Mexican Drug Trafficking (Mexico's Drug War)
Although Mexico has been a producer and transit route for illegal drugs for generations, the country now finds itself in a pitched battle with powerful and well-financed drug cartels.
In January 2012, the Mexican government reported that 47,515 people had been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón began a military assault on criminal cartels soon after taking office in late 2006.
The official tally, provided by the attorney general’s office, included data only through September 2011, and it showed that drug-related killings increased 11 percent, to 12,903, compared with the same nine-month period in 2010. Still, a government statement sought to find a silver lining, asserting that it was the first year since 2006 “that the homicide rate increase has been lower compared to the previous years.”
But that was unlikely to calm a public scared by the arrival of grisly violence in once-safe cities like Guadalajara and in the region around Mexico City.
In May 2012, the Mexican government detained three high-ranking Army generals, including a former second in command at the Defense Ministry, suggesting the depths to which drug cartels have gone in trying to infiltrate one of the primary forces Mr. Calderón has counted on to combat them.
The three generals, Mexican officials have said, played a role in facilitating drug trafficking, and the accusations against the third general include that he ignored a tip by American drug agents about an imminent airplane delivery of a drug cartel’s cocaine in December 2007.
One of the men arrested, Tomás Ángeles Dauahare, a general who retired in 2008, was the second-highest-ranking official in the Defense Ministry during the first two years of Mr. Calderón’s offensive against drug violence and had been mentioned as a possible choice for the top job. In the early 1990s, he served as the defense attaché at the Mexican Embassy in Washington.
Drug Money Hidden in Horse Racing, Say U.S. Authorities
A top drug trafficker’s brother — José Treviño Morales — was behind a U.S. horse breeding operation, called Tremor Enterprises, that officials say laundered millions of dollars in drug money.
Mr. Treviño’s younger brother, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, is second in command of Mexico’s Zetas drug trafficking organization. The cartel’s lead enforcer — infamous for dismembering his victims while they are still alive — Miguel Treviño is one of the most wanted drug traffickers in the world.
The Trevino brothers’ company, Tremor, bought a sprawling ranch in Oklahoma and an estimated 300 stallions and mares. The brothers might have kept their operation quiet, given the criminal connection, but their passion for horses and winning apparently proved too tempting. In the short span of three years, Tremor won three of the industry’s biggest races, with prizes totaling some $2.5 million.
On June 12, 2012, the Justice Department moved against Tremor, dispatching several helicopters and hundreds of law enforcement agents to the company’s stables in Ruidoso and its ranch in Oklahoma. Jose Treviño and several associates were taken into custody and were expected to be charged later in the day, authorities said.
An affidavit prepared before the raids said the drug cartel Zetas funneled about $1 million a month into buying quarter horses in the United States. The authorities were tipped off to Tremor’s activities in January 2010, when the Zetas paid more than $1 million in a single day for two broodmares, the affidavit said.
The brothers’ activities on either side of the border made for a stark contrast. One week in May began with the authorities pointing fingers at Miguel Ángel Treviño for dumping the bodies of 49 people — without heads, hands or feet — in garbage bags along a busy highway in northern Mexico. The week concluded with José Treviño fielding four Tremor horses in a prestigious race at Los Alamitos Race Course, near Los Angeles.
The New York Times became aware of Tremor’s activities in December 2011 while reporting on the Zetas. The Times learned of the government’s investigation in May 2012 and agreed to hold the story until the June 12 arrests.
Presidential Election Promises a Shift in Strategy
Mexico’s next presidential election is July 1, 2012. The top three candidates — Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vázquez Mota and Andrés Manuel López Obrador — have all promised a major shift in the country’s drug war strategy. They are placing a higher priority on reducing the violence in Mexico than on using arrests and seizures to block the flow of drugs to the United States.
The candidates have all vowed to continue to fight drug trafficking, but have said they intend to eventually withdraw the Mexican Army from the drug fight. They are concerned that the army has proved unfit for police work and has contributed to the high death tollThe front-runner, Mr. Peña Nieto, does not emphasize stopping drug shipments or capturing drug kingpins as he enters the final weeks of campaigning for the election. He has suggested that while Mexico should continue to work with the United States government against organized crime, it should not “subordinate to the strategies of other countries.”
United States officials have been careful not to publicly weigh in on the race or the prospect of a changed strategy, for fear of being accused of meddling. Still, the potential shift, reflecting the thinking of a growing number of crime researchers, has raised concern that the next president could essentially turn a blind eye to the cartels.
Although drug consumption is rising in Mexico, drug production and trafficking are seen primarily as American problems that matter less than the crime they spawn.
To shift the drug war toward combating violence, the next president faces a costly and exceedingly difficult job of cleansing and rebuilding poorly trained police agencies and judicial institutions rife with corruption, a job Mr. Calderón began.
The focus on arresting top traffickers and extraditing them to the United States has weakened several organizations, the Mexican and American authorities have insisted, but the bloodshed caused by newly emergent and splintering groups has overwhelmed the local and state authorities and left the impression that the antidrug forces are losing ground.
Violence on the Border
The violence has slackened in many areas along the border, including Ciudad Juárez, the bloodiest city, where homicides have been declining. Mexican officials say the decrease is proof that they are making headway, but analysts say it may have more to do with one rival group’s defeat of another, reducing competition and the bloodshed that comes with it.
The shift in the center of violence may reflect the shifting contours of the fights between criminal organizations. Analysts say the battle is increasingly coming down to a fight to the death between the Sinaloa cartel, a more traditional drug-trafficking organization widely considered the most powerful, and Los Zetas, founded by former soldiers and considered the most violent as it expands into extortion, kidnapping and other rackets in regions far off the drug route map. A third, the Gulf Cartel, remains well armed and rises to attack from time to time.
With Mr. Calderon leaving office in November 2012, in fall 2011, he moved to lock in the militarized approach to drug cartels that has defined his tenure. He stepped up calls for Mexico’s Congress to approve stalled initiatives to remake state and local police forces, codify the military’s role in fighting crime and broaden its powers, toughen the federal penal code and tighten laws to stop money laundering.
To many Mexicans, the rising count of gruesome drug-related murders is evidence that the government’s strategy has failed. The violence has been fueled in part by the splintering of drug organizations under siege, which led to escalating rounds of bloody infighting over territory and criminal rackets.
In February 2011, the Pentagon began flying high-altitude, unarmed drones over Mexican skies in hopes of collecting information to turn over to Mexican law enforcement agencies.
A Homeland Security drone was said to have helped Mexican authorities find several suspects linked to the Feb. 15, 2011, killing of Jaime Zapata, a United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Immigration agent.
In March 2010, gunmen believed to be linked to drug traffickers shot a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband to death in the violence-racked border town of Ciudad Juárez. The gunmen also killed the husband of another consular employee and wounded his two young children.
The killings followed threats against American diplomats along the Mexican border and complaints from consulate workers that drug-related violence was growing untenable, American officials said. Even before the shootings, the State Department had quietly made the decision to allow consulate workers to evacuate their families across the border to the United States.
The inability to control the violence, with fresh horrors nearly every week, has rattled even some admirers in the United States Congress, who have begun to question publicly whether Mr. Calderón’s strategy — supported by the $1.4 billion in anticrime aid the United States is providing through the multiyear Merida Initiative — is making progress.
In response to critics, Mr. Calderón has said his government was the first one to take on the drug trafficking organizations. But Mexicans wonder if they are paying too high a price and some have begun openly speaking of decriminalizing drugs to reduce the sizable profits the gangs receive.
Strengthening Civilian Law Enforcement
While Mr. Calderon dismissed suggestions that Mexico is a failed state, he and his aides have spoken frankly of the cartels’ attempts to set up a state within a state, levying taxes, throwing up roadblocks and enforcing their own perverse codes of behavior.
Responding to a growing sense that Mexico’s military-led fight against drug traffickers was not gaining ground, the United States and Mexico set their counternarcotics strategy on a new course in March 2010 by refocusing their efforts on strengthening civilian law enforcement institutions and rebuilding communities crippled by poverty and crime.
The $331 million plan was at the center of a visit to Mexico at that time by several senior Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The revised strategy had many elements meant to expand on and improve programs already under way as part of the so-called Mérida Initiative that was started by the Bush administration including cooperation among American and Mexican intelligence agencies and American support for training Mexican police officers, judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
Under the revised strategy, officials said, American and Mexican agencies would work together to refocus border enforcement efforts away from building a better wall to creating systems that would allow goods and people to be screened before they reached the crossing points. The plan would also provide support for Mexican programs intended to strengthen communities where socioeconomic hardships force many young people into crime.
Documenting the Turmoil
In September 2010, the newspaper El Diario Ciudad Juárez published an open letter to the city’s drug lords and the authorities it believed had failed to protect the public. It ran the day after the funeral of Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, a photography intern at the paper who was shot dead on Sept. 16, 2010, while leaving a shopping mall after lunch.
All along the border, news organizations had silenced themselves out of fear and intimidation from drug trafficking organizations, but El Diario had a reputation for carrying on — and paying a price. One of its reporters had been gunned down several years before.
While its editorial called for a truce between crime groups and the media — noting that “even in war there are rules” that “safeguard the integrity of the journalists who cover them” — the paper insisted that it would not back down.
Acts against news organizations in 2010 included the kidnapping of four journalists, who were released after one station broadcast videos as demanded by that their abductors. In August of the same year, a car bomb detonated outside a regional office of Televisa, the leading national network.
The U.S. Builds a Network
As the United States has opened new law enforcement and intelligence outposts across Mexico in recent years, Washington’s networks of informants have grown there as well, current and former officials said. They have helped Mexican authorities capture or kill about two dozen high-ranking and midlevel drug traffickers, and sometimes have given American counternarcotics agents access to the top leaders of the cartels they are trying to dismantle.
Typically, the officials said, Mexico is kept in the dark about the United States’ contacts with its most secret informants — including Mexican law enforcement officers, elected officials and cartel operatives — partly because of concerns about corruption among the Mexican police, and partly because of laws prohibiting American security forces from operating on Mexican soil.
In recent years, Mexican attitudes about American involvement in matters of national security have softened. And the United States, hoping to shore up Mexico’s stability and prevent its violence from spilling across the border, has expanded its role in ways unthinkable five years ago, including flying drones in Mexican skies.
The efforts have been credited with breaking up several of Mexico’s largest cartels into smaller crime groups. But the violence continues, as does the northward flow of illegal drugs.
While using informants remains a largely clandestine affair, several recent cases have shed light on the kinds of investigations they have helped crack, including a plot in which the United States accused an Iranian-American car salesman of trying to hire killers from a Mexican drug cartel, known as Los Zetas, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
American officials said Drug Enforcement Administration informants with links to the cartels also helped the authorities track down several suspects linked to the case of Mr. Zapata, who is alleged to have been shot to death by members of Los Zetas in central Mexico.