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Killings by Mexican Marines Underscore Lack of Oversight

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Recent data shows that Mexican marines have become far more lethal in clashes with armed gangs, raising concerns of accountability at a time when Mexico prepares to send a new National Guard unit into the streets. During the past 12 years, Mexican marines have engaged in at least 400 battles with allegedly armed civilians, killing over 400 people, according to data obtained by Animal Politico.  All but one of the deaths came within the last seven years, the data from the Navy Secretariat (Secretaria de Marina Armada – Semar) shows. Marines have also severely increased their use of deadly force, with the ratio of deaths to injuries becoming alarmingly lopsided. Between 2007 and 2011, about 200 civilians were injured in these clashes and only one person was killed. This trend drastically shifted between 2012 and 2019, when the force racked up 445 civilian deaths. By comparison, only 19 people were injured in such clashes.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profile

The number of clashes involving Mexican marines also leapt up in 2010 and has since remained at an average of between 30 to 60 annually.

InSight Crime Analysis

This data about the increased use of deadly force by marines raises serious questions about the training and oversight of such forces, as Mexico nears the creation of a new National Guard unit to combat rising crime and violence. The military has long remained key to Mexico’s internal security strategy. As far back as 2006, Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón announced that his administration was deploying thousands of federal troops to take on crime in his home state of Michoacán. Many allegations of torture, excessive use of force, extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations followed the move.

SEE ALSO: Is Mexico’s New National Guard Just Another Uniform?

The latest allegations of abuse include a 2018 report that Marines improperly used a submachine gun, leading to the death of three civilians in Nuevo Laredo. Meanwhile, in the same year and city, it was reported that at least 33 people were forcefully disappeared. Some of the disappearances have been linked to the Mexican Navy. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had expressed dismay at Mexico’s militarization while on the campaign trial before reversing that position in office and pushing for the creation of the National Guard. Before Congress voted on the creation of the new unit, people alleging serious human rights violations by members of the Mexican Army and the Marines called on lawmakers not to do so. And a recent report by Amnesty International warned that the armed forces are “a trigger and direct case of increased violence in the municipalities” where they are deployed. While the new force is supposed to have more of a civilian character, it is not a clean break from the militarized approach of the past 12 years. The National Guard will initially be manned by Mexican military and federal police, and though it operates under the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it may be headed by a military officer. The quasi-military unit will be deployed throughout the country. Madeleine Penman, a regional researcher for Amnesty International in Mexico City, told InSight Crime that Mexico has shown itself to be unable to investigate and police its military, especially given the “notoriously secretive nature of the armed forces.” Mexico’s civilian justice system investigates abuses by the armed forces, but prosecutors have long faced obstruction by military officials, who delay investigations, falsify or tamper with evidence, and withhold testimony. From 2012 to 2016, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office launched 505 criminal investigations into alleged crimes committed by soldiers against civilians, according to a 2017 report by the the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)  Prosecutors secured just 16 convictions. “The lack of independent control over the actions of the armed forces,” Penman said, “is of grave concern.”

Mexican Officials Extort Asylum Seekers on Way to USA

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Fresh reports that Mexican immigration officials extort asylum seekers at the US border adds to scores of stories of abuse at the hands of crime groups, illustrating how vulnerable people are while taking one of the most dangerous journeys in the world. According to a series of testimonies published by Vice, Mexican immigration officials demanded as much as $3,500 to allow migrants to stay at the border and wait for a chance to seek asylum in the USA. Thousands of asylum seekers from countries including Venezuela and Cuba looking to enter the USA have been forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border after the administration of President Donald Trump has limited the number of people who can be processed on any given day. Human rights groups have said this process, called metering, exposes migrants to extortion and even kidnapping by criminal groups. In February, Telemundo published another series of testimonies by asylum seekers held in an immigration center in the border city of Reynosa who said police were demanding $3,500 to release them.

SEE ALSO: How and Where Organized Crime Preys on Migrants in Mexico

Mexican migration officials have also been accused of stopping buses entering Reynosa and demanding that migrants provide a code given to them by so-called “coyotes” (human smugglers) or other local officials before they allow them to continue their journey. Irineo Mújica, the director of People Without Borders (Pueblo sin Fronteras), an organization that assists migrants moving through Mexico, said that people without a code can be charged anything between 500 and 2,000 Mexican pesos (around $25 and $105). Mújica’s accusations come after gunmen intercepted a bus in San Fernando, a city in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, that connects to Reynosa and kidnapped 22 migrants. The day after the Vice report was published, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his administration was investigating corruption by customs and immigration agents. “The government is full of corrupt practices, it has been for a long time. But we are cleaning it, we will end corruption,” López Obrador said at a press conference.

InSight Crime Analysis

Extortion of migrants by Mexican immigration officials and other criminal groups has been common for some time, but the practice may be increasing as US policies force migrants to stay longer on the Mexican side of the border. Both Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración – INM) and various local and federal police forces have long been linked to migrant kidnapping and extortion. The promise made by López Obrador at a recent press conference to rid the system of corruption follows some steps taken by the INM when in 2016, it dismissed 2,500 agents.

SEE ALSO: Trump’s Border Policies Strengthen Organized Crime. Here’s How

However, corruption within Mexico’s public services is endemic and ensuring migrants crossing Mexico are safe will be a titanic challenge. Criminal organizations large and small are known to control the migrant trail across Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous journeys on earth. Gangs prey on migrants through small-scale crimes like robbery, extortion, and assault. More sophisticated organized criminal groups like the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas charge taxes for migrants to pass while also running their own migrant kidnapping or smuggling rings. The Trump administration’s pressure on Mexico to detain and deport migrants and asylum seekers is making things even more complicated. When borders close, crime organizations win as the number of potential victims increases. With immigration flows unlikely to decline, the situation will continue to be desperate for some of the most vulnerable people in the region.

Mexico’s Eternal Union Boss May Finally Fall

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Carlos Romero Deschamps, the longtime boss of the Mexican Oil Workers’ Union, is facing mounting corruption allegations, which could spell the end of one of the country’s most powerful political operatives. Oil workers say Romero Deschamps has not been seen since charges were filed against him at the Attorney General’s organized crime unit (SEIDO), Sin Embargo reported. He was accused by workers last month of involvement in oil theft, a criminal economy in Mexico that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to wipe out. The newest charges are the latest against the union boss, who was previously accused of embezzling up to $150 million in union funds to finance political campaigns for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI). He managed to escape arrest, however, after a court granted an injunction barring his detention on any grounds. In the more than two decades that he has run the shop, Romero Deschamps and his family have accumulated vast wealth and flaunted a lavish lifestyle. Romero Deschamps is reported as owning luxury properties in Miami and Acapulco, a $3 million yacht, and a collection of watches worth in excess of $200,000. His son has been seen driving a golden Ferrari sports car in Monaco, and his daughter regularly shows off her wealth on social media. But the tide has gradually turned against Romero Deschamps with the election of López Obrador, who has essentially washed his hands of the union boss. As Mexico’s national oil company, Pemex, prepares to celebrate its 81st anniversary this week, workers have reported seeing trucks carrying furniture and archives out of their headquarters. Speculation is mounting that Romero Deschamps is cleaning house, removing any incriminating materials.

InSight Crime Analysis

Romero Deschamps’ legacy of corruption is particularly egregious even for Mexico, where embezzlement and bribery are rampant in state institutions. Comparable to Boss Tweed in 1860s New York, he has remained untouchable through a carefully built network of political connections, electoral financing and glad-handing. Romero Deschamps was first elected as the head of the Oil Workers’ Union in 1993. Taking control of the country’s unions was crucial for PRI, which ruled Mexico uninterrupted from 1929 to 2000 and again from 2012 to 2018. Union leaders kept worker unrest to a minimum even in moments of public outcry. During the mandate of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Romero Deschamps was a vocal supporter of energy reform, which privatized Mexico’s oil and gas industry and allowed for foreign investment. This reform outraged Pemex’s workers. He was also allegedly behind “Pemexgate,” the disappearance of 500 million pesos in union funds in 2000, which ended up in the campaign coffers of unsuccessful PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa. His political loyalty to the PRI has been well rewarded. Romero Deschamps enjoyed two terms as a senator and three as a federal deputy without ever having to run for election. He was re-elected for a fourth consecutive team as union leader in December 2017, which would keep him in power until 2024. Although he has faced rebellion from within his union before, it appears Romero Deschamps’ time in power may soon come to an end. Some of the charges brought against him were by his own union members. The union boss also usually has a front-row seat at Pemex celebrations and events, but it was reported that López Obrador would not include him in this week’s anniversary celebrations. Amid these mounting charges, he may choose to step aside. Though Boss Tweed ultimately died of pneumonia in jail, Romero Deschamps may avoid that fate. Mexico’s government has said it will not carry out a “witch hunt” within Pemex, making prosecution of the union boss an unsure bet.

Is Mexico’s New National Guard Just Another Uniform?

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Mexico’s new National Guard is another step closer to taking up arms, but the logic behind the agency’s creation and its potential for improving the nation’s security remain uncertain. On March 13, the state legislature of Yucatán approved a constitutional reform creating the National Guard, one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature security policies. With that vote, each of the 32 states has approved the new police force, making its creation all but certain. These votes follow the February passage of legislation in both houses of Congress that established the legal basis for the 60,000-member National Guard. The López Obrador administration has allocated $767 million to fund the National Guard’s first year of operations, and it is proceeding with plans to build 87 bases for the new service.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profile

The basic idea behind the creation of the National Guard is to establish an alternative to the military in the fight against organized crime in Mexico. The role of the force also emphasizes citizen security. But the new force is not a clean break from the militarized approach of the past 12 years. The National Guard will initially be populated by veterans of the Mexican military and federal police, and though it operates under the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it may be headed by a military officer. The National Guard is also coordinating closely with the army as it builds capacity. Its personnel will initially occupy army barracks as the government builds separate infrastructure. The army is also aiding in the National Guard’s recruitment efforts, and the army has justified a buildup of military hardware on the basis that it will be needed to support the new National Guard.

InSight Crime Analysis

The National Guard’s creation has sparked two related critiques within Mexico. The first is that the National Guard is a betrayal of López Obrador’s promises to deescalate the war on drugs. A man who campaigned on the slogan of “hugs not bullets” and who ridiculed the idea of “fighting fire with fire” has now made permanent the participation of a quasi-military body in domestic security. Critics also warn that the staffing of the new force with former soldiers means that it will not be immune to the abuses characterizing military deployments, such as those seen in a scandal like the Tlatlaya massacre.

SEE ALSO: What is Behind AMLO’s Security Policy U-Turn in Mexico

Other security policies of López Obrador also stray from true security reform. For instance, Mexico’s Congress recently voted to increase the number of crimes for which people can be held in pre-trial detention. This controversial practice is already responsible for nearly half of the nation’s prison population, and the new law promises to further boost the number of Mexicans behind bars. Meanwhile, López Obrador’s initial budget reduces spending on the prison system by 26 percent, despite widespread sentiment that the poor state of the nation’s penitentiaries spurs crime. The second major criticism is that there is nothing sufficiently different about the National Guard to justify the effort and expense of creating this new agency. Past presidential administrations, promising to revolutionize the fight against organization crime, have enacted similar sweeping institutional reforms of federal police bodies. Vicente Fox created the Federal Investigative Agency, which was to be the FBI of Mexico. Enrique Peña Nieto created the ill-defined gendarmerie. None of these forces had an appreciable impact on security. In fairness, this is largely because the new forces are often radically reshaped or eliminated once a new administration takes office. López Obrador’s own words also do little to clarify the role of the new force. He recently compared the National Guard to the blue-helmeted peacekeepers of the UN. Similarly, in a November interview shortly after the new agency was announced, he said that the National Guard was meant to “guarantee peace,” though he did not describe how it would do so. In December, amid growing criticism, he sounded similar notes: “We are proposing…the National Guard because we want to guarantee peace and tranquility, that there be no violence.” At no point in his justifications has he given insights on how exactly the new force will contribute to a safer and more peaceful Mexico. Yet the nation finds itself on the precipice of another costly institutional reform, with the government asking voters to put its faith in another new uniform.

The End of the Big Cartels – Why There Won’t Be Another Chapo

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Earlier this month, a federal jury in New York convicted Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the former kingpin of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, on ten charges related to drug trafficking. El Chapo was stunned, his wife cried, and U.S. authorities crowed. For some, the verdict offered finality: “The reign of Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s crime and violence has come to an end,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. For others, vindication: “There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “Those people are wrong.”

*This article was originally published by Foreign Affairs and is reprinted with permission. See the original here

Some spoke of heroism: “Today’s verdict,” said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, “sends an unmistakable message to transnational criminals: You cannot hide, you are not beyond our reach, and we will find you and bring you to face justice.” Others expressed a sense of relief: “As was clear to the jury, Guzmán Loera’s massive, multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise was responsible for flooding the streets of the United States with hundreds of tons of cocaine as well as enormous quantities of other dangerous drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine,” according to acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

SEE ALSO: El Chapo News and Profile

These officials all offered variations on a popular drug war narrative: an all-controlling kingpin builds a criminal empire, leaving death and destruction in his wake. Law enforcement tracks, arrests, and incarcerates him—and, in the case of El Chapo, rearrests and reincarcerates him after he escapes—and then convicts him. The public embraces this story, watching it over and over, first as news on CNN and then as fiction on Netflix. It is simple and understandable, and it helps us sleep at night. It is also false. The obsession with El Chapo and his exploits, as well as those of his associates and his cartel, reflects an outdated view of the drug trade. The idea that this trade is dominated by vertically integrated organizations, each run by a single mastermind such as El Chapo, is a myth—and a dangerous one, in that it may undermine international efforts to slow drug trafficking and combat the violence of criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel.

The New Drug Trade

Take the case of fentanyl. The same day that El Chapo was sentenced, anywhere between 60 and 100 people in the United States likely died from overdosing on fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid made in China and often trafficked through Mexico by the country’s myriad criminal organizations. In 2018, fentanyl accounted for roughly 30,000 overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl was barely a blip in the U.S. drug market in 2013. Today, it is replacing heroin. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice told me recently that there are two major criminal groups—El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)—behind the surge in fentanyl. But a deeper look reveals a wide variety of American, Chinese, Dominican, Indian, and Mexican groups supplying the U.S. market, some that conduct almost all of their business online from within the United States. El Chapo and his vaunted Sinaloa Cartel are not responsible for this transformation. And as InSight Crime showed in a recent report on Mexico’s role in the fentanyl trade, published with support from the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, removing cartels and their kingpins will do little to slow this transformation.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Fentanyl

The reason is that the rise of synthetic drugs is changing the structure of the illegal drug market. Mexican cartels were built for trafficking drugs such as cocaine and heroin. These drugs, which are labor-intensive to produce and most profitable when trafficked at scale, tend to favor the emergence of large, centralized criminal syndicates that can coordinate vast transnational networks of production and distribution. Synthetics, by contrast, can be cheaply produced from precursor chemicals and are potent enough to be profitable even when produced on a small scale: one fentanyl analog, carfentanil, is roughly 100 times stronger than fentanyl, which is itself some 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. In our report, we liken the synthetic drug trade to the microchip industry, in which continued innovation allows for ever greater potency to be fit in ever smaller packages. Because fentanyl is so potent, it can move in small consignments. A large part of the fentanyl produced in China is sent directly to the United States through the mail. Even many precursor chemicals, also produced in China, go directly to the United States. According to numerous US officials and health experts we consulted, this direct-from-China trade may account for the bulk of the fentanyl in the US market. Once the drugs reach the United States, small traders peddle the drugs over the dark web, encrypted messaging services, or social media, cutting out the cartels entirely. Some fentanyl and fentanyl precursors do move through Mexico. But they go through many hands on their way to market. Mexico’s two main Pacific ports, Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo, service several masters, including various criminal groups that have deep contacts in Asia from their time producing other synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamine. The precursors make their way to laboratories in Sinaloa but also Mexico City and points north, such as Baja California, where they are used to make fentanyl that is then trafficked in bulk across the US border. There is also a possibility that some of the precursors may enter the United States, then cross to Mexico for production on the Mexican side of the border, as one recent case illustrated. There are, quite simply, a variety of organizations at work. An increasing amount of the fentanyl coming via Mexico, for example, is camouflaged as oxycodone and other prescription pills, since the sellers do not want the users to know they are taking the deadliest drug on the market. And although the global market for counterfeit pharmaceuticals is huge, it has never been the purview of groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel—it is more likely the domain of smaller organizations in border areas such as Tijuana, which service the wildly overpriced US market. Fentanyl, with its potency and its relative ease of manufacture and transport, offers an extreme example of the forces atomizing the drug trade, but markets for legacy drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine have also fragmented, in part because of the capture and prosecution of people such as El Chapo. But although security forces in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere have played a role in this atomization of the drug trade, arresting capos is different from dismantling criminal organizations.

Kingpin Without A Crown

Large criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are still powerful, and they still serve an important purpose in the drug trade. They assume a good portion of the risk of transporting drugs in bulk and selling them wholesale to smaller networks engaged in street-level distribution. In the case of fentanyl, for instance, Mexican cartels sell to Dominican groups that control much of the fentanyl and heroin market in the United States. Taking them down should be part of any counternarcotics strategy. But the days of the monolithic, hegemonic criminal groups with all-powerful leaders are over. For US policymakers, it may be overkill to direct the resources of six federal law enforcement agencies toward dismantling these groups, especially in the era of synthetic drugs. Dealing with illicit drugs requires a holistic approach dedicated to understanding the complexity of drug use and its ripple effects on everything from the rule of law to democracy. During the El Chapo trial, for instance, prosecutors and the judge spent significant energy suppressing testimony about the systemic failures of Mexican society—grinding poverty, endemic corruption, a fraudulent democracy—that enable large criminal groups to flourish and even penetrate the government institutions set up to combat them.

SEE ALSO: 4 Takeaways So Far From the US Trial Against El Chapo

Although some allegations, such as the claim that former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, bordered on the absurd, the excluded testimony highlighted problems in Mexican society that stretch far beyond the cartels and will certainly outlive them. El Chapo was a powerful and wealthy drug lord, and bringing him down was an undeniably important step in curtailing the reach of Mexico’s cartels. But burnishing his status as a kingpin perpetuates a false narrative that destroying him—and those like him—will solve the problems posed by the drug trade. In fact, convicting one drug lord is more akin to plucking a single bee from the hive.

Rare Public Apology Shines Light on Government Impunity in Mexico

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The Mexican government recently issued a public apology to the families of five young people who were forcibly disappeared in January 2016 in Veracruz. The apology, rare in a country that has historically deviated blame for similar incidents, once again highlights the historical levels of impunity within central institutions. In the public event, government officials recognized the failure and responsibility of the state in the handling of the disappearance of the five youths. Officials admitted that police officers kidnapped and then turned over the youths to members of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).

SEE ALSO: Paramilitary Group in Veracruz Police Carried Out Disappearances: Attorney General

Despite the apology, there is a hollow sentiment of accountability from the victims. In the three years that have passed since the incident occurred, investigations have led to the arrest of 21 suspects. However, not a single conviction has been seen and no senior Veracruz official has even been investigated. Newly elected governor, Cuitláhuac García, has launched an emergency plan to decrease the number of disappeared and requested help from international organizations to find those missing. According to multiple NGOs, more than 5,000 people have disappeared in Veracruz over the past decade.

InSight Crime Analysis

In the past two decades, cartel violence has left more than 40,000 people missing, with approximately 26,000 unidentified corpses and over 1,100 mass graves. But impunity has reigned throughout the country and investigations have fallen short of bringing justice to the victims and their families. There are strong similarities between this incident and the most famous such disappearance in recent years, that of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014. The case, which has become a symbol of Mexico’s corruption and impunity, has yet to provide any convictions.

SEE ALSO: UN Points to Abuses, Cover Up in Mexico’s Ayotzinapa Investigation

Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has vowed to re-open the controversial investigation by implementing a truth and justice commission, something that was resisted by the previous administration. López Obrador’s proposal aims to clarify this type of human rights crime in which former governments were involved. Some see the unprecedented apology by government officials in Veracruz as a sign of a possible new era of accountability in Mexico. However, others remain skeptical of false promises and empty apologies. The families of the five youths disappeared are now asking for justice and for those responsible to be convicted for the crimes committed, something that has historically been challenging in Mexico. The ALMO administration has the tough task to regain much needed public trust between central institutions and the Mexican population. In order to do so, cases such as this one need to result in convictions. If not, the recent apology will simply fall flat.

US Mailing System Key to Future Fentanyl Trafficking Prevention

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Authorities in the United States and Mexico are working together to combat criminal groups capitalizing on growing demand for the deadly and highly lucrative synthetic opioid fentanyl, but the US mailing system is quickly emerging as the key ingredient in that fight. Ports of entry along the southwest border of the United States and the US mailing system are two of the most significant fentanyl trafficking routes, according to Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Brian McKnight of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Chicago. “With fentanyl, they’re [traffickers] getting it from China down into Mexico, and then converting and packaging it up into the United States,” SAC McKnight told InSight Crime. “They [Mexican drug trafficking groups] had the [methamphetamine] labs already set up, and now they’re in the fentanyl business.” But if pure powdered fentanyl, fentanyl pills or fentanyl precursors are not sent to Mexico for criminal groups there to then traffic into the United States, the drugs are mailed directly to the North American country often using the United States Postal Service (USPS). Drug seizures by USPS’ Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) have been on the rise since 2014. The service’s narcotics program seized more than 18 metric tons of illicit drugs during 2017, according to a September 2018 Inspector General report on the use of USPS for drug distribution. Between 2017 and 2018, USPS saw a 1,000 percent increase in international parcel seizures and a 750 percent increase in domestic parcel seizures related to opioids, including fentanyl, in part due to increased collaboration between state and federal law enforcement agencies and better investigative techniques, according to comments from USPS Spokeswoman Kim Frum reported by the Washington Post. The uptick in seizures coincides with criminal groups in Latin America adapting to meet the growing demand in the United States for synthetic drugs and opioids like fentanyl. Opioids — including prescription drugs like oxycodone, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and the illegal drug heroin — were largely responsible for the record 70,237 overdose deaths* recorded in the country in 2017 — a nearly 10 percent increase from 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

InSight Crime Analysis

As authorities work to combat the opioid crisis that is ravaging American cities across the United States, addressing security flaws in the US mailing system is going to be critical if they are to prevent the growing number of drug overdose deaths caused by powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl. “One of the most significant challenges in combating fentanyl trafficking into the United States is the lack of data that authorities have on what’s coming in,” according to Mario Moreno, a former press secretary for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Obama and Trump administrations and a researcher at the University of Chicago. There are a variety of reasons as to why traffickers choose USPS over express consignment handlers like the United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx. Unlike USPS, these handlers require advanced electronic data (AED), such as the name and location of the sender, as well as information on what’s inside the package. What’s more, USPS handles far more packages than express consignment handlers do, making it extremely difficult to screen for drugs and other contraband. This also creates logistical challenges regarding how USPS coordinates with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to interdict. That said, US officials are working to improve some of these issues. The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act of 2017 aims to increase the amount of advanced electronic data collected by USPS, primarily from large volume foreign posts, such as in China. The USPS in the last three years has gone from receiving “almost no AED on inbound shipments” to receiving about 40 percent, according to USPS Chief Inspector Guy Cottrell. “This merits more thought and action in partnership with countries like China, but not at the exception of maintaining a relationship with Mexico,” according to Moreno, who says Mexico will continue to be a “critical player” in fentanyl trafficking prevention for the foreseeable future.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl

In addition, CBP agents are turning to technology to better identify illicit drugs hidden in parcels. In March 2018, for example, CBP deployed a new “handheld elemental isotope analysis tool” known as the Gemini, which is able to “sample and identify over 14,000 chemical substances.” “We’ve certainly been focused on interdicting opioids,” US Customs Chicago Port Director Matthew Davies told Fox News in June of this year. “We’ve increased staffing, we have new technology in place, we’ve trained our K9s to detect fentanyl, so we’re certainly on the frontlines of it here.” However, fentanyl and synthetic opioids have a very low bar of entry, and represent a shift in drug trafficking that’s making the trade more democratic, according to Moreno. This specific drug trade is now open to more players who can participate using the Internet and mailing system, posing new challenges for authorities. Mexican drug trafficking organizations soon may no longer have the same sway that they’ve had in the past over the movement, distribution and trafficking of such drugs. Indeed, in February of this year US authorities convicted a lone trafficker who for nearly a year used his apartment outfitted with a pill press, cutting agents and packing materials to ship fentanyl and other synthetic opioids using the US and Canadian mailing systems to customers that purchased the drugs through an encrypted and anonymous part of the Internet known as the dark web. *This article was updated to reflect the most current figures on US drug overdose deaths.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s ‘El Mayo,’ Mexico’s Last True Capo

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At the start of the fourth month of Mexico’s new government, two feared capos have emerged as the new kings of drug trafficking: the Sinaloa Cartel’s Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” and the leader of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho.” After the fall of the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.” El Mayo established himself at the top of the cartel’s leadership. However, other versions claim El Mayo has always been the group’s true leader. The evidence so far suggests that he will hold this place for the foreseeable future, at least during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador while he seems untouchable and it’s necessary to reestablish order among the country’s criminal groups. For his part, El Mencho has positioned himself as the head of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). He wields control in 10 states and he appears untouchable within the organization he founded in 2008, which was initially linked to the Sinaloa Cartel before the two groups parted ways.

*This article was originally published by Sin Embargo. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

Recently, various “narcomantas,” or banners displaying threatening messages, appeared in the coastal state of Sinaloa that were attributed to El Mayo. In one of them, the message was very clear, a warning to more violent cartels: “Either line up or I’ll line you up.” The eloquent message indicates that El Mayo will be a very powerful man during the government of López Obrador. He is a necessary capo for the government due to the control he wields nationally and internationally over organized crime dynamics. He also has wide influence throughout Latin America, where the Sinaloa Cartel has imposed its reach. El Mayo is the last powerful boss of the old guard. All the others have either died or are in prison. Until 1997, the master of drug trafficking was Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias the “Lord of the Skies,” the head of the once powerful Juárez Cartel that was founded by Pablo Acosta Villarreal, alias “El Zorro de Ojinaga.” His subsequent bosses were Rafael Aguilar Guajardo — who was assassinated in Cancún in the eastern state of Quintana Roo in 1993. Carrillo Fuentes then assumed control. After his death, his brother, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Viceroy,” took command. El Viceroy was later arrested in the city of Torreón in northern Coahuila state. The main Juárez Cartel members were El Mayo, the Carrillo Fuentes brothers and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul” — arguably one of the best at negotiating with rival groups — who supposedly died four years ago from a heart attack after a car crash.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The Beltrán Leyva brothers were also part of the powerful Juárez Cartel — Arturo was the most violent and intrepid — along with Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, alias “Nacho.” After the supposed death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, it took four years for this team of capos and criminals to come together again to form the Sinaloa Cartel, founded by El Chapo. It was in 2001, at the beginning of Vicente Fox’s presidency, when authorities conspired to release El Chapo from jail in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes. Under Fox, the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) was interested in having a single criminal group take control of organized crime and “aligning” the belligerent cartels, including the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana, among others. The idea of creating a so-called “drug trafficking federation” then took shape. El Azul worked hard to create this federation, but was never able to achieve his goal. The main consequence was the Sinaloa Cartel becoming the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. Today it has links to some 50 countries worldwide. The desire to create this criminal mega-structure has remained an old project, but it could very well crystallize under the current government. President Andres Manuel López Obrador has vowed not to pursue the heads of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations, possibly because he needs them to impose order and establish new controls in Mexico’s criminal landscape. He also needs them because drug trafficking is a mainstay of the national economy. There are currently two powerful bosses, but one stands out more than the other because of his intelligence and the fine management skills he has shown in operating his business apparently without unnecessary violence. One of them is CJNG leader El Mencho, but the one who stands out other is Sinaloa Cartel leader El Mayo, considered to be the last boss of the old guard. El Mayo started in the drug trafficking business in the 1970s. He used to be a furniture store employee. He has the longest drug trafficking tenure of today’s traffickers, having been a mainstay in the business for more than 40 years. He is seemingly untouchable, unpunished and now more essential than ever for López Obrador given the urgency of bringing order to and pacifying Mexico.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

El Mayo and El Azul agreed on one idea: that drug trafficking is a business that does not need to cause much violence. It seems that this idea, lost for years due to brutal fighting between rivals, might be able to materialize during López Obrador’s tenure. López Obrador’s administration is the only one to openly state that it will no go after top drug lords. The president has also proposed amnesty for some criminals. This scenario is more than favorable for organized crime groups operating in Mexico. It’s an agreement between the Mexican government and the mafia, a pax mafiosa.  López Obrador needs to guarantee governability, but he isn’t willing to wear himself out while doing so. “The capos take charge of the capos,” the president seems to say as he’s imbued with attending to the most urgent social needs. In a sense, El Mayo’s message in the “narcomanta” posted in Sinaloa and other states seems to show the Sinaloa Cartel chief asking other cartels to be square with him, which seems like a big change in the rules of organized crime in Mexico. El Mayo is, without a doubt, the government’s capo. He’s already doing his job: aligning belligerent groups that otherwise risk being captured or killed. The message could not be more clear: “Either line up or I’ll line you up.” The message was addressed to all the cartels — 14 in total — that operate in Mexico and a good part of the American continent. There is currently no other boss with as much criminal and political power as El Mayo. No one else could guarantee the federal government that they could establish order in the country. No other figure has the size and control to align Mexico’s rival criminal groups. El Mayo doesn’t play at being powerful. He exerts his power and there are no gaps in his position: others will have to adjust to the new rules,  one way or another. Some capos have enjoyed power and influence throughout several administrations. With former President Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), the king was Juan García Ábrego. For former President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), it was Amado Carrillo Fuentes. During the administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón (2000-2006 and 2006-2012, respectively), El Chapo from the Sinaloa Cartel was the most powerful criminal leader. Under Enrique Peña Nieto, the Sinaloa Cartel enjoyed some years of impunity, but El Chapo was ultimately captured, extradited to the United States and later convicted of a series of crimes that carry a mandatory minimum life sentence in jail. The strength of El Mencho’s CJNG has boomed. But with López Obrador, El Mayo is without a doubt the top dog. No government in the world has the capacity to pacify such a large and decomposed country without alliances between organized crime groups. On one occasion, El Azul said that “social peace” did not depend on the government, but on the agreements reached by the cartels and their capos. This is starting to make sense.

*This article was originally published by Sin Embargo. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

Sinaloa Cartel Places Unwanted Surprise Inside New Ford Cars

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Authorities say the Sinaloa Cartel hid a haul of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine inside the spare tires of new cars sent from Mexico to Canada, showcasing the innovative tactics drug traffickers are using to successfully skirt border checks. Employees at four Ford dealerships in the Canadian province of Ontario first alerted authorities to the drugs, which were stashed in spare tires within the trunks of the vehicles. All the Fusion cars had been assembled at Ford’s plant in the Mexican city of Hermosillo, capital of the border state of Sonora, and then shipped to Canada by train. Authorities subsequently launched an operation dubbed Project Sebright. Forces from across Canada carried out a series of raids and found methamphetamine in more than a dozen Ford cars as far as New Brunswick and Quebec. The drugs were ultimately valued at around $4 million. Ontario Police Province (OPP) superintendent Bryan MacKillop said that Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel was behind the drug shipments. “Ford was taken advantage of,” another Canadian official told local news media.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

Authorities continued to search car shipments by rail from Mexico but no other drug stashes were discovered, leading MacKillop said to say that “this method of smuggling has been successfully disrupted.” The smuggling of drugs into Canada through new vehicles, specifically Ford Fusion cars from the Hermosillo plant, is not a new tactic. In April 2017, a marijuana haul worth $1 million was found in a load of Ford Fusion cars headed to Ohio. Ford employees alerted US officials, who opened an investigation, but the culprits behind the shipment were never found.

InSight Crime Analysis

Mexican cartels have consistently shown their ability to rapidly adapt to new opportunities to smuggle drugs, changing tactics to avoid detection and periodically returning to old trafficking schemes once they believe the heat is off. As far back as 2017, Ford has said that the drugs were not being placed inside its vehicles while being manufactured in its Sonora plant. This indicates that the cars were likely tampered with once on their way to the US border. The detection of two shipments of drugs transported in Ford cars just over 18 months apart suggests that the Sinaloa Cartel has access to rail freight heading to the US and is confident of avoiding detection.

SEE ALSO: 5 Clever Ways Mexico Cartels Move Drugs Across US Border

Indeed, the fact that staff in dealerships found the drugs points to a failure in the cartel’s logistics, not a successful coup by authorities. Despite these finds, the way the Sinaloa Cartel gains access to these cars remains unknown. The group is unlikely to be deterred by a few losses and similar discoveries in newly manufactured cars would not be surprising. Moving drugs into the United States aboard rail freight has long been a consistent, if not major smuggling tactic for Mexican criminal groups. In the past, trains carrying fruits and vegetables have been found to contain drug shipments, with packages often painted green to blend in among watermelons, limes or avocados. Along the US-Mexico border are some of the world’s busiest rail crossings. New inspection facilities have been built at major transit points to more easily check the colossal amounts of freight, but it is unknown if these facilities are having any real effect on stopping the flow of drugs.