El Chapo or Los Zetas?

Which cartel will prevail? The Sinaloa cartel and the upstart Los Zetas are locked in a vicious fight to be the top dog. I discussed this with a good friend of mine, Mexican journalist Jose Carreño, over dinner the other day in Mexico City. He said: “The most remarkable thing about Los Zetas is how quickly they have grown and expanded since they broke with the Gulf Cartel and they have done so by sheer barbaric violence but what allowed them to expand so quickly is what will result in their downfall. The Sinaloa Federation is confrontational too but it is willing to form alliances and to compromise and to deal. Los Zetas isn’t and no one can afford to tolerate their survival – not the Mexican establishment, not the U.S. government and not rival cartels.”

Mexico’s two most powerful cartels – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas – appear deadlocked in their efforts to gain the upper hand but in the longer term the Sinaloans are likely to remain Mexico’s largest crime organization and emerge as the clear top dog.

The struggle for mastery has left hundreds of foot-soldiers dead and comes at a time that Mexican authorities are redoubling their efforts to hunt down the cartel leaders but, barring a devastating blow against the Sinaloa Federation or an internecine blow-up, experts say the Sinaloans are better established, more rooted and better organized.

“The Sinaloa cartel is more entrenched in society and Los Zetas are barely starting to build a social base founded on intimidation and corruption,” says Alberto Islas Torres, the founder of Risk Evaluation, a risk management company, and a former adviser in the presidential administration of Ernesto Zedilllo.

José Luis Valdés-Ugalde , a political scientist at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, agrees that in the longer term the Sinaloans will prevail. “Both organizations are very strong and cross national borders. Los Zetas have shown tremendous ability in a short period of time and great strength to break away from the Gulf cartel. But the Sinaloa cartel has a dominant position and over time that will increase,” he says.

The competition between the two crime organizations that’s triggered massacres and assassinations is dominating the criminal landscape in Mexico. Other cartels and crime gangs are being squeezed by Los Zetas and the Sinaloans and forced to align themselves with one or other.

In recent months, Mexican authorities have pulled off some significant operations against both cartels with a series of arrests and fatal shootings of top lieutenants, including the Sinaloa Federation’s Cabrera Sarabia brothers and Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo, the alleged leader of the Gente Nueva gang, a Sinaloan enforcement group.

And Sinaloan production of methamphetamine has been disrupted by several significant seizures of precursor chemicals in west coast ports.

Political scientist José Luis Valdés-Ugalde believes the government’s offensive against the cartels has fallen more heavily on Los Zetas than the Sinaloa Federation. “Federal operations against los Zetas in the states of Veracruz, Zacatecas, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi and Quintana Roo, have  involved the capture of 17 of its leaders and plaza heads. Based on the number of detainees, I estimate that the group of key senior members has been greatly reduced,” he says.

The capture of El Chapo or of Los Zetas’s top leader Heriberto Lazcano could be a game-changer. But the arrest of Lazcano would likely be more damaging for Los Zetas than the capture of El Chapo would be for the Sinaloa Federation, says Islas in an interview with Agora.

He says the Sinaloa Federation is a maturer organization and with its horizontal leadership structure would better absorb the challenge of the loss of El Chapo than Los Zetas with its pyramid structure would if Lazcano were captured.

He notes “board member disputes” could hurt the federation as was seen in the fallout of the quarrel between the Sinaloan leaders and their allies the Beltran Leyva brothers. But the federation has a basic strength  “because it is based on family connections and alliances through marriages and kinship.”

Last year saw significant geographical gains for Los Zetas in the struggle for mastery.

A map breaking down cartel dominance and presence released by Mexico’s Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) at a forum for crime experts at the National Institute of Penal Sciences suggests that Los Zetas is now operating in 17 Mexican states. The Sinaloa Federation is operating in 16 states. Four years ago, the Sinaloa Federation was operating in 23 states.

Heriberto Lazcano’s crime organization maintains a presence in Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tabasco , Chiapas, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The Sinaloa Federation operates in Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Baja California, Sonora, Jalisco, Colima and Guerrero.

According to OFDI, the major flashpoints in terms of the struggle for mastery between the two cartels are in the states of Durango, Coahuila, Sonora, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí.

While Los Zetas may be operating now in more states than the Sinaloa Federation, the latter is not only the oldest but still the largest cartel with tens of thousands of operatives and gang members under its sway. El Chapo’s organization dominates most of western Mexico and controls Ciudad Juarez, a crucial drug plaza.

Further, aside from the differences in command structure and membership, Los Zetas, who are primarily dealers, are in many ways less rooted in the drug business. “The Sinaloans are farmers – marijuana and heroin will always be grown by them,” says Islas. “They are producers and that is why they where able to develop the meth market.”

He believes that Los Zetas’ greatest weakness lies in its membership base. “Their recruitment process is based on recommendations and this is why they are easier to infiltrate.” It is a vulnerability the cartel seems aware of:  the cartel has a “counterintelligence apparatus to detect intruders and is more violent (than the Sinaloan Federation)” in order to enforce loyalty.

Both cartels are expansionary further afield in Central America and the Caribbean. Central America offers vulnerable states with underfunded and ill-equipped armed forces and high levels of poverty, and Los Zetas has exploited that visibly in Guatemala, triggering alarm across the region.

But of the two, say Mexican and Central American officials, the Sinaloa cartel is making more headway overseas, despite the publicity that has followed Los Zetas’ entry into Guatemala.

According to PGR officials El Chapo is searching constantly to develop more international alliances and has highly developed ties and pacts across Latin America, Asia and West Africa. Since 2005 the Sinaloa Federation has pursued and cultivated ties in China, Thailand and India to secure precursor chemicals.

In the last two years a series of arrests of Sinaloa operatives in the cocaine-producing states of Peru and Bolivia suggests that the Sinaloans are not nervous about moving into territory traditionally considered the preserve of Colombian organized crime.

And that includes Colombia itself, where in 2009 more than seventy properties worth more than $50 million were seized by authorities linked to the Sinaloa Federation. At the time of the asset seizures, the Colombian police chief Oscar Naranjo said: “We have evidence of Mexicans sitting in Medellin, sitting in Cali, sitting in Pereira, in Barranquilla.”

And El Chapo has increased the federation’s presence in the Caribbean, where authorities in the Dominican Republic say they have detected in the north of the island the presence of the Sinaloa cartel. Anibal de Castro, the Caribbean country’s ambassador to the United States, told a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this that the Sinaloa cartel “seeks to create a route to Europe via the Dominican Republic.”

In the struggle for mastery, Los Zetas may go in for more gruesome and headline-catching violence, but according to a federal government study called  “Information on the Phenomenon of Crime in Mexico,” until August 2010 at least the Sinaloa cartel was behind 84 percent of the drug-related slayings in Mexico.

 

 

No Respite

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Mexico on Friday and hopes had been high that there might be a respite in the drug-related violence in the run-up to his visit and while he’s in the country but gunmen in western Mexico appear to have dashed those hopes over the weekend.

On Sunday evening (March 18) a police convoy was ambushed and a dozen policemen were killed and another 11 seriously wounded. Hundreds of shell casings from AK-47 and AR-15 assault weapons were retrieved at the scene after. The ambush took place on the outskirts of Teloloapan, a town with a population of about 20,000 near the beach resort of Acapulco.

The ambushed police were attacked as they searched for bodies following the discovery of ten severed heads in the town.

The attack on the police amounts to the worst mass killing of policemen since June 2010 when a dozen officers were slain during an ambush on a police convoy in the central coastal city of Zitacuaro.

As for the severed heads, police still have not found the rest of the bodies. Security forces learned about the dumped heads from an anonymous phone caller. When they arrived they found the heads laid out neatly in a row in front of the town’s slaughterhouse. There were two narco-messages as well.

One read: “This is going to happen to all who keep supporting the FM.”

The abbreviation FM refers presumably to the cartel La Familia Michoacana, which splintered last year after several of its top leaders were either captured or killed by security forces.

The area all of this took place in is a steamy, mountainous region known as Tierra Caliente. The region has long been a haven for drug traffickers growing marijuana and opium poppies and a very dangerous place for outsiders and the police.

In 2010, nine police officers were kidnapped in Teloloapan. The bodies of eight of the officers were found later, six of whom had been dismembered.

In the last few months, the remnants of La Familia, which was once the largest supplier of methamphetamines to drug dealers in the United States, have been locked in a vicious turf war with rival cartels, notably a faction of former members known as Los Caballeros Templarios.

A Challenge TO US-Led Drug Prohibition

I filed this piece below on the growing calls in Central America for drug legalization while in Mexico for some overseas media outlets

From Jamie Dettmer in Mexico City

The Obama administration has been criticized in the past for adopting a policy of benign neglect towards Latin America but that changed abruptly in March when a series of top officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, scampered down south to court Central American leaders.

What has the administration spooked is the rising chorus in Latin America of politicians questioning publicly the sense in maintaining a prohibition on drugs.

Calls for legalizing narcotics have been heard before in Latin America but generally the chorus has included only fringe or retired front-rank politicians. In 2009, the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia blasted the war on drugs, arguing the time had arrived at least for decriminalizing marijuana.

This time, though, sitting presidents are leading the chorus, the first serious challenge by foreign governments to the U.S.-led policy of drug prohibition since the launching of the “war on drugs” by Richard Nixon in 1971.

In the vanguard are the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica — all of whom are facing violent incursions in their territory of expansionary Mexican cartels. They insist the time has come to rethink current counter-narcotics policies and they want a multilateral discussion to consider legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, the use of not just marijuana but of all illicit drugs.

Even the region’s hard-line drug warriors, Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, who has waged a five-year-long militarized “war on drugs”, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who has been no slouch either in combating traffickers, have voiced sympathy with their neighbors’ position.

Calderón and Santos shocked Washington last year by raising the idea of legalizing soft drugs like marijuana. The Mexican president then argued that “if drug consumption appears impossible to stop, then the decision makers should look for more options – including market alternatives – in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.”

And Santos is prepared to go a step further. His government is preparing to announce later this month legislation to decriminalize personal drug possession, placing a five- gram limit on marijuana and a limit of one gram for cocaine and Crack.

What makes the legalization talk down south doubly disturbing for the Obama administration is that back in the United States the signs are that public opinion may be shifting too and especially when it comes to legalizing pot. According to a Gallup poll in the autumn, an unprecedented one in two Americans supports pot’s legalization.

Only last week, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson argued that people should not be sent to prison for marijuana possession. “I’m not a crusader,” said the 81-year-old religious broadcaster. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

With drug violence ravaging Central America – the region has the highest homicide rate in the world and is more deadly than Afghanistan when it comes to killings – the viewpoint that the war on drugs isn’t succeeding is what’s driving the region’s leaders to demand alternatives to interdiction and prohibition.

The advocacy of a narcotics rethink got a boost earlier in February when new Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a rightwing former army general, became a convert, stunning Washington DC and observers alike by announcing that the U.S. inability to cut drug consumption left his country no option but to consider legalizing narcotics.

This total reversal by Pérez Molina, he had promised to emulate President Calderón in using the military to take on the drug cartels and street gangs, has emboldened the legalization advocates. Neither Gen. Pérez nor his disgruntled fellow rebels changed tune following Vice President Biden’s March 6 meeting with them in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa.

The Central American rebels heard the Vice President out when he said that the U.S. wouldn’t be legalizing drugs and remained determined to assist them in defeating transnational cartels with funding and intelligence help. But after the meeting they announced they would consider Pérez’s legalization proposal at a bigger March 24 meeting in Guatemala.

Biden avoided getting drawn into a public debate about drug legalization both in Tegucigalpa and a few days earlier in Mexico City, where he met the three leading presidential candidates to succeed Calderón. But come March 24, the Obama administration will have little choice but to debate the pros and cons of legalization openly with the Central American leaders.

And the Obama administration has reluctantly agreed to drug legalization to be on the agenda for next month’s Summit of the Americas to be held in Cartagena.

The issue of legalization is likely to remain on the political front-burner, if for no other reason than that July’s Mexican presidential elections could result in a significant shift away from Calderón’s war on drugs and on his reliance on the military to wage it. That would trigger reverberations across Latin America.

The crackdown launched by President Calderón in 2006 after enforcers from a second-tier cartel shocked the country by scattering dramatically five severed human heads across a crowded disco dance-floor in the mountain town of Uruapan, has been one of the biggest and most unrelenting efforts in Latin America to bring major drug traffickers to heel.

But the war has taken a tremendous toll with nearly 50,000 dead in drug-related slayings, Mexican jails overcrowded and prone to riots and massacres and accusations flying around of human rights abuses by an increasingly frustrated military.

Meantime, despite law-enforcement successes with drug seizures and crushing second-tier cartels, the top crime organizations, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation, appear undaunted and stronger than ever. And the violence has just become more barbaric, from a firebombing of a crowded casino to the murder of bloggers and journalists who tweak the cartels. Severed heads and body parts have become commonplace since 2006 as have teenage assassins.

With no end in sight, legalization advocates argue that Calderón’s war is an example of how when the drugs war is waged uncompromisingly with the full weight of the military and police, the effects are the reverse of what’s desired.

Two of the three leading presidential candidates vying to succeed Calderón have vowed to implement change; the third, Josefina Vazquez Mota of Calderón’s ruling National Action Party, appears to be suffering in the opinion polls because of the increasing unpopularity of the drugs war.

The current frontrunner, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a former, competent state governor, wants to withdraw the military from the fight but has offered no clear timetable for doing so. He has indicated that he thinks that Calderón’s militarized approach has destabilized Mexico. And after meeting Biden, he told reporters, “the discussion is not whether we should or shouldn’t fight against it (organized crime) but what we can do to achieve better results.”

Pena as president would likely be more forthright than Calderón in pressuring the United States to consider legalizing marijuana, on the grounds that it makes little sense in pursuing Mexican pot farmers and throwing them in jail while there is industrial production underway north of the border to supply medical marijuana to the U.S. states where it is legal.

Political commentators and analysts here suspect that Pena would calm interdiction quietly by following the tactic of past PRI presidents in allowing unofficially some cartels a degree of autonomy, so long as they keep the peace and avoid extremes of inter-cartel bloodletting.

The third candidate, the charismatic Andres Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, who was a hair’s breadth from winning the presidency in 2006, has pledged to order the military back to barracks, arguing that you can’t fight violence with violence. “We need a loving republic,” he said on radio recently. “We need opportunities for young people so they don’t fall into the arms of organized crime.”

His emphasis is on the root causes of crime and he argues for redoubling economic-development and anti-poverty programs. He has also made clear if elected he would prohibit U.S. intelligence activities on Mexican soil and stop the Calderón-endorsed over-flying by U.S. unmanned drones. That it in turn would presumably trigger the U.S. to stop anti-drugs aid to Mexico that since 2008 has amounted to $1.6 billion in law enforcement aid.

Although lagging behind his two rivals, López Obrador, who’s nicknamed “El Peje” after a fish from his native state of Tabasco, is a highly effective campaigner, and political analysts expect him to surge when full-blown campaigning gets underway later this month.

Critics of the Obama administration argue that it has partly itself to blame for the genie of drug legalization popping up. They argue that the Obama administration inadvertently fueled the rebellion by failing to provide sufficient leadership and support to the Central American states affected by expansionary Mexican cartels moving operations beyond the reach of the Mexican military.

And the administration hasn’t helped its cause by proposing in its 2013 federal budget to cut by16 percent counter-narcotics aid to Latin America, including a 60 percent drop in assistance to Guatemala.