Mexico’s drug war has created the second deadliest conflict area in the world after only Syria, according to a global survey.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported that the six-year war in Syria is the world’s deadliest conflict zone for the fifth consecutive year, causing an estimated 50,000 casualties in 2016. The Armed Conflict Survey 2017, the IISS annual summary of conflicts and casualties worldwide published on Tuesday, found that the war on drugs plaguing Central America has received ”scant attention.”
President Trump in a phone call with his Mexican counterpart threatened to send U.S. troops to stop “bad hombres down there” unless that country’s military does more to control them, and scrapped with Australia’s prime minister in another call.
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump told Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, according to the excerpt given to The Associated Press.
“You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
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,
It has the drugs and distribution system of a traditional cartel – and it has the modern weapons and audacity of an army. After attacking federal forces, downing a military helicopter and shutting down streets in Mexico’s second-largest city this month, New Generation Jalisco cartel is now the main enemy in the country’s fight with drug cartels.
In just a few years, New Generation has grown from being an offshoot of the powerful Sinaloa cartel to one of Mexico’s strongest criminal groups in its own right, according to the US Treasury Department, whose Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains a “black list” of drug trafficking organisations.
Its quick rise reflects a rapidly changing organised-crime landscape in Mexico as the government targets top leaders of established cartels. More than any other criminal group, New Generation has taken advantage of the government’s top-capo strategy, strengthening and grabbing territory from other cartels as they are weakened.
“You’re talking about a powerful, large organisation with grand logistics, well-made structures, a strong group of assassins, and dedicated and qualified people with high-calibre weaponry,” Guillermo Valdes, a security expert and former director of the Mexican intelligence agency, said. “It’s a new cartel, a second generation born in a restructuring process.”
The strategy of hitting the top leadership began in 2006 under President Felipe Calderon and has continued under his successor, Enrique Pena Nieto.
As a result, large organisations have been fragmented, leaving smaller, leaderless groups to fight among themselves over control of local organised crime activities and drug-smuggling routes to the north.
When Calderon was in office, there were five major cartels. Today, the Mexican attorney general lists nine major groups and 43 smaller factions.
New Generation has its origin in that fragmentation.
While it has operated for years, it surged in public notoriety this month after it waged brazen attacks in and around Guadalajara, a major technology and manufacturing hub and the capital of Jalisco state. But the city, about 460km northwest of Mexico City, is also where Mexico’s largest drug cartels were born.
Leaders of the original Guadalajara cartel were captured in the 1980s, provoking a surge in what Valdes calls the first generation of cartels, many of which still exist, including Sinaloa, Beltran Leyva, Gulf, Zetas and Juarez cartels. But hits on their leaders have left all but Sinaloa as just remnants of their former selves.
In little more than a year, the government has arrested Sinaloa’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Beltran Leyva’s Hector Beltran Leyva, Juarez’s Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Knights Templar’s Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, and the Zetas’ Omar Trevino Morales. It killed Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno.
The strength of New Generation surprised many on May 1 when federal authorities mounted an operation, reportedly targeting New Generation leader Nemesio Oseguera:
The cartel responded almost immediately with roadblocks and arson attacks in Guadalajara and two dozen other cities. It used a rocket-propelled grenade to force down a military helicopter carrying 16 military personnel and two federal police officers, killing eight people.
And unlike the old major cartels, New Generation is willing to wage war on the state and federal government. The younger drug lords like to show off their money and flaunt their power, even if it brings a direct assault from the government.
For that reason, the May 1 clash may be the beginning of the end of New Generation, said Valdes, the former intelligence agency director.
“The drug business is not going away while we have such a large demand in the United States, but that does not give immortality to any particular group,” he said.
New Generation “just bought the ticket to being enemy No 1”.
Mexico has captured the country’s most wanted drug lord still at large, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, police said Friday, in a boost for President Enrique Pena Nieto as he grapples with grisly gang violence.
Gomez, 49, was the prime target of Pena Nieto’s drive to regain control of Michoacan, a violent western state wracked by clashes between Gomez’s Knights Templar cartel and heavily armed vigilantes trying to oust them.
His arrest comes a year after the capture of Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug smuggling gangs in the world.
It also comes as Pena Nieto seeks to quell outrage over violence, impunity, and corruption in Mexico after the abduction and apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers by corrupt police in league with gang members.
A police spokesman said federal police captured Gomez in Morelia, Michoacan’s state capital, after months of intelligence work. “He will be brought to Mexico City in the coming hours to make a declaration.”
Gomez was arrested at a house without any shots being fired, local media reported.
Last week, police seized many properties in that area and arrested a handful of people connected to La Tuta. Local media reported that earlier operation had led to the arrest of the drug boss.
Police also arrested numerous other people with him.
Since the Mexican government began a military crackdown in 2007 on drug gangs, more than 100,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.
No kingpin sought the limelight as often as Gomez.
Whether railing against political corruption on YouTube, or giving interviews in hideouts to the media, Gomez relentlessly baited the government, accusing it of colluding with rival gangs while defending his Knights Templar as a “necessary evil.”
“Our only function is to help the people, preserve our state, and preserve our country from people causing terror,” Gomez said in a video posted online in 2012, sitting in front of images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other revolutionary icons.
A former school teacher, Gomez insisted the cartel followed a strict ethical code, though as time passed he became more open about the criminal side of a gang that in 2013 held much of the impoverished, mountainous landscape of Michoacan in a firm grip.
During its ascendancy, the Knights Templar extorted a broad sweep of businesses, controlled politicians, and diversified from drug trafficking into a myriad of other businesses including the export of iron ore.
A father of at least seven, Gomez is wanted by the United States for methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking. The Justice Department says he is also implicated in the 2009 murder of 12 Mexican federal police officers.
Drug kingpins turn to trade-based money-laundering
DRUG traffickers, like everyone else, only want money because they want what money can buy. But turning dirty cash from drug sales into clean, usable currency has become harder for Mexican drug gangs as a result of tighter banking regulations at home and in the United States, their main market.
The criminals are responding by piggy-backing on cross-border trade to launder their gains.
On September 10th roughly 1,000 law-enforcement officials raided the Garment District of Los Angeles, seizing at least $65m in cash and arresting nine people. According to court documents, several garment businesses allegedly helped drug traffickers ferry proceeds from sales back into Mexico.
The scheme is relatively simple. Black-market peso brokers contact Mexican importers who want to buy goods from a business in Los Angeles. The broker then finds a gang associate in the United States to pay the bill on behalf of the Mexican importer, using dollars from drug sales. The importer pays the broker in pesos; the broker takes a cut and passes along the remainder to the gang in Mexico.
Such schemes are not new, but they have become more popular as it has become harder to use the banking system to move money. In 2010 Mexico set restrictions on deposits of dollars. It later imposed reporting requirements on cash payments above a certain threshold for items like homes, cars and so on.
The United States has also ramped up its scrutiny of large cash transactions and taken a much firmer line against banks. In 2012 HSBC paid $1.9 billion to regulators in the United States to settle accusations that, among other things, it had failed to monitor transactions involving Mexican drug gangs.
That helps explain why drug kingpins are targeting businesses in Los Angeles, from toy manufacturers to clothing wholesalers, as ways to send money back home. Such firms–some of which are legitimate, some of which are purely fronts–provide convenient cover because of their frequent export of goods to Mexico.
REUTERS/Tomas BravoA gold-plated pistol seized from suspected drug hitmen is displayed to the media at a military base on the outskirts of Monterrey, northern Mexico May 8, 2009.
Claude Arnold, who is in charge of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in Los Angeles, says the dealings have reached unprecedented levels in LA: “We’ve never seen it on such a grand scale before.” In 2013 banks in the United States filed 1,510 “suspicious activity reports” related to possible trade-based money-laundering; over half came from California.
Keeping up with the traffickers will always be a huge task. Estimates vary widely but the Department of Homeland Security reckons that traffickers send as much as $29 billion back to Mexico every year from the United States.
If industrial-scale laundering is happening, say some, smallish manufacturers and cash deposits cannot be the only conduit (Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto this month announced that he would ease rules on cash deposits of dollars for firms). Better to look, too, at capital flows in other industries–property, tourism and the like.
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