By Bill Conroy
Targeting Heads of Hydra-like “Cartels” Is Futile Strategy
Arturo Beltran Leyva, a former leader in the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization who split off a few years back to form his own narco-trafficking “cartel,” was gunned down last December by Mexican Navy forces at an upscale apartment complex.
Two months later, in February of this year, the former head of Mexico’s infamous Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was sentenced to federal prison in Houston. He is slated to be released in less than 20 years, with much of his fortune intact, as part of a sweetheart plea deal that has led some observers, including rival narco-traffickers, to assume Cardenas Guillen has cut a deal and is now a snitch for the U.S. government.
Since the death of Beltran Leyva and the sentencing of Cardenas Guillen, the murder rate has skyrocketed in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas (which borders both the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico) and Nuevo Leon (which borders the U.S. and is home to one of Mexico’s major commercial centers, Monterrey).
The death toll is mounting in those two Mexican states as the major narco-trafficking groups in the region (the Beltran Leyva and Gulf organizations) and Los Zetas, all once aligned and now divided, duke it out for control of this major transportation corridor — which allows for contraband to arrive via air, sea or land to be transshipped north to gringo consumers across a porous international border that opens into Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S.
By all accounts, according to Narco News sources — including current and former federal agents, U.S. intelligence assets and other individuals who regularly interact with the narco-trafficking world along the border — the group rising to the top in that regional struggle is Los Zetas, a ruthless “military cartel” founded by former Mexican special operations soldiers and employed originally by Cardenas Guillen as the enforcement arm of his Gulf Cartel.
Contributing to the Zetas success is the fact that over the past year, the Mexican government, primarily via the Mexican Navy, has ramped up the pace of its assault on the leadership of the Beltran Leyva and Gulf organizations, resulting in the arrest or capture of the following individuals:
• August: Mexican federal police arrested Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka La Barbie, a U.S. citizen who was a major leader in the Beltran Leyva organization.
• September: Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragan, another Beltran Leyva leader, was captured in central Mexico by Mexican Naval forces.
• November: After a fierce battle in Matamoros, Mexico, that claimed more than 50 lives, Gulf organization leader Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen (brother of Osiel) was killed, again as part of a raid by Mexican Navy marines.
Ship of State
U.S. training and backing has been key to the Mexican Navy’s success in capturing and/or killing its targets, Narco News sources contend.
The Mexican Navy’s close relationship with the U.S. military should come as no surprise, given the top three leaders of that Navy all speak English fluently — two of them serving as former Naval Attaché’s to the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the third having spent time studying at the Naval War College in the U.S.
That’s a point made in a white paper issued jointly last May by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Trans-border Institute at the University of San Diego.
More from the white paper:
The most dramatic reflection of this collaboration is the significant increase in Mexican military training in the United States. All the sources I communicated with on both sides of the border agreed that these increased training programs have contributed to the improved relationship.Many of the Mexican naval forces participating in the current assault against narco leaders, according to one U.S. intelligence source, “were trained … at military bases” in the U.S.
… The Navy stands out as the leader in cross-national collaboration. The Navy began assigning liaison officers at least four years ago. They have an officer in Key West at the Joint Interagency Task Force South; this individual is operational and plays a role in passing drug plane flight tracks to Mexico’s Naval Ministry for the Navy to respond. Furthermore, information exchange between the U.S. 4th Fleet in Mayport, Florida and the Navy Ministry is excellent. The Mexican Navy activated another new position at Norfolk with the US Fleet Forces Command at the same time it established the position at Key West.
… Another vehicle which has promoted collaboration between the American military and the Mexican Navy are joint operations and joint peacekeeping missions. The Mexican Navy has participated in joint naval operations with the United States and other countries….
“Their primary function,” the source adds, is “to hunt down and eliminate various ‘assigned’ targets.”
This military strategy, seemingly borrowed from U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, may prove to be effective on a tactical level, but it is a poor choice for winning the peace in Mexico, if that’s the goal, in the context of the drug war, according to some observers.
And that’s because it ignores the fact that what is happening in Mexico is not an insurgency (as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defined it earlier this year before backing away from the statement), but rather a battle for control of key markets critical to supporting a multi-hundred-billion-dollar business.
There is no ideology (political or religious in source) to vanquish or to empower, in this case, but rather only equally ruthless, greedy “narco-corporations” to feed or starve as part of an all or nothing proposition. Unless you shut down the markets completely — and risk collapsing the Mexican economy — or legalize them by ending prohibition, you cannot stop the next Cardenas Guillen or “La Barbie” or “El Grande” from rolling the dice in the mercado negro.
All of these narco-corporations have their roots extended deep into the fabric of Mexican government (including the Army, Navy, political offices, law enforcement) and, in fact, are for all practical purposes one and the same with that government — operating as needed under color of law. And these corrupt relationships extend across the border, tainting U.S. corporations and law enforcement as well.
That means, unfortunately, any effort to cut off the heads of these narco organizations, only gives rise to more heads, like the mythical Hydra. In the case of the Tamaulipas/Nuevo Leon market, it’s the Zetas organization, and its paramilitary approach to the drug trade, that is now benefiting, even as Mexican President Felipe Calderon scores some political points by taking down a few narco-celebrities in his ill-conceived military assault on the narco-markets that help to prop up his nation’s economy.
Paying the price for Calderon’s headlines are those who have been driven from their homes, whose children have been disappeared, the murdered and those about to be murdered.
In testimony in 2005 before a U.S. immigration judge, Guillermo Ramirez Peryo, a U.S. government informant, former Mexican cop and high-level member of a murderous Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug organization cell in Jaurez, Mexico, described the relationship between the Mexican government and drug organizations during the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox as follows:
Ramirez Peyro: During the three years of working as a investigation [a U.S. government informant infiltrating the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) organization], I recorded and I showed that, that the police is under the order and to service the people from the cartel, inclusive this recordings were I would record the conversations that I would have with [VCF lieutenant] Santillan, and he would explain to me the arrangements that they would have with militaries with high executives, high level government people.
[Attorney Jodi] Goodwin: The, the arrangements that the cartel had with the military?
Ramirez Peyro: They were militaries, with politics — politicians and with the police, that’s for sure that they are under the orders.
Goodwin: And when you say the police, are there many levels of police?
Ramirez Peyro: Yes, there is three levels, federal, state and municipal.
Goodwin: Which ones are under the control of the cartel?
Ramirez Peyro: All three of them.
Goodwin: You indicated that you have recorded some conversations with Santillan where he explained arrangements that were made with military and politicians. What, what specific arrangements did he tell you about politicians?
Ramirez Peyro: No, that he didn’t precisely, himself, well, the cartel [the VCF] had arrangements with people that were close to President Fox [of Mexico]. He explained to me that President Fox took, took the position to arrange, consult with the cartel from Juarez to — which it, which it means that he was going to attack the, the enemy cartels being from Tijuana and from the Gulf, and then the cartel from Juarez would be operating with this court, you know, without the government being —
Goodwin: This is —
Ramirez Peyro: — on —
Goodwin: — what —
Ramirez Peyro: — top of them. [Mexican President Calderon has been accused of exercising similar favor toward the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization led by Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo.”]
Goodwin: This is what Santillan told you?
Ramirez Peyro: It's one of the law conversations that we did have. Also, when I did go to Colombia to make arrangement with the Colombians, the plans was to come by sea, and the Mexico's navy, the ships, they're the ones that would get the drugs in the, in the sea - marina - ocean borders, you know, of the national territories. They, yeah, they kept close to what you call ground, firm ground, and the PGR then would fly this drugs to the - to Juarez, the city of Juarez. [Emphasis added.]
But with so much money and power in the mix, and human nature being what it is, loyalty is a fleeting virtue in the narco-trafficking business.
As a result, the Zetas, as they extend their reach and control, also risk creating bitter divisions within their own ranks, as power rivalries play out in deadly ways. A report that appeared last May in the Mexican press and has since seemingly disappeared from public notice pointed to such a rift within the Zeta organization.
Among other allegations, the media report alleged that a high-level member of the Zetas was providing information to the Mexican federal police designed to compromise his enemies, including other Zeta commanders. The article further alleged that this duplicity was revealed in a leaked U.S. State Department report.
Now, that supposed State Department report has not yet surfaced in the public domain, so some may see that as evidence of the news story's lack of veracity.
Time will tell, maybe.
However, a source with connections to both the law enforcement and criminal worlds told Narco News recently that another high-level Zeta is working as an informant for the U.S. government.
If the reports of the Zeta informants are true, those individuals may well have seen an opportunity to advance their standing within the organization by supplying information to the Mexican and U.S. governments that was key to efforts to locate and capture/kill the various Beltran Leyva/Gulf operatives over the past year.
And those informants, should they exist, maybe even played a role in the capture last June of Hector Raul Luna Luna, aka “El Tori,” who served as the top dog for the Zetas in Monterrey.
If there is a pattern to discern in the bloodshed that accompanies the narco-trafficking business, it is one common to the weather: Stick around long enough and there’s certain to be a change.