Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Drug cartels taking over government roles in parts of Mexico

Thursday, May 5, 2011 |

Alfredo Corchado
The Dallas Morning News

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico -- The "police" for the Zetas paramilitary cartel are so numerous here -- upward of 3,000, according to one estimate, that they far outnumber the official force, and their appearance further sets them apart.

Most are teens sporting crew cuts, gold chains and earrings, with shorts worn well below the waist and cellphones pressed to their ears. These "spotters" seem to be everywhere, including elementary schools, keeping tabs on everything and everyone for the area's most dominant drug cartel.

"Get the (expletive) away from my child!" Thelma Pena, a young mother, yelled at a Zetas spotter as she took her son to school.

"Am I afraid of being killed?" she later said of her outburst. "We're already dying, little by little, day by day."

The omnipresent cartel spotters are one aspect of what experts describe as the emergence of virtual parallel governments in places like Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez -- criminal groups that levy taxes, gather intelligence, muzzle the media, run businesses and impose a version of order that serves their criminal goals.

"President (Felipe) Calderon's war on drug cartels has been such an abysmal failure that entire regions of Mexico are effectively controlled by non-state actors, i.e., multipurpose criminal organizations," said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist and expert on drug cartels at the University of Texas at El Paso.

"These criminal groups have morphed from being strictly drug cartels into a kind of alternative society and economy," Campbell said. "They are the dominant forces of coercion, tax the population, steal from or control utilities such as gasoline, sell their own products and are the ultimate decision-makers in the territories they control."

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the Zetas organization is continuing to grow and estimated that it has as many as "13,000 to 15,000 hard-core members" nationwide, a reflection of its ability to exert control in regions of Mexico.

Calderon and his top aides insist that the government is making gains, that new data show a decline in killings in the second half of 2010, proving that the cartels are losing and in desperation are resorting to kidnapping, extortion and piracy.

Alejandro Poire, Calderon's spokesman for security issues, said that two years ago the government identified the top 37 cartel leaders. "The fact is, 20 of these 37 have been brought down, so these criminal organizations have been weakened, have been significantly weakened," Poire told The Dallas Morning News.

Poire later insisted that even northern Tamaulipas state -- where 183 bodies have been recovered from clandestine graves in the past month, including many victims believed to have been abducted at gunpoint from public buses traveling on major highways , "is under the control of the Mexican state."

Still, across Mexico, despite the presence of thousands of troops and federal and state police, the government appears unable to restore order.

In Ciudad Juarez, the Juarez cartel, which is defending its territory against the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is quietly installing its own rule.

In interviews with at least a dozen vendors, businessmen, cab drivers and shoe shiners, all talked of paying monthly extortion fees to the cartel. Fees range from 100 pesos, about $9, for street vendors, to 500 pesos ($45) for cab drivers and 800 pesos ($70) for junkyard owners. The Juarez cartel and their enforcers, the La Linea gang, have even set up bank accounts so businessmen can make direct deposits. Many of those interviewed said they were not even bothering to pay federal taxes anymore.

"What does that tell you?" asked Manuel Valdivia, a mechanic and cab driver.

"Because to me it tells me everything I need to know about who's in charge."

The theft of petroleum from the state-owned Pemex oil company brings los Zetas billions of dollars in profits. They have also branched out into coal mines in Coahuila and liquor sales in areas under their influence.

Eric Olson, a security expert for the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the lines of authority are truly blurred in some places.

"There is no question that the lines between the state and organized crime have been blurred in some areas of Mexico and, in some cases, obliterated altogether," he said. "In such cases, local governments continue to function 'normally' while protecting the interests of organized crime over those of the citizens."

"In local areas where the state is unable to guarantee the safety and well-being of citizens, organized crime provides de facto security and even guarantees services for the public," Olson said. "So far, this has been observed in limited areas of Mexico, but unless more is done to control organized crime and strengthen the state, the potential for expansion is very real."

With Calderon's term set to end in 2012, both Mexican and U.S. officials are facing pressure to prove that their joint strategy is working.

On Friday, the U.S. government announced that it would deliver another $500 million in aid to Mexico under the bilateral Merida Initiative to help train state police, thus broadening U.S. anti-drug assistance beyond the level of the federal government. The criminality and violence associated with drug cartels "continue to threaten the security and prosperity of both our nations," said a statement released after high-level talks in Washington led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa.

The continued insecurity, meanwhile, is widening the exodus to the United States, including Texas cities.

A Mexican dentist said he tired of paying a weekly extortion fee of 800 pesos, about $70, in Juarez, and, after suffering a beating for nonpayment that almost killed him, he made the move to El Paso.

He now runs a clandestine clinic in his El Paso home, using his car to pick up patients at a distant location and discreetly driving them into his garage, where he welcomes them to his office.

"Whether you agree, or disagree with this war, one thing is clear. This will go on for years," the dentist said. "This clandestine office is Plan B for now."

In Juarez, city officials have pledged to regain the upper hand.

During a funeral April 22 for two Juarez police officers, the newly appointed police chief, Julian Leyzaola Perez, referred to the criminals operating in Juarez as "cockroaches" and "cowards" and vowed that "Juarez will no longer kneel before" the drug gangs.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that plans are under way for "large-scale operations" in coming weeks to "hunt down" criminal groups that have taken over neighborhoods in Juarez.

In Nuevo Laredo, residents are watched daily by an estimated 1,500 halcones, or male spotters, about 1,000 panteras -- the nickname for female spotters -- and 500 supervisors, part of the Zetas' strategy to fend off their former employers and rivals, the Gulf cartel, according to the U.S intelligence official. The spotters earn between 1,500 to 3,000 pesos ($135-$275) per week, and in a weak economy, cartel recruits and their replacements come easy.

Nuevo Laredo, a city of 360,000 people, has a local police force of about 800 officers.
Compared with Juarez, Nuevo Laredo is peaceful. But a drop in violence doesn't necessarily mean that the government is winning, the intelligence official said.

"You can't measure success in Mexico solely on whether violence is up or down, but by who's in control of some of these territories like Nuevo Laredo," the official said. "With so many halcones and panteras, they're practically the eyes and ears of that city. What's more worrisome is that Nuevo Laredo is not alone. We're seeing that in other Mexican communities."

For residents, the constant presence of deadly cartels overshadows even mundane activities.

"Every day," said Thelma Pena, the young mother, "the goal is make it back home as a family without being harmed."

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36 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds a bit exaggerated to me - especially the quote "The theft of petroleum from the state-owned Pemex oil company brings los Zetas billions of dollars in profits". If that is happening, those billions of dollars of oil are certainly not coming out of that hose pipe in the picture.

Anonymous said...

Too many have a hand in the pot. Seems the very people that work for these thugs are very well mixed in with the mess. I recall reading an article about a town in Central America that was so fed up with the violence that the families themselves began killing their own grown children who were part of the problem.

Mexico will eventually become a police state if this continues. People will begin to vanish and that includes high level government officials.

'lito'brito said...

Mexico ..the worlds first true "narcocracy"

all important decisions and positions of power are either held directly by, or controlled through intimidation from behind the scenes by persons in collusion with DTO'S

"Every day," said Thelma Pena, the young mother, "the goal is make it back home as a family without being harmed."

this is the reality for millions of people in Mexico..all the while CNN is endlessly blabbering about ??libya???...???pakistan???...???the holocaust???...

ask yourself why we are not being told

who sets the agenda for the talking heads

all the while Mexico is being overran by the Z, and our country is being steadily infiltrated by the DTO agents


FUCK THE MIDDLE EAST...

WHAT ABOUT THE NATION NEXT DOOR TO US...

WHAT ABOUT MEXICO...

Anonymous said...

Bias as hell article

Anonymous said...

what the hell kind of shooting technique is that guy using with the gun over his head?

Anonymous said...

I doubt los zetas have 15k members seeing as they get killed like flies

Anonymous said...

It's called the "I have not been trained to deploy a rifle in an effective manner" technique. Can you imagine what will happen to these guys when trained American soldiers assault them? The ground would turn red with blood.

Anonymous said...

Repeat after me failed state.

inola said...

Anecdote from Monclova, Coahuila, Mexico that shows the extent of the Zetas' control over the state: my cousin, driving late at night, ran a red light. He was quickly pulled over not by cops buy by plain clothes guys in a luxury SUV that got out the car and beat him a bit for running a red light. He says they even mentioned "we are the police now." This, according to him, is the new norm.

Anonymous said...

It's also suspected that a lot of the product stolen from PEMEX is sold to american companies.

Anonymous said...

it's called "spray and pray", the sign of a well trained soldier...lol

Anonymous said...

They are not making billions of dollars off of oil jajaja...that is a load of bullshit! And second its no wonder the Zetas are getting their asses handed to them by the military and force illegal immigrants from central America to fulfill their ranks with shooting over your head!!! REALLY?? jajajaja

wgnca said...

I do want to know why " Mexarco" and all the despicable cartel shenanigans aren't regularly broadcast as part of the US major news reporting. Most Americans say, "yeah cartels..bad in Mexico". Period. And it goes so much deeper and is so much worse than just a casual passing comment. Is it because Tourism still does make money in Mexico and they don't want that utterly obliterated with constant reporting. So, they have asked the US media to lay off. Or is Charles Bowden and a few others the only ones who dare go down to Juarez and other threatened Mexican cities? I just don't know.

Anonymous said...

The pic of the Zeta shooting a gun sums it up for us all. No wonder this scum is being exterminated like roaches. What a joke

Anonymous said...

Nobody has ever paid taxes in Mexico. What are they talking about - not paying taxes "anymore"?

Ardent said...

This part was kind of funny in this stupid article from The Dallas Morning News... First the title-

'Drug cartels taking over government roles in parts of Mexico'

...then next comes the picture of the gas hose to help inform us that the drug cartels are draining off billions of $$$$$$$$ profits of Pemex produced gasoline. Hey! But thats the job the government does in Mexico though. Rob off the profits of Mexico's natural oil resources for its politician crooks to live off of. Bad Bad Cartelistas!

Anonymous said...

Reading ardent's post here and on the article about the Generals I have to say he has lost his grip. His posts are increasingly incoherent and scattered.

Fatigue, sleep deprivation maybe.

Bones said...

I dont remember the government having a role in much of mexico even before this drug war....

Layla2 said...

And who was it that said their goal was just to make money, that they had no political agenda?? They not may seem like the social terrorists of the Che Guevara fame (or whoever else you want to plug in there, but they ARE IN FACT the same thing.

They are terrorists and they also have a social/political agenda. It's called 'taking over!"

Oh, one of the people who said that was one of our stupid congressman...

Layla2 said...

Instead of the Mexican gov't nationalizing business and industry--the drug cartels will do it for them! In some places they are systematically taking over...this writing has been on the wall.

Layla2 said...

This is the US's solution to a problem, throw money at it: "the U.S. government announced that it would deliver another $500 million in aid to Mexico under the bilateral Merida Initiative to help train state police, thus broadening U.S. anti-drug assistance."

Are there any clearly defined objectives here? Now if the MX military went on the offensive to take the areas back from the cartel thugs WHILE this training was being done to put decent police force back out on the streets once the military moved out--that would be a clear objective. Let's hope this is their direction. We'll see how it plays out.

Layla2 said...

Looks to me like they're siphoning off at least enough to fill all their SUV's for the raids they carry out. Cuz Lord knows gas is getting too expensive for drug thugs to afford it!

Anonymous said...

@layla2,

Uh..crude oil taken from the ground has to be refined into gasoline. It's not a simple process and it has to be done in a refinery, which are huge facilities (they don't make small ones). The stolen oil is no doubt being sold as crude oil on the black market to competing refineries of foreign origin. It's just another illegal enterprise these bandits are engaged in.

Yea, that pic of the Zeta gunman firing over his head would be funny if it wasn't so dangerous. Those rounds are eventually going to hit something and have a range of 5 miles depending on the rifle design and ammo! That's how innocent people are killed by dip-shits, as displayed in the photo. I wonder, who snapped the photo, in such close range?

Anonymous said...

I believe that the Mexican government feels that it is advantageous for partaking of Mexico to be under cartel control.
Letting cartels control areas is an easy way for the Mexican government to not have to invest resources into the people. Also, they can make more profit off foreign aid by claiming that they need assistance. And if the cartels do manage to produce some level of tranquility, even better.
The only time the Mexican government will intervene is if the economic interests of the rich are threatened.

Ardent said...

Anonymous 11:40 PM, I am hardly the incoherent and scattered one here, but you are with your personal flames without any content to them other than insults.

'His (Ardent's) posts are increasingly incoherent and scattered. Fatigue, sleep deprivation maybe.'

I mention the fact that the Federal Mexican government has traditionally been feeding off the Pemex extracted oil wealth to feed its DF bureaucracy and what do you have to say about this but NADA? This reality is important because the biggest oil fields in Mexico are now running low to low and then out.

You might be too 'incoherent and scattered' to understand the significance of this but other BB readers perhaps are not as out of it as you seem to be?

(BTW- What's with all this recent scrambling up of the order of reader's comments being listed? Moderators moving incoming comments of readers back and forth truly is 'incoherent and scattered' process. It's disconcerting to one second see your post as #2 or #3 in line and time being made and then come back later and see it as #10 or #13!))

Layla2 said...

Yea, you are right and that was a stupid comment late last night, thinking that this was processed gasoline when in fact it is crude coming from inground before refinement. I do know my basic stuff, I'm a science teacher.

The part about stealing for powering the SUV's was point I wanted to make, though...

Gerardo said...

"(BTW- What's with all this recent scrambling up of the order of reader's comments being listed? Moderators moving incoming comments of readers back and forth truly is 'incoherent and scattered' process. It's disconcerting to one second see your post as #2 or #3 in line and time being made and then come back later and see it as #10 or #13!))"

Ardent, us moderators at BB value as wide opinions and views as possible from our readers in order that we may all better understand and digest "el pan de cada dia" that our brothers and sisters in Mexico are living through. Often we are forced to hold our noses when we hit the publish button but we have no other choice, really. Your opinions are important but are too often delivered in a repulsive and incoherent manner and now you are accusing us of conspiring with the order of your comments??? I honestly don't have a clue what you are talking about and if you detect a problem maybe you need to approach the Blogger service on this matter. Another option is that if you feel targeted by us moderators, well then its time for you to move on.

Sincerely, Gerardo

Ardent said...

Actually, I am not accusing the moderators of any PLOT against anybody, Gerardo. In fact, there are even a few times when I don't get published when later I agree that perhaps it was for the best. Not every comment I make is the best...simple as that. Most all has been published when I send it in.

My comment about the order of comments being posted and later being changed was simply because twice in a row that happened. Mentioning that is not to say that I though that it was a moderator plot of any kind. Who knows what happened when it happened? You don't, neither do I, and so it is. It would take much more than seeing that happen once or twice for me to fixate on there supposedly being any plot to stifle conversation. I do see it happening on other blogs often and think highly of BB moderators that they don't seem to engage in shutting people up like many other websites actually do. So I actually have a much higher opinion of you guys than you seem to think I do.

'I honestly don't have a clue what you are talking about and if you detect a problem maybe you need to approach the Blogger service on this matter.'

Not every time I mention something does it mean that I attacking anybody trying to tear at their throats. If I am occasionally perceived as being abrasive, honest to God I don't think I'm even close to being near the worst in that regard of all us posting on BB. There's some stiff competition out there!

OK. It's not that big a deal. I'm sorry that I ever mentioned it. Lot's of things on the web are a mystery. More so on many other web sites than here.

Layla2 said...

'Brito I have to hand it to you--you sometimes come up with really good stuff 'sometimes.' This is one: Mexico ... the world's first true "narcocracy."

Excellent.

Layla2 said...

This is how scarry the situation is ... "from Monclova, Coahuila, Mexico that shows the extent of the Zetas' control over the state: my cousin, driving late at night, ran a red light. He was quickly pulled over not by cops buy by plain clothes guys in a luxury SUV that got out the car and beat him a bit for running a red light. He says they even mentioned "we are the police now." This, according to him, is the new norm."

What kind of traffic violation do you have to have to get a bullet to the head? In this kind of situation there's no question who is in charge! Scarry.

Anonymous said...

What, Im pretty sure the press has reporters imbeded with the ZETAS. JK. That picture is from the libya conflict. Go below and look half way down the page.

http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?195079-Libyan-Conflict-Photos-and-Videos/page4

Anonymous said...

Why did they post this as a photo with Zetas. Clearly the press has no access to these people. Whats agencia EFE. They got there stuff wrong

Anonymous said...

OMG, that is not a Zeta photo.
Someone screwed up, or passing propaganda.

Anonymous said...

Next time this EFE proganda machine is going to disclose Osama Bin Laden photos chillin with Zetas

Anonymous said...

MEXICO IS A FAILED STATE
AND IS NOW NARCO STATE. IT HAS GONE BEYOND WHAT COLUMBIA EVER WAS.

Gerardo said...

My sincerest apologies for posting the opening image. We make every effort to filter out "cross contamination" of images in our posts, especially with twitter images and videos where this is more common. EFE is a news agency based in Spain so I guess the pros blow it on occasion also. (I could have sworn those were Mexican national soccer team pants on the gunman.) Anyhow I have deleted the image. Thank you anon @ 1:48am for pointing out the error.

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