Mexican Drug Cartels: You Want Silver or Lead?

The Arellano Félix organization’s reputation is credited to Ramón’s sadistic flair.

The Tijuana cartel as we know it today has its roots in the Mexican states of Sinaloa on the southeast side of the Gulf of California and Jalisco in central Mexico. A former Mexican Judicial Federal Police officer and bodyguard to Sinaloan governor Leopoldo Sánchez, Miguel Félix was among the first Mexican drug lords to make connections with Colombian cartels in the mid-’70s thanks to his Honduran liaison Juan Matta. The U.S. government’s Operation Hat Tricks succeeded in cutting off Colombia’s cocaine supply route to south Florida in the mid-1980s, resulting in the fortification of relationships between Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cartels and Mexican trafficking organizations.

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.

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.

Also known as El Padrino, or “The Godfather,” Félix learned the ins of the drug trade from Pedro Avilés, who in the early 1970s dominated the territory from Chihuahua to Sinaloa. According to the DEA, Félix became the number-one cocaine trafficker in Mexico starting in the mid-’70s, thanks in part to the political and business connections facilitated by ex-Governor Sánchez. In 1976, an arrest order was issued for Félix in Tijuana for heroin and cocaine trafficking, but nothing further was done. According to the DEA, Félix was protected by an important narcotics official.

After Avilés was shot by federal police in September 1978, Félix formed the Guadalajara cartel with seasoned capos Rafael “El Número Uno” Caro and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca. All three had learned the drug business in Sinaloa, a state with a history of opium and marijuana production dating back to the 1920s. They relocated to Guadalajara in order to elude 10,000 Mexican soldiers roaming the hills and multiple American aircraft that, under the auspices of Operation Condor, sprayed the crop-destroying herbicide paraquat in the mountains of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.

At the peak of their operation in the early to mid-’80s, the Guadalajara cartel was believed by American officials to have orchestrated the smuggling of up to two tons of cocaine a month into the United States to feed what historian Héctor Aguilar termed “the insatiable North American nose.” Félix laundered his immense income, upwards of $30 million a month, in part by investing in tourism projects in Hermosillo and Puerto Vallarta.

The centralized political structure at the time, under the singular rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), invited the opportunity for corruption of high-level government officials. Drug-trafficking organizations fostered strong ties in particular with the Federal Security Directorate, which went largely unchecked in its domestic security operations until it was dismantled in 1985.

In November 1984, the Mexican Federal Police raided Caro’s property in El Búfalo, Chihuahua, and destroyed over 10,000 tons of marijuana, valued at nearly $2 billion. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena headed the investigation, called Operation Godfather, a victory that he would pay for with his life a few months later. Thirty-seven-year-old Camarena, a Calexico, California native, and his pilot Alfredo Zavala were kidnapped by five armed men in broad daylight on the streets of Guadalajara on February 7, 1985, subsequently tortured for information about DEA operations, and then bludgeoned to death and buried in shallow graves 70 miles south of the city.

The incident effectively elevated narcotics smuggling from a law-enforcement issue to a matter of national security and spurred Calexico residents to erect signs on the highway reading, “Warning: Not Safe To Travel To Guadalajara, Mexico.” Parent-teacher organization members in California, Illinois, and Virginia wore red ribbons as a symbol of intolerance toward drug use, and in 1988 Congress announced the first National Red Ribbon Week, chaired by Nancy Reagan.

“Kiki’s killing symbolized corruption at its worst in Mexico,” said retired DEA special agent Phil Jordan. “We know why Kiki was taken from us — because the [Mexican] government was working in complicity with the godfathers of the drug trade…”

Caro fled Guadalajara two days after the kidnapping with his girlfriend and associates. Armando Pavón, the commander of the Mexican Federal Police heading the Camarena investigation, captured Caro shortly thereafter but allowed him to flee to Costa Rica, presumably on a bribe. The U.S. government launched an exhaustive investigation into Camarena’s murder. The lack of cooperation from the Mexican government led Commissioner of Customs William von Raab to order a six-day lockdown on the border. Camarena’s body was found within a week of the border closing.

Owing to the difficulty of extraditing Mexican citizens at the time, the DEA had two suspects secretly kidnapped and taken into the U.S. They were Humberto Álvarez, a physician who allegedly prolonged Camarena’s life so the torture could continue, and Javier Vásquez. Despite stern disapproval from the Mexican government, who felt their sovereignty was being violated (the president went so far as to threaten a halt to cooperation in antidrug efforts), Álvarez was tried and acquitted in United States District Court in Los Angeles. After a two-month trial, Vásquez was convicted of beating to death two tourists who accidentally entered a restaurant where cartel leaders were celebrating a marriage. The tourists were allegedly mistaken for DEA agents. Three other suspects — Honduran drug lord Juan Matta, Juan Bernabé, and Rubén Zuno — were found guilty of Camarena’s kidnapping.

Caro was arrested in Costa Rica on April 4, 1985, and extradited to Mexico City to be tried for the Camarena murder. Fonseca was captured by the Mexican Army at his villa in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, a few days later. Fonseca did not confess to participating in the abduction of Camarena and even expressed outrage at the torture of the DEA agent. Regardless, both were sentenced to 40 years for drug trafficking and the murder of Camarena and Zavala. It was estimated that Caro’s fortune was in excess of U.S. $650 million at the time of his capture.

Félix continued to reign as the premier kingpin of Mexico until President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, seeking to fortify relations with the U.S. government, issued the order for Félix’s arrest for complicity in the murder of agent Camarena. On April 8, 1989, the notorious capo was taken into custody by a 12-man police task force fronted by federal police commander Guillermo González. Félix offered the men $5 million in exchange for his freedom, to no avail. Hours after his arrest, the entire Culiacán police force (about 300 men) was rounded up for interrogation about possible connection to Félix. About 90 deserted in the days following. Félix, whom Attorney General Enrique Alvarez del Castillo described as the “number-one narcotics trafficker in Mexico,’’ was charged with drug trafficking, bribery, and illegal possession of weapons and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

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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!



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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