Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chapo for president?

Talk about taking things to extremes. Complaining once again about alleged collusion between the Calderon administration and Chapo's Sinaloa cartel, federal deputy Gerardo Fernandez Noroña proposed a few days ago that Chapo be named the PAN candidate for the 2012 presidency.

Seriously, Sr. Diputado, if you want to be taken seriously, don't make a serious allegation in the form of a joke. You may believe sincerely that the government is protecting Chapo, and yes, by default, the drug war does appear to have come out in his favour. But if it weren't coming out in his favour, then Osiel Cardenas Guillen would be winning – and "protected." Or the Arellano Felix brothers would still be standing and running the show from Tijuana. You know how drug wars work, so as I said before, don't be silly and throw out silly suggestions about a very serious matter if you want to be taken seriously.

The congressman also claims that Anabel Hernandez, the Mexican journalist who has written a book about Chapo, offers up proof that Calderon is directly linked to the drug lord.

This is again a serious accusation, and one Hernandez doesn't actually make. Hernandez, in her book, links a General X with the drug lord (he was allegedly sent to discuss peace terms with Chapo by Los Pinos). She also makes claims that Juan Camilo Mourino was linked to the Beltran Leyvas and Chapo – he was allegedly the man in Los Pinos who sent the general to discuss terms of peace.

This is where grey areas need to be defined a little better, in my mind. (Just like when Proceso misquoted me about claims made by one of my sources in The Last Narco.) First off, I have to say that I don't believe these accusations against Mourino. They reek of "this guy is already dead, so let's let him hang." Mourino, during his term as interior secretary, suffered no end of bashing from the press, who didn't like the fact that he was of Spanish descent. He had also allegedly broken a few rules while serving as undersecretary of energy (under then-energy secretary Calderon). No one ever gave him much of a chance.

Some of the past stuff may be true, but that's neither here nor there. Are we really to believe that he sent a veteran, 65-year-old general to the Sinaloan hills to negotiate a pact? Really, the interior secretary of this administration, and close confidant of the president? I've heard the story before. A few officials were reportedly sent to Durango to talk to Chapo and the Beltran Leyvas in early 2008, when blood was boiling between the two groups and Sinaloa was falling to pieces following the capture of Mochomo and the revenge killing of Edgar Guzman Loera. The version I heard in Sinaloa was that it was low-level local officials and a few state officials – no one in a federal capacity. There might have been military there, but everyone I talked to thought that unlikely. No mention of generals – and in Sinaloa, when a general does something, people tend to talk about it.

There is also talk in Mexico that this same general met with the leaders of La Familia and Los Zetas during Mourino's tenure. Rumour even has it that Defense Secretary Guillermo Galvan Galvan knew of these supposed meetings.

Rumoured, alleged, denied, lacking proof and so on. Secretos a voces may hold a lot of weight in the streets of Mexico, but they don't with me. I need to see the proof before I start accusing an administration of actively seeking out a pact or explicit deal. I don't want to be naive about this – I know this has happened in the past in Mexico, and few are above negotiating with the drug cartels – but I also would like to believe the Calderon administration is innocent until proven guilty.

And are we really to believe that in the midst of a major, bloody drug war, all the leaders of the major drug cartels would meet with a general? I think they're smarter than that, and that they know a potential trap when they see one.

Here's what I do know. The name of the general allegedly in question is Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro. On August 30, 2000, he was apprehended for alleged links to Carrillo Fuentes and the Juarez cartel and shuttled off to military prison in the Campo Militar No. 1. For seven years, he remained there. On June 30, 2007, all charges were dropped. On April 23, 2008 – a couple of months after the alleged meeting in Durango or Sinaloa or wherever is supposedly took place – he retired, receiving full military honours in an official ceremony.

Then again, that's what any general who has been cleared of all charges would get upon retirement, isn't it?

Incidentally, the ceremony honoring Gen Acosta Chaparro took place in the same Campo Militar where he was imprisoned for 7 years. And alongside him was one Gen. Rolando Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy, the many who during the Fox administration did valiantly try to hunt down Chapo in Sinaloa. He, too, had been accused of being in the pockets of the Juarez cartel at one point. No official charges were ever filed.

Not so precious now, are we

Well, that scandal-laden post didn't drive up traffic, so I guess I'll get back to the serious stuff.

Jean Succar Kuri, the Lebanese-Mexican businessman at the heart of the Lydia Cacho affair (he ran a child prostitution network stretching all the way to Los Angeles, which journalist Cacho exposed in her book, Los Demonios del Eden), has been sentenced to 13 years on child pornography charges and corruption of minors.

Thirteen years is not enough, in my estimation, but lost in the newspaper stories about this case is just how big a step this is for the Mexican judicial system.

A few years ago, my guess is that this guy would have got off with little more than a slap on the wrist. He was so well connected – a resort owner in Cancun, he knew everyone there – and was backed by powerful political figures in the PRI.

But the PRI is now losing clout, even in the states (it lost in Puebla and Sinaloa in last year's gubernatorial elections; I'll get at whether the PRI overall is actually losing steam or reinventing itself tomorrow.) Mario Marin – the "gober precioso" whose claim to fame is basically fucking over his entire state and talking to businessman Kamel Nacif on the phone about jailing and harassing Cacho for her exposure of their buddy and mentioning Nacif – is no longer in power in Puebla. I believe that's why the sentencing took so long – now that Marin is out of office, there is likely less pressure coming from those PRI quarters to sway the judge in Quintana Roo.

What's next? Will Marin, who left office in January, face some sort of charges? Will the PAN, in the final days of the Calderon administration, put pressure on the authorities to nail the scumbag? Get the PRI dinosaurs and make them face justice, Mr. President, and well, you have another term for your party. I'd be willing to put money on it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Forbes does it again

Not content with putting a narco like Chapo on its billionaires' list using questionable methodology, Forbes has blundered once again by calculating Rebecca Black's fortune, or should I say, miscalculating it.

Slate debunks the talk of her making a million off her song "Friday." (Link in title of post.)

I've mentioned both Chapo and Rebecca Black in one blog post; surely that will get me a few hits. (If I add "Sean Penn and Scarlett Johanssen get hitched", maybe that will help too? And how about "Angelina Jolie photographed at nude beach in Somalia?" And one more for good measure: "Readers discover that 90 percent of what they read on internet is fabricated and/or sensationalized in order to drive up traffic.")

Sunday, March 27, 2011

faulty intelligence

It always astounds me when I learn of egregious intelligence errors in the halls of power of Washington.

In 2009, an information packet put together by the DEA in Washington, for the media to learn more about the drug war, mistakenly included the name of former anti-organized crime prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconsuelos as an official suspected of corruption and collusion with the drug cartels.

I say mistakenly, because when I reported out the story, I got a sincere apology from the DEA spokesperson at the time, who blamed the error on the fact that a subordinate had put the report together and his supervisors had not had time to fact check it.

Oops, no harm, no foul.

I'm in Nicaragua right now, and have been doing a bit of looking into the reports that the Iranians are building up a vast mega-embassy – the kind the US has built up in Baghdad and other parts.

There have been rumours, talk of some 70-100 personnel, a sign that the Iranians can only be up to something, attempting to expand their sphere of influence in Latin America. Nicaragua has some unseemly allies, of that there is no doubt, but Iran? Is it really building up a presence here?

“The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said back in 2009. “And you can only imagine what that’s for,” she added, calling the effort “quite disturbing.”

Her comments were quickly debunked by reporters who went to Managua and saw that the Iranian embassy consists of a small compound, with a dozen staffers, max.

Still holds true today. And Iranian investment is still quite minimal here in Managua.


Human beings are fallible, even the intelligence community makes mistakes (or especially, depending on your point of view). There are all sorts of unknown unknowns to contend with. But sometimes, these intelligence mistakes have serious consequences, and lead to decisions that, for instance, lead to wars that last a long time and don't show much sign of success. Or instill Cold War-style fears about a country that does need to be understood and dealt with, but not necessarily through fear-mongering. Sometimes the intel is manipulated in the wrong hands, who do whatever they like with it in order to satisfy their own agendas.

Oops, indeed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On a side note

I have always envied whoever has the job of writing the Secretary of State's statements congratulating countries on their national day. There is one nearly every day of the year, and they're always so uplifting and positive. It'd be a bit like being a cheerleader, or the person in the office who always buys cakes for someone's birthday but doesn't actually do much that really matters.

And everyone gets a shoutout! For example, this from Secretary of State Clinton on Feb. 28:

"On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I congratulate the people of Wales as you celebrate St. David’s Day this March 1. This special occasion celebrates the rich history and culture of the Welsh people.

The United States is enriched by years of influence from Welsh-Americans. The friendship between our two countries dates back to the early 1700s and nearly 2 million people living in the United States today have Welsh ancestry. Iconic authors, philanthropists and statesmen of Welsh descent have helped shape the history of the United States. This relationship continues today as we work on areas of mutual interest and shared ideals.

The United States and Wales benefit from commercial and educational exchanges, strengthening this already robust relationship. We look forward to deepening these connections, increasing prosperity and continuing our efforts to promote peace around the world.

As you celebrate St. David’s Day, know that the United States stands with you as we work toward a better future for all our people."

Fantastic, I had no idea about the US-Welsh relationship. What I would give to interview whoever writes these things up... just imagine how tempting it would be to be just a little sneaky or subversive.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The capo, his wife, her husband and his brother

Victor Manuel Felix, the brother-in-law of one of Chapo's wives, was caught in an operativo that netted 9 relatively high-ranking alleged members of the Sinaloa cartel.

There are a few notable things about these arrests that make me think the net may well be closing on Chapo and his closest:

1) Victor Manuel Felix was in charge of both financial and trafficking operations all the way to Ecuador. Only high-ranking, well-respected folks within the Sinaloa cartel get to this level of responsibility. The authorities love to say every suspect caught is high-ranking, but this guy appeared to really be just that. Plus, he was a relative, and Chapo's relatives are usually close to the big guy.

2) It was an international sting. The authorities don't bust people like Manuel Felix, using international resources and perhaps risking leaks about their coordination, to go after small-time narcos. And when they make one big bust, they usually follow it with another or two, effectively hitting the capos with a jab and then an uppercut. Expect another big capture within the coming weeks.

3) The 9 arrested were caught in Quintana Roo, Jalisco and Mexico City. These are not the normal places for average Sinaloa cartel members to be caught. Some bigshots certainly have been caught in DF and Jalisco, but it's not standard fare. That means that the authorities are actively going after the Sinaloa cartel (rather than just rounding up the usual suspects in Ciudad Juarez and Sinaloa). Of course, I've always argued that Sinaloa is not being let off easy, but this is just another little piece of evidence, in my mind.

Incidentally, there's a new general in charge of Sinaloa and the sierra where Chapo is believed to still be hiding out. His name Moises Melo Garcia, and he was previously in charge of the 10th Zona Militar in Durango.

His predecessor, Noe Sandoval Alcazar, was the 3rd general that Chapo has either outwitted, outbribed, or outfought in Sinaloa since his escape from Puente Grande.

But according to a journalist friend who recently traveled to Badiraguato, some locals say that Chapo has become increasingly aggressive these days. Tensions are high in the sierra right now, and the people are scared.

Will this general get lucky? Will the Calderon administration finally be able to move on and claim some sort of symbolic victory in its drug war? We shall see.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oh, Chavez

"I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet," Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez said Tuesday in speech to mark World Water Day.

"Careful! Here on planet Earth where hundreds of years ago or less there were great forests, now there are deserts. Where there were rivers, there are deserts," Chavez said, sipping from a glass of water, according to Reuters.

Apparently, when you surround yourself with yes men and you build yourself into a strongman, no one dares even question your sanity.

US border corruption

As we all know, US consumption of drugs is one of the driving factors behind the violence in Mexico. But another under-reported factor is US corruption, particularly along the southwest border. A new case highlights just how bad the problem can be:

Angelo Vega took over the police force in Columbus, New Mexico, about two years ago. Like many of his Mexican counterparts, he pledged to fight the drug cartels and human traffickers' influence in the town.

Vega is now fighting federal charges of conspiring with the town mayor, a Columbus trustee and eight other residents to buy and smuggle weapons into the hands of the drug cartels.

According to the 84-count indictment, the defendants allegedly bought about 200 guns. The indictment says they made false claims that the guns were for their own personal use. They were allegedly acting as what's known as "straw buyers" – ie, they bought the weapons knowing they would end up in someone else's hands.

And indeed, according to the indictment, some of the weapons did end up in the wrong hands, in the hands of Mexican drug cartels south of the border, in the hands of the very people who are responsible for violence that has cost more than 35,000 lives in just over four years.

This is the kind of story one hears every day in Mexico – good cop pledges to bring peace, good cop turns out to be corrupt on the side, eager for a little extra. In the US, it's more rare, but as this case shows, it does happen. And when it does, it has terrible consequences on both sides of the border.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Go to war with Mexico?

Paul Hair of the Washington Examiner has some very well-reasoned thoughts to offer on the Mexican drug war.

"Why not go to war with Mexico instead of Libya?" he asks on the paper's web site.

He questions whether Libyans are a direct threat to US national security, as the drug cartels supposedly are. "If people need another war, let us declare war against Mexico," he writes. The estimated 11 million illegal aliens living inside the US crossed the border, which by Hair's reasoning, "amounts to an invasion and occupation of our nation."

The US government, he says, should tell "Calderón to end his War on America (illegal immigration)," or face the consequences.

Christ almighty. I hope I never run into this guy, anywhere, ever.


"Respect. Just give them some goddamn respect! They're marines, for fuck's sake! They fought for their country!"

The bartender was slamming his fist down on the bar, looking over at the two journalists in front of him. A bunch of marines stood idly by at the other end of the bar.

We hadn't been disrespectful; in fact, we'd been quite polite, asking them when they had returned, whether they were from New York – pleasantries of the non-journalistic variety.

But I understand where the bartender was coming from. Soldiers are returning by the boatload from Afghanistan and Iraq. There are very few parades, very few welcome-home ceremonies. Largely, there's simply apathy.

Every once in a while I'll see a soldier in uniform, walking down the street or at the airport terminal, a despondent look on his or her face. They're usually grunts, shipping off home for some R & R or heading back to the frontlines, wherever they may be.

Most people who walk by ignore them. America doesn't care, neither do Americans, it would seem. A record-high 52 marines committed suicide in 2009.

There's little respect for anyone in America these days. Good politicians get bashed endlessly. Good journalists get no respect either (those of us who cover wars and the like apparently just love the adrenaline, most people like to believe) and even ordinary folks I see don't seem to offer each other basic human respect. I find it amazing, saddening, maddening and infuriating all at the same time.

According to psychologists, America is in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. Corporate America is the most culpable, because it effectively breeds sociopaths. I'm not qualified to diagnose that, but I do know that in my life, the most self-centered people I have ever met in the world are average Americans. They see everything in terms relative to themselves, what they want, what they can get out of another person, what that person can offer them. ("Mutual use friendships," as one journalist I knew liked to call them.) They do not see or appreciate you as an individual, in spite of how important individuality is supposed to be in this country. Perhaps it's the power – power, as we all know, corrupts even the best people and makes them forget what they actually value. Perhaps it's a result of the way things function here in America – high stress, a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure to conform and keep up with the Joneses), and the rules and regulations that mold people into something they're supposed to be. Every culture has its conformity and problems, its self-interest and self-centeredness, but in America, it seems stronger.

I dunno, I'm just thinking out loud. As a friend of mine recently told me, "I just wish someone would recognize that I'm a human being."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ambassador Pascual

So my question is, should US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual have resigned?

According to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton: "He has collaborated tirelessly with his Mexican counterparts to lay the foundation for a cross-border renewable energy market, to open negotiations on the management of oil and gas reserves that span U.S. and Mexican territory, and to build a new border strategy to advance trade while staunching illicit flows. Carlos has also engaged U.S. and Mexican business to build markets that have helped make Mexico the number two destination of U.S. exports.

Ambassador Pascual worked with the Mexican government to integrate human rights into our respective policies and engagement; he also partnered to enhance the human and cultural connections that underpin the friendship between the people of Mexico and the United States. Carlos partnered with his counterparts to reach beyond the Merida Initiative’s initial focus on disrupting cartels to building institutions for the rule of law in Mexico and engaging Mexican civil society in advancing their security. These ties, grown and strengthened throughout his tenure, will serve both our nations for decades."

But he was dating a PRIista's daughter, and well, chose to voice his concerns about the reality of the drug war through confidential cables that Wikileaks chose to publish. Incidentally, nothing Ambassador Pascual wrote in those cables was anything many people in the Calderon administration didn't know or wouldn't admit off the record – ie, confidentially. So really, it wasn't that big a deal, but Calderon played the nationalism card, dissed Pascual to the media and that's how we got here.

I met Pascual on one occasion in Mexico, and from that initial meeting, even though it was brief, I think it's a shame he's gone. He seemed like the kind of ambassador who actually cares about his work, rather than just the kind who enjoys the life of an ambassador.

I don't think he should have resigned, nor do I think President Obama and Sec. of State Clinton should have accepted his resignation. US-Mexico cooperation is at an all-time high right now. US drones are flying over Mexican territory, DEA agents are training Mexican cops, intelligence sharing is at an all-time high, major drug lords are being caught, and complaints from ordinary Mexicans about this US presence have been quite tempered, even from the Left. (Although one La Jornada reader did care to share his comments about Pascual and the US: "Get out of Mexico! Forever! The Mexican government needs to confiscate everything that's been robbed from us!")

Anyway, that's that.

adios, amigo

And so, carlos pascual is out as ambassador to mexico. More to come later...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

4-year-old killed

El Universal and several other Mexican papers are reporting that a 4-year-old boy was killed in Tepic, Nayarit, caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout.

Yet another reason to worry about the drug war and be horrified by what it's doing to parts of Mexico.

And yet another reason to question the reliability of foreign news accounts of incidents like these. The Huffington Post, which may be valued at $315 million but apparently can't tell the difference between Acapulco and Tepic, real reporting and aggregation, or the fraudulence of putting a dateline on a story that you didn't actually report yourself and not even crediting it (it's an AP story) believes that it was a four-year-old girl who was killed, in Acapulco.

Well, what can you do.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Not good news

Mexico's human rights commission (CNDH) has received nearly 5,000 allegations of human rights violations against the military since 2007, including killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and rape.

Not good news at all.

I've spent a fair amount of time with generals in Mexico, who can be quite blunt about their disdain for human rights. Kudos to La Jornada for getting Brigadier General Carlos Bibiano Villa Castillo, Torreon’s Director of Public Security, to speak so candidly. (Translation courtesy of Mexicoblog of the CIP Americas Program).

Villa Castillo: The other day we were sent out to kill six bastards and we killed them. What’s the problem?

Reporter: Were they Zetas or Chapos?

Villa Castillo: Zetas.

Reporter: How do you know? You don’t interrogate them, or even talk with them.

Villa Castillo: We found out because they had stolen some weapons from us and we found them there.

Reporter: There are laws, General. You decide who ought to live or die…Don’t you think that God decides that?

Villa Castillo: Well, yeah, but you have to give him a little help.

Reporter: If one of these guys were to approach you to talk…

Villa Castillo: I’d kill him right there. I’d fuck him myself.

Reporter: Kill, and ask questions later?

Villa Castillo: That’s how it ought to be. It’s a code of honor.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


"Daddy, why is that man's head not on his body?"

My friend's son had just seen the front page of a tabloid newspaper in Mexico City. He was on his way to school, and one of the street vendors had waved it in front of the car window.

Eight-year-old kids shouldn't ask those sorts of questions, in my mind. But more and more, throughout Mexico, kids are being exposed to horrors unfathomable to most of us.

Then there are the dreams. A friend of a friend recently had her first narco-dream, as I call them.

I've talked to a few kids in Mexico about their dreams. In one kid's dream, he was slowly slicing through a man's neck with a saw. He recalled thinking, (in the dream), this is wrong, so wrong. This is sick. I must wake up, I must wake up, he thought.

He forced himself to wake up, in a cold sweat. He was only 11 years old.

On one occasion in Badiraguato, as I wrote in my book, I slept like a baby. As I nodded off to sleep, I kept thinking: Chapo knows I'm here. His people know. They've given their blessing. They won't kill me, there's no reason to. No reason for unwanted attention by kidnapping me. I drifted off to sleep.

I went into a deep sleep that night. I dreamed of running through the marijuana fields that lay behind me, out the window (pic above). I dreamed that I was running between the flames as the soldiers burned them down. I dreamed that I looked up and saw Chapo, standing on a hillside, looking down on the carnage, grimacing.

I woke up. The mosquitoes had bitten me to death, but I was very much alive. I wandered over to the military parade in the center of town. People had begun to gather. The soldiers weren't invited to their own parade; a few forlorn grunts stared over the wall of their barracks as locals walked past.

The parade began. The town's officials walked solemnly past the crowds; a group of local schoolkids followed, as did a brass band. No army. A few people whispered about Chapo. There was a rumour that he might make an appearance. A helicopter circled overhead – Gen. Noe Sandoval and his men had heard the rumour too, it appeared. Chapo didn't come.

I wandered over to the church, where a year before I had met a young boy whose parents helped maintain it.

The boy had led me to a crossing in the road, in front of the church.

"They killed a boy over there the other day," he said.

He frowned.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


It's always easy, as an outsider, to describe somewhere as "odd." But wandering into Badiraguato, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in Sinaloa, one cannot help get the sense that something is indeed odd about the place.

The first thing that strikes you is the light. It's bright up there. Boiling hot, too, but a bit cooler than Culiacan, which gets the coastal humidity.

The streets of Badiraguato are nearly bereft of people. It's because they like their privacy, officials say. But you can't help wondering whether it's actually because of the narco-presence.

The streets are well-paved. The church is in good shape, having recently been refurbished. The mayor's house is a nice two-storey villa, reminiscent of some of the homes one sees in Santa Barbara, California. The town looks surprisingly well-off – not wealthy, but definitely not the sort of place you'd expect in one of the 200 poorest counties in Mexico.

The narcos rule in Badiraguato and its environs. There are roughly 35,000 people in the county – the county where Chapo Guzman and many other capos were born – but there are only about 1,000 legitimate jobs in Badiraguato itself. So people work in the drug trade.

On one visit to the town, I was sitting in the square chatting to an old man when four SUV's with tinted windows circled the square. They circled four times. The old man told me to leave, immediately. I did.

On another occasion, I met a man named Carlos, who had studied and got a diploma in education. But there was no work, so he turned to Chapo for a job. He told me quite bluntly: "Chapo's the law."

When I last went, I met with the mayor. He invited me for a nice lunch on Independence Day, in the conference room of his offices. It was interesting to look at the faces of the previous mayors, through the ages, on portraits hung around the room.

If you've seen Ley de Herodes, then you'll understand the type of person who tends to govern in Badiraguato. Decent people but perhaps not the brightest in the barrel, who for their own good turn a blind eye to the narcos and their business. There's not much real governing in the county – the last mayor went to La Tuna (the hamlet where Chapo was born) once while campaigning and never went again.

But a big change has recently taken place in Badiraguato. For the first time in history, the PRI is no longer in power. There's a new mayor in town, and it will be interesting to see whether he can change things for the better, improve infrastructure, create employment, connect the pueblos to the city, and avoid corruption.

Or will he end up just another forlorn face on the wall of the palacio municipal?

Friday, March 11, 2011

The big news out of Mexico

Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn, living and loving it up on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. (Link above in title of post.)

I guess this answers questions whether it's safe to travel to Mexico – no, if you don't want to be anywhere near these two.

Wonder if this post will do anything to increase my online hits.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The agent

I was just trawling through some FBI documents when I stumbled upon the story of Emilio Kosterlitzky, who according to the FBI, was "one of the most colorful characters to ever serve as a special agent."

He was also of Russian descent, and had served in both the Russian and Mexican militaries prior to becoming an FBI agent. He had reached the rank of brigadier general in the Mexican military (not that high, but it is a senior rank at least.)

Kosterlitzky left Mexico during the Revolution, heading to Los Angeles, where he joined the FBI in 1917, at the tender age of 63.

Acccording to the FBI document, Kosterlitzky was appointed a “special employee," and with "his deep military experience and international flair (including strong connections throughout Mexico and the Southwest U.S. and the ability to speak, read, and write more than eight languages) he excelled at it."

He earned six dollars a day for the nine years he worked with the FBI before he died in 1926.

Just thought I'd share this guy's interesting story.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Whose side are you on?

Several commentators have been wondering recently whether the people of Mexico support the narcos or the authorities. In a recent piece on COIN strategy, (a good read, by the way) Patrick Corcoran of ganchoblog argues that "in the battle between the drug gangs and the government, the loyalty of the people is plainly not at stake."

Patrick argues that "poll after poll demonstrates this. The polling group BGC published a survey in the Mexico City daily Excélsior in September of 2010 showing 88 percent support for anti-drug policies. A few months previous, Pew’s Global Opinions Project polled 80 percent support for the use of the army to combat organized crime. Seeking an answer to basically the same question, the Mexican firm Mitofsky found 74 percent support of using the army in April of 2010."

Unfortunately, the odds of the people being polled actually telling the pollsters the truth are minimal.

I agree with Patrick on a lot of things in the piece, except for this part. I've interviewed countless residents of Ciudad Juarez, Sinaloa, Tijuana, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan over the past four years. I've asked them about the narcos. I've asked them about the army. I've asked them about the police. The only common denominator in their answers was their apparent schizophrenia.

ME: Do you support the narcos?
THEM: Yes, well, no, because we don't like the violence between them, but they leave us alone. So, yes.

ME: Do you support the army?
THEM: Oh yes... but no, because the soldiers bring more violence. But yes, perhaps.

ME: Do you trust the police?
THEM: Hell no.

ME: Who do you support in the war against organized crime?
THEM: Well the narcos, obviously – I mean, the authorities, the army, the police, the government.

ME: What is the best solution you can think of for the future?
THEM: Let Chapo take control.

The sad reality of these apparently funny answers (which, incidentally, are pretty close to the real answers, I'm not taking many liberties here) is that very few people I have interviewed really seemed to know whose side they were on, or were willing to admit it. They are stuck in the middle of a bloody conflict, and are not quite sure whether they can actually trust the authorities to look after them. They know that when the old-school narcos are in charge – the Chapos – things are quieter. When the army comes to town, things settle down a bit, but then violence heats up, there's a human rights abuse or two, and suddenly the army is Public Enemy No. 1 again. The only thing they're sure of is that the police can't be trusted.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a cop in the police station in Culiacan back in 2008.

ME: It must be hard to know who to trust around here.
COP: Yeah, sure. I don't even trust myself.

He was joking. I think. I dunno. Maybe not.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What may have happened...

There have been a few criticisms following Obama's meeting with Calderon, as well as the latter's comments about Ambassador Carlos Pascual (including from myself). I talked to a former diplomat about it, and although he never worked in Mexico, he explained that what likely occurred is the following: Calderon phoned Pascual shortly before his interview with El Universal, warning him that he would be saying some things in order to pander to the public and address the Wikileaks cables. Pascual would not acknowledge any of this publicly, yet would be reassured by his president that all was fine.

Then when Calderon and Obama met, they could get down to real business and not worry about the Mexican president losing any face. Which he didn't, Obama and Calderon made progress on the trucking issue, and Calderon went home happy with America again.

If this is what happened, well then, interesting.

Good journalism

I've been thinking a lot about good journalism lately, upon my return to the US. I was a bit of a critic of the Mexican media while in Mexico (particularly when I was misquoted in Proceso – to their credit they ran a correction) but since coming back to the US, I've found myself bombarded by trash and roaring rhetoric too. Sadly, it's not only coming from Fox News.

What I've been seeing way too much of (for my liking) is well-reported, yet completely unbalanced pieces of long-form journalism. The ones that have struck me most were in Rolling Stone (whether it be the McChrystal profile by a former colleague Michael Hastings, which was extremely well-reported but too sensational for my taste, given the way military folks talk about everyone – but hey, they did break the chain of command) to Matt Taibbi's rantings and ravings about everyone and their mother.

I've got to admit, I don't really get Matt Taibbi. He spits vitriol out at other journalists and everyone who gets in his way. Is it a schtick to provoke people, to rile up the reader? He even called my old boss, Fareed Zakaria, "maybe this country’s preeminent propagandist."

I worked for Fareed, and he is anything but a propagandist. He's a damn smart guy who gets a lot of things us normal journalists don't. In fact, Taibbi went on to say "whereas most writers grow up dreaming of using their talents to stir up the passions, to inflame and amuse and inspire, Zakaria shoots for the opposite effect, taking controversial and explosive topics and trying to help rattled readers somehow navigate their way through them to yawns, lower heart rates and states of benign unconcern."

Helping to explain complicated issues so that the reader understands them is NOT propaganda.

But riling up readers, stirring their passions, is that really what journalists are supposed to do? Angling the story so that every time, it is a "stick it to the man" piece, even if the man doesn't deserve it to be stuck to him that time? I don't think that's the way journalists are supposed to work. Inform readers so they can make up their own minds and get angry if they want to. Give them the facts, as objectively as you possibly can. (No one can help a little bias here and there, but if you at least recognize it and try to keep that in check, then you're doing your job.)

I don't really know where I'm going with this, and perhaps I'm wrong to single out Rolling Stone, because maybe I'm simply out of touch with what people want to read. Personally, I used to like Rolling Stone when I was about 13, and I would have much preferred a Michael Hastings counterinsurgency analysis than a McChrystal-and-crew drink and say stupid things story. And I never liked Fox News or anything on that network aside from the Simpsons.

It just seems odd to me. I've had several conversations recently with people and they keep telling me how much they miss Walter Cronkite. I also had a conversation with a New York journalist the other day, during which I mentioned Tom Ricks, one of the greatest Pentagon correspondents this country has known. She said, fine, he may be good, but no one knows who he is because he doesn't have a talk show and isn't a celebrity. Give her Anderson Cooper anyday.

Again, I dunno. Maybe I'm getting old. I welcome comments telling me to get with the 21st century or something.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The elephant in the room

"We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours," President Barack Obama said after Calderon's Washington visit. "We have to take responsibility just as he's taking responsibility. And that's true with respect to guns flowing from north to south, it's true about cash flowing north to south."

The two presidents discussed "how we can strengthen border security on both sides" to curtail the weapons and drug traffic," Obama said, calling it "a challenging task."

Indeed. Why are we here again? Why have I heard this spiel a dozen times in my life, and I'm only 36 years old?

The buildup to this meeting was appalling. It was as if players on all sides of the equation were making everything as bad as possible so that the two presidents would be able to meet and proclaim everything will be better just so it appeared everything would indeed be better.

A recap: In an interview with the leading Mexican daily El Universal last week, Calderon bashed US cooperation in the war on drugs and organized crime and even called US Ambassador Carlos Pascual "ignorant."

Calderon's use of the anti-American card was risky at a time when US-Mexico cooperation is at an all-time high. There is just no doubt of that. The DEA assists 200-something vetted high-ranking Mexican cops, who conduct anti-drug operations. Dozens of top cartel leaders have been caught or killed in the past four years. US military advisers are on the ground in Mexico and even the Left has been relatively quiet about it. Yes, the violence is out of control and yes, that is a huge, huge problem. But that's nothing to do with US cooperation. Cooperation must be continued and built upon. Wikileaks couldn't be helped, don't make matters worse by spilling your guts to a newspaper that you know isn't going to highlight to lovey-dovey aspects of the relationship.

Everyone knows there are tensions between US and Mexican agencies. Since 2006, Mexico's top anti-drug official has been arrested for being in the pockets of organized crime, while a former ICE agent was also charged with feeding information to the drug cartels (I believe he plea-bargained). A US agent was killed in Mexico two weeks ago; eight Mexican soldiers were arrested yesterday while trying to traffic a ton of cocaine through Tijuana. The bodyguard of the Mexican general in charge of catching Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker, was arrested for feeding information to the drug lord; and so on.

On Thursday during an interview with the Washington Post, Calderon cited a U.S. cable that said that Mexican military officials had "risk-averse habits," suggesting that it had caused turmoil on his national security team.

"It's difficult if suddenly you are seeing the courage of the army [questioned]. For instance, they have lost probably 300 soldiers ... and suddenly somebody in the American embassy, they [say] the Mexican soldiers aren't brave enough," Calderon said during an hour-long meeting with The Post editorial board and reporters. "Or you decide to play the game that they are not coordinated enough, and suddenly start to bring information to one agency and not to the other and try to get them to compete."

Well, sorry Mr President, but your soldiers are indeed risk averse – perhaps rightly so. I've spent plenty of time with them in the past three years. Most of them are lonely and scared, and will put aside their machismo to readily admit that. They hate being stuck out in the middle of the sierra, spending the night camped out in tents, worrying that at any point, a group of AK-47-wielding narcos might gun them down. They spend most of their days pulling up and burning down marijuana plants, and then are asked to conduct raids against what are effectively well-armed paramilitaries during their off-hours? They aren't allowed off the base on weekends because they'll be killed or kidnapped? They have to wear masks 24 hours a day, some even wear them inside the military compounds because they don't trust each other! They are formidable when it comes to hurricane rescues and the like, but combat against these thugs is a different story. Put the pride aside, and admit it, Mr Calderon. Your army is fine, but it could do with some help.

As for bringing intel to different agencies, courage was the factor cited by Calderon, but I'm pretty sure the person in the Embassy who questioned that courage was just being diplomatic. What's likely being questioned is integrity. For instance, Gen. Noe Sandoval is in charge of operations in Sinaloa – where Chapo is believed to be hiding – and his bodyguard was arrested for filtering intel to Chapo's people. If I were sitting in the embassy, or in the DEA, that might make me think twice before I shared intel with the general, no matter how honest he might be.

As for the "challenging task" of "how we can strengthen border security on both sides" to curtail the weapons and drug traffic" that Obama mentioned, here's one suggestion: Get Mexican soldiers deployed to checkpoints along the border to actually start checking suspicious vehicles for weapons. I spent an afternoon about two years ago in Matamoros watching soldiers "inspect" the vehicles. They stopped one in every ten cars and only checked about every 10 of those. That, my friends, is not "increased and improved" weapons checks along the border, as the Calderon administration had promised back then.

Calderon is right to complain, he really is. The US has so much to do which it never does and will never do. During the period that the assault weapons ban was in effect, 1994-2004, Mexican homicide rates apparently dropped. The weapons ban was never renewed, and my guess is, it never will be.

Drug consumption is a US problem, not a Mexican one. Something has to be done, and I'm flummoxed as to what it is. Legalization in the US, in my mind, is not the answer, as I am pretty sure the drug cartels would simply lower their prices and still flood the market (this is what they do now anyway, it's not like Mexican weed is the good stuff. But maybe legalizing weed would be a way to start something new.)

Nor is legalization in Mexico, because I just cannot see the cartels giving the government control over drug production. Nor will they pay taxes on their stuff if they do retain control over it. (About 40 percent of Mexicans already don't pay taxes, why would the narcos be more law-abiding?)

Lastly, I don't think legalization would quell the violence. I just can't imagine a bunch of narcos deciding to settle their dispute in a court. Much easier to just shoot each other down in some back alley somewhere.

So maybe, once again, it comes down to ending American drug use – the one issue that didn't come up in Obama's recap of his meeting with Calderon.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Eight soldiers were caught with a ton of cocaine in Tijuana today. Coming on the heels of Calderon's comments about lack of US cooperation, and during his visit to Washington, this isn't exactly good news.