With manpower shortages affecting Mexico’s cartels, drug lords are turning increasingly to women to staff their organizations. Women are doing everything — from leading, laundering money and killing. See my Maclean’s piece.
A couple of just published pieces of mine in Agora Revista. They were written a while ago but provide useful background and information on the brutal fighting in recent weeks in Tamaulipas between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels and on the arrest of Victor Emilio Cazares, known as “The Bachelor”. They are in Spanish.
By Jamie Dettmer
It is becoming increasingly perilous to be a narco-junior and Mexican authorities appear determined to emphasize the dangers by targeting the sons, nephews and cousins of cartel bosses.
The latest strike against narco-juniors came in Tijuana on April 25 when Mexican soldiers in a joint operation with the border city’s municipal police detained two nephews of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, a top Sinaloa cartel leader and the closest confidant of the crime organization’s boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Authorities identified the two El Mayo nephews as Omar Ismael Zambada, aged 23, and Sergio Rodolfo Cazares Zambada, aged 28. The former is the son of Jesus Reynaldo Zambada Garcia, alias “El Rey”, who was extradited to the United States on trafficking charges earlier in April. Cazares is the son of Agueda Zambada Garcia, a sister of Jesus and El Mayo.
A few days before the Zambada nephews were arrested along with two of their bodyguards U.S. federal authorities unveiled a major indictment of Guzman and “El Mayo”. The United States is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to arrest of each of the Sinaloa cartel’s top two leaders.
Mexican officials say targeting alleged narco-juniors like the Zambada nephews is becoming a key part of President Felipe Calderon’s strategy against drug-trafficking organizations and the families that run them. Officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office briefed journalists in the wake of the arrests, saying that going after narco-juniors is “part of the offensive against drug kingpins.”
“You could say it amounts to a form of psychological warfare,” says newspaper columnist Jose Carreño.
He adds: “When a narco-junior gets arrested it can be emotionally draining for the crime family. But it is not gratuitous. Many of the youngsters play major roles in cartel operations.”
El Mayo’s nephews were captured as they were driving on Avenida Revolucion in downtown Tijuana in a Dodge Avenger. The drugs were in 13 packages. A PGR spokesman said no shots were fired and the detainees “were transferred by the military to the Morelos barracks in Tijuana and then were delivered to the Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) in Mexico City.”
On May 1, a federal judge ordered that El Mayo’s two nephews be held for 40 days while a federal investigation seeks to discover the level of their involvement in cartel operations.
Neither of the nephews has been especially high profile in public or socially.
The public image of nacro-juniors is one thing, the reality another. Previous generations of narco-juniors have been flashy and willing to flaunt their wealth and were less educated compared to the current crop of narco-juniors, who have attended private schools and graduated often from top universities in Mexico and overseas.
“It isn’t that they won’t get their hands dirty – some of the narco-juniors go over to the operational side and others they will veer more to the money-laundering and asset management side,” says security expert Alberto Islas, who served in the Zedillo administration. “But they are disciplined and talented and in another environment they could well be top corporate executives and even CEOs.”
He adds: “They don’t flaunt who they are.”
And since the Mexican authorities made it clear with a series of arrests of narco-juniors in 2009 that they are focusing on the heirs of the cartels as much as the bosses, the scions of cartel capos have become more circumspect about how they live and play.
Mexican cartels have always been family affairs, with sons following fathers into the business. Los Zetas is the exception.
“Unlike the most traditional drug cartels in Mexico, which tend to be centered on the family, the organization base of the Zetas is a meritocracy and recruits move up to leadership positions,” says José Luis Valdés-Ugalde, a professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
But other cartels – the Sinaloa Federation, the Juarez cartel as well as the Arellano Felix group in Tijuana and the Beltran-Leyva cartel – are all close-knit organizations at their top levels and revolve around family with sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews involved in some capacity or other in the family business.
The Sinaloa Federation led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has included at various times at leadership levels all four of his brothers as well as his five sons.
In 2009 federal authorities nabbed three narco-juniors. The first to be arrested was Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada, the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, considered a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, who was seized on March 9 before dawn at his home in the elite Mexico City neighborhood of Lomas del Pedregal.
For the Mexican public the arrest came as a shock – not only had someone high up in the Sinaloa cartel been arrested but also Vicente Zambada didn’t fit the public image of a narco-junior. At the press conference after his arrest where he was paraded before the cameras the clean-cut 33-year-old narco-junior appeared the epitome of an urban professional dressed in a black blazer and dark blue jeans and well-coiffed hair.
Not quite the figure associated with running logistics for a cartel and, according to Gen. Luis Arturo Oliver, the Mexican Defense Department’s deputy chief of operations, a man having the authority within the cartel to order assassinations of rivals and government officials.
As with other narco-juniors, Zambada was apparently expected to rise through the ranks but was on what in the corporate world would be called a fast-track executive program. According to the Mexican indictment he began by supervising the unloading of cocaine from ships off the Mexican coast and verifying quantities coming from Colombia before being promoted to the top ranks.
The second surprise for the narco-juniors came on March 24 2009 when federal authorities captured Hector Huerta, who authorities said oversaw the flow of drugs through the northern city of Monterrey for the Beltran-Leyva cartel. He was detained in a Monterrey suburb, along with four men identified as his bodyguards. Soldiers also seized assault rifles and four grenades. He was arrested at a luxury car dealership he ran in a Monterrey suburb.
And then a third surprise on April 2 when police grabbed Vicente Carrillo Leyva as he exercised in a city park. Carrillo Leyva inherited a top position in the Juarez cartel from his father Amado Carrillo Fuentes, considered Mexico’s No. 1 drug trafficker when he died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery.
Prosecutors said the then 32-year-old Carrillo Leyva was second only to his uncle Vicente Carrillo Fuentes in the cartel. Again this narco-junior came across as an established urban professional: he was paraded at the press conference to announce his arrest in the running clothes he was wearing when seized by police – a white Abercrombie & Fitch jogging suit set off with trendy dark-framed glasses.
Carrillo Leyva had been educated in Europe and is fluent in French and English. At the time of his arrest a Mexican City newspaper quoted a neighbor as saying: “The young man went out running in the morning and his wife was very nice. They didn’t have loud parties or anything.”
Narco-juniors not only have to look over their shoulders for law-enforcement. As inter-cartel rivalry has become more savage, they have also to look out for rivals. One of the most dramatic slayings of a narco-junior came on May 8 2008 when gunmen from a rival cartel gunned down El Chapo’s then 22-year-old son Edgar Guzman Lopez as he walked to his car from a shopping mall with bodyguards in Culiacan.
Police investigators collected subsequently more than 500 shell-cases from the scene. At the time of his slaying, Edgar was studying business administration at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa and was himself a family man with a two-year-old from a common-law wife, Frida Munoz Roman.
A popular narco-corrido entitled El Hijo de La Tuna written from the viewpoint of El Chapo following the killing of his son and sung by Roberto Tapia has the opening lines: “My sons are my sources of happiness as well as my sadness. Edgar I will miss you.”
By Jamie Dettmer
The struggle between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel for control of north-east Mexico took another macabre turn during Mother’s Day weekend with the discovery of dozens decapitated bodies on the highway east of Cadereyta.
The bodies were found on May 13. Initially, the authorities said they had found 49 bodies in garbage bags with their heads, hands and feet cut off. But officials said the death toll could reach 70.
Investigators are working to match the parts and identify the victims. At least six of the victims were women.
A narco-message left near the bodies was signed by Los Zetas but police believe that the Gulf cartel, a Sinaloa Federation ally, may have been responsible and have arrested eight Gulf members. The bodies were found near the 47 km marker on Highway 40. That road leads to Reynosa, an area that Los Zetas have been challenging the Gulf Cartel for control.
Officials from the Mexican Defense Department said the men were captured in the Nuevo Leon municipality of China and that soldiers seized a kilo of cocaine, four rifles, a handgun, ammunition, and three hand grenades.
Los Zetas in the wake of the dumping of the bodies posted banners denying any part in the incident. One the of the banners stated, “[W]hen we hang banners we say ‘Las Golfas,’ and they say ‘Golfo.’”
Mexico’s interior and justice ministries are scrambling to provide beefed-up federal assistance to state authorities in Tamaulipas following the discovery of another 23 bodies in the embattled border city of Nuevo Laredo on May 4.
The escalation of cartel-related violence in the city has prompted federal and state forces assigned to a joint Regional Coordination Group to be placed on maximum alert. The Army took over a year ago security work in Nuevo Laredo after the municipal police force was disbanded.
The Secretary of the Interior, Alejandro Poiré Romero, held meetings on May 5 with the governor of Tamaulipas, Egidio Torre Cantú, and said he would have the full support of federal forces “to assist in the security of the state.”
In a statement released by the Interior Ministry, Poiré said federal and state authorities would “continue fighting in close collaboration and coordination, the criminals responsible for the violence that has occurred in Nuevo Laredo.”
The bodies dangling from a bridge or dismembered and stuffed in ice chests and trash bags marks a further gruesome escalation in the struggle between the country’s two largest cartels, the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas, for dominance of lucrative drug trafficking routes in northeast Mexico into the U.S.
Nine of the bodies – five men and four women—were found hanging from a highway overpass at the junction of National Road and Boulevard Luis Donaldo Colosio and bore clear signs of torture.
The State prosecutor, Victor Almanza, told Agora that most of the victims wore jeans, shirts and but had no shoes on and “all had their hands tied behind their backs and had bullet wounds in different parts of their bodies.” Some were blindfolded and the victims had no identification on them but appeared to be between 25 and 30 years old.
The bodies were accompanied by a crude, profanity-filled narco-banner draped nearby and apparently from Los Zetas. Addressed to the Gulf cartel, an ally of the Sinaloa Federation, it warned: “F******(Golfas) whores, this is how I’m going to finish off every f*****you send to heat up the plaza. You have to f*** up sometime and that’s when I’m gonna put you in your place…See you around f******.”
Just hours after police found 14 decapitated bodies in black trash bags in a parked truck behind a government customs building. The missing heads were stuffed in three ice chests and left near the office of the city mayor. All 14 victims were men and in their twenties, said state prosecutors.
A narco-message was placed near the ice coolers, this time apparently from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Federation’s boss, consisting of threats against the mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Benjamin Galvan, and state and municipal public safety officials.
The mayor was likened to the character Willy Wonka from the film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the message was a direct response to a claim Galvan made on April 24 that the Sinaloa Federation doesn’t have a presence in the city. “They want credibility that I work here (?),” the message mockingly enquired.
The message promised that while the mayor continued to live in a world of chocolate “saying that nothing is happening here and all is well” heads will keep rolling. The message signed off: “All who died in Nuevo Laredo is pure scum or Z!! Attn: Your father Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.”
This is the second time that El Chapo has responded to the mayor’s insistence on April 24 that the Sinaloa Federation isn’t operational in Nuevo Laredo. The day after Galvan made the claim a car bomb was exploded outside the city’s Ministry of Public Security.
The narco-message left by Los Zetas with the nine bodies hanging from the overpass on May 4 blamed the Sinaloa Federation for the bombing, according to El Norte newspaper.
The Attorney General of Tamaulipas state, Bolivar Hernandez Garza, says investigators are having “difficulties in identifying the bodies”. He added: “The identification and investigations of events of this nature are very demanding work for the experts,” he said. “In 14 cases the bodies were separated from the head, and this makes the work on identification even more challenging,” he added.
The federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) dispatched a team of prosecutors, forensic experts and crime of scene coordinators from Mexico City to assist state authorities in the investigation as well as to help to identify the victims. The prosecutors from the Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime are being charged with opening an organized crime case. “The goal is to work collaboratively to expedite the investigation and to trace the perpetrators,” says a PGR spokesman.
The increased tempo and brutality of tit-for-tat slayings in the confrontation between El Chapo and Los Zetas has prompted widespread horror in Mexico. The killings have ranged across the north of the country.
At least 20 suspected drug gang members, a police officer and a soldier have been killed in six confrontations in Sinaloa since April 28, a spokesman for local prosecutors there said.
But the worst of the violence since April has taken place in the states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.
The two cartels have been trading insults via narco-banners, goading and taunting each other as the bodies have piled up. The worst incidents in April included:
- The discovery on April 10 of the dismembered bodies of five young men near a primary school in Culiacan. A narco-banner nearby accused the Sinaloa cartel leader of being in league with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and was signed “Los Zetas”.
- The butchering on April 17 in Nuevo Laredo of 14 alleged Zetas by the Sinaloa Federation. The mangled and mutilated corpses were grouped in two rows underneath a banner proclaiming that “El Chapo” will clean out Los Zetas. The banner also boasted: “We have begun to clear Nuevo Laredo of Zetas.” and
- The killing of 17 people on April 20 by gunmen dressed in black tactical gear with skull patches on their sleeves who burst into a neighborhood bar in the city of Chihuahua and opened fire, according to state and city authorities.
According to international consultancy, Stratfor, El Chapo is relying on an allied cartel for many of the Sinaloa Federation attacks in Tamaulipas. The consultancy said in an April report that New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) has become a real force within El Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation and that the group has developed tactical capabilities that make it a “formidable opponent” for the well-trained and armed Los Zetas.
Federal and Veracruz authorities have launched another joint operation against Los Zetas and other cartels operating in the eastern Mexican state.
The governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte de Ochoa, announced on April 10 the kick-off of Operation Safe Cordoba, saying at a press conference that the objectives were to stamp out “high impact crimes” and to pursue kidnappers “to the full extent of the law”.
“From the first day of my administration, the security agenda has been a priority in responding to the situation our nation is experiencing, and in Veracruz’s case we are dealing with this in coordination with the federal government,” the governor said.
Although the open-ended operation will focus on Cordoba, the fifth-largest city in the state, Duarte argued the operation would have a knock-on regional effect, partly because of the city’s strategic location at the center of the state.
Founded in 1618, Cordoba city is made up of 15 barrios and has a population of about 150,000.
Operation Safe Cordoba is the third joint federal-state anti-crime operation launched by the governor. Last October, Operation Safe Veracruz, which focused on the port city that gives its name to the state, was launched. It was followed quickly by Operation Safe Orizaba, which focused on Cordoba’s twin city – the two are 20 kilometers apart.
Within days of the launching of Operation Safe Veracruz, federal and state authorities trumpeted successes, notably the capture on October 26 of the alleged Veracruz leader of Los Zetas, Carlos Arturo Carrillo Pitalua, and the arrest two days later of the woman in charge of the cartel’s finances in the state, Carmen del Consuelo Saenz. Ten other alleged Zetas members were also rounded up.
According to navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara, the 29-year-old Saenz oversaw the receiving and laundering of the proceeds from drug sales, pirated goods and kidnap ransoms.
On April 15 this year marines attached to Operation Safe Veracruz arrested several Jalisco Nueva Generacion drug cartel members, including Marco Antonio Reyes, who was allegedly in charge of the cartel’s gunmen in the state, said the Navy Secretariat in a statement.
Marines seized also a vehicle, firearms, ammunition marijuana crack cocaine. Among those captured was Jose Luis Feria, who is suspected of being a money man for the cartel.
Half-a-decade ago Veracruz was a world away from the drug-related violence scarring Mexico’s northern cities. But in the past few years the crescent-shaped state has been sucked in inexorably — thanks mainly to the incursion of Loz Zetas and infighting between the cartels for control.
Wedged between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Gulf of Mexico, the state of Veracruz has experienced in the last year a brutal upsurge in violence. Veracruz is Mexico’s third-most populous state and is coveted as a key drug-trafficking corridor to the United States.
Tit-for-tat cartel killings increased, as did clashes between security forces and drug gunmen.
- In January 2011 the Mexican military fought gunmen for hours in Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, leaving at least a dozen suspects and two soldiers dead. The raging battle was conducted across two of the capital’s neighborhoods, forcing residents to remain indoors and sending pedestrians scurrying.
- In April, Mexican troops battled gunmen trying to consolidate narcotic operations in Veracruz. Ten gunmen were killed in the clash, the state government said in a statement. A few days later, gunmen ambushed and killed a police chief, Juan Moreno Lopez, the head of the inter-municipal police force for the Minatitlan-Cosoleacaque area, and two of his officers.
- On September 20 gunmen linked to the Sinaloa Federation dumped 35 bodies under an overpass in the Boca del Rio district of Veracruz city. The gunmen brandished weapons at terrified motorists while the bodies were unloaded on a busy freeway near a large shopping mall.
- 16 people were killed in Veracruz on December 22 when five armed gunmen went on a killing spree. The killings began when gunmen opened fire on four people in the small town of El Higo and then attacked three passenger buses on a rural highway by Tampico. Three of the victims were U.S. citizens visiting family for Christmas.
- A suspected member of Los Zetas led Mexican marines to mass graves at two ranches in the state of Veracruz where were 15 bodies were unearthed. The bodies included rivals and members of their own gang who had been executed.
Last October, Mexican President Felipe Calderon warned that violence-plagued Veracruz wasn’t doing enough to combat Los Zetas and the other cartels. In comments to a meeting of crime victims’ groups in Mexico City, he said, “I believe Veracruz was left in the hands of the Zetas.”
It was in the wake of that remark that state and federal authorities started to launch joint operations and fashion an overrall security strategy for the state.
The Veracruz Secretary for Public Safety, Arturo Bermudez Zurita, says Operation Safe Cordoba involves the Navy and Defense Ministry as well as state police.
“The operation is part of a strategic plan to strengthen security in this region, with actions tailored for the problems and challenges of the area, in order to contain and prevent criminal conduct,” he says.
Bermudez has called the civilian population to support the operation through anonymous tip offs.
Veracruz state, has become increasingly important as a revenue generator for Los Zetas aside from drugs. Oil plays a big part in the state’s economy with the northern part of Veracruz a major oil producer and Los Zetas has been pilfering the oil.
In what the Journal of Energy Security has dubbed “an alarming intersection between the drug violence and Mexico’s energy sector”, the cartel often works with former Pemex employees to identify which pipelines to tap and how.
According to Pemex officials, the company has lost more than a billion dollars to oil theft in the past four years. Half of that theft has been siphoned in sophisticated operations from oil facilities and pipelines in Veracruz. “They work day and night to find ways to penetrate our systems, our counter-theft structures, our infrastructure,” says Pemex spokesman Carlos Ramirez.
Businessmen, market vendors and mom-and-pop storeowners on both sides of the border with the United States are facing increasing pressure from Mexican crime syndicates, including Los Zetas, to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, from DVDs and perfume to apparel and toys.
Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies have increased their anti-counterfeiting cooperation and over the weekend of April 14th/15th U.S. Immigration and Customs agents launched raids in El Paso, Texas, and seized thousands of counterfeit goods worth nearly a million dollars.
“It’s become such a lucrative business that the drug cartels are now investing in this type of crime,” says Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for ICE.
Among the items seized were:
8,911 DVDs with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $122,210.72;
10,669 CDs with an MSRP of $128,454.76; and
1,728 items, including handbags, NFL merchandise and NIKE-brand sneakers with an MSRP of $648,409.15.
The El Paso raids were a continuation of a cooperative crackdown on both sides of the border over Christmas and the New Year when U.S. and Mexican authorities shared intelligence on the cross-border trade in counterfeit goods and launched a joint operation, called “Humbug Christmas”. A series of raids during the holiday season resulted in the seizure of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit goods worth an estimated $76 million.
The operation involved Mexican and U.S. agents inspecting shops, markets and import-export facilities. In the U.S., agents seized toys, cell phones, leather wallets, videos, perfume, and software and arrested 33 people.
Mexican authorities seized cigarettes, tools, toys, electronics and cell phones, as well as 10 tons of clothing that had entered Mexico illegally from the Far East.
Asked which cartels are involved in the counterfeit trade, Oscar Hagelsieb, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in El Paso, said “the Juarez and Zeta Cartels primarily.”
In an email interview with Agora, Hagelsieb, said, “Los Zetas are involved but mainly in the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila.”
He added that there had been a tremendous growth of cartel involvement in the counterfeit trade. “Historically, intelligence had indicated that cartels were not involved in the counterfeit and pirated goods market. That all changed when the cartels started warring. Cartels sought other rackets to supplement the income lost from fighting. We (Homeland Security Investigations) began to see cartels charging ‘quotas’ for allowing the vendors to operate in their territory. In some instances, the cartels took over the market. The Zetas, for example, run the markets in Monterrey.”
South of the border with Texas, market vendors and storeowners are “receiving threats from the cartels and in many instances have been kidnapped and killed,” says Hagelsieb. The HIS special agent says his agency is coordinating with law enforcement counterparts in Mexico.
“We constantly feed intelligence to our law enforcement agency partners in Mexico.”
The counterfeit trade is taking its toll on legitimate Mexican businesses and traders. The Mexican Institute of Industrial Property estimated that in 2009 alone Mexico might have lost nearly half-a-million jobs because of it. Nine out of ten movies sold in Mexico are believed to be pirated.
Counterfeit merchandise is often substandard and in some cases can pose a risk to health or safety, especially in the case of counterfeit or fake medicines.
It is not just in the border regions that the cartels are pushing pirated and counterfeit goods. The muscling in by the Mexican cartels on the lucrative trade in counterfeit goods and piracy is further evidence of how the major cartels have diversified in recent years their criminal activity — from human trafficking to extortion and kidnapping and on to trading in counterfeit and pirated goods, says Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer and economist at ITAM, a Mexico City university.
Based on the sampling of federal and state indictments and cases since 2003, Buscaglia has seen a dramatic shift in the cartels’ focus. “About half of their manpower and resources are now dedicated to other crimes aside from drug trafficking and there has been a major increase in their involvement, for example, in the trade in counterfeit goods,” he says.
According to the PGR, Los Zetas has been highly aggressive in Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz and Puebla in forcing traders to sell their fake products. Many of the pirated DVDs and CDs carry the cartel’s brand name “Productions Zeta.” In Chiapas, Veracruz and Puebla, Los Zetas have control over piracy, say PGR officials.
The PGR estimates that there has been a huge growth in counterfeit and pirated goods in the country – everything from video games, apparel, accessories, shoes, food, medicines, software and even books. For small manufacturers, the counterfeit trade threatens bankruptcy and it reduces the profits of big business, too.
In February 2011, Microsoft executives revealed at the Global Congress on Combating Counterfeiting and Piracy in Paris that La Familia had been selling counterfeit Microsoft software complete with the cartel’s “FMM” logo.
Cartel logos are often stamped on pirated movies and counterfeit software. Los Zetas uses a “Z” or a bucking bronco and La Familia Michoacana sometimes uses a monarch butterfly.
David Finn, associate general counsel in Microsoft’s anti-piracy unit, said in a blog posting that “drug cartels have developed large scale counterfeiting operations and are selling illegal software to consumers. He added: “These illegal enterprises have generated astronomical profits that the gangs funnel toward violent crimes such as drug trafficking, arms and weapons trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.”
On March 14, two Los Zetas members, Pablo Gonzalez Macedo and Martin Rafael Castañeda Castañeda, were sentenced by a court in Aguascalientes to 20 years and six months and 15 years and nine months respectively for forcing merchants to sell pirated goods.
The case provided a glimpse into how aggressive and determined Los Zetas is prepared to be in imposing their will on businessmen, storeowners and market stallholders.
Federal agents arrested the two Los Zetas members in 2011. In one case, according to court documents, the pair snatched a storeowner in November 2010 while he was having breakfast at an outdoor food stall and then drove him to the neighboring city of Zacatecas. There at a cartel safe house he was threatened and told that if he wanted to live, he had to sell Los Zetas goods.
The terrified man indicated his willingness to submit and was released after he handed over his Ford Expedition and arranged for the transfer of $100,000 in cash. But subsequently he reported the kidnapping to state authorities.
Mexico may be associated for many international travelers with drug violence as a result of ghoulish media coverage in their home countries but it is not deterring them from visiting the country’s tourist resorts.
Mexican hoteliers, tour operators and government officials are predicting that 2012 is going to be a record year for tourism — that is if Spring Break is any guide.
Young Americans who flocked to Cancún say they heard before traveling to Mexico about cartel slayings and even read about beheadings and a casino fire in Monterrey but the spring breakers say the sun, the lapping waves of the Caribbean or Pacific and tequila beckoned.
“I did consider the security risks beforehand,” says Madison Reiter, an Occupational Therapy student from Cumberland, Maryland, “but I was more concerned about having an amazing spring break with my friends and getting out of Maryland for a week.”
The 20-year-old adds that good security at the resort where she stayed was appreciated. “I was not nervous about the security risks. I felt very safe and secure. There were lots of Americans staying at our resort and all around us. The locals were very friendly and the resort workers took very good care of us.”
That is music to the ears of Mexico’s tourist chiefs, who have high hopes that this year will be even better than 2011, which was also a record-breaking 12 months for tourism. With the backing of a Mexican government determined to ensure that Mexico will remain a tourism giant, the country’s tourist industry has gone out of its way to promote the benefits of vacationing in Mexico.
From television commercials running in the United States and Europe as well as in Latin America to online campaigns focused around www.visitmexico.com, the Mexican tourist industry has sought to counter negative publicity from the war on drugs.
Promotions have featured the traditional seaside resorts of Cancun, Oaxaca, Acapulco and Baja California, the more cultural offerings of Durango and Aguascalientes and festivals such as the music, dance and craft festival at San Marcos.
Innovative online campaigns include The Mexico Taxi Project, which is designed for visitors to share their Mexican experience by recording their testimonies while traveling in taxis. The project is modeled on the popular U.S. television series “Taxi Cab Confessions”.
“This project’s purpose is to reinforce the image of the Mexican paradise; that place ‘where there is nothing to worry about, except to have good time’”, according to a press release by the Mexican Tourism Promotion Board.
The commercials and online campaigns appear to be paying off.
Despite setbacks such as the February 22 incident near the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta when passengers from a Carnival Cruise Lines ship were robbed at gunpoint during a shore excursion, tourist chiefs and government officials were aware by March that 2012 looked like it would shape up to be a good year.
Their confidence was prompted by the high attendance and enthusiastic response at the end of March to the Tianguis Turistico, the annual gathering of travel industry representatives and journalists from Mexico and around the world. Latin America’s biggest travel trade show, it was held this year in Puerto Vallarta and was attended by President Felipe Calderon, who flew in after meeting in Guanajuato with Pope Benedict XVI.
“There were more than 22,000 business appointments and meetings at Tianguis this year, a 40 percent jump, and this year’s attendance was up by 75 percent compared to the 2011 event,” says Arturo Tornel, the Tianguis’ information director.
At the gathering Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, Gloria Guevara, noted, “we have a 98 percent repeat visitor rate and 99 out of every 100 visitors recommends our destinations.”
A few days earlier, Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR) announced that in 2011 22.67 million international travelers visited the country, a two percent increase over 2010 and 0.2 percent higher than 2008, one of Mexico’s best tourism years. Ministry officials say that there was a fall-off in visits by U.S travelers by three percent in 2011, but that, they argue, was reflective of a significant drop-off in international travel generally by U.S. citizens of 4.1 percent.
Even so, Mexico remains the most popular foreign destination for Americans – a third of those who traveled overseas in 2011 chose to go to Mexico, the result officials think of a combination of low prices, short travel distance and, of course, Mexican sun and hospitality.
In 2011, Mexico saw major double-digit increases in visitors from Brazil, Russia, China and Europe.
But the federal and state governments are not only relying on promotion to keep the tourists coming back. They are all giving serious consideration to security planning.
The state government of Mazatlan responded quickly to the February robbery of cruise passengers by establishing a tourism police force in the port and tourist areas. To try to limit any reputation damage, the state government has begun running in the U.S. and Canada TV commercials featuring expats living in Puerto Vallarta extolling the resort’s virtues and safety.
And Guerrero state officials have scrambled to counter the poor image Acapulco received in the international media following a series last year of slayings and beheadings. The state has launched a “Safe Guerrero” campaign involving improved lighting in tourist areas and the installation of hundreds of surveillance cameras.
The upsurge in violence in Acapulco – nearly 700 people were killed in cartel-related slayings in the Pacific coastal city last year – came in the wake of the killing of drug boss Arturo Beltran Leyva and the splintering of his cartel into competing factions. The inter-cartel violence worsened with the entry of other smaller crime groups and a redoubled effort by the Sinaloa cartel to stamp some order on the conflict.
With the violence escalating, the federal government decided last year to turn the Tianguis Turistico into an event with rotating venues after being in Acapulco for 24 years.
But a turnaround in the security situation is underway. Following requests from the Public Safety Secretary of Guerrero, Ramon Borja Almonte, who told Agora last year that without increased resources from the federal government the “security problems could worsen”, the Calderon administration deployed more federal manpower.
Federal security forces are in charge now of nighttime law enforcement and the results have been impressive – since last October there has been a 40 percent drop in homicides in the city.
Colombia will assist West African countries with law-enforcement training to combat organized crime — especially money laundering and drug trafficking.
Colombian and African officials met Mar. 27-31 in Bogotá at a seminar on transnational organized crime. Opening the event, Colombia’s minister of foreign affairs, María Angela Holguín, said “it is impossible for one country, with its technical and financial resources, to undertake a strategy against organized crime and even common crime without the support of other partners.”
The seminar comes as the impoverished nations of West Africa are becoming an increasingly prominent transit point for illicit drugs on their way from South American producers to European consumers. In a February 2012 report, the International Narcotics Control Board said West Africa had turned itself into a “logistical bridge” for cocaine trafficked into Europe.
Likewise, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that 13 percent of the 217 tons of cocaine exported from South America and destined for Europe last year went via West Africa. Among states being used as transit points: Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Guinea-Bissau.
Cartels behind dramatic growth in drug shipments
UN anti-drug officials say trafficking is getting increasingly sophisticated, with South American cartels possibly using submarines to ship narcotics. They also accuse cartels of sending large mother ships carrying tons of cocaine to dock off the poorly patrolled West African coast, then ferrying the drugs via smaller boats to various destinations and storage points.
The South Americans also use aircraft. In 2009, officials in Mali found an abandoned Boeing 727 that had been used to transport cocaine.
Despite a decline in West African drug seizures, actual volume and loads may be on the rise, warned UNODC’s regional head, Alexandre Schmidt. He estimates the annual value of South American shipments to Africa at $900 million, up from UNODC’s figure of $800 million for 2009.
Schmidt also pointed to the establishment of West African drug cartels. At a conference in Dakar, Senegal, he said seizures of Europe-bound cocaine in West Africa had dropped from 47 to 35 tons between 2008 and 2009, but that “there has been a repositioning of the drug routes,” and that traffickers “have much more sophisticated means” these days.
Local drug consumption is also growing rapidly in the region, with UNODC estimating about 2.5 million drug users in West Africa. Of the 35 tons of cocaine thought to have reached West Africa in 2009, about 21 tons continued on to Europe — with the remainder consumed locally.
UNODC: Smugglers exploit West African weaknesses
UNODC Director Yuri Fedotov argues that Latin American crime syndicates take advantage of African poverty, poor border controls and lax law enforcement.
“The West African transit route feeds a European cocaine market, which in recent years grew four-fold, reaching an amount almost equal to the U.S. market,” he told the UN Security Council at a Feb. 21 conference.
Trafficking ties between West Africa and South America have strengthened rapidly in the past few years, with Colombian criminals and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel leading the way. Porous borders and under-resourced law enforcement have created for the cartels what experts say is a permissive environment.
West Africa’s proximity to the lucrative markets of Europe is another attraction, as are Brazil’s ties with the Portuguese-speaking nations of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé e Principe — which in some cases have led to the development of underworld connections.
New program links Brazil, 7 airports in West Africa
Earlier this year, the World Customs Organization joined UNODC and Interpol in a $3.2 million project to improve communication between police and airports in seven West African countries and Brazil. The project, known as Aircop, involves the exchange of intelligence among Brazil and the international airports of Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo; Guinea and Morocco may join later on.
Europe isn’t the only destination for South American drugs passing through the region. Philippine airport officials have increased their vigilance of passengers arriving from West African airports after several arrests of drug mules.
On March 13, two Ghanaians were caught carrying narcotics, mainly methamphetamine hydrochloride (known as “ice”). In all, eight West African mules were apprehended at Philippine airports in March, said government spokeswoman Maria Antonette Mangrobang. “We have instructed airport authorities to look more closely at arriving West Africans and to ask more questions,” she said.
During the past 12 months, 38 alleged members of African drug gangs have been arrested in the Philippines.
Trafficking undermines African society
Global alarm over West Africa’s role in the drug trade took off in 2007, when the UN published a groundbreaking report on the subject. It warned that unless more resources were mobilized to confront drug smugglers, trafficking could destabilize the region.
Independent analysts added to the alarm. Kwesi Aning, a scholar at the Kofi Annan Peace Keeping Center in Ghana, said narcotrafficking is undermining West Africa’s fragile states “because the increasing flow of drugs is weakening institutions, local communities and the social fabric.”
In February, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that a rise in transnational organized crime, drug trafficking and piracy threatens peace and stability across West Africa and the Sahel.
Meanwhile, the UN is setting up and training transnational crime units in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Several European states including France, Great Britain and Spain have also given West African governments advice and funding to help combat transnational crime.
Such efforts are apparently beginning to pay off. Last year, Liberian police seized a cocaine shipment worth $100 million.
Los Zetas has been on an arms-buying spree and a recruitment drive in Guatemala and is now the most powerful crime group operating in the Central American country.
According to the Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, no indigenous crime organization can now compete with the Mexican cartel and Los Zetas, which first moved into the country four years ago, is recruiting from the ranks of Guatemalan gangs and “have extended their operating power.”
The minister acknowledges that Los Zetas has been helped inadvertently with its expansion as an indirect consequence of law-enforcement success against Guatemalan crime groups. “The capture of key Guatemalan drug traffickers has allowed the Mexican cartel Los Zetas to strengthen and expand its operations throughout the country, to stand as the largest criminal group in the country,” says López Bonilla.
Los Zetas hasn’t been shy in flaunting its sway. In a move that Guatemalan officials say is meant to intimidate rivals and attract recruits, the cartel has been using a marketing tool they and other Mexican crime groups employ in Mexico – namely, displaying narco-mantas (drug banners) containing clear messages, from threats to appeals.
Last month, narco-mantas purportedly placed by Los Zetas appeared in Guatemala City and in San Benito, a town in Petén , the largest province in Guatemala and which borders Mexico. The banners in San Benito were thought to have been placed as a response by Los Zetas to the March 19 arrest of Gustavo Adolfo Colindres Arreaga, nicknamed “El Rochoy”, a Guatemalan who oversaw some operations for Los Zetas. Rochoy was captured in the nearby town of town of Poptun after a 15-day joint military-police operation and he was seized along with three other alleged Los Zetas members. Handguns and ammunition were impounded in the raid.
The San Benito banners threatened Los Zetas retaliation, if Guatemalan authorities continue to pursue the cartel.
The banner read: “To all civil and military authorities and the population in general stop persecution of the race or we will start killing. We will throw grenades into discos and shopping centers in Petén … because this is ‘Z’ territory we don’t want a war against the government this is a warning. Z200.”
Petén Governor Henry Amezquita said at a press conference that he believed the banner was placed to intimidate and to “destabilize,” Prensa Libre newspaper reported.
Last May, Los Zetas massacred and beheaded 27 migrant farm workers in a village near San Benito. Three children and two women were among the victims of the attack, which was carried out by about 40 armed men. Authorities believe that the main target of the assault was the farm owner, who was away at the time.
“After the murder of the campesinos no one here is taking their threat lightly,” says local hospital worker Jose Miguel Monterroso. “The banner caused panic,” he adds.
The banners in Guatemala were less menacing and congratulated mockingly President Otto Pérez Molina for his recent raising of the issue of possible policy alternatives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization of narcotics, as a way to deprive the cartels of their profits. The banners urged also the government to pursue street gangs such as the Maras.
One of the Guatemala City banners read: “Pérez and (Vice President Roxana) Baldetti, go through with legalizing drugs, and we support fighting the maras … Zeta 200” and “A thousand thanks general Otto Pérez and Roxana Baldetti for legalizing drugs … Zeta 200.”
The push by Los Zetas into Guatemala is prompting rising alarm across the region. Los Zetas are seeking to stamp total control on lucrative trafficking corridors through northern Guatemala and have seized farms to use as staging posts for drugs and weapons. A spike in violence last December prompted the Guatemalan government to declare a month-long “state of siege” in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.
Expansion and diversification has led not only Los Zetas but also the Sinaloa Federation, to establish operations in the countries of the northern isthmus of Central America. “The ‘northern triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has become greatly destabilized, and appears to be undergoing a rapid transformation into the new frontier for dangerous Mexican cartels,” Lauren Mathae concluded in a paper for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs published last October.
Last year, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) highlighted in its annual report the incursion of Mexican cartels into Central America, too, noting that as the expansion continues apace the cartels are forming alliances with indigenous crime groups, in a bid to exploit Central and Latin American markets for drug sales.
And they are using also Central America as a transit point for supplying more narcotics to Europe and Australia via Africa, the INCB reported.
The expanded cocaine supply chains entails greater risk of loss along the extended supply routes, but the potential profits are great, too.
Los Zetas has been in recent months seeking to secure more weaponry, say Guatemalan and Mexican officials. Mexican police have arrested Guatemalans smuggling guns into Mexico through the border with its southern neighbor.
According to a report from the commanders of Mexico’s 4th Military Region which covers the states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi, Los Zetas has been purchasing heavy weapons in Central America, especially in Guatemala. The weapons they have been able to purchase have included leftovers from armed conflicts in the region in the 1980s and are available on the black market.
Mexican analysts say that Los Zetas needs to replenish their arsenals because of weapons seizures in Mexico and because they need more guns to fend off challenges from rivals, including the Sinaloa Federation. But they need more weapons to help expand as well. “Los Zetas are arming themselves because they are growing their market and penetrating other territories, specially in the states of Yucatán and Jalisco where they now have a foothold,” says security expert Alberto Islas, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration.
Last December, Guatemalan security forces seized 150 AK-47 assault rifles in Alta Verapaz as well as four armor-plated vehicles along with 10 alleged Los Zetas members.
In recent weeks, the Guatemalan authorities have scored some success in their efforts to combat Los Zetas. The biggest development came on April 3 with the capture of Overdick Horst Walter Mejia, alias “El Tigre”, a key figure for the Mexican cartel in Guatemala. At a press conference in Guatemala City, deputy interior minister Julio Claveria announced the arrest of Overdick Mejia, who was seized in the western province of Sacatepequez. Guatemalan officials say his ties with Los Zetas go back to 2008 and that he was crucial for the Mexican cartel’s expansion into the country.
A wealthy landowner from the northern province of Alta Verapaz, Overdick Mejia was arrested in 2004 on charges of cocaine trafficking, but he avoided jail. There have been accusations that he managed to bribe the judges.
His wife, Mercedes Barrios, and son were arrested in November 2008 in Alta Verapaz on suspicion of drug smuggling. A court freed them later because of lack of evidence. The United States is seeking to extradite Overdick Mejia on trafficking charges. On April 5 a court in Guatemala City started to hear the extradition request. Amongst the evidence presented were videos showing the Guatemalan with known Los Zetas gunmen at a fiesta on July 12, 2011 at the Finca Santa Marta, in Ixcán, Quiché.
Last night, I had a conversation with academic Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer and economist at ITAM, a Mexico City university. Buscaglia is a knowledgeable man about Mexico’s drug trade and cartel wars, and provides, unlike many others, details to support his thinking.
Back in 2010, for example, he estimated that the Sinaloa Federation was responsible for almost half the drug trade in Mexico, about 45 percent, of the drug trade in Mexico, and using statistics from the country’s security forces calculated that only 941 of the 53,174 people arrested for organized crime in the previous six years were associated with Sinaloa.
That, of course, gave fuel to those who argue that the Mexican authorities in the war on drugs favors Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán and is seeking to diminish or terminate the other cartels. As the theories go, the authorities are either in cahoots with the Sinaloa Federation or plan to allow the cartel to expand and at a later date negotiate a deal with El Chapo for a decrease in violence.
Buscaglia himself isn’t so sure. And I don’t subscribe myself to either the cahoots theory or the more Machiavellian theory that the Calderon administration is keen to protect the Sinaloa Federation so that things can be returned to the old ways of a dominant cartel keeping everything stable.
I see no hard evidence that the Calderon administration is going easy on the Sinaloa Federation or that it wants to boost the power of El Chapo, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the next administration, especially if it is formed by Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, may try to pull off a deal with the Sinaloans.
It seems to me that the Calderon administration really is trying to capture El Chapo, even though their best chance to date was bungled in February (see post below).
So why the discrepancy? Why does the Sinaloa Federation suffer fewer arrests than the other cartels?
There are several answers.
First, the Sinaloa Federation is a much harder cartel to penetrate compared to, say, Los Zetas. It is built around families while Los Zetas isn’t. Second, it is less exposed and forced to compete in hostile environments because it is less concerned about expanding its geographical territory. It already controls considerable territory and as a producer of drugs much of what it has to do is transactional and deal-making.
Third, it has been at the game longer and is more efficient. And fourth, and this is where there is an element of truth to the cahoots theory, it is has more local and state politicians and law-enforcement officials in its pocket and so is the beneficiary of tip-offs.
But to return to Buscaglia. Since 2003 he and his team have been analyzing case files and indictments at the federal level and from 17 of Mexico’s states. And what they have found in their sampling is how the nature of the cartels and their criminal activities have been changing in the past seven years as the war on drugs has intensified. Only about half of the cartels’ manpower, resources and time is spent on drug trafficking.
The picture he sees is one of smart and determined diversification, prompting him to argue that calling these crime syndicates drug cartels is missing the point. They are now broad, diversified transnational crime organizations and are as much involved in other crimes as narcotics trafficking.
What other crimes? High on the list is trading in counterfeit and pirated goods. Human trafficking, extortion and kidnapping also figure prominently. And until the state takes on the economic underpinning of the cartels, then it will lose in its confrontation with the crime organizations, Buscaglia argues.
“The state will have to start dismantling in a methodical way the economic infrastructure of the cartels, to seize their assets in terms of property, businesses, storage facilities, transportation, etc,” he says.