By ALFREDO CORCHADO - The Dallas Morning News
CUCUTA, COLOMBIA In the pink light of dawn, William Yacia Pineda views the black-market commerce at this busy crossing on Colombia's border with Venezuela. Anything is possible.
"One day, it's gasoline, the next day cocaine," says Yacia, shrugging his sloping shoulders in a white muscle shirt, his biceps bulging. "Whatever the world needs, we supply."
Yacia is one of a legion of pimpineros, gasoline vendors who rise in the dark to buy cheap gas from neighboring Venezuela and resell it for a few more pesos in Colombia. But there are higher-margin goods to move: The dollars multiply exponentially when the product is refined cocaine and the final market is Dallas and cities beyond.
And at every stop along the way - from Colombia to Central America, into Mexico and on to U.S. markets - the traffic spawns violence and corruption, undermining governments and democratic institutions - all to serve the incessant demand from the north.
"For too long, Latin America has paid the price in pools of blood for our demand," said David Gaddis, deputy chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration and former regional director in Mexico City and Bogota.
"Vulnerable countries have been ravaged, lives destroyed and democracies maligned. We've made some major improvements, but it remains an uphill battle as long as demand persists."
For many U.S. cities, the path of destruction generated by Mexican drug traffickers begins at this pivotal transshipment point, where everything from electronics to cocaine and gasoline moves across borders.
Of course, this border region is just one of several points of departure for smuggling cocaine to the U.S., Europe and other spots around the globe. Cocaine shipments also leave via the port of Buenaventura on speedboats, large ships or even submarines, much of it bound for Central America or one of Mexico's many ports in the Pacific Coast states of Guerrero, Michoacan, Jalisco and Colima. Or the cocaine may travel overland north from Medellin and into Panama.
But here, where ties between Colombia's powerful cartels and traditional Mexican cartels go back to the 1980s, the Cucuta border crossing represents a special allure for newcomers like the Mexican paramilitary group known as the Zetas.
The hustle and bustle of the wholesale environment and the porous border with Venezuela make this area special for the Zetas, Colombian and other Western intelligence officials say. Past ties, friendships and partnerships take a back seat to cash. The Zetas are the nouveau riche, known as much for their brutality as for their deep pockets and their ability to bend people to their will, the officials say.
"Many Colombia traffickers see the Zetas with some trepidation," said a senior Colombian law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Their reputation for brutality doesn't necessarily make them good businessmen."
The farther the cocaine travels, the more the violence and profits increase. The price of a kilo of cocaine starts at about $2,340 in Colombia and increases, once it reaches the Mexicans' northern border, to about $12,500, according to a U.N. report. On U.S. territory, the price varies; depending on purity, it can go for as much as $180,000 per kilo.
For many, the money is impossible to ignore.
"The only thing I thought about was putting food on the table, and putting myself through school and later my kids, too," said Fredy Martinez, a former coca farmer. "I never once thought of how I could be poisoning Mexicans or Americans or anyone else. You don't think about anything but survival."
But Martinez has since turned away from his $4,500 monthly profits. He now grows cacao for export. Martinez can't help noting the irony.
"Americans would rather get high on cocaine, an illicit drug, than enjoy our chocolate, which is harmless and tasteful," he said bitterly.
The U.S. has spent more than $7 billion through an effort called Plan Colombia to help the Colombian government restore peace. The impact is evident. Colombia is a safer nation than it was in the days of the notorious Medellin and Cali cartels. Roads once deemed too dangerous to travel have reopened. People walk the streets of Cucuta and other rich cocaine regions without much fear. The once-powerful cartels have been pummeled.
"Nobody wants to be identified as an organization leader anymore," said Jay Bergman, DEA agent in charge in Bogota. "You don't want your name out there because that makes you too vulnerable. There are no more Pablo Escobars in Colombia. What you have are smaller drug organizations."
Still, cocaine production and smuggling continues unabated. In Cucuta daily, officials say, an army of human "ants" smuggles bundles of packages filled with cocaine into Venezuela en route to Africa, Europe or Central America, particularly Honduras and Guatemala.
Beset by violence and corruption, Guatemala teeters on the edge of being a failed state. In recent years, Guatemala has proved to be especially vulnerable to the Zetas, who rule over communities across the country like tiny fiefdoms. The Central American nation is still licking its wounds from 36 years of civil war and military rule.
"The institutions in Guatemala work beautifully, marvelously. They obviously do, but for organized crime," said Ricardo Stein, a leading intellectual who helped broker a peace agreement between rebels and the government. "We've built a paradise for criminals."
With proceeds from billions of dollars in drug profits from U.S. sales, powerful Mexican organized crime groups, particularly the Zetas, have taken control in parts of the country, forming alliances with local criminal groups and undermining a fragile democracy. Several top officials have been accused of corruption.
A weak government and decades of conflict have left Guatemala unable to cope with the new criminal onslaught, U.S. officials say.
Nearly 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. is moved through Central America on its way to Mexico and the U.S., wreaking violence and spreading corruption along the way. As the last link in the chain of Central American countries, Guatemala is especially under threat from drug traffickers, said David T. Johnson, former assistant secretary of state and head of the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Speaking to the Council of the Americas on Oct. 5, Johnson said that drug gangs smuggle an estimated 250 metric tons of cocaine through Guatemala each year and have compromised government control of the borders with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.
Much is said about the level of violence in Mexico, but, with 48 homicides per 100,000 people, Guatemala's murder rate is four times as high as Mexico's, Johnson said, making Guatemala one of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere.
Drug cartels, especially the Zetas, have gained control of large chunks of land, cutting jungle landing strips in the Peten in northeastern Guatemala and controlling much of the border with Mexico. Guatemala has five official border crossings into Mexico. Mexican and Guatemalan officials say they have identified at least 43 informal crossings controlled by the Zetas.
In December, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege in Alta Verapaz province to challenge the Zetas' control of the area. The declaration allows the military to detain suspects, conduct warrantless searches and control the local media.
In response, men identifying themselves as Zetas forced local radio stations to broadcast a message threatening "war" in "shopping malls, schools and police stations" unless Colom fulfills unspecified promises.
A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable deplored the situation along the Guatemala-Mexico border, noting that Mexico has only 125 immigration officials along the porous 577-mile frontier.
Mexico presents a complex picture. The country of 112 million people is one of the world's 20 wealthiest nations. Still, at times Mexico appears to be unraveling. About half of Mexico's estimated 2,000 communities have reported drug violence, according to Mexican intelligence officials.
Shortly after his inauguration in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon ordered thousands of federal troops and police to drug hot spots, beginning with his native state of Michoacan, in an effort to quell the worst violence.
"Had we not acted," Calderon said in a recent speech, "all families, not just in some regions, but across the country, would have had to be resigned to submit themselves to the will and abuse of criminals."
Jorge Chabat, one of Mexico's top security experts, called the ongoing violence an "overdue, inevitable war," necessary if Mexico is to build strong institutions and establish the rule of law. But Chabat and other experts question whether Mexico had the preparation, tools or strategy to take on such powerful foes - including the Sinaloa, Gulf and Juarez cartels, La Familia Michoacan and the Zetas - whose claws reach inside the government itself.
The Zetas now contol chunks of territory in the Yucatan peninsula, northwestern Durango state and the northern states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, all bordering Texas, authorities say.
Since December 2006, more than 35,000 people have been killed in drug violence, much of it along the Texas-Mexico border. The Zetas have been accused of some of the worst violence, including a spate of car bombings - a recent addition to their deadly repertoire.
Thousands of businesses have closed in areas with the worst violence, leading to a steady migration of Mexico's middle class to places like Dallas.
More than 400 communities across Mexico now operate without a police force after officers quit in fear - or traded their jobs for cartel employment. Despite more than 50,000 arrests, most crimes - more than 95 percent - remain unsolved. The conviction rate is less than 2 percent.
The risk to Americans has grown as well. In September, David Hartley of McAllen, Texas, was shot and killed while sightseeing with his wife on Falcon Lake, which runs along the U.S.-Mexico border south of Laredo. In January, Nancy Davis, a 59-year-old missionary from South Texas who had worked in Mexico for decades, was fatally shot as she drove with her husband south of Reynosa.
Then, in February, a Texas-based Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, Jaime Zapata, was killed and his partner injured by gunmen in San Luis Potosi state. The Zetas were blamed in that shooting, which led to a massive law enforcement sweep against cartel suspects in the U.S. and Latin America.
"We're going after the Zetas," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We're responding, with the help of our Mexican counterparts, with one sole purpose: Bring them down."
On a recent evening in Ciudad Aleman, a town near the Texas border in Tamaulipas state, now a deadly battleground between the warring Zetas and the Gulf cartel, a 28-year-old observer of the local scene described the situation with an air of resignation.
"You hear planes, trucks, cars passing by loaded with coca and mota," he said, referring to cocaine and marijuana. "It's headed north, all the way from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia. We're just on the way there."