Mexican Cartels Become a Global Threat

Drug trafficking operations cross borders, bringing violence and crime
WRITER-ID | 1 October 2010

Mexican drug cartels are expanding their operations in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Africa. As these violent cartels begin to secure their own drug sources and form alliances with foreign criminal groups in addition to trafficking, they are bringing crime to new areas and threatening public safety.

Mexican cartels have facilitated the flow of drugs from Colombian cartels to consumers in the U.S. for decades, but in recent years, they have modified their business practices to include drug operations oversight as well.

Meetings between Mexican and Colombian cartels in the early ’90s led to the Colombian cartels’ collective decision to leave the majority of drug trafficking to the Mexican cartels, according to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. The Colombian cartels made this strategic decision due to the intense pressure from successful Colombian and U.S. military interdiction operations, which apprehended many Colombian cartel kingpins and intercepted numerous drug movements in the region. By focusing on drug production, the Colombians could avoid capture and retain their profits.

Jay Bergman, Andean regional director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, explained in a 2009 interview with the website that the Mexican cartels have “filled the vacuum” left by the Colombians and assumed cocaine distribution in the region. DEA Section Chief for Mexico and Central America Michael Sanders discussed this development in an interview with Diálogo. “The Mexican cartels are operating throughout Central America — from Guatemala all the way through Panama.”

Most recently, the Mexican cartels have used the momentum gained in Central America to broaden their global presence. To gain control over operations, Mexican cartels have begun to place operatives throughout the Americas targeting vulnerable regions where the rule of law is weak.

Cartels entrenched in Central America

Mexican cartels have established operations within the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This area provides refuge from the Mexican government’s counter-narcotics efforts and is home to desperately poor farmers who benefit from growing illegal crops. The Mexican cartels use these remote areas in the region to maintain and expand their illicit activities.

Former Miami Herald Latin America correspondent Steven Dudley, now co-director of InSight, a Washington- and Bogotá-based project that monitors organized crime in Latin America, told Diálogo that Guatemala and Honduras are the main countries affected. Dudley explained the increased use of both countries by drug traffickers is due to their location along drug smuggling routes from Colombia to the U.S. He also explained that the concentrated effort of Mexican law enforcement within the country’s borders has led rivaling cartels to seek territory in neighboring countries.

The DEA’s Sanders told Diálogo that Mexican cartels are rooted in Central America, and a DEA spokesman added that the cartels “have gone into some of these places and set up command and control structures. They are actually taking receipt of the drugs in those countries, and then being responsible for further transportation up through Mexico.”

Central America is proving to be fertile ground for illicit business. The U.S. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars estimates that 250 tons of cocaine was trafficked through Guatemala in 2009 and about 200 metric tons of cocaine went through Honduras the same year. Although Central America has long been recognized as a drug corridor, now the Mexican cartels have become more established there. After his capture by the Mexican Federal Police in August 2010, cartel kingpin Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka “La Barbie,” spoke of his “offices” in Panama, “investments” in Colombia, and his “business” of transporting cocaine from Panama to Mexico. Valdez bragged about his established contacts and transportation routes throughout Central America. The DEA spokesman, during an interview with Diálogo, said that Mexican cartels “actually have members working for the organization in these spots that are responsible for receiving, stockpiling, protecting and then further shipping the drugs out of Central America and into Mexico.”

Stockpiles of supplies provide additional evidence of the cartels in the area. A military operation in 2009 discovered a Mexican cartel training camp within Guatemalan territory. In the cache were 500 grenades and thousands of bullets, Guatemalan authorities said. Another arsenal discovered near Guatemala City contained 3,800 bullets and 560 grenades, according to USA Today.

A key factor in facilitating drug imports and distribution is the presence of established local drug trafficking groups. As the Mexican cartels expand their business model and territory, they are also reevaluating partnerships with their Colombian counterparts and forging new affiliations with criminal and terrorist networks in the area, analyst Steven Dudley explained. The cartels use these associates to sell or transport drugs for them or to carry out violent acts on their behalf. Most prominent are the associations that Mexican cartels have within Central America. Moreover, Dudley spoke of the potential for the Mexican cartels to use gangs for their benefit. Local gangs’ “main role is maybe some protection services for depots or for some as hit men or what they call ‘sicarios’ or as enforcers to extort money or things of that sort,” Dudley explained. The DEA spokesman said the gangs’ involvement is more likely at the “retail” level of selling drugs for the cartels rather than a partnership.

Narcoterrorism in the Andes

Control of drug sources and the profits that come with them enticed the cartels to move into Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. “Mexican traffickers have turned up in many Colombian cities and are working to get cash in the hands of peasants to boost coca production,” Colombian police director Gen. Óscar Naranjo told The Associated Press. The cartels have become more connected to the drug sources and the criminal organizations currently controlling them. Acquiring the raw materials for drug production would allow the cartels to cut the middlemen out of the drug trafficking chain. Several media reports, including one from the Bolivian La Razón newspaper, indicate that Mexican cartels are also negotiating their relationships with terrorist networks that currently control the drug sources, including the Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia, or FARC; the Shining Path in Peru; and Bolivian narcotrafficking organizations made up of family groups. “There is increasing evidence that [Mexican cartels] are going all the way to the source, and this has great financial benefit for them if they can reach the sources, and one of the sources is the FARC guerrillas,” Dudley said of the Mexican cartels’ presence in South America. The DEA’s Bergman, in an interview with Bloomberg News, spoke about how the Mexican cartels’ alliances with the FARC bring profit for both organizations and a newfound danger for the region. The Mexican government has to confront wealthier drug cartels while Colombia’s government must battle a better armed guerrilla force. “It would cut out the traditional drug trafficker middleman and increase the amount of money the FARC would be able to earn per kilogram — profit that would be spent on bullets and armament to perpetuate the insurgency,” Bergman said.

Associations in the Andean region are not limited to terrorist networks. The Mexican cartels also employ smaller criminal organizations to transport and sell drugs. In 2009, there were several instances in which Mexican nationals were arrested on drug trafficking charges in Peru. The same year, Peruvian police discovered a cocaine processing lab in Lima under the control of a Mexican drug cartel. Bolivian authorities say that clans in their country are carrying out illicit activities for the Mexican cartels, according to Bolivian newspaper La Razón. Mexican cartels’ reach can be seen all the way south to Buenos Aires, where in 2010 a container of apples with smuggled cocaine bound for Spain was found with the trademark logo of a Mexican cartel. Argentina’s police also seized a methamphetamine lab with links to a Mexican cartel in 2009, arresting nine Mexican nationals. These instances point to Mexican cartels’ involvement at the source sites and inception of the drug production process.

Double Entry: This map indicates drug trafficking routes used by Mexican drug cartels. Military and immigration authorities consider that, along the border with Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador there are 1,200 blind passes through which anything can be smuggled. The same sources have counted 125 such passes that can be crossed with vehicles. [Source: Siglo Veintiuno]

Central American Regional Security Initiative - CARSI programs include:

  • Regional Maritime Interdiction Assistance provides training, equipment and security.
  • Border Inspection program supports contraband detection.
  • Transnational Anti-Gang Program combats gangs.
  • Regional Firearms Advisor Program focuses on reducing firearms trafficking.
  • ILEA Regional Training Program provides training of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors.

    Source: U.S. Department of State

West Africa and Europe

South America also provides access to Europe and West Africa for cartels trying to evade U.S. surveillance of the Caribbean and U.S.–Mexico border. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2009 report states that corruption and a lack of stabil- ity in West Africa make it an ideal hub for trans-shipment to Europe, where drugs fetch two times the U.S. price. The U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board, or INCB, has found that Mexican trafficking organizations have been involved in traffick- ing to most African and Middle Eastern countries.

With greater proximity to a lucrative target market in Europe, where demand is rising, the cartels have begun to establish a footprint. Eduardo Buscaglia, scholar at Mexico’s Autonomous Institute of Technology in Mexico City, ascribes the focus on Europe to the value of the euro and the emerging governance in states newly incorporated into the European Union, according to Mexican newspaper El Universal.

The Mexican cartels are finding worldwide allies for their operations. The INCB reports Mexican cartels are recruiting Central American and Caribbean gang members to sell and distribute drugs in Europe, primarily Spain. In Italy, Mexican cartels have set up connections with crime families as was detected in the 2008 multinational law enforcement operation Project Reckoning, which targeted Mexican cartel operations with Italian counterparts. The operation resulted in the arrest of 507 individuals and the seizure of approximately $60 million, the DEA reported.

In May 2010, the British newspaper The Observer reported that Mexican cartels were meeting with Liverpool gangsters about cocaine shipments departing from Venezuela’s ports destined for England. Even drug seizures as far as Australia and Japan have been connected to Mexican cartels’ operations, according to the U.N. As cartel connections grow, so too has the threat of violence.

Threat to public safety

Violence is the trademark of the Mexican cartels’ operating model. Within Mexico, cartel violence includes beheadings, mass killings and murders of government authorities, among other terror-inducing tactics. This unprecedented violence along with the cartels’ attempts to bribe public officials makes the threat of the cartels’ operations a great danger to citizens.

Mexican cartels are exporting their brazen tactics to the new territories where they are operating. For example, the murder rates of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras combined are roughly double the murder rates of Mexico, according to a 2010 Woodrow Wilson center report. In 2010, Central America became witness to a new level of violence that includes a series of beheadings credited to the Mexican cartels in Guatemala as well as 35 bodies found in plastic bags over a six-month span in El Salvador.

Compounding this menace, the cartels’ association with local criminals in Central America increases the threat to public safety. The 2009 assassination of Honduran Director of Counternarcotics Operations, Gen. Julián Arístides Gonzáles, has been attributed by authorities to Mexican cartel orders carried out by a Honduran drug trafficker.

Partnerships against the threat

Mexico’s own woeful experience is a prime example of the spread of drug violence, and Central America is not far behind. Mexico’s government continues to fight against the cartels within its borders and is partnering with other nations. A 2009 Mexico-Colombia agreement will result in the training of more than 11,000 Mexican Federal Police agents by the Colombian National Police in operations targeting kidnapping and narcotics trafficking. Similarly, the multi-year Mérida Initiative is a partnership with the United States that provides training, technical advice and funding to partner nations such as Mexico in combating transnational criminal organizations. Regionally, the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI, was created in 2010 to strengthen and integrate security in Central America. CARSI initiatives are supported by the U.S. government, the Organization of American States, the Central American Integration System and Interpol.

The present regional issues brought on by the Mexican cartels’ operations are quickly becoming a global danger. Partner nations across the globe are responding to the Mexican cartels fiercely by combining forces and using their armies to tackle the growing transnational threat.

Sources: Stratfor, Rand Corporation, The Associated Press, Jane’s Information Group

Colombia’s Success Factors

Sustainability is vital in antidrug efforts. Colombia ensured its Armed Forces were steadfast in their pursuit of antidrug efforts by procuring the needed equipment and training, securing continued funding and earning public support through transparency.

  • Through Plan Colombia, a partnership with the U.S., the government equipped and trained security forces.
  • The tax system was reformed, drawing from the most affluent to finance national security.
  • Government accountability was reformed by making annual military spending reports publicly available, allowing a civilian Ministry of Defense to have oversight of the Armed Forces and increasing the number of qualified government personnel.

    Source: The Polson Institute for Global Development

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