Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another American War

Drug War Mayhem Boils Over
From Border to Border


Mexico City.
Mexico's drug war is made in the U.S.A.

Tourists touching down at Mexico City International Airport are
hereby forewarned not to trip over the human heads that may be
rolling around at your feet when you disembark. Four have been found
in recent weeks in and around the terminal complex although their
corresponding bodies have not yet been located.

Two of the heads reportedly once belonged to employees of a freight
forwarding outfit, Jet Service. The other two, found by
schoolchildren in a colony adjacent to the airport January 14th,
have been identified as the heads of two mid-level operators for a
Tepito drug gang. Tepito, a central city neighborhood infamous for
its narco-bazaars, has been displaced as a Mexico City drug
distribution center by the airport district, according to what a top-
level cop tells the left daily La Jornada.

Benito Juarez International Airport (its official name) has long
been a nexus for drug smuggling from Andean cocaine cartel countries
like Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Although the "mulas"
("mules" - mostly women) who smuggle the drugs hidden inside their
bodies cavities run a gauntlet of federal police, airport security,
and customs inspectors, plenty of the cocaine and heroin they carry
makes it through to the waiting areas where drug gang operatives are
standing by to receive the loads.

In addition to drugs, a virtual arsenal, including long guns, was
confiscated last November when the weapons arrived in the mail at
the airport post office.

In the narco lexicon, Mexico City International Airport constitutes
a "plaza" or hot spot for trafficking that is currently being
contested by several of the country's most murderous drug cartels.
Tourists are advised to keep their heads down - and attached.

Upon taking office 13 months ago after a fraud-riddled election,
President Felipe Calderon moved to test his dubiously-acquired
authority by sending 30,000 troops into the field to wage the Bush
White House's War on Drugs in the Mexican outback. 70% of all
cocaine consumed in the U.S. passes through Mexico's borders.

But although the campaign has curried much favor in Washington, it
has not been a resounding success on the ground. Little cocaine has
been taken by the troops -although large seizures have been made in
West Coast ports on information supplied by the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration. Marijuana seizures have hardly put a
dent in Mexico's seemingly never-ending supply of the notorious

The military's drug war performance has been marred by egregious
human rights violations. In one incident last June in the drug-
saturated state of Sinaloa, soldiers at an army checkpoint and
reportedly high on marijuana and alcohol, opened fire on an extended
family of eight (seven of them women and children), killing five.
This January, troops in Huetamo Michoacan killed a 17 year-old
passenger when the driver failed to obey their signals. Another
group of soldiers stands accused of raping five underage girls in
the Michoacan hot lands.

Underscoring that the use of the military in law enforcement
operations during peace time is patently unconstitutional, National
Human Rights Commission ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes appeals to
Calderon to send the troops back to barracks, a sentiment reiterated
by United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour during a
Mexican stopover last week. Calderon insists that the army will
continue in the streets throughout the remainder of his questionable
mandate (2012.)

Local citizens protesting killings and rapes by the military are
accused of being in the employ of the narcos. A spokesperson for the
Secretary of Defense (SEDENA) recently affirmed to the national
daily El Universal that drug boss "El Chapo" Guzman was subsidizing
protestors in Sinaloa and Coahuila states to the tune of 2000 pesos
($200 USD) per demonstrator.

Meanwhile, Calderon's military offensive has failed to stem the
harvest of death. Last year, with the troops in the field, 2791
victims (7.3 a day) were registered by authorities, 500 more than
the 2221 counted in 2006 when the army was still under wraps. During
the first 15 days of 2008, 114 victims were recorded - 11.7 a day -
compared with 174 for the entire month of January 2007 - perhaps a
fifth of the dead were beheaded or otherwise mutilated.

Most of the victims are indeed attributable to gang rivalry and the
driving philosophy of drug war managers here is to let the bad guys
kill each other off. But innocents are regularly mowed down, caught
in urban crossfires or the victims of "mistaken identity" shooting.

One constituency that seems particularly prone to slaughter
are "grupero" musicians. In past months, five luminaries of this
raucous genre have bit the dust - the Sinaloa-based brothers
Valentin and "El Flaco" Elizande; Sergio Gomez, lead singer with K-
Paz in Michoacan; and Jose Luis Aquino, trumpeter with the popular
Oaxaca group "LosCondes." After being wounded during a performance
in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, grupero singer Zayda Pena was followed to
the local hospital and shot dead by her assailants.

Musicians are often paid handsomely to perform at private narco
fiestas or write "corridos" (border ballads) that portray the
kingpins as popular heroes, a strophe that sometimes earns the
disapproval of a capo or the enmity of a rival drug gang.

In northern states like Sinaloa where the narcos venerate their own
lay saint, Jesus Malverde, druglords like the infamous, long-
imprisoned Rafael Caro Quintero and the still very active Chapo
Guzman, both farm boys from the mountain town of Badiraguato, are
popular, Robin Hood-like figures. "(The government) wants to see
more money in Mexico but they don't understand that it's the narcos
who are keeping this country alive," one unsigned letter to the
daily "Debate of Sinaloa" read, "let them work - the only ones who
get hurt are the gringos. The narcos only hurt people who mess with

Mexico's drug cartels are structured along classic capitalist
models: they control the prime materials (Mexican cartels now plant
coca fields in Andean countries), processing, transportation, and
distribution. Each maintains a private army to open up new markets
and routes and protect old ones from encroachment.

At the top of the ladder is the Sinaloa or Pacific Cartel under the
thumb of Chapo Guzman, a drug baron who broke out of a maximum
security federal prison in 2001 and has not been seen since -
scuttlebutt persists that Chapo ("short guy") has been replaced by
another Sinaloa capo, "El Mayo" Zembrano.

The Pacific Cartel's chief rival for dominance is the Gulf Coast
syndicate operating out of northeastern Mexico, now headed by
Heriberto Lazcano, "El Lazcas", who took over the reigns from the
murderous Osiel Cardenas, extradited last year to the U.S. by
Calderon. Cardenas, in turn, replaced Juan Garcia Abrego when he was
extradited in the late 1990s. So long as demand for their product
thrives in the U.S., lopping off the heads of these organizations
seems, hydra-like, to only breed new heads.

Since Calderon took the helm of state in 2006, 88 Mexicans accused
of drug-related crimes in the U.S. have been shipped to El Norte to
the delight of his Washington masters. Next on the list for
extradition: Sandra Avila Beltran, "the Queen of the Pacific", whose
amorous adventures with the capos of Colombia's Valle del Norte
Cartel, are celebrated in song and story.

Also on the cartel menu:

The Tijuana Cartel controlled by the Arellano Felix family (also
Sinaloa boys), most of whose members are either incarcerated or
defunct. Although the gang is in serious decline, it still dominates
the liveliest crossing on the northern border and is thought to have
pioneered arrangements with Colombian cartels and the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, according to U.S. drug fighters.

The Juarez Cartel, which controls the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso
Texas "plaza" but is seriously challenged by rival drug combines for
this key border stronghold. The Juarez Cartel has lost much of its
clout since the death of the legendary Amado Carrillo, "the Lord of
the Skies" during cosmetic surgery at a private hospital less than a
mile away from the Mexican White House.

Other more regional cartels include:

The Colima Cartel under the direction of the Amezcua family, major
methamphetamine movers with an abiding interest in port facilities
at Manzanillo through which tons of cocaine and ephedrine pass each

The Michoacan or Millennium Cartel bossed by the Valencia family,
which controls vast opium poppy, and marijuana plantations in that
state's hot lands and shares an interest in shipping facilities at
Lazaro Cardenas, another noted Pacific cocaine port.

The Oaxaca Cartel run by the Diaz Parada family which has influence
in the south of the country and is strategically located between the
Guatemala border and the ports of Salina Cruz on the Pacific and
Coatzalcoalcos on the Gulf.

In June of 2007, the various cartels reportedly huddled on a narco
ranch in the state of Tamaulipas to smoke the peace pipe and come
together in a "federation" that would guarantee trade routes and
stabilize the industry - but judging by the kill rates, the
federation seems to be fracturing fast.

Recently, the five Beltran Leyva brothers, El Chapo Guzman's right-
hand men, purportedly broke ranks to form their own cartel. The
arrest of the "pez gordo" ("fat fish") Arturo Beltran Leyva, "El
Mochomo", in January proved a major score for Calderon. El Mochomo
was subsequently installed in the same maximum-security prison from
which his (former) boss Chapo Guzman walked away seven years ago.

Each of the cartels employs squadrons of enforcers to safeguard
transit routes and extract taxes from rival cartels moving their
loads through highly coveted turf. The most sanguineous of these
death squads, the notorious Zetas, was trained at the Center for
Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina as part of the drug-
fighting "Air-Mobile Special Force Group" or GAFE, and whom, upon
their return to Mexican soil, promptly signed on with the Gulf
Cartel as enforcers.

A new generation of Zetas, who popularized the sport of beheading
their enemies, continues to terrorize the border and Mexican drug
sleuths say the hit squad has evolved into its own cartel with
designs on the lucrative plaza of Nuevo Laredo, the high volume
commercial crossing on the east Texas border.

One of the more depressing downsides of Calderon's drug war has been
the infiltration and corruption of Mexico's underpaid military. In
2007, 17,000 troops deserted the Mexican armed forces. How many
joined the drug cartels which pay ten times what the army does, is
open to speculation. One of these defectors, former GAFE lieutenant
Jose Luis Ochoa, "El Ocho", put together a foiled plot to
assassinate the nation's topdog drug prosecutor Santiago Vasconcelos
this past Christmas. Inexplicably, once the plot had been uncovered,
President Calderon was immediately put under the protection of an
elite GAFE unit.

Among the Zetas' offspring are such colorfully named aggregations of
killers as "The Altruistic Anonymous Zyndicate" (Coahuila), "The
Tarascos" (Michoacan), "The Pelones" (The Baldies), "The Halcones"
(The Hawks - Mexico City), and FEDA ("Special Forces of Arturo" -
Beltran Leyva) who every 24 hours litter the streets of Culiacan,
Cancun, Acapulco and dozens of other Mexican cities with mutilated
cadavers and/or their heads.

But the northern border is where the drug war blows hottest. Despite
the depletion of much of the Arellano Felix clan, the family's
Tijuana operation continues to function under the rule of a sister,
Enadena and her nephew Jose "El Cholo" Brisenas, a narco who does
not disdain the spotlight. El Cholo recently competed in the famed
Baja California Road Race and was filmed by an in-house crew of
cartel members that crashed during the race, killing gang member
Luis Medrardo Leon, "El Abulon" (The Abalone), an historic hitman
implicated in the May 1994 whacking of Cardinal Juan de Jesus
Posadas at the Guadalajara airport during a shootout between the
Arellano Felix boys and then upstart Chapo Guzman.

The Cardinal's killing was attributed to a case of "mistaken
identity" although he was wearing a foot-long pectoral cross and was
shot at point-blank range.

The Abalone's body was subsequently kidnapped from the Ensenada Baja
California morgue by a 50-member narco commando. El Abulon's
untimely demise was followed by the arrest of another longtime
Tijuana cartel pistolero, "El Popeye" AKA Arturo Araujo, also
implicated in the Cardinal's death and a failed assassination
attempt on crusading Tijuana editor the late Jesus Blancornelas. The
Popeye, as was El Abulon, is a U.S. citizen, a member of the San
Diego Barrio Logan "Crazy 30s" hired on by the Arellanos during the
cartel's hay day back in the 1990s to do their dirty work.

Despite starring on wanted posters for a decade, El Popeye was
arrested in a middle class Tijuana subdivision where he had lived
tranquilly for years, perhaps protected by the badges of the three
police agencies found in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Tijuana's daily quotient of bloodshed overflowed January 15th when
three police chiefs were gunned down within four hours, one along
with his entire family. While memorial services were being conducted
several days later, a wild shootout between narcos and police
erupted not two miles away. Caught in the middle of the crossfire
were dozens of children at a local kindergarten "Mi Alegria" ("My
Happiness.") Front-page photos showed ski-masked troops rescuing the
toddlers while bullets ricocheted all around them - most papers
blacked out the children's faces for fear of retaliation by the drug

At the other end of the border on the Gulf where Calderon has sent
in 6000 of the 30,000 troops he has in the field, Tamaulipas looks
like "a war zone" in the words of New York Times correspondent James
McKinley. The state, which has traditionally been a kill zone where
Zetas battle both rival narcos and various corrupt police agencies
for control of the eastern end of the border, blew up in mid-January
with two full-bore gunfights on the dusty streets of Rio Bravo.
Combatants opened up on each other for hours with bazookas, grenade
launchers, and flamethrowers - a score of cops and robbers were
killed and wounded. Among the ten bad guys arrested were three
American hitmen, two of them from Detroit. According to the Mexican
federal Secretary of Public Safety, some of the weapons taken from
the narcos were traced to robberies at U.S. military bases.

The Mexican government estimates that 90% of the drug cartels'
arsenals originate in the U.S. and have demanded reciprocal action
on the part of their counterparts north of the border to tamp down
the trade. At the end of January, newly confirmed U.S. Attorney
General Michael Mukasey flew into Mexico City pledging to stem the
flow of heavy weaponry from the United States where enough guns are
in circulation to arm every citizen twice. Whether "Operation
Gunrunner" is anything more than a token U.S. gesture remains to be

The U.S. is arming both sides in Mexico's drug war. The drug gangs
are loaded to the teeth with arms smuggled across the border and to
balance this homicidal equation, Washington has produced "Plan
Mexico", a major build-up of Mexico's drug-fighting capacity, the
first phase of which will send a half billion dollars worth of used
Bell helicopters, armored vehicles, and computer systems south once
the appropriation clears congress.

Mexico's drug war is made in the U.S.A. Calderon takes his orders
from Washington and the U.S. is not only arming both sides but
sending in soldiers to fill out the ranks of both bands - the
Detroit hitmen vs. U.S. troops who are now authorized to wage war on
Mexican soil by the North American Agreement on Security and
Prosperity (ASPAN) signed by the three NAFTA counties in 2006 to
advance integration of their security apparatuses. Even more
pertinent to the U.S.'s central role in this war: the vast
quantities of drugs over which all this blood is being spilled, is
exclusively destined for U.S. consumers.

John Ross is in Mexico City. He can be reached at

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