Enrique Peña Neito

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.

Mexico: Judicial ineffectiveness, attacks on human rights defenders, media still major concerns

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 30 March to 5 April 2014

According to the president of Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), the vast majority of violent crimes in Mexico go unreported – upwards of 90% by one estimate.

A study produced by the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE (now the National Election Institute, or INE), found that 66% of Mexican citizens believe the rules of the judicial system are followed rarely or not at all, with nearly a third saying they are not followed at all. 70% of those surveyed think that there is institutional discrimination based on social class, skin color, or ethnicity and the same percentage believe that it is not possible to trust others.

Gun ownership in Mexico grew by more than 50% between 2009 and 2012, from 2 million guns to 3 million, a trend experts say is the result of rising perceptions of insecurity in the country. The average annual rate of growth in civilian gun ownership was 15%, which is higher than the 10% annual increase in crime rates during the same period. Mexican law allows for citizens to keep certain types of firearms in their home for self-defense, but a special license is normally required to carry them in public.

In a statement issued by the Latin American Working Group, the Washington Office on Latin America, Peace Brigades International and Front Line Defenders, the organizations expressed deep concern with the implementation of Mexico’s Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Citing funding issues, lack of leadership and the general ineffectiveness of the program, the groups joined with Mexican civil society organizations to call for the government to urgently address the crisis with the Protection Mechanism.

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom advocacy group, wrapped up a four-day conference in Mexico by calling on the country to strengthen protections for journalists. Mexico ranks 152nd out of 180 countries in RWB’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. Mexico’s secretary of interior affirmed the government’s “full determination” to carry out a “complete overhaul” of the federal Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, “the results of which have not been satisfactory.”

Headlines

The chief of Mexican newspaper Noroeste, Adrián López Ortiz, was robbed and shot in Sinaloa. While the paper has reported a series of threats and attacks in the past, Sinaloa Attorney General Marco Antonio Higuera Gomez said the attack on López Ortiz was unrelated to his work as a journalist. Five youths were arrested in connection with the incident, but the suspected gunman remains at large.

A Mexican federal policeman was kidnapped and killed in Tláhuac.

US federal agents discovered two drug-smuggling tunnels equipped with rail systems beneath the US-Mexico border, both of which surfaced in San Diego warehouses. A 73-year-old woman accused of running one of the warehouses was arrested in connection with the operation. The discovery brings the number of tunnels discovered in the San Diego area up to seven in less than four years, according to the task force handling the case. Earlier this year, GQ published a worthwhile piece on the use of underground tunnels for transporting drugs across the border. You can read it here.

The killing of an employee at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, Gregorio Serna, sheds light on the extortion of the university’s staff and students by the Zetas cartel. According to an anonymous source who spoke to Proceso newspaper, Serna may have been killed because he refused to get involved with criminal activities associated with the gang. While the Zetas organization is known to control many “above-ground” businesses as well as underground markets in Tamaulipas, incidents like this, which seem to confirm rumors of their infiltration of the university and its staff, show just how insinuated the group is with everyday life.

Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart criticized the legalization of recreational marijuana in the US states of Colorado and Washington, claiming that Mexican drug cartels are “setting up shop” in those areas in anticipation of a black market. Leonhart suggested during testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee that voters in Washington state and Colorado were duped into legalizing marijuana and implied that Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision in August to allow marijuana regulation to proceed largely unchallenged was misguided.

In an interview with El Universal newspaper, former president Vincente Fox explained why he believes Mexico should legalize marijuana and pardon the cartels’ “capos” in order to lessen the power of organized crime in the country.

The mayor of Texistepec, in Veracruz state, and his wife were shot by four unidentified gunmen. Both were taken to the hospital and were reported to be in stable condition. Veracruz, a state coveted by cartels for its strategic location relative to the United States, has been plagued by the violence of a turf war between the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartel, as well as the Knights Templar.

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 the recently-arrested kingpin of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.

Enrique “Kike” Plancarte Solis, one of the leaders of the Knights Templar cartel, was killed in an operation carried out by the Mexican Navy. Plancarte’s death comes after Knights Templar founder Nazario Moreno, alias “El Chayo,” was killed by troops in Michoacán on March 9.

Mexican authorities arrested autodefensa leader Enrique Hernandez Salcedo over the March 22 killing of Gustavo Garibay, the mayor of Tanhuato in Michoacán state, who opposed the vigilante groups. Hernandez Salcedo was among 19 people detained in connection with the murder of the mayor. More than 50 vigilantes have now been arrested in the state for committing various crimes.

The government launched a website to promote and explain the “Plan Michoacán,” a social development program based on the “Todos Somos Juarez” (“We are all Juarez”) program that many view as having been successful in reducing crime-related violence in the latter area. The program will focus on economic development, education, infrastructure and housing, public health, and social development and sustainability.

Mexican federal prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint against Ferrosur, a Mexican rail line that is a subsidiary of the US-based Kansas City Southern. The complaint alleges that the company’s employees have been complicit in crimes committed against Mexican and Central American migrants headed toward the US, who are frequently beaten, robbed or kidnapped by criminal gangs after they board the trains.

To Watch

Mexican president Enrique Peña Neito announced a regional initiative to combat organized crime during a recent trip to Honduras.

Michoacán federal safety commissioner Alfredo Castillo has given self-defense forces in his state a choice: essentially, they can join the police or disarm. He said that the disarming of unregistered autodefensas in that state will begin within weeks. Castillo also stated that the registration of those who want to register for the bodies of rural defense and the Unified Command will resume.

The U.S. State Department said it is asking Mexico to investigate an incident in which three US citizens were fired upon by Mexican army troops. Mexican military officials reportedly told American law enforcement that the victims were trying to evade a checkpoint, but the young men who were shot dispute this account.

According to documents obtained by the LA Times, on January 26, two Mexican soldiers crossed the US border and drew their guns on US Border Patrol officers, resulting in a tense standoff. The Mexican soldiers claimed to be pursuing drug smugglers, but when the Border Patrol called for backup, the soldiers retreated back across the border.

In a letter to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske cited nearly two dozen other such incidents since 2010, but said his agency “does not have intelligence that directly connects (Mexican military) personnel to criminal activity.” Nevertheless, James Phelps, a border and homeland security professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas who was quoted in the LA Times article said, “Many [Mexican soldiers] are essentially a functional asset of the cartels.” Officials at the Mexican Embassy in Washington have consistently denied that Mexican soldiers were involved in the incident, suggesting instead that the men were smugglers disguised in military uniforms.

After the governor of the State of Mexico declared that a recent crime wave in the area was “rare and temporary,” the Secretariat of Public Security of the Federal District and the Department of Public Safety of the State of Mexico announced that the agencies will work together to combat crime in both areas.

Police arrested Ukrainian national Steven Vladyslav Subkys in Mexico on suspicion that he has ties to a Europen and Asian criminal syndicate known alternatively as “organitzatsja,” “mafiya,” or “bratva.” Two other men identified as members of Subkys’ network were arrested in the same area earlier this month. According to InSight Crime, “[i]t is not known if Subkys was in Mexico to buy drugs, meet associates, or simply escape prosecution by US authorities.”

Extra

Mexico’s consumer protection agency filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office against parties who may have helped push the price of limes up 200% since December. According to Latin America Herald Tribune:

The candidatus liberibacter bacteria, which causes “yellow dragon” disease, affected lime trees in some parts of Mexico in 2013, analysts said.

Torrential rains last year, gouging by middlemen and extortion rackets run by drug cartels against growers have also caused lime prices to soar…

Mexico is the world’s largest producer of lemons and limes.