No Respite

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Mexico on Friday and hopes had been high that there might be a respite in the drug-related violence in the run-up to his visit and while he’s in the country but gunmen in western Mexico appear to have dashed those hopes over the weekend.

On Sunday evening (March 18) a police convoy was ambushed and a dozen policemen were killed and another 11 seriously wounded. Hundreds of shell casings from AK-47 and AR-15 assault weapons were retrieved at the scene after. The ambush took place on the outskirts of Teloloapan, a town with a population of about 20,000 near the beach resort of Acapulco.

The ambushed police were attacked as they searched for bodies following the discovery of ten severed heads in the town.

The attack on the police amounts to the worst mass killing of policemen since June 2010 when a dozen officers were slain during an ambush on a police convoy in the central coastal city of Zitacuaro.

As for the severed heads, police still have not found the rest of the bodies. Security forces learned about the dumped heads from an anonymous phone caller. When they arrived they found the heads laid out neatly in a row in front of the town’s slaughterhouse. There were two narco-messages as well.

One read: “This is going to happen to all who keep supporting the FM.”

The abbreviation FM refers presumably to the cartel La Familia Michoacana, which splintered last year after several of its top leaders were either captured or killed by security forces.

The area all of this took place in is a steamy, mountainous region known as Tierra Caliente. The region has long been a haven for drug traffickers growing marijuana and opium poppies and a very dangerous place for outsiders and the police.

In 2010, nine police officers were kidnapped in Teloloapan. The bodies of eight of the officers were found later, six of whom had been dismembered.

In the last few months, the remnants of La Familia, which was once the largest supplier of methamphetamines to drug dealers in the United States, have been locked in a vicious turf war with rival cartels, notably a faction of former members known as Los Caballeros Templarios.

Battle for Jalisco

On February 20 in the early morning Mexican soldiers seized 13 Los Zetas members after tip offs from locals fed up with the extortion demands being made on them

The arrests in the town of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, 15 kilometers from Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco and Mexico’s second largest city, didn’t make major national headlines  – none of the group was senior enough for that. But the operation illustrates the determination of the commander in the region, General Genaro Lozano Fausto Espinoza, to keep the pressure on the cartels, from second-tier crime groups such as the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) up to the Sinaloa Federation and Los Zetas.

The military’s  focus was rewarded in February , not just with the arrests of the 13 Los Zetas members, two of whom were women. Earlier in the month, on February 2 five members of New Generation were surprised by marines at a checkpoint set up on a road on the outskirts of Tecalitlán Pihuamo in the southeastern of the state. The marines found weapons and crystal meth, according to the Ministry of Defense.

And on February 9 the general and his troops got their biggest break – the record-breaking discovery in Tlajomulco de Zuniga of a 15-ton stash of methamphetamine worth $4 billion, equal to half the total meth seizures worldwide in 2009, according to United Nations data.

The methamphetamine was stored in barrels on a ranch.

According to the general these successes – from the arrests of the 13 Los Zetas members to the capture of the five New Generation operatives and on to the methamphetamine seizure – all comes down unrelenting work. But he points also to another factor that has advanced his struggle with crime organizations – improved coordination with local and municipal authorities, from law-enforcement chiefs to state and city officials.

But the challenge is big for the general and his men.

Jalisco has become in the last year a major flashpoint in the struggle for mastery between competing cartels and seven crime organizations are jockeying for advantage in the state. The competition has become fiercer and bloodier with the arrival towards the end of 2010 of Los Zetas.

In a 48-hour period in the last week of January, Jalisco racked up 30 homicides. In the small municipality of Ejutla clandestine graves containing 7 bodies were found – four of the dead were burned beyond recognition. In Lagos de Moreno two policemen were shot dead. A third officer was seriously wounded and was later shot dead by gunmen in the hospital he had been rushed to, triggering another firefight.

The other homicides were all in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara.

The number of murders in Jalisco has jumped from 570 in 2009 to 882 in 2010. Last year, there were 1,100 slayings.

Last November, 26 corpses were found stuffed in three vehicles by municipal police in a busy avenue in Guadalajara, marking a new stage in the face-off between the warring cartels. All the corpses were bound and gagged, some had been asphyxiated, some had died from blows to their heads and one was beheaded.  Jalisco Governor Emilio González wrote on his Twitter account he was “shocked” by the killings.

According to the state’s interior secretary, Fernando Guzman Perez, the words ‘Milenio Zetas’ or ‘Milenium’ were written on the chests of the dead in oil—indicating that the killers were affiliated to Los Zetas and a small crime gang they have recently aligned with, the Milenio Cartel.

The cartel battle in Jalisco in many ways is about who controls Guadalajara, an important city for the cartels. Control of the city means you have control of important narcotic shipment routes up from the south and to the west and north.

Until the summer of 2010, the city was seen as a Sinaloa cartel bastion and as a result was free of extreme inter-cartel violence, that is until the Sinaloa cartel’s tight grip was loosened by the death of its major lieutenant in Guadalajara, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, who died in a shootout with federal police.

Jalisco has become a target for Los Zetas, who have been expanding west from their bases on the Gulf coast and have taken over already the neighboring Zacatecas state in their push westwards.

 

The Arrest of El Jaguar

Another serious law-enforcement blow delivered against the Sinaloa cartel in the state of Chihuahua has prompted confidence among Mexican officials that it is only a matter time before they manage to catch the transnational crime group’s elusive leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The arrest in February of Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo, the alleged leader of the Gente Nueva gang, an enforcement group within the Sinaloa drug cartel, came just days after the fatal shooting by an army special-forces unit of another aide to Guzman, Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia.  Cabrera’s brother, Felipe, thought to be one of the most trusted of Guzman lieutenants, was arrested in December.

All three fulfilled major roles for the Sinaloa cartel in Chihuahua and the neighboring state of Durango. Their collective loss to the cartel represents the biggest setback Guzman has experienced in years, say Mexican law-enforcement officials.

Marrufo was arrested in Leon, in central Guanajuato state, along with his bodyguard, Manuel Alonso Magaña Barajas, a 26-year-old native of Mazatlan, Sinaloa. The two were traveling in a Land Rover and weapons, crystal meth and communications equipment were seized by police. Mexico’s counter-narcotics police chief, Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, said at a press conference during which Torres was presented to the media: “This arrest represents a strong blow to the Cartel del Pacifico.”

Torres Marrufo, nicknamed El Jaguar, was wanted in connection with numerous crimes, including murder, extortion, kidnapping and the sale and distribution of drugs, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office, who offered a $150,000 reward for his capture.

He is subject also of an arrest warrant issued by U.S. authorities in El Paso, Texas. The U.S. federal indictment in El Paso charges him with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine, distribution of cocaine, money laundering and supplying drug traffickers with firearms.

His most infamous alleged crime was masterminding the September 2009 massacre of 18 people at Casa Aliviane, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Ciudad Juarez —  a massacre thought at the time to be connected to a settling of scores between rival cartels. The mass slaying was surgical and methodical in nature: masked gunmen raised the clinic, ordered patients to line up in a corridor and shot them.

According to a statement to the press released by the federal police, Torres was the mastermind of the operation.

He has also been linked by Mexican and U.S. authorities to the slayings of a New Mexico bridegroom, Morales Valencia, and several of his relatives during a wedding in Juarez. In that incident, gunmen burst into the wedding ceremony at Senor de la Misericordia Catholic church, abducted the bridegroom, his brother and uncle.

In the arrest of Torres Marrufo, intelligence was crucial – as it was in the fatal shooting in January of Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia, and of his brother, Felipe, in December. In all three cases, federal chose in their statements to stress the importance of intelligence and of intelligence sharing between federal and state law-enforcement agencies.

Federal police said in their statement after the arrest of Torres Marrufo that the operation to seize him was “based on intelligence work, placing him in the city of Leon.” In its statement, the Public Safety Secretariat said the arrest “followed an intelligence operation and the exchange of information with law enforcement agencies.”

According to Milenio magazine, Torres Marrufo had only recently moved to Leon on the orders of his boss, Guzman. During his time in the city he visited frequently a golf club, El Bosque Golf Club, but never played a round of golf. At the clubhouse he met regularly a woman with dark skin and who spoke with a northern accent. They arrived and left the clubhouse separately, workers at El Bosque told the magazine.

He used to arrive at the club casually dressed but always wore brand-name clothing, including shirts and other clothing from GAP, Lacoste and Polo. When paraded before the media after his arrest, El Jaguar wore designer jeans and a burgundy T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Armani.”

Federal police say that Torres Marrufo confessed to having been recruited by the Sinaloa cartel in 2002 and oversaw the elimination of rivals to the Sinaloa cartel in Chihuahua state and Juarez, especially the Juarez cartel and La Linea. He worked initially under the command of Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, the alleged number two of the Sinaloa cartel.

At the press conference, Pequeno Garcia said Marrufo had been the leader of an assassination group known as the Murdering Artists (Artistas Asesinos) since 2009 and was made the head of Sinaloa’s Gente Nueva after the arrest in October 2011 of Noel Salgueiro Nevarez, nicknamed “El Falco”, in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state.

Other rivals Marrufo targeted included Barrio Azteca, a gang linked to the Juarez drug cartel. Barrio Azteca is allegedly headed by Eduardo Ravelo, alias “El Tablas.”

Last April, a raid by Mexican police on a property owned by Marrufo in Juarez turned up 40 high-powered assault weapons linked with Operation Fast and Furious, the controversial Phoenix-based operation run by the Arizona field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which allowed illegal gun purchases to be made in Arizona for tracing purposes.

According to the Mexican police, the basement of the house had been converted into a gym with a wall covered with built-in mirrors and in a hidden room there the Fast and Furious weapons were discovered along with an antiaircraft machine gun, a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher. After the seizure, Chihuahua state Governor Cesar Duarte said: “We have seized the most important cache of weapons in the history of Ciudad Juarez.”

Guzman, who was born in 1957, in La Tuna, Sinaloa, has eluded authorities since escaping from the Puente Grande maximum security prison in the western state of Jalisco in 2001 in a laundry truck. He had been arrested in 1993 in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico. Forbes magazine has ranked him as one of the world’s richest men and there is a $7m bounty on his head.

In the autumn, Mexican President Felipe Calderon indicated in a press interview that Mexican authorities were close on his heels and that the “Mexican army probably a couple of times has been in the place where hours before Chapo was.”

The recent setbacks being experienced by the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico are not, though, apparently impacting the transnational crime group’s efforts to expand operations to other countries in the region. Days before the arrest of Marrufo, authorities in the Dominican Republic said they had 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 that a Mexican named Luis Fernando Castillo Bertolucci confessed after his capture that the Sinaloa cartel “seeks to create a route to Europe via the Dominican Republic.”

The diplomat said that there was evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is now operating in the Dominican towns of Santiago, La Vega and Jarabacoa and that the cartel may “be getting help from Dominican criminal groups in the Cibao region to acquire chemicals used in the manufacture of narcotics.”

 

 

A Mexican Easter

Poor Mexico: "So Close To America, So Far From God."

The Easter holidays and Mexico City would not be complete without Labor protests in the Zocalo. Mexican President Calderon is the target and so is the “war on drugs” he declared in 2006 — a struggle that has so far seen more than 30,000 killed, many as a result of turf battles between the cartels.

The frustration I have is with the failure of many here in Mexico City to understand that the Obama administration has been highly sophisticated in its understanding of the complex social, economic and political problems engulfing Mexico. The administration also has a real appreciation of the American contribution to the crisis — both as the biggest market for Mexican narcotics and as the biggest exporter of guns to Mexico.

Quietly and carefully the administration has been trying to edge Calderon towards reform — of the judiciary, of money-laundering regulations, etc. It has also emphasized — again carefully and quietly — that the war on drugs must be accompanied by a real civil society and development strategy. And it has acknowledged publicly the problem of gun smuggling into Mexico from the United States, and has tried to do something about that but is hampered by American domestic politics.