The War In Veracruz

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.

Mexico’s War On Drugs Not Deterring Tourists

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, 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.

Changing Nature Of Drug Cartels

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.

Calderon Pushes Police Reform


Modernizing the Mexican Police?


With just months to go in office President Felipe Calderon is redoubling his efforts to persuade the country’s state governors to quicken the pace on implementing  the vetting of state police forces and improving law-enforcement training in order to meet a deadline early next year.

His cajoling of Mexico’s governors to accelerate a cleanup that the President sees as crucial for lasting police reform is meeting resistance from some governors, who argue that they don’t have the necessary resources or expertise.

According to a federal government report released in February only eight percent of state police officers had completed a vetting process. The report noted also that states collectively spend just two-thirds of their total security budget allocation.

Since that report there has been some progress. According to federal officials, just under 25 percent of state police have now been vetted. But they worry that vetting will not be completed by January 2013.

President Calderon’s latest push came at meeting in February in the state of Nuevo Leon, where he met governors drawn from the northeast of the country along with local and federal security officials. He argued that rebuilding the police and security institutions will be key in defeating organized crime.

According to Nuevo Leon state public security spokesman, Jorge Domene Zambrano, Calderon urged state officials to make greater progress on the implementation of reform. “The president emphasized the importance of lifting the pace and meeting the deadline,” he says.

President Calderon has been highly aggressive in pushing for reform of the federal, state and local police and while some progress has been made he has faced obstacles and setbacks with, among others problems, legislation becalmed in Congress.

Administration officials and police experts say the mixed record on the progress of reform reflects the difficulties in carrying out effective, lasting police change quickly on the scale Calderon wants. But supporters and critics alike acknowledge that the Calderon administration has laid down a long-term strategy for an effective policing operating within the confines of the law.

“Calderon’s government has made significant and necessary progress in the face of almost overwhelming challenges,” says Martin Edwin Andersen, an expert on Latin American policing and author of the book “The Police: Past, Present and Proposals for the Future.” But he notes there’s a long way to go. “Police forces around the country lack the professional skills needed to contain violence, collect useful intelligence and carry out meaningful investigations.”

Calderon’s reform efforts seek to address those deficiencies. But speaking at a conference at the London School of Economics last month, Mexico’s ambassador in the UK, Eduardo Medina Mora, warned that police reform would take longer than a presidency.

“It will take a generation because you cannot make the changes overnight, it will take time and resources,” he said. The ambassador, a former federal Secretary of Public Safety, added that more needs to be spent on law-enforcement, noting that Mexico spends far less compared to other countries in Latin America.

Under Calderon the money spent on the military, federal, state and municipal police as well as the federal court system has doubled since 2006. But corruption, abuse and ineffectiveness still plague Mexico’s various police departments, say experts such as Andersen.

The biggest progress has been made at the federal level both in terms of numbers and quality of policing. In 2006, there were six thousand federal police officers but now there are 36,000, although Medina Mora believes that number will need to be increased to 100,000, if the size of Mexico and its population is taken into account.

At the federal level as well as the Calderon administration has been highly proactive in combating corruption and poor performance.

In September 2010, the then Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas, announced that a three-month probe had resulted in 3,200 Mexican federal police officers being fired for failing to do their work properly or being linked to corruption. Of those, 465 were charged with crimes. To help ensure dismissed officers don’t try to join state or municipal police departments, their names have been logged in a new computerized public safety database, called Platform Mexico, that can be consulted b police recruiters.

The probe was mounted to kick off new federal police standards, which took effect in May 2010. The new regimen involves officers and future recruits passing lie detector tests, completing financial disclosure statements and undergoing drug testing. The government has sought also to improve the caliber of the federal police by raising salaries and requiring recruits to have college degrees.

Marisela Morales, Mexico’s attorney general, also has kept the pressure up on her department since being appointed in April last year and has fired or investigated more than 700 employees in her short time in the job. She said in a statement in April “purging is fundamental within the Attorney General’s Office,” adding “the Mexico of today requires that those of us in public office act with total commitment and responsibility of service.”

But it has been at the state and municipal level that Calderon has found the going tougher. The President is eager to consolidate Mexico’s 2,400 municipal police departments and there 165,000 officers and to merge them with the 31 state police forces and the police department of the Federal District of Mexico.

The President and his officials argue that consolidating police at the state level will make it easier to oversee professionalization and vetting of officers as well as allowing the harmonization of standards, from operating procedures to recruitment procedures and training.

Further, consolidation would likely improve intelligence sharing.

This huge institutional reform which requires a constitutional amendment, however, has stalled in Congress. State governors support the idea of consolidation, but many mayors who would lose their police departments are opposed.

But not all. Some high-profile mayors and former mayors are supportive.

The former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, has backed Calderon’s proposal, arguing that municipal police on low wages in small towns are much more vulnerable to the offer of money or lead. 
”The more a police officer knows, the more he becomes known,” Jose Reyes Ferriz told the El Paso Times. “All this makes him more susceptible to criminals.”

While some state governments have been slow on implementing the vetting of state police officers, others are pushing hard on police reform.  Nuevo León is starting to introduce a change as ambitious as Calderon’s.

In May last year, state Governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz  announced the plan to fashion a new state police service called “Fuerza Civil” (Civil Force) that will replace all of Nuevo León’s 51 municipal police forces. The new planned department will have 14,000 new officers, almost double the current number of local police,  who will receive twice the current salary, be eligible for bonuses and benefits such as private health care and housing in guarded communities. The new officers will be trained at police academies in Escobedo and in Guadalupe.

Over five years the new force will cost a $1 billion. Hardly surprisingly, at his February meeting in the state Calderon took the opportunity to applaud Nuevo León on the plans for the Civil Force.

El Chapo Talking with US Claim

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has put the cat among the pigeons today in an interview with Milenio, claiming that the US is negotiating with the country’s top drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

According to Fox, the negotiations revolve around terms for El Chapo’s surrender and the US is offering reduced a prison term to the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest crime organization, if he throws in the towel.

The claim, of course, will embarrass President Felipe Calderon, who has insisted that his government will never negotiate with drug lords and who rejected a proposal from Fox last summer that the government should sit down with cartels and hammer out an agreement to reduce violence.

If there are negotiations underway – Fox doesn’t cite any sources for his claims or go into details about the what, where or how – it wouldn’t be that surprising. Contacts between the DEA and drug lords have been known to take place, and the son of El Chapo’s second-in-command, Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, who was extradited in 2009 to the US, has claimed in his court case that US officials had an agreement with the cartel to reduce pressure on the Sinaloans in return for information about rival cartels.

But who is using who here?




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.

Los Zetas And The Migrants

It is tough and perilous enough traipsing from the Central American states up through Mexico without cartels and gangs preying on you. But Mexico’s hyper-violent cartel, Los Zetas, is making it all a lot more dangerous.

The Mexican military is aiming to crackdown this year on human traffickers based in Tamaulipas and say a raid in February that rescued 73 undocumented Central American migrants being held captive at safe houses in the northeastern state is just the beginning.

According to the Defense Secretariat, 18 minors were among the group that was freed in February from three houses in the town of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. Four arrests were made.

Last year, military personnel and federal police rescued more than 250 victims of human trafficking, including Mexicans and Central Americans who were being held against their will in border cities such as Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, say defense officials.

The February raid undertaken by troops attached to military region IV was part of Operation Northeast – a military initiative aimed at combating organized crime primarily in Tamaulipas and neighboring states. A spokesman for the defense secretariat says that the assaults on the three properties were “coordinated and simultaneous” and were mounted as a  “follow-up of information on criminal groups, particularly Los Zetas, trafficking and operating in the state.”

The four arrested traffickers were handed over to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and the migrants were transferred into the custody of immigration agencies. Depending on their status in Mexico they will be allowed to remain in the country or returned to their countries of origin, say officials.

Cartels and gangs linked to transnational organized crime organizations in the country have turned the trek through Mexico for Central American migrants intent on entering the U.S. into an increasingly hazardous journey. Human trafficking has become big business for the cartels and migrants are prey to extortion and ransom demands as well as being at risk of abduction, forced labor and compelled prostitution.

They risk also death.

In August 2010, Mexican authorities found the bodies of 72 mostly Central American migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, a massacre an 18-yearold Ecuadorian survivor blamed on the Los Zetas drug cartel. The victims were trying to reach Texas and according to Mexican police were slain when they refused to work for the cartel as couriers and enforcers. The survivor, Luis Freddy Lala, staggered wounded to a military checkpoint to raise the alarm.

Fourteen of those massacred were women.

The survivor’s then pregnant 17-year-old wife, Maria Angelica Lala, told Teleamazonas in Quito that her husband had paid $15,000 to smugglers to guide him to the United States.

In the wake of the massacre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon denounced the cartels, saying they are “resorting to extortion and kidnappings of migrants for their financing and also for recruitment.” And his then spokesmen Alejandro Poire, now the interior secretary, told reporters at a press conference: “It’s absolutely terrible, and it demands the condemnation of all of our society.”

The migrants who were massacred came mainly from four countries: Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil. Diplomats from all four countries assisted police and federal authorities on the scene to help establish their identities.

Migrants heading for the U.S. along the Gulf coast have long been prey to extortion, theft and violence but the increased involvement of the cartels, and their determination to make a lucrative criminal enterprise out human trafficking, has made the journey much more dangerous, say government officials and those who work for migrant organizations.

And it isn’t only Tamaulipas that can be dangerous for them. Migrants moving through the state of Veracruz on freight trains and in trucks are viewed by Los Zetas there as cash cows.  Stories have proliferated in the Mexican press of the cartel extorting migrants and forcing some to join the criminal group.

Last year, masked Los Zetas gunmen stormed a freight train traveling through the state and snatched 80 migrants, most of whom were from Guatamela and Honduras. Officials from the National Immigration Institute mounted an investigation along with federal prosecutors and state officials in Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Reliable figures on how many migrants are kidnapped each year are hard to come by and estimates range dramatically. According to a study by the National Human Rights Commission, at least 11,333 migrants were abducted in Mexico between April and September 2010.

In eyewitness testimonies—replete with allegations of beatings and multiple rapes—for that study Los Zetas is mentioned frequently.

A Catholic priest in Matamoros, Fr. Francisco Gallardo Lopez, who works with Central American migrants, told Agora that the coyotes (smugglers) of the past were bad enough. “They would cheat and lie and beat them up and leave them high and dry but the situation has got a lot more serious and abusive.”

In testimony before a UN Commission, Salvador Beltran del Rio, head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said the main threat to migrants is organized crime.

This was confirmed first-hand to Agora by migrants who had taken refuge in a shelter in Mexico City. A 22-year-old Honduran, Hector Mejia, said he had made his way to the capital after some of the migrants he had been traveling with were forced by their guides to accompany gunmen in two cars in Ciudad Victoria. “They were just taken. I think the rest of us would have been but they didn’t have room,” he says.

Especially ugly, the cartels have increasingly resorted to sex trafficking to generate more profits. Some of the women trafficked are Mexican but also Central American migrants are coerced as well, say Mexican officials.

Last July, speaking before the Mexican Congress, President Calderon urged lawmakers to help him fight this “new form of slavery” by passing tougher measures on the sex and human trafficking.

“There are thousands and thousands of cases, in a society that is still unaware of the seriousness of this crime,” Calderon told lawmakers. Arguing that confronting human trafficking must be given greater priority, he emphasized that the problem won’t be solved just by law-enforcement agencies.

“Lawmakers and citizens alike must take action,” Calderon said. “We have to create a unified front to end human trafficking in Mexico. This front is not limited to police or officials, this front starts in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the communities.”

Estimates again vary on how many women and children are being trafficked every year throughout the country. The Mexican government estimates about 20,000 a year. UN agencies believe the figure could be higher.

“Los Zetas is the most aggressive in building sex trafficking into their business model,” says Rosi Orozco, a congresswoman.

She worries that when caught drug trafficking, criminals get harsher jail time than they do for human trafficking.


Mexican Jails: A Race To Build

They keep on coming – jailhouse massacres and mass breakouts.

The mayhem that left 44 dead started shortly before 2 a.m. when Los Zetas inmates armed with stubby stab knives, clubs and bricks filed into a cellblock housing inmates from a rival crime group, the Gulf cartel, and set about them.

Only hours before most inmates—and many of the guards—had been glued to televisions in the jail watching Santos Laguna, a contender this season for the championship of the Mexican premier soccer league, being held to a one-all draw by Monterrey.

As the jail settled down, though, the pre-dawn assault unfolded in a well-planned well, say Nuevo Leon officials.

Some Gulf members managed to elude initially their attackers by fleeing from their cellblock D and made a dash for the exercise yard at the state prison in Apodaca, 40 kilometers from Monterrey, but even here they were chased, cornered and bludgeoned.

Local residents and TV camera crews alerted to the riot stood outside and saw smoke spew from the jail as inmates added to the confusion by, according to Nuevo Leon state Security Council spokesman Jorge Domene, setting mattresses and other fixtures alight.

For two hours the melee continued until quelled by soldiers dispatched to the prison. A furious Nuevo Leon state governor, Rodrigo Medina, who held a press conference the day after the February 19 riot, said there was at least one beheading.

And a nun, Sister Consuelo Morales, who visits the prison regularly, told Milenio television of horrific injuries . “Some of them no longer had eyes,” she said.

The riot, officials now say, was a diversion that facilitated the escape of 33 Los Zetas inmates, including Oscar Manuel “The Spider” Bernal Soriano, Los Zetas’ boss in Monterrey when he was arrested in October 2010 on a charge of murdering a police chief. Domene told a local radio station that for “15 minutes” of the riot some guards had allowed the escapees to slip out of the jail.

The February 19 Apodaca riot and mass escape comes close on the heels of a similar January 4 battle at a jail in Altamira, near Tampico, in Tamaulipas state that left 31 dead. And on October 13, 2011 seven inmates were killed in a confrontation between inmates in another Nuevo Leon prison in Cadereyta.

Mexican officials acknowledge they are racing the clock now to implement massive prison reforms to try to a halt the riots and mass escapes that are plaguing the country’s penitentiaries.

In July, the federal government blamed corruption and the “avoidance of systematic control measures” for the escape of more than 400 inmates from several Tamaulipas prisons between January 2010 and March 2011.  In December 2010, 141 inmates fled a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, while another 85 and then 12 escaped from a Reynosa prison in September and July 2010 respectively, and 41 successfully fled from the Matamoros prison in March 2010.

The interior ministry said the escapes were “unacceptable” and were “undermining the work of authorities.”

In July, a riot at a prison in the border city of Juarez left 17 inmates dead. Mexican authorities detained the director and four guards over that brawl as surveillance video showed two inmates opening doors to let armed prisoners into a cellblock. In 2009, 38 inmates were killed in two separate riots at a prison in Gomez Palacio, Durango. Twenty-three people were killed in a prison riot in Durango city in 2010 and 29 inmates lost their lives in prison fights the same year in Mazatlan.

The Mexican government has been struggling to stem jail breakouts and to impose order on a prison system that has seen a huge increase in the numbers incarcerated since President Felipe Calderon launched the “war on drugs” five years ago.

Massive change is in the works for the federal prison system that includes a huge jail-building program, but in the meantime over-crowded and underfunded state penitentiaries where most of Mexico’s approximately 223,000 inmates are housed remains a source of embarrassment and danger.

Only 9,000 inmates are held in federal facilities, although that will change when eight planned federal prisons are completed. The rest are incarcerated in prisons controlled by state authorities, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office.

Experts say that until the overhaul is completed the prison system will remain vulnerable to rioting. They reject the suggestion of one Nuevo Leon mayor that inmates from the cartels should be separated into different prisons as impractical.

“Organized Crime criminals should be housed in federal maximum security prisons,” Alberto Islas Torres, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration. “You can put a violent Zeta member in a state prison but he will break out,” he told Agora.

Prison expert Elena Azaola Garrido, a scholar at Mexico’s Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, blames the lack of past investment for the crisis in the jails. “Investment has been neglected and the prisons are in very poor condition, putting the inmates and personnel at risk all the time,” she said.

She added: “It also has to do with corruption, that is what explains these jail breakouts.”

Tejada Jorge Montaño, a professor at the Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara, agrees. “The prisons are overcrowded and where a facility has a prison population of 80 percent higher than it was designed for you are always on the brink of catastrophe because the authorities lack control,” he said.

Since 2006 Mexico is averaging seven major prison riots a year, he adds.

In his press conference on February 20th, the Nuevo Leon governor placed some of the blame for the riot at Apodaca on overcrowded conditions, arguing that more than 8,500 people have been arrested in the past two years in his state. At the time of the riot, there were 2,514 inmates in the Apodaca jail, well above its maximum capacity of 1,522. Sixty percent of the inmates were being held for federal crimes and of the 33 inmates who escaped, 25 were federal prisoners, he said.

Ironically the Friday before the Apodaca riot, a U.N. spokesman, Rupert Colville, had issued a general warning about the “alarming pattern of violence” stemming from the “endemic problem” of over-crowding in prisons in Latin America. His comments were in response to the fire that swept through a jail in February in Honduras in which 359 prisoners died.

But Gov. Medina placed blame also for the riot and escape at Apodaca on some corrupt prison guards, lamenting that “the treason, corruption and complicity of some undermined the service of good police officers, soldiers and marines.”

Medina fired the prison’s warden, his deputy and the state’s director of penitentiaries hours after the riot. And authorities have detained also for questioning 18 guards who were on duty at the time. Nine have been charged.

Medina and federal officials acknowledge that one of the hardest challenges facing the Mexican system is trying to ensure that guards remain honest and reject bribes.  “The most important thing is to make sure that the people working on the inside are on the side of the law, and that they not be corrupted and collaborate with the criminals,” Medina said.

With that in mind, federal authorities have included in their prison overhaul  the recruitment of new guards and far more stringent training and re-training of prison staff.”