Organized Crime, Mexico's Top Threat

(International Relations and Security Network, 26/04/2006)


Nuevo Laredo has become a stage where Mexican organized crime demonstrates its immense power to corrupt, kill, and make money. Despite every attempt by both Mexican and US authorities to control smuggling and violent death, Mexican organized crime continues to take advantage of the largest inland trade zone to smuggle hundreds of tonnes of cocaine north into the US and thousands of automatic rifles south into Mexico. Two factions of Mexican organized crime continue to wage a war for control of access to Laredo, Texas. It is a direct route to a demand market in the US worth billions of dollars year after year.


Osiel Cardnas Guillen leads one faction, known as the Gulf Cartel. It has traditionally controlled access to the Nuevo Laredo-Laredo smuggling routes, referred to as "plazas". Joaquin Guzman Loera, also known as "El Chapo", currently leads the other faction, the Sinaloa Cartel. Since escaping from prison in 2001, El Chapo has worked hard to increase the Sinaloa organization's control of the Mexican cocaine market. Nuevo Laredo has been his target for years.


Another criminal faction, known as the Juarez Cartel, controlled some 14 per cent of the cocaine trade between Mexico and the US until Mexican authorities captured in November 2005 the financial wizard of the operation, Ricardo Garcia Urquiza, also known as "El Doctor". Soon after, the Juarez Cartel fell into a flux, opening an opportunity for other Mexican cartels to take a larger share of the US-Mexico black market profit.


It was then that the Sinaloa Cartel redoubled its efforts to capture control of the Nuevo Laredo plaza from the Gulf Cartel, precipitating the current violence there.


Two well organized and ruthless security details propagate the battle between these two criminal factions. El Chapo maintains a group called "Los Negros", while the Gulf Cartel maintains a group called "Los Zetas". Members of both groups use high power automatic rifles, grenades, and ruthless tactics to carry out a simple order: kill the enemy.


The necessary involvement of police officials at the local, state, and national levels, and the Mexican military complicates the battle over turf in Nuevo Laredo. Corruption pollutes well intentioned policemen and soldiers. The law of "plata o plomo", a choice between accepting a job on a criminal payroll or accepting a bullet in the head, perennially compromises members of Mexican security forces at all levels.


Nuevo Laredo has fallen into a cycle of violence, adding it to a long list of areas affected by the regional trade of drugs and guns. Mexico's criminal factions control dozens of cities, towns, hamlets, and backwater ports throughout Mexico. The future of security in Mexico lies in the hands of politicians, military officers, and other security officials who have demonstrated they have the resources to knock only a dent in Mexico's organized crime structure. They combat a group of politically powerful, well organized, and financially motivated criminals who spend more money, own more guns, and enjoy the freedom of working outside the law. Mexico's top national security threat is clearly organized crime and there is little hope among Mexican security analysts that the country's leaders can do anything about it.


The most deadly plaza

Over 10,000 cargo trucks pass through Nuevo Laredo on their way to Interstate 35 and cities throughout the US. Another 10,000 vehicles cross the border daily, totaling over 20,000 vehicle-crossings a day. At such high volumes, it is impossible for US customs to stop, search, and process every vehicle. It is inevitable that drugs, humans, guns, and other contraband cross the border daily. At the same time, it is economically destructive to close the border crossing even for a day. The Nuevo Laredo-Laredo border crossing is a smuggler's paradise.


The turf battle between El Chapo Guzman and his jailed rival Osiel Cardenas Guillen has resulted in the death of US citizens, Mexican journalists, and dozens of Mexican policemen, criminals, and innocent civilians. Murder rates are inconclusive, but according to conservative estimates, Nuevo Laredo saw some 80 drug-related murders in both 2003 and 2004. In 2005, there were 182 drug-related murders. As of April this year, there have been over 80 drug-related murders there.


Other estimates claim that some 1,500 people died in organized crime-related violence in Mexico from early 2003 to June 2005.


Due to constant demand for cocaine, heroine, methamphetamines, ecstasy, and other drugs, the Mexican criminal enterprise earns over US$50 billion a year. A considerable amount of this money makes its way back to Colombia to purchase pure cocaine and heroin. Millions of dollars a year land in the hands of policemen, intelligence agents, mayors, port masters, pilots, and many other officials who face the infamous "plata o plomo" decision.


Mexican organized crime spends millions to purchase weapons and munitions. Every year, authorities trace between 5,000 and 7,000 guns from when they are seized in Mexico back to sources in the US. According to J.J. Ballesteros, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Chief in Corpus Christi, Texas, this number represents "a drop in the bucket". Ballesteros admits that criminals can literally outfit an army from one gun store, "and it's being done", he said. The most popular guns are the AR-15, AK-47, and Tec-9 pistol.


Regional connections

As US and Colombian authorities began closing smuggling routes through the Caribbean in the late 1980s and 1990s, Colombian criminals began smuggling cocaine and heroin through the Central American isthmus and Pacific routes. Both smuggling routes invariably led them to Mexico.


In the world of organized crime, anyone who wants to smuggle something into the US knows they can count on their Mexican counterparts. With an intimate knowledge of the terrain, lists of corrupted officials on the payroll, and decades of perfecting smuggling skills, Mexicans can smuggle just about anything in to the US for the right price. The US-Mexican border has become known as a "soft-underbelly".


The Colombians began heavily relying on Mexican smuggling prowess in the 1990s as Colombia's larger criminal factions dissolved into smaller groups. Smaller factions did not have the resources required to operate the length of a supply chain that ran from the farm gate producer in the mountains of Colombia to the end user on the streets of the US - so they focused on the Colombian end of that chain.


At the same time, leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) became more involved in the drug trade, picking up control over various parts of the procurement chain - especially the link between Colombia and various smuggling rings in Brazil, Venezuela, Central America, and Mexico.


More firepower and soldiers dictated that the AUC and FARC would come to control many of Colombia's cocaine smuggling routes out of the country, which naturally brought them into contact with Mexican organized crime. By allowing the Mexicans in on the cocaine trade, the Colombians took a hit on profit, but opened up their market by gaining access to the Mexican-US border. Working with the Colombians gave the Mexicans new lucrative products to smuggle into the US.


In the late 1990s, the FARC worked with Mexico's Tijuana Cartel, which controlled access to Southern California. When their middle man, Carlos Ariel Cherry, was captured in 2000, the FARC moved on to the Gulf Cartel. In 2004, the FARC stopped working with the Gulf Cartel when it again lost connections with trusted middle men. Now, it appears the FARC is working with El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel.


In the second week of April, Mexican authorities seized over five tonnes of high-quality cocaine when it arrived onboard a DC-9 that had flown from Venezuela's Maiquetia airport (some 48 kilometers outside the capital, Caracas) to the Mexican airport of Ciudad del Carmen, some 880 kilometers east of Mexico City. The Mexican Attorney General's Office said it had reason to believe the FARC had shipped the cocaine to El Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel.


Government response

Responding to alarming murder rates in Nuevo Laredo in June 2005, Mexico's president Vicente Fox launched "Operation Safe Mexico" by sending some 1,500 soldiers to Nuevo Laredo and other northern cities where the drug trade had taken control, including Matamoros, Tijuana, Mexicali, and Mazatlan.


Once hundreds of soldiers arrived in Nuevo Laredo, some 140 local police officers were fired, suspected of corruption. Another 57 local officers were fired for corruption in February this year. A month later, Nuevo Laredo's police chief, Omar Pimentel, resigned after only eight months on the job. His predecessor, Alejandro Domínguez , was killed by gunmen seven hours into the job. Currently, Nuevo Laredo has no police chief.


Operation Safe Mexico is now known as "Operation Northern Border", indicating the current focus of Mexico's security forces.


Mexico's Attorney General Daniel Francisco Cabeza de Vaca Hernandez announced on 30 January that since May last year he had overseen the capture of some 15,000 people affiliated with drug trafficking in Mexico. He highlighted the capture of "El Doctor", the financial head of the Juarez cartel, noting that Mexican authorities had captured 18 such bosses, leading to the arrest of dozens more further down the chain and the seizure of over US$22 million.


Yet many analysts are not convinced that Mexican politicians have a truly effective plan for curbing violence and smuggling in their country. One of Mexico's top security analysts, Luis Astorga, argued during a March academic conference on violence in Mexico that the military solution embedded in Operation Northern Border was not going to work. He also noted that there were no new ideas for security in Mexico coming out of the current presidential campaign, suggesting that Mexico's next president would likely not be able to deal with the current security challenge.


"I hope there is a plan B," Astorga said. "Because the military will fail, no doubt."