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The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars
By Sylvia Longmire
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2011 Sylvia Longmire
All rights reserved.
THE WAR INSIDE MEXICO
THERE ISN'T TOO MUCH THAT stands out about La Tuna de Badiraguato. This tiny town of 200 people in the Mexican mountains is a quiet place with few prospects for people born there. Poppy fields cover the land as far as the eye can see. It's the kind of place that Americans would call a one-stoplight town, and even that might be too expansive. Basic utilities that we take for granted like clean running water and a sewage system are nonexistent, as are basic facilities like hospitals and schools. Children are taught by traveling teachers until maybe the age of twelve. After that, a life of hard and mostly unrewarding work begins.
In Badiraguato, that work is likely connected to the drug trade. Most people who are born there never leave. Instead, they work the poppy fields in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, often until they grow old, can't work anymore, and die. This was the sad life that Joaquin Guzmán Loera was born into. However, it was a life he wouldn't tolerate for long.
Joaquin, given the common Sinaloan nickname of "El Chapo" because he was short and stocky, had a childhood typical for La Tuna. He worked day and night in the poppy fields, was beaten regularly by his father, and received no decent education to speak of. Joaquin wanted out. His exit from La Tuna and into bigger and better things was courtesy of his uncle, Pedro Avilés Pérez. Luckily for Joaquin, Uncle Pedro was the pioneer of Mexican drug trafficking.
In his early twenties, Joaquin entered the drug trade under the wing of this expert trafficker, in a part of Mexico known for its "Wild West" character of lawlessness and violence. He started out as just another narco, working with the brothers who would eventually form the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO). But he was ambitious, in more ways than one. He was anxious to show his bosses what he could do, both in the movement of drugs north and in the punishment of rivals and incompetents. He quickly moved up in the ranks and soon was working directly for Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as "El Padrino" (The Godfather) because of his role as the leader of drug trafficking operations in Mexico.
Despite his growing responsibilities and wealth, Joaquin lived a pretty mellow life. He got married—twice—and had kids. He preferred to spend time with friends and family when he wasn't working. It didn't take long for his hard work and brutal business practices to pay off. In the late 1980s, Félix Gallardo divided up his drug trafficking empire, and Joaquin was given control of the Tecate plaza, or drug smuggling corridor. He was finally in charge, and he has never looked back.
In the twenty-three years since El Chapo assumed his first command, so to speak, he's made quite a name for himself in Mexico. He runs the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico—the Sinaloa Federation. His empire stretches into Central and South America, where contacts supply him with the cocaine he so expertly moves into the United States. In his home state of Sinaloa, he oversees large swaths of marijuana- and heroin-producing territory in or near the Sierra Madre Occidental, as well as overseeing the "superlabs" that produce huge volumes of highly addictive methamphetamine.
El Chapo has also inadvertently become the international face of Mexican drug trafficking. In March 2009, Forbes magazine ranked him #701 in their list of the world's top 1,000 billionaires. Later that year, Forbes ranked him #41 in their list of the world's most powerful people. This kind of publicity ascribed to a career criminal and murderer infuriated a lot of people on both sides of the US-Mexico border; they felt that that kind of recognition should be reserved for people who earned their riches and power through more legitimate means.
Despite his extreme success in the drug world, El Chapo doesn't really seek out the spotlight; that's bad for business. He doesn't usually exhibit the status symbols that other capos, or drug lords, enjoy. He's a "jeans and baseball cap" kind of guy and doesn't care for expensive suits or flashy jewelry. Of course, he surrounds himself with ample protection via armed bodyguards and armored vehicles and convoys, and he stays eternally mobile. Yet, for the stressful lifestyle he leads of a man who's always looking over his shoulder—he's the most wanted man in Mexico, and the US government has a $5-million reward offer for him—El Chapo always has a calm demeanor and is in control of his emotions. He is a long way from La Tuna de Badiraguato, and the only way he's likely to return there is in a coffin.
THE EVOLUTION OF MEXICAN DRUG TRAFFICKING ORGANIZATIONS
When Félix Gallardo divided up his drug empire into smaller pieces, he might not have been able to imagine the carnage that would result in two decades' time. He was the only major player in Mexican drug trafficking at the time, so he called all the shots. He was actually trained as a federal police agent and later became a bodyguard for the governor of Sinaloa before entering the illegal drug trade. In addition to creating the foundations of El Chapo's Federation, Félix Gallardo assigned territory to the Arellano Felix family, the Carrillo Fuentes family, and Juan García Abrego. They would be in charge of what would become the powerful Tijuana, Juárez, and Gulf cartels, respectively. Over the years, the composition and influence of the major cartels in Mexico would fluctuate, but Félix Gallardo's core organizations persist to this day.
This isn't to say that they get along now like they did back in the late 1980s. Things in the Mexican drug trade worked differently back then. The drug lords could get together and make arrangements to split drug profits from sharedplazas. They could also arrange for cease-fires if some rogue lieutenants got out of hand. The major cartels had the luxury of operating in a country run by a political party that was more or less happy to stay out of the capos ' way in exchange for relative peace. This is how it went, until the untimely death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
In the late 1990s, Amado, known as "The Lord of the Skies" for the fleet of jets he used to transport drugs, was arguably the most powerful man in the Mexican drug world. He was wanted by both Mexican and US authorities, and he soon found it extremely difficult to travel or operate with any degree of anonymity or safety. He decided, as some capos do, to undergo major plastic surgery to radically alter his appearance. During the long procedure, Carrillo Fuentes died from complications related either to medication or to a malfunctioning respirator. Two of his bodyguards were in the surgical suite with him, and to this day, conspiracy theories abound about whether his death was an accident or perpetrated by the doctor or his bodyguards.
Regardless, the absence of Carrillo Fuentes created a huge power vacuum in the Mexican drug world, and former allies and new rivals were eager to fill it. Everyone assumed the rival Arellano Felix brothers would be the first to come in for the kill, seeing that El Chapo (their primary competition) was in a maximum-security Mexican prison at the time. Things in Ciudad Juárez did heat up as the turf war began, but it was only a sneak preview of what was to come.
In 2001, El Chapo escaped from that "maximum-security Mexican prison" (which many would say is a contradiction in terms). The official story from the Mexican government was that he befriended a prison maintenance worker named Javier Camberos. El Chapo told the guards (whom he had enlisted onto his own payroll) that Camberos was going to be smuggling some gold out of the prison in a laundry cart and that they were not to search the cart. But on the night of January 19, 2001, El Chapo himself hid in the cart as Camberos wheeled him out of the prison. Unofficially, many Mexicans believe that prison officials just let him walk out. We'll never know because surveillance tapes for that night were conveniently erased.
After El Chapo came back onto the narco scene in full force, it was "game on" for control of the lucrative Juárez plaza. He was actually surrounded on both sides by rivals: the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (VCFO) and the Gulf cartel to the east, and the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) to the west. As the years progressed, El Chapo and his rivals engaged in a bloody battle, unprecedented in Mexican history, for slowly shrinking territory and drug revenue.
Mexico's major cartels continue to evolve, partly of their own doing and partly because of arrests or killings by Mexican government forces. Alliances that seemed ironclad just a few years back can dissolve as a result of a single incident, whether actual or perceived. On the flip side, cartels that have been bitter rivals for years can join forces to wage war against a mutual—and usually more powerful—enemy. For example, the BLO was a big part of El Chapo's Sinaloa Federation for many years. However, the BLO split off from the Federation after the arrest of its then-leader Alfredo Beltrán Leyva at a Culiacán safe house in January 2008. The brothers blamed El Chapo for Alfredo's arrest, saying he tipped authorities off to Alfredo's location. They retaliated by forming their own organization and aligning with the Gulf cartel. Their coup de grâce was the assassination of Édgar Guzmán López, El Chapo's son, a few months later.
After the split, the BLO became one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico, capable of smuggling narcotics, battling rivals, and demonstrating a willingness to order the assassination of high-ranking government officials. However, it suffered a serious setback in December 2009 when Arturo Beltrán Leyva, Alfredo's brother and one of the cartel's top bosses, was killed by Mexican navy commandos in a raid. The Mexican government has said it ascertained Arturo's location through the use of good intelligence and diligent police work, but there are many who believe El Chapo tipped off the commandos to his location in order to eliminate a competitor.
Héctor, Arturo's brother, was the natural selection to fill the power vacuum left by Arturo. In 2010, the BLO itself underwent a split, between Héctor's main faction and one run by Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal, the head of the BLO's enforcement group. Héctor decided to rename his faction, and the old BLO became the new Cartel Pacifico del Sur (South Pacific Cartel), although it's also known as "El H" and "La Empresa." Héctor also still maintains a friendship with his old allies, Los Zetas, and is using this alliance to do battle against La Familia Michoacana (LFM) and the Federation in Guerrero state.
La Barbie, meanwhile, was arrested in late 2010 by Mexican authorities, and his faction of the former BLO is assumed to be almost completely disintegrated. Based on the fact that his capture by Mexican authorities was completely uneventful, the current assumption is that he made a deal to turn himself in and receive favorable treatment in exchange for providing intelligence on his rivals. In November 2010, the Mexican government agreed to extradite La Barbie to the United States.
One would think that the Sinaloa Federation and the Gulf cartel, which formed the biggest cartel rivalry in Mexico at the time, could never form a truce, let alone an alliance of any sort. However, just that very thing happened in the spring of 2010. The Gulf cartel had been getting hit hard by Mexican forces in the previous few years and had lost much of its power and territory. Its former enforcement arm, Los Zetas, had split off two years before and become one of the more powerful—and vicious—new cartels in Mexico. Los Zetas are a group of former Mexican-army Special Forces troops who have grown into a well-trained, well-armed, and well-funded cartel engaged in assassinations, mass killings of migrants, kidnappings for ransom, and extortion. They have grown to become probably the biggest threat to El Chapo's operations that he's seen since he first sat down on the Federation's throne.
Not one to sit by idly while events unfold around him, El Chapo did the unthinkable: he entered into an alliance with the Gulf cartel and the up-and-coming LFM cartel to wage war against Los Zetas. This arrangement was called the New Federation, and they wasted no time in starting a public relations campaign. In March 2010, they posted a video message for the Mexican people on YouTube, which included the following:
Without the "Z" you will live without fear.... If you are a Zeta, run because the MONSTER is coming ... the new alliance have raised their weapons to f**k the Zetas because they have undermined the drug trafficking business with their kidnappings, extortions, etc. To sum it up, they don't give a s**t about the freedom and tranquility of the Mexican people.
It's hard to say for sure what the drug trafficking landscape will look like in a year or in five years' or ten years' time. By the time a reader picks up this book, the New Federation might have dissolved and El Chapo might be at war again with the Gulf cartel. It's also possible that El Chapo might finally be captured (although this is unlikely) or that new and smaller cartels might form to fill power vacuums left by other jailed or dead capos. The one thing that will always remain constant in the evolution of Mexican drug cartels is change.
THE BATTLE FOR TERRITORY AND DRUG PROFITS
Over thirty-four thousand people have been killed through April 2011 in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Calderón's war against organized crime began in earnest in 2006. These killings run the gamut from conventional murder by handgun to the more creative—having the victims' remains intentionally picked off by vultures, for example. The violence is also directed against a wide variety of targets: government officials and miscellaneous politicians, law enforcement agents, rival cartel members, low-level drug dealers, prominent businessmen, witnesses, and informants. It happens in downtown areas of major cities, often in broad daylight and in full view of many witnesses. It also occurs in rural areas in the middle of nowhere, along isolated stretches of seldom-traveled roads, and in the punishing desert. Most worrisome to many Mexicans, the violence visits them in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods that often have gates and alarms and security cameras, all of which provide a false sense of security.
Drug-related violence in Mexico generally falls into three categories: violence directed against the authorities, against other cartels, and against the general public. It's important to look at examples of incidents in each of these categories to fully understand how incredibly out of hand the violence in Mexico has become. Because some of this violence has occurred on US soil—albeit on a much smaller scale—it's crucial to realize the brutality that Mexican narcos are capable of, in case they ever decide to bring more of it across the border.
Cartel enforcers use a variety of violent tactics and can easily adapt plans based on the target, environment, and general situation. Cartel-orchestrated assassinations usually target Mexican law enforcement or members of the local government, although civilians connected to the Mexican drug trade are often targeted as well. Cartel enforcers target police chiefs, mayors, and other mid- to senior-level government individuals, often with a high rate of success. As many as one or two dozen assassinations occur throughout Mexico in any given week. Cartels and other criminal groups have used grenades, homemade bombs, and other explosive devices against Mexican police, soldiers, and even American diplomatic facilities. They also routinely use grisly executions to intimidate their rivals, the government, and the public.
Kidnappings in Mexico jumped almost 40 percent between 2004 and 2007, according to official statistics. Police say there were 751 kidnappings in Mexico in 2007, but the independent Citizens' Institute of Security Studies (ICESI) says the real number could be above seven thousand. This gap is pretty typical, because the majority of kidnappings in Mexico (and anyplace where kidnapping is a problem, for that matter) go unreported for fear the kidnappers will harm the hostages. In 2008, Tijuana suffered more kidnappings than almost any other city outside of Baghdad.
Excerpted from Cartel by Sylvia Longmire. Copyright © 2011 Sylvia Longmire. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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