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.

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.