Mexico News and Analysis: Feb 23 - Mar 1, 2009

1. Organized crime dominates the news
2. Indigenous leaders assassinated in Guerrero

1. Organized crime dominates the news
Organized crime dominated Mexico’s news this week as the US State Department released an annual report on drug trafficking, the US Consulate issued a security alert for Mexican border cities, the Calderon administration ramped up its critique of the opposition PRI around security issues in anticipation of this summer’s elections, US authorities announced drug busts in three states related to the Sinaloa Cartel, and Mexican authorities committed an additional 6,000 troops to Ciudad Juarez.

The Calderon administration will send 5,000 army troops and 1,000 Federal Preventative Police to Ciudad Juarez, in addition to 2,000 troops already mobilized since March 27, 2008.  Eighteen hundred troops arrived this weekend, with the rest expected next week.  Three drug cartels - the Juarez Cartel aka La Linea, the Sinaloa Cartel aka Gente Nueva, and the Michoacan Cartel aka La Familia - are battling for control of this border city of 1.8 million that accounts for 40% of the illegal drugs entering the US.  In the past 14 months, at least 2,750 cartel members, police and army troops have been murdered, with many of the bodies exhibiting signs of torture. 
The beefed up force will triple the number of security patrols on the streets of Juarez from 150 to 450, and the army is expected to step up its use of arbitrary street closures and warrantless home searches.  Calderon agreed to send the troops after a February 25 meeting of his Security Cabinet with state and local officials in which the mayor of Juarez agreed to cover the costs of food and lodging.  Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes from the opposition PRI reportedly opposed the federal initiative, despite an attack by cartel members on his caravan last Sunday night that killed a bodyguard.  Reyes, who has long been linked with drug cartels, shrugged off the attack and claimed he was not the intended target.  Also on Sunday, cartels posted banners threatening Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz after he threatened to clean up the local police force.  As much as 80% of the officers are suspected of being on cartel payrolls.  Earlier in the week, Juarez Police Chief Roberto Oduño quit, two days after cartel banners threatened that a police office would be killed every 48 hours if the chief remained on the job.  Cartels often send public messages by hanging large banners at busy intersections or overpasses.

The troop buildup includes eight helicopters and two troop transport planes from the Air Force.  The objective is to place Juarez “under siege” by saturating the “theater of operations” with heavily armed troops.  The army plans to use Juarez as a proving ground for new strategies that, if successful, will likely be used in other problem states, including Sinaloa, Baja California and Guererro.  Calderon promised to “finally end” the presence of organized crime in Juarez, a tall order for an administration that has made precious little progress in its national war on drugs despite sending over 45,000 troops into action.

Meanwhile, the US State Department released its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report on Friday.  The report applauded President Felipe Calderon for making headway in the struggle against drug cartels, but warned “progress, however, comes against a backdrop of continuing high levels of corruption and turmoil within Mexico’s security and judicial bodies. Corruption throughout Mexico’s public institutions remains a key impediment to successfully curtailing the power of the drug cartels.”  The report found, “the restructuring of security forces, coupled with the military's strong engagement in the fight to dismantle major drug trafficking organizations, has proven to be effective,” despite little evidence to support the sweeping conclusion.  The report noted high levels of corruption at all levels of the Mexican government, especially the federal level: “in the last year, various Mexican government officials have come under investigation for alleged corruption and money laundering activities. The Government of Mexico took on internal corruption in 2008 and launched a ‘cleaning operation’ aimed at ending corruption inside its enforcement agencies, including the Office of the Attorney General - Special Unit for Organized Crime (PGR-SIEDO), the Secretariat for Public Security (SPP), the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), and the Federal Investigative Agency (AFI). In November 2008, PGR agents apprehended the former Deputy Attorney General of SIEDO. To date, eight enforcement agents from PFP and PGR have been apprehended and accused of leaking confidential information to drug cartels.” 

The Calderon administration has come under increasing criticism for concentrating on disrupting narcotics transport roots with little emphasis on money-laundering.  The report emphasizes this major shortcoming: “The PGR’s [Federal Attorney General] special financial crimes unit is understaffed. The lack of personnel - including more field investigators, prosecutors, and auditors - monetary resources, a comprehensive and modern database, technological equipment, as well as the vulnerability of its facilities undermine the unit’s efforts. Of the estimated US$10 billion circulating illegally in the banking system, the PGR is only able to attack one percent of this amount.”

More than 6,000 people were killed last year in drug-related violence.  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reports that Mexico’s cartels are expanding their activities into kidnapping, extortion and black market goods. 

Elements of the same gangs, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel, control large segments of the US narcotics market. The Sinaloa Cartel reportedly has connections in at least 230 US cities in 26 states, including control of the airport in Stow, Ohio. Over the past two years, the FBI and DEA arrested more than 750 people across the US affiliated with the cartel.  “Operation Xcellerator” netted more than US$59 million in cash, 149 vehicles, three aircraft and three ships used by the cartel, plus 16,000 pounds of marijuana, 12,000 kilos of cocaine and 1.3 million Ecstasy pills.  Forty-eight people were arrested on Wednesday in Maryland, Minnesota and California, culminating the two year investigation.  More than US$14 billion worth of illegal drugs is smuggled into the US through Mexico each year, an indication that Operation Xcellerator may have only scratched the surface.

Mexican cartels get most of their weapons from the US, where more than 600 gun shops are located along the US-Mexico border.  Mexican security forces often find themselves overmatched as cartel members use machine guns, mortars, grenades, assault rifles, and rocket launchers, with more than 90% purchased in the US.  “The Second Amendment was never designed to arm criminal groups, especially not foreign criminal groups,” says Mexico Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora. “We believe that much more needs to be done. We need a much more committed effort from the U.S.”

Organized crime is waging the equivalent of “small unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades,” according to a Travel Alert issued last week by the US Consulate.  “Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.  During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area,” according to the Travel Alert, though no US citizens have been killed during these confrontations.  The Travel Alert cautions US citizens to take reasonable precautions when traveling in Mexico, particularly in the border region.  The Travel Alert, in conjunction with the annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report and recent comments about “violence spillover” by several border Governors, appear to be setting the scene for more direct US involvement in Mexico’s drug war, possibly with increased funding for security forces and/or direct intervention by DEA agents or US military personnel.

And finally, the Calderon administration launched an early campaign strategy late last week directed at the PRI, Mexico’s former ruling party which is expected to do well in this summer’s mid-term elections.  Calderon is trying to make the war on drugs the centerpiece of the PAN’s campaign, particularly after former President Ernesto Zedillo called for the decriminalization of marijuana.  Several high ranking officials accused PRI governors of hindering the fight against organized crime, with veiled implications that they were on cartel payrolls.  Despite the number of high ranking officials in the Calderon administration who are in jail or under suspicion of drug links, including Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, the PRI is also easily linked to corruption, with several northern governors suspected of long-standing links to cartels.  And the PRD is not exempt.  Just this week a the Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) arrested the recently retired mayor of Ixtapaluca, Mario Mareno, who was expected to run for Congress this summer.  He is accused of receiving monthly payoffs from a local group of kidnappers.

2. Indigenous leaders assassinated in Guerrero
The bodies of two indigenous leaders, kidnapped last week by armed men dressed as police, were found this week in Guerrero.  Raul Lucas and Manuel Ponce, leaders of the Organization for the Future of the Mixteco People, were participating in the inauguration of two schools in Ayutla de los Libres in the mountains of Guerrero on February 13 when heavily armed men forced them into an unmarked car.  The local Secretary of Public Security, Luis Sanchez, was present at the inauguration but departed suddenly just minutes before the kidnapping and after receiving a phone call.  Lucas in particular had a long history of activism in favor of his Mixteco community and had been threatened many times by the army, the police and local paramilitary groups.  He was a survivor of the infamous El Charco massacre in 1999, and a member of the Otra Campaña.  Lucas was a tireless defender of human rights and a highly respected organizer.  The UN High Commission for Human Rights condemned the assassinations and called for a thorough investigation by federal authorities because of the “inefficiency” of the state Attorney General.