Packing dope under bus seats

You may have seens stories or TV newscasts about a U.S. mother of seven from Arizona who's been arrested in Sonora for allegedly trafficking marijuana under her bus seat. The incident occurred May 22 when Yanira Maldonado and her husband Gary were returning home to Arizona from a funeral. Outside Hermosillo, the state capital, soldiers at a roadblock said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under their bus seat.

The Mormon couple has alleged their innocence and some 12,000 supporters have signed a Facebook page for her release (the husband, curiously, was not charged). The husband, according to this news report, says a judge asked for thousands of U.S. dollars to free the 42-year-old wife. A daughter told CNN she doesn't think her mother has "ever even tried a cigarette in her life or even drank a beer."

What is striking about this case -- besides how apparently clean living Americans have gotten snared in Mexico's judiciary -- is how often marijuana seems to be smuggled under bus seats in Mexico. It seems to be a perfect tactic for bus companies and drivers in cahoots with smugglers. In one case two years ago, a bus carried half a ton of marijuana carefully hidden under the seats of some 20 unwitting passengers. I don't immediately find other examples but remember reading of this every few months.

If you take a bus in Mexico, check under the seat before you settle in. 

Maldonado's case, meanwhile, is drawing lots of attention. It came up at a press briefing Tuesday at the State Department, the Mexican Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying that her "due rights" are being respected, and Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake's office sent me a statement that he "has been in contact with the family, as well as officials in Mexico and the U.S. regarding the case. He will continue to monitor the situation.”



Al Capone and YouTube

Imagine if gangster Al Capone had an outlet like YouTube. Would he have tried to convince the good people of Chicago of the righteousness of his Prohibition-busting bootlegging?

In Mexico, gangster leaders do have YouTube and they use it. In the video above, Servando Gomez, the leader of the Knights Templar, a crime and narcotics cartel in Michoacan state, rambles on for nearly 14 minutes in Spanish. Known commonly as La Tuta, the alleged drug lord talks about a host of subjects, including his hatred for rival groups Los Zetas and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel.

He also lashes out at self-defense groups that are forming along the Pacific coastal states, and says his group is willing to dialogue with the government -- but not to give up its weapons.

One of the most noteworthy things about the video is that La Tuta has no fear of showing his face. In Michoacan, the Knights Templar are the uber-bosses. Politicians are mostly under their thumb. I bet La Tuta can drive through the larger towns and cities of Michoacan with little fear of harassment or arrest. For those who believe Mexico is getting a grip on crime, do you think Al Capone could wander the streets of Chicago openly? 

Another noteworthy aspect of the video -- it has nearly a million hits and it's only been out for a few days. Clearly, some Mexicans are interested in what he has to say.

Item: I had difficulty viewing this video on Safari. If you, too, have trouble viewing it, try changing browsers.


Who owns that stallion? You do

The government gets into some odd businesses. The oddest may be overseeing the return of Mr. Piloto, a quarter horse, to the breeding shed.

Mr. Piloto is stabled at the DL Ranch in Weatherford Station, Texas. He’s racked up $1,002,240 in earnings over his career. And he keeps on giving. His stud fee is $3,000. Helping the fiscal deficit little by little.

But perhaps of greater interest is who once owned him: The brothers Jose and Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, leaders of Los Zetas, the notorious criminal syndicate that terrorizes swaths of Mexico.

A U.S. task force busted Jose Treviño in June 2012 for allegedly laundering money through an Oklahoma-based quarter horse operation. The Feds seized more than 300 horses in the raid. Most were auctioned off last November but the Feds kept five on behalf of U.S. taxpayers. The best known is Mr. Piloto.

This article from the American Quarter Horse Association in February noted that Mr. Piloto is back at stud. The Houston Chronicle carries this article in which reporters tried to get DL Ranch to comment on Mr. Piloto but no one there would do so.

Jose Treviño’s trial is slated to begin this coming week in Texas.


Narcos bite into avocado industry

Here's a recent report from Al Jazeera English on how avocado growers in the lowlands of Michoacan state are increasingly getting hit up for extortion by organized crime. It says avocados are a $1.6 billion industry for Mexico. Curiously, despite the bite narcos are taking out of avocados, prices are down. El Economista recently reported that avocados are selling for as low as 16 pesos per kilo. Two years ago, prices soared to as high as 80 pesos per kilo, partly because of a hard freeze.


The roots of Mexico's drug violence

This is an 8-minute video from the Council on Foreign Relations that goes beyond the current hype about "Mexico's Moment" to look at the entrenched causes of drug violence. Deep economic inequality has left millions of Mexicans on the margins, and they are easy recruits for organized crime. After all, the common phrase in Mexican slang is "It's better to live five years as a king than 50 years as an ox" ("Más vale vivir cinco años como rey, que 50 como buey" ). In short, even if I'm slain in gangland violence in a few years, I'll be rich and powerful till then. If I were to critique the analysis, though, I believe emphasizing how "open" Mexico's economy is is misleading. While Mexico has changed dramatically in the past three decades, many barriers to trade exist, some of them non-financial. True open economies lead to greater social mobility, something Mexico lacks.  


What's going on in Reynosa?

Reynosa, which lies across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, is a black hole of information.

What goes on in Reynosa matters. But when it comes to drug war violence, you are unlikely to find out. That’s because the newspapers in the city purposefully do not provide news of public security. It is too dangerous to report.

So last Sunday night, mayhem erupted in Reynosa. The Monitor, McAllen’s newspaper, posted a story later citing a state law enforcement officer saying that “there were four trucks filled with bodies” that gangsters retrieved after a fierce firefight.

Newspapers in Mexico City, like Excelsior, reported only what their journalists could learn about the gunfight on Twitter _ that a “presumed clash between the army and members of the Gulf Cartel” broke out near the state attorney’s office. No mention of casualties.

But you only have to listen to a bit of the 15-minute video above to realize that this firefight was extremely fierce with automatic weapons volleys and hundreds of rounds being fired. It sounds like Fallujah or Kandahar.

Reynosa and McAllen have a combined population of 1.7 million people. It is the third largest metropolitan area along the US-Mexico border. Since it is a major border crossing, truckers are eager to learn about incidents there. Here’s what a blog called Mexico Trucker Online said:

“All hell broke loose Sunday night in the border town of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen Texas as various factions of the Gulf Cartel took to the streets to settle internal conflicts within the group.

“For about 3 hours, gunfire, grenade explosions and convoys of armed combatants were seen and reported through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Not surprisingly, mainstream media in Mexico refrained from reporting the incidents.”

Another blog, called Reynosa Libre, also reported on the gunfight but said it left only four or five people dead. Typically, the blog has no name attached to it, no way to verify its accuracy. But the posting does sum up the lack of information nicely:

“Given the obstinacy of the local media and newspapers _ El Mañana, La Tarde, La Prensa, Metro Noticias, En Linea Directa, the local Tv Azteca and Televisa affiliates, among other outlets _ what we have is a sepulchral silence of the voluntary and involuntary accomplices to that which is occurring here.”

The blogger is pretty harsh. The journalists at those outlets might not survive the week if they went up against Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in Reynosa, which by many accounts is totally subjugated to organized crime. As the Los Angeles Times said in this 2010 story, Reynosa is behind enemy lines.

The Tamaulipas governor, Egidio Torre Cantu, visited Reynosa today and Twitter reports and the NarcoViolencia blog say new firefights broke out around 2 p.m. between “armed civilians” _ gangsters _ and federal police. The blog says the cartel henchmen were moving about in 20 vehicles.

Imagine that: A caravan of heavily armed civilians moving around the city, terrorizing the civilian population right on the border of Texas, and no one can provide trustworthy information.


Latest narco tactic: 'Pot cannons'

CNN had a report earlier today on these air-powered "pot cannons" that drug smugglers are using to lob marijuana over the border into the United States. This is the latest permutation on other smuggling tactics. I blogged here when they found a drug catapult. And I've written here about the use of ultralight aircraft to take drugs over the border. Then there are the tunnels. What's left? Fleets of carrier pigeons?


Why is Chicago gunning for 'El Chapo'?

A few days ago, the Chicago Crime Commission held a press conference to declare Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman the city’s Public Enemy No. 1.

This is a storied, if dubious, honor. The last person to win that title in Chicago was Al Capone in 1930 during Prohibition. Chicago’s crime fighters said in a release that “up until now (they) had yet to witness a criminal worthy of the same moniker.”

They now deem Guzman (has he ever set foot in the Windy City?) worthy.

He “is accused of having used Chicago as his drug trafficking hub for the Midwest, allegedly having trafficked 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine through Chicago per month,” the release said.

Anti-drug officials laid it on thick.

"In my opinion, Guzman is the new Al Capone of Chicago. His ability to corrupt and enforce his sanctions with his endless supply of revenue is more powerful than Chicago's Italian organized crime gang," said John Riley, the DEA’s special agent in charge in Chicago.

The Crime Commission’s president, J.R. Davis, called Guzman “one of society's most vicious, ruthless and powerful individuals."

Commission Executive Vice President Arthur Bilek added: "Because of the direct link between the violence of the street gangs and the narcotics business, it can be said that Guzman's fingerprints are on the guns used in many of the shootings plaguing Chicago today.”

Let me add another possible motive for finding a new Public Enemy No. 1. Chicago’s murder rates are skyrocketing. Some 535 people were killed there last year, up sharply from 2011’s 433 murders. So far, 2013 is shaping up as bloody as 2012. According to this story, Chicago is a deadlier place now than during Al Capone’s gangland era.

Perhaps crime fighters need an external enemy to blame the spate of murders on rather than draw attention to their flawed strategy in slowing down the homicide rate.


Violence in Mexico, and the U.S. role

This is a very short video that attempts to explain the levels of violence in Mexico, its impact on the citizenry and the U.S. role in the violence. It notes that despite the high level of deaths in Mexico, the flow of narcotics northward hasn't noticeably declined. I spotted this from a tweet by Univision, the Spanish language broadcaster, that led me to this website, but don't know anything else about the makers of the video, which whether you agree or not is quite well done.


Mexico's new urban 'war correspondents'

Can one remain informed about a global hotspot even when traditional news media shy away from coverage? It’s a compelling question.

In fact, Twitter users in a number of Mexican cities serve as de facto urban war correspondents, according to a report by Microsoft Research.

“People often report, confirm, comment on, and disseminate information and alerts about the violence, typically as it unfolds. For example, the following Twitter message reports the time and location of blasts, along with a list of hashtags or keywords that both label and enable discovery of shared information resources:

“There are reports of blasts on Venustiano Carranza Avenue #Shooting #RiskMty #MtyFollow.”

The report notes that organized crime has threatened news media in various areas of the country, choking off the flow of information even as vulnerable citizens need trustworthy and timely information more than ever.

"Like other armed conflicts, the Mexican Drug War is also a conflict over the control of information," the report says.

So some citizens, acting partially from altruistic motives, as serving as social media “curators,” for lack of a better term, spending up to 15 hours a day posting and reposting information relevant on Twitter, often about roadblocks, gunfights and armed patrols. Through a winnowing process based on their past credibility, some of these Twitter users have huge followings. Some say they feel like they are part of a citizen network on public safety.

“Together, four curators in Monterrey have 115,678 followers, almost three times the followers of the governor @RodrigoMedina (40,822) and almost as many as the most popular news media organization @Telediario (139,919).”

The report quotes one Twitter user with a large following in Monterrey, “Claudia,” as saying: “It’s like if I was a news correspondent on social networks of the war we are living.”

To read the full report, click here, then click on the hyperlink for "The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare."



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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