Since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the nation's drug cartels six days after his chaotic Dec. 1st, 2006 inauguration, infiltration of Mexico's security agencies has escalated so stupendously that the U.S. military's Joint Chief of Staffs issues reports characterizing Mexico as a "potential failed state".
Among agencies infiltrated by the narcos: the military, the federal police (one jurisdiction - the Federal Investigation Agency, a knock-off of the FBI - became so corrupted that it was liquidated), the Attorney General's Office, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime (SIEDO), the Mexican branch of Interpol, and dozens of state and municipal police forces (the list is compiled from news stories reporting on-going federal prosecutions.)
Now, in a bold initiative to turn the tables on the narcos, the Mexican army is training spies to infiltrate the drug gangs and embed under deep cover. The only flaw in this innovative strategy is that the army unit from which the spies are being selected and trained, the Aero Mobile Special Forces Group or GAFES has itself been compromised by the drug cartels.
Trained at the Center for Special Forces in Ft. Bragg North Carolina in drug war strategies in the late 1990s, dozens of GAFES deserted the military and joined the narco gangs, resurfacing in the early years of the decade as 'Los Zetas', dread enforcers for the Gulf Cartel who today enjoy full-blown cartel status themselves.
The cartels have not limited their reach to Mexican police agencies. U.S. Homeland Security's Border Protection and Customs Enforcement is prosecuting at least eight cases involved suspected drug cartel implants in their ranks. Mandated by Congress to boost agent numbers to 20,000 by 2010, Homeland Security launched an aggressive recruitment campaign along the border largely directed at Mexican-Americans, offering the drug gangs a golden opportunity to infiltrate their operators. One cartel double agent on duty at a U.S. border crossing is like giving the narcos "the keys to the kingdom" an anonymous ex-FBI agent recently told the New York Times. In an effort to weed out the bad actors, Homeland Security has brought in 200 criminal investigators and tripled criminal prosecutions but the investigators are themselves vulnerable to being compromised by the cartels.
South of the border, Mexican military infiltration of the narco cartels has met with mixed success. Two undercover Navy Marines were executed last summer in the port of Acapulco when their identities were leaked by unknowns. On the other hand, the January 2008 arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva, "El Mochomo", a member of a much-feared drug clan, was attributed to information gathered by a military spy who spent two years undercover as a Beltran Leyva operator. That's the good news. On the downside: when El Mochomo was taken into custody, he reportedly had a classified SIEDO document in his pocket that detailed federal police maneuvers against his gang.
Despite the military's long undercover investigation, Alfredo Beltran Leyva is thought to have been brought down by a "pitazo" ('whistle blow') from his archrival Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman for whom the five Beltran Leyva brothers once toiled. The Beltran Leyvas' assumption that El Mochomo had been ratted out by Guzman and his associates was confirmed by the payback killing of El Chapo's youngest son soon after.
Both the Beltran Leyvas and the Guzmans are Sinaloa boys, natives in fact of Badiraguato, a mountain town that overlooks the fertile Culiacan valley and the birthplace of many of that Pacific coast state's legendary narcos from Caro Quintero and Felix Gallardo to Amado Carrillo to the Arellano Felixes, Gallardo's nephews, who controlled Tijuana for two decades.
Bad blood reportedly began to flow between the Beltran Leyvas and the Chapos when Guzman associate Nacho Coronel cut El Mochomo's boys out of a juicy dope deal in 2008 whereupon the Beltran Leyvas broke with Chapo's "Federation" and struck out on their own, taking big clients with them. Doing business as "La Empresa" ("The Business"), the Beltran Leyvas entered into an alliance of convenience with the Zetas with whom they had concluded a bloody border battle for the "plaza" of Nuevo Laredo just months before. The new arrangement gave the five Beltran brothers who already had a strong presence in western Mexico south of Sinaloa, including the key ports of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan, Acapulco. and Manzanillo Colima, access to eastern Mexico where the Zetas called the shots and strengthened both gangs' standing against El Chapo and his principal confederates Coronel, Mayo Zambada, and the wily veteran "El Azul" Esparragoza.
"El Chapo" ('Shorty') Guzman is Mexico's Narco of the Decade. His fortunes escalated with the election of Vicente Fox of the right-wing PAN party in 2000 - a month after Fox was sworn in as Mexico's first opposition president, Guzman escaped from maximum security Puente Grande prison in Jalisco and has never been touched since. Ranked number 42 on Forbes Magazine list of the 67 most powerful potentates on the planet right behind Iran's Ali Khamenei and well ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy (#54) and #67 Hugo Chavez (Felipe Calderon did not make the list), El Chapo appears to have influential friends in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House.
Mexico's presidents often have pet narcos who they favor by cracking down on their rivals, reasoning that it is less stressful to deal with one strong capo then a dozen hydra-headed cartels and dangerous, ambitious underlings. The Beltran Leyvas have repeatedly raged against the perceived protection of the Chapos by Calderon's Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia.
Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on drug war economics at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM), agrees that the Calderon government favors Guzman: "one necessarily has to come to the conclusion that the Mexican government is applying this strategy so it can negotiate with (El Chapo) and achieve peace prior to the 2012 elections."
Morelos, a tiny state just south of the capital where Emiliano Zapata once rode, has been a sanctuary for narco barons since the late 1990s when the governor, Jorge Carrillo Olea, once jefe of national security, is said to have extended protection to Amado "Lord of the Skies" Carrillo (no relation) who earned his nickname by flying DC-6 loads of Colombian cocaine into Mexico.
Two PAN governors - Sergio Estrada and Marco Antonio Adame - offered similar hospitality to the Beltran Leyvas who set up shop in Cuernavaca, the state capitol. "The city of eternal spring", as it is dubbed in the tourist guides, is both close to Mexico City, the nation's key financial center, and has strategic access to Michoacan, Colima, Guerrero, and Oaxaca where "La Empresa" does plenty of business.
Spreading around "canonazos" ('cannon shots') of cash, the Beltran Leyvas bought protection from state and municipal police - Adame's Public Security Secretary was forced to resign after his ties to the narcos became public knowledge in 2008. Also said to be on the payroll: the 24th Military Region to whose jurisdiction Cuernavaca and surrounding Morelos state pertain.
Despite their generous tithing, the Beltran Leyvas' cover was blown December 11th when a newly-coordinated Marine unit raided a narco-fiesta at a "finca" (hacienda) in Tepotzlan Morelos, a community with many writers, artists, and Mexico City intellectuals in residence. The finca was said have been rented to "El Barbies", Edgar Valdez, a U.S. citizen born in Laredo Texas and the chief hitman for Arturo Beltran Leyva, "El Jefe de Jefes" ('Boss of Bosses'), the clan's leader.
Collared in the raid were 40 guests and an impressive array of pop music idols contracted to entertain the invitees, including Ramon Ayala and the Bravos del Norte, winners of four Latin Grammies; the ever-popular corridistas Los Cadetes de Linares; and El Torrente, a reggaeton band. Mexican pop idols do not eschew such gigs, conceded Paquita La de Barrio, whose "Rata de Dos Patas" ("Two-legged Rat") is an international favorite. "Narcos are our bread and butter. You never know who they are. They invite you and you sing and that's it. They are very polite and pay well," La del Barrio confessed to the left daily La Jornada. "Work is work."
The deployment of Navy Marines in the drug war is the latest wrinkle in Calderon's crusade. For years, the Navy's role has been pretty much confined to patrolling Mexico's coastlines, occasionally landing big drug hauls when tipped off by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2007, Mexican Navy personnel were credited with a record 23-ton cocaine stop in Manzanillo. Last summer, the Navy took down a monkey flag tuna boat in Puerto Progresso Yucatan with 750 tons of blow crammed down the caws of a hold full of frozen sharks.
In 2009, residents of Mexico City's swanky Polanco district were startled when jack-booted Marines kicked down doors at the corporate offices of Grupo Penoles, a Fortune list mining conglomerate, after $41,000,000 in Yanqui dollars was found embedded in a load of industrial chemicals bound for Colombia.
The Marines' first land assault came last September when they captured a second string capo, El Gori, in Juarez Nuevo Leon. The Tepotzlan narco-fiesta came next. Now they moved in for the kill.
Long-term observers of Mexico's narco wars like Jorge Camil, a National University researcher, speculate that U.S. drug fighters, operating under enhanced powers granted by the Washington-financed Merida Initiative, requested deployment of the Mexican Navy to confront the Beltran Leyvas because the army - in this case, the 24th Military Region - is no longer trustworthy.
On December 16th, five days after they had broken up the narco fiesta in Tepotzlan, the Marines swept through the luxury Cuernavaca sub-division "Los Altitudes" where high-rise condominiums offer a stunning view of surrounding volcanoes, and a stone's throw from the 24th Military Region. All apartments were cleared and the upscale tenants herded into the complex's state-of-the-art gymnasium. Residents seemed shocked that one of Mexico's top narco lords lived among them.
Although drug lords have big footprints - "El Jefe de Los Jefes" always traveled in a seven-car caravan of mean-looking gunsills loaded for bear - few of their neighbors had paid much attention. "At Los Altitudes, everyone has bodyguards," a former resident matter-of-factly told this reporter over canapés at a Christmas party.
Other big shots in residence include a PAN senator and the state president of the PANAL party, the wholly owned property of Education Workers Union czarina Elva Esther Gordillo, one of the most influential personages in Mexican politics.
Holed up in Apartment 201 of the Elbus Building, Arturo Beltran Leyva and six pistoleros went to the mattresses. A five-hour gun battle erupted with the narcos hurling fragmentation grenades in a desperate attempt to break through the Marine barricade. Under relentless Marine fire, the Boss of Bosses and his henchmen (one committed suicide) bit the dust - three Marines were gravely wounded and one subsequently succumbed.
After 2 a.m. the next morning, representatives of the press were allowed in to a bullet-pocked Apartment 201 to view the crime scene. The much-punctured cadaver of Arturo Beltran Leyva was laid out on a blood-drenched bedspread, his pants pulled down to his jockey shorts and his corpse decorated with neatly-arranged pesos and greenbacks, amulets and rosaries, apparently removed from his pockets (the dead capo reportedly was carrying $40,000 USD.)
Cameras captured this macabre scene for the nation's front pages. The desecration of the body and grotesque display of narco iconology was attributed to Cuernavaca forensic technicians under the direction of ski-masked, undercover Marines, according to eyewitness Gustavo Castillo, a Jornada reporter. The Navy denies culpability. Jorge Camil, writing in La Jornada, compared the Gran Guignol tableau to the gristly coverage of the U.S. military's execution of Saddam Hussein's two sons in 2003.
As to be anticipated, President Calderon exulted in the capture and slaughter of Beltran Leyva and his malevolent crew. Rookie U.S. ambassador Carlos Pascual toasted the Mexican president's commitment to Washington's drug war and DEA administrator Michelle Leonhart attributed the success of the operation to "cooperation with our valiant counterparts" which suggests that U.S. drug warriors may have played a more pivotal role in Beltran Leyva's demise than was acknowledged. All extolled the heroics of the dead Marine, First Corps Master Melquidet Angulo. At his funeral in Angulo's home town of Paradise Tabasco, Navy brass swore "unconditional support" for the slain Marine's family.
Three nights later, a Zeta hit squad broke into the Angulos' rural ranch and killed the dead marine's mother, two brothers, and an aunt, signaling the next round of bloodshed.
In Cuernavaca, a "narco-manta" - bed sheets painted with messages to the authorities, a signature device of the Beltran Leyva clan - was hung from a pedestrian overpass. "Now they have committed a grave error by messing with the Empresa," the narco-manta announced, "El Barbies (who is still at large) you have all our support to start a new war."
Since Felipe Calderon's ill-advised declaration of war on Mexico's drug cartels December 6th 2006, 16,000 plus citizens have lost their lives - 7000 of them, nearly half the kill list, in 2009 alone, an average of 25 a day, more than one an hour. On 40 days last year, 40 or more Mexicans were killed. On December 16th, the day the Boss of Bosses went down, 64 died, a record one-day high in drug war homicides. The execution of Arturo Beltran Leyva will only accelerate this madness.
John Ross is on the road with his latest cult classic "El Monstruo - Dread & Redemption in Mexico City" ("a pulsating, gritty read" - the NY Post.) The author will kick off the Monster Tour in California's Central Valley with presentations at Cal State Fresno (Feb 4th-5th), the Merced Public Library (Feb. 6th) and Modesto (Feb. 7th.) - locale TBA.