Drug War Mayhem Boils Over From Border to Border

Mexico City.

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 weed.

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 them”

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 year.

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 gangs.

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 tested.

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 johnross@igc.org






JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org