Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Calderon’s Success Story

Since taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has undertaken extraordinary measures in pursuit of the country’s powerful drug trafficking organizations. The policies enacted by Calderon saw some progress during his first year in office, although it has only been during the past year that the continued implementation of these policies has produced meaningful results in the fight against the cartels.

One important result has been the large quantities of illegal drugs and weapons seized by federal authorities. In November 2007, customs officials in Manzanillo, Colima state, seized 26 tons of cocaine from a Hong Kong-flagged ship that had sailed from Colombia.

The seizure was the largest in Mexican history, more than double the previous record of 11 tons recovered that October in Tamaulipas state. In July 2007, the Mexican navy captured a self-propelled, semisubmersible vessel loaded with nearly 5 tons of cocaine off the coast of Oaxaca state, the first such capture by Mexican authorities.

Also in July, federal police near Guadalajara, Jalisco state, uncovered the largest synthetic drug production facility ever found in the country, recovering some 8,000 barrels of ephedrine and acetone, two key ingredients in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine.

The Mexican government also has pursued the cartels’ leadership successfully. Important members of nearly all the country’s drug trafficking organizations have been arrested over the last 12 months, although the highest-ranking kingpins continue to evade capture. Perhaps most symbolic was the October arrest of Eduardo Arellano Felix, considered the last original member of Tijuana’s Arellano Felix crime family.

The arrest of several key Arellano Felix lieutenants — including Ricardo Estrada Perez in October, Jose Filiberto Parras Ramas in July and Gustavo Rivera Martinez in March — has resulted in fractures in the organization. Arrests also played a role in damaging the Sinaloa cartel, particularly the parts controlled by the Beltran Leyva family, as Alfredo Beltran Leyva was captured in January.

Los Zetas have also suffered losses, including the commander of Central American Zeta operations, Daniel “El Cachetes” Perez Rojas. Even more significant, however, was the November arrest of Jaime “El Hummer” Gonzalez, who was captured during a raid in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. As mentioned, Gonzalez is believed to rank third in the Zeta chain of command.

Calderon’s administration has also made important progress in working with the United States. Given Mexico’s historical wariness of Washington, this relationship represents a careful balancing act for Calderon, who must consider the domestic political cost of allowing greater American influence in Mexico while relying on the United States for resources, training and intelligence sharing.

During his first months in office, Calderon moved quickly to grant a request from Washington to expand the number of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offices in Mexico and to acquire new forensic technology from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to better track gun purchases. One major triumph of his administration during the past year has been securing the Merida Initiative, a U.S. counternarcotics assistance plan that is projected to give Mexico some $900 million over two years in the form of equipment and training.

The sharing of intelligence between Washington and Mexico City has played a key role in many of Mexico’s successes, including the Mexican navy’s interdiction of the semisubmersible. Another important piece of the relationship with Washington has been the tremendous increase in extraditions of drug trafficking suspects to the United States. Since taking office, Calderon has granted more than 150 extradition requests, more than double the rate when he took office. This approach makes it far more difficult for drug traffickers to continue operating their businesses from behind bars.

One measure of the impact of the Mexican government’s successes would be a decline in the flow of drugs coming into the United States. It is, of course, impossible to know the true amount of illegal drugs entering the country, but one indicator is the street price of these substances, especially cocaine. The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy reported in November 2007 that the average price of powder cocaine in many American cities increased nearly 50 percent over the year. This suggests that a decreased supply through Mexico has driven the price up.

Another indication that it is becoming increasingly difficult to traffic drugs in and out of Mexico is the revelation that many drug traffickers have turned to other illegal activities to supplement their incomes. For example, over the last 12 months, many members of Los Zetas — once the most powerful and experienced drug trafficking operators in Mexico — have become increasingly involved in extortion and kidnapping for ransom in states such as Oaxaca, Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche.

In Oaxaca, for example, several Zetas were arrested this past year for forcing local businesses to pay protection fees to avoid theft or attacks, a development that business owners said was fairly recent.

In Veracruz, a group of Zetas has sought to exert its influence over local criminal groups by demanding that they provide a portion of their proceeds to the Zetas, a development that sparked a slight increase in violence over the past year. This does not mean that the Zetas have left the drug trade, but rather that a more difficult operating environment has led them to pursue additional revenue sources.

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