Tag Archives | Mexico drug cartels

Taking down the Sinaloa Cartel could be a very bad idea

In the convoluted, collapsing world of Mexico and its government, the battle between the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas is of crucial importance. Both are ruthless, kill and bribe with impunity, and make profits in the billions.

So why would anyone want to back the Sinaloa Federation against the Zetas?

What the Mexican government can never publicly acknowledge—if it truly believes this to be the case—is that Mexico would be a safer place with [Sinaloa Cartel head] Guzmán in charge of the drug trade.

The scariest part of Los Zetas is the fact they didn’t enter the Mexican drug trade in the same way as the other cartels. They came into it as pure killers and kidnappers. They’re also not organized hierarchically like older TCOs; they work as a franchise operation, doing business in cells across Mexico that often have a great degree of freedom to extort, kidnap, and kill as they wish.

The prospect of Los Zetas emerging as the winning horse is a situation too desperate to even contemplate.

There are whole areas of Mexico now that are controlled by cartels, where law as we know it does not exist. Sinaloa, it is said, prefers to corrupt rather than kill. The Zeta just kill. Where all this is headed is unknown. The cartels are something new. They are extremely wealthy with tentacles into many areas besides drugs. They now resemble a cross between a traditional crime syndicate and an insurgency. They probably do not seek overthrow of the government, preferring a weakened hollowed-out government that is malleable and easily corrupted.

Border Patrol agent killed in Arizona

A Border Patrol agent was killed and another wounded, presumably by drug smugglers, in a dangerous drug smuggling corridor in Arizona near the Mexico border. The shootings occurred near the Brian Terry station in Naco TX, which was recently renamed to honor Terry who was killed in the line of duty in December 2010.

The Arizona – Mexico border is the most dangerous because it is so rugged that giant fences can’t be built. That’s why so much smuggling, both drug and human, happens there. Also, Tohono O’Odham nation land crosses the border. This adds more complexity to the problem because it is sovereign land and US law enforcement isn’t allowed there.

The drug cartels have better weapons and technology than law enforcement in the US. They frequently have spotters in high areas with night vision goggles and radios (and well as full auto rifles.) Sheriff Paul Babeu says there are entire areas in Pinal County that are not under control of the US. He’s not exaggerating.

Barbarization in Mexico Drug War

Bad craziness in Mexico

A sobering view of Mexico drug war violence and the drug cartels by John Sullivan, who is authoritative on the subject.

The Mexico drug war has embroiled that country in internal conflict punctuated by hyper-violence, corruption and impunity. The battle for primacy among drug cartels for control of the plazas (lucrative transshipment nodes and routes) has resulted in a seemingly never-ending barrage of violence. Beheadings, dismemberment, massacres, and mass graves (narcofosas) punctuate the state of insecurity. While media outlets continue to report 50,000 killed, the numbers are much higher. Perhaps 99,667 persons have been killed in the drug war. An additional 24,000 persons are reported missing or disappeared. Many victims are never identified. Accurate numbers are hard to come by.

From his IVN bio.

John Sullivan is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He is also an Adjunct Researcher at the Vortex Foundation, Bogotá, Colombia; Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST); and Senior Fellow at Small Wars Journal-El Centro. He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter- Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006) and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010). He is co- author of Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology (iUniverse, 2011). His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and other countries.

Huge Arizona drug bust just a fraction of smuggling

Federal and state law enforcement recently made three mass arrests of drug smugglers in Arizona, resulting in a staggering amount of confiscated drugs, weapons, and money. In total, 76 suspected smugglers were arrested. Over 20 tons of marijuana, 160 pounds of heroin, 210 pounds of cocaine, almost $760,000 in cash, and 108 weapons were seized.

Yet, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu says this is just a tiny fraction of the drugs coming through and that these busts will slow the cartel down but certainly not stop it.  Perhaps even more unsettling, two of the weapons found in the arrests were tied to the botched Fast and Furious attempt by ATF to allow guns to pass across the border into the hands of the cartels so they could be tracked.

The drug traffickers are believed to be part of the massive and powerful Sinaloa Cartel, who some think seem to be curiously untouchable and immune from arrests, although that’s certainly not what happened this time.  They have complete control of the Mexico / Arizona border and are the biggest of all the drug trafficking organizations. They ship cocaine from Columbia as well as their own marijuana, heroin, and meth (The Sierra Madres provide an ideal growing climate for poppies).  Their leader is the elusive Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán who somehow managed to escape from a maximum security prison in a laundry truck in 2001. He is Mexico’s most-wanted, and the DEA considers him the “godfather of the drug world.”

Arizona drugs mostly come in through an 80 mile corridor between Yuma and Sells. This is rugged, barren land with few roads. A large portion of it runs through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Some roads there are closed in the winter. The enormous Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range is directly north of Cabeza Prieta, so I’m guessing smugglers wouldn’t be going through that way! For one thing, any arrests there would automatically be under federal jurisdiction and penalties much harsher. 

Rte 85 goes from the border at Lukeville through Organ Pipe, connecting with I-8 at Gila Bend. This seems a probable route for drug traffickers, even if it is heavily watched by law enforcement. Most of the rest of the 80 miles is on Tohono O’Odham land. There is a network of small roads heading south from Sells but there are no obvious crossing points at the border.

This border land is mostly unremittingly hostile to humans. It is rugged terrain with little water, scorching temperatures in the summer, and the usual assortment of Arizona desert flora and fauna that bite, sting, and imbed themselves in you. The geography of the land makes it is one of the few areas in the entire US / Mexico border that has no fences, nor is it easy to patrol. That’s why smugglers use it.

I can understand how a few hundred pounds of heroin and cocaine can be backpacked across the borders. But transporting twenty tons of marijuana requires large vehicles which probably can’t maneuver well on remote dirt roads and thus would have to go on highways like Rte. 85.

Think about it. These busts, massive as they are, probably won’t even cause much panic in their destination cities because vast quantities continue to be smuggled in. This is our problem too, not just Mexico’s.

(crossposted from AZIVN)

‘Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars’. Sylvia Longmire interview

Sylvia Longmire’s new book Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars has just been released and is available at bookstores today, Tuesday September 27. She is a retired Air Force captain and Special Agent with extensive experience investigating Mexico Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO). She now consults and writes about southwest border violence issues and blogs at Mexico’s Drug War. I interviewed her last month.

Q. Your book implies the violence and corruption of the drug wars will be spilling across the border from Mexico into the US. What do you see coming, how can we prepare, and what can we do about it?

The cartels are already here, and have been here for decades. The invasion has been like a virus, not like a “War of the Worlds” invasion with gunfire and explosions. The cartels already have distribution networks and trafficking systems in place across the US. We’re also starting to see a slow uptick in the number of violent incidents on the US side of the border related to drug activity in Mexico. As cartels get squeezed tighter by US and Mexican authorities, they’ll get more desperate to maintain their profits and move drugs across the border; this means they’ll be more likely to engage in risky behavior, i.e. engaging US law enforcement. The best we can do as Americans is to be aware of the situation, understand why it’s happening, and press our elected officials not just to spend more money or send more people to the border but be smarter about how border resources are allocated based on good intelligence.

Q. Some on the left see concern about undocumented border crossings as racist. Yet the drug smuggling is real, as is human smuggling (which is arguably worse, as those being smuggled often are brutalized or held for ransom by the smugglers once they are in the States.) What would you say to those who claim border problems are figments of the right wing’s imagination?

I think both sides of the aisle tend to exaggerate issues to suit their political agendas. I do not believe that the border is as safe and secure as DHS Secretary Napolitano makes it out to be. However, I don’t think that the entire length of it is being overrun with AK-47-toting thugs. I am very concerned that there are stretches of the border where US authorities do not have the manpower or resources to prevent violent criminals from coming into the US, and parts of federal parks and reserves where Americans are warned to avoid because of smuggling activity. But I do roll my eyes when I hear certain public officials screaming through the television that we’re being overrun by narco-terrorists. Such exaggerations by the right – as well as serious underestimation of the cartels and the border problem by the left – do a disservice to those trying to really wrap their heads around the best way to devise an effective and common-sense border strategy.

Q. An FBI agent once said of Vegas mobsters in the 1950’s, they aren’t smarter, it’s just that they’ll do things the rest of us won’t. This seems an apt description of the DTOs. However their levels of violence are orders of magnitude higher than the mobsters. What accounts for such deranged violence, how are they able to recruit children as young as eleven, and is such violence coming here?

I liken the escalation of violence in Mexico to our progression of desensitization with video games. Twenty years ago, we were all happy playing Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda. Now it’s Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, and video games have maturity and violence ratings on them like movies. Over time, violent incidents in Mexico lose their shock value, and cartels have to up the ante to show their power, as well as to continue to make an impact on their rivals and the authorities. As for the other part of the question, there are few good educational and professional prospects for most of Mexico’s youth. They see the drug lords as people to be idolized, and the glamour of the narco world is very appealing: easy cash, gold-plated guns, Cadillac Escalades, beautiful women, etc. Some of these young kids have no parental supervision, and are easily lured into being dealers or lookouts or killers by something as simple as a free iPod, or cell phone, or a few hundred dollars. American teenagers in poorer southwest US cities are already being recruited by the cartels.

Q. Law enforcement in rural areas of the West routinely find marijuana plantations with thousands of plants in remote canyons and wilderness areas. One officer said of the growers “they aren’t locals.” Small town police forces don’t have the resources to fight this. One obvious answer is legalization. What else can be done?

Domestic marijuana growing operations are a national security crisis, in my opinion. I know that sounds alarmist, and I can hear some people rolling their eyes already. But I have a serious problem with the fact that millions of acres on our taxpayer-funded national parks and forests are home to millions of marijuana plants – worth $1,000-$3,000 per plant – that are being closely guarded by Mexican nationals with AK-47s. The National Guard in California is a great example of an agency that has extensive experience working with state law enforcement to find these grows and rip them up. But you have to understand, these grows are being found in over a dozen US states, and most of them aren’t even on the border; Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina – even Michigan. The portion of the US Forest Service and National Park Service budget dedicated to law enforcement is minimal, as is the number of personnel trained and available to find these grows and destroy them. Each acre of marijuana field that is destroyed costs about $11,000 to restore, and that money just isn’t there either.

Q. Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said $352 billion in drug money laundered by banks kept the financial system going during the peak of the 2008 financial crisis. It would seem there are vested interests who benefit mightily from drugs being illegal and this is a major if unspoken roadblock to finding solutions.

There’s no doubt that multiple US banks are laundering Mexican drug money, but the question that’s really tough to answer is the extent of their knowledge regarding where that money is coming from. I’m sure if the banks worked hard and did more digging, they could find out plenty. However, like you said, it would greatly be to their detriment. The Mexican economy also benefits greatly from the influx of illicit money into legal markets. As Scott Stewart of Stratfor wrote today, Calderón wants to reduce or eliminate drug violence, but he can’t afford to eliminate drug trafficking.

Q. What’s your take on Operation Fast and Furious, where ATF allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico from the US so they could be tracked?

I understand the intentions of the ATF with F&F. They were getting hammered on one side by the White House and GAO for not getting results in reducing the southbound flow of guns. They were getting hammered on the other side by the ATF for going after the “little guy” (i.e. straw buyers) and harassing law-abiding gun owners. So the ATF thought they’d think outside the box with a modified sting operation to go after the “big fish.” But talk about an epic fail laced with disastrous decision-making. Putting tracking devices from Radio Shack on the guns with a battery life of only three months? Continuing with the operation for more than a year when they had already lost track of hundreds of guns? It was just a bad idea all around to start F&F, let alone letting it run for as long as it did. The scary part is, if Congress hadn’t discovered that two of those guns showed up at the Brian Terry crime scene, would F&F still be going on?

Q. One reason Arizona is such a hot spot for border crossings is because parts of it are too rugged to build a fence plus some of it is on Tohono O’odham Nation land which lies in both countries. How can a border that inherently porous be adequately monitored?

Lots of electronics. I only say that in a half-kidding fashion. Not only is a complete border fence impractical, but it’s also unnecessary. Some parts of Arizona don’t see much smuggling activity at all because the environment is just too hostile. So why waste taxpayer dollars to build a fence if no one’s even laying eyes on it? US Border Patrol uses a variety of cameras and sensors (I’ve seen them) to detect activity in more remote areas, and based on the situation, they can determine what warrants a physical response.

Q. The State of Arizona is taking private contributions to build more border fences. Assuming it could be built, will it work? Or as former Arizona governor Napolitano once said, “You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That’s the way the border works.”

Here’s a recent article I wrote on the privatization of the border fence that should answer this question:

Q. Are rumors that one cartel is making deals with the Mexican and US governments credible?

Based on conversations with my sources, Zambada-Niebla is likely exaggerating any relationship he might have had with the DEA in order to cast doubt on the allegations made against him. While the DEA does employ high-level informants in the drug world, they typically don’t let that much time lapse or that amount of drugs “walk” before making arrests.

Q. Is legalization an option?

I definitely think decriminalization is an option that has to be considered as just one part of an overall multi-faceted strategy to combat the cartels. I don’t say legalization because that’s currently not an option for the US government due to its status as a signatory to United Nations anti-drug conventions. However, even if we decriminalize marijuana, it’s not going to stop the cartels from killing. It may make a short-term dent in their profits, but they’re making so much money off the sale of other illegal drugs and kidnapping, extortion, media piracy, etc. that they’ll easily survive.

Q. What can we as citizens do to stop the drug wars from coming here?

Honestly, the biggest thing we can do as citizens is to help reduce drug demand by educating our children. There are also people who are more prone to drug addiction than others for various reasons, and those signs need to be recognized early by loved ones to prevent those people from resorting to drug use in desperate times. We also need to start viewing drug use and addiction as a public health issue and not a criminal issue. Mind you, the people who benefit from drug use and addiction – the dealers and suppliers who make the big money – are still criminals and need to be investigated and prosecuted. But if there are fewer people to deal to, then consequently there will be fewer dealers.

(Crossposted from CAIVN and AZIVN)