Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From the Dept. of Terrible Headlines

Fox News has a new story about the Mexican drug war, with the headline: Is Mexico our ally or our Enemy?

This is inflammatory nonsense. Disagree as the two nations might about what to do with the drug cartels and drug consumption, Mexico and the United States are allies, always will be (contrary to George Friedman's prediction that war will break out in the next 100 years between the two countries) and the media and politicians should stop stirring things up at a time when cooperation is at an all-time high, and is absolutely crucial to progress.

There is such a thing as a stupid question

El Universal has a list of questions for readers on its web site, including one about making a pact with the narcos. The nonsensical nature of the questions just about sums up the feasibility of making such a pact.

¿Te parece que debe pactarse con criminales?
* ¿Crees que es posible vivir de la basura?
* ¿Y tú, respetas a los policías?
* ¿Te gustaría llegar vivir más de 100 años?

The final straw?

I'm usually a big fan of Global Post, but a recent blog item caught my attention for its lack of insight. (Link in title of post).

The author asks whether the Monterrey attack is "Mexico’s final straw," and then goes on to say that "Mexicans have protested before, demanding an end to mass graves and kidnappings amid the drug violence. In the past, little has changed. This time, though, it seems like the people's anger may have helped bring about some results."

The results: the arrest of five suspects.

Anyone who has covered Mexico, or even observed it from a distance for some time, knows that suspects are often arrested after incidents like this, after mass protests, after public outcry, after political calls for justice. Anyone who knows Mexico also knows that due to lack of good investigations, god only knows whether the alleged culprits are indeed guilty.

I'll keep reading Global Post, but I would prefer if it didn't feed into the pro-Sicilia people power hype and instead kept a more level-headed sense of perspective on Mexico.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Just when you thought you knew something

Various media (including the Associated Press, link in title of post) have stories out about the Sinaloa cartel's apparent expansion into meth production. The reports – citing US law enforcement officials in Mexico (ie, DEA) – come on the heels of some massive meth busts. One was in Queretaro, where authorities seized nearly 500 tons of precursors (the chemicals used to make meth, which are banned in Mexico). Another seizure in Queretaro netted 3.4 tons of pure meth, worth about $100 million, according to the AP.

Mexican authorities also seized a 300-foot meth lab buried underground in Sinaloa. The authorities and the media have put two and two together, speculating that the Sinaloa cartel is increasing its interest in meth and trying to take over from the splintered La Familia as the major meth producer in Mexico.

There are several problems with this logic: While meth production in Mexico began in Michoacan (and Colima) under the Amezcua brothers in the 1980s, El Chapo Guzman and his Sinaloa crew moved into the business at least as early as 2003. They knew it was a golden opportunity.

Since then, massive meth labs have regularly been seized in Sinaloa, including one in 2009 which had the capacity to produce about 20 tons of meth – US street value, $700 million – in a month. Another meth compound in Durango was seized in the summer of the same year – it boasted top-of-the-range technology (internet, satellite tv, sat phones etc) and was nicknamed "El paraiso de cristal." Chapo was believed to have hidden out there, along with Nacho Coronel, who incidentally was nicknamed the "Ice King" because of his meth interests.

It should also be noted that La Familia has NEVER had the clout that the Sinaloa or Gulf cartel have had. When La Familia started rising up, it's believed that Chapo struck a deal with the Michoacan-based group – La Familia would produce the meth, the Sinaloa cartel would distribute it. After all, La Familia lacks a smuggling corridor into the United States, therefore must always rely on one of the bigger groups to allow it passage.

In the AP story, the US official is also quoted as saying the Sinaloa cartel has a better distribution network in the US than La Familia. This is absolutely right, as the Sinaloa cartel enjoys longer working relationships with US gang counterparts, probably has a better foothold of its own when it comes to distribution, while La Familia can only really rely on unestablished opportunists and fellow Michoacanos (hence a large suspected La Familia presence in Chicago, which is home to a very large community of Michoacan expats).

And yet: the DEA recently announced the results of Project Delirium, a 20-month series of US investigations targeting La Familia. 1,985 arrests were made, $62 million in U.S. currency was seized, as well as 2,773 pounds of methamphetamine, 2,722 kilograms of cocaine, 1,005 pounds of heroin, 14,818 pounds of marijuana and $3.8 million in other assets.

On Oct. 22, 2009, the DEA announced the results of Project Coronado, a 44-month series of investigations which resulted in the arrest of more than 1,186 alleged members of La Familia.

I have a few problems with these two operations: Heroin is not produced in large quantities in Michoacan. La Familia is from Michoacan. Are you telling me that La Familia, the cartel (as it's called by the DEA), is running heroin for another cartel? Sounds iffy to me. There have been cases of independent operators working in Michoacan, stockpiling poppy bought in Guerrero and then distributing it on up north, but to the best of my knowledge, these guys have not been members of La Familia, and my speculation (based on their last names and connections that have been made public) is that they were Sinaloans.

Second, Project Coronado was 44-months in the making. Forty-four months before Oct. 22, 2009, La Familia had yet to exist, or at least be known, outside of small towns in Michoacan. The group had yet to throw heads on a dance floor in Uruapan, for instance. I find it difficult to believe that the DEA had such great inside sources that they knew about La Familia's rise even before the Mexican authorities, who admitted quite bluntly in 2006 and even 2008 (the grenade attack in Morelia) that they really didn't have any idea of La Familia's growing clout.

Last point to a long-winded post: I believe we will see a global rise in meth production and distribution in the coming years, as the world works itself out of a recession. Meth is cheap to produce, cheap to sell, cheap to buy and as cheap a high as you're likely to find. Recession-proof, to say the least.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My thoughts on Monterrey

Just wrote a piece for Foreign Policy about Mexico's latest atrocity, the torching of a casino in Monterrey that left at least 52 dead. Link is in title of the post.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meeting Saviano

The call came in the evening. He will see you, Mr. Malcolm. His security team has cleared your visit. You will meet with him in the late morning.

We drove through the hills, the lush vegetation surrounding us on all sides. A few miles outside of the city, and we were the only people on the road. We continued on for about 15 minutes.

We turned into the driveway of a villa. It's a hotel now, but it was once owned by a wealthy family from Perugia.

The bodyguards met us at the door.

"He's waiting in his quarters. He's ready to see you," one of them said.

I walked across the gardens, past the swimming pool, to a room – most likely, it was normally used as a conference room by visitors on business.

Today, it was empty. Empty, save a table in the middle, with three chairs.

I sat down. I was sweating. I often sweat ahead of meetings like this, but usually it's from the heat. This time, it was from nerves. I was about to meet a man I had heard much about. A man who I respected. A man who has a price on his head, and who has been on the run, living in hiding, since 2008.

He walked in. He had a big grin on his face, a childlike grin. He was happy to see me. I was delighted to see him, to meet him in person, finally.

We talked. He talked about the mafia in Italy; I told him about the mafias in Mexico. We talked about the history of mafias, their rise in the United States. We talked about what we would really like to write about as journalists, if we had a real choice in the matter. We exchanged pleasantries, polite comments about each other's books, about projects we might undertake in the future. He told me about his life in hiding. I told him that our meeting was a bit odd; I felt like I was meeting a mafia boss, whereas in fact I was meeting just another journalist.

We both admitted we don't like fame in our profession; journalists are not supposed to be famous, we both agreed. At least I can wander around wherever I want, I told him. Yes, he said; I have to deal with my security everywhere. I can't do anything normal anymore.

"I just want to buy a girl an ice cream," he said, softly.

After about 30 minutes, my meeting with Roberto Saviano came to an end. He got into a black car, surrounded by bodyguards provided by the Italian government since his ground-breaking book Gomorra, an expose of the Neapolitan mafia best known as the Camorra. I waved goodbye as he drove off to a new hiding place, somewhere in Italy, somewhere out of the line of fire of the men he exposed, the men who issued death threats after his book put the spotlight on their illicit activities and influence.

His car drove off, up the hill and out of sight.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chapo has been caught...

Chapo's been caught talking on the new iphone4 (http://www.apple.com/iphone/) in the hills of Sinaloa. He was apparently talking to Lindsay Lohan (http://www.tmz.com/person/lindsay-lohan/) about the new Harry Potter flick (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1201607/)

Joking, obviously, but trying to see if this will pick up hits for my blog, then maybe I'll start blogging again regularly.