And the Drug War Goes On

A couple of just published pieces of mine in Agora Revista. They were written a while ago but provide useful background and information on the brutal fighting in recent weeks in Tamaulipas between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels and on the arrest of Victor Emilio Cazares, known as “The Bachelor”.  They are in Spanish.

El Chapo Pilot Arrested in Santo Domingo

Further evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is highly active in the Dominican Republic came this week with the arrest of one of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán’s pilots. He was seized in a Santo Domingo hotel along with another alleged member of the Sinaloa cartel, bringing to 10 the number of Mexican traffickers who’ve been detained and expelled subsequently from the country in the last 14 months.

The pilot and his companion are being extradited to the United States, according to local news sources. Listin newspaper identified them only by their last names Chavez Ramirez and Alvarado Torres.

A full background on the Mexican expansion to the Dominican Republic can be found in my recent articles for Agora and Dialogo magazines. And also here on this blog.






How The Mexican Police Bungled The Manhunt for El Chapo — Exclusive

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.

Poor Mexico. So Close To The United States; So Far From God.

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.

The Hunt For El Chapo


AP reports today that Mexican federal police nearly nabbed drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in a coastal mansion in Los Cabos three weeks ago, barely a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with dozens of other foreign ministers in the same southern Baja peninsula resort town.

The wire agency says: “Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas, Mexico’s assistant attorney general in charge of organized crime investigations, confirmed on Sunday that there was a near miss in late February in the government’s efforts to arrest the man who has become one of the world’s top fugitives since he escaped prison in a laundry truck in 2001.

Here is my version on the background on the recent hunt for El Chapo.

Last autumn, President Felipe Calderón was confident in an interview with the New York Times when asked about the hunt for one of the world’s most wanted men, the elusive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

“The Mexican Army probably a couple of times has been in the place where hours before Chapo was. But sooner or later he will fall,” Calderón said.

That confidence is beginning to look well placed. Since the interview, Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s most powerful transnational crime organization, has suffered a series of reversals at the hands of the Mexican military and special federal forces.

The latest came in a shoot-out on January 20th in the northern state of Durango between an army special-forces unit that left dead a high-ranking aide to Guzmán and led to the capture of 11 Sinaloa cartel members.

The fatal shooting of Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia, nicknamed “The Architect”, emphasizes how the hunt for Mexico’s top drug-dealer is turning in the favor of the Mexican authorities, say government officials.

Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia had only just replaced his brother, Felipe, as head of the cartel’s operations in Durango and sections of neighboring Chihuahua state, according to Army spokesman Gen. Ricardo Trevilla.

Felipe, nicknamed “The Engineer”, was arrested in December and was considered one of Chapo’s security chiefs and most trusted lieutenants. Mexican security sources suggested then that the snaring of Felipe – he was seized in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa state—represented a grave blow to Guzmán that could hasten the drug chief’s own capture.

The death of The Architect comes then as a grave double blow. Like his brother Felipe, Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia was “one of El Chapo’s main associates,” Gen. Trevilla told a press conference in Mexico City.

Only a few months ago the Mexican authorities were being accused of favoring the Sinaloa cartel by going lightly on it compared to rival transnational crime organizations. In response to that claim, infuriated government officials insisted they weren’t and that the Sinaloa cartel is a much tougher nut crack than some of its smaller criminal competitors such as La Familia, a Pacific coast cartel that imploded and fractured last year under intense law-enforcement pressure.

The Ministry of National Defense said in a statement that the death of The Architect is likely to affect significantly the operations and structure of the Sinaloa cartel in the so-called Golden Triangle, the northern states of Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua, the key area of production of Mexican opium and marijuana.

Guzmán, 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 Guatemala in 1993.

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.

The Architect’s arrest in many ways is testimony to the effectiveness – and potential—of a strategy launched in October by the then Interior Secretary José Francisco Blake Mora shortly before he died in a helicopter accident.

Named Operation Laguna Segura, the strategy is designed to combat organized crime in the northern Mexican region, specifically in the states of Coahuila and Durango. It involves unprecedented operational cooperation between municipal, state and federal police and the military.

Observers say Operation Laguna Segura has had the benefit of the full backing of the governors of Coahuila and Durango, Jorge Torres López and Jorge Herrera Caldera, who were invited to participate in the planning of the strategy.

In the press conference announcing the fatal shooting, and in a statement issued later by the PGR, officials highlighted the important role Operation Laguna played in both the December arrest of The Engineer and the subsequent killing of his brother.

The PGR statement said the “specialized work” of Operation Laguna cast detailed light on “the criminal activities carried out by Cabrera Sarabia mainly in the mountains of Durango.” The statement continued: “The information obtained revealed that this individual was hiding in a building located in the municipality of Canatlán from where he directed criminal activities.”

And it was in Canatlán that the showdown took place. According to Justice Ministry officials, “special attention was given to the location of The Engineer’s replacement.”

Operation Laguna personnel discovered on January 19th that The Architect was holed up in a farm called “La Cañada del Chile” located approximately 60 kilometers north of the city of Durango.

During the night, mobile air units attached to Operation Laguna established a perimeter around the farm while ground forces moved in. According to the PGR statement, the traffickers hiding in the farm opened fire wounding initially three soldiers and allowing The Architect and a subordinate to flee and hide in a nearby cave. Clashes persisted, another solider was wounded and in the firefight The Architect was killed.

The Laguna area in northern Mexico for which Operation Laguna was named for has in the past few years become a crime hotspot between the competing Sinaloa and Zeta cartels. According to the interior ministry, 473 murders were reported in the area in 2009. In 2010, the number rose to 799, and in 2011, there were 804 killings. Both Cabrera brothers were significant players in the Sinaloa cartel’s attacks on Los Zetas.

A feud within the Sinaloa cartel between a faction led by the Cabrera brothers and a group known as M-10 headed by former ally Mario Nuñez Meza has helped Operation Laguna secure intelligence, say government officials.

Felipe Cabrera’s inclusion in “El Chapo’s” inner circle apparently prompted resentment and triggered a rupture with Nuñez, says Trevilla.


Mexican officials said that another high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel, Fidel Mancinas Franco, was arrested in the northern state of Sonora in January. Mancinas had been extorting money from immigrants seeking to travel to the United States, they said. Mancinas is wanted in the U.S. in connection with the deaths of nearly a dozen migrants during a car accident in Texas in 2009.

Operation Laguna has been instrumental in the capture of 24 leading members of either Los Zetas or the Sinaloa cartel. While army spokesmen decline to comment on the details of the hunt for El Chapo, there is clearly rising confidence that the drug baron’s days could be numbered.”