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.

Calderon Targets Narco-Juniors

By Jamie Dettmer

It is becoming increasingly perilous to be a narco-junior and Mexican authorities appear determined to emphasize the dangers by targeting the sons, nephews and cousins of cartel bosses.

The latest strike against narco-juniors came in Tijuana on April 25 when Mexican soldiers in a joint operation with the border city’s municipal police detained two nephews of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, a top Sinaloa cartel leader and the closest confidant of the crime organization’s boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Authorities identified the two El Mayo nephews as Omar Ismael Zambada, aged 23, and Sergio Rodolfo Cazares Zambada, aged 28. The former is the son of Jesus Reynaldo Zambada Garcia, alias “El Rey”, who was extradited to the United States on trafficking charges earlier in April. Cazares is the son of Agueda Zambada Garcia, a sister of Jesus and El Mayo.

A few days before the Zambada nephews were arrested along with two of their bodyguards U.S. federal authorities unveiled a major indictment of Guzman and “El Mayo”. The United States is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to arrest of each of the Sinaloa cartel’s top two leaders.

Mexican officials say targeting alleged narco-juniors like the Zambada nephews is becoming a key part of President Felipe Calderon’s strategy against drug-trafficking organizations and the families that run them. Officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office briefed journalists in the wake of the arrests, saying that going after narco-juniors is “part of the offensive against drug kingpins.”

“You could say it amounts to a form of psychological warfare,” says newspaper columnist Jose Carreño.

He adds: “When a narco-junior gets arrested it can be emotionally draining for the crime family. But it is not gratuitous. Many of the youngsters play major roles in cartel operations.”

El Mayo’s nephews were captured as they were driving on Avenida Revolucion in downtown Tijuana in a Dodge Avenger. The drugs were in 13 packages. A PGR spokesman said no shots were fired and the detainees “were transferred by the military to the Morelos barracks in Tijuana and then were delivered to the Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime (OFDI) in Mexico City.”

On May 1, a federal judge ordered that El Mayo’s two nephews be held for 40 days while a federal investigation seeks to discover the level of their involvement in cartel operations.

Neither of the nephews has been especially high profile in public or socially.

The public image of nacro-juniors is one thing, the reality another. Previous generations of narco-juniors have been flashy and willing to flaunt their wealth and were less educated compared to the current crop of narco-juniors, who have attended private schools and graduated often from top universities in Mexico and overseas.

“It isn’t that they won’t get their hands dirty – some of the narco-juniors go over to the operational side and others they will veer more to the money-laundering and asset management side,” says security expert Alberto Islas, who served in the Zedillo administration. “But they are disciplined and talented and in another environment they could well be top corporate executives and even CEOs.”

He adds: “They don’t flaunt who they are.”

And since the Mexican authorities made it clear with a series of arrests of narco-juniors in 2009 that they are focusing on the heirs of the cartels as much as the bosses, the scions of cartel capos have become more circumspect about how they live and play.

Mexican cartels have always been family affairs, with sons following fathers into the business. Los Zetas is the exception.

“Unlike the most traditional drug cartels in Mexico, which tend to be centered on the family, the organization base of the Zetas is a meritocracy and recruits move up to leadership positions,” says José Luis Valdés-Ugalde, a professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

But other cartels – the Sinaloa Federation, the Juarez cartel as well as the Arellano Felix group in Tijuana and the Beltran-Leyva cartel – are all close-knit organizations at their top levels and revolve around family with sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews involved in some capacity or other in the family business.

The Sinaloa Federation led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has included at various times at leadership levels all four of his brothers as well as his five sons.

In 2009 federal authorities nabbed three narco-juniors. The first to be arrested was Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada, the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, considered a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, who was seized on March 9 before dawn at his home in the elite Mexico City neighborhood of Lomas del Pedregal.

For the Mexican public the arrest came as a shock – not only had someone high up in the Sinaloa cartel been arrested but also Vicente Zambada didn’t fit the public image of a narco-junior. At the press conference after his arrest where he was paraded before the cameras the clean-cut 33-year-old narco-junior appeared the epitome of an urban professional dressed in a black blazer and dark blue jeans and well-coiffed hair.

Not quite the figure associated with running logistics for a cartel and, according to Gen. Luis Arturo Oliver, the Mexican Defense Department’s deputy chief of operations, a man having the authority within the cartel to order assassinations of rivals and government officials.

As with other narco-juniors, Zambada was apparently expected to rise through the ranks but was on what in the corporate world would be called a fast-track executive program. According to the Mexican indictment he began by supervising the unloading of cocaine from ships off the Mexican coast and verifying quantities coming from Colombia before being promoted to the top ranks.

The second surprise for the narco-juniors came on March 24 2009 when federal authorities captured Hector Huerta, who authorities said oversaw the flow of drugs through the northern city of Monterrey for the Beltran-Leyva cartel. He was detained in a Monterrey suburb, along with four men identified as his bodyguards. Soldiers also seized assault rifles and four grenades. He was arrested at a luxury car dealership he ran in a Monterrey suburb.

And then a third surprise on April 2 when police grabbed Vicente Carrillo Leyva as he exercised in a city park. Carrillo Leyva inherited a top position in the Juarez cartel from his father Amado Carrillo Fuentes, considered Mexico’s No. 1 drug trafficker when he died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery.

Prosecutors said the then 32-year-old Carrillo Leyva was second only to his uncle Vicente Carrillo Fuentes in the cartel. Again this narco-junior came across as an established urban professional: he was paraded at the press conference to announce his arrest in the running clothes he was wearing when seized by police – a white Abercrombie & Fitch jogging suit set off with trendy dark-framed glasses.

Carrillo Leyva had been educated in Europe and is fluent in French and English. At the time of his arrest a Mexican City newspaper quoted a neighbor as saying: “The young man went out running in the morning and his wife was very nice. They didn’t have loud parties or anything.”

Narco-juniors not only have to look over their shoulders for law-enforcement. As inter-cartel rivalry has become more savage, they have also to look out for rivals. One of the most dramatic slayings of a narco-junior came on May 8 2008 when gunmen from a rival cartel gunned down El Chapo’s then 22-year-old son Edgar Guzman Lopez as he walked to his car from a shopping mall with bodyguards in Culiacan.

Police investigators collected subsequently more than 500 shell-cases from the scene. At the time of his slaying, Edgar was studying business administration at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa and was himself a family man with a two-year-old from a common-law wife, Frida Munoz Roman.

A popular narco-corrido entitled El Hijo de La Tuna written from the viewpoint of El Chapo following the killing of his son and sung by Roberto Tapia has the opening lines: “My sons are my sources of happiness as well as my sadness. Edgar I will miss you.”

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.

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.

Los Zetas Moves Into Counterfeit Goods Trade

Businessmen, market vendors and mom-and-pop storeowners on both sides of the border with the United States are facing increasing pressure from Mexican crime syndicates, including Los Zetas, to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, from DVDs and perfume to apparel and toys.

Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies have increased their anti-counterfeiting cooperation and over the weekend of April 14th/15th U.S. Immigration and Customs agents launched raids in El Paso, Texas, and seized thousands of counterfeit goods worth nearly a million dollars.

“It’s become such a lucrative business that the drug cartels are now investing in this type of crime,” says Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for ICE.

Among the items seized were:

8,911 DVDs with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $122,210.72;

10,669 CDs with an MSRP of $128,454.76; and

1,728 items, including handbags, NFL merchandise and NIKE-brand sneakers with an MSRP of $648,409.15.

The El Paso raids were a continuation of a cooperative crackdown on both sides of the border over Christmas and the New Year when U.S. and Mexican authorities shared intelligence on the cross-border trade in counterfeit goods and launched a joint operation, called “Humbug Christmas”. A series of raids during the holiday season resulted in the seizure of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit goods worth an estimated $76 million.

The operation involved Mexican and U.S. agents inspecting shops, markets and import-export facilities. In the U.S., agents seized toys, cell phones, leather wallets, videos, perfume, and software and arrested 33 people.

Mexican authorities seized cigarettes, tools, toys, electronics and cell phones, as well as 10 tons of clothing that had entered Mexico illegally from the Far East.

Asked which cartels are involved in the counterfeit trade, Oscar Hagelsieb, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in El Paso, said “the Juarez and Zeta Cartels primarily.”

In an email interview with Agora, Hagelsieb, said, “Los Zetas are involved but mainly in the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila.”

He added that there had been a tremendous growth of cartel involvement in the counterfeit trade. “Historically, intelligence had indicated that cartels were not involved in the counterfeit and pirated goods market. That all changed when the cartels started warring. Cartels sought other rackets to supplement the income lost from fighting. We (Homeland Security Investigations) began to see cartels charging ‘quotas’ for allowing the vendors to operate in their territory. In some instances, the cartels took over the market. The Zetas, for example, run the markets in Monterrey.”

South of the border with Texas, market vendors and storeowners are “receiving threats from the cartels and in many instances have been kidnapped and killed,” says Hagelsieb. The HIS special agent says his agency is coordinating with law enforcement counterparts in Mexico.

“We constantly feed intelligence to our law enforcement agency partners in Mexico.”

The counterfeit trade is taking its toll on legitimate Mexican businesses and traders. The Mexican Institute of Industrial Property estimated that in 2009 alone Mexico might have lost nearly half-a-million jobs because of it. Nine out of ten movies sold in Mexico are believed to be pirated.

Counterfeit merchandise is often substandard and in some cases can pose a risk to health or safety, especially in the case of counterfeit or fake medicines.

It is not just in the border regions that the cartels are pushing pirated and counterfeit goods. The muscling in by the Mexican cartels on the lucrative trade in counterfeit goods and piracy is further evidence of how the major cartels have diversified in recent years their criminal activity — from human trafficking to extortion and kidnapping and on to trading in counterfeit and pirated goods, says Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer and economist at ITAM, a Mexico City university.

Based on the sampling of federal and state indictments and cases since 2003, Buscaglia has seen a dramatic shift in the cartels’ focus. “About half of their manpower and resources are now dedicated to other crimes aside from drug trafficking and there has been a major increase in their involvement, for example, in the trade in counterfeit goods,” he says.

According to the PGR, Los Zetas has been highly aggressive in Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz and Puebla in forcing traders to sell their fake products. Many of the pirated DVDs and CDs carry the cartel’s brand name “Productions Zeta.”
 In Chiapas, Veracruz and Puebla, Los Zetas have control over piracy, say PGR officials.

The PGR estimates that there has been a huge growth in counterfeit and pirated goods in the country – everything from video games, apparel, accessories, shoes, food, medicines, software and even books. For small manufacturers, the counterfeit trade threatens bankruptcy and it reduces the profits of big business, too.

In February 2011, Microsoft executives revealed at the Global Congress on Combating Counterfeiting and Piracy in Paris that La Familia had been selling counterfeit Microsoft software complete with the cartel’s “FMM” logo.

Cartel logos are often stamped on pirated movies and counterfeit software. Los Zetas uses a “Z” or a bucking bronco and La Familia Michoacana sometimes uses a monarch butterfly.

David Finn, associate general counsel in Microsoft’s anti-piracy unit, said in a blog posting that “drug cartels have developed large scale counterfeiting operations and are selling illegal software to consumers. He added: “These illegal enterprises have generated astronomical profits that the gangs funnel toward violent crimes such as drug trafficking, arms and weapons trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.”

On March 14, two Los Zetas members, Pablo Gonzalez Macedo and Martin Rafael Castañeda Castañeda, were sentenced by a court in Aguascalientes to 20 years and six months and 15 years and nine months respectively for forcing merchants to sell pirated goods.

The case provided a glimpse into how aggressive and determined Los Zetas is prepared to be in imposing their will on businessmen, storeowners and market stallholders.

Federal agents arrested the two Los Zetas members in 2011. In one case, according to court documents, the pair snatched a storeowner in November 2010 while he was having breakfast at an outdoor food stall and then drove him to the neighboring city of Zacatecas. There at a cartel safe house he was threatened and told that if he wanted to live, he had to sell Los Zetas goods.

The terrified man indicated his willingness to submit and was released after he handed over his Ford Expedition and arranged for the transfer of $100,000 in cash. But subsequently he reported the kidnapping to state authorities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Los Zetas — Most Powerful Crime Group in Guatemala

Los Zetas has been on an arms-buying spree and a recruitment drive in Guatemala and is now the most powerful crime group operating in the Central American country.

According to the Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, no indigenous crime organization can now compete with the Mexican cartel and Los Zetas, which first moved into the country four years ago, is recruiting from the ranks of Guatemalan gangs and “have extended their operating power.”

The minister acknowledges that Los Zetas has been helped inadvertently with its expansion as an indirect consequence of law-enforcement success against Guatemalan crime groups. “The capture of key Guatemalan drug traffickers has allowed the Mexican cartel Los Zetas to strengthen and expand its operations throughout the country, to stand as the largest criminal group in the country,” says López Bonilla.

Los Zetas hasn’t been shy in flaunting its sway. In a move that Guatemalan officials say is meant to intimidate rivals and attract recruits, the cartel has been using a marketing tool they and other Mexican crime groups employ in Mexico – namely, displaying narco-mantas (drug banners) containing clear messages, from threats to appeals.

Last month, narco-mantas purportedly placed by Los Zetas appeared in Guatemala City and in San Benito, a town in Petén , the largest province in Guatemala and which borders Mexico. The banners in San Benito were thought to have been placed as a response by Los Zetas to the March 19 arrest of Gustavo Adolfo Colindres Arreaga, nicknamed “El Rochoy”, a Guatemalan who oversaw some operations for Los Zetas.  Rochoy was captured in the nearby town of town of Poptun after a 15-day joint military-police operation and he was seized along with three other alleged Los Zetas members. Handguns and ammunition were impounded in the raid.

The San Benito banners threatened Los Zetas retaliation, if Guatemalan authorities continue to pursue the cartel.

The banner read: “To all civil and military authorities and the population in general stop persecution of the race or we will start killing. We will throw grenades into discos and shopping centers in Petén … because this is ‘Z’ territory we don’t want a war against the government this is a warning. Z200.”

Petén Governor Henry Amezquita said at a press conference that he believed the banner was placed to intimidate and to “destabilize,” Prensa Libre newspaper reported.

Last May, Los Zetas massacred and beheaded 27 migrant farm workers in a village near San Benito. Three children and two women were among the victims of the attack, which was carried out by about 40 armed men. Authorities believe that the main target of the assault was the farm owner, who was away at the time.

“After the murder of the campesinos no one here is taking their threat lightly,” says local hospital worker Jose Miguel Monterroso. “The banner caused panic,” he adds.

The banners in Guatemala were less menacing and congratulated mockingly President Otto Pérez Molina for his recent raising of the issue of possible policy alternatives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization of narcotics, as a way to deprive the cartels of their profits. The banners urged also the government to pursue street gangs such as the Maras.

One of the Guatemala City banners read: “Pérez and (Vice President Roxana) Baldetti, go through with legalizing drugs, and we support fighting the maras … Zeta 200” and “A thousand thanks general Otto Pérez and Roxana Baldetti for legalizing drugs … Zeta 200.”

The push by Los Zetas into Guatemala is prompting rising alarm across the region. Los Zetas are seeking to stamp total control on lucrative trafficking corridors through northern Guatemala and have seized farms to use as staging posts for drugs and weapons. A spike in violence last December prompted the Guatemalan government to declare a month-long “state of siege” in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.

Expansion and diversification has led not only Los Zetas but also the Sinaloa Federation, to establish operations in the countries of the northern isthmus of Central America. “The ‘northern triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has become greatly destabilized, and appears to be undergoing a rapid transformation into the new frontier for dangerous Mexican cartels,” Lauren Mathae concluded in a paper for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs published last October.

Last year, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) highlighted in its annual report the incursion of Mexican cartels into Central America, too, noting that as the expansion continues apace the cartels are forming alliances with indigenous crime groups, in a bid to exploit Central and Latin American markets for drug sales.

And they are using also Central America as a transit point for supplying more narcotics to Europe and Australia via Africa, the INCB reported.

The expanded cocaine supply chains entails greater risk of loss along the extended supply routes, but the potential profits are great, too.

Los Zetas has been in recent months seeking to secure more weaponry, say Guatemalan and Mexican officials. Mexican police have arrested Guatemalans smuggling guns into Mexico through the border with its southern neighbor.

According to a report from the commanders of Mexico’s 4th Military Region which covers the states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi, Los Zetas has been purchasing heavy weapons in Central America, especially in Guatemala. The weapons they have been able to purchase have included leftovers from armed conflicts in the region in the 1980s and are available on the black market.

Mexican analysts say that Los Zetas needs to replenish their arsenals because of weapons seizures in Mexico and because they need more guns to fend off challenges from rivals, including the Sinaloa Federation. But they need more weapons to help expand as well. “Los Zetas are arming themselves because they are growing their market and penetrating other territories, specially in the states of Yucatán and Jalisco where they now have a foothold,” says security expert Alberto Islas, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration.

Last December, Guatemalan security forces seized 150 AK-47 assault rifles in Alta Verapaz as well as four armor-plated vehicles along with 10 alleged Los Zetas members.

In recent weeks, the Guatemalan authorities have scored some success in their efforts to combat Los Zetas. The biggest development came on April 3 with the capture of Overdick Horst Walter Mejia, alias “El Tigre”, a key figure for the Mexican cartel in Guatemala. At a press conference in Guatemala City, deputy interior minister Julio Claveria announced the arrest of Overdick Mejia, who was seized in the western province of Sacatepequez. Guatemalan officials say his ties with Los Zetas go back to 2008 and that he was crucial for the Mexican cartel’s expansion into the country.

A wealthy landowner from the northern province of Alta Verapaz, Overdick Mejia was arrested in 2004 on charges of cocaine trafficking, but he avoided jail. There have been accusations that he managed to bribe the judges.

His wife, Mercedes Barrios, and son were arrested in November 2008 in Alta Verapaz on suspicion of drug smuggling. A court freed them later because of lack of evidence.  The United States is seeking to extradite Overdick Mejia on trafficking charges. On April 5 a court in Guatemala City started to hear the extradition request. Amongst the evidence presented were videos showing the Guatemalan with known Los Zetas gunmen at a fiesta on July 12, 2011 at the Finca Santa Marta, in Ixcán, Quiché.

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.

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.

 

El Chapo or Los Zetas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.