Los Zetas And The Migrants

It is tough and perilous enough traipsing from the Central American states up through Mexico without cartels and gangs preying on you. But Mexico’s hyper-violent cartel, Los Zetas, is making it all a lot more dangerous.

The Mexican military is aiming to crackdown this year on human traffickers based in Tamaulipas and say a raid in February that rescued 73 undocumented Central American migrants being held captive at safe houses in the northeastern state is just the beginning.

According to the Defense Secretariat, 18 minors were among the group that was freed in February from three houses in the town of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. Four arrests were made.

Last year, military personnel and federal police rescued more than 250 victims of human trafficking, including Mexicans and Central Americans who were being held against their will in border cities such as Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, say defense officials.

The February raid undertaken by troops attached to military region IV was part of Operation Northeast – a military initiative aimed at combating organized crime primarily in Tamaulipas and neighboring states. A spokesman for the defense secretariat says that the assaults on the three properties were “coordinated and simultaneous” and were mounted as a  “follow-up of information on criminal groups, particularly Los Zetas, trafficking and operating in the state.”

The four arrested traffickers were handed over to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and the migrants were transferred into the custody of immigration agencies. Depending on their status in Mexico they will be allowed to remain in the country or returned to their countries of origin, say officials.

Cartels and gangs linked to transnational organized crime organizations in the country have turned the trek through Mexico for Central American migrants intent on entering the U.S. into an increasingly hazardous journey. Human trafficking has become big business for the cartels and migrants are prey to extortion and ransom demands as well as being at risk of abduction, forced labor and compelled prostitution.

They risk also death.

In August 2010, Mexican authorities found the bodies of 72 mostly Central American migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, a massacre an 18-yearold Ecuadorian survivor blamed on the Los Zetas drug cartel. The victims were trying to reach Texas and according to Mexican police were slain when they refused to work for the cartel as couriers and enforcers. The survivor, Luis Freddy Lala, staggered wounded to a military checkpoint to raise the alarm.

Fourteen of those massacred were women.

The survivor’s then pregnant 17-year-old wife, Maria Angelica Lala, told Teleamazonas in Quito that her husband had paid $15,000 to smugglers to guide him to the United States.

In the wake of the massacre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon denounced the cartels, saying they are “resorting to extortion and kidnappings of migrants for their financing and also for recruitment.” And his then spokesmen Alejandro Poire, now the interior secretary, told reporters at a press conference: “It’s absolutely terrible, and it demands the condemnation of all of our society.”

The migrants who were massacred came mainly from four countries: Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil. Diplomats from all four countries assisted police and federal authorities on the scene to help establish their identities.

Migrants heading for the U.S. along the Gulf coast have long been prey to extortion, theft and violence but the increased involvement of the cartels, and their determination to make a lucrative criminal enterprise out human trafficking, has made the journey much more dangerous, say government officials and those who work for migrant organizations.

And it isn’t only Tamaulipas that can be dangerous for them. Migrants moving through the state of Veracruz on freight trains and in trucks are viewed by Los Zetas there as cash cows.  Stories have proliferated in the Mexican press of the cartel extorting migrants and forcing some to join the criminal group.

Last year, masked Los Zetas gunmen stormed a freight train traveling through the state and snatched 80 migrants, most of whom were from Guatamela and Honduras. Officials from the National Immigration Institute mounted an investigation along with federal prosecutors and state officials in Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Reliable figures on how many migrants are kidnapped each year are hard to come by and estimates range dramatically. According to a study by the National Human Rights Commission, at least 11,333 migrants were abducted in Mexico between April and September 2010.

In eyewitness testimonies—replete with allegations of beatings and multiple rapes—for that study Los Zetas is mentioned frequently.

A Catholic priest in Matamoros, Fr. Francisco Gallardo Lopez, who works with Central American migrants, told Agora that the coyotes (smugglers) of the past were bad enough. “They would cheat and lie and beat them up and leave them high and dry but the situation has got a lot more serious and abusive.”

In testimony before a UN Commission, Salvador Beltran del Rio, head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said the main threat to migrants is organized crime.

This was confirmed first-hand to Agora by migrants who had taken refuge in a shelter in Mexico City. A 22-year-old Honduran, Hector Mejia, said he had made his way to the capital after some of the migrants he had been traveling with were forced by their guides to accompany gunmen in two cars in Ciudad Victoria. “They were just taken. I think the rest of us would have been but they didn’t have room,” he says.

Especially ugly, the cartels have increasingly resorted to sex trafficking to generate more profits. Some of the women trafficked are Mexican but also Central American migrants are coerced as well, say Mexican officials.

Last July, speaking before the Mexican Congress, President Calderon urged lawmakers to help him fight this “new form of slavery” by passing tougher measures on the sex and human trafficking.

“There are thousands and thousands of cases, in a society that is still unaware of the seriousness of this crime,” Calderon told lawmakers. Arguing that confronting human trafficking must be given greater priority, he emphasized that the problem won’t be solved just by law-enforcement agencies.

“Lawmakers and citizens alike must take action,” Calderon said. “We have to create a unified front to end human trafficking in Mexico. This front is not limited to police or officials, this front starts in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the communities.”

Estimates again vary on how many women and children are being trafficked every year throughout the country. The Mexican government estimates about 20,000 a year. UN agencies believe the figure could be higher.

“Los Zetas is the most aggressive in building sex trafficking into their business model,” says Rosi Orozco, a congresswoman.

She worries that when caught drug trafficking, criminals get harsher jail time than they do for human trafficking.


Mexican Jails: A Race To Build

They keep on coming – jailhouse massacres and mass breakouts.

The mayhem that left 44 dead started shortly before 2 a.m. when Los Zetas inmates armed with stubby stab knives, clubs and bricks filed into a cellblock housing inmates from a rival crime group, the Gulf cartel, and set about them.

Only hours before most inmates—and many of the guards—had been glued to televisions in the jail watching Santos Laguna, a contender this season for the championship of the Mexican premier soccer league, being held to a one-all draw by Monterrey.

As the jail settled down, though, the pre-dawn assault unfolded in a well-planned well, say Nuevo Leon officials.

Some Gulf members managed to elude initially their attackers by fleeing from their cellblock D and made a dash for the exercise yard at the state prison in Apodaca, 40 kilometers from Monterrey, but even here they were chased, cornered and bludgeoned.

Local residents and TV camera crews alerted to the riot stood outside and saw smoke spew from the jail as inmates added to the confusion by, according to Nuevo Leon state Security Council spokesman Jorge Domene, setting mattresses and other fixtures alight.

For two hours the melee continued until quelled by soldiers dispatched to the prison. A furious Nuevo Leon state governor, Rodrigo Medina, who held a press conference the day after the February 19 riot, said there was at least one beheading.

And a nun, Sister Consuelo Morales, who visits the prison regularly, told Milenio television of horrific injuries . “Some of them no longer had eyes,” she said.

The riot, officials now say, was a diversion that facilitated the escape of 33 Los Zetas inmates, including Oscar Manuel “The Spider” Bernal Soriano, Los Zetas’ boss in Monterrey when he was arrested in October 2010 on a charge of murdering a police chief. Domene told a local radio station that for “15 minutes” of the riot some guards had allowed the escapees to slip out of the jail.

The February 19 Apodaca riot and mass escape comes close on the heels of a similar January 4 battle at a jail in Altamira, near Tampico, in Tamaulipas state that left 31 dead. And on October 13, 2011 seven inmates were killed in a confrontation between inmates in another Nuevo Leon prison in Cadereyta.

Mexican officials acknowledge they are racing the clock now to implement massive prison reforms to try to a halt the riots and mass escapes that are plaguing the country’s penitentiaries.

In July, the federal government blamed corruption and the “avoidance of systematic control measures” for the escape of more than 400 inmates from several Tamaulipas prisons between January 2010 and March 2011.  In December 2010, 141 inmates fled a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, while another 85 and then 12 escaped from a Reynosa prison in September and July 2010 respectively, and 41 successfully fled from the Matamoros prison in March 2010.

The interior ministry said the escapes were “unacceptable” and were “undermining the work of authorities.”

In July, a riot at a prison in the border city of Juarez left 17 inmates dead. Mexican authorities detained the director and four guards over that brawl as surveillance video showed two inmates opening doors to let armed prisoners into a cellblock. In 2009, 38 inmates were killed in two separate riots at a prison in Gomez Palacio, Durango. Twenty-three people were killed in a prison riot in Durango city in 2010 and 29 inmates lost their lives in prison fights the same year in Mazatlan.

The Mexican government has been struggling to stem jail breakouts and to impose order on a prison system that has seen a huge increase in the numbers incarcerated since President Felipe Calderon launched the “war on drugs” five years ago.

Massive change is in the works for the federal prison system that includes a huge jail-building program, but in the meantime over-crowded and underfunded state penitentiaries where most of Mexico’s approximately 223,000 inmates are housed remains a source of embarrassment and danger.

Only 9,000 inmates are held in federal facilities, although that will change when eight planned federal prisons are completed. The rest are incarcerated in prisons controlled by state authorities, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office.

Experts say that until the overhaul is completed the prison system will remain vulnerable to rioting. They reject the suggestion of one Nuevo Leon mayor that inmates from the cartels should be separated into different prisons as impractical.

“Organized Crime criminals should be housed in federal maximum security prisons,” Alberto Islas Torres, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration. “You can put a violent Zeta member in a state prison but he will break out,” he told Agora.

Prison expert Elena Azaola Garrido, a scholar at Mexico’s Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, blames the lack of past investment for the crisis in the jails. “Investment has been neglected and the prisons are in very poor condition, putting the inmates and personnel at risk all the time,” she said.

She added: “It also has to do with corruption, that is what explains these jail breakouts.”

Tejada Jorge Montaño, a professor at the Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara, agrees. “The prisons are overcrowded and where a facility has a prison population of 80 percent higher than it was designed for you are always on the brink of catastrophe because the authorities lack control,” he said.

Since 2006 Mexico is averaging seven major prison riots a year, he adds.

In his press conference on February 20th, the Nuevo Leon governor placed some of the blame for the riot at Apodaca on overcrowded conditions, arguing that more than 8,500 people have been arrested in the past two years in his state. At the time of the riot, there were 2,514 inmates in the Apodaca jail, well above its maximum capacity of 1,522. Sixty percent of the inmates were being held for federal crimes and of the 33 inmates who escaped, 25 were federal prisoners, he said.

Ironically the Friday before the Apodaca riot, a U.N. spokesman, Rupert Colville, had issued a general warning about the “alarming pattern of violence” stemming from the “endemic problem” of over-crowding in prisons in Latin America. His comments were in response to the fire that swept through a jail in February in Honduras in which 359 prisoners died.

But Gov. Medina placed blame also for the riot and escape at Apodaca on some corrupt prison guards, lamenting that “the treason, corruption and complicity of some undermined the service of good police officers, soldiers and marines.”

Medina fired the prison’s warden, his deputy and the state’s director of penitentiaries hours after the riot. And authorities have detained also for questioning 18 guards who were on duty at the time. Nine have been charged.

Medina and federal officials acknowledge that one of the hardest challenges facing the Mexican system is trying to ensure that guards remain honest and reject bribes.  “The most important thing is to make sure that the people working on the inside are on the side of the law, and that they not be corrupted and collaborate with the criminals,” Medina said.

With that in mind, federal authorities have included in their prison overhaul  the recruitment of new guards and far more stringent training and re-training of prison staff.”


Beware the Buyer

Private equity group Carlyle is pressing ahead with plans for a stock market float next month but analysts are divided over whether investors should approach with caution or confidence.

One of the world’s largest buyout firms, Carlyle has been working hard to convince Wall Street analysts that investors shouldn’t be wary of a firm that has been traditionally highly secretive even by the standards of the industry.

Suspicion of private equity firms has never been higher. Mitt Romney, former head of Bain Capital, a Boston-based private equity firm, has had a torrid time on the presidential election trail defending himself from ‘vulture capitalism’ charges by rivals for the Republican nomination.

Analysts point to what happened in the wake of Blackstone’s IPO, the first by a private equity firm, as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of buying Carlyle shares.

Blackstone’s share price fell below its initial $31 within a week, never rebounded and is hovering around $14 a share. The offering though made a lot of money for Blackstone founders – in the case of Stephen Schwarzman, $684million in cash.

Read my full report on the Carlyle IPO in the Daily Mail.