Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A short history of Mexican narcocartels: part 1

Cartels and Violence in Mexico: Part I

The Cradle of Traffickers

James Creechan, Ph.D.

May 2009

This document is available as pdf on SCRIBD Documents

Nearly a million people live in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico. It was founded in 1531 and one of the oldest Spanish cities in the Americas but remains relatively unknown outside of Mexico. In spite of the anonymity, it has become an important focal point of NAFTA economic growth.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was a boon to the regional economy since most pacific and western shipping routes transverse Sinaloa. Serving as regional hub, Culiacán has extensive access to the United States through the border port at Nogales, Arizona, and to other interstate highways moving from there through Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. Trucking lanes through Sinaloa feed into many routes serving the American West, and to northern roads into Alberta. These highways have always moved large volumes of traffic in the American West, and are presently being upgraded to deal with congestion after the trade pact made them even more important.

Sinaloa is an agricultural oasis bordering the Sonora desert and sitting west of the Sierra Madre Oriental. It’s the site of many rivers, dams and mountain run-offs that feed into an impressive irrigation system that lubricates a stable economy based on the export of produce within Mexico, and external shipments to the US and Canada. Tomatoes are its most famous product, but other commodities such as white corn for bio-fuel, eggplant, broccoli, and even lychee[1] have been added in an impressive diversification for external sale.

The state is also geographically and culturally important to the Mexican diaspora across the frontera[2]. Sinaloa occupies a relatively narrow terrain west of the Sierra Madre Occidental, and its north-south highways provide the simplest route for tens of thousands of undocumented migrants entering and returning from the United States. Sinaloa is homeland for megastar bands such as Banda Recodo and Los Tigres del Norte — holders of numerous Latin Grammies and selling more CD’s than any other recording artist in English or Spanish. The dominant brass tones of Sinaloense bandas are ubiquitous in all US cities with Latino populations, and song lyrics provide both emotional and informational connections to la patria. The increasing importance of Sinaloa has seen bandas displace the traditional mariachi at the head of Los Angeles Cinco de Mayo parades.

Sinaloa and Culiacan have risen in visibility thanks to NAFTA, but are important for more sinister reasons. They are host to “la cuna de narcotrafico” — the cradle of drug traffic —home turf and sentimental heartland for the most dangerous criminal drug groups in Mexico. Almost all social, political and geographical connections1 to drugs pass connect to here; Sinaloa’s economic and geographic climate allowed a drug economy to gain a foothold; powerful Sinaloan clans and families took advantage of the opportunity and cemented their place at the heart of drug trade; Sinaloa was home to a narco-society where unwritten norms and codes guided events, and old regional and territorial feuds still influence the quarrels and disputes of today. This narcosociety defined Sinaloa and seeped outward in what might be called a narcodiaspora. And for at least 4 decades, the Sinaloa nexus in North-American drug-trade has remained invisible, except for the few times when leader’s mistakes generated unwanted attention and dragged many clans into bloody power struggles. Ever since a spectacular assassination on September 11, 2004, the drug barons in Sinaloa been involved in a massive wave of violence that has steadily escalated and routinely includes barbarous acts unseen in Mexico since the revolution a century ago.

Measured against any baseline of viciousness, Sinaloa has long been one of the most violent places anywhere! In a normal year, this state of 3 million people experienced 700 violent murders; Culiacan alone contributed more than 60% to the “usual” annual carnage. By the end of 2008, city and state will have shattered all existing records for violent homicides during a calendar year: in fact, the previous record of 746 had been surpassed at the beginning of September, and a new mark for homicides in one month— at least 127—had been established in June. The new record didn’t stand long when 135 drug-related deaths were recorded in July2. Although known homicides dropped to ninety-nine in August, that was 35% higher than any previous August on record. By September, seventy-eight ‘official’ victims were police, army or federal agents; some murdered because of their disloyalty, some for failure to complete assignments, but the number also included innocent police who’d been targeted to sow panic through a brute demonstration of force.

In fact, the toll is higher is because unknown numbers of abducted —victims of “levantones”— have disappeared without a trace. Some bodies are never recovered even when assassins make little effort to hide the corpse. Commonly, victims are dumped wherever convenient, but have increasingly been tossed in public spaces to make emphatic statements that an account has been settled — un ajusticiamiento or un ajuste. Over the past 15 years, gruesome murders have became so routine that journalists use a short-hand argot to contextualize them; encajuelado for bodies found in car trunks, entambado when stuffed in petroleum or chemical barrels, encobijado when wrapped in tarpaulins or blankets, ensabanado if wrapped in a sheet, enteipado when victims hands are bound behind the back with masking tape—frequently accompanied by incongruous details such as the colour of tape used to bind them.

Alarmingly, the recent wave of gruesome killings regularly involves beheading[3], limb dismemberment, symbols and letters carved into bodies, and even disembowelment — and distinctive patterns of torture emerged as the signature trademark of specific factions. And, as if to ensure the symbolism is not misinterpreted or downplayed, it’s increasingly common to leave narcocarteles or narcomensajes — posters or handwritten messages— specifying the “wrong” that’s been “adjusted” or simply to leave specific warnings about future targets.

More and more of these executions reflect a sophisticated recognition that ajustes can have a national and international impact; some crime scenes are perverse scenarios akin to Foucaldian Spectacles of the Scaffold. DVD’s of torture terminating with bullets to the head and gushing blood, or actual acts of garroting have been delivered to news outlets in Mexico and the US, or have been posted directly to YouTube and its Spanish equivalents (e.g. MiVid). The macabre disposal of decapitated victims in public spaces[4] and these elaborately staged crime scenes have “costumed” cadavers[5] and have generated widespread horror. A symbolic routinization of violence are seen as guerrilla events that will foment terror and weaken the resolve of competitors in addition to raising levels of fear in the community. This increasing evidence of torture and mutilation followed by execution is an indicator that army deserters and ex-military trained in anti-terrorism are the new generation of paramilitary sicarios —hit men.

There is no doubt that these horrific incidents have significantly increased the level of community fear, and have paralyzed institutional reaction to an ever-expanding wave of violence. Scores of police have resigned, refused assignments or run away. Those who remain have demanded modern equipment to compete with the drug traffickers’ sophisticated weaponry and communication networks, and they’ve pleaded for improved training and preparation to carry out assignments. Meanwhile, the public and the press grew increasingly cynical in response to the unsupported claims of success offered by elected officials who have demonstrated a remarkable incompetence and ineffectiveness in containing the violence. Ironically, if displays of symbolic violence were originally intended to intimidate enemy factions, they’ve been a failure — the targeted groups have responded in kind and aggressively recruited their personal professional sicarios, and have unleashed new displays of brutality in escalations of frightening and perverse proportions.

Although the current wave of executions is characterized by these extreme expressions of brutality, drug violence is familiar to Sinaloenses. The new wave is simply one more in the cyclical outbreaks violence and internecine readjustments familiar to the northwest. And most of the earlier waves of violence were explained as much by kinship, disintegrated political arrangements, simmering feuds, and informal “rules of the game” as they were explained by market-forces or temporary imbalances in drug supply and demand. In many ways these waves of violence were family quarrels that have gotten out of hand, and can never be fully understood by outsiders — especially when those interlopers are soldiers.[6] The new wave of violence still retains many of those same characteristics, but NAFTA and its lucrative cross border openings have escalated the violence to new levels and changed some of the rules of the game.

There is a century long connection to opium and marijuana trade in Sinaloa: its people were called gomeros— a reference to the many opium farmers and resinous gum from poppies first introduced into the sierra regions by Chinese migrants. Culiacan developed a reputation for drug involvement and violence while simultaneously emerging as a refined and civilized city that included a respected university and a taste for high culture. But drug signifiers dominated and became a master status of everyone from here: in the 1950’s, non-residents called Culiacan “little Chicago” because so many hoodlums and drug-runners lived nearby, and it was popularly described as populated by gangsters in huaraches[7]. The region achieved international notoriety by the 1960’s and 1970’s —to the point that Sinaloa and Culiacan were specifically targeted in the war on drugs carried out by President Nixon. Between 1975 and 1985, an unparalleled military intervention, Operation Condor3, deployed Mexican Army and a number of DEA operatives to eradicate crops in the eastern sierra above Culiacan.

Ultimately, the military intervention was unsuccessful, but did generate unintended effects that expanded the scope of drug trafficking and crystallized a burgeoning alliance among disparate bands of traffickers. The deployment of military, questionable under Mexican constitutional law, also exposed military personnel to the corruptive power of drug money, blinded politicians to the flawed organization of state and municipal police, and undermined public confidence in the army as soldiers routinely ignored legal and human rights of innocent Sinaloenses. But it was another unintended consequence that would generate a much more disastrous and long-term result— Operation Condor forged a consolidation-by-necessity among potential rivals and imposed a unity on them. During the years 1975-1985, skills that drug-lords had honed at a regional level were applied to different States, and even at the national and international levels with incredible success. The new “realignment” of drug barons generated immense profits for all of them when the drug leaders discovered they could influence events on a scale never seen before in Mexico.

When operation Condor started, the Sinaloa sierra and its small municipalities such as Badiguarato dominated a regionally based Mexican drug business. The drug trade developed within a perfect micro-climate in an isolated setting within a Golden Triangle stretching over the wild mountainous corner of the Sierra Madre where Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua converged. To the east, only unpaved and unmarked roads meandered through mountain passes toward Durango, and Chihuahua. Interspersed among dense forests lay numerous patches of small fertile fields, perfect for both marijuana and poppy crops. A dense canopy of trees provided camouflage for workers, and hid crop-processing centres. To the west and south sat the financial and money laundering centre, Culiacan, where cash from a half century in marijuana and heroin trade had been “stockpiled” and used to expand financial growth and enrich many local families. Further west, long stretches of uninhabited beaches were perfect for launching fast boats and loading deep-sea fishing vessels on the Sea of Cortez.

Geography doesn’t explain the enduring impact of Sinaloa on the modern drug trade: the region was filled with creative entrepreneurs who exploited opportunities and understood that the burgeoning narco culture made them invisible to the outside world. Many men and women took advantage of the situation, and seized their chance to become very rich. Their ultimate success can be attributed to a tightly interwoven set of connections at the local level that allowed them to flourish and remain largely invisible outside of that region. In contrast to common wisdom, drug organizations are most successful when local connections and structures are organically linked— or perhaps in what might be called a subterranean structure— and this was certainly true of Sinaloa.

A popular corrido by Los Tucanes de Tijuana refers to three little animals — el gallo, la chiva y el perico4—slang for marijuana, heroin and cocaine, and all were firmly rooted in the subterranean culture by the 1970’s. Marijuana, opium and heroin were regional commodities, but cocaine had been introduced as an import from the Andes. Within these options, cocaine represented the most lucrative commodity and offered the greatest opportunity for drug barons operating within the Golden Triangle. In Sinaloa, each animalito had a master “wrangler”— Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca Carillo in poppy and heroin production, Rafael Caro Quintero in producing and distributing marijuana — especially sensimilla, and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who would rise to become the most powerful “Jefe de Jefes” or “El Padrino”, through cocaine importation and distribution. Each crime boss oversaw an underground and subterranean network rooted in violence, co-optation and bribery that touched most state institutions and local businesses. Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was especially skillful in narco bonding because of his personality and extensive contacts from a former career as policeman and personal bodyguard to Governor Leopoldo Sanchez Celis.

This trio of local men eventually forged an unholy, but uneasy alliance cemented by their shared origins in and around Badiguarato, Sinaloa. Their subterranean network became stronger and larger as it was extended by kinship through blood and inter-marriage, rituals of compadrazco, mutual connections with many public officials, and their unique reliance on traffickers from Durango and Chihuahua to transport their product. In particular, their alliance with a regional cacique, Pablo Acosta of Ojinaga, Chihuahua, allowed them to sell their contraband directly in the US market.

Mexican journalist Julio Scherer Garcia would later describe their partnership and later ones with the term narco society. It’s obvious that folkways and patterns characterizing this “narco society” in an isolated area of Mexico had gradually crystallized after emerging in the second decade of the twentieth century; it’s also evident that this cohesive narco-culture was in place at the time of Operation Condor. This narco society remained invisible to outsiders and even to some people who profited from its existence— subterranean as it were. The “invisibility” allowed the three men to establish a powerful presence with little fear of formal repercussion. And unless one was part of the network, it would be hard to imagine that it existed. Consider how the niece of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo described this subterranean narco society during her jailhouse discussions with Julio Scherer 30 years after Operation Condor.

“In narco society, wealth flourishes everywhere– says Sandra Ávila — one day you’re poor and the next a millionaire. Where the money comes from is only known to those who generate it! You don’t ask for explanations nor question how it works, nor do you think about the nature of your own involvement. But you’re aware that “brilliant and precious rocks will be shining soon”, that you’ll meet other women who are high-flyers, that it’s possible to buy houses that you can occupy or abandon on almost the same day, to own buildings or hospitals, like those in Guadalajara, or hotels full of flowers like those in Mazatlán. I don’t know how it’s arranged with authorities, but they do it! One day a person has changed their life-style and they’re walking around boasting about it! You have isolated encounters with them, they’re surrounded by mystery, and you know nothing else. You continue without knowing what you actually know. And then one day you do know. How is it so? I don’t know! But I do know that’s how it is!…

Narco society is hard, cruel, and in its own way a society unto itself. There’s no code that determines penalties during power struggles. Neither are there laws to resolve disputes, and I don’t see any authority capable of intervening in the chaos that comes and goes, is always present and always on your mind”

In hindsight, it’s clear that Operation Condor wouldn’t be successful against this invisible network cemented by informal bonds, nor did it stand the chance of dismantling the social arrangements that provided the fundamental bonds of this drug society. Soldiers and generals were outsiders undermined by local authorities whom they had incorrectly assumed to be working with them. In fact, Operation Condor cemented deeper bonds between the drug lords and checked them from acting on internal disagreements about turf or product— “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” goes the aphorism. The drug jefes also realized that local production and distribution routes could remain functional even though Operation Condor forced them to relocate to Guadalajara, Jalisco. In reality, the forced move presented them new opportunities to access international markets, and this new opportunity guaranteed that all three of these men would soon join the circle of richest men in Mexico.5

The three amigos and others did grow to be enormously rich and powerful “during their exile from Sinaloa” when they expanded their control over the marijuana, opium and the cocaine markets within Mexico, and participated in what came to be called the Guadalajara Cartel. Operation Condor had driven them to larger urban centres where they could expand their global vision and create stronger ties to the transnational drug market. And while this happened, they never forgot their local roots not forgot the important principles that brought them success — all routes and production are local and the networks at a local level provide the strongest base for success. Ironically, this may not have happened without Operation Condor — it’s said that Don Neto had selected Guadalajara simply because his girlfriend came from there and was related to the governor— but all three of the Jefes took advantage of the opportunity presented without forgetting their original roots.

In Guadalajara, the Sinaloans established close links to the Rodriguez-Orejuela Cali crime group that had gone there to seek alternative routes to deliver cocaine into the United States. The Cali syndicate was producing 80% of Colombian cocaine, but had been thwarted by DEA counter-drug activities in the Caribbean. The Sinaloans arrival in Guadalajara was a opportunity made in heaven for everyone, and led to an alliance that would create hell for anti-drug forces over the next 15 years.

With a few exceptions, the foundations of drug organizations in modern Mexico emerged from the departure from Sinaloa. Today, there are other groups competing in the drug trade, but these new groups are still faced with the daunting task of to challenging the hegemony of Sinaloa groups. It’s unclear whether a criminal organization in the sense of a mafia emerged and there is an ongoing controversy about what name best describes the northwest criminal alliance[8]. It’s been popular to use the terms mafia and cartel to describe their structure— but these overstate the level of institutional organization, the degree of hierarchical authority resting within any single individual or group, and even the reach and scope of their international criminal activity.

Does it really matter what name is used to describe the jefes of Mexican narcotraffic? Luis Astorga, a pre-eminent Mexican sociologist criticizes the inaccuracy of such terms, and argues that organized crime policies have been largely ineffective because they concentrate on the existence of an “alternative power” instead of relying on strategies of general crime control. What difference?

This second generation of drug dealers Even though they had been “exiled” from ancestral homelands and communities, some families such the Arrelano-Felix clan and the Carrillo-Fuentes clans prospered when these new opportunities allowed them expand and consolidate their power power. Literally, these families had moved from a relatively small rural small time mom and pop business of drug running into a world of globalization and international money laundering.

The Arrelano-Felix brothers and sisters — some with advanced university degrees in business management— relocated to Tijuana and even San Diego where they controlled the lucrative narcotics routes entering Southern California. Not to be outdone by their rural neighbours, the Carrillo-Fuentes prospered even more after the clan had been dispersed by the army: in particular, Amado Carrillo Fuentes was sent to Ciudad Juarez opposite El Paso to apprentice under a regional drug smuggler named Pablo Acosta. He learned well, and later Amado Carrillo Fuentes relied on his family and other contacts in Guadalajara to forge a direct link to the internationally notorious Cali cocaine cartel in Colombia.

By the 1990’s, Amado Carrillo Fuentes had become the prime distributor of Colombian cocaine using his fleet of special airplanes, and was so successful that he acquired a famous nickname “El Señor de los cielos —Lord of the Skies” —and more importantly, became principal purchaser, seller and overseer of almost all cocaine moving through Mexico. His managerial and organizational skills were so natural that he almost single-handedly forged a powerful organization that came to control 2/3 of the country.

In spite of a continuing myth that Colombian cartels run the drug trade, the fact is that Carrillo-Fuente’s Juarez cartel and the Arellano-Felix Tijuana cartels became principle operatives in the narcotics trade, and Colombians eventually were reduced to their suppliers. Although the Colombians produced the cocaine, the Mexicans controlled the shipping routes into Mexico, and effectively delivered the product to the consumer in the United States. And furthermore, the Mexicans were more diversified and not limited to one product — they also controlled marijuana, opiates, and any version of a synthetic drug that consumers demanded and built an impressive infrastructure to deliver these products and to launder the profits on a global scale.

The principle illegal drug market is the US and estimated to have a potential annual value of more than $30 billion dollars. The Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 90% of all cocaine entering the United States market springboards through Mexico, and that a significant proportion of all imports of marijuana and opium pass through a porous Mexican Border. And when drug war crackdowns on the US side focused “synthetic drugs”, the cartels on the Mexican side developed new partnerships with minor crime organizations in Mexico and worked with global suppliers, especially the Chinese, to manufacture and feed as much as 85% of the American appetite for Amphetamines, Ecstasy and other synthetics.

Amado Carrillo Fuente died in 1997— probably murdered during an attempt to disguise his identity through plastic surgery— but the drug organization he nurtured has continued in one form or another as the most powerful cartel in Mexico. Its infrastructure was too strong and well-established to collapse with the death of one man— it had been developed along horizontal lines and not as a hierarchical structure. And as happens in many transnational mega-corporations, the Arrellano-Felix/Juarez Cartel organization has experienced several transformations, internal quarrels, and even “brand identity” changes. Admittedly, “corporate branding” is more likely the brainchild of extensive intelligence teams of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security and even the United States Congress Research Office and not necessarily by the cartels. But the structural changes and internal reorganizations that took place after the death of the “Lord of the Skies” are real, and explain the level of violence in Mexico today and more importantly, explain why its become almost impossible to eradicate the drug trade in Mexico.

Amado Carrillo-Fuente’s Juarez cartel morphed into a loose coalition of smaller but powerful groups in Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango. In many ways, the organization was following a business model of diversification and generating diverse brands or creating variations of the same products in different outlets. This strategy was incredibly successful in terms of money laundering and reducing the visibility of the directors. Drug wars of the United States have emphasized the strategy of targeting the “guy at the top of the hierarchy” and have been logistically designed to get to leader of a crime organization. But the Juarez organization had formed a style of leadership that played havoc with this idea — just as with mythical Medusa’s hair of snakes, when one head was removed another three or four sprung up to replace the one that was removed.

After Amado Carrillo-Fuente’s death — many believe that the motivation for his killing was that he had become too visible— the Juarez organization was directed by a varied crew of people such as Amado’s brother Vicente “El Viceroy”, a cousin Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, the Arrellano-Felix family, Hector Luis “El Guero” Palma Salazar, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, Ignacio “El Nacho Coronel” Coronel Villareal, and forty year old Badiguarato resident and acolyte of the drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo named Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera. It wasn’t long before this loosely organized partnership fragmented due to quarrels and arguments about turf. The Arrellano-Felix family became the first to be pushed to the side even though their uncle was the powerful Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, one of the original founders. They weren’t pushed shoved out into the cold since they retained control of the lucrative Tijuana turf, but were cut out from sharing the profits from other routes in the inland States of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango.

By 2004, even direct descendants of the founders of the Juarez cartel, the Carrillo Fuentes family had become complete isolated and muscled entirely out of the picture. Although there were earlier signals of discord, the fracture only became obvious to the outside world with the execution of the youngest brother Rodolfo. Two SUV’s of hitmen armed with AK-47’s and AR-15’s executed Rodolfo and his wife in a theatre complex parkade in Culiacan in a bold daytime commando raid. Most evidence points to El Chapo Guzman’s hand in orchestrating the execution on September 11, 2004 of the “Niño del Oro —Golden Child” of the powerful Carrillo Fuente family. The treachery of an ally — supposedly El Chapo was angry about a Carrillo-Fuente intrusion on his turf— was shocking in itself, but even more importantly the execution of an actual family member of a traditional clan violated an unwritten rule that allowed competing groups to cooperate even when disagreements about turf or profit existed.

Internal mechanisms for controlling disputes had been ignored, and El Chapo Guzman was demonstrating a strong hand to change the hierarchy of the organization rather than work-things out internally as had been traditionally done. In fact, reliable documentation indicates that the organization had peacefully divided up the turf of Mexico at a meeting in Acapulco in 1989. This assassination was well planned, not only in its logistics, but throwing in several twists to make it look like the attack came from other enemies outside the organization — principally the armed hitmen of the Gulf Cartel in the Northeast or as betrayal by the State Police and Federal Justice Department who long tolerated and even supported the activities of the Carrillo-Fuente family for many years.

After this assassination, the US Drug Enforcement Agency reached the conclusion that a new and more tightly organized “Federation” had emerged and was headed by “El Mayo” Zambada from the Sinaloa Cartel, the nearly invisible but powerful “El Azul” Esparragoza, and “El Chapo” Guzman who retained control of the remnants of the original Juarez Cartel. Another mysterious figur, Ignacio “Nacho Coronel” Coronel Villareal was believed to be principle banker and money-launderer from his base in Guadalajara. The Federation had established a powerful presence with a near perfect hegemonic control over ¾ of the central plains of Mexico and its border with the USA, had established a powerful dominance in Mexican coastal states where cocaine arrived from Colombia, and had expanded to develop ties to synthetic drug manufacturers such as the Valencia family in the States of Guadalajara and Michoacan. In spite of the family quarrels and isolation of the Carrillo-Fuentes, the Federation continued to be functional through extended family ties, and respect for the shared traditions, and cultural and economic traditions that had deep roots in rural Sinaloa.

Although there are other organized crime groups in Mexico, the only serious challenge to Federation hegemony comes from 2 groups located on either coast of in the northern part of Mexico. The Arrellano-Felix family, partly motivated by the simmering simmering feud with other Sinaloans, retains control of Tijuana and the far west through sheer force; and the Gulf Cartel dominates the northeast edge and some land and sea routes by virtue of its ruthless brutality and eliminating other groups to remain the “only game in town”.

Interestingly, the Cartel del Golfo is the product of a different history and pattern of development than the cartels grounded in Sinaloa. There were no dominant families, just powerful individuals who established control in the region of Mexico that included border cities south of Brownsville and Laredo Texas, and some interior cities that feed traffic into those border areas. A former car mechanic and petty thief by the name of Osiel Cardenas Guillen brawled his way to the top of the Golf Cartel relying on violence, betrayal and terror, and in fact one his many nicknames reflects his ascendancy “El Mata de Amigos” — the Friend Killer.

Things might have peacefully unfolded with a three-way, but decidedly unbalanced sharing of turf in the north. The Federation was larger and more powerful than the Gulf and the Tijuana Cartels combined, but for a period it actually benefitted from allowing the 2 smaller cartels to “do their own thing”. Firstly, the smaller Tijuana and Gulf cartels were more likely to rely on violence, and in the crude comparative mirror the Federation looked more reasonable and fit into a type of “good bandit” mode. In a perverted way, the Federation came to look like “the good thieves” and in fact played up this image by sharing some wealth with their home “towns” such as providing generous donations for schools, roads, electricity and cultural events. The continuing and visible existence of Gulf and Tijuana cartels also provided deflective shield that insulated the Federation from aggressive prosecution by Mexican and American Drug agencies; in short, the Tijuana cartels and the Gulf cartels served up the “big name” sacrificial lambs that the American war on drugs demanded. Almost all major drug arrests at the top level involved the Tijuana and Gulf cartels during the late 1990’s and up to 2005. It also helped that both of the smaller cartels had been linked to “devalued” politics in Mexico — the Gulf cartel was widely though to to have been favoured by former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his “rogue” brother Raul, and the Tijuana cartel and Arrellano-Felix family were linked to the extreme right wing forces of the PRI — los dinosaurios— which eventually ceded power to Vicente Fox Quesada and his Partido Accion Nacional.

But the uneasy tolerance of the smaller parties wasn’t to meant to last. There are many reasons explaining why the frictions eventually exploded into an all-out war between Federation forces and a forced coalition of the Tijuana and Gulf cartels. One reason was simply the consequence of a hot-headed and loose-cannon leadership within parts of the Tijuana cartel and this negated any possibility of sharing turf and routes through Tijuana and San Diego. For instance, the most hot-headed brother was Ramon was shot dead by a policeman on the streets of the Sinaloa resort city of Mazatlan in 2002 when he was traveling unaccompanied by body guards and on his way to kill “El Mayo” Zambada over a slight or disputed turf. The Arrellano-Felix cartel, originally from Badiguarato Sinaloa, had become too violent to suit the tastes of other cartel leaders who preferred the benefits of anonymity.

But another factor was more important, and brought the Federation into direct competition and conflict with Osiel Cardenas Guillen and his Gulf Cartel —the border crossing at Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas had the busiest exchange port among the 29 entry points into the US and Osiel Cardenas controlled it. By 2005, 8,000 tractor-trailers a day were passing through this port once the trade “benefits” of NAFTA had been maximized. The border crossing at Laredo Texas accommodates not only massive numbers of tractor trailers moving north and south, but has three railroad lines transversing the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo river. All of this represented 40% of all commercial border crossings, and provided direct access to highways and routes that continued on to the northeast and 85% of the American population.

Laredo/Nuevo Laredo turf was simply too lucrative for a covetous Federation to ignore and El Chapo Guzman designed a Federation initiative to squeeze out Osiel Cardenas and the Gulf Cartel. The Federation made its move by targeting local municipal and state police in Nuevo Laredo. These men were controlled by Osiel Cardenas through a traditional strategy called “Plata o Plomo”— silver or lead… a bribe or a bullet! El Chapo seems to have been the primary aggressor in this hostile take-over, and he unleased his American born violent lieutenant named Edgar “La Barbie” Valdes Villareal. In spite of a nickname —based on Ken and Barbie dolls, Valdes Villareal unleashed unholy havoc and disseminated chaos among the operatives of Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Somehow, the Federation was helped in this initiative when the Federal Procuraduria (Department of Justice) disarmed local police and fired several chiefs of police. The situation became so bad that the United States issued travel advisories, and stopped issuing visas out of its Laredo offices.

But Osiel Cardenas fought back with a brutal force that was unexpected by the Federation. He recruited a private force of mercenaries to directly challenge the hitmen of the Federation. Cardenas perversely brilliant move involved convincing 29 or 30 members of the elite “anti-narcotics” wing of the Mexican army to desert and join him. These members of a rapid strike force team known as the Grupo Aeromovil Fuerzas Especiales (Gafes) had been trained in anti-guerrilla tactics, rapid strike team actions, deployment of powerful ordnance and weapons, and were experienced participants in many rapid mobilizations. Much of their training had been provided by the elite school of the Americas, and they came well armed with a sophisticated arsenal of weapons, electronic equipment and were backed by a deep pool of money capable of financing sophisticated operations. It wasn’t long before this group came to be known as the Zetas — the last letter of the alphabet— and leaders such as “Z-3 or El Lazca”, Heriberto Lazcano became notorious for violence, brutality audacious attacks against the Federation and any forces who challenged them. One of the unusual, and highly effective strategies of the Zetas and Osiel Cardenas was to attack the Federation elsewhere…not directly target them in Laredo. Areas of Mexico under dispute or partial control by the Federation became the battlegrounds — particularly the States of Michoacan, Vera Cruz and Guerrero which were targeted Zetas who kidnapped their targets from the streets, their homes and their cars —levantones. Not only did they torture and execute their victims, they released videos and posted their work on YouTube to spread the impact of their terror. This reign of violence was made possible by the endless flow of weapons coming in from the north.

When the Federation realized the strength of this mercenary force, they relied upon their own “deputies” — the Beltran Leyva brothers— to form another elite hit team to counteract the Zetas. Arturo and Hector, with roots in the State of Sonora, also controlled the flow of Federation drugs through Mexico City and the Federal District. They created a team that would go mano a mano with the Zetas and notch up the level of violence even more. Beheadings, dismembered and tortured bodies were the signature signs that the Beltran-Leyva team had struck back. Not to be outdone by the Zetas, the Beltran-Leyvas released a horrific DVD of the torture and killing of four captured Zetas and released this to the American Media and placed it on YouTube.

To be continued………



2 Official statistics are notoriously incomplete. Newspapers routinely report the numbers, and for instance keep track of them in a running “ejecutometro”. The names of each victim are also reported in summary reports.

3 Just for fun, try the DEA. This is obviously the same Operation Condor that bears on the Pinochet case. But there are two additional “Operation Condors” that involve some degree of CIA complicity. These two are drug eradication programs. One was in Peru in 1985. It involved the DEA, CIA, and the Guardia Civil. This one is not suspicious; in fact, it appears that it was the Colombians and Peruvians who dubbed it Operacion Condor.

The other Operation Condor is more curious. It was a drug eradication program in Mexico that began in 1975 and continued until 1985. Mexico’s DFS was completely corrupt, and its chief, Miguel Nazar Haro, was a crucial CIA asset. Mexico contracted with Evergreen International Aviation, which had CIA connections too numerous to count, to fly the planes for herbicidal spraying, and two CIA people put together the contract. The program was overseen by the narcotics office at the U.S. State Department, but it was such a boondoggle that Mexico refused to let the U.S. fly over the spray zones to verify eradication.

This is suspicious because the CIA was starting to disguise some of its counterinsurgency efforts with drug programs during the 1970s. In 1971, there was talk of secret BNDD assassinations authorized and budgeted from Nixon’s White House (BNDD was the forerunner of DEA). A CIA legend, Lucien Conein, was helping E. Howard Hunt, another CIA legend, with White House dirty tricks in 1971. After Watergate, Conein was shunted off to the BNDD. He hired a number of former CIA officers and agents, and was widely reported to be organizing an assassination program. In 1974, Conein went shopping for assassination equipment with his old friend Mitchell Werbell III. Hunt recruited Cuban exiles in 1972 to “waste” Omar Torrijos in Panama, ostensibly because he protected heroin traffickers, but really because of his position on the Panama Canal.

In the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, Congress voted to abolish all Public Safety programs. The Office of Public Safety, ostensibly under the Agency for International Development, had become notorious in Vietnam as a cover for CIA operations. In Latin America, OPS was widely involved in assisting security services in their war against leftists. But the 1974 Act did not affect overseas operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which by 1975 had 400 agents overseas -- about the same number that OPS had deployed. So the DEA’s programs suddenly became attractive for CIA operations that required the cover of “plausible deniability.”

Could this have been the real reason for the “Operation Condor” program in Mexico? Are the identical names a coincidence, or is it possible that one was intended as cover for the other?

One of the agents hired by Conein in 1975 was Hugo E. (Hugh) Murray, who worked for the CIA for 16 years. In 1967 he helped the CIA track down Che Guevara in Bolivia. By 1984 he was still a federal drug agent in Tucson, Arizona, and was briefly in the newspapers when it looked like he’d be called to testify in a murder trial. Genaro Celaya was on trial for shooting a Tucson narcotics agent, and his lawyers were playing the classic “get out of jail free” card by emphasizing his intelligence connections. In a court document, they stated that after several years of working for U.S. agents, Murray and others tried to persuade Celaya to take over command of Mexico’s Operation Condor. This defense document says that despite the official version of what this Mexican eradication program was all about, Condor was in fact “the conduit” that U.S. intelligence agents used to funnel money, weapons and other support to Central American groups friendly to the United States.

There might be no connection to the Operation Condor that operated farther south, even though the two operated at the same time. But the DEA must have files about the Mexican Condor, and the involvement of the CIA. Relations between DEA and CIA finally went to pieces after the murder of another agent, Enrique Camarena, in 1985.

We know the CIA had the best possible information on Mexico’s Condor. And there are hints that the CIA was also well-informed about the Operation Condor that was operating in South America. Manuel Contreras, the chief organizer behind Condor, claims that he was always following Pinochet’s orders. In 1974 he travelled to Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Venezuela to promote intelligence cooperation. Then in August 1975, Contreras travelled to Langley, Virginia under an assumed name and met with Vernon Walters, Deputy Director of the CIA. The following month he wrote to Pinochet to request an increase of $600,000 in the intelligence service’s budget. The money would be used, among other things, “to neutralize the Government’s principal adversaries abroad, especially in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, the United States, France and Italy.”

It would be surprising, given the coincidence in timing, if the DEA never wondered if there was any connection -- via the CIA -- between the two Operation Condors.

Spanish authorities won’t get anything out of the CIA. And the State Department looks hopeless, with Madeleine Albright (not to mention Kissinger) sympathetic with Pinochet. The Justice Department might ask the FBI what it knows, but the FBI probably can’t help much. They were not a big player in 1970s Latin American politics; Scherrer’s role was mostly a stroke of good luck for Letelier’s friends. However, Justice could produce Michael Townley for questioning, assuming that he’s not afraid to talk. Despite the left’s admiration for Scherrer, Townley’s story has yet to be told.

Why not approach the DEA? They don’t trust the CIA anyhow, and are always quick to insist that they don’t provide cover for them. Let them make the case, by releasing what they know, that Mexico’s Operation Condor had nothing to do with the Operation Condor organized by Chile. There appears to be a CIA finger in each Condor pie, and it wouldn’t hurt to try.

4 The rooster, the goat and the parrot. Los Tucanes de Tijuana “Vivo de tres animales
que quiero como a mi vida
con ellos gano dinero
y ni les compro comida
son animales muy finos
mi perico mi gallo y mi chiva

En california y nevada
en texas y en arizona
y tambien aya en chicago
tengo unas cuantas personas
que venden mis animales
mas que hamburguezas
en el macdonalds

Aprendi a vivir la vida
hasta que tuve dinero
y no niego que fui pobre
tampoco que fui burrero
ahora soy un gran señor
mis mascotas codician los weros

Traigo cerquita la muerte
pero no me se rajar
se que me busca el gobierno
hasta debajo del mar
pero para todo hay maña
mi escondite no han podido hayar

El dinero en abundancia
tambien es muy peligroso
por eso yo me lo gasto
con mis amigos gustoso
y las mujeres la neta
con dinero y nos ven mas hermosos

Dicen que mis animales
van acabar con la gente
pero no es obligacion
que se les pongan enfrente
mis animales son bravos
si no saben torear pues no le entren”

5 Jefe de Jefes Miguel Angel “El Padrino” Felix Gallardo “surgió en el negoico de las drogas en Sinaloa en los años sesenta y poco a poco su estatura de capo comenzó a hacer historia. Proclive al consenso, más que a la beligerencia, logró llegar a la cúspide de poder pocos años después y con el apoyo de importantes politicos y empresarios escaló posiciones que lo distinguieron com un fino director de empresas que se codeaba con la alta sociedad” (Ravelo, 79)Pedro Avilez PerezTwo disciples of a regional powerful drug lord Pedro Aviles Perez, Ernesto ‘Don Neto’ Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, a fellow Badiguarato native named Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno had entered into a loose partnership Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in his Culiacan base.

[1] Maiz is obviously a Mexican staple, but the other products are grown almost exclusively for foreign markets.

[2]Estimated to be 8 million or more

[3] Beheadings are not unique to Sinaloa. On August 28, 12 decapitated corpses were discovered near Merida in the Yucatan. A video and narcomensaje was also posted on YouTube

[4] On September 12, 24 bodies were dumped in a public park, La Marquesa, in the State of Mexico. The men had disappeared from their small town in Guerrero a week before.

[5] In July, a murdered police was “outfitted” in a stereotypical Mexican cowboy “guise” and placed under a tree with a note indicating that he was a “singing cowboy” who had given his killers the names of his friends.

[6] These structures and dynamics have disintegrated, and there is a violent rearrangement of the cartels social order and traditions.

[7] The older market, >>, still has this reputation.

[8] and by default the best term to identify the second and third reincarnations of that initial partnership

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