Mexico's Parallel Power

(International Relations and Security Network, 04/07/2006)


The power of Mexican organized crime has dramatically increased this year, spreading its influence well beyond Mexico's borders. Now, elements from Central America's criminal underground have made de facto connections with at least two of Mexico's most notorious drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel.


These connections indicate a new injection of strength and ruthlessness into Mexican organized crime. And even as organized criminal networks grew stronger this year, Mexico's presidential candidates avoided talking about it during their campaigns, which has led many analysts to wonder if security is a priority for Mexican politicians.


The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels fight for control of Nuevo Laredo, considered the most valuable smuggling route into the US from Mexico. While fighting for land on the border continues, another battleground along Mexico's Pacific coast has become a center of violence. Now signs of former Guatemalan special forces troops and Central American gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) network have led many to conclude that Mexican organized crime has hired new muscle.


Mexico's Deputy Attorney General for Organized Crime, José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, announced on 24 June that as many as 30 former members of the Guatemalan Special Forces, called "Kaibiles", had begun working with the Zetas, a group of former Mexican military commandos that work as assassins for the Gulf Cartel.


Kaibiles are considered the most ruthless of all soldiers who were trained to fight insurgencies during the civil wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s. Since the end of the war in Guatemala, Kaibiles have been used to train members of the Mexican special forces. Mexican authorities consider this connection to be the principle reason why rogue Kaibiles have sought out their former students, now members of the Zetas, for employment within Mexico's criminal underworld.


This added force to the Gulf Cartel's ranks of assassins indicates that the violence sustained by battling the Sinaloa Cartel has forced the organization to look beyond Mexico for highly trained killers.


Perhaps less professional but just as deadly are members of the MS-13 gang, a network that expands from cities in Central America, through Mexico, and into dozens of urban centers throughout the US. The MS-13 is known throughout the region as an extremely vicious street gang, reserving the most severe measures to discipline its own members. Recent violence in Mexico's Pacific resort town, Acapulco, indicates that the MS-13 may have grown beyond street gang status, working now as muscle for the Sinaloa Cartel.


On 24 June, Mexican authorities found four bodies in Acapulco. One victim had been beheaded. They later announced that the bodies belonged to four local cops who had gone missing a week earlier. Bodies littered with bullets have become a weekly affair in Acapulco since the cartels have begun fighting over access to the Pacific to receive shipments of cocaine from South America.


What captured Mexican media attention, however, was the one body found without a head. Beheadings are not common in Mexico, and the change in tactics has led many to believe that the MS-13 gang may be behind some of the killings in Acapulco.


Deputy Attorney General Vasconcelos believes that MS-13 gang members have been employed by the Sinaloa Cartel. Yet the MS-13 is not known for beheadings, which has led Mexican media and others to speculate that Kaibiles are involved in the increase in violence in Acapulco. This argument would place Kaibiles fighting one another, which is not impossible, but still unlikely.


Two trends, however, are clear. First, Mexico's warring cartels have begun to outsource their muscle to non-Mexican elements. Significant evidence has mounted indicating that the Kaibiles are indeed involved with the Gulf Cartel. And if the MS-13 is not currently involved, there is a good chance members of the MS-13 based in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras soon will be. Second, and more importantly, the war is spreading beyond Mexico's border zone.


Mexico's national security plan, entitled "Safe Mexico," was renamed "Operation Northern Border" to reflect changes in the territorial focus of Mexican security forces as Nuevo Laredo became harder to secure. But Mexico's northern border with the US is only one battleground. Pacific ports, especially Acapulco, have recently seen a sharp increase in violence. Cancun, on the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, has also seen recent violence, as has the Mexican border with Guatemala. Most incidents have been drug related.


Meanwhile, Peruvian authorities on 15 June seized a one-tonne shipment of cocaine en route to the Mexican Pacific coast. Authorities in Peru and Mexico agree the shipment was the property of the Sinaloa Cartel. This seizure, and the seizure of over five tonnes of cocaine flown from the international airport in Caracas, Venezuela, were both destined for the Sinaloa Cartel. Undoubtedly the Gulf Cartel also has ties with criminal elements beyond Mexico that supply cocaine.


Both organizations, through their constant need for fresh supply, spread insecurity beyond Mexico's border and port towns to other countries. Colombia is no longer the center of this problem. Increasingly, organized crime is gaining strength in Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia, and groups in all of these countries likely work directly or indirectly with the Sinaloa or Gulf Cartel. The drug trade has spread beyond the Andes. It is now a black market that blankets nearly all of the Americas.


The focal point of the implementation of security measures to dismantle a major element of this expansive drug trade lies within the Mexican government. But it is currently in limbo. When voters went to the polls on 2 July to elect Mexico's next president, their decision was based on economics, not security. The lack of attention given to Mexico's national security challenges during the presidential campaigns has been inexcusable.


Mexican politicians should be talking about how they will improve security in their country, but they know that if they do, death will come knocking. In Latin America's other heavyweight country, Brazil, organized crime is considered a parallel power because many there accept that Brazilian politicians negotiate with organized crime to keep it contained. It is only a matter of time before the same consideration will be on the minds and mouths of all Mexicans, maybe even the new president himself.