Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

The Scorpion and the Frog

Sunday, October 23, 2011 |

By: Inside the Border
Horizon

The Scorpion stung the Frog, sure–but what lay behind the sting in Operation Scorpion?

On October 12, Mexico saw its second arrest of a high-level drug lord in eight days. And both arrests, on different sides of Mexico, came wrapped in the same snappy, tantalizing language. Official communiques called them “precision operations…without a shot fired.”

This seemed to boast that as of mid-2011 something in the Mexican drug war had changed. These were not old-style mega-busts–as when capo Nacho Coronel bled out in his mansion on July 29, 2010, or “Tony Tormenta’s” downtown apartment was gutted November 5, 2010, with aerial fire hitting parked cars a block away.

The new-style arrestee on October 12 is “La Rana,” the Frog (Carlos Oliva Castillo), said to be the third-highest leader of the Zetas cartel. His “precision” capture, in the northeast Mexican city of Saltillo, came as part of something called Operation Scorpion, whose sting hides a long history.

It’s been nearly half a decade now that operatives in both Mexico and the United States have been slogging down the drug war’s long road. The official start came on December 1, 2006, when a new Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, took office and launched a full-court press against the cartels of his nation’s organized crime.

President Calderon quickly declared a series of regional operativos, or Joint Task Force Deployments, in late 2006 and early 2007, with addenda in early 2008. A look at these concentrations (mostly of army troops, but also Mexican Marines, Federal Police and others) is like a Lonely Planet Guide to the war theater. The task force boundaries trace out main regions of Mexico where cartel violence had overwhelmed local order, drawing in the big federal task forces. This would be the seedbed for later Operation Scorpion.

The task-force structures became long-standing parts of the landscape–fixed bureaucratic blankets for federal strikes and troop assignments, accounting for more than 45,000 troops and federal officers in the drug war overall, or more than a fifth of the Mexican Army’s total strength (nearly 200,000 active-duty soldiers).

Mexico found itself tapped to fight a battle no one had figured out–the global brushfire war against mass-market substance abuse. Vintage military tactics were going into a withering crucible, which alarmed a key ally. Also on the long road to Operation Scorpion’s “precision” was the government of the United States.

In 2007-2008, a $1.6-billion package of U.S. aid was approved for President Calderon’s anti-cartel war. But the Merida Initiative (or Plan Mexico in Spanish) quickly bogged down. As late as January 2010, only 9 percent of the promised aid had actually reached Mexico (as if gangster enemies might politely wait for triplicate copies). And even this 9 percent was in part an accounting gambit, putting ballpark values on things like training and materiel (one Black Hawk UH-60M helicopter was valued at $20 million by the Merida list; but three others, sent to a different Mexican agency, were written up as being worth $37 million each).

Comments on Merida in those days suggest the darkness out of which Operation Scorpion would have to emerge: “It is ridiculous to keep calling the State Department and, each time, getting a different person to find out what is really going on with Merida,” sighed Congressman Eliot Engel, a supporter of the aid. At a hearing in May 2010, a State Department shepherd of the Merida pipeline apologized bleakly: “I think, you know, the last year or so really took us a long time to get started.”

Merida was inching forward through prickly adjustments with Mexico, a proud nation hyper-sensitized against U.S. influence. A scathing audit of Merida by the General Accountability Office was softened by words from auditor Jess Ford, who had been in a prior drug war, in Colombia. Ford reminded that Plan Colombia had taken a long decade of work. It also required more money than Merida’s promised $1.6 billion, which one critic called “anemic.” The State Department pleaded for “strategic patience” in judging the Merida delays.

By 2011, Mexico’s meltdown had ballooned into large massacres perpetrated by cartel gunmen, on a scale scarcely envisioned at the Merida conferences of 2007. But Merida aid was finally moving. The buzz-phrase, “Evolved Merida,” crept into announcements. Many pressures were sandbagging the drug warriors, but there was growing U.S. input as the Merida connection smoothed out. The war effort tightened up.

Troop patrols in some areas were replaced by more welcomed Federal Police. A strictly military approach to social violence was supplemented by discussion of social reforms. In the background were U.S. personnel, and a push to use “precision” counter-insurgency techniques from places like Afghanistan.

On August 25 of this year, the Zetas cartel upped the ante by killing 52 civilians in a casino attack. On August 28 that same area, northeastern Mexico, saw the Mexican government strike back, with a lean new operativo. This was Operation Scorpion. Unlike the old regional task force umbrellas, it was a tightly phased tactical sweep.

The old framework remained to define Scorpion’s target area. Northeastern Mexico had long been covered by Operation Northeast, a renamed and expanded version of a still-earlier dinosaur, Joint Task Force Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas, going back to 2007. After August 28, 2011, Operation Northeast continued getting credit for various battles in its four-state area, but Scorpion followed a separate track, hitting the same area with new vigor.

By October 12, after six weeks, Operation Scorpion had reported 724 arrests, 36 liberated cartel hostages and large confiscations: 1,629 weapons, 870 vehicles, more than a million dollars in cash, tons of drugs. And there was La Rana. His arrest was said to be a lightning strike, catching by surprise the alleged architect of the August 25 casino massacre. The Zetas reportedly responded with ambushes and diversionary firefights, hoping to stage a rescue, but with no result.

Could this mean the Mexican cartel war is changing in a substantive way? Or is today’s Operation Scorpion really just another old-style hammer blow, re-named?

In the drug war’s long tunnel, only hindsight will be able to say whether light was really waiting at the end.

Below is a partial recap of publicly acknowledged U.S. advisory
personnel behind the scenes in Mexico:

*More than 50 U.S. State Department personnel are reportedly
facilitating the Merida Initiative inside Mexico. This is said
to be more than double the old number of liaisons when U.S.
assistance to Mexico’s anti-trafficking effort was down around
the $40-million-a-year level.

*Since July 20, 2009, hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers
have cycled through Mexico, teaching Mexican police in three-week
shifts at a training center 450 miles south of the border.

*U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) personnel are in Mexico
to help vet new military and federal police candidates and instruct
Mexican Army special forces.

*NORTHCOM has reported steady sending of counter-insurgency
training teams into Mexico, an average of 20 teams a year with
4 to 5 soldiers each, on short missions involving no field operations.

*U.S. military commanders are said to meet twice yearly with
Mexican Army area commanders.

*In three Mexican states, elite anti-kidnap squads are trained
by U.S. officers—and also by police specialists from Colombia.

*A stream of bi-national working groups moves through both countries.

*Allegations in the Mexican press that the U.S. had placed a
special permanent intelligence official in Ciudad Juarez actually
referred to an envisioned proposal, not an established fact.

*The U.S. has 12 consulates in Mexico, plus its massive
main embassy in Mexico City, a block-wide fortress that
is the largest U.S. embassy in Latin America. Three people
connected to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez were murdered
March 13, 2010, and a 500-person investigation effort then
convened on the U.S. side of the border. When two ICE
agents were attacked in northeast Mexico on February 15,
2011 (agent Jaime Zapata was killed; agent Victor Avila
badly wounded), they were reportedly bringing security
equipment to a consulate. U.S. reprisal for this attack
came in the form of Operation Bombardier, working on
U.S. soil against operatives of the attacking cartel, the Zetas,
and bringing 676 arrests.

*An inanimate U.S. presence is also notable. In March 2011
it was acknowledged that for two years, at the request of the
Mexican government, unmanned U.S. spy drones had been
flying over Mexico, helping to track cartel gunmen.

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15 Borderland Beat Comments:

Texcoco said...

This was a good story, and a remainder that capos are not as brave as they claim to be. And when the time is right, they will go down.

Anonymous said...

I would like to see a discussion on how we could come up with non-violent enterprises that make at least a third of the money as violent enterprises.

I think the key is making people self sufficient and micro-enterprises, for a bit of "extra".

I think another key is offering free education. It's not the "fix", but what are most people working for? To give their children a better life.

Another thing I see needs to be tackled in MX and Central America is the indifference to mistresses,especially how it affects family life.

All of these narcos getting recognition from their nicknames, while their wives and family go unnamed dead or missing, or popularized, and the mistresses, mostly young poor girls, receive fallout as well.

Young women and older women need to unite and take care of our children together. Call them when they are doing wrong, instead of saying, "That's so-in-so's kid and it's not my problem because his mother slept with someone to make him or her.

Then, don't turn a blind eye. Keep all of these children in our sights and band together.

Many of these children in the early years, so angry and cussing you, will fall apart if you tell them you call them on something because you love them. Love them whether you care about their mother or not. Show them your strength as they will fall back upon it when they have no net. Care about their mother whether you like her or not. Just demand your feminine rules within your community and no one be jealous and comparing whose good to who looks good anymore.

Quit fighting over men. Men are only human with more testosterone than ourselves. We as females put too much pressure on most men. They don't think like we do.

The greatest non-violent civilizations in the world were female based. Instead, now I see a trend away from the mother and not to the father, but to a prodigal son. The military can never contain his anger until he sees us mothers as a foundation.

Welcome him back with open arms and instill the rules once you bond with your female neighbors.

Peace is the key and it starts with the people in this life who bleed every month, out of no choice of our own, who have been told all of our life that this is a curse, when it is a blessing that allows us to perpetuate the human race.

Bleed, women, bleed, and find ways to make peace between yourselves and help all of our children find their peaceful paths.

Tell our husbands that violence is by no means acceptable on any terms, whether it be with me or whether it be to provide for me and our children.

Two women in the same house will bleed the same time after a month or so. Science says hormones. My heart says it's deeper than that.

Anonymous said...

I am curious to see how the vanguard special on halloween covers cartel situation.

Anonymous said...

It shows that Calderon is trying and willing to bring in outside help. I hope 10yrs from now, we are not discussing how bad Mexico is.

Anonymous said...

@ 4:25 PM "Bleed women bleed"? & "Two women in the same house will bleed at the same time" bla bla bla WTF!? Number one - that doesn't happen in every single case. Number two, it is based on science, not emotions.

They are gonna "bleed" regardless of your "call" for it. And will for just so many years and then they get old and done with it.


What does the menstruation of human females have to do with the multi-billion dollar BUSINESS that the narcotics trade is?

And reading between the lines it sounds like your answer is to try to feminize the male population of Mexico. Good luck with that strategy.

@ 3:27 - Nothing will stop it. There is far too much money and demand involved. They can take down every "Capo" and others will rush in to fill the vacuum one way or another to try to get a rich as possible as quick as possible.

Anonymous said...

@7:38 10 years from now things will be far worse.

Mexican oil output is in steady decline and of course this means further decline in revenue for Mexico. The world economy continues to spiral downwards. The USA will not be able to afford to finance ANYTHING outside of just keeping it's own national survival afloat. Europe is about to crash and will take the entire global economy with it.

As people become more desperate, more and more will turn to drugs to try to find escape, pushing demand even higher. More and more will be willing to turn to the drug trade and murder just to eat.

Oh, you think it's bad now. Ten years from now the horror will be unimaginable and things will be very bad in the United States as well.

You better believe it. Doom and gloom is coming baby.

Anonymous said...

October 23, 2011 8:27 PM Oh my God the end of the world is coming for you. Drama Queen.

Anonymous said...

@7:38 pm

Yes, the idea of menstrual synchronicity is something introduced in the early 60's in open debate, much of the studies having to do with pheromones. Recent findings cite this may not happen, but if you dig deeper into the most recent findings, look to who funds those studies.

Do you have access to EBSCO?

My point in bringing this up is that menstruation is considered in many cultures to be a curse: a natural process to create humans as per plan by nature, but has long been considered a topic of shame, which culturally, makes our women feel ashamed and embarrassed; dis-empowered; less worthy than those that don't bleed.

Then we wonder why our women play victim and don't stand strong.We call them sheep when they are ashamed, yet WE are the ones making them ashamed. We shame them, then wonder why their teenage boys don't respect them.

I watch my schools dress young females in white dresses, while the boys wear dark pants, yet we shun tampons and expect these girls to sit all day in a white dress with a sanitary napkin, if they can afford one.

I watch the young married men in my country think a status symbol is a mistress while his wife and kids at home and he only has on his gardener's pay enough to feed himself.

The I watch the church people tell the mistress that she should not use safe sex.

Then I watch as the wife and the mistress become enemies and fight like the novelas fed to them on TV when in real life, it would make more sense to figure out why a guy making 25US dollars a day would take on such a burden.

In symbolic or real, we get them on the same page and maybe we keep some kids from either feeling angry at their "roots of shame" or better yet, let them them know they are loved by all, whether they be legitimate or the love child.

I watch in my country as we take young women into adulthood and praise them when they can become a mistress to someone with money, whether he bad or good and I have seen very few good.

Back to the topic: How can we create economic options for youth that are at least a third of what they can make in the counter culture?

Anonymous said...

@7:38 once more:

I think we need to empower young women by making them realize they should be proud of their natural bodies.

Even more important, we need to empower our young men. I don't know the current stats, but what I've seen over the past six years is that we are losing them too quickly, with children left behind, in tow with insecure young women.

Part of that has to do with getting them past our machismo culture and realizing that they are valuable as human beings with feelings, just not future sperm providers or breadwinners.

A man's value has to do with his ability to care about other human beings, the same with women. We are all the same on that matter.

Any takers on the discussion about finding money making ways via peaceful means? I have been wracking my brain on that for quite some time now.

I know there are smarter peeps out there than myself.

Anonymous said...

@10:48 Your trying to find peaceful means for the cartels to make money? Or for the average guy? If the US finally ends it's giant abortion called The War On Drugs and decriminalizes marijuana, these guys are going to raise the level of violence to a new high never seen before. Your trying to start a conversation about peaceful means for these monsters to make billions? Have them go into the banking business, or maybe start their own version of Fanny May or Freddy Mac. Maybe they should give Apple a run for their money! Or maybe go into the charity racket and make tons of money off those who suffer like the rest of them. Asking to find the cartels easier ways to make money that are peaceful is like asking a shark to stop eating seals, fish, and the occasional surfer. Billions of dollars. How many do you see living in huge mansions, huge boats, vacation homes in Italy, shopping in Dubai, or running around in the Hamptons like the rest of the billionaires? ZERO. Those people figured out how to do it peacefully.

Anonymous said...

@11:40

I think we live in different worlds. This question is geared for youths living in Mexico and Central America.

I am sorry that I did not make myself clear in my previous posts.

You seem very intelligent and you can probably help with brainstorming.

The focus here is smaller steps, village by village, to help our youth find independence without leaving the country or getting caught up in things that get them in trouble.

Also, put the value back once again on what they contribute to society instead of what material things they can attain.

Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

This article is about the history and methodology of targeting Narco-Traffickers to include many of the forces involved and the article centers around the Merida Initiative and Operation Scorpion.

How it could possibly go from that to going as far OFF TOPIC as women's menstruation and "empowering young women and making them feel good about their natural bodies"....

...makes this one of the weirdest off-topic threads I have seen lately.

Stick to the topic of the article. Jeeze.

Buela said...

@ 4:25

I mean no disrespect by this Q...but where do you live? what is your culture?

I think you are well meaning but know little of the cultura of Mx. The large bridge that its society must cross is that of indiviualism. "me" "my family", "my space".

It is a cruel irony that the massive heart of mx ppl shrinks at the home gate.

until the ppl care enough to demand elements of law & order, equal education for all its children, and a secure society w/o rampant corruption, integrity among its leaders, and SELF SACRAFICE for the greater good of all people....then things will never change in Mx.

Anonymous said...

@ October 23, 2011 4:25 PM.You sound like a woman,a man would be proud to have,but as a man,i have to say,many men are simply not worth it.For whatever reason,a man who's whole life is geared towards taking care of his life partner and children,is becoming rarer.I think lack of a job,status,money,may come into it.Who knows,maybe equal rights did more than we thought,in terms of some kind of emasculation.Look around and the proof is everywhere,single women raising children on there own.Funny thing is,women rule a mans life,and personally i would do anything for her,and i will not fuck around,there are good men around,but more and more seem to be clowns.It was a fucking disgrace to Mexican men to see all the young girls and women killed in Juárez.A man who can do shit like this,to women,i don't care,he needs burning,im serious.

Anonymous said...

mandatory execution for capos and any trafficker with more than a pound should put a dent in em.

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