How cartels win with storm damage

As Mexico’s government stumbles in dealing with the massive damage caused by Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid, organized crime groups are trying to fill the void.

Members of the Gulf Cartel allegedly posted the video above to YouTube showing how a caravan of their pickups brought disaster relief to the town of Aldama in Tamaulipas state after it suffered flooding from Hurricane Ingrid.

One slide in the video says, “Helping out – something politicians and governors haven’t done.” And it adds that members of the cartel “are people like you and I.”

There’s some bogus religious imagery in it but the joy of people receiving the aid seems genuine.

One of Mexico’s most incisive columnists, Raymundo Riva Palacio, went further in a column here (in Spanish), saying that the extent of storm damage will have the Pena Nieto administration on the ropes, what with 58,000 people homeless, tens of thousands of head of cattle killed and more than 1.3 million acres of cropland destroyed.

He calls it a “dangerous cocktail” – in part because drug gangs are poised to benefit by offering aid to stricken communities and winning their affections.

“The federal forces do not have the human capacity to simultaneously deploy across the country in rescue and evacuation operations and offering care to communities. The cartels, however, operate surgically with their potential clientele. Criminals will benefit proportionally from the discomfort of those affected by delays in relief or no relief at all …”


Riva Palacio notes that the ports where precursor chemicals come in on the Pacific side for manufacturing methamphetamine weren’t damaged, and that while marijuana and poppy crops were hit the cartels will charge more for the scarcity, reaping benefits.


The 'disappeared' in Coahuila state

This is a rather artistic seven-minute video by my colleague Deborah Bonello for Global Post on the problem of the disappeared in Coahuila state along the border with Texas. Thousands of people have gone missing in the area around Coahuila. I was up there myself in March and filed this report.


Before crossing the border, check trunk

You’ve heard the stories. A driver affirms he or she was an unwitting mule when border agents discover duffel bags filled with marijuana in his or her trunk.

This was the case with Ana Martinez Amaya, a school teacher who crossed the border from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas, every day to her job. She was arrested in May 2011.

Now, it turns out, traffickers spotted drivers like Martinez because they crossed the border at the same time every day. And maybe, just maybe, because they drove Fords.

As the news piece above by Angela Kocherga of KHOU in Texas points out, a lawsuit by another unwitting mule has been filed against the Ford Motor Company for allowing a dealer in Dallas to cooperate with a smuggling ring that used VIN numbers to get duplicate keys for Ford vehicles. The ring would then stash the drugs in the trunks of vehicles.

Moral of the story: If you cross the border every day, check your trunk before hitting the border crossing. Somebody may be using your vehicle for his or her dirty work.

'We won't let these people return'

I don’t normally post Spanish-language videos. But this one is so extraordinary that I’m making an exception. It is of a physician in the town of Tepalcatepec in Michoacan state talking about how organized crime has penetrated all levels of government.

The video of the surgeon, Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, was made in late June and has caused a stir for several weeks now (while I was out of the country).

In it, Mireles Valverde justifies the emergence of armed self-defense groups in Michoacan, saying that gangsters have strangled the citizenry with demands for cash, ranging from the rancher to the tortilla vendor down to each car owner and parent of each student in public school. From Tecapcatepec alone, he says, they were extracting about $2.5 million a month

Then the rapes began, Mireles Valverde says.

“The problem blew up when they began to come to our home, and tell us things like, 'I like your wife, I'll take her with me for a while ... and while I'm gone, give your daughter a bath because she'll have to spend a few days with me, too," Mireles says, adding that the daughter would always return pregnant.

In December, 14 girls aged 11 or 12 were raped in the township of Tepalcatepec, and six were from a school where Mireles Valverde says he works as an advisor.

Mireles Valverde says the cartels – the Familia Michoacana or the Knights Templar – have taken over all levels of government in the state, from the governor’s office to the lowliest village.

"No authority could perform his function because all municipal, state and federal were part of these cartels or were on the payroll of these cartels," he says.

Complaining about this to the army, or federal police, Mireles Valverde says, does no good.

“We saw how they would site and have lunch or breakfast with them, the big leaders of organized crime. But they would never arrest anyone because supposedly they couldn’t find them,” he says.

From what I could determine on the internet, Mireles Valverde lived for many years in or near Sacramento, California, and was active in groups of Michoacan immigrants in the United States.

He said the armed self-defense groups in Michoacan will not back down in the face or criminal gangs.

“We won’t let these people return,” he says.

The video, by the way, has a closed caption option in Spanish, so if your spoken Spanish is weak and you prefer to read subtitles, there is that option.

Since I’m on the topic of Spanish-language media, two other articles have really caught my eye since my return. One is this lengthy article in sinembargo.mx about the days in which President Enrique Pena Nieto has no public appearances. It broaches the subject of whether Mexicans have a right to know the president’s activities. A second article, much longer, appears in Nexos and is an examination of racism in the nation. While Mexican laws are clear-cut and bar all forms of discrimination, society lags far behind. The article notes how the bulging society sections of Mexican newspapers are virtually devoid of indigenous or people of color.


Fallout from Z-40's capture

When you cut off a snake’s head, does it die? Or does it grow a new head?

Mexico Zeta Leader_NostThat’s what Mexicans are waiting to see with the arrest of Miguel Angel Treviño, the alleged leader of Los Zetas, Mexico’s most brutal crime organization.

Trevino was captured around 3:45 a.m. Monday near Nuevo Laredo by a special operations team of Mexican marines, the government says. Also arrested were two others. The photo of Treviño handed out by the Interior Secretariat shows a man who looks like he’s been through some scrapes.

So what will happen to Los Zetas, a crime group that appeared to be on an inexorable upward trajectory until recently? The last leader, Heriberto Lazcano, was killed last October by Mexican marines.

Most analysts agree that rather than calm the waters, the short-term fallout of the arrest of Treviño, who was known by the nickname Z-40, may be greater violence. InsightCrime, a website on organized crime in the Americas, says Treviño’s capture may open the door for a fullscale turf war between Los Zetas and their rivals:


“What comes next could be a spasm of violence as the group balkanizes. In many ways, the Zetas are following a larger trend in Mexico, and indeed the region, of fragmentation. Large scale, vertically integrated organizations are going the way of the dinosaur.”

The strategic forecasting firm Stratfor offered a different twist. It noted that Los Zetas is not a family based crime group but one centered on military style discipline:

“One reason behind Los Zetas' success is the group's ability to replace its leadership, even its senior-most leaders, relatively easily. … Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group's hierarchy through merit rather than through familial connections.”

Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence official in Mexico who is now an independent analyst, was quoted in an Associated Press story arguing that removing the snake’s head would devastate Los Zetas:

“It’s another link in the destruction of the Zetas as a coherent, identifiable organization … There will still be people who call themselves Zetas, bands of individuals who maintain the same modus operandi. There will be fights over illegal networks,” Hope told the AP.

As analysts offered fairly iron-clad predictions, one law enforcement source quoted in Alfredo Corchado’s story in the Dallas Morning News voiced some uncertainty about what would happen next:

“Unclear, hard to say. But things may worsen before they get better. I expect a lot of rivals jockeying for position, which may make the situation more violent,” the source told the Morning News.


Hope and despair in Mexico

Can one have a bleak view of Mexico’s recent past yet remain profoundly hopeful about its future? The answer is a resounding yes, says Alfredo Corchado.

Corchado is a friend and colleague in Mexico, author of the new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness (Penguin Press, 2013).

I’ve just finished the book, and it is a remarkable soul-wrenching analysis both on the personal and political levels. Alfredo is the son of a Mexican bracero who left Durango state to work in California, taking his family with him nearly five decades ago.

He grew up with a foot both in Mexico and the United States, dragged as a youngster “kicking and screaming” to a new country, leaving behind a patria that his mother believed was cursed and that his father says was in the grip of gangsters who “know no forgiveness.” 

The book offers great, first-hand history of the PRI’s temporary demise in 2000, the political rise of opposition leader Vicente Fox (Corchado was the first reporter to interview Fox after his triumph), then the sinking of Mexico into the grip of brutal criminal gangs.

If your view of Mexico is Pollyanna-ish, this book is not for you. Corchado’s meetings with undercover U.S. agents, narco couriers, his encounters with the grieving relatives of victims of violence in Ciudad Juarez, and the repeated threats against his own life – apparently coming from Z-40 himself, the feared Zetas leader – all convey the wounds of the nation.

I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. What makes it wonderful is how Alfredo parallels the recent history of Mexico with his own compelling family tale and his search for truth about the country's dark side. Yet through that search, Alfredo conveys a deep love of country, its culture, its music, its often vulgar language, its conflicted but grand history, genuine Mexicanidad. And to that, I’m sure Alfredo would raise a glass of tequila.


Turning the corner in Monterrey

The industrial hub of Monterrey and the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon seem to be turning the corner against runaway violence. In a meeting last month with some foreign correspondents, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina outlined the policies that are the focus of this interesting video from The Economist. In the meeting, Medina noted the sharp reduction in carjackings in the state. He said they'd fallen from around 70 per day to a little above 10. The video offers different figures but I think it refers just to the city of Monterrey, home to many of Mexico's largest companies. The video says some citizens who'd fled the city for Texas are coming back, which would be a helpful trend for Mexico.


Ferrari's next frontier -- Mexico

Some 15 Mexicans have $1.3 million in hand ready to plop it down for Ferrari’s latest hybrid supercar, the 963-horsepower La Ferrari.

That’s what the Italian performance car company’s North American chief said a few days ago at a forum aboard a yacht in New York City, Forbes magazine says here.

This is no ordinary Italian racing machine. Its top speed is 217 miles per hour. It goes zero to 60 mph in three seconds. At that pace, you could get to the Mexico City airport from my house in six minutes – that is, if you could hopscotch traffic.

So who has that kind of cash in Mexico? Oh, never mind. If I said, I’d probably be dead. They don’t like to have their names splashed around the internet.

“Mexico is the next China,” Ferrari North America CEO Marco Mattiacci said, according to Forbes. He cited dramatic wealth creation from expanding industry and proximity to the U.S.

He didn’t say it, but we all know about the other industry, the one that shall not be named in which bagmen cart duffel bags filled with cash and muscle men carry diamond-encrusted guns. Been a lot of wealth creation there, too.

Things have changed over the past decade, Mattiacci said.

“I can tell you that in 2003 when we launched Enzo … Mexico was not having that kind of request. That’s a big indicator,” Mattiacci said, according to Forbes.


The 'pot crusade' of Vicente Fox

For anybody who watches the news, it is little surprise that former Mexican President Vicente Fox makes new statements about the legalization of marijuana.

Fox was in Seattle last week as an entrepreneur announced what he claimed would be the first national brand of retail marijuana, starting in Washington and Colorado, two U.S. states that legalized marijuana usage last autumn. Fox later went on CNN with the entrepreneur, Jamen Shively, and give another interview, seen above.

Today, Fox went further. Speaking at his ranch in Guanajuato state, Fox again said the criminalization of marijuana only serves to put cash in the hands of drug gangs. He said he could foresee a day in which production, distribution and sale are regulated and marijuana is sold in the everpresent Oxxo convenience stores in Mexico.

Asked if he'd get into the business, Fox responded: "Once it is legitimate and legal, sure. I'm a farmer, I could do it once it is legitimate and legal, and approved as an industry. All kinds of producers could take part." Here's a link in Spanish.

There you have it. Fox's San Cristobal ranch may one day go to weed.

Fox, who was president from 2000 to 2006, said he was sponsoring a symposium on marijuana legalization July 19-21 in Mexico.


Arizona mother freed from prison

Yanira Maldonado, the Mormon mother of seven from Arizona who was arrested at a roadblock in Sonora last week, went free late Thursday and crossed the border early this morning, according to the Arizona Republic.

Maldonado had been accused of trying to smuggle 12 pounds of marijuana, a charge that her family members and lawyers said was a set-up.

According to this morning's Arizona Republic story, a judge released Maldonado after viewing a surveillance video that showed Maldonado boarding the bus. Other news stories indicated that she wasn't carrying any package that could conceal 12 pounds of pot.

Maldonado's case drew a lot of attention. She and her husband had traveled from the Phoenix area to attend a family funeral in Los Mochis in Sonora state last week. They took a bus because they were tired when they had to make the sudden trip and thought the bus would be safe. As I noted in a previous post, bus lines and employees have regularly smuggled marijuana under passenger seats.

The video above was apparently taken beside a hotel pool this morning around 2:30 a.m. in Nogales, Arizona. I'm sure that family is quite relieved that their ordeal is over.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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