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

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Outsmarted by Sinaloa

Why the biggest drug gang has been least hit.

The Economist

IT MIGHT seem incongruous to see Felipe Calderón, who has bet his presidency on fighting organised crime, accused of sheltering Mexico’s top drug lord.

Yet across the country banners hanging from highway overpasses suggest he is in cahoots with Joaquín El Chapo (“Shorty”) Guzmán—the leader of the Sinaloa “cartel” and, according to Forbes magazine, the world’s 701st richest man. “Mr Narco-President,” began one seen in Veracruz state in 2008. “If you want to end crime, stop protecting drug traffickers like El Chapo.”

The banners are placed by rival drug mobs. But they hint at a paradox. The Sinaloa organisation (named after a north-western state) is responsible for around 45% of the drug trade in Mexico, reckons Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer and economist at ITAM, a Mexico City university.

But using statistics from the security forces, he calculates that only 941 of the 53,174 people arrested for organised crime in the past six years were associated with Sinaloa. An official disputes those numbers, and notes that several close relatives of Ismael Zambada, the co-head of the Sinaloa mob, were arrested on drug charges last year.

Nevertheless the government crackdown seems to have fallen mainly on other mafias. The Arellano Félix gang, featured in “Traffic”, a Hollywood film, has splintered into warring factions after six of its seven founding brothers were captured or killed. Police often arrest senior leaders of La Familia, a newer mob specialising in methamphetamines.

In December marines surrounded and killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who split from the Sinaloa mob in 2008, and six of his henchmen. This month one of his brothers was arrested in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa.

In the zero-sum game of the drug trade, one gang’s loss is another’s gain (which is why “drug cartel” is such a misnomer). The weakening of local traffickers in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez has enabled Sinaloa to strengthen its presence along Mexico’s northern border. Mr Beltrán’s death may cheer Mr Guzmán: their falling out left sons of both men dead.

Mr Calderón insists that he is attacking all the gangs “forcefully, and, I emphasise, without distinctions.” Some analysts doubt this. “The government’s strategy is to focus on the weakest groups, so that the organised crime market will consolidate itself around Sinaloa,” says Mr Buscaglia. “They’re hoping to negotiate a decrease in violence with that one group.”

Officials insist there is no going back to the old practice in which Mexican governments turned a blind eye to drug gangs provided they acted discreetly. If Sinaloa has been hit less hard, it is because it operates differently. It has stuck to a “transactional” rather than “territorial” method, says one official.

Other gangs, such as La Familia and the Zetas, a particularly violent outfit of former soldiers, began to control cities and diversify into extortion and kidnapping. When the government deploys troops to reclaim the streets, it is these gangs whom they run into.

Sinaloa, by contrast, has stuck to drugs and money laundering and is smarter and more sophisticated. It prefers anonymity to the ostentation of others (Mr Beltrán was undone by inviting a famous accordionist to play at a Christmas party). It eschews jobless teenagers, its rivals’ rank and file, in favour of graduates, infiltration and intelligence.

Although all the gangs have penetrated local governments, only Sinaloa and the Beltráns have been discovered to have bribed senior officials. Officials complain that Sinaloa operatives receive warning of pending raids. Sceptics wonder whether success against other gangs comes from tip-offs from Sinaloa.

Mr Guzmán bribed his way out of a federal prison in 2001. His territory now is 60,000 square km (23,000 square miles) of rugged mountains where “you’d need 100,000 soldiers surrounding the area and even then I’m not sure you’d succeed [in capturing him],” the official said.

For now the government has other priorities. Three years after it launched its crackdown, the violent turf-wars among the gangs that this has triggered show no sign of abating. Mr Calderón has notched up some victories, but also suffered defeats.

A protected witness who had testified against Sinaloa, Édgar Bayardo, was killed in a Starbucks café in Mexico City last month. Just hours after the funeral of a marine, who died in the operation against Mr Beltrán Leyva, four of his grieving relatives were murdered. Some residents of Ciudad Juárez are growing restive over the government’s failure to stem the violence.

Some analysts draw a parallel with Colombia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s its government pursued Pablo Escobar and his cronies in Medellín, whose terrorist violence brazenly challenged the state, while only later acting against the Cali mob, which like Sinaloa preferred bribery and legal business fronts.

Others worry that Mexico lacks the capacity to take on Mr Guzmán’s outfit. But sooner or later it will have to try.

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