El Chapo

Mapping El Chapo’s Reported Hideouts

Following allegations that Sinaloa Cartel head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman flew his way to safety in Venezuela, InSight Crime created a pair of interactive maps showing the reported whereabouts over the past several months of one of the world’s most wanted criminals.

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Building the case against El Chapo: lost legal legwork yet another reason why his escape is a step backward

Looking at the timeline of arrests, extraditions and deals in recent months, it looks like the United States was moving to make the case against El Chapo completely airtight, allowing Mexico to detain him until U.S. officials were completely ready to make the official extradition request…

This piece was co-authored with Sarah Kinosian. Read it in its entirety at Security Assistance Monitor.

El Chapo’s Second Escape

One of the world’s most powerful and notorious drug lords, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo” (“Shorty”), has escaped from a Mexican prison. Again.

El Chapo was first arrested in 1993 on drug trafficking and murder charges in Chiapas, Mexico. He was sentenced to 20 years at a maximum security facility in Jalisco, but he escaped in 2001.

Legend has it that El Chapo hid in a dirty laundry cart and was smuggled out by corrupt guards, but another version of the story says that an actual SWAT team stormed the prison in order to liberate the jailed capo.

After his first escape, Chapo reasserted himself and his organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, as major players in the Mexican criminal landscape. By 2011, a “senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official” told Forbes that Chapo was “the leading drug trafficker of all time…the godfather of the drug world.”

Chapo’s rise to power after his 2001 escape coincided with three important and interrelated developments in Mexico’s crime-fighting strategy. The first was the ramping up of the “war” on organized crime, especially by using federal forces, including the army, in operations where local police seemed unable to provide adequate security.

The second development was a deepening of the “kingpin” strategy, whereby the top leaders of organized criminal groups were targeted for arrest – a practice that is popular for political reasons but in reality can have destabilizing effects, leading to increased crime and violence.

The third development was Mexico’s increasing reliance on U.S. assistance, both technical and financial, in pursuing its security agenda. The U.S. has spent billions on military and police assistance to Mexico over the past decade and has trained thousands of its security forces. Moreover, the U.S. government has put its own personnel on the ground in Mexico and maintains extremely close intelligence ties with its Southern neighbor.

As Patrick Radden Keefe reported in the New Yorker last year, the success of “The Hunt for El Chapo” depended heavily on this close relationship. The DEA appears to have provided much (if not most) of the intelligence that guided Mexican marines to El Chapo’s hideout in Culicán, where he was arrested on February 22 last year.

However, after less than a year and a half in prison, El Chapo has escaped again – this time through a kilometer-long tunnel reportedly equipped with air conditioning, lights and a motorcycle modified to run on a makeshift railway.

As was the case with his 2001 escape, there is little doubt about the complicity of prison authorities and other government officials in Chapo’s flight. A poll taken shortly after Chapo’s arrest last February showed that more than half of Mexican citizens believed the crime lord was more powerful than the Mexican government itself.

The U.S. Department of Justice released a terse statement after the first reports of Chapo’s latest escape began appearing in Mexican and international media on Sunday [July 12]. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the U.S. “share[s] the government of Mexico’s concern” about Chapo’s escape and “stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture.”

The statement also points out that “[i]n addition to his crimes in Mexico, [Chapo] faces multiple drug trafficking and organized crime charges in the United States.” According to the State Department, Chapo was charged with drug violations, money laundering and racketeering in Arizona in 1993. He was also indicted on similar charges in San Diego in 1995.

Since his February 2014 arrest, many U.S. political leaders had called for Chapo to be extradited, but a formal request was only submitted earlier this year. Mexican officials claimed they would extradite Chapo to the U.S. only after he had served his time in Mexico – as Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam put it, “about 300 or 400 years later — it will be a while.”

Although the Mexican government repeatedly promised Chapo would not escape justice once again, their position predictably angered some American officials. One “U.S. law enforcement official” speaking to CNN said Chapo’s recent escape is “exactly why we argued for his extradition…If this guy can get out of prison it shows how deep the corruption is there.”

Despite their close cooperation on security issues, clearly the Mexican and U.S. governments do not always see eye to eye, especially when it comes to the complex topic of extraditing criminals wanted for crimes in both countries.

While the U.S. has criticized corruption and judicial dysfunction in Mexico, the Mexican government has increasingly questioned the U.S. practice of reducing the sentences of extradited criminals in exchange for information on other suspects, some of whom may have links to powerful political figures.

Honduras also recently passed a law allowing for the extradition of citizens charged with international drug trafficking and/or terrorism, but some analysts have criticized the move, raising questions about the message it sends regarding the state’s (in)ability to prosecute criminals. As in Mexico, there exists almost complete impunity in Honduras for even the most heinous crimes.

Mexico and Honduras are not the only example of U.S. extradition policies causing concern in its partner countries. Top leaders of the right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, have received reduced sentences for cooperating with U.S. authorities on investigations into Colombian drug trafficking suspects.

Like their Mexican and Honduran counterparts, some Colombian politicians have claimed that these policies encourage criminals to seek extradition to the U.S. rather than receiving justice in the countries where they committed their most serious crimes. Also like their Mexican and Honduran counterparts, many elite Colombians are suspected of having ties to the suspects being extradited.

In all three of these countries, the United States has provided extensive security assistance that has enabled its partners to enact heavy-handed, militarized approaches to crime and security. This has allowed countries like Colombia, Mexico and Honduras to become very good at catching suspected criminals, and in certain cases it has led to partial gains in citizen safety. However, in part because of U.S. extradition policies, some of these governments have not placed enough emphasis on improving their ability to successfully prosecute the highest-level criminals they capture.

The United States may have a short-term interest in extraditing top criminal suspects to its courts rather than seeing them escape justice. At the same time, this approach provides little incentive for its partners to tackle deeply-rooted problems in their political and judicial systems. Additionally, it could result in diplomatic friction and inhibit necessary cooperation on crime and security issues.

If El Chapo had been extradited to the U.S., his escape from prison would have been far less likely than his striking an eventual deal with U.S. prosecutors. He might have given up information on other persons and organizations under investigation by U.S. authorities in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

This might even had led to more arrests and extraditions of top criminals in Mexico. Or it might have exposed close links between Mexican elites and organized crime. Shortly after Chapo’s arrest last year, former DEA intelligence director Phil Jordan claimed that Chapo “contributed a lot of money to the campaign” of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Both the Colombian and Honduran elite likely have similar concerns regarding U.S. extradition and plea bargaining policies, and it may be for this reason that their public criticism of the United States in this regard has been relatively muted.

Still, in light of El Chapo’s escape, the U.S should weigh whether its interest in seeing criminals extradited to its own justice system might be interfering with its interest in helping its partners establish effective and sustainable judicial and political structures that would make extradition, and the political complications that often accompany it, unnecessary.

Mexico: Questions and doubts surround deal with autodefensas

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 13 April to 19 April 2014

The Council of Self-Defense Forces of Michoacán (CAM), made up of leaders from 20 autodefensas, has agreed to a deal with the government, but as InSight Crime noted, “[t]he deadline is so far the only clear point” of the agreement. Despite the characterization of the deal in many reports, La Jornada clarified that the actual text does not make any explicit reference to the groups’ “disarmament.” Instead it states only that “[s]elf-defense groups are obligated to register their weapons with the Secretariat of National Defense no later than May 10, 2014, determining their possession and use, according to established legal parameters.”

CAM spokesman José Manuel Mireles had previously strenuously resisted calls for the vigilantes to disarm. Estanislao “Papa Smurf” Beltran, the leader of an autodefensa in Buenavista, also denied that the groups were disarming, saying that instead they would continue the process of integrating with official security forces under the existing legal framework. According to Mireles, “We are not going to surrender the weapons [to the government]. We are going to put them away.” Mireles said that the only weapons that would be given up were “superheavy” ones, such as “land-air missiles, M-60 and M-70 rifles and grenade launchers.” For his part, Michoacán security commissioner Alfredo Castillo said, “On May 10, the legitimate autodefensas will disappear and those who say ‘we are autodefensas and we will continue’ will be arrested as false autodefensas.”

Also in contrast to some reports, the deal does not necessarily guarantee the release of autodefensa members who were detained for carrying weapons. Instead, the text states that “[i]ndividuals belonging to self-defense groups who, in addition to carrying a weapon, are being prosecuted for other serious crimes, will continue their criminal proceedings in accordance with the law.” Security commissioner Castillo pushed back against suggestions made by autodefensa leaders that the deal included a promise to release members of the vigilante groups who are suspected of having committed “serious crimes,” such as Hipólito Mora, the man accused of orchestrating the killing of two members of a rival self-defense group.

The deal also includes provisions for the protection of militia leaders and promises by the government to continue the fight against criminal groups that have terrorized the state. However, the government’s inability to provide adequate security was the original impetus for the formation of the vigilante groups. Many top figures in the area’s main cartel, the Knights Templar, have been arrested or killed recently – some with the help of the autodefensas – but the group remains very powerful.

It is basically impossible to predict how all this will play out. As long as citizens feel they cannot trust the government and official security forces, they will seek other means of defending their communities. Self-defense militias have begun to spring up in urban areas of Guerrero state, where the presence of the Gulf Cartel-linked criminal group “Los Rojos” has been blamed for an increase in assaults and kidnappings. Last week, the mayor of Chilpancingo, the state’s capital, said that 70% of the municipal police in the city had failed certification exams.

Despite the deal, the presence of vigilante groups is all but certain to remain an ongoing challenge for the Mexican government. This week, 17 members of an autodefensa from Yurécaro in Michoacán were charged with “organized crime in the category of terrorism” for the murder of Tanhuato mayor Gustavo Garibay Garcia on March 22. Enrique Hernández, who is not mentioned in the article linked above, was also implicated in Gariba’s murder and has alleged that he was tortured following his arrest.

A report from Mexico’s federal intelligence services obtained by Proceso magazine indicates that the low-profile leader of a self-defense force in Michoacán, Miguel Ángel Gallegos Godoy (alias “El Migueladas”), is “the real boss” of the Knights Templar organization. José Manuel Mireles, the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Michoacán, has claimed in the past that the autodefensa movement is split between those who “fight against drug trafficking” and “criminal infiltrators.”

While the recently-announced agreement provides a sliver of hope, the preponderance of evidence suggests that dealing with the autodefensas could indeed be “the greatest security policy test” of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.

Headlines:

Members of an autodefensa took over the town of Tingambato in Michoacán. The vigilantes detained the town’s mayor and eight members of the municipal police who reportedly attacked the group earlier this month. Suspected Knights Templar gunmen later attacked members of the autodefensa that had taken the town.

An autodefensa led by José Manuel Mireles took the town of Nuevo Urecho. Mireles called for the people of the town to join his movement.

The mayor of Apatzingan in Michoacán state, Uriel Chavez Mendoza was arrested on extortion charges. Prosecutors allege he pressured city councillors to hand over $1,500 of their monthly salaries to the Knights Templar cartel, more than one-third of their pay. Chavez Mendoza is the nephew of now-deceased Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno (alias “El Chayo”) who was killed by Mexican security forces on March 9.

In an interview with Milenio, Jose Martin Gomez Ramirez, Apatzingan’s councilor for industry and business, claimed that when city councilors protested the extortion, they were taken to a remote area where they met with Chavez Mendoza and local Knights Templar boss Rigo Diaz Sato, who were accompanied by armed men and a municipal police patrol. The former mayor allegedly introduced Rigo as “more than my friend, he is my brother.” Rigo told the politicians that they would have to acquiesce to the extortion demands. According to Ramirez, he lived in fear for the next two years, with criminals and municipal officials making threats against his family and anyone “not supporting the movement.”

A former legislator from the state of Michoacán, José Trinidad Martínez Pasalagua, was released from custody for a lack of evidence. Martínez Pasalagua remains under investigation for possible links to the Knights Templar cartel, as does the Secretary General of the Government in Michoacán, Jesús Reyna, who was arrested last week. Both men are suspected of having attended meetings with Servando Gómez Martinez (alias “La Tuta”), one of the founding members of the Knights Templar. 

Police reportedly arrested “La Borrega,” the leader of the Gulf Cartel-linked gang known as “Los Rojos” (“The Reds”), in the municipality of Martir de Cuilapan in Guerrero state. According to the police, Borrega’s group was “one of the principal producers and distributors of drugs” in the municipality and was also responsible for kidnappings and extortion in the area.

Mexico’s finance minister Luis Videgaray announced a plan to develop a “black list” of drug traffickers to block them from the country’s financial system. The list will include individuals designated for sanctions by the US and the UN as well as those designated by Mexico’s own government.

Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam confirmed that the American government has not made a formal request for extradition to the Mexican government for the extradition of recently-arrested Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and that the Mexican government has “no intention of sending him [to the United States].” Guzman is wanted on multiple indictments in the US.

Guatemalan police arrested Rafael Atilano Baños Macdonald, a suspected member of the Sinaloa cartel who had been wanted by authorities since 2013.

Another associate of El Chapo, Edgar Manuel Valencia Ortega, pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in Chicago, further indicating that Vincente “Mayito” Zambada-Niebla may be providing law enforcement authorities with information on Chapo loyalists who could pose a threat to his father, Ismael Zambada-Garcia, the man assumed to have taken Chapo’s position as kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel.

The Colombian rebel groups known as the FARC may be selling coca plantations and cocaine labs to the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel in anticipation of a peace deal with the Colombian government.

Mexican authorities captured Arnoldo Villa Sánchez (aka  Erick Rene Calderón Sánchez), the man considered to be the number two leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel. The current boss of the organization, Hector Beltran Leyva is considered to be still at large. The fact of the arrest runs counter to rumors that the Peña Nieto administration “plays favorites” with the Beltran Leyva organization.

The Zetas, an organized crime group engaged in a bloody turf war with its former partner, the Gulf Cartel, issued an online message promising to turn Tamaulipas state into “hell itself” as they fight a “battle to the death” against their rivals. This week, hundreds of residents of Tampico in Tamaulipas marched in protest against the recent wave of violence that has left dozens dead in their state. For more on the Tamaulipas turf war, see our previous post.

Four people were killed in various shootouts following law enforcement operations in eastern Mexico. According to officials, there were “no reports that policemen or civilians were affected.”

Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense said that 410 members of the armed forces have died since the escalation of Mexico’s drug war in December 2006. The Mexican Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI) has reissued its request for a complete list of military personnel killed since that time, saying the original request was not limited solely to deaths attributable to the drug war.

Lupe Trevino, the former sherif for Hidalgo County, Texas on the Mexican border, pled guilty to money laundering for covering up campaign contributions paid by Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, a convicted drug trafficker. In January 2013, Trevino’s department came under scrutiny when members of its drug task force, including Trevino’s son Jonathan, were accused of possessing and distributing illegal drugs.

The Secretary of National Defense’s office claimed that the Mexican Army destroyed nearly 15 tons of marijuana in March alone.

Migrants traveling on a train known as “La Bestia” (“The Beast,” also known as the “Train of Death”) were robbed and killed in Oaxaca. Three of the victims were identified as Mexicans and the fourth was identified as a Honduran. Mexican federal prosecutors recently filed a criminal complain against Mexican rail line Ferrosur, alleging that the company’s employees may be complicit in such attacks.

In a series of operations across Tamaulipas state, security forces rescued 179 undocumented immigrants from Central America who had been kidnapped and arrested five people in connection with the crime.

Kidnapping in Mexico remains a major problem, with the number of kidnappings increasing fourfold since 2007. Because many wealthier Mexicans have the means – and the motivation – to hire private security to protect themselves, middle- and lower-class Mexicans are increasingly being targeted by criminals.

Mexico’s prosecutor general, Jesús Murillo Karam, met with US senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to discuss cooperation between the two countries to combat illegal human trafficking.

According to Juan Martín Pérez García, director of the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico (REDIM), tens of thousands children have been victims of various crimes at the hands of members of organized crime groups, including most frequently rape and sex trafficking, but also forced labor in the drug trade.

A new study released by the University of San Diego reports that “the total number of homicides [in Mexico] appears to have declined by 15 percent in 2013…[but] these findings should be viewed with caution” due to questions raised by analysts over “possible withholding or manipulation of data.” President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration recently claimed that the country’s homicide rate had fallen by 16% in 2013, but questions about the government’s figures were also questioned by Mexican journalist Alejandro Hope, who called the statistics “more confusing than illuminating.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico falls behind only Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Philippines, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in impunity for attacks against the press. By the groups count, 16 journalists were killed with “absolute impunity” in the past ten years. Mexico ranks 152nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s press freedom index and by the group’s count 89 journalists have been killed in that country since 2000, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. For more on the press freedom situation in Mexico, see our previous post.

To Watch:

Police around Mexico staged demonstrations against what they consider the unfair dismissal of officers for failing loyalty tests.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture will visit Mexico next week to investigate and evaluate the implementation of new legislation intended to reform the penal system. He will also look into the used of forced confesssions and “arraigo” detention, by which citizens can be held without charge for weeks.

So-called “narco-deforestation,” the felling of trees to make way for illicit airstrips or overland drug smuggling routes – or simply for the money to be made from illegally-felled timber – is creating an “ecological disaster” in Central America, according to Ohio State University geographer Karen McSweeney.

Mexican authorities seized 10,000 tons of illegally logged timber in Michoacán worth more than $1 million. Security forces also confiscated 13 sawmills, two wood shredders, 11 vehicles, and other machinery and equipment. While the seizure has not been officially attributed to a specific criminal group, the Knights Templar cartel controls much of the illegal activity in that state, including having a major stake in the iron and steel industry, which lost over $1.3 billion to theft and illegal mining in 2013.

Organized crime groups in Mexico, especially the Knights Templar cartel, are deeply involved in the mining industry, either by selling “security” to corporations or illegally conducting their own mining operations. As a previous report from Vice put it, “what the gang now earns from illegal mining and mineral smuggling makes its illegal drug profits look like chump change. ”

Despite a string of legislative successes including reforms in the country’s energy, banking and education sectors, President Enrique Peña Nieto remains unpopular with Mexico’s citizens, with a favorability rating in the low 40 to high 30% range. Many commentators blame slow economic growth combined with tax hikes on middle-class Mexicans for his unpopularity.

Extra:

InSight Crime profiles Rafael Caro Quintero, a man once described by a Mexican newspaper as the “narco of narcos.” Caro Quintero headed the Guadalajara Cartel during the 1980s, which at the time was the only drug trafficking organization in Mexico. He was arrested in 1985, but released last year when his conviction was overturned on a technicality. In June 2013, shortly before his release, the US Treasury Department released information linking Caro Quintero to Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” an alleged high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Federation, suggesting that Caro Quintero may still be a major player in the country’s organized crime scene. According to agents who spoke with recently-captured Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the fallen cartel boss recently had a meal with Caro Quintero, who expressed his desire to stay out of the drug trafficking game. Nevertheless, a former DEA official recently told the El Paso Times that ruling out Caro Quintero as the “jefe de jefes” (boss of bosses) was impossible given the influence he had in the past. The US State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Caro Quintero’s capture and the Mexican Attorney General’s Office also issued a new warrant for his arrest.

Truthout reviews the story of Juan Francisco Kuykendall Leal, better known as Kuy, a long-time activist who died in January, more than a year after being shot with a rubber bullet while taking part in a mass demonstration against the inauguration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

Criminals in the US, Central America and even Colombia appear to be using homemade guns more often. As Fusion puts it, these weapons are “unserialized, unregistered and totally legal – and they’re being used to kill people.”

A little-known Mexican terrorist group known as Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (Individuals Tending to Savagery) had gone quiet for about a year, but appears to have resurfaced recently. The group released a manifesto online last month reiterating its longstanding opposition to bio- and nanotechnology, which it believes to be an existential threat to humanity. The group has claimed responsibility for multiple violent attacks against researchers working on such technology in the past.

Vice takes a look at the booming demand for bullet-proof cars and clothes in Mexico.

What the Zambada-Niebla Case Tells Us about the Drug War

Last week Vicente Jesus Zambada-Niebla (aka “Mayito”) pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in a US District Court in Chicago. “Mayito” is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada-Garcia, the man who is believed to be the current head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization.

El Mayo likely assumed the top spot in the cartel after the recent arrest of former Sinaloa leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera by Mexican law enforcement with help from the DEA. Some experts had speculated that El Mayo may have betrayed his former boss, but Mayito has agreed to cooperate with US authorities, making it more likely that he – not his father – was the one who “flipped” on the fallen capo.

It is not clear that Mayito gave up information that helped lead to the capture of El Chapo. However, there is significant circumstantial evidence that Mayito may be working with law enforcement authorities in the US against the former kingpin and some of his closest associates.

According to the Mayito’s plea deal, which was recently made public more than a year after being negotiated:

“Defendant agrees he will fully and truthfully cooperate in any matter in which he is called upon to cooperate by a representative of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. This cooperation shall include providing complete and truthful information in any investigation and pre-trail preparation and complete and truthful testimony in any criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding. Defendant agrees to the postponement of his sentencing until after the conclusion of his cooperation.”

In point of fact, Mayito himself has claimed that he was a long-time informant for US law enforcement.

A seemingly explosive report from Mexican newspaper El Universal in January of this year alleged that the US government allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to conduct drug trafficking operations without interference from American law enforcement in exchange for information on rival cartels. However, Mayito had accused the US Department of Justice of giving “carte blanche [to the Sinaloa Cartel] to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States” all the way back in 2011.

According to documents filed with the District Court in July 2011, Zambada-Niebla alleged that “the Sinaloa Cartel, through [Mexican attorney Humberto] Loya, was to provide information accumulated…against rival Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations to the United States government” in exchange for the dismissal of drug trafficking charges against Loya – “a close confidante” of El Chapo – and a promise “not to interfere with his drug trafficking activities and those of the Sinaloa Cartel, to not actively prosecute him, [El] Chapo, [Zambada-Niebla’s father El] Mayo, and the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, and to not apprehend them.”

According to the allegations made in the court filings, the protection included being “informed by agents of the DEA through Loya that United States government agents and/or Mexican authorities were conducting investigations near the home territories of cartel leaders so that the cartel leaders could take appropriate actions to evade investigators.” The pleadings also allege that the US government agreed not to “share any of the information they had about the Sinaloa Cartel and/or the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel with the Mexican government in order to better assure that they would not be apprehended and so that their operations would not be interfered with.”

Loya’s case was dismissed in 2008, but Zambada-Niebla alleged that the DEA betrayed their agreement with him by luring the “narco junior” into a meeting at a Mexico City hotel in March 2009 where he provided agents with relevant information. Hours later, he was arrested by Mexican authorities. He was extradited to the US in February 2010.

The Mayito case is particularly interesting in light of Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández’s allegations that the Mexican government “took a side” in the drug war “protecting the Sinaloa Cartel.” The above evidence does not necessarily point to the conclusion that there exists some nefarious conspiracy between the governments of either country and one of the world’s most powerful organized crime groups. Rather, it seems more likely that US and Mexican law enforcement have been using sources within the Sinaloa organization not only to disrupt the operations of the group’s rivals, but also to manipulate the cartel itself.

Take a look at some of the news from the past few weeks:

  • Colombian police, in cooperation with the DEA, arrested Héctor Coronel (alias “Rincón”), the man believed to be the main emissary between El Chapo and the Colombian rebel group known as the FARC.
  • Manuel Alejandro Aponte Gomez (alias “El Bravo”) was found dead at a factory in Sinaloa state. El Bravo was reputedly the head of security for El Chapo.
  • Germán Ceniceros Ibarra, alias “El Tigre,” was killed along with three others in a clash with the Mexican army. El Tigre was a former police officer, but authorities allege that he switched sides to work as a lieutenant of El Chapo.
  • Tomas Arevalo-Renteria, who was linked to both El Mayo’s and El Chapo’s factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, pled guilty to cocaine distribution in Chicago. However, lawyers for both sides as well as the judge stressed that Arevalo-Renteria had not agreed to cooperate against El Chapo.

The timing of the disclosure of Mayito’s plea deal seems interesting, to say the least. Despite the plea having been negotiated over a year ago, only now, with El Chapo in custody and many of his top associates being taken out of commission did the government choose to reveal it to the public.

During his incarceration, Zambada-Niebla wasn’t allowed to exercise on the rooftop sports court. Prison authorities said there was too much risk that he would be picked off by a sniper or stage a helicopter escape. Is it possible that El Chapo somehow found out about Mayito’s cooperation with the authorities and wanted him offed? Was El Mayo planning an operation to spring his son from prison in preparation for assuming leadership of the cartel once El Chapo was arrested?

It’s impossible to know for sure. However, Mayito’s story may shine a light on the logic of how the drug war is prosecuted.

Jason McGahan for the Chicago Reader wrote up a thorough report of the case of Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side who had risen in the ranks of the Sinaloa organization before deciding to “come in from the cold” and cooperate with the DEA in early 2008. The twins worked with the DEA to provide crucial evidence against Mayito, while being allowed to continue importing and distributing thousands of kilos of cocaine and other drugs supplied by both factions of the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to defense attorney Frank Rubino, who represented Jorge Llamas, a drug courier convicted for a purchase of 20 kilos of cocaine supplied by the Flores brothers:

“The government let [the twins] run wild, let them export out of Mexico [and] import in the United States all the drugs they wanted as long as they provided them information about little street dealers.”

“It’s almost like they were creating crime so that they could solve it.”

“It was kind of like they let the sharks go free so they could catch some goldfish.”

Why would the DEA – whose stated mission is “to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States” – allow major drug traffickers to operate unimpeded for years? For one, the twins were helping them rack up indictments and convictions against a good number of lower-level dealers and middlemen. But, perhaps more importantly, they helped lead the feds to Mayito – a man with inside knowledge about the top echelons of the Sinaloa organization.

Maybe they weren’t “let[ting] the sharks go free.” Instead, they may have simply been working their way up the food chain.

Scott Stewart, vice president of analysis at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, told McClatchy that he “can’t see” Mayito “ratting out” his own family, but Gary Hale, former intelligence chief for the Houston office of the DEA said, “The only way to reduce your sentence is to give something to the government.” The evidence now available to the public strongly suggests that the “something” Mayito is giving to the government includes information on El Chapo loyalists who may pose a threat to his father’s control over the cartel.

US officials have all but acknowledged that the War on Drugs is failing and fundamentally unwinnable. But, in the memorable words of Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.” The multi-billion dollar drug war budget supports thousands of law-enforcement and military jobs in the US alone, not to mention those in other countries who receive financial assistance from the US. No matter how badly they continue to fail, the drug warriors always insist that more money and manpower is the solution.

For example, U.S. Coast Guard commandant Admiral Robert Papp recently claimed that his agency misses about 80% of the drugs heading into the United States by sea from South America “because of lack of resources.” His agency’s budget request for next year is nearly $10 billion. That’s more that the amount of most countries’ total annual military expenditures. Yet, in a sense, Papp and his ilk are right. They’re vastly outmatched. The Sinaloa cartel alone brings in roughly $3 billion in annual revenues.

Mayito agreed to forfeit $1.37 billion in assets as part of his plea deal. Much of that money will help fund the continuation of the War on Drugs. Essentially, the feds got to brag about nailing a bunch of gangsters and drug dealers and scored some serious cheddar in the process while doing virtually nothing to put an end to the war racket. Mayito’s father and the organization he leads will likely continue business as usual – at least for the time being.

So, no; US and Mexican authorities aren’t necessarily working hand-in-glove with organized crime to facilitate their operations. They are, however, seizing on any and every opportunity to make it seem as though their efforts are succeeding in bringing the bad guys to justice – even when that involves allowing certain other bad guys to get off easy or even continue to break the law. The case of the Flores twins and Mayito seems like a classic “enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation. The DEA used the Flores brothers to get to Mayito, and they used Mayito to get to El Chapo.

The US is currently seeking extradition of El Chapo, but as George Grayson, a professor and Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Stuides said, “There is not a snowball’s chance in the Sonoran desert that Chapo will be handed to the US…He might spill the beans on the hundreds, maybe thousands, of military, police and political figures to whom he has given generous bribes over the years.” A former DEA official who spoke to the Guardian said “Even if [El Chapo] gets sentenced to a Mexican prison, eventually he will take over that prison…He will have a laptop, it will turn into a hotel, and he will return to running the cartel from there.”

All of this is a reminder not to take seriously official pronouncements of “landmark achievements,” “historic impacts” and “major victories” when it comes to the drug war. These statements are self-congratulatory and propagandistic. No matter how many high-level gangsters are arrested or convicted, there will always be someone willing to take their place. Arresting crime bosses doesn’t stop crime or the violence that comes with it. It simply makes it appear that a failed strategy is working.