Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

New Yorker Year of Drug War Looniness

Sunday, December 16, 2012 |


Borderland Beat

2012: THE MOST OUTLANDISH STORIES FROM THE DRUG WAR IN MEXICO


Last year, the Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo released a crackling art-house thriller,“Miss Bala,” about an aspiring beauty queen who becomes embroiled in the violent drug cartels of Tijuana. The premise of a willowy innocent caught in the crossfire had all the hallmarks of a telenovela, and some critics groused that the film was implausible. But in the real-life maelstrom of Mexico’s drug war, a certain gaudy surrealism is not unusual. In fact, Naranjo had based the film on an actual incident, in 2008, in which a pageant winner from Sinaloa was arrested in the company of a gaggle of cartel strongmen. (She said that she had been kidnapped by her boyfriend, a member of the Juárez cartel.)

But if art imitated life in “Miss Bala,” life gained the upper hand again last month, when another beauty queen from Sinaloa, twenty-two-year-old Maria Susana Flores Gamez, was caught by a bullet during a shootout between cartel hit men and Mexican troops. This time, the story had an extraordinary twist: an AK-47 was recovered near Flores’s body, and she had gunpowder residue on her fingers. According to a federal prosecutor handling the case, she fired at the soldiers before she died. This Miss Sinaloa didn’t just fall in with the assassins, the allegation goes—she was one of them.

Welcome to the inherent looniness of the drug war. It has actually been a good year for Mexico, in at least one respect: the murder rate dropped precipitously along some stretches of the border. (Though whether this can be attributed to the kill-or-capture campaign of outgoing President Felipe Calderón is not at all clear. The largest cartel, the Sinaloa, vanquished a number of challengers during this period, and black-market monopolies are often more peaceful than the alternative.) But it was a colorful year as well, due to the systematic, try-anything-once eclecticism of the smugglers, and the antic game of Tom-and-Jerry escalation that they tend to play with law enforcement on both sides of the border.
1. On the Fence
“Show me a fifty-foot fence and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder,” a drug warrior once told me, and the cartels have long excelled at so-rudimentary-they’re-obvious methods of pushing product across the border. In this instance, a group of smugglers near Yuma, Arizona, tried to drive a Jeep right over the fence. “Ramps!” you can almost hear them saying beforehand. “We could use ramps!” If you could inscribe the Quixotic essence of the drug war in a single image, the photograph above might very well be it.

2. The Best Parking Spot in Nogales
Not all smuggling methods are so rudimentary. On East International Street in downtown Nogales, Arizona, authorities recently discovered what may have been the most valuable parking spot in the country. Most of the time, it looked like a regular spot some fifty feet from the border. But occasionally, a van would pull into the spot and a camouflaged plug would open in the concrete underneath, revealing a hole that was ten inches in diameter. That apparently innocuous parking space was the terminus of a narrow tunnel that began in an abandoned hotel in Mexico and ran underneath the border. While the van appeared to idle in the spot, smugglers would feed parcels of marijuana up from the hole in the ground through a similar hole in the bottom of the van; using this method, they could smuggle a million dollars’ worth of weed into the country in forty minutes. Then the plug would be replaced with a hydraulic jack, the van would roll away, and the space would become available. (This is a bit of a cheat, in that the story originally broke in 2011, but it got its fullest exploration in a terrific feature in Businessweek this year.)

3. The Narco Backers of the “Passion of the Christ” Prequel
It’s always a little surprising to reflect on the religiosity of contemporary narcos, in light of the more or less non-stop mortal sins that the profession entails. But I was especially surprised to learn that when Hollywood producers began the process of developing a prequel to Mel Gibson’s hugely successful 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the chief investors was an alleged narcotraficante named Jorge Vásquez Sánchez. After Sánchez was arrested in Chicago, in 2010, and pleaded guilty to extortion and other crimes, it emerged that, through some spectacularly ill-advised loans, the producers had come to owe him a ten-per-cent stake of any future profits from the film. The project, “Mary, Mother of Christ,” was well on its way to production, and had attracted the megapastor Joel Osteen as a producer, before the identity of the unsavory backer was revealed this year. A spokesman from Osteen’s church said that the pastor had no inkling of Sánchez’s involvement. Somehow, I believe him. (The film, which stars Ben Kingsley, is due out next year. Because Sánchez forfeited his stake in the production to the federal government, we are all, in a sense, now investors in the film.)

4. The Knights Templar Play Dressup
Actually, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the cartels would have their eyes on Hollywood: a morbid theatricality is a persistent feature of narco culture. Earlier this year, during a routine patrol of a town in Michoacán, the Mexican Army discovered a training ground that belonged to the Knights Templar, a slightly zany offshoot of the already zany cartel known as La Familia Michoacana (about which William Finnegan wrote in 2010). When they searched the site, the soldiers discovered a hundred and twenty hard plastic helmets—a special order, it appeared, as each featured a plunging nose guard like those worn by the twelfth-century Christian order from which the cartel takes its name. The headgear apparently featured in the cartel’s initiation rites.

5. But the Kid Is Not My Son
In June, authorities made an exciting announcement: the Mexican Navy had captured the son of the fugitive drug baron Joaquín (Chapo) Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. At a press conference, officials presented a dark-eyed, baby-faced young man in a Polo shirt and a bulletproof vest and said that he was Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar. Chapo is a maddeningly elusive figure, so capturing one of his immediate relatives would represent a significant coup. But almost immediately, a lawyer for the Guzmán family announced that, in fact, this was not Chapo’s son. Then a woman named Elodia León, who had no apparent relation to Chapo, came forward to say that the young man in custody was her son, that his name was Felix Beltran, and that he was a twenty-three-year-old car dealer. It was a tremendous embarrassment for the Calderón administration, and a reminder of the obstacles that authorities on both sides of the border face: in the fog of the drug war, sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve captured the wrong guy until his mother comes forward to tell you.

6. Lazcano Delicti
Of course, sometimes that fog works in the other way, too. In October, the Mexican Navy killed several suspected members of the Zetas outside a baseball game in Coahuila. When they examined the bodies of the dead, they discovered that one of the men they had killed was no mere Zeta gunman, but Heriberto Lazcano, the founder and head of the cartel, whose gentle demeanor had earned him the affectionate sobriquet “The Executioner.” After making this discovery, they rushed to the funeral parlor where the corpses had been sent, only to discover that during the night, a band of masked Zetas had stormed the place and made off with the body. So Mexican officials were forced to take credit for the kill, but without producing the body, a scenario that would spawn Hoffa-like conspiracy theories even in the best of times, never mind in the final months of a Calderón administration that was desperate to show results in its offensive on the cartels. (As it happens, Lazcano had already constructed a tasteful mausoleum for himself, though, as of this writing, his body has not turned up there.)

7. Laundering Drug Proceeds at the Race Track…
The Zetas had a tough year across the board, experiencing another blow in June, when federal prosecutors cracked down on an elaborate scheme the cartel had allegedly devised to launder their profits by racing quarter-horses in the United States. According to authorities, over several years, the cartel spent a million dollars a month on expensive horses and raced them in competitive events. As the New York Times related in a fascinating exposé, the older brother of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the No. 2 man in the Zetas, managed a sprawling ranch in Oklahoma, and an estimated three hundred horses. If he feared detection, he did not act like it. One of the horses that he raced was named “Number One Cartel.”

8. …and at the Casino
Laundering money is a major challenge for cartels—it can be as difficult as smuggling drugs. But the horse-racing caper is not the only instance in which cartel members sought to mingle business and recreation. In a year full of noteworthy stories about the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, it almost went unnoticed that the Sinaloa cartel may have used his casinos to launder their profits. One Chinese-Mexican businessman named Zhenli Ye Gon, who ran a pharmaceutical company that allegedly supplied methamphetamine precursors to the cartel, was what might tactfully be described as an avid gambler; he boasted about betting a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a hand at baccarat. You know how as long as you’re gambling, a casino will comp your drinks, maybe even buy you a steak dinner or treat you to a hotel room? Well, one casino gave Ye Gon a Rolls Royce. According to court documents, he spent over seventy million dollars at the Venetian in 2006 alone. Investigators say that he was using Mexican currency-exchange houses to transfer funds to the casino, a red flag that should have triggered serious scrutiny. (The casino has denied any wrongdoing, and is coöperating with investigators.) The cartels have proven so adept at laundering money that it should come as little surprise that they would do so in the heady, cash-rich milieu of Las Vegas. But the sheer volume of money coming in has obliged them to adopt more conventional methods as well: it emerged this year that they have also relied on major banks, like HSBC. (HSBC just settled an expansive money-laundering case by agreeing to pay a fine of nearly two billion dollars.)

9. A Letter from La Barbie
One of the major arrests in recent years was Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a former high-school football player from Laredo, Texas, who moved to Mexico and became a ruthless enforcer for the Beltrán-Leyva cartel. (He was the subject of a profile in Rolling Stone.) La Barbie has been locked up in Mexico since his arrest, in 2010, and last month he sent an unusual letter to the El Paso Times, in which he alleged that senior Mexican officials made direct overtures to the cartels in the hopes of making deals—taking high-level meetings with the Zetas, La Familia, and others. Of course, claims of corruption are rife in Mexico, and no one would dispute that kickbacks to law enforcement pose a major problem. But it is unusual to have such testimony from a high-ranking cartel member himself. Less clear is how credible La Barbie’s charges are: he has been seeking extradition to the U.S., and the letter might represent a last-ditch gambit to get himself over the Rio Grande. Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat issued an official response to the letter, dismissing it as La Barbie’s effort to “discredit” those who might bring him to justice. Interestingly, the statement did not deny any of his specific allegations.

10. Washington and Colorado Legalize Marijuana
But the most outlandish drug story of 2012 from the Mexican point of view, surely, would be the successful initiatives this November to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. Some sixty thousand people have died in Mexico in violence related to the drug war over the past six years, at least in part because of the Calderón administration’s aggressive posture toward the cartels—a posture that was both encouraged and facilitated by the United States. Yet the U.S. may now be embarking on a state-by-state shift to legalize one of the cartels’ most popular offerings. (By some estimates, Mexican cartels derive up to forty per cent of their revenue from marijuana.)

The question facing Mexico’s new President, Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office earlier this month, is whether it makes sense for Mexicans to continue fighting and dying in an effort to crack down on the manufacture and movement of a drug that may end up ultimately becoming legal in the U.S. anyway. Peña Nieto has said nothing definitive about his plans, but there are indications from his advisers that a reassessment is in order. “Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States … it now has a different status,” one of his senior advisers said. But one thing is clear, he added: this new legislation “changes the rules of the game.”
Photograph: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP.


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19 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

ja ja, a ton of work went into this news story!

Saludos

Anonymous said...

I forgot some of these stories, but never those helmets which was many people's favorite narco tale.

Anonymous said...

IS THAT PHOTOSHOP?

Anonymous said...

No they it was found in Arizona abandoned by the smugglers.

Anonymous said...

The jeep on the fence? No it happened about two months ago.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a good article-a nice synopsis of the odder events in a bad year of this terribly messy situation. It doesn't seem necessary for any publication to point out the increasing narco nuttiness- everyone knows they're totally screwed - never in control again.

Anonymous said...

No,its real....happened like 3week bak or so, funny huh.

Anonymous said...

I just spent the last few hours reading the last few months of narco news, trying to get caught up. It seems the Gulf cartel fell apart getting arrested left, and right, and even begging the community for help. Lazca gets killed, and the reins are dropped right into Z40's lap. He is easily taking ground from the broken Gulf cartel. While the Sinaloa cartel had some big lieutenants get busted, and are all probably just watching there backs right now trying to stay low, and some on here suggesting Chapo hit the road, and is out. So seems the Zetas are on top right now. Does that seem about right?

Anonymous said...

That is NARCO ENGINEERING! Not PHOTOSHOP!

Anonymous said...

Cept alot of zeta cells have split to become independent from 40,seems to be 2-3 other factions against the LOS ZETAS original brand....but hey im a keyboard warrior from the other side of the world,who knows whats really goin down.I keep asking questions on here rarely get a straight answer.(@7:41)

Anonymous said...

Not photoshop I was driving that jeep last night but it ran out of gas at the top and got stuck so I had to leave it.

Anonymous said...

I read this one through supper and passed it on. A good read. Thanks for sharing it, that truck left me shaking my head all night- so i decided to write and say i love all the different tupe of narco stories you post here on the 'beat'

Anonymous said...

"ja ja, a ton of work went into this news story!

Saludos"

Uh, yeah, over at the New Yorker, where this story was taken.

Anonymous said...

Dickens dumb fuck shows u don't know shit pendejo.the zetas r the one's getting fuck left and rite pendejo.

Anonymous said...

This is really a good one. U rarely see stories that stress the bizarre of this drug war in such a straight ahead, literary style without being highbrow. Good call adding it to BB for all of us to actually enjoy

Anonymous said...

"I keep asking questions on here rarely get a straight answer"
I know what you mean,mostly people want to argue about US v Mexico shit.You can't even have an opinion on certain aspects without race or nationality being thrown in?A lot of rhetorical comments but they don't seem to want to answer when asked a certain question.It leads you to think that most simply don't know but feign knowledge of the situation.The best you can hope for is people who live in the affected areas and have a little insight thru word of mouth and street talk.

Anonymous said...

yeah we know,it says up top.
And yes thanks to BB,we have another site we can use to search for daily news.

Anonymous said...

"DRUG WARRIOR"???....WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT???.

Anonymous said...

Even with the horrific tragedies inflicked om the people of Mexico and my heart goes out to them. That ramp picture is ptriceless. Somebody was smoking their product when that idea was created.I had to laugh. As for El Barbie, he will fit right on at the siper-max prison here. Of he lives that long! Thanks BB!

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