Pubdate: Sat, 27 Dec 2008
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2008 San Antonio Express-News
Author: Dudley Althaus
Bookmark: (Gulf Cartel)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Mexico)


MEXICO CITY - Even as accused mob boss Osiel Cardenas awaits a federal
trial in Houston next year, the criminal army he allegedly commanded with
deadly resolve rampages across this country.

Cardenas, 41, has been imprisoned for six years - four in Mexico and two
in the United States. He faces federal charges of leading a drug
syndicate, trafficking cocaine and marijuana, laundering money and
threatening the lives of U.S. agents.

Though weakened by a crackdown, Cardenas' Gulf Cartel and the gang of
assassins it spawned, the Zetas, remain powerful and widely feared.

Their gunmen have spread violence deep into the Mexican heartland. Mexican
officials blame the organization for many of this year's estimated 5,600
gangland murders.

Now, as President Felipe Calderon's war on Mexico's gangs enters its third
year, the Gulf Cartel's resilience underscores the challenges of that war.

While Calderon has approved more than 150 extraditions of alleged drug
bosses and gunmen, the cartel and other crime organizations have continued
to threaten Mexico's stability and smuggle narcotics northward, officials

And, they admit, the extraditions have stoked the bloodshed rather than
snuffed it.

The Gulf Cartel arguably has been the Calderon government's principal
target. Aside from Cardenas' extradition to Houston in January 2007,
several other cartel leaders and hundreds of lesser hoods have been
arrested. Tons of drugs have been seized and tens of millions of dollars
have been confiscated.

Recent blows include the November capture of the Zetas' third-ranking
commander and the seizure the same month of some 400 smuggled weapons on
the Texas border.

Those events followed the September dismantling of a major Gulf Cartel
drug distribution network in the United States and Europe.

But, though bowed, the cartel hardly seems broken.

"If anything, the extradition of Cardenas has led to an even more virulent
form of the Gulf Cartel," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on Latin American
narcotics gangs at the University of Miami.

Blame the Zetas

Mexican authorities blame the Zetas for the Sept. 15 grenade attack that
killed nine people in a crowd celebrating Independence Day in the capital
of central Michoacan state.

On the outskirts of Mexico City and in states along the Pacific Coast,
gunbattles involving the Zetas have killed scores - including dozens of
police officers.

That continued strength has mocked the hopes of some who argued that
Cardenas' extradition would shatter his cartel.

Gang warfare seems to have exploded in Mexico in 2008.

In Tijuana, more than 400 have been killed since late September in a
struggle between the former underbosses of the Arellano Felix crime

In Ciudad Juarez, the feuding has killed more than 1,500 people since
January, when gunmen from Sinaloa state moved in to eliminate the city's
weakened criminal bosses. Still more blood has flowed in Sinaloa itself
after former allies turned on one another.

"There is a benefit in cutting down large organizations into little
cartels, because they don't threaten the state," said Bagley, who has
studied the impact of Colombia's extradition of its own gang chieftains in
the 1990s.

But, he said, "you leave a vacuum at the top, and you unleash more violence."

"You don't get any diminishing of drug trafficking. That's the fallacy of
it. Extradition does not solve anyone's problem."

Cardenas rose to the top of his organization after the 1996 arrest of Gulf
Cartel founder Juan Garcia Abrego, who was sent to the U.S. and convicted
of narcotics-related charges. Garcia Abrego, once a lord of the border, is
serving multiple life sentences in a U.S. federal prison.

U.S. Agents Threatened

Cardenas, a onetime mechanic and federal police informant, allegedly
murdered his way up the ladder, investigators say.

He's reputed to have earned the nickname "Friend Killer" by knocking off a
former colleagues. He recruited deserting army commandos - the founders of
the Zetas - as his bodyguards and hit men.

By 1999, Cardenas was the undisputed head of the Gulf Cartel, which
officials say was smuggling as much as 70 tons of cocaine a year into

His downfall began the same year, after Cardenas and more than a dozen
gunmen accosted and threatened to kill two U.S. federal agents in

Alarmed by the gang's bravado, U.S. agencies launched a joint
investigation into the cartel, which resulted in federal indictments of
Cardenas and several lieutenants in 2002.

After his 2003 arrest in Matamoros, Cardenas was convicted of drug
trafficking charges by a Mexican court, but never sentenced. His U.S.
trial has been delayed and is scheduled to begin in September. He faces
multiple life sentences.

While jailed in Mexico, Cardenas continued to direct his organization,
Mexican officials say, in a war with rivals that included the 2004-'05
battles that killed more than 500 people in Nuevo Laredo.

Mexican police, U.S. officials and some analysts say the Zetas now operate
as a separate smuggling organization independent of Cardenas' gang. But
the recent peace in the cartel's area of influence along Mexico's Gulf
Coast suggests a working relationship has been hammered out with Cardenas'

An intelligence report from Mexico's public security minister identifies
Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano as the de facto head of the Gulf Cartel.
U.S. and Mexican investigators believe Cardenas' brother, Ezequiel,
remains one of the gang's leaders.

Justice Department officials indicted Lazcano and Ezequiel Cardenas in the
aftermath of the September raids against Gulf Cartel distribution networks
in Texas, Georgia and elsewhere. The raids netted 175 arrests, but not
Lazcano and Ezequiel Cardenas.

If the two are arrested in Mexico, U.S. officials presumably would want
them extradited. That threat could provoke more violence in the short
term, one expert said, but also could persuade the cartel's leaders to
look for ways to call it quits and stay in Mexico.

"Fear of extradition is definitely a factor in how people conduct
themselves," said Thomas Schweich, until this year a ranking State
Department official involved in anti-narcotics efforts.

A gangland boss "sees the situation of his predecessor and doesn't want it
to happen to him," he said. "If you are going to attack a major criminal
organization, there is always an uptick in violence.

"That's exactly what's going on in Mexico right now."
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