The Sweet Deal With ‘El Narco’

Mexico City

The plea filed in a US federal court by Mexican drug-trafficker Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla – one of the top members of the Sinaloa Cartel – that he was protected by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in exchange for information on the organization’s rivals should come as no surprise, even if it threatens to be another embarrassment for Washington’s “drug warriors”.

Zambada, who was extradited to the US in 2010 and is currently awaiting trial in Chicago, says a deal was made as far back as 1998 by which the Sinaloa Cartel was given carte-blanche to traffic drugs, and its bosses – including Mexico’s biggest drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – granted immunity from prosecution. Zambada was arrested by Mexican authorities hours after he alleges a sneaky meeting took place between him, the cartel’s attorney and DEA agents in Mexico City in 2009.

Zambada also claims that the DEA tipped off cartel leaders about anti-narcotics operations so they could evade arrest and suggests that “Operation Fast and Furious” – whereby the US government illegally smuggled weapons to Mexico in a failed “sting operation” – was designed to arm the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies.

Zambada (aka “El Mayito”) is the son of Ismael Zambada Garcia (“the Big Mayo”), second-in-command to “El Chapo” in the Sinaloa hierarchy. Zambada, Jr. was allegedly the organization’s “logistical coordinator”, importing to the US “multi-ton quantities of cocaine … using various means, including but not limited to, Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, private aircraft … buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers, and automobiles.” The US government has until Sep. 9 to file a public response.


In Mexico, the suspicion that the National Action Party (PAN) administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon were in cahoots with the Sinaloa Cartel has been rife for years, but Washington’s apparent role in protecting the organization only heightens the farce of their funding President Calderon’s crusade against the drug gangs.

There are actually two “Drug Wars” taking place in Mexico: one by the government against the so-called cartels, and another waged by the cartels against each other. Since Calderon militarized the “war” in 2006, the Sinaloa Cartel has been hoovering up territory, markets and smuggling routes like fat lines of cocaine. Its current major adversary, the Zetas gang, is fighting back hard, but Mexican security forces continue to pummel it while the Sinaloa – the biggest drug-trafficking organization in the country, maybe the world – reaps the rewards.

A recent study by Mexican newspaper “El Universal” showed that 80 per cent of “Drug War” slayings have taken place in just 162 of the country’s municipalities. Most of the violence is a result of the Sinaloa Cartel trying to take rivals’ territory, which means that in supporting “El Chapo”, authorities on both sides of the border have actually escalated the bloodshed, not reduced it.

The way to think of the Sinaloa Cartel is almost as “narco-royalty”. The organization’s leadership descends from Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo’s original Mexican drug-trafficking empire, which ran cocaine for Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Those were the days when the country’s drug lords were rarely seen or heard, gave a nice cut of their profits to the ruling Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), and didn’t spill blood in public view.

A former PRI governor of Nuevo Leon, one of Mexico’s most violence-wracked states, recently told a university audience that in the 1980s and ’90s his party had “formalized, written agreements” with the cartels to turn a blind eye to their activities in exchange for “societal peace”. It sort of worked, but that peace was broken when the PAN began backing the Sinaloa Cartel’s bid for supremacy.

The potential Zambada scandal comes hot on the heels of the “Operation Fast and Furious” fiasco, whereby the Obama administration via the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) shopped as many as 2,500 illegal firearms to Mexican gangs during 2009-10. ATF border agents were told to allow arsenals purchased in the US and headed for Mexico to pass through. A Congressional Committee investigation reports that far from “stinging” the cartels, many of these weapons were simply recovered at grisly murder scenes.

According to one whistleblower: “hand guns, AK-47 variants, and .50 caliber rifles [were purchased] almost daily” by known or suspected straw buyers. ATF agents who opposed the operation on ethical grounds were told to “get with the program” or face dismissal.

Weapons involved in the racket have been traced to various incidents in Mexico including the shooting down of a military helicopter and the high-profile kidnapping of an attorney, as well as the murder of a US Border Patrol Agent in Arizona, whose family are considering a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government.

President Calderon lashed out at the op, but timidly, just as when he blames the illegal drug trade on US consumer demand. Washington backed its man during the civil unrest that followed his fraud-marred election in 2006 and likely struck a deal with him to fight for the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry, a move blocked by the PRI-majority Congress.

Calderon also approves of the US utilizing Mexico as its “southern security perimeter”, which means it keeping a tighter rein on Central America as a whole. In the late 1940s, Washington nicknamed Mexican president Miguel Aleman “Mr. Amigo” for his willingness to cater to US interests, and Calderon is his 21st century heir.

Yet for historical reasons, Mexican presidents mustn’t appear to be too close to Washington. Unlike Colombia, the presence of foreign (read “gringo”) troops and bases on Mexican soil is strictly forbidden by the constitution. Many Americans would be surprised to discover just how seriously this is taken by ordinary Mexicans who, for the most part, view the US  as an arrogant imperial power.

This is a thorn in the side of Washington planners, who as Hillary Clinton admitted last year, would love a “Plan Colombia”-style deal in Mexico. So to bypass that pesky national sovereignty thing, there are now retired US military personnel – “retired” technically makes them “civilians” – working alongside CIA operatives at “intelligence outposts” on Mexican bases. Unarmed Predator drones circle the skies for surveillance, and Calderon is reportedly considering the use of private US security contractors. As one Mexican politician put it, “What are we? Afghanistan?”

The goal, as it was pretty much laid out in US embassy cables, is control of Mexico’s national security apparatus. This not only means fighting (some of) the drug gangs, but a greater ability to intervene in regional affairs. For Washington, a leftist, nationalistic, anti-NAFTA government south of the border is unthinkable; better to get your CIA operatives and (non-military) military personnel on the ground quick while “Mr. Amigo” is holding the door open.

The most recent horror show in Mexico was a vicious arson attack by the Zetas on a casino in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, the country’s third largest city and host to a turf war between the gang and its former employer, the Gulf Cartel. The government recently admitted that the Zetas are now the number one focus of its anti-narcotics strategy. They are, naturally, enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel.

52 people died in the attack, prompting President Calderon to label it an “act of terrorism” in a bid to justify his military-led campaign. The Zetas are certainly terroristic, but such rhetoric is a fear tactic designed to whip up support among a public who have long lost faith in the zero-tolerance approach. With an election looming in July 2012 (Calderon can’t run for a second term), expect to hear much more of this.

Many Mexicans are boycotting the Independence Day celebrations on Sep. 16 precisely because the traditional cry of “Viva Mexico!” rings hollow with so many Mexicans dead. Yet criticism has also come from the unlikeliest of places. Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox  – who used to while away weekends on the Bushes’ ranch in Crawford, Texas, and was a feisty “drug warrior” in his own right – used the occasion of the atrocity in Monterrey to call for a “truce” with the cartels.

Fox, along with another former president, Ernesto Zedillo, has clearly had a change of heart since his days in office. A few months back he memorably described Washington’s financing of the “Drug War” as “nothing more than a ‘tip’ given to us, paid in blood, death and violence – the task is theirs, to stop drugs from circulating in the United States.”

Yet Edgardo Buscaglia, one of the leading experts on “Drug War” economics, claims that less than 50 per cent of the Zetas’ income is actually derived from drug-trafficking. The rest comes from a variety of criminal activity including kidnapping, extortion, people-trafficking, illegal logging, and even pipeline-tapping. Increasingly then, the crisis in Mexico is not about drugs, but rather how easy it is for violent gangs to recruit members, arm themselves, and buy off officials regardless of whether they smuggle cocaine or petroleum.

Next year’s presidential election is already being seen as a referendum on Calderon’s “Drug War” policy. Once again, and after a crippling knock-on recession, the country is ripe for a victory by the Left, but almost cartoonish levels of in-fighting within the main progressive party, the Democratic Party of the Revolution (PRD), and a possible alliance between one half of that party and the PAN, means that the PRI is favorite to take power.

At this stage, all three major parties claim that a “truce” with the cartels is out of the question, but when even former “drug warriors” like Fox and Zedillo are decrying the violence, something may just have to give. Meanwhile, the “War on Drugs”, if there were such a thing, rolls on.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at