. I'll elaborate on the details as I uncover them, hopefully they'll make for decent blog posts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A decade on...

Today marks ten years since Chapo Guzman escaped from Puente Grande penitentiary in Jalisco. Ten years, he's been Mexico's most-wanted man, on the run from the law.

They've almost caught him a few times, but it's always been close but no cigar.

In 2007, when I moved to Mexico and started reporting on the drug war, everyone had written Chapo off. He was 50 at the time, and everyone from the attorney general to reporters told me that he was finished, just a symbolic figure now.

Perhaps. But when I looked at his past, I saw how time and time again he had escaped capture, rebounded, struck alliances and waged war at the right time. He couldn't be dismissed, I thought. He'll be the last one standing (hence the title of my book, The Last Narco – no, he's not the last of all narcos, or capos, but he's the last of a certain breed, thanks in large part to mexican law enforcement efforts to decapitate and disrupt the cartels and also thanks to the internal reorganization of the cartels themselves)

Who has survived this phase of the military-led drug war? Chapo. Who has managed to outwit DEA intelligence thus far? Chapo. Who controls the majority of drug trafficking in Mexico today? Chapo. Whose organization is the strongest drug trafficking syndicate in the world today? Chapo's.

The Associated Press this week has a story headlined "Mexico's 'El Chapo' thrives 10 years after escape." (Link in title of post.)

Mexican officials insist that Chapo will be caught, soon. They are on his tail, they say. He is a priority, once again, they insist.

They really have to catch him, US officials say, otherwise their efforts against other cartels in recent years will appear somewhat futile. If they don't catch Chapo and his crew, said former DEA adminstrator Robert Bonner in a recent AP story, the Sinaloa cartel "would end up being the only criminal organization in Mexico, intolerably powerful and corruptive... You have to bring them all down... Sinaloa can be last, but you have to destroy the organization. You have to.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

There's something happening here...

What it is ain't exactly clear. However, here's what I know: Since December, several alleged narcos believed to have worked closely with Chapo have been arrested. One talked, said his boss was still moving around Durango and Sinaloa. He was notably caught by the marines (back in 2008); the marines have been used more and more of late because they are considered less corruptible/penetrable than other security forces, seeing as they're not stationed in enemy territory all the time. The marines tend to be used for high-value targets.

Another narco, reputedly responsible for transport of drugs through Sonora on behalf of Chapo, was recently caught in that northern state. An alleged associate of Chapo's was caught in Colombia, too.

Massive bloodshed follows in Acapulco; beheadings are accompanied by a note purportedly signed by Chapo. Chapo is not known for beheadings or massive violence. He is not known for drawing attention to his group; his subordinates know these are lines not to be crossed.

I've long had a theory that Chapo has made contingency plans: if he finds himself cornered or near capture, I believe he has instructed his people to fight back with serious force, to make sure the authorities know who's boss. It's just a theory, based only on his past smarts and savvy rather than any evidence.

It's apparently heating up in Sinaloa again too; a bunch of killings over the weekend all over the state. Sinaloa only usually heats up when the plaza is in dispute or someone wants to challenge Chapo et al's authority. Wonder what's going through the minds of the local narcos right now: do they know something we don't?

And the big new news: the army clashed with gunmen in Xalapa, Veracruz, on Thursday night/Friday. About a dozen of the gunmen died; a couple of soldiers apparently did too.

Several reports noted that Xalapa is normally very quiet. Indeed. That's why, according to a source of mine, Chapo owns a house in the city. He was almost caught a couple of years back, the source says, when the army came storming in on foot. Chapo apparently got away by helicopter that time, so the story goes.

The newspaper Reforma's Templo Mayor column the other day mentioned that this time around, the Army had been following intelligence leads all the way from the city of Puebla – another of Chapo's lesser-known strongholds.

Are the authorities on his tail? Are they finally giving the man a run for his money?

Jan. 19 is the 10th anniversary of his escape from Puente Grande, and Mexicans do love to celebrate their anniversaries with something big. Watch this space...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Argument of the day

Mexico's interior secretary, José Francisco Blake Mora, has apparently rejected criticisms of Mexico's handling of its security issues by saying the critical nations have worse problems of their own. (Link in title of the post.) This is certainly true in some cases, but I'm not sure it's a good enough argument to get the critics off your back.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Caye El Condor

Colombian authorities have detained Julio Enrique Ayala Munoz, aka El Condor, believed to be El Chapo's man in Cali, Colombia.

Nothing amazing about this arrest, but two interesting elements: once again, it's a Sinaloa cartel connection, and this time with international cooperation. The Colombians have actually done a fair bit of cracking down on Sinaloa connections in their country in recent years; in 2009 they seized dozens of properties worth tens of millions, all of which belonged to Chapo and his crew.

Second, the Colombian authorities say that Ayala had two bosses: Colombia's Comba brothers, and Chapo.

If El Condor was indeed as high-ranking as believed, this speaks volumes about the nature of the Colombian-Mexican relationship. Remember, the Colombians once ran the show entirely, simply using the Mexicans as mules to transport the drugs to the US. No longer. Several US officials warned back in 2009 that the Mexicans were becoming so powerful in the region that they were now operating in Colombia as if they owned the place. The fact that El Condor was reporting to Chapo and being paid by him, rather than dictating any conditions, suggests that the relationship has indeed been flipped, and that the Colombians are now simply producers – the Mexicans are the jefes. And Chapo, it appears, is still jefe de jefes.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Freedom's just another word

"Mexico’s political rights rating declined from 2 to 3 and its status from Free to Partly Free due to the targeting of local officials by organized crime groups and the government’s inability to protect citizens’ rights in the face of criminal violence." – Freedom House's report, Freedom in the World 2011

Hardly great news from Freedom House, which also notes how West Africa is becoming a bit of a concern, with barely a "free state" in the region.

Mexico should, however, pride itself on the fact that it is not deemed a failed state by the level-headed at Freedom House, and that the NGO fails to mention the fact that pockets of Mexican territory are not controlled by the state.

I think the Calderon administration got off easy on this one, personally.

"While the country benefited from an important consolidation of democracy during the past decade, government institutions have failed to protect ordinary citizens, journalists, and elected officials from organized crime. Extortion and other racketeering activities have spread, and conditions for the media have deteriorated to the point where editors have significantly altered coverage to avoid repercussions from drug gangs."

That's basically it from the report. Worth noting: Mexico's rating of "partly free" puts it on a par with nations like Sierra Leone, Malawi and Paraguay. Not great really.

Its rate of decline, meanwhile, was the same as Iran's.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On wandering...

Sometimes as a journalist, you use all your wits and senses, and take every precaution possible. (Sensible, really.) Sometimes, you throw caution to the wind and take that extra risk. Then there are those occasions you simply let someone who knows better than you lead the way.

I wandered through the sand, between the maze of one-storey, windowless concrete homes. Entire families sat inside; some smiled as I walked by and peered in, others frowned. I didn't know exactly where I was headed; I turned a corner.

About ten feet ahead of me, a little girl of about 8 was walking with her father. Hand in hand, they strolled. I was wandering; they had purpose.

The little girl looked back at me. Her dreadlocked braids shifted to one side. She smiled, let go of her father's hand, and slowed her pace.

She extended her little hand to mine, and took it. Her father chuckled as we continued our walk through the maze. We ambled a few hundred paces, crunching the seashells that cover the alleyways in Joal-Fadiouth, Senegal.

As we emerged from the concrete mass of homes, the little girl stopped. She let go of my hand, and took that of her father once more. They both looked at me, then looked up ahead.

A church. A church for Christians and Muslims, here on this tiny little island town in West Africa. A church where everyone is welcome.

They had led me to their destination. It wasn't mine. But I went in, too.


A bit of punditry on the Acapulco violence here (and in title of blog post):

Friday, January 7, 2011

They know where Chapo is...

A high-ranking Mexican official confirms that new reports regarding Chapo's whereabouts appear to be reliable.

Chapo is apparently living in Durango these days (the Archbishop did say this back in 2009, and remember, the Church knows everything and never lies...) Chapo moves around constantly, according to testimony from a recently detained suspect who was pretty close to the big boss.

Chapo moves around Durango and Sinaloa in light planes, according to the suspect. When staying put, he holes up in small cabins equipped with an exercise bike, a bed, a small kitchen and Sky satellite TV. This jibes with the reports that came out of Durango in mid-2009, when the military stumbled across a meth compound. The cabins there were equipped with similar gear, and the authorities believed Chapo had been living there.

There was also alcohol on the premises at the meth compound in Durango: according to the latest testimony, Chapo still likes his whiskey – aged 18 years. His culinary preference is apparently a little more down-to-earth: he's fond of machaca (basically, shredded beef).

The suspect told the authorities that in spite of his clandestine life, Chapo continues to control his organization and is constantly preoccupied with new developments, such as who is winning the battle for control of Ciudad Juarez.

Chapo is apparently still quick to act, too. When his son was killed in 2008, the recently detained suspect said, Chapo immediately ordered the killers caught. They were – within a day; Chapo apparently had the assassins brought before him in the hills, where he had them killed.

Interestingly, Chapo is said to have some opinions on the drug war: It simply generates more violence and "the country heats up," he allegedly said at one point.

What a patriot.

Another interesting thing to come out of this testimony is the suspect's revelation that Chapo's current wife is named Alejandra. If this is the Alejandra I'm thinking of, it's Alejandra Maria Salazar Hernandez, whom Chapo married back in 1977, when he was only 20 years old. Have the rest of his wives, including Griselda who was recently detained (but let go almost immediately), been fronts? Was his marriage to Emma Coronel, the beauty queen, simply a rumor or sham/misinformation to keep the authorities at bay and Chapo's mythical status intact? In his old age, has Chapo now gone back to his childhood sweetheart? Is she the most trustworthy person in his life, having been there through thick and thin, even as he romanced other women and lived a crazy life on the lam?

Truly the stuff of novels.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lucha libre and the narcos

The Washington Post has a story about how narco has infiltrated practically every corner of Mexican culture, but somehow Lucha Libre (wrestling) has maintained its innocence.

Not so fast: According to the Mexican wrestling blogosphere, millionaire Lucha Librador Alberto del Rio (aka Dos Caras) will soon be making an appearance as a "narco-personaje."

here's one link to the rumour:

It was only a matter of time really, sadly, tragically, annoyingly.