Mexican Drug Cartels: You Want Silver or Lead?

‘’For years, we have lived under the reign of the machine gun,’’ Norma Corona Sapién, director of the Human Rights Commission of Sinaloa, told the New York Times in an April 15, 1989 article. “The narcos thought they had protection and could act with impunity, so that’s what they did, kidnapping and raping young girls, getting into drunken fights on the street, killing each other and generally acting as if they owned the city.’’

The Godfather’s reign over Sinaloa was at its strongest from 1981 to 1986, during the administration of Antonio Toledo. American officials alleged that the drug lord had spent time as the governor’s house guest, an accusation that Toledo denied, despite extant photos of the two posing together at a wedding party. The governor also said that he was “unaware of any outstanding arrest warrants’’ against Félix, though no fewer than six warrants had been in effect since 1981.

“When the new administration took over in 1987, we found some police commanders to be [narco-traffickers],’’ Eduardo Aispuro, a spokesman for the State Judicial Police, said in the aforementioned New York Times story.”It was the most incredible and intolerable thing to find the police body to be completely infiltrated by narcos.’’

Félix continued to operate as one of Mexico’s leading drug czars from jail, where he conducted business via mobile phone from his prison apartment above the warden’s office, the space adorned with a large framed photograph of the drug lord with Pope John Paul II.

“It’s not clear why Angel Félix finally went down,” says University of San Diego professor and director of the Trans-Border Institute David Shirk in a phone interview. “I think someone had to betray his trust, and it looks from the fact pattern after his arrest that it may have been Palma.”

The two had had a falling out shortly after Félix’s arrest. From jail, Félix hired a Venezuelan man to seduce Palma’s wife, take her to Venezuela, decapitate her, and send her head back to Palma in Mexico. Palma’s two children were also killed.

In 1992, Félix was transferred to a maximum-security facility, La Palma, 50 miles west of Mexico City. At that point, Félix’s trafficking routes were divided among four main factions: the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juárez, and Tijuana cartels.

“We see a splintering from the first generation, which was relatively homogenous, to a second generation, where a new distribution map is drawn,” says Shirk. “Whether that was a deliberate act by Félix or whether those groups got together to split up territory is something that is debated by drug-trafficking experts.”

The Sinaloa cartel was headed by former lieutenants Héctor “El Güero” Palma, Adrián Gómez, and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who controlled the states of Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Michoacán. The Tijuana-Mexicali corridor was originally given to Javier Caro, who soon fled the country and was arrested in Canada. The territory was quickly usurped by Jesús “El Chuy” Labra and five of Félix’s nephews, the Arellano Félix brothers.

Benjamín and Ramón Arellano had proven themselves adept criminals, smuggling clothing and consumer electronics across the border for many years. When they inherited their uncle’s drug-trafficking business, they already had their roles worked out. Labra acted as mentor to the Arellano brothers and effectively ran the group, which specialized in selling protection to business and political figures. Benjamín was the brains of the operation, governing the strategic aspects of the business. Ramón, 11 years younger, was the enforcer — a role that he is said to have taken joy in. The Arellano Félix organization’s savage reputation is largely credited to Ramón’s infamous sadistic flair.

“Wherever there is danger, that’s where you’ll find Ramón,” a former narco-junior, Alejandro Hodoyán, told Mexican narcotics agents in 1996 in an interview later run by the Mexican magazine Proceso. “In 1989 or ’90, we were at a Tijuana corner without anything to do and he told us, ‘Let’s go kill someone. Who has a score to settle?’ Cars would pass and he’d ask us who we knew. The person we pointed out would appear dead within a week.”

Hodoyán was arrested in Tijuana and allegedly tortured for months by a military unit headed by General Gutiérrez for information about the Arellano Félix organization. Gutiérrez was later discovered to be on the payroll of the rival Sinaloa cartel.

“In my 17 years in this job, I’ve never seen a more violent group,” said DEA officer Don Thornhill in a March 15, 2002 U.K. Guardian article. “They would kill people who didn’t cooperate. They would kill people who didn’t pay a fee or a toll [for moving drugs through their territory]. They would kill people who were not necessarily disloyal to them. They killed them to set an example.”

Of the 11 children of Francisco Arellano and Alicia Félix (seven brothers and four sisters), five are known to have played a major role in the Arellano Félix organization. Along with Benjamín and Ramón were Eduardo, Javier, and the oldest Arellano brother, Francisco, who forged important political and police alliances out of his Mazatlán discotheque, Frankie O’s. Little is known about the two remaining Arellano brothers, Carlos and Luis, who, though believed to be involved with logistics and laundering for the family cartel, never made it onto U.S. authorities’ wanted lists.

Other key members of the early Tijuana cartel were Ismael “El Mayel” Higuera (chief operations officer, money launderer, and boss in Ensenada, who carried a special knife for his signature mutilations), his younger brother Gilberto (overseer of the Mexicali side of operations), and Arturo “El Kitty” Páez (chief recruiter for violent narco-juniors from middle-class Tijuana and San Diego families). These narco-juniors were responsible for surveillance, trafficking product, and settling accounts with traffickers who used the Mexicali-Tijuana corridor without paying the transit tax.

“Some of those juniors went to school here in the United States, as the cross-border influence,” said Heidi Landgraff, a group supervisor for a San Diego DEA unit, in a PBS interview. “Some spoke English well. They dressed very nicely. They are not tattooed individuals like someone in a gang. So they could be sitting next to you in a restaurant, and you wouldn’t know that.”

Comments

Oh man, I don't even know where to begin picking this apart. Chad, you've missed what I think are about four or five angles on this that would've been much more engaging. For example, you open with some statement about the "Tijuana cartel". There isn't one.

In many examples where one wants to discover the source of something illicit, where the cause is otherwise unknown, they say one must "follow the money". While that might be true even in this case, a better way to find where there is no real control by any one source when it comes to smuggling in Mexico, is to follow the body count. Over twenty billion dollars worth of drugs per year (probably much more, I'm quoting the U.S. source here) cross the border. Where control of that is taken away, a vacuum develops immediately. Where no cartel is present, the vacuum is fought over by smaller factions.

I have no idea if you read Spanish, but I recommend looking into violence in Reynosa, Juarez, and Monterrey. These are locations that have historically been controlled by one cartel - like Tijuana once was - and are now involved in turf wars. The idea that the Sinaloa cartel has a strong hold on anything is ridiculous. If it did, then Los Zetas would still be working for them. If it did, Mexico would not be seeing these turf battles.

These so called experts, could no be more wrong, as in the options to deal with the problem.

First - Astorga, the so called expert, it is not that they are hard to buy them now, the Plata or Plomo (which literally translate is Silver or Led, Plata ought to be interpreted as another way to say "Money", therefore is: Pay up or Led. That formula is a lot cheaper.

There will never be a solution to the problem, unless you will have a total extermination of everyone involved, at any price, at any cost. It has to be a Dictatorship. A shoot and kill first, and then ask questions if any survivors left alive. That is how they do it. That is why they are so successful.

Even the closest solution mentioned, which will be a pact, can not be possible. These criminals multiply, the growth is compounded, and they do value a dog, a cat, even roach life, than that of a Human being, So is Mexico makes a pact with them, the ones below will not sit still. They will say that is not my pact!

Mexico is done. The Southwestern states of the U.S. are next, if not dealt with an iron fist.

I was anticipating some critical feedback from you, Refried! I agree that the notion of a Tijuana cartel does not mean as much as it did five or ten years ago, and I stressed the current state of disarray under "The New Breed" heading. I do read Spanish and will check out the suggested reading. Thanks for the input!

DonCarlos, yes, the phrase basically means take money or a bullet. The extermination approach which you are vouching for seems to be more or less the policy instated by Calderon in 2006. Nearly 25,000 people (soldiers, police, thugs, and civilians) have died in drug-related violence since. And while a stimulating thought, I don't see how Astorga's work would benefit anybody with the "plata o plomo" ethic. Thanks for reading!

-Chad

Chad,

It's a very difficult thing to keep on top of. There is no shortage of newspapers in Mexico; unlike in the U.S., they seem to be thriving here. The problem is that you track these stories all over the place, but there's rarely any follow-up. You'll read about, say, a gun battle that leaves a certain number dead and even though the press won't publish the note that was left behind (mostly because the authorities wont release the content), the press might even speculate on which factions were battling. But there's never any follow-up, except when they capture a high-profile cartel member. While the press is busy with that person, there is a power grab going on and no one pays attention to it.

Sidenote: Small amounts of drugs have already been decriminalized in Mexico.

So far as the solutions, there is one glaring aspect that is mostly missed by anyone writing on drug smuggling in Mexico: Drugs are being smuggled into the U.S. Seems to me that the big ol' elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is that the U.S. fails to stop people from smuggling drugs into the U.S. This means one of two things: Either the possibility exists for terrorists to smuggle nuclear bombs into the U.S. because the U.S. cannot control the situation, or the U.S. is allowing over twenty billion dollars each year of drugs to be smuggled in because - for whatever reason one wishes to consider - they simply permit it.

That's what scares me, as an expat. For the record (hopefully qualifying that my opinion isn't based on ideology), I believe that all drugs should be legalized. That would certainly solve this particular problem.

And to balance out any perceived criticisms, your research was excellent and presented very well.

This was a well-researched and interesting read. Regrettably, journalists south of the border are censored by the lawless. Not that we don't have censorship in the U.S., we definitely do. Unfortunately, on the U.S. side we take journalism for granted. What I would suggest for a future effort is to examine the powder trade (cocaine, crystal meth) and it's effects on those who use and used. Interviews with the families friends, employers, law enforcement and social service agencies who have had to endure those who use and abuse "the powders" may be informative and instructive. While some will fight tooth(less) and nail to protect their buzz, it would be interesting to examine just what each of the powders are cut with so people can decide for themselves if the buzz is really worth the negatives for one and all. Ruthless and greedy types in all levels of the powder supply chain make their cuts and could care less about what the end user puts in their body. The buzz is not worth the negatives that come after the sniff. We need to think about it.

As always, a great read. I read every issue of The Reader or it sits in a pile until I get to it!

Blogdelnarco is often a tool of the smugglers, they receive a lot of video from them. Is it useful? Perhaps, in that you won't see the reality of this from most other sources. Curiously, some good neutral sources in Mexico that existed on Facebook have been suspended, without explanation. It is widely believed that the Mexican government is responsible, that in attempting to limit the information available to the smugglers is also accomplished through social networking control.

I would expect that blogdenarco will also be shut down at some point, if the videos from the narcos themselves continue to appear. Whatever anonymity this blogger ostensibly has, well, one would be surprised at the resources here.

But the main thing to take note of, is that the locations of the blog entries are not centered on one particular cartel or specifically in one area, although there is often repetition in the locations.

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