l. “You will be carrying money, of course. And our weapons.”
“Hey, buddy. I want you to know something,” Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán-Loera said to the veteran helicopter pilot who he nicknamed ‘Tinieblo’ (Twilight). The pilot had just arrived in Sinaloa, Mexico from Miami, to begin flying for Guzmán-Loera.
“I’m all ears, Mr. Guzmán,” answered the pilot. He knew his new boss was no saint, but didn’t know much else.
“Do you recognize me?” inquired Guzmán.
“I’m afraid I don’t, sir,” answered the pilot.
“I’m no little angel,” Guzmán said. “But later I’ll tell you the story of a cardinal of the Catholic Church they assassinated, mistaking him for me.”
In the wake of the daring prison escape pulled off on July 11 by notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán, aka “El Chapo” (shorty), artnet News looked into how big a role art has played in his illicit activities and money laundering.
(Reuters) – Colombian authorities have arrested a Costa Rican man accused of trafficking shipments of cocaine to the United States on behalf of Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa cartel.
Oscar Antonio Berrocal, 52, was detained late on Thursday after arriving in the Colombian capital Bogota on a flight from Ecuador, where he lives.
“Berrocal, known to authorities under the aliases Charlie, the Chef, Finquero and Rolex, is required by U.S. authorities for alleged cocaine trafficking,” migration officials said in a statement. “In Colombia there is a valid order for his arrest and extradition.”
Authorities said Berrocal is accused of coordinating the shipment of large quantities of cocaine to the United States for the Sinaloa cartel, one of the world’s largest drug trafficking organizations, often via smuggling networks in Central America.
The cartel is infamous in Mexico, where its leader Joaquin Guzman, alias ‘El Chapo’, was captured in February after 13 years on the run.
Colombia is a principal producer of cocaine, with an annual output of about 290 tons, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The country’s once-prolific drug cartels have been weakened by U.S.-backed police offensives over the last two decades and now act mainly as suppliers for Mexican organizations.
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,
EL CAJON — For its many regulars, the Chaldean social club in El Cajon is a place to drink tea or coffee, play Dominoes and discuss the news of the day.
But federal and local authorities say the social club, tucked in a nondescript brick strip mall behind a metal security door, is also the headquarters of an Iraqi drug- and gun-trafficking organization with ties to a Mexican drug cartel and a Detroit crime syndicate.
Sixty people associated with the social club at 811 E. Main St. have been arrested over the past 10 days in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Shadowbox,” and investigators were continuing to hunt for others implicated in the scheme.
SWAT teams served search warrants on the club late Wednesday night, seizing more than $16,000 in cash as well as evidence of illegal gambling, authorities said.
More than 100 people inside the club at the time were detained and then released.
The cornerstone of the alleged operation involves club members arranging narcotics shipments from Mexico with help from the Sinaloa drug cartel. The illicit products were then trafficked to the Chaldean Organized Crime Syndicate in Detroit, officials said.
The syndicate has operated since the early 1980s in Detroit, which has the largest concentration of Chaldeans in the nation, and has been associated with crimes including murder, arson, money laundering, fraud, human smuggling, kidnapping and armed robbery.
The El Cajon area boasts the second-largest concentration of Chaldeans, with a population of more than 47,000.
Undercover agents made several drug buys over eight months, in El Cajon and around San Diego County, with the amounts getting bigger and bigger, said El Cajon Police Chief Pat Sprecco. Agents and confidential informants also purchased or were offered guns, explosives and even a hand grenade supplied from a Mexican military source.
The operation began in January, two months after Sprecco asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for help to combat a spike in drug sales and violence on the city’s streets.
After a number of hand-to-hand undercover drug buys, investigators realized all roads led to the social club, Sprecco said.
The club has long been a source of complaints from the public and a suspected hub of criminal activity, officials said.
Crimes documented there have included attempted murder, drug sales, gambling, illegal liquor sales and firearms sales.
Complaints have also been plentiful over the years. Wives of men who attend the club have complained about how their family’s money is being gambled away.
Neighbors have complained about drug sales and prostitution. Even club members have registered their distaste for a criminal element hanging around the club.
Investigators learned that the club managers were aware of the criminal activity and demanded a portion of the proceeds. Armed guards are often on hand during high stakes card games, Sprecco said.
There have been a number of busts and arrests at the club over the years, including a 1998 investigation into illegal gambling and a 2009 probe of gun and grenade sales.
Infiltrating the tight community of Iraqis proved to be difficult, Sprecco said. Help from the DEA, as well as from a host of state and federal agencies, helped strike at the heart of the organization this time, he said.
“We didn’t expect this level of success,” Sprecco said. “We were happily surprised with the inroads of this investigation.”
Eight defendants, including one of the alleged leaders, Nofel Noel Suleyman, 22, were arraigned in federal court in San Diego Thursday afternoon, and a ninth has also been indicted.
At least 21 defendants are being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office, mostly on methamphetamine-related charges.
Other agencies that participated included Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, Internal Revenue Service, sheriff’s and FBI bomb squads, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This is one case that has the ability to have a real impact on life and on the enjoyment of the quality of life,” said San Diego U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.
The investigation has culminated in the seizure of more than 13 pounds of methamphetamine; more than 5 pounds of ecstasy, pharmaceuticals, crack cocaine, heroin and cocaine; and more than 3,500 pounds of marijuana, most of which was likely smuggled through maritime routes controlled by the Sinaloa Federation.
The cartel, headed by one of the world’s most wanted men, Joaquin “El Chapo,” Guzman Loera, has recently been allowed access to areas the Tijuana cartel once controlled.
Investigators also seized more than $630,000 in cash, three luxury cars, 34 firearms and four improvised explosive devices. The club has been shut down by the city and will undergo an abatement process.
Several club patrons said Thursday that for the most part the club hosted good Chaldeans who were just there to socialize. But they said the club also drew a bad element, with illegally stashed liquor and people doing drugs in the back alley late at night.
Saud Khairo, who has run the Kevin’s Hair Salon barbershop at the front of the strip mall for 12 years, said he hopes the raid will help his business by bringing back customers who may have been scared away by the club’s activities.
Mark Arabo, a local Chaldean and president of the Neighborhood Market Association, applauded police for making the city safer.
“This in no way, not even a half of one percent, is representational of the Chaldean community at large,” Arabo said. “Chaldeans are hardworking, great family people, Christians and give back to the community. There are so many great things Chaldeans do for the community, so this just comes as a shock.”
The U.S. antinarcotics agency believe the drug lord is in Sinaloa, where a source told teleSUR he was after his escape.
Almost four weeks after the escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the U.S. government released a statement saying it believes the world’s most powerful and most wanted drug lord is still in Mexico.
Guzman is more than likely in Sinaloa state, they say, a suspicion shared by a source with teleSUR immediately after his alleged jailbreak.
Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, told reporters U.S. federal agents are working with Mexican authorities on the recapture of Guzman, who supposedly fled the maximum security Almoloya de Juarez jail through a mile-long tunnel leading directly from his cell to an empty house.
“Where is he (Guzman) probably the safest and best protected?” Rosenberg asked during a press conference and replied.
“Probably in Sinaloa.” Guzman and his closest associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, run the Sinaloa cartel. They control large swaths of land, from just outside the Sinaloan capital Culiacan all the way up to Badiraguato, the municipality where El Chapo was born. He also said he was “not terribly surprised” to find out that Guzman had broken out of prison for a second time.
In 2001, he escaped the El Puente Grande maximum security jail in the northern state of Jalisco and was recaptured early 2014. The DEA official criticized the Mexican government, saying it had “institutional problems” that make sharing intelligence gathering very difficult.
“We have sources in Mexico we can work closely with. It doesn’t extend throughout the entire government,” he said at the briefing with reporters. Rosenberg said the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the State Department are involved in the recapture of Guzman.
His statement comes the same day the DEA launched a new poster offering a US$5-million reward for information that will lead to Guzman’s recapture. Mexico has offered close to US$4 million.