SEE ALSO: Mexico News and ProfileThe 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 AnalysisExtortion 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. 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.
InSight Crime AnalysisRomero 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.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and ProfileThe 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 AnalysisThe 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. 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.
SEE ALSO: El Chapo News and ProfileThese 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 TradeTake 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 FentanylThe 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 CrownLarge 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. 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.
InSight Crime AnalysisIn 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. 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.
InSight Crime AnalysisAs 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. 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.
*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 ProfilesThe 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 ProfileEl 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.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and ProfileAuthorities 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.