Mexican drug cartels' wars move closer to U.S. border
Rival kingpins are battlingauthorities and one another for control of trafficking corridors
USA TODAY | August 18, 2005
By Danna Harman
CIUDAD JUREZ, Mexico — The kingpins of this hemisphere's illegal drug trade are no longer Colombians.
In the largest shake-up since the 1980s, Mexican cartels have leveraged the profits from their delivery routes to wrest control from Colombian producers, senior U.S. drug officials say. The shift also is the result of the success Colombian and U.S. authorities have had in cracking down on Colombia's drug lords.
“Today, the Mexicans have taken over and are running the organized crime, and getting the bulk of the money,” says John Walters, the White House drug czar. “The Colombians have pulled back.”
Walters says Mexican drug lords are calling the shots in what the United Nations estimates is a $142-billion-a-year business in cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and other illicit drugs on America's streets. One consequence of the new dominance of the Mexican cartels is a spike in violence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where rival cartels are battling law enforcement authorities and one another for control of transit corridors.
This week, Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona declared emergencies along their borders with Mexico, claiming counties there are reeling from growing drug trafficking, violence and illegal migration.
Jorge Chabat, a Mexican scholar who studies the illegal drug trade, says that Colombian cartels still produce most of the hemisphere's cocaine and heroin. But Mexican gangs have taken control of the most profitable part of the trade — transport to the U.S. and distribution there, says Chabat, an expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City university.
Chabat says Mexico's most powerful drug gangs are: The Gulf cartel headed by Osiel Crdenas; the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmn; the Tijuana cartel led by Ramn Arellano-Félix; and the Jurez cartel run by Vicente Carrillo.
“With the successful dismantling of some of the biggest cartels in Colombia, it was only natural that the Mexicans, who had for years had close contacts with the Colombians and knew the routes and the business, would take over,” says Chabat. “Now, they are fighting among themselves.”
Cocaine and heroin bound for the USA typically are flown by small plane from Colombia to Mexico, while marijuana and methamphetamine are produced in Mexico, says Ron Brooks, president of the U.S. National Narcotics Officers Association in West Covina, Calif.
From Mexico, drug shipments usually are loaded onto boats or into private cars and commercial trucks crossing the border. (U.S. Border Patrol statistics show that 90 million private vehicles and 4.4 million trucks crossed from Mexico into the USA in 2004.)
The U.S. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs says up to 90% of the cocaine sold in the USA last year came through Mexico. Mexico is also the No. 2 maker of heroin bound for the USA and the largest foreign source of marijuana and producer of methamphetamine.
Mexican criminal groups now control sales in the 13 metropolitan areas considered to be the USA's primary distribution centers, says the bureau's latest report, released in March.
Mexican President Vicente Fox said Tuesday that the U.S. should stop complaining that Mexico's anti-drug efforts have fallen short. “What is being done on (the U.S.) side?”
Nuevo Laredo, a city of 350,000 across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, has been hit hardest by the drug war violence this year. Of 850 killings that Mexican police attributed to drug-related violence, 228 have taken place in Nuevo Laredo or the surrounding state of Tamaulipas. In Nuevo Laredo, the murder victims have included 21 police officers and two police chiefs.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official and local police depict it as a battle between the Sinaloa cartel's Guzmn, who escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001 in a laundry cart, and Crdenas, the Gulf cartel boss behind bars in a prison near Mexico City.
“There really is a feeling that you can get away with murder in Nuevo Laredo,” Michael Yoder, the U.S. consul general in Nuevo Laredo, said last week. Tony Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, closed the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo for a week earlier this month after a shootout between Mexican drug traffickers firing high-powered rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and bazookas.
Rolando Alvarado Navarrete, head of the federal police in Ciudad Jurez, a city of 1.5 million across the border from El Paso, says his priority these days is to prevent the Nuevo Laredo-type violence from spreading to his turf. So far, rivals have not mounted strong challenges to the Jurez cartel, so “there is no such similar battle for power under way here,” Alvarado Navarrete says.
The Mexican federal police investigative teams commanded by Alvarado Navarrete, working with state and municipal police, conduct daily drug raids here. But their underworld adversaries still do a booming business.
In 2000, police here carried out 40 major drug busts. This year, so far, there have been 200.
“I am not waiting until we become another Nuevo Laredo,” says Linda Lincoln, a 21-year-old mother of two, doing her shopping in a Ciudad Jurez supermarket. She says she wants to move across to El Paso because there are drug sales and shootings in her neighborhood each night. “The violence is getting too ugly now,” she says. “I want my kids to grow up in a safe place.”
Arthur Werge, FBI special agent in El Paso, points to El Paso's relatively low crime rate as evidence the violence is stopping at the border. “People cross over and abide by the law,” he says. “We won't tolerate anything else. … You won't find people driving around with AK-47s, executing police officers or throwing bodies wrapped up in blankets on the side of the road. … And you won't find people running red lights either. Things are different here.”
But others, including Walters, the director the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, say it's only a matter of time before the border violence crosses into the USA. “The killing of rival traffickers is already spilling across the border,” he says. “Witnesses are being killed. We do not think the border is a shield.”
Since Fox took office in 2000, Mexico has arrested 36,000 drug traffickers, including top figures from almost all the cartels, according to the National Center for Analysis Planning and Intelligence against Organized Crime in Mexico City.
More than 2,000 Mexican police officers have been investigated for drug-related corruption; 711 officers have been charged with offenses ranging from taking bribes offered by cartels to drug-related kidnapping and murder. The former state police chief in Ciudad Jurez is under investigation for murder.
Some are concerned the crackdown has added to violence, at least temporarily, and Walters acknowledges the arrests have produced unwanted consequences.
“President Fox has taken an aggressive role which leads to … power vacuums and destabilization, with one cartel attacking the other,” he says. “In a way, the violence is terrible but also a sign that the cartels are being squeezed by government.”
Chabat says Fox has gone far in fighting the cartels — but not far enough. He likens the Mexican president to a “poor guy trying to impress a rich girl” — the United States. “He gets a nice car for the evening, but does not have money for flowers.” Fox has arrested some top drug lords, but is unable or unwilling to reform the justice system or police enough to finish the job, Chabat says.
U.S. officials claim Mexico's reluctance to extradite top drug criminals — as Colombia has — is hampering efforts. Colombia has sent 173 drug suspects to the USA since 2002, including many major figures. Mexico extradited a record 34 in 2004, but none were considered drug bosses.
“I understand the difficulty in extraditing nationals, but left in Mexican jails these people continue to run the show,” Walters says.
“And the show,” adds Jurez police chief Alvarado Navarrete, “is not a pretty one.”