Pubdate: Tue, 26 Aug 2003
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 The Dallas Morning News
Author: Ricardo Sandoval, The Dallas Morning News


Success Against Kingpins Clears Path For New Cartel Leaders

MEXICO CITY - Drug traffickers are scrambling like never before to get around
stiffened Mexican law enforcement and carve new smuggling routes to reach the
illegal drug consumers in the United States, according to U.S. and Mexican drug
enforcement officials.

The narco-business realignment has allowed in new, dangerous players to fill
the void left by suspected kingpins now either dead or in Mexican and U.S.
jails. And the bloody fallout has been a round of skirmishes throughout Mexico
- - and especially along the Texas-Mexico border - as drug gangs vie for power
and turf.

The new drug-gang violence reminds Mexicans of the 1970s, when Colombian drug
producers partnered with Mexican smugglers and touched off wars over
trafficking routes that could handle vast amounts of cocaine and heroin bound
for American streets.

But the Mexican drug cartel reshuffling is also reminding U.S. and Mexican law
enforcement officials that despite President Vicente Fox's good record in the
drug war, tough work lies ahead.

Illegal drug supplies in the United States - a business said to be worth $65
billion a year - remain ample. And street prices are low, evidence that there's
been no pinch in supplies, despite a series of high-profile arrests of drug
kingpins in Mexico and the United States.

And largely unaffected are labyrinthine financial networks that launder money
for cartels and crooked politicians who allowed drug lords to thrive in Mexico,
analysts say.

"There is much left to do, much to talk about," Jose Luis Vasconcelos, chief of
the organized-crime task force of the Mexican attorney general's office, said
in a recent interview.

Successes Mr. Fox and his crime busters at the attorney general's office -
known by its Spanish acronym, the PGR - have scored well against major drug
kingpins, say U.S. officials and analysts of the trafficking business.
Simultaneously, Mr. Fox's chief prosecutor, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, has
fired or arrested 1,500 federal agents and police on drug corruption charges.
He's also the architect of a massive overhaul of the PGR - the nation's most
important law enforcement body, with 24,000 full-time investigators and support

In recent months, the new-look Mexican prosecutors, with substantial support
from military intelligence and special forces, have arrested: o Armando
Valencia Cornelio. His Guadalajara-based smuggling group - reportedly one of
the busiest movers of drugs to American consumers - was preparing for a
showdown with the Gulf Cartel in the border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo
Leon. The PGR accuses Mr. Valencia Cornelio of sending 200 gunmen to the border
town of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas. The Mexican city
has seen an alarming series of drug-gang shootouts and murders of federal
police. Mexican officials have linked him to at least eight recent deaths in
the region.

o Osiel Cardenas. Until his arrest in June, he ran the Gulf Cartel out of
Matamoros, near Brownsville, and reportedly had platoons of former police and
soldiers among his 300-strong team of armed bodyguards and hit men. Mr.
Cardenas is suspected of ordering a recent attempted hit on a U.S. drug agent
in Matamoros, an allegation that pushed him to the top of the list of
most-wanted Mexican drug kingpins.

o Benjamin Arellano Felix. His family-run cartel was Mexico's most violent as
it controlled smuggling along the country's west coast. His brother, Ramon, was
killed in a shootout last year with local police reportedly working for a rival
trafficker. Before the brothers' fall, the Arellano Felix organization, based
in Tijuana, once commanded one of the most extensive smuggling rings in the
United States and Mexico. Officials say the family handed out up to $1 million
a week in corruption money. But for all of Mexico's success, analysts of the
illegal drug business say, there are signs that little has changed.

A few noteworthy suspected smugglers remain at large, including: o Joaquin "El
Chapo" Guzman, the storied west coast kingpin who in 2001 sneaked out of a
maximum-security prison - allegedly with the help of corrupt guards and

o Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, reputed chief of the Juarez Cartel and brother of
the late Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the trafficker famed for moving jet airliners
full of cocaine through Mexico.

o Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a reputed veteran trafficker on Mexico's west coast
known for his chameleon-like ability to work with competing cartels in moving
drugs across the border.

Corrupt politicians And while Mr. Fox's government has struck hard at frontline
corruption in the ranks of prosecutors and federal police, analysts point out
that there have been no significant arrests of politicians on corruption
charges, even though local police under their command are said to routinely
offer protection for smugglers.

In Mexico, local and state politicians directly control municipal police corps.
For years, drug agents and political analysts have whispered suspicions about
Mexican politicians at all levels. The highest-ranking Mexican politician now
facing drug charges is Mario Villanueva, former governor of the Caribbean coast
state of Quintana Roo. He is accused of aiding smugglers in the 1990s, when
Caribbean smuggling routes saw an explosion in business. "The work against
politicians is a longer-term task," said Luis Astorga, a drug-trafficking
historian and academic in the state of Sinaloa, the remote and desolate
mountains of which have served as incubators for many of Mexico's ranking drug
smugglers. "We are seeing the easy pattern: It is easier for Fox to go after
corrupt police and low-level agents than to get into difficult areas with

During a visit to Mexico City last week, Karen Tandy, a Fort Worth native who
is the new chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, declined to talk
about investigations into political corruption. She insisted, however, that the
DEA will begin working to "bring down whole organizations" - the smugglers and
the money movers alike - instead of focusing so keenly on individual drug

And in meeting with reporters, the PGR's Mr. Vasconcelos said Mexico is
targeting corruption wherever it's suspected. He did not offer specific
examples. But Mr. Vasconcelos was specific about new threats Mexico faces from
nimble smugglers redesigning their networks after the PGR's crackdowns. Mr.
Vasconcelos is Mexico's point man on the front lines of the war against drugs.
At a recent event, he spoke quietly to a reporter about the struggle against
drug cartels while his boss, Mr. Macedo de la Concha, described the PGR's
makeover to an audience of journalists.

Foreign influx Mr. Vasconcelos said he thinks new foreign players are trying to
muscle in on Mexican smuggling action amid the void left by fallen kingpins.
Chief among them are affiliates of crime rings in Colombia. "There is an
increased number of Colombians tied to drug organizations who are now working
in Mexico," Mr. Vasconcelos said. "The Colombians have always been here, as
they've always been in the United States, because most of them are brokers for
organizations back in Colombia. But now they are here to make sure they get
paid for their goods by the Mexican smugglers and to make sure the money is
returned to Colombia."

Russian mobsters also have long been involved in smuggling South American drugs
through Mexico and to U.S. and European markets. Mr. Vasconcelos has identified
the Russians as a significant new threat, although other law enforcement
officials - while concerned about Russians' activities in Mexico - do not
believe they pose any greater threat than would-be smugglers from other
countries, including the United States.

U.S. officials said the influx is to be expected, given the global scope of
Mexican drug smuggling. Ms. Tandy said 53 organized crime groups have been
identified as international operators with hands in drug trafficking. "In the
life-or-death business of illegal drugs in Mexico, the operators have created a
system that can adapt to global changes and local changes," Mr. Astorga said.
"If a leader falls, the system is such that independent operators within a
cartel know how to continue operating. As long as there is global demand for
illicit drugs, the operators will continue to find ways to move drugs in and
out of Mexico."
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