SÃO PAULO, Brazil—This country’s largest criminal organization is recruiting members of Colombia’s once-powerful rebel group as it seeks heavy-weapons and other expertise to help expand its hold over Latin America’s drug trade, investigators and officials in both countries say.
First Capital Command aims to broaden its criminal footprint with Colombian rebels’ heavy-weapons skills.
An official Vatican car with diplomatic licence plates has been found riddled with several kilos of cocaine and cannabis in the French Alps, according to local reports.
The car belongs to an Argentine cardinal, 91-year-old Jorge Maria Mejia, who is also emeritus librarian at the Holy See. Mejia retired in 2003 and is confined to bed following an heart attack. Pope Francis visited Mejia just two days after being elected.
According to French newspaper Le Monde, the cardinal’s personal secretary entrusted two Italian men, aged 31 and 41, with taking the car for its annual checkup.
They drove the vehicle to Spain to buy four kilos of cocaine and 200 grams of cannabis and returned to France, according to reports, in the belief that the diplomatic plates would protect them.
But in Chambery, near the border with Switzerland and Italy, the two were stopped by customs officers for a routine check. After the bizarre discovery, they were arrested and taken into custody. Judicial police in Lyon have opened an investigation for drug trafficking.
The Vatican confirmed the car had been stopped in France with the drugs on board. Since neither of the men had Vatican diplomatic passports, the Vatican is not legally implicated, French sources say.
CHILAPA, Mexico — For nearly a week, gun-toting masked men loyal to a local drug gang overran this small city along a key smuggling route.
Police officers and soldiers stood by as the gunmen patrolled the streets, searching for rivals and hauling off at least 14 men who have not been seen since.
“They’re fighting over the route through Chilapa,” said Virgilio Nava, whose 21-year-old son, a truck driver for the family construction supply business, was one of the men seized in May, though he had no apparent links to either gang. “But we’re the ones who are affected.”
For years, the United States has pushed countries battling powerful drug cartels, like Mexico, to decapitate the groups by killing or arresting their leaders.
The pinnacle of that strategy was the capture of Mexico’s most powerful trafficker, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, who escaped in spectacular fashion last month from a maximum-security prison.
And while the arrests of kingpins make for splashy headlines, the result has been a fragmenting of the cartels and spikes in violence in places like Chilapa, a city of about 31,000, as smaller groups fight for control.
Like a hydra, it seems that each time the government cuts down a cartel, multiple other groups, sometimes even more vicious, spring up to take its place.
“In Mexico, this has been a copy of the American antiterrorism strategy of high-value targets,” said Raúl Benítez Manaut, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in security issues.
“What we have seen with the strategy of high-value targets is that Al Qaeda has been diminished, but a monster appeared called the Islamic State. With the cartels, it has been similar.”
While the large cartels are like monopolies involved in the production, transportation, distribution and sale of drugs, experts say, the smaller groups often lack international reach and control only a portion of the drug supply chain.
They also frequently resort to other criminal activities to boost their income, like kidnapping, car theft, protection rackets and human trafficking.
And while the big cartels have the resources to buy off government officials at the national level, the smaller gangs generally focus on the local and state levels, often with disastrous consequences for communities.
That was abundantly clear in a case that stunned the nation last year, when 43 students disappeared in Iguala, a city a short distance from Chilapa.
Government investigators say that the mayor and the police in Iguala were allied with a local drug gang, which murdered the students and burned their bodies. Like here, the disappearances took place amid a fight over territory between local traffickers.
The fracturing of the cartels into smaller gangs requires a very different approach from what is being pursued at the national level, analysts say.
But even after the disappearance of the students made it obvious that fundamental changes were needed, the violence and abductions here in Chilapa have again laid bare the government’s inability or unwillingness to come up with an effective response.
“It’s as if nothing ever happened, as if there hadn’t been any precedent,” said José Reveles, an author of books on drug trafficking.
Successive governments have talked about a vast reform of the country’s police, but their efforts failed to weed out corruption and create professional security forces.
President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a series of changes last November, including centralizing control of the local police in each state, but that has not been carried out.
All these problems are on agonizing display here in Chilapa.
Residents and government officials say that Chilapa sits astride a route for smuggling marijuana and opium paste that is contested by two gangs.
They ascended after the government succeeded in jailing or killing the leaders of the Beltrán Leyva cartel, which had previously dominated the region.
A group known as the Rojos, or Reds, now controls the city, residents and officials said. But the rural towns nearby are controlled by the Ardillos, whose name is derived from the word for squirrel. Residents have openly accused the mayor of ties to the Rojos, which he denies.
Violence between the groups has been accelerating for months. A candidate for mayor was assassinated in May, a few days after a candidate for governor was menaced by heavily armed men manning a roadblock.
It is common for bodies to be found, sometimes beheaded or with signs of torture. Last month, a beheaded body was left with a note: “Here’s your garbage, possums with tails.” Two days later, seven bodies were found. One was decapitated, with a message cut into the torso: “Sincerely, Rojos.”
Residents say that the gunmen who overran the town on May 9 were led by the Ardillos. The invaders disarmed the local police and began hauling men off.
“They said, ‘Bring us the mayor, bring us El Chaparro,’ ” said Matilde Abarca, 44, referring to the nickname of the head of the Rojos. Ms. Abarca’s 25-year-old son, a fruit seller, was grabbed by a group of masked gunmen, beaten and driven off in a pickup truck.
She said that the gunmen said they would return the abducted residents if the townspeople turned over the Rojos leader. At one point, some residents held a protest march, which the gunmen confronted in a tense standoff.
The occupation occurred even though soldiers and elite federal police officers were stationed in Chilapa because of the rising violence.
But instead of forcing out the invaders, witnesses said the authorities simply stood by while the masked gunmen seized and intimidated residents, a contention supported by photographs and cellphone videos.
Some say that the authorities held back because the invaders claimed to be a community defense force, like those that have sprung up elsewhere to confront traffickers in the absence of government action.
The government has been criticized for repressing similar community defense groups, and the paralysis in Chilapa showed its lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with them. Other residents viewed the government’s passivity as outright complicity with the gangs.
“When they took the people away, there were police and soldiers there, and they did nothing,” said Victoria Salmerón, whose brother, a clothing seller, disappeared during the takeover. “It was as if they were on their side.”
Since the occupation ended on May 14, federal and state police have stayed on hand to keep order, and officials have pledged to investigate the disappearances. But there is virtually no sign of progress.
Aldy Esteban, the administrator for the municipal government, said that no leaders of either gang had been arrested since the May invasion.
“There’s clear evidence who took them, but we’ve had no answer” from the authorities, said Bernardo Carreto, a farmer who watched his three sons be taken away when they arrived in Chilapa to sell a calf. “They’re ignoring us. No one’s been arrested. Nothing has happened.”
The relatives of the 14 missing men meet daily in a restaurant near the tree-shaded town square. A government human rights official said that 10 more men may have disappeared during the takeover, but that the relatives are too scared to come forward.
Many of them cling to the hope that their loved ones may still be alive, perhaps forced to work on poppy or marijuana farms.
“They took them alive and they must return them alive,” said Mr. Carreto, echoing a slogan used by the relatives of the students who disappeared last year.
In that case, the National Human Rights Commission issued a report in July saying that the investigation into the students’ disappearance was deeply flawed and that vital leads were not pursued.
José Díaz, 52, a spokesman for the families here in Chilapa, said that about 100 people in the area have disappeared since the middle of last year, including his two brothers and a cousin.
He said his relatives had no connection to the gangs and were kidnapped simply because they were from Chilapa and entered Ardillo territory.
Five headless bodies were later found, which he believes included those of his relatives, but he said that the government has not revealed results of DNA testing that could identify the corpses.
René Hernández, a spokesman for the Mexican attorney general’s office, said in an email that investigators have withheld some information from residents “to continue moving forward with the identification and location of the criminal groups in order to take definitive action without putting the residents at risk.”
Recent government data shows that the national murder rate has been steadily declining since its peak in 2011, which the government cites as evidence that its approach is working.
Despite the decline, many areas of the country continue to be shaken by violence as smaller groups of traffickers battle to fill the vacuum left by the deterioration of the large cartels.
Experts believe that even the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which is run by Mr. Guzmán, will eventually go the way of other large trafficking organizations and break into pieces, even with its leader once again at large.
“For Mexican organized crime, El Chapo is not the future,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official. “El Chapo is a remnant, a powerful remnant, but a remnant of the past all the same.”
Referring to the violence-convulsed state where Chilapa is, he added,
Pope Francis blesses the faithful from the backseat of his car as he leaves the Quirinale Presidential palace.
Police in France find cocaine and marijuana in a vehicle with Holy See diplomatic plates belonging to Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia
Pope Francis may have often spoken out against the “evil” of drug use, but the Vatican was facing embarrassment on Tuesday after 9lb of cocaine was found in a car bearing diplomatic plates associated with the Holy See.
The car, which was stopped and searched in France, belonged to Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Maria Mejia, who had entrusted it to two Italian men.
Aged 91, the cardinal retired in 2003 and holds the title of emeritus librarian at the Holy See.
The two men, aged 30 and 41, had reportedly been told by his private secretary to take the car for a routine service.
Instead they promptly drove to Spain, where they allegedly bought the cocaine and from there drove into France. They reportedly believed that the car’s diplomatic status would place them above suspicion.
But on Sunday they were stopped at a toll station near Chambery in the French Alps, en route back to Italy, where police found the cocaine hidden in suitcases and bags, along with seven ounces of cannabis.
They were arrested and will appear in front of a French magistrate on charges of drug trafficking.
The Vatican confirmed the report, but said that as both men were Italian rather than citizens of the Vatican City State, it had nothing to do with the Holy See.
Cardinal Mejia is not well and obviously has nothing to do with this,” said Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “It’s now up to the police to pursue their investigations.”
Pope Francis has often warned of the dangers of taking drugs, most recently in June when he called addiction an “evil”.
He is firmly opposed to the legalisation of any drugs, despite moves in many countries in the West, including several states in the US, to allow the personal consumption of soft drugs such as marijuana.
“I would reaffirm what I have stated on another occasion: no to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that,” he told a drug enforcement conference in Rome.
Drug trafficking “continues to spread inexorably,” he said, adding it was fuelled by “a deplorable commerce which transcends national borders.”