Friday, April 29, 2011

No results in drug war?

Benjamin Arellano Felix, one of the reputed leaders of the now-defunct Tijuana cartel, was extradited to the US today. Benjamin, with his brother Ramon, was allegedly one of the most ruthless drug lords in Mexican history. He and his bro had a bloodlust that led them to kill random civilians in Tijuana just because they felt like it, according to DEA agents.

Benjamin was captured in Puebla in 2002. He's one of the most high-profile suspects to be extradited during the Calderon presidency. Seeing him being led onto a plane on his way to a maximum-security prison in the US, it's kinda hard to argue that this administration is doing nothing to fight the drug war.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Failed state?

Is the US a failed state?

According to one commonly used definition, a failed state is "a dysfunctional state which also has multiple competing political factions in conflict within its borders or has no functioning governance above the local level."

Looking at the US the way a foreign correspondent (or a US Embassy staffer writing a cable back home) might look at Mexico, you get this impression:

Congress appears increasingly dysfunctional, with both parties trading blame on budget issues and refusing to move out of gridlock. U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders struck a last-minute deal to avert a total government shutdown. Opposition parties remain at odds and in conflict, in spite of the recent agreement.

President Obama is struggling to convince an increasingly skeptical public (and opposition) that his leadership is legitimate, and is also having difficulty winning support for wars that he inherited but on which he has taken a commanding position.

A top business leader in the country has called on the president to prove that he is not a fraud, and is indeed a US citizen and well-educated.

Education remains a serious problem throughout the country, in spite of good intentions by the new administration. "Teachers' Unions Failing U.S. Schools" read one recent headline by Time magazine.

According to reports in the Wall Street Journal and other reputable local newspapers, "secessionist movements" are on the rise, as American citizens increasingly resist government influence. Although crime is, by and large, down, homicide rates in Washington DC and Atlanta are worrying. There have been efforts made by the authorities to persuade residents that foreigners (Mexicans, in particular) are to blame, but it appears that local demand for drugs is at the root of the problem.

Corruption remains rampant along the border. A sheriff in Texas was arrested for aiding the drug cartels, while a mayor in Columbus, Ohio, is also being investigated. Currently, there are hundreds of federal agents (FBI and Homeland Security, mainly) being investigated for alleged ties to the drug cartels. Reforms to clean up the institutions have been promised, but given past efforts, this is unlikely.

A former top anti-organized crime prosecutor and sitting governor was linked to a prostitution ring, and forced to resign. While the resignation was a positive sign, the fact that he wasn't arrested is disconcerting. Confidence in the US authorities' ability to deliver on promises to root out corruption and criminal behavior by public officials is at an all-time low.

Efforts to crack down on money-laundering remain fruitless. Banks who have been found complicit in organized crime have simply been asked to pay large fines and apologize, rather than be shut down as they would be in Mexico.

The war on drugs is proving costly, and public support in the US has waned to the point of absolute boredom. The US government has spent more than $1 trillion since launching its war during the Nixon era, and has failed to capture one single "capo," or cartel leader. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the usual suspects have been arrested. Consumption continues unabated. The US authorities continue to insist that drugs in the US are distributed only by gangs, but when a Mexican or Colombian is arrested, the defendant automatically belongs to a "cartel." Given the amount of resources being spent by countries like Mexico on the war on drugs, not to mention the lives being lost, the US authorities need to be doing a better job.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Corruption and hypocrisy

Ok, so in Mexico these days, we have an increasing number of politicians, pundits and journalists calling for an end to the drug war, an end to the use of military force in particular. The current strategy isn't working, they say, the violence is simply increasing. The people want the military off the streets and back in the barracks, they say.

Valid points. The violence is increasing. Tamaulipas, in particular, is getting much worse. (The Washington Post has a grim read on the so-called Highway of Death, the main road through the state.) The calls to end the use of military force (which the authorities argue is the reason for the increased violence, remember – the military crackdown and arrests have turned the cartels on each other etc etc) have more than a ring of sanity to them.

Many of these same critics of the drug war also accuse the Calderon administration of collusion with the Sinaloa cartel, and making a pact with Chapo Guzman. There is evidence, some of them say, that former Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino sent an envoy, a general, to meet with Chapo himself and orchestrate said pact. The Mexican government cannot negotiate with drug traffickers, the critics scream, or it will be just as corrupt and evil as the narcos themselves.

But aren't the drug war critics themselves in essence calling for a pact? Sure, most of them are arguing that social programs, education, addiction/rehab programs and the like are the priorities. Which is all true and good. But to pull the military out of the drug war would be to allow the drug trade (in Mexico) to continue unabated. It would mean to either turn a blind eye to the drug trade (and all the monstrosities that come with it – beheadings, killing of innocent people etc) or to be complicit in the trade, as many officials from the PRI were in the old days (and to be fair, many members of all of Mexico's parties probably still are today).

There is no way the drug trade would cease if the military was taken off the streets. The police cannot handle this sort of organized crime. And the people of Mexico certainly can't be burdened with the task of taking on the narcos themselves through denuncias anonimas.

So, sounds like the critics are asking for a pact, even if it's not negotiated outright, it'd be implicit.

There's a weird hypocrisy enveloping much of Mexico these days regarding the drug war, in my opinion. For instance, I constantly hear journalists crying out about how you can't trust the authorities, then they use testimony taken by said authorities to prove that the authorities are corrupt. So can you trust the authorities or not? You can't, for instance, call Garcia Luna corrupt in public or in a book using testimony that was taken by the PGR and then thrown out by them because it didn't warrant serious investigation and then call the PGR equally useless and corrupt. Well, you can, but you come across a bit like a naive fool and your argument wouldn't stand a chance in court.

Of course, any thinking person would realize that it's not black and white, that some testimony is more valid than others, that just because you "have the documents" doesn't mean those documents are worthwhile or would hold up in a court, or that they give you the right to scream in public that someone is corrupt. (Well, actually I'm not 100 percent sure about Mexican freedom of speech laws, maybe one does have the right to shout accusations like that in public).

I think all journalists should be somewhat suspicious and skeptical, and I know that Mexican courts still leave much to be desired, but I think journalists should be wary of simply taking the easy route and blindly accusing the authorities of all being corrupt. That sells books, it sells magazines and newspapers, but it doesn't get you one inch closer to the truth or democracy. And it honestly doesn't help Mexico one little bit. There are people in the government, people like former Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, for instance, who actually are trying to improve their country's judicial system, its investigations, its systems of law enforcement. Journalists should be doing the same, not simply trying to cash in by throwing accusations out to see what sticks. (On another note, they should also press officials etc whenever possible to answer for serious allegations – ie, staged arrests or military abuses.) Using the word corruption so loosely is not only dangerous, the word loses its value when it actually matters.

When writing The Last Narco, I came across a source (Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, the former SIEDO prosecutor) who claimed the DEA and US Embassy had helped Chapo escape in 2001. I was skeptical of his claims, but given his previous position as an authority, I reported it. I also checked with DEA for their response. I was shocked by part of their reaction, which was "Thanks for calling to ask." Well, of course I asked. I was trained as a journalist to ask for comment before accusing someone of something as atrocious as that. (I should also add that I was raised as a kid to think before I speak.) I don't care whether it is true or not, or whether I have evidence or not, the accused has a right to answer the accusations in person or on the phone before publication.

Former President Vicente Fox, on the other hand, has resorted to posting messages on Twitter in answer to journalist Anabel Hernandez's claims that he received $20 million in return for Chapo's escape. "Anabel Hernandez is always... trying to sell books at the expense of others. If you have proof, show it. Or be quiet..." reads one.

I don't really care whether you're a fan of Fox or not, or whether you disagree with his governing of Mexico, his handling of the Oaxaca mess, or whatever. If you accuse him of taking $20 million for Chapo's escape, and you claim to have proof, show it! Show it on TV when you are doing all those interviews! Why has no one asked Anabel Hernandez to show this proof? Why didn't Carmen Aristegui, one of the country's best journalists, ask her to show the proof? We all want to see it! (And don't get me wrong, I also admire her work as an intrepid journalist, and her courage in writing the book. But I just want to see proof of such massive corruption.)

After my book came out, a bunch of Mexican papers and magazines (Proceso included) called me asking about certain allegations in the book. One misquoted me, saying that I accuse the DEA and US Embassy of doing a deal with Chapo (rather than my source claiming it). They also pushed me to say that Garcia Luna is corrupt, when I have no evidence of that, nor do I make the claim. I simply noted some available testimony (incidentally, some of the same testimony Anabel Hernandez used in her book) and noted the appropriate denials. If I had solid proof, I would have written a front page story for the New York Times and I would be a Pulitzer prize winner by now. A couple of journalists have also tried to push me to say I've been threatened by the authorities. I haven't been, that's that. No one has threatened me in the slightest.

Folks, pushing people to say such things just to rile up public opinion against the authorities because you have an agenda is just bad journalism. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's corrupt journalism.

Let's stick to the hechos, not just the dichos, to paraphrase Mr Marizco at

Alejandro Suverza

Still no news published in El Universal on Alejandro Suverza, their intrepid reporter who was arrested with lots of undeclared cash heading for Cali, Colombia. I hope the editors are involved in backroom negotiations with the authorities, because it'd be a tragedy if they just washed their hands and let him hang.

A group of journalists have sprung to his defense, meanwhile, at the link above in title of the post. They've also set up a Facebook page on his situation. We'll see if either have any effect.

More news when I know something.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

And now for the story of the day...

Got nothing to add. Nicely done, Mr Marizco ( with the scoop.

For those who still don't believe

The young woman cuts, slowly, with her machete. Through the skin, through the veins, through the entire neck. Then she takes her knife and delicately carves the young man's face off. Her nickname is The Crazy Blonde. "This is what happens to those who help Los Zetas," says a man in the background.

I just watched a video of a beheading, conducted by a young woman. I usually shy away from this stuff, having seen one or two before years ago in the Al Qaeda days, but I wanted to watch this one because it's believed the be recent, and I've kinda forgotten just how dismal the situation in Mexico is right now. This makes it hit home even if you're not there in the midst of it.

The calls for the drug war to end are mounting. The military stands accused of thousands of rights abuses. The violence isn't stopping.

Fair enough. But watch this video, and I challenge you to deny that someone has to take these people on. This sort of atrocity cannot happen in a modern society, a modern democratic nation, a member nation of the OECD, a country that ranks 56th in the world in the human development index.

This sort of barbarity is medieval. It has no place in the 21st century. The army may not be winning the drug war, but until the police in Mexico are ready and able to take on this sickness, I still think it might be the best possible option.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Here, why don't you have a go

Christian Science Monitor has an interesting story about a new initiative the Mexican government has launched which would reward anonymous tipsters who lead the authorities to drug traffickers and their money. (Link in title of post)

"Mexicans who tip off investigators to money launderers will receive up to one-quarter of the illegal funds seized," writes Sara Miller Lana of CSM.

Good idea going after the money, pathetic that the people are being asked to do the work that the authorities apparently can't or simply won't.

PS - The anonymous hotlines set up in various troubled cities have been quite successful, excepting the fact that dozens of residents have been threatened or even killed in Tijuana, Culiacan and Ciudad Juarez after daring to give anonymous tips by telephone (the cops simply relayed their phone numbers to the narcos.)

The biggest capos

According to federal police chief Genaro Garcia Luna (speaking at a press conference today), the biggest drug lords in the country today are Heriberto Lazcano, "El Lazca", Miguel Treviño Morales, "El Z-40" and "of course," Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

Well, nothing we didn't know, right?

But wait. What about Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, aka, "El Azul"?

This is a guy, if you recall, who was No. 2 in the Juarez cartel at the same time as he was No. 3 in the Sinaloa cartel. He's known as a consiglieri, a peacemaker, a negotiatior, a silent hand of power, always discreet and in the background. Without him, I doubt the Sinaloa cartel would be as powerful and widespread as it is today.

If I could retitle my book, I might call it The Second to Last Narco, because more and more, I get the sense that El Azul is gonna be the guy to take the reins of the drug trade in Mexico in the future, once they catch those on the list above. He may well be the last of the guard left standing.

But no one will know about him; even the authorities aren't mentioning him anymore. Always in the shadows, always maneuvering, always staying out of the limelight, always staying on top. That's El Azul.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Man detained at airport not just any old man

The federal police on Saturday detained a Mexican man at Mexico City's international airport trying to leave the country with $57,000 hidden in various parts of his suitcase, El Universal reported today.

This is nothing unusual, except for the fact that the man is not just any man, but a former El Universal reporter, Alejandro Suverza Tellez. He was well-known for his stories about narcos; the last story he wrote for El Universal was a piece on Feb. 4, 2011, about the Mexico City metrobus.

Was he guilty of something other than trying to take an illegal amount of money out of the country?

I honestly have no idea, nor do I have a hunch of any sort. I met Suverza once, in a hipster Mexico City bar. He was surrounded by young women, and seemed like the kind of guy who enjoyed the attention his stories brought him (who wouldn't? it's not as if the money for a Mexican journalist is great). He'd been to Michoacan and interviewed a leading member of La Familia, for instance; everyone was enthralled by that story. He was a tough looking guy, looked like he came from the streets, looked like he could hold his own in narco-territory. He gave me tips about how to report in Tepito, too.

You could tell he was a journalist pretty much right away. He wasn't a gangster; he didn't look rich to me. He certainly didn't appear arrogant. At times during our conversation, he came across as quite compassionate.

Was he in with the narcos? Is that where the money came from? Or was he simply a reporter eager to get the hell out of Mexico, where his only hope was to cover the drug trade for the rest of his life? (Suverza's not the sort of guy who gets promoted into the upper echelons of the Mexican media, ever.) Had he saved his money legitimately, only to try and take it out of country illegally?

When reporters who cover narcos get killed in Mexico, almost inevitably their name gets sullied with rumours that they were linked to the very same people they covered. Likewise reporters who cover any other sordid element of society. (In fact, this isn't just true of Mexico, it's true of many parts of the world.)

I don't know if Suverza crossed the line, and I sincerely hope he didn't, for his sake, that of my profession and also my initial judgment of him as a person.

I also hope there is a serious investigation into where he got the money. I sincerely hope they find that he stashed it away under the mattress, hoping to leave Mexico one day, and that the only crime he is guilty of is failing to declare his cash upon exiting the country.

Lastly, I hope El Universal fully acknowledges its relationship with Suverza and works to get the truth out. If it doesn't, well, then it's no better than those in the government who issue promises to protect reporters who cover organized crime and then fail to deliver on anything.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Military and human rights abuses

El Universal is reporting that Mexico's Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has received 3 complaints against the military per day in 2011, bringing the total during the Calderon administration to 4,772 (as ganchoblog points out, 3 a day is not a major upsurge; still, it's too many.)

Complaints against the military are common in Mexico. Sometimes, the complaints are legitimate. Sometimes, locals are paid or coerced into making them, by the narcos themselves. The CNDH, to its credit, files every complaint as required.

Here's a bit of reporting for my book regarding human rights abuses and the tension in Sinaloa. Hopefully it will lend itself to better understanding of the situation everyone is in.

The air of calm in Badiraguato felt precariously temporary. The Sierra of Sinaloa was not what it once was. For several years now, the region had been what one resident called a ‘marked zone’. The military was ever-present, but so were the narcos. By and large, the military was avoiding conflict, but that didn’t mean the narcos weren’t duking it out among themselves.

Homicide had become so common in Sinaloa that it cost a mere $35 to have a rival murdered.

The military’s hands were covered in blood, too. One Friday night, a group of teachers and their children had been driving back to La Joya de los Martinez, in the Sinaloan hills, from a meeting in a nearby village. A unit of soldiers was returning from a long day of burning marijuana in the fields. As the car approached, the soldiers waved it down.

The driver was caught off guard. Were they really soldiers? In this part of the country, assaults on vehicles by bandits are all too common. He slowed the car, but kept it moving. The car got closer. The soldiers opened fire. A hail of bullets swept through the car.

Alicia Esparza Parra, nineteen, was dead. Griselda Martinez, twenty-five, was dead, too. So were her children. Edwin, age seven. Grisel, age four. Juana Diosminey, age two.

On another occasion, in Santiago de los Caballeros, Badiraguato, four youths in a car were heading to a party. The military stopped them as they rounded a bend on the country road. Tensions were high; an argument ensued. A shot was fired. The army peppered the car with bullets, killing everyone inside. Investigations would prove the soldiers were at fault – there was no gun inside the car, nor was there evidence of bullets having been fired from that direction. There was a tense atmosphere in Badiraguato. The people staged protests, at one point walking several hours to Culiacan in a large procession to demonstrate outside the governor’s office.

Gen. Noe Sandoval and his men continued to maintain pressure throughout Sinaloa. On Aug. 8, 2009, they received a tip that Chapo was paying his respects to his dead son Edgar at his tomb, which had been erected in Jesus Maria, the town outside Culiacan where the boy was born.

Since Edgar's death the year before, residents of Jesus Maria had been left alone, both out of respect for the dead and on account that no one prominent would likely risk a visit. But on Aug. 8, Gen. Sandoval had deployed his men to the area around the tomb, which was still under construction. They would guard it for 24 hours; Chapo wouldn't get away this time. He never showed.

Undeterred – and trusting of his information – Sandoval sent in two helicopters to survey the area, and scrambled his men throughout the tiny town. They searched from house to house, but found no one suspicious.

From the helicopters, Sandoval's men spotted two suspicious vehicles. The cars were driving around the town; around and around. As they were leaving Jesus Maria, the helicopters blocked the road, and soldiers surrounded the vehicles. They yanked out three young men, and began to question them. Was Chapo in town? Had he come? What did they know?

According to local media reports, the soldiers repeatedly beat the suspects, accusing them of being Chapo's gunmen.

Frustrated, and still without answers, the soldiers left the scene; the three young men lay there, bruised and bleeding. When a group of local reporters turned up, the soldiers returned to haul the suspects off to an undisclosed location.

Back in Culiacan, the frustration was also getting to Gen. Sandoval's men. A young soldier returned to the barracks after an evening of letting off steam. He was drunk; the soldiers at the entrance were on their guard.

They began to argue, the drunk soldier pulled out his gun. So did the other, and bullets flew. One soldier died, three were injured. The drunk grunt who started it all committed suicide.

The Army had no comment about the incident.

It was a tough time for Gen. Sandoval, who was making more enemies by the day. Acting on his orders, five soldiers banged on the door of the house of Mercedes Murillo, an elderly human activist with good standing in the community. We want to check up on the house, the soldiers told her. She refused to let them in, telling them they could come back in the morning.

A military convoy turned up. The soldiers were apparently searching for a vehicle registered to that residence – back when the previous owners lived there.

Murillo, who has long documented military violations in Sinaloa, was furious. "The military authorities are teaching their members to violate the law; there is nothing to justify their midnight arrival at your house," she said. "Whether it's the general, Saint Peter or the president of the Republic who has sent them, it's illegal for them to be there, for them not to go."

Around the same time, Gen. Sandoval's men conducted another controversial raid on a personal residence, searching for guns and explosives. This time, it was the home of a supposed fisherman, who they believed was a narco. They raided the place.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be exactly what he was said to be – a fisherman.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Over and over

Each night, deep in the sierra, the soldiers put up their tents. A dozen men altogether, they take turns sleeping – four doze off, another four stand guard, another four patrol the area, their guns at the ready.

Who knows what they'll meet. They might meet nothing more than a squirrel. They might meet a group of migrants hiking through the hills in hope of making it to the United States. They might meet a few gomeros walking back from the poppy and marijuana fields. They might run into a group of narcos.

If they do, they must make a judgment call. Are the narcos trigger happy? Can they be approached without firing first? Can the soldiers be certain they are indeed narcos?

If the narcos are in a vehicle, the chances of them firing back are higher – they have a getaway car and a small height advantage over the soldiers, who are patrolling on foot on the road. If they're on foot, they can be cornered and then corralled.

The soldiers end their night patrol, exhausted and soaking wet from the rain. They return to camp, and sleep for a few hours.

They are awoken at dawn. They have a breakfast of rice and beans, or tamales. They put on their boots, and start walking up the nearby hill. Intelligence has pointed them in the direction of a poppy field about 3 kilometers away, up a hill, down along a small ridge and then up another hill.

Having located the field, hidden in a small clearing on the side of the mountain, they separate, forming a line. They begin to pull up the poppy plants, one by one. Sometimes they grab a few at a time, but the lieutenant in charge jumps in: you can't pull them out like that, or they grow back right away. You must pull them out with the root.

Within a few hours, the soldiers have uprooted thousands of poppy stems, and piled them in a corner of the field. They light a bonfire, and begin to burn them.

They hear a whistle from across the valley – a local gomero is signaling to his buddies that the soldiers are nearby. The lieutenant in charge takes note of where the whistle is coming from – that will be tomorrow's mission.

Having burned the poppy plants, the soldiers file down the mountain. They stop at a marijuana field on the way down, and proceed to tear it up and burn it down just as they had the poppy field. Two soldiers stop to talk to a local farmer living nearby. Does he know anything about the marijuana? No, the man says. Has it been there long? No, the man says. How long, then? I don't know, the man says. "Do you know of any narcos living nearby? No, the man says.

The soldiers don't believe him, but there's little they can do; he glares as they leave. His wife pops her head out of the window as they drive off – she is glaring too.

Night is approaching. The soldiers return to base camp. Some have naps, others sit around and play cards. They talk and eat dinner, meat and potatoes.

One by one they drift off to sleep. Another group takes the night patrol.

The next morning, they begin again, heading off to the marijuana plantation they spotted the day before.

Two weeks later, they head back to base in the city, a few hours drive by humvee. Most of them have families waiting. They all live together on the base.

Some of them head home within the city to their families. They were raised here, and are proud to be part of the military unit stationed in their hometown. On the drive back into town, a small boy playing on the street had yelled and smiled at one of the young soldiers in the humvee – "My son," the man had said.

Two weeks later, these same soldiers will head once again into the hills. They will have been briefed by their general, as well as military intelligence officials. They will once again be seeking out marijuana and poppy plantations. They will once again tear them up and burn them down. Every morning, they'll eat their rice and beans; every night, before going on patrol, they'll feast on meat and potatoes.

In a year, they'll tear up and burn down 17,998 hectares of marijuana throughout Mexico.

They'll destroy 15,330 hectares of poppy.

They won't make a dent in drug production.