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.
Mexico may be associated for many international travelers with drug violence as a result of ghoulish media coverage in their home countries but it is not deterring them from visiting the country’s tourist resorts.
Mexican hoteliers, tour operators and government officials are predicting that 2012 is going to be a record year for tourism — that is if Spring Break is any guide.
Young Americans who flocked to Cancún say they heard before traveling to Mexico about cartel slayings and even read about beheadings and a casino fire in Monterrey but the spring breakers say the sun, the lapping waves of the Caribbean or Pacific and tequila beckoned.
“I did consider the security risks beforehand,” says Madison Reiter, an Occupational Therapy student from Cumberland, Maryland, “but I was more concerned about having an amazing spring break with my friends and getting out of Maryland for a week.”
The 20-year-old adds that good security at the resort where she stayed was appreciated. “I was not nervous about the security risks. I felt very safe and secure. There were lots of Americans staying at our resort and all around us. The locals were very friendly and the resort workers took very good care of us.”
That is music to the ears of Mexico’s tourist chiefs, who have high hopes that this year will be even better than 2011, which was also a record-breaking 12 months for tourism. With the backing of a Mexican government determined to ensure that Mexico will remain a tourism giant, the country’s tourist industry has gone out of its way to promote the benefits of vacationing in Mexico.
From television commercials running in the United States and Europe as well as in Latin America to online campaigns focused around www.visitmexico.com, the Mexican tourist industry has sought to counter negative publicity from the war on drugs.
Promotions have featured the traditional seaside resorts of Cancun, Oaxaca, Acapulco and Baja California, the more cultural offerings of Durango and Aguascalientes and festivals such as the music, dance and craft festival at San Marcos.
Innovative online campaigns include The Mexico Taxi Project, which is designed for visitors to share their Mexican experience by recording their testimonies while traveling in taxis. The project is modeled on the popular U.S. television series “Taxi Cab Confessions”.
“This project’s purpose is to reinforce the image of the Mexican paradise; that place ‘where there is nothing to worry about, except to have good time’”, according to a press release by the Mexican Tourism Promotion Board.
The commercials and online campaigns appear to be paying off.
Despite setbacks such as the February 22 incident near the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta when passengers from a Carnival Cruise Lines ship were robbed at gunpoint during a shore excursion, tourist chiefs and government officials were aware by March that 2012 looked like it would shape up to be a good year.
Their confidence was prompted by the high attendance and enthusiastic response at the end of March to the Tianguis Turistico, the annual gathering of travel industry representatives and journalists from Mexico and around the world. Latin America’s biggest travel trade show, it was held this year in Puerto Vallarta and was attended by President Felipe Calderon, who flew in after meeting in Guanajuato with Pope Benedict XVI.
“There were more than 22,000 business appointments and meetings at Tianguis this year, a 40 percent jump, and this year’s attendance was up by 75 percent compared to the 2011 event,” says Arturo Tornel, the Tianguis’ information director.
At the gathering Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, Gloria Guevara, noted, “we have a 98 percent repeat visitor rate and 99 out of every 100 visitors recommends our destinations.”
A few days earlier, Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR) announced that in 2011 22.67 million international travelers visited the country, a two percent increase over 2010 and 0.2 percent higher than 2008, one of Mexico’s best tourism years. Ministry officials say that there was a fall-off in visits by U.S travelers by three percent in 2011, but that, they argue, was reflective of a significant drop-off in international travel generally by U.S. citizens of 4.1 percent.
Even so, Mexico remains the most popular foreign destination for Americans – a third of those who traveled overseas in 2011 chose to go to Mexico, the result officials think of a combination of low prices, short travel distance and, of course, Mexican sun and hospitality.
In 2011, Mexico saw major double-digit increases in visitors from Brazil, Russia, China and Europe.
But the federal and state governments are not only relying on promotion to keep the tourists coming back. They are all giving serious consideration to security planning.
The state government of Mazatlan responded quickly to the February robbery of cruise passengers by establishing a tourism police force in the port and tourist areas. To try to limit any reputation damage, the state government has begun running in the U.S. and Canada TV commercials featuring expats living in Puerto Vallarta extolling the resort’s virtues and safety.
And Guerrero state officials have scrambled to counter the poor image Acapulco received in the international media following a series last year of slayings and beheadings. The state has launched a “Safe Guerrero” campaign involving improved lighting in tourist areas and the installation of hundreds of surveillance cameras.
The upsurge in violence in Acapulco – nearly 700 people were killed in cartel-related slayings in the Pacific coastal city last year – came in the wake of the killing of drug boss Arturo Beltran Leyva and the splintering of his cartel into competing factions. The inter-cartel violence worsened with the entry of other smaller crime groups and a redoubled effort by the Sinaloa cartel to stamp some order on the conflict.
With the violence escalating, the federal government decided last year to turn the Tianguis Turistico into an event with rotating venues after being in Acapulco for 24 years.
But a turnaround in the security situation is underway. Following requests from the Public Safety Secretary of Guerrero, Ramon Borja Almonte, who told Agora last year that without increased resources from the federal government the “security problems could worsen”, the Calderon administration deployed more federal manpower.
Federal security forces are in charge now of nighttime law enforcement and the results have been impressive – since last October there has been a 40 percent drop in homicides in the city.
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.
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.
SANTO DOMINGO — At first glance, Marino Vinicio Castillo RodrÌguez doesn’t look the warrior. Dressed in an impeccable, tailored suit, he’s the epitome of a successful second-generation attorney and grandfather.
But when Castillo talks about his fears for his country of nine million inhabitants, the humor drains from his eyes. He said the Dominican Republic is at risk of being overwhelmed by organized crime syndicates from Colombia, Mexico and even Europe.
As a leading law-and-order crusader and now the anti-narcotics adviser to President Leonel Fernández Reyna, Castillo has been monitoring and assessing the country’s shifting crime landscape since the early 1990s when Colombian traffickers were using the Caribbean to channel drugs into Florida.
“We have clear evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is developing a structure here and we have representatives of European crime groups including from Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans and Italy,” said Castillo, interviewed at his office in Santo Domingo. “Our situation is becoming very grave. The crackdown on the cartels in Mexico and Colombia has pushed the problem to the little islands of the Caribbean, and the cartels are using us as a bridge for smuggling narcotics into America and Europe.”
Judging by the record drugs seizures and the rise in drug-related homicides, the problem is growing. Dominican authorities appear to have largely halted drug loads being flown into the country and dumped from low-flying light aircraft for pickup — a preferred delivery method for many years.
In February, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador in Washington, Anibal de Castro, trumpeted that air interdiction success before a Senate committee, saying “releases of drugs from aircraft in the country” had virtually been eliminated.
The decisive factor, said the diplomat, had been the deployment of an OH-58 helicopter equipped with night vision and eight Brazilian-made Embraer Super Tucano patrol aircraft, bought with the assistance of a $93.7 million loan from Brazil’s government development bank.
Roberto Lebron Jimenez, spokesman for the Direccion Nacional de Control de Drogas (DNCD), said that before the Dominican military took possession of the new aircraft, authorities reported about 200 clandestine drug-running flights into the country per year. Now, he estimates there are just a handful.
However, the drug traffickers have shifted to the sea, exploiting 1,100 miles of Dominican coastline and taking advantage of the country’s strategic role as a container-traffic hub linking the United States, Latin America and Europe.
The coastline is hard to lock up. Traffickers use private leisure craft, fishing vessels and often speedboats capable of carrying more than 4,000 pounds of cocaine at a time. Drugs are brought in from Central and Latin America, then dispersed to the United States — often via Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — or to Europe in commercial maritime traffic. Smaller loads are smuggled out by “mules” or in air cargo.
“We are a haven for international tourism, have five major international airports and seven major commercial seaports all with a huge amount of container traffic. And we share the island with Haiti, which is a failed state and where the Colombian cartels have been operating for a quarter of a century,” Castillo said. “It is impossible for us to search each and every container. The volume is just too great.”
Recent seizures illustrate the growing problem. In 2011, Dominican authorities confiscated 6,715 kilograms of cocaine — a 48 percent jump from the 4,527 kilos seized the year before. During a two-week period in December 2011, according to official statistics, DNCD police intercepted 1.3 tons in four shipments of cocaine.
The international flavor and the mixing of crime syndicates come through frequently with each major seizure and raid. On Feb. 7, Dominican anti-drug authorities arrested 29 people, including five Puerto Ricans and 17 Russians as well as Colombians and Dominicans, and seized 122 kilos of cocaine tagged to be shipped to Puerto Rico.
Two luxury villas, several apartments, a cargo ship, a speedboat and an airplane were confiscated as well. The cocaine, found in a villa located in the exclusive Casa de Campo resort near La Romana, was to be loaded onto the Carib Vision, a vessel ostensibly used to transport molasses. The load was destined for Puerto Rico when it was intercepted, the DNCD’s Lebron said.
On Dec. 15, anti-drug police seized 1,077 kilos of cocaine from a 24-seat Challenger jet about to take off from La Romana on the southeast coast. The aircraft had registered a flight plan for the Belgian city of Antwerp. This time, the police arrested Dutch citizen Johannes Nicolass and British citizen Edgar Rowson, right before the scheduled takeoff.
And last October, DNCD members confiscated 1,098 kilos of cocaine hidden in medical equipment bound for Le Havre, France, from a vessel at the port of Caucedo.
The amounts of cocaine being seized — thought to be only a fraction of what gets through — are worrying enough. What weighs heavily on Castillo’s mind are signs that the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest crime syndicate, has targeted the country for expansion. “We are not in a position to cope with this,” he said.
Dominican officials blame the Sinaloans for the slaying last August of three Colombians and a Venezuelan in Santiago, 96 miles north of Santo Domingo. The killings were thought to be a reprisal, and the corpses were found in the upscale district of Cerro de Gurabo near where a Spaniard had been killed a few days earlier.
Castillo confirms a link to the murders with the Sinaloa cartel, but declined to go into details. He said the presence of the Sinaloans was brought home to authorities when a Mexican national, LuÌs Fernando Bertolucci Castillo — also arrested last August — acknowledged he was a member of that cartel and was in direct contact with drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The first public acknowledgment by the Dominican government of the Sinaloa presence came in February when Anibal de Castro told the U.S. Senate, “the Sinaloa cartel is seeking to create a route to Europe using the Dominican Republic.”
The Mexican crime presence is not new entirely, Castillo said. In December 1999, Dominican police seized three drug transport planes owned by Mexican drug lord LuÌs Horacio Cano.
Castillo said he’s now aware that the Sinaloa cartel controlled a company which in 1999 bought (and has since sold) four state-owned sugar mills during a privatization process. The mills — at Haina, Boca Chica, San LuÌs and Consuello — were all located near seaports, and had access to landing strips.
What’s different now is the level of activity, the alliances being formed with local crime gangs, and indications that the Sinaloa cartel intends to operate locally. “They are buying property, from oceanfront residences to hotels and businesses,” Castillo said.
DNCD officials said the main focus of the Sinaloa cartel is in El Cibao, the northern region that’s home to nearly half the country’s population as well as its second-largest city, Santiago de los Caballeros.
The officials claim that local crime groups, including the Samana crime gang led by Avelino Matias Castro — currently wanted for allegedly ordering the assassination of a Dominican journalist — provide logistical support while helping the Sinaloa cartel to secure precursor chemicals needed for the production of amphetamines.
The Mexican presence introduces a new dangerous element, said Castillo, noting the Sinaloa cartel’s notoriously violent history as well as its ability to corrupt.
Like its Caribbean neighbors, the Dominican Republic has seen a jump in violent crime and homicides in recent years. From 2001 to 2009, the country’s homicide rate nearly doubled to 23 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In addition, drug addiction among Dominicans is growing — a consequence, officials believe, of local crime groups being paid by Colombian and Mexican cartels in cocaine as well as cash. Last year, the country recorded 4,173 seizures of crack cocaine alone.
For Castillo, the battle is on. “But we need a lot more help,” he said.
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.
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.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has put the cat among the pigeons today in an interview with Milenio, claiming that the US is negotiating with the country’s top drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
According to Fox, the negotiations revolve around terms for El Chapo’s surrender and the US is offering reduced a prison term to the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest crime organization, if he throws in the towel.
The claim, of course, will embarrass President Felipe Calderon, who has insisted that his government will never negotiate with drug lords and who rejected a proposal from Fox last summer that the government should sit down with cartels and hammer out an agreement to reduce violence.
If there are negotiations underway – Fox doesn’t cite any sources for his claims or go into details about the what, where or how – it wouldn’t be that surprising. Contacts between the DEA and drug lords have been known to take place, and the son of El Chapo’s second-in-command, Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, who was extradited in 2009 to the US, has claimed in his court case that US officials had an agreement with the cartel to reduce pressure on the Sinaloans in return for information about rival cartels.
But who is using who here?
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.
The Mexican authorities – notably the Secretary for Public Security, Genaro Luna Garcia – are doing their best to obscure the reasons why they failed to capture Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the boss of the Sinaloa cartel, when he was staying in late February at a mansion in a resort at Los Cabos, where a day earlier Hillary Clinton had been meeting with other foreign ministers.
Reforma newspaper is running yet another leak from Luna Garcia explaining why El Chapo wasn’t at the mansion when federal police raided. According to the paper El Chapo left early because a prostitute hired for him was having her period.
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. I will be writing about the bungled operation shortly.
Why on earth AP decided to pick up this story is beyond me. Even on the face of it, and without knowing why the operation failed, it doesn’t make sense. El Chapo has been married three times and has a young wife now, is one of the world’s wealthiest men and lauded as a folk hero in several Mexican states. Does he really need his men to procure a prostitute for him sight unseen? Would the security-conscious El Chapo add a risk to his visit to Los Cabos?
Of course, the leak has two purposes: to muddy the waters about the operation and to humiliate El Chapo.
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.”