How The Mexican Police Bungled The Manhunt for El Chapo — Exclusive

Earlier this month, Mexican officials leaked to AP an exclusive on the hunt for the world’s most powerful drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the elusive head of the Sinaloa cartel.

They boasted that they had come close to capturing him in late February in Baja California at a resort in Los Cabos where a day earlier U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton held meetings with foreign ministers from the G20.

Jose Cuitláhuac Salinas Martinez, Mexico’s assistant attorney general in charge of organized crime investigations, said it was a near miss in the government’s efforts to arrest the man who has become one of the world’s top fugitives since he escaped from a Mexican prison in a laundry truck in 2001.

The official angled his comments to fuel speculation that authorities are near to capturing Guzmán, something President Felipe Calderón  would dearly love to accomplish before he leaves office at the end of the year. “When asked if authorities are close, he just smiled,” according to the AP dispatch.

But AP was told only half the story by Jose Cuitláhuac Salinas Martinez. Mexican and US security sources tell me that the interview was an attempt to muddy the waters and to obscure the reasons why Mexican police failed to get El Chapo in Los Cabos.

They say it was a preemptive strike to head off any potential bad press from the near miss.

Poor Mexico. So Close To The United States; So Far From God.

And since that March 12 AP story Mexican officials – notably the Secretary for Public Security, Genaro Luna Garcia – have continued to do their best to mislead by leaking, for example, a claim to Reforma newspaper and Univision that a prostitute’s period saved the drug boss from being arrested.

According to that story one of Guzmán’s men hired the prostitute for the billionaire drug lord. The Mexican daily Reforma said the prostitute was blindfolded and taken to a rented home in Los Cabos without being told who her client would be.

And Cuitláhuac Salinas Martinez, told the paper that when El Chapo arrived the hooker couldn’t “perform the services she was hired for because she was menstruating.” El Chapo left the house with the intention of returning, and it was while he was away Mexican authorities raided the house.

According to Univision, “Salinas Martinez suggested that had it not been for the postponed encounter, authorities might have finally arrested Guzmán.”

This isn’t what Mexican security sources tell me. The operation, they say, was bungled from the start and the fault rests with the federal police.

AP speculated in the original dispatch that El Chapo’s narrow escape raises the suspicion that he was tipped off. He was, U.S. and Mexican security sources told me, but not by some corrupt official or paid off cop. The federal police alerted El Chapo inadvertently, to the fury of the Americans, by making two major mistakes.

Mexican police chiefs bungled the opportunity handed them by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who through cell phone monitoring by the National Security Agency provided the electronic intelligence that for the first time in years pinpointed El Chapo’s exact whereabouts — in this case Los Cabos.

“This was the first time that we knew exactly where Guzmán was,” says a senior Mexican security source. “All the other occasions when we have been close it was only after the fact that we realized we had come close to El Chapo,” he adds. “On those other occasions, we have raided a property but only knew in advance that there was a high-value Sinaloa cartel target but we didn’t know that it was El Chapo – we hoped it was, but weren’t sure. This time we knew it was him and this was our best chance in years to get him.”

El Chapo is as careful as Osama bin Laden was in using cell phones, knowing full well that the U.S. has tremendous capability to pinpoint targets through voice recognition and honing in on particular phone numbers. Like other cartels, the Sinaloa Federation uses pre-paid cell phones and cartel members change their phones several times a day to evade the American eavesdroppers.

On this occasion one of El Chapo’s lieutenants held on to a phone for too long and security sources tell me that Guzmán phoned him. As a result the NSA’s voice-recognition systems that had been eavesdropping on that mobile phone identified El Chapo’s voice and traced the phone the drug lord was using. “He called one of his lieutenants, whose phone was being monitored,” says a U.S. source. “That guy presumably was being lazy and keeping a cell phone for way too long.”

The NSA alerted DEA intelligence chiefs, who in turn informed the Mexicans. The sources say there was then an argument between the Mexican federal police and the Mexican military over who would take the lead in the security operation to seize El Chapo.

Secretary for Public Security, Genaro Luna Garcia, who will leave office with Calderón, insisted this was a federal police matter. “He saw this as his triumphant moment, too,” says a Mexican source. “He won the argument by appealing to Calderón ,” he adds.

The operation was placed in the hands of Mexico’s federal police chief, Maribel Cervantes Guerrero, the first woman to hold the position. She was only promoted to the job eleven days before the DEA alerted the Mexicans that they’d picked up Guzmán talking with a subordinate.

Last autumn, President Calderón disclosed, “the Mexican Army “probably a couple of times has been in the place where hours before Chapo was.”  He added: “Sooner or later he will fall.”

And the moment seemed to have arrived in Los Cabos.

But from the start, U.S. and Mexican sources say, the planning was clumsy by Cervantes and that she was more focused on keeping the military subordinate and distant from the operation. She was supported in this by her boss, Luna Garcia, who saw the capture of El Chapo as the perfect end to his ministerial career and he didn’t intend to share any of the kudos with the military, say the sources.

“A number of things went wrong right from the being,” says a U.S. source. “First off, they were too obvious on the ground.”

But the biggest blunder came when the Mexican police inadvertently called both the subordinate’s phone and the one El Chapo was using to get a final confirmation of their exact whereabouts just hours before the raid was scheduled to unfold. “This was enough to tip off El Chapo that something was amiss,” says the U.S. source. “He fled shortly before the operation was launched.”

The botched operation ignited a firestorm of recriminations behind the scenes between the Americans and Mexicans with formal protests being lodged by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his Obama Cabinet colleague, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Mexican and U.S. sources say.

“Those guys were shouting at each other,” says a Mexican source.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials stationed at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City met shortly after the failed operation with President Calderón to complain.

They expressed their frustration at the poor planning and questionable oversight that led to El Chapo’s flight before federal police could nab him at the mansion in the exclusive Punta Ballena district overlooking the Gulf of California.

The failure to nab El Chapo has undermined the trust that was being built up between U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement and has seriously undermined capturing Guzmán in the near future, say the sources. “This near miss is just going to make him even more cautious,” says a DEA source. “It turns out that recently he has been less in Durango and Sinaloa, where we assumed he was mainly hiding, and has been moving in a triangle between Tijuana, Baja California and Mexicali. Now he will change everything.”

Forbes magazine ranks Guzmán as one of the world’s richest men and estimates that he’s worth more than $1bn.  He has a $7m bounty on his head but yet again El Chapo has managed to elude a manhunt every bit as high-tech and intense as the one mounted for Al Qaeda’s leader.

It is an escape that has seriously impacted on the what has developed into fairly good cooperation between Mexican federal law enforcement and the DEA over the years of Calderón’s administration.

With the Americans on the warpath over the bungling, Genaro Luna Garcia added oil to the fire by leaking – yet again to Reforma – a story about how the DEA had screwed up an operation and laundered some cash for El Chapo—a kind of money-laundering Fast and Furious, a gun-tracking operation launched by the Americans that has backfired badly.

The background on the recent hunt for El Chapo is in my detailed report for Agora published last month.

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.

Now It Didn’t Work

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday, Janet Napolitano, US Homeland Security Secretary, insisted “the system worked” when it came to the failed underpants bomber airline attack. Today, though, when asked whether the US security system “failed miserably”, she responded, “It did”. How come the change? Possibly, the outrage her Sunday remark generated on the Internet and on talk shows, although the main American newspapers remained respectful. Personally, if I were still in the newspaper business, I would have been lobbying for the front-page headline on Monday to read: “The System Worked?!”