Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Tales from Mexico's drug wars, WikiLeaks style

Sunday, September 11, 2011 |

By Mariano Castillo
CNN

Mexico's offensive against the drug cartels that plague the nation has been fraught with controversy. Over the past four and a half years, tens of thousands have been killed, including many civilians, and the violence continues unabated.

The drug war is made up of hundreds of incidents and decisions, both public and behind-the-scenes, that the media dutifully reports, unless, as in the case of some Mexican media, there is self-censorship out of fear.

But even beyond what the media reports, there are nuances, context, and even facts that are not widely known outside privileged circles.

State Department cables recently made pubilc through WikiLeaks include detailed accounts of some of the smaller events in the drug war, providing a glimpse of successes and failures rarely revealed by officials.

A CNN review of all the WikiLeaks documents pertaining to Mexico highlights some of the highs and lows of the drug war, as well as some of the daily frustrations and big ideas that have surfaced in its execution.

Human rights activist's legacy tainted

The drug war creates both heroes and villains. The marines take down a drug kingpin. Cartel members mow down 15 at a house party.

If you scratch below the surface, sometimes you can reveal shades of both.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations demanded Mexican action in the wake of the January 2010 killing of activist Josefina Reyes in her hometown near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Reyes was an outspoken critic of the army's presence in Juarez. She sought to shed light on abuses at the hands of the military.
But a State Department cable shows there is more to her story.

Reyes, according to the cable, was the mother of an alleged Juarez cartel hitman and drug trafficker. U.S. officials concluded that information available to them "suggests that Reyes' murder had more to do with her ties to organized crime than her work with human rights organizations."

In fact, Reyes became an activist against the military only after her son was detained by the army in 2008, the cable states. She considered his detention a kidnapping.

Sinaloa cartel gunmen were behind her killing, the cable states. Her son, Miguel Angel "El Sapo" Reyes Salazar, is a suspected hitman for the rival Juarez cartel.
More than a year later, the bodies of three of Josefina Reyes' relatives were found dumped near a gas station.




Thinking outside the lines

Aldo Fasci, a top security official in Nuevo Leon state in 2007, had an idea for overcoming the rampant corruption that handicaps Mexican police forces.

According to his calculations, 40% of the state police force was corrupted by the drug cartels. What if, he told U.S. consular officials, he separated his department into two "parallel" forces? He would place the 60% of officers who were clean in task forces with added responsibilities, and place the corrupted 40% in menial administrative jobs.

He pictured it as two trees: one that would be cultivated to bloom, and another that would be allowed to wilt.

It was the most ambitious of his ideas, one which the U.S. worried would in effect create a police force under cartel control. The plan never came to fruition.

At least he was thinking outside the box. A State Department cable from when Fasci assumed his post in 2007 gives him credit for proposing novel ways to overcome what are entrenched problems in Mexican law enforcement.

Among other of Fasci's ideas was to increase officer pay by having universities hire their spouses, and to raise morale by buying new uniforms.

Several theories, but few clues

When American kidnapping expert Felix Batista was himself apparently kidnapped in Saltillo, Mexico, in December 2008, it made international headlines. Authorities said Batista had been at a restaurant when he went outside to receive a message, entered a vehicle, and was never heard from again. But who took him? And what kind of message was he hoping to receive?

Authorities in the Mexican state of Coahuila told U.S. consular officials that they believed the Zetas cartel took Batista, a lead that they didn't share with the public. At the time of his abduction, Batista was working on getting the release of a friend who was kidnapped, according to a confidential State Department cable.

Batista's friend, Pilar Valdez, was kidnapped the morning of December 10. That night, Batista was at dinner with Valdez's son when his cell phone rang. He left his laptop, credit card and documents at the table. He handed his dinner companions a number to call in case he didn't return. Outside, he entered a vehicle, apparently on his own accord, and that was it. His friend was released about an hour after that.

Despite the suspicious circumstances around Batista's disappearance, Mexican investigators looked at it as only a missing persons case, because he had allegedly entered the vehicle willingly. Meanwhile, his family pleaded for authorities to take the case seriously.

Without further clues, it may never be known why Batista was taken.

Coahuila and U.S. officials privately discussed a number of theories.

First, it was possible that Valdez was kidnapped in order to get to Batista, and that the American had been using his friend to send cartel information to authorities. A second theory was that Batista offered too much information in a PowerPoint slide show about cartel leaders and activities during a local presentation. Finally, though less likely, was the possibility that Batista's kidnapping was meant to send a message that no one is safe from the cartel's reach.

The lesson the United States took from the incident was that the cartels were not afraid to target Americans. Batista's kidnapping was a game-changer, the cable states.

Trajectory of a grenade

Grenades are small, powerful, but unfortunately, don't always end up where you intend them to.

During a span in early 2009, there was an uptick of grenade use by Mexican cartels. In the Monterrey, Mexico, area, a series of grenade attacks hit a television station, Mexican law enforcement, and even the U.S. consulate there.

Drug cartels have a knack for procuring military weapons.

These particular grenades may have originated in the United States, according to a secret State Department cable. Other ordnances with the same lot numbers as the one used in the attack against the Televisa television station in Monterrey and others may have been sold by the United States to El Salvador in the early 1990s.

At least one grenade may have made a round-trip journey back to the United States.

According to the cable, U.S. authorities linked a grenade tossed inside a night club in Pharr, Texas, on January 31, 2009, to that same batch. That one did not explode. Three off-duty police officers inside the club may have been the targets, the cable states.

A mayor's "Bad Boy" squad

In late 2009, Mauricio Fernandez was sworn in as mayor of San Pedro, an upper-class suburb of Monterrey, Mexico. Kidnappings were a problem at the time, and Fernandez boasted to U.S. authorities of his oversight of what he called an off-the-books "bad boy" squad that would return tranquility to the city.

American authorities believed that the squad was actually linked to the Arturo Beltran Leyva drug cartel, and that the mayor had basically negotiated with organized crime in an effort to restore peace. Fernandez told U.S. consular officials that the Beltran Leyva cartel had agreed to help him get rid of kidnappers in San Pedro, and acknowledged taking phone calls from representatives of Arturo Beltran Leyva himself.

He criticized other mayors for not taking the bull by the horns, as he had.
According to a State Department cable, the U.S. saw Fernandez as both foe and friend of the cartels. His behavior and public comments were also seen as erratic.

On the day of his inauguration, he announced the death of four suspected drug traffickers. But their bodies weren't discovered until four hours after his speech.

Then, just 15 days into office, Fernandez and a female companion were denied entry into the United States at the Brownsville port of entry.

Customs authorities found six grams of marijuana and 209 pills believed to be "ecstasy" in the woman's purse, and a pipe filled with marijuana in Fernandez's suitcase, another cable states.

Fernandez remains mayor of San Pedro, and according to local media, dissolved the bad boy squad under pressure in April 2010.

In the military we trust

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has used Mexico's military to combat the drug cartels in part because of corruption in the various levels of police departments. But the military's role has not always been welcome by the public, and there have been reports of abuses on the part of the military.

But Calderon insists that the military is the least corrupt force he has, and a State Department cable from April 2010 backs him up on this.

In the northern state of Nuevo Leon, for instance, there was a spike in the number of human rights complaints in 2007, mostly of arbitrary detention. But the U.S. defends the army: "The alleged abuses appear to be perpetrated by state and local police, not the Mexican military pursuing the cartels."

An "accidental" gunbattle

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a surprise visit to the border city of Laredo, Texas, in February 2010 to attend the city's colorful Washington's Birthday celebration.

The event was a chance for neighboring Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to show that it had put its reputation as a violent place behind it, and one of highlights was a show of solidarity between the two cities and the two countries.

The drug cartels will ruin your fun every time.

If Pelosi had been near the river on the eve of the celebration, she would have heard a noisy gunbattle that lasted for hours across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo.
As Mexico fights drug cartel violence, gunbattles are not rare. But a State Department cable provides a closer look at what's behind one of these violent firefights, as well as the confusing aftermath.

In this case, the gunbattle appeared to be an unplanned run-in between the army and the Zetas drug cartel. According to the cable, the army bumped into a heavily armed Zetas convoy four blocks south of the international bridge. For hours, the two sides exchanged fire on the streets of Nuevo Laredo's historic district. Zeta scouts moved stolen cars into the streets, trying to block the army's advance.

The shootout was described like "the finale of a fireworks show," according to the cable.

The car of one American citizen on the international bridge was riddled with bullets. Suprisingly, there were no reports of civilian casualties.

One theory for the heavy shootout was the army had inadvertently come across a high-value target. After the incident, the army initially denied that it had been involved in a shootout.

The next day's event -- a ceremonial "hug" that takes place on the international bridge between the countries -- went ahead as planned. There was debate about moving the ceremony, but authorities on both sides were aware that such a change would make Texas headlines and bring attention to the shootout. There wasn't the same concern in the Mexican media, which ignored the incident.

Narco-myth: U.S.-trained Zetas

The ruthless Zeta drug cartel was founded by ex-members of Mexican special forces. Part of their lore is that some of them received training from the United States that they now used against civilians and the Mexican state.

But a secret State Department cable from August 2009 sets the record straight for U.S. officials. The embassy cross-checked a list of known Zetas compiled by the DEA against a list of all Mexican special forces trained in or by the United States since 1996. There were no matches.

From other sources, the embassy was aware of one possible match, a former Mexican lieutenant in special forces who received counter-narcotics training at Fort Bragg. This possible match, Rogelio Lopez Villafana, was allegedly forcibly recruited into the Zetas after he retired from the military. According to the cable, he was arrested and implicated in a plot to assassinate a Mexican official.

One that got away

Mexican officials have made some very high-level arrests of drug cartel leaders in recent years, but those protected by Mexico's power brokers still enjoy a certain level of impunity.

One example of how state police forces are uneasy about going after those in the circles of the powerful comes from Tijuana, according to a confidential State Department cable.

In June 2009, consular officials in Tijuana alerted Mexican authorities that an American citizen wanted for drug trafficking in the United States would appear at the consulate to renew his passport. Would the state police come arrest him, the U.S. asked?

The suspect came as scheduled, and an unmarked state police car awaited him. But, according to the cable, the man walked out of the consulate, got into a car with bodyguards, and drove across the street to a racetrack owned by the powerful former mayor, Jorge Hank Rhon.

As soon as the man's car entered the racetrack, the police's half-hearted pursuit ended. They told U.S. officials that they "could not enter" the racetrack. And that was that, the cable notes.

Rhon, 55, is the owner of a soccer team and a chain of casinos, and was the mayor of Tijuana between 2004 and 2007.

He was arrested on June 4 of this year with 10 others on suspicion of illegal weapons possession. He was released for lack of evidence 10 days later.

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11 Borderland Beat Comments:

Texcoco said...

Ovemex I just send you this news article a minute ago on an email for you to post it. Well I guess you beat me to it.

Thank you.

John said...

Awesome article; things like this are what make me conflicted about Wikileaks. I don't really support it when it involves secrets regarding operational information about the us military, but definitely like that it's available in this instance.

I've read about the Rhon guy before, seems to be a dirty family.

Chamuko213 said...

Good article. thanks

Mr.CleanMexico said...

Thanks. I enjoy the leak articles.

Rich Roth said...

Well done, I feel the same as a few other comments, Whikileaks is a double edge sword at times.

Anonymous said...

Great article, very much appreciated!

Is this the incident on International Bridge: http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2011/06/sources-zetas-head-lazcano-killed-in.html ?

Anonymous said...

Wikileaks, I feel, does more positively than wrong, like releasing the footage of the "good" U.S. troops gunning down civies and journalists for no reason, but also, leaving the names published for some of the people giving reports of wrong-doing from other countries like China published.

me said...

Have any of you geniuses stopped for a minute to think about this " wikileaks" info...when wiki first came out I believe it was real but I now suspect that assange is cooperating with the cia to "leak" the propaganda tailor made for the sheeple, in exchange for the gaurantee of not going after him...my point is don't swallow everything you read just cause it says wiki...the gov spooks have perfected psyop misinformation on our own people.

John said...

@September 11, 2011 10:24 PM:

Have you ever been in a combat zone? Actively been shot at by automatic rifles from dozens of enemies at one time? The term "fog of war" is hard to understand by those who have not been in it. What goal or purpose would a heli pilot have to just randomly gun down innocent civilians? It was a mistake, they weren't targeting them because they were journalists.

Texcoco said...

@ John

I have never been in a combat zone and I have just finish looking at the video and I have to say the didn't look to much of a treat to me, only two people look like they had weapons and the helicopter kill every single one of them 15 or 18 people total.

I guess rules of engagement don't apply because they were giving permission to engage, the way the guy in the helicopter was making comments and laughing about it makes me think he was nothing but a trigger happy pilot.

I remember looking at a video about two apache helicopter pilots being interrogated by Iraqis after the helicopter was shot down and I don't remember anyone laughing about it.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Very informative.

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