by John Murray
Last week Mexican president Felipe Calderon spent two days visiting Barack Obama at the White House. In the weeks leading up to the summit, which was punctuated by a state dinner on Wednesday, there was much in the press about issues the two presidents had to discuss, including the Mexican government’s negative reaction to the new Arizona immigration bill and the need to improve trade relations and get more Mexican trucks on the roads in the US. But no issue was expected to be more pressing than the question of security. With over 24,000 dead in the past 3 years and growing international concern that Mexico could be on the road to becoming a failed state, strategically combating the drug cartels and helping Mexico establish control over its more lawless territories was unavoidably going to be the main focus of the short meeting.
A great deal happened in Mexico during the week leading up to the meeting between the two heads of state, and it effectively made the focus on security even more pressing.
For one thing, the biggest story directly associated with Juarez (besides the usual scores of murders) was the NPR report on the Army’s collusion with the Sinaloa cartel, a situation discussed here previously and one that has been an open secret in Mexico for quite some time. NPR is the first news organization to blow the story wide open in the American media, undertaking a four-month investigation and uncovering statistics on arrests, federal court depositions and interviews with citizens that all pointed to heavy corruption within the Army involving the one-sided pursuit of the Juarez cartel. The story spread quickly, with reductive headlines in some places declaring that the Mexican government “supports” the Sinaloa cartel.
It’s very important to realize that the problem here isn’t an isolated instance of corruption or cut-and-dry conspiracy. The Army has long been associated with drug trafficking, having been accused of collecting bribes in exchange for providing protection, facilitating drug transport throughout the country and over the border and, not uncommonly, committing murder. Some even call the Army a cartel in its own right, in the sense that they are involved in the transport of drugs and profit from it in the same way that an outwardly criminal cartel does.
But it’s not as if the Sinaloans are the first group to ever successfully corrupt Army personnel. There’s a long tradition of paying off the Mexican authorities to help support the drug trade. Drug trafficking generates $35–50 billion a year, depending on how you add. With those kinds of earnings, there has always been plenty to go into operational overhead, a necessary expense. Ultimately, drug trafficking could never be as successful as it is, in Mexico or the US, without a high degree of corruption and assistance from official powers-especially during a government crackdown. The Army is a fertile field for corruption. A Mexican Army private makes $533 a month on average. Federales don’t make much more. Drug money, on the other hand, is so prolific that it finds it way everywhere. It’s laundered through businesses, it’s out in the street and it certainly finds its way into the pockets of the authorities. There’s more than enough to go around, and the Army, which sees and knows this, seeks its take as well. It’s just the nature of the sums we’re dealing with. When it’s said that drug money has infected the Mexican economy, it’s true. It’s made it’s way into every level of the society, and that’s the danger of it.
In addition, it was the Army’s charge in Juarez to fight the drug traffickers in order to bring about an end to the violence gripping the city. As we’ve discussed before, the unspoken truth is that stamping out the drug trade in Juarez or Mexico really isn’t realistically possible. This is due mainly to the sheer volume of cash it generates for Mexico and the basic laws of supply and demand. But the Army still has to do its job.
The Sinaloa cartel is the oldest and best organized cartel in Mexico. The Juarez cartel hasn’t been the same since the late 90’s. If the Sinaloans, known for their persistence, can convince the Army that the local cartel is on the way out, and backs that up with the right cash payments, then the Army has plenty of reason to selectively pursue the Juarez cartel. It makes perfect sense. One side has to win, and the faster the weaker side is eliminated, the faster the violence ends. Then things can go back to ‘normal’, with everybody silently profiting form the drug trade.
In a follow-up interview to the original story, NPR’s John Burnett felt the need to clarify the point:
CONAN: And in your stories, you’ve described a battle taking place between two factions fighting for control over the border city of Ciudad Juarez, La Linea and the Sinaloa cartel.
BURNETT: That’s right. Let me also just add something to your intro to our conversation here. What we’ve been reporting this week is that elements of the Mexican army appear to be compromised in this fight against the cartels. We’re really not saying that the army as a monolithic institution is completely committed to one side.
There’s no official position of the Army in the war between the cartels. It’s all about convenience and going with the tide. By focusing on dismantling the smaller, weaker cartels now, the government can get things under control and deal with the bigger fish later, which in this case happens to be the Sinaloans. The Sinaloans, for their part, have played on this beautifully. In fact, it was probably much better for the Sinaloans in the end to have the Army replace the local and state police in Juarez as the arbiters of the law, because it cleared out the old guard that had been on the payroll of La Linea and the Juarez cartel for so long.
It always comes back to money in this war, greed and money. Instead of focusing on the sensationalist shock of the headlines we’d do better to examine the enormous divide between rich and poor, the ridiculously low minimum wage and the lack of infrastructure in many areas that are huge contributors to the strength of gangs and the the desperation that leads people to these things. But these problems are systemic and far harder to talk about.
So while that story dominated the press in the US, the Mexican press reported on a worrisome string of events that crescendoed with the kidnapping of Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a former Mexican senator and presidential candidate and prominent official in Calderon’s PAN party.
It began last Thursday, when federal forces acting under the supervision of the office of the attorney general staged a raid of 7 homes in Culiacan, the capitol of Sinaloa state. While the intention of the raids remains unclear, 7 luxury vehicles, boxes full of jewelry and computer equipment were seized. More notably, they arrested Griselda Lopez Perez, ex-wife of fugitive Sinaloa boss Chapo Guzman. Lopez Perez, who was found in one of the homes, was questioned, but only held for about four hours before she was released. The New York Times later reported that Calderon played a direct role in arranging her speedy release, fearing reprisal attacks if she was held on to for too long. These kinds of fears are not unfounded, as they have happened in numerous instances during the past few years. It was a strange event, as family members of drug dealers generally aren’t targeted by the government without substantial reason.
The story still hung in the air the next day, when rumors began to surface that Mexican Navy special forces had arrested one of the biggest players in the Sinaloa cartel, Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel Villareal, early Friday morning in Guadalajara. Coronel is considered to be the third ‘leader’ of the Sinaloa cartel, after Chapo Guzman and Mayo Zambada. He controls the plaza of Guadalajara, the home of the original modern Mexican drug cartel of which he and Guzman were a part. He is known to be a ruthless leader who has held tight command of his city throughout the years, despite rifts in the Sinaloa federation and pressure from other cartels. He’s also known as the “The Ice King” for his proficiency in the production of methamphetamine, organizing huge buys of precursor chemicals from Asia to manufacture the drug in the remote areas in central and western Mexico.
Nacho’s arrest under any circumstances would be a huge blow to the Sinaloans and a huge victory for the government, and the story quickly spread. What makes it even more interesting is that Coronel is Chapo’s brother-in-law, as is said to have married Coronel’s daughter Emma a few years ago. But after 24 hours there was still no acknowledgment of the arrest from the Navy or any other government agency. This is extremely strange, because in past instances the government has been very quick to offer up the names of the traffickers it captures, such as the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva in 2008, the death of his brother Arturo at the hands of the Navy in December of 2009 and the arrest of Teodoro “El Teo” Garcia Simental in January. Unlike those instances, the report went unconfirmed for most of the week.
There was still no word on the Coronel rumor when a worker found the car of Diego Fernandez de Cevallos abandoned on his ranch in central Mexico early Saturday morning. The authorities were alerted, and within a few hours it was determined that Fernandez de Cevallos was missing and in all likelihood had been kidnapped, due to the presence of blood and other signs of violence at the scene
“Don Diego” has always been a polarizing figure in Mexican politics, but he is an extremely high profile one. His kidnapping represents a major departure from normal operations for drug cartel violence. Threats against politicians and local officials are all too common, but no one of Don Diego’s stature has been made a target during the past few years of the fight. There are really only two cartels that could be behind such a brazen act: the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. In light of the events of the past week, just about everyone is looking at the Sinaloans.
The strange series of events raises a lot of questions. Could the Fernandez de Cevallos kidnapping have been retaliation for the arrest of Griselda Lopez Perez, or the arrest of Nacho Coronel? As the week wore on, there was still no acknowledgment from the government on whether they had Coronel in custody or not. The fact that the rumor remained a rumor led many to speculate that the government may be setting up an exchange of Coronel for Fernandez de Cevallos, adding fuel to the sentiment that the two events were directly related.
It took the Navy almost an entire week to even respond to reports; they finally issued a statement denying that they ever had Coronel in their custody. The announcement did little to quell suspicion, and some sources report that the Navy is bluffing, lending even more credence to the exchange theory. There has been no request for ransom, and with every day that passes it seems more like the kidnapping was a grab for a bargaining chip in a political battle.
The fact that it happened right before Calderon’s trip to Washington has had a direct political impact as well, intended or not. How can he argue the case that Mexico is making progress in the war on drugs when this is front page news? The confusion behind the incident doesn’t help either, as it makes the state and government look bumbling and disorganized and susceptible to any kind of attack. It also brings up memories of Colombia, where kidnappings and attacks on high-level politicians were commonplace in the late 80s and early 90s. This won’t do much to help the fear of Mexico becoming a failed state, and again will force security to the forefront of issues involving Mexican-American relations, leaving all the other important issues to be passed over.
It’s impossible to guess how this will play out, but if the Sinaloans do turn out to be responsible, it will certainly change the perception that the government is on their side in this fight. It’s an important reminder that any alliances or partnerships forged through corruption are merely out of convenience, and that there are no “sides” in a war with a constantly shifting battlefield of players. The Mexican government may have to confront the Sinaloa cartel head on a little sooner than they wanted to.
Previously: Terror In The Valley
John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.