Monday, June 27, 2011

Sinaloa most-wanted

Some might find it amusing that when one clicks on the link to the PGR's list of Sinaloa's most-wanted fugitives, the page above (link in the title of this post) appears. Check it out and see.

Secretive or responsible?

Why didn't US officials who learned of Chapo's presence in Sonoita, Sonora, on Jan. 26, 2009, tell their Mexican counterparts?

According to a leaked document, the US authorities who suspected Chapo was there didn't say anything to their counterparts across the border. It reeks of conspiracy, keeping the Mexicans out of the loop on something like this. But it also reeks of reason and good judgment. According to a US Justice Dept. indictment, Chapo and his associates met for three days at a ranch in Sonoita. So first off, the US officials alerted someone higher up in their own chain of command, otherwise this never would have made into a federal indictmnt. Then there's the reason for Chapo's supposed meeting: after El Vicentillo's arrest, they were angling for revenge on the authorities. In Sonoita, they allegedly discussed the possibility of "orchestrating attacks against US or Mexican government buildings," according to the indictment. They were also allegedly plotting attacks in Mexico City – effectively, not Sinaloa cartel turf – in order to shift the authorities’ attention toward the Beltran Leyva brothers, who base some operations there.

What would have happened in officials in Arizona had alerted their local or state counterparts in Sonoita? Well, imagine the following scenario:

Arizona cop: Oye, compadres, I've got a tip for you. Chapo is apparently at a ranch just outside of your town.

Sonoita cop: Que bueno. Gracias for telling us. We'll go check it out.

Ending A: Local cops phone Chapo and tell him he's on the radar, and should leave town.

Ending B: Local cops actually try and raid the ranch, to become heroes. Their corpses are left at the roadside, accompanied by a message: Don't mess with us.

Either way, I wholeheartedly back the decision not to tell the Mexican cops anything in this instance.

Friday, June 17, 2011

El Lazca dead?

The Brownsville Herald is reporting that Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, a.k.a. El Lazca, has been killed in a shootout between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. El Lazca is the alleged leader of Los Zetas. I predicted a while ago that he'd be the next to fall, but have to admit that I thought he'd be captured by the authorities, not killed in battle. More to come...

Link to the Brownsville Herald story is in the title of this post.

UPDATE: Most reports are now debunking this Brownsville Herald story. El Lazca appears to be very much alive.

Chapo, the most powerful drug lord in history

A DEA official has declared Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera the most powerful drug trafficker in history, ranking him above Medellin's Pablo Escobar in terms of clout and staying power.

Since writing The Last Narco, I've had a few opportunities to get a little deeper into the Chapo story. For instance, I recently met a man who knew Chapo's mother, Maria Consuelo Loera Perez. He met her in La Tuna de Badiraguato, the family pueblo, in 2006. He showed me a few photos of her – she looked kind, stern, wore glasses, looked like an ordinary mom, a typical (if a bit more light-skinned than usual for those parts) Mexican mother from a mountain pueblo.

According to my source, the man who met her, she is. Just a normal lady, he said, nice. Friendly. Tough.

Chapo's mother lives in a finca in La Tuna, which her son built for her. It's a pretty splendid place, particularly when compared to the tiny one-story, dirt-floor homes that most of the pueblo's residents live in. She's managed to stay above the fray in throughout the drug war, only talking to reporters on two occasions (once to denounce human rights abuses and another to complain about the arrest of another son, Miguel Angel, a.k.a. "El Mudo." (The Mute).

When El Mudo was arrested, Loera Perez was quick to express her anger. "They took him away without any arrest warrant. He makes an honest living," she told reporters at the scene of the arrest, a Chinese restaurant in Culiacan. "I don’t believe that he dedicates himself to illegal activities... They arrested him only because he’s Chapo’s brother."

She sprang to Chapo’s defence, too. "He didn’t force one door or threaten anyone to get out of jail [in 2001], they opened [the doors] for him. It’s as if one opens the cage for a bird, it flies away. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Joaquin; I’m not in contact with him. He only helps good people. How can I feel bad, if I am his mother? A mother has to bear all the problems that her children bring, for this I will plead to God on their behalf – he’s my best lawyer."

I'm all for mothers springing to the defence of their sons, but when it comes to Chapo, I just wonder if she might be suffering from a bit of maternal denial. He is, after all, the most powerful drug lord in history, according to some.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The good things...

Mexico may produce meth, marijuana and heroin, but it also produces some wonderful things like carnitas. Thanks, Mexico.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jorge Hank Rhon

By now it's old news that Jorge Hank Rhon, the eccentric millionaire former mayor of Tijuana and controversial PRI stalwart, has been arrested on gun charges. The owner of Agua Caliente racetrack and various other establishments in Tijuana, Hank Rhon was arrested Saturday with 10 other people, for the possession of 88 guns, 9,298 rounds of ammo and a gas grenade.

As far as gun possession goes, I'm not surprised Hank Rhon has an arsenal like this, even if he denies ownership (his wife claims, on the other hand, that he has the appropriate licenses for them.) The guy lives in Tijuana, has a number of businesses, and has to deal with serious security issues that anyone who owns a business in Mexico would be well aware of.

But Hank Rhon is as controversial a figure as any in Mexico. There have long been suspicions that he has ties to drug trafficking (always denied and never proven; but as recently as 2009, a US diplomatic cable said that he is "widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking") and he has been accused of being the intellectual author of the murder of a muckraking Tijuana journalist. Still, he has always escaped serious investigation – he was briefly arrested in 1995 at Mexico City's airport in possession of endangered animal skins and ivory – and even made a run for governor of Baja California after his stint as mayor.

Hank Rhon is a character – at 55, he's had numerous wives and girlfriends and has 19 children; he once famously said that women were his favourite animals; he also has a zoo inside the racetrack in Tijuana which is home to crossbred lions, tigers, you name it. His father, Carlos Hank Gonzales, was famous for saying that "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," while Hank Rhon has famously claimed that he is so rich he cannot be corrupted.

But is Hank Rhon guilty of more than gun possession, if even that? Some PRIistas are accusing the authorities of a "witch hunt" ahead of the State of Mexico gubernatorial elections in July (State of Mexico is the Hank family and PRI stronghold). In spite of Hank Rhon's lackluster performance as mayor, supporters have turned out in Tijuana to rally in his favour. Hank Rhon, meanwhile, has now been transferred to the medium-security prison in Tecate, Baja California, after spending a few days in the holding cells of the SIEDO, the organized crime division of the attorney general's office.

There is talk that the authorities are trying to nail him on organized crime-related charges; if so, they had better have more evidence than just the guns. After all, authorities have tried to investigate Hank Rhon before, and it hasn't been easy. (Update: some of the guns apparently are military-issue – a serious federal offense.)

Still, as Hank Rhon told me during our interview in 2004: "I’ve always [said], 'Don’t pay attention to gossip, just find the proof, then come back'."

"The truth is, it’s what happens when you’re starting to become too popular and you step on someone’s foot...," he continued. "They find a way to neutralize you. But it’s always been allegations..."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Show us the money

Just to give a sense of how much money is involved in the drug trade, the Mexican military seized $500,000 in US currency from a Chevy truck that had been abandoned on the Culiacan-Navolato road just the other day. The guy just took off without his cash when he realized there was a military checkpoint nearby.

Since December 2006, the Army has seized $149 million in US currency, and about 263 million Mexican pesos (roughly $22 million US).

Needless to say, that's a fair amount of cash.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What's new and what's not

Back in Mexico, I'm hearing again that the cartels might be coming to Mexico City. I'm also hearing a few other scare stories that are being passed off as "new."

1) The Sinaloan narco-corrido ban is not all that new a thing. As far back as 1998, authorities have tried to ban narco-corridos. First reported effort was in Chihuahua, the effort failed.

2) As early as 2008, El Universal has run stories addressing the fear that narcos are "surrounding" the capital. Indeed, they have the capital surrounded. But that doesn't mean they want the capital for anything but a place to hide. Chapo and the Beltran Leyva brothers used to call Mexico City "el humo" (the smoke) because it offered anonymity that one couldn't find elsewhere. But they don't really want to take over turf here, in large part because the police force is so strong (and present – there are about 70,000 cops in the DF) but also because the city has well-established gangs that are hard to break into. Tepito, for instance, is considered a no-go area for drug traffickers. They can make deals with the local guys, and pay them to do work, but it's menial. Lastly, Mexico City is neither a major distribution nor transport center for trafficking – only important thing about it strategically is the airport.

3) The Mexican government says catching Chapo is a "priority." I'll believe it when I see it.

4) Mexico is not a failed state. It has one of the strongest economies in the world, job creation was nearly a record last year, FDI is up. Mexico certainly has serious problems, but it's not on the verge of collapse. Guatemala, on the other hand, might just be.

To be continued...

Tijuana police and striptease

An incident occurred in late May, in Tijuana, that I chose not to comment on at the time because I was just frustrated by the news. I'd heard these stories so many times before, and I thought, christ almighty, do we have to read about this again?

The reality is, yes, we do: 15 police officers in Tijuana, after arresting a man and a woman for possession of drugs, forced the woman to do a striptease in exchange for her freedom.

This is obviously a terrible example of abuse of power. But also, it highlights what is horribly wrong with the Mexican police system, at its core. Most of these cops do not get paid well, we know that. Nor are they very well-educated. Nor do they receive praise for work well done – ie, a bust of people in possession of drugs. Nor do they have the ingrained sense of integrity that, say, a Chicago street cop has. So what do they do when they see a situation they can exploit? They exploit it.

This isn't the first time we've seen stories like this, obviously. The one that springs to mind always when these issues come up is that of Victor Gerardo Garay, the AFI commander who was plucked by the DEA as a man to make things happen. Garay was fed intel by his US counterparts, was lauded within the AFI, was a right-hand man of Genaro Garcia Luna's. He made some major arrests – including the takedown of some of the Arellano Felix brothers. Then he made a major bust – a bunch of Colombian narcos with strippers, hookers, cocaine etc at a narco-mansion in Desierto de los Leones.

Did he get a medal for his efforts? A pay raise? A ceremony in Los Pinos? No. Instead, he and his men threw themselves a roaring party the night of the bust, taking advantage of the hookers and cocaine they had seized earlier in the day.

Herein lies one of the most serious problems in the war on drugs in countries like Mexico, where integrity is a novel concept to most police officers (and I don't mean that as a blanket insult, but it is true that integrity does not flow in the veins of most cops in the developing world. Even the US has its serious corruption issues.) Garay and his men knew something when they made the bust at the narco-mansion: they knew that making the bust would put their lives in serious danger, more danger than ever. They knew that night might be their last. They had a perfect right to blow off some steam. The problem is that they had no idea how to do it correctly; worse, they did not seem to care. Their supervisors should have promised them something – a raise, a bonus, some sort of recognition (even if only in private) to make sure they felt proud enough of their achievement to carry on to the next day's challenges.

But no. When a Mexican cop makes a big bust, he doesn't get a medal. He doesn't meet the president. He almost always gets tarnished in the media as corrupt (after all, how could he have gotten the narco if he wasn't in the pockets of a rival narco?) and his potentially good name is slandered/libeled. I don't know the stats, but I would be willing to bet that a good number of good cops lose their marriages as a result of their work, too. So there's really no reward for doing your job well except for the rewards you give yourself.

Police reform needs to go further than just bettering the police force capacity to coordinate, to filter intel, to pursue suspects. It requires a conscious effort on the part of the authorities, the powers that be, to ingrain within the police corps a sense of honor, of duty, and to also reward those who stand out in their accomplishments with something, anything. Invite them to Washington for special training. Give them a grant to further their education. Pay them bonuses. Give them something, or they will continue to reward themselves however they see fit at the time. And that won't likely be something we want to read about or hear about.