And the Drug War Goes On

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.

Mother’s Day Massacre: Los Zetas and Sinaloa Behead, Hack and Taunt

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.

El Chapo Starts Beheading Los Zetas

Federal and state authorities in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas are bracing themselves for a new phase of inter-cartel violence following public threats against Los Zetas from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Banners bearing the threats from the head of the Sinaloa Federation have appeared in the border town of Nuevo Laredo—along with the mutilated bodies of six Los Zetas members.

One of the banners stated: “This is how you do away with dumb [expletive] people, cutting them to pieces, all of those rats that rob and dedicate themselves to kidnapping and killing innocent people, I’m going to show you how I manage my cartel that is 30 years old, not like you people who were shoe-shiners and car-washers and got to where you are through betrayal. Sincerely, El Chapo.”

Independent experts believe the narco-messages from Mexico’s most powerful drug boss and the bodies herald a new phase in the struggle for mastery between the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas. And they say by having his name associated with the banners, El Chapo is demonstrating a determination to disrupt Los Zetas in their home-state of Tamaulipas, which they have dominated since splitting in 2010 from the Gulf cartel.

“Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo are controlled by the Zetas but the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros are still in the hands of the Gulf cartel,” says José Luis Valdés-Ugalde of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.  “The Zetas objective is to take control of all of the Gulf cartel’s territories.”

He adds: “The Gulf cartel could lose control of Reynosa, if they fail to receive support from the Sinaloa cartel. The Zetas can maintain control of Monterrey, if there is no major pressure from the government or from the Gulf cartel and/or Sinaloa Federation.”

The six bodies, which were found on March 23, by soldiers on patrol, had been dismembered, said a spokesman for 8th Military Zone. He said they were discovered on a road in the Valle Hermoso district. Five of the bodies—four of them men’s and the fifth a woman – had been decapitated. Three of the victims had been bound and another that was found wrapped in a sheet was in an advanced state of decay.

Several of the narco-banners openly challenged and insulted the top Los Zetas leaders Heriberto Lazcano, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales and his brother Omar Trevino, accusing them of being rats and garbage and sneering at their social backgrounds and intelligence.

The day before another six bodies (three men and three women) were found by soldiers on a road near Ciudad Victoria, the state capital. A spokesman for the state attorney General’s office says those bodies were thought to have been the handiwork of Los Zetas

Mexico’s two most powerful cartels – Guzmán’s Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas – have been locked in a struggle for mastery that has left thousands of foot-soldiers dead. The competition between the two crime organizations that’s triggered massacres and assassinations is dominating the criminal landscape in Mexico. Other cartels and crime gangs are being squeezed by Los Zetas and the Sinaloans and forced to align themselves with one or other.

But barring a devastating blow against the Sinaloa Federation or an internecine blow-up, the Sinaloans are better placed and more efficiently organized to win the struggle for the upper hand, argues Alberto Islas Torres, the founder of Risk Evaluation, a risk management company, and a former adviser in the presidential administration of Ernesto Zedilllo. “The Sinaloa cartel is more entrenched in society,” he says.

Nevertheless, Los Zetas last year managed to pile up significant geographical gains. A map breaking down cartel dominance and presence released by Mexico’s Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) at a forum for crime experts earlier this year at the National Institute of Penal Sciences suggested that Los Zetas is now operating in 17 Mexican states. The Sinaloa Federation is operating in 16 states. Four years ago, the Sinaloa Federation controlled 23 states.

The two top cartels have raised the ante in their competition with grislier slayings and even more torture tactics – a move apparently signaling their resolve to one-up each other and to force smaller gangs into submission.

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

El Chapo has tried before to stamp his authority on Tamaulipas. He launched an effort after the 2003 arrest of then Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas but failed to make much headway. Since 2010, the Gulf cartel has been weakened considerably by its struggle with Los Zetas and forced as a consequence into an alliance with El Chapo.

Last summer, Guzmán launched through an allied gang, New Generation (Gente Nueva), an offensive against Los Zetas in the Gulf state of Veracruz. As in Tamaulipas in March, the offensive started with a massacre and menacing narco-banners. Thirty-five semi-nude bodies – all showing signs of torture—were dumped from two trucks at the height of rush-hour traffic in front of horrified motorists. Photographs released subsequently by the Mexican Interior Ministry showed that some of the bodies were marked with a “Z” on their torsos.

The Sinaloa-linked group that claimed responsibility for the massacre, Los Mata Zetas, or The Zeta Killers, claimed in narco-banners that they were acting on behalf of the people and acting against the murderous rampages of Los Zetas. “We don’t extort, don’t kidnap,” they said, claims echoed in the narco-banners from El Chapo in Tamaulipas.

Valdés-Ugalde believes the Sinaloa cartel attack in Veracruz was a retaliation for Los Zetas moves on Guadalajara, which placed pressure on allies of the Sinaloa cartel. Likewise, El Chapo’s move now comes at a time his Gulf cartel allies are under considerable threat.

The Sinaloa attack on Los Zetas in Tamaulipas coincides with some recent Los Zetas setbacks in the state dealt them by federal and state authorities. On March 14 a senior Los Zetas leader in Nuevo Laredo was captured following several shootouts in the border city, according to the Secretaria de Defensa Nacional  (SEDENA).
 Carlos Alejandro Guiterrez Escobedo, alias “El Fabiruchis” was detained soldiers after six of his armed accomplices were killed.

The brother of the alleged perpetrator of the massacre of 72 Central American immigrants in the municipality of San Fernando, Guiterrez Escobedo was considered the head of the Nuevo Laredo plaza and, according to a SEDENA statement, received direct orders from Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.

 

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.”