Pubdate: Sun, 30 Aug 2009
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2009 The Arizona Republic
Author: Chris Hawley, Staff Writer, Sergio Solache, Contributing Reporter


Violence Rises As Crackdown Splinters Older Drug Gangs

ZITACUARO, Mexico - Back when President Felipe Calderon first
dispatched army troops to quell drug violence in December 2006,
Mexico's criminal landscape was fairly clear: There were four main
cartels, each with its own turf, and they fought mostly among themselves.

But nearly three years into the crackdown, new armed groups are
springing up as the heightened attention has forced old cartels to
splinter and evolve. The nascent cartels are ruthless, skilled in
military tactics, adept at psychological warfare and eager to expand
beyond drug smuggling into other criminal enterprises including
extortion, kidnappings for ransom and even software piracy.

"Instead of wiping out organized crime, they've just made it more
fragmented," said Guillermo Zepeda, a criminal-justice professor at
the Western Institute of Technology and Advanced Studies in

The most dangerous, according to the Mexican government, is La Familia
Michoacana, which has flourished in the very place the crackdown
began, the central state of Michoacan. But other new threats are
rising fast: the Beltran Leyva gang, the Zetas, the Negros and
Pelones, the Lynxes and a host of regional gangs.

The tenacity of organized crime in Mexico bodes badly for the United
States, which is about to step up its involvement by sending police
trainers, helicopters and $1.4 billion to help with the fight against
drugs, said Rene Jimenez Ornelas, a crime expert at the National
Autonomous University of Mexico.

"I look at Iraq and its consequences for the United States, and I see
a similar black hole forming around this (anti-drug) strategy,"
Jimenez said. "It's not producing results."

Evolving enemy

Three years ago, there were four main gangs supplying the United
States with cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana.

The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano-Felix Gang, controlled
the California corridor. The Sinaloa Cartel, also known as the Pacific
Cartel, grew marijuana and opium poppies, the raw ingredient of
heroin. It also controlled routes through the deserts of Sonora and

The Juarez Cartel handled routes through western Texas, and the Gulf
Cartel operated along Mexico's east coast. The Sinaloa and Juarez
cartels were allies.

The geographic divisions kept violence mostly in check, according to a
report in May by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Any killings were mostly between drug dealers. Ajustes de cuenta, or
account settling, was usually low-key: Someone just disappeared, never
to be seen again. Running gunbattles in the streets were bad for
business. Decapitations were nearly unheard of.

But the government crackdown has forced a reorganization. The Tijuana
gang has been weakened by the arrests and killings of its leaders. The
Gulf Cartel now picks up cocaine shipments on the Pacific Coast. The
alliance between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels collapsed in 2008.

"What was once a bi-polar competition between the powerful Gulf
Cartel and the Sinaloa federation has been transformed by the
government's anti-crime initiatives into significant inter-cartel and
intra-cartel violence," the Congressional Research Service report said.

Increased security along the border means the gangs are now fighting
over narrower and narrower corridors through the wilderness. The gangs
control these plazas, or areas of influence, by sowing terror with
gruesome acts that increasingly involve civilians.

Drug-related murders rose from 2,275 in 2007 to 5,207 in 2008,
according to an unofficial tally by the Reforma newspaper. The 2009
toll stood at 3,757 as of Aug. 17. Of those, 104 victims had been
decapitated, and 306 showed signs of torture.

U.S. assesses threat

The splintering of the cartels has led to violence bordering on
terrorism, the U.S. State Department says. This month, it warned
American travelers to avoid travel to parts of Michoacan and Chihuahua
states as more civilians get caught in the bloodshed.

"Criminal gangs are now often in the control of more erratic and
violent subordinates, leading to more killings and less predictable
behavior," the department said in its 2009 report on drug strategy.
"Trafficking organizations have also been effective at utilizing
violence as a psychological weapon, intimidating political leaders,
rival groups, and the general public."

On April 15, President Barack Obama added La Familia and the Zetas, a
crime syndicate that recently broke away from the Gulf Cartel, to the
U.S. list of international drug-trafficking organizations.

Moving in

La Familia Michoacana is the most brazen of the new groups, actively
stalking and killing police and soldiers, the Mexican government says.

"The Familia Michoacana cartel is characterized by its virulence,"
Monte Alejandro Rubido, an adviser on Calderon's National Security
Council, told reporters last month. "It is, we believe, the cartel
that combats authorities with the most belligerence."

La Familia's many side activities have allowed it to flourish even as
drug smuggling gets harder because of increased U.S. border security.

The group's arrival in Zitacuaro, a city of 79,000 in Michoacan, was
typical of the gang's modus operandi, Zepeda said.

First, it took over drug peddling. Then it began demanding protection
money from bars and nightclubs. Then it moved to counterfeiting of

Soon bodies were showing up with increasingly regularity in the ravine
under the old iron bridge, a local landmark. A pair of severed heads
appeared outside a car dealership. On July 3, police acting on an
anonymous tip found four bodies buried behind a house outside
Zitacuaro and another body dressed in military fatigues upstairs.

The violence has stunned Zitacuaro. The city 70 miles west of Mexico
City is known mainly as a destination for migrating monarch

"We used to be famous for butterflies. Now we're famous for murder,"
said Rafael Arriaga, an 84-year-old retired carpenter.

Federal prosecutors say La Familia also has moved quickly to corrupt
politicians. On May 26, federal agents arrested 10 Michoacan mayors,
including Zitacuaro Mayor Juan Antonio Ixtlahuac, on charges of
protecting the group.

Terrorist attacks

On July 11 and 12, the gang showed the extent of its power, launching
15 coordinated attacks on police stations and officers in eight cities
across three states, including an assault in Zitacuaro. In the worst
attack, gunmen hijacked a bus carrying 12 federal police officers and
killed them all.

The attacks followed the arrest of one of La Familia's leaders,
Arnoldo Rueda Medina.

A recording taken by a traffic camera in Zitacuaro showed the speed
and military precision of these attacks.

The gunmen arrive outside the city's federal police station in two
sport-utility vehicles, hurl a hand grenade at the building, and then
crouch in the street, raking the building with combat rifles and
grenade launchers for exactly 90 seconds.

The gunmen then box in a stray police cruiser and shower it with
bullets, killing the three officers inside, before driving away.

The entire attack took two minutes and represented perhaps the most
well-coordinated cartel strike in a country that has seen its share of
spectacular gang shootouts.

To stamp out La Familia and the rest of the multiplying cartels,
Mexico's Public Safety Secretariat is building a network of regional
command centers for the federal police. The aim is to be able to reach
any point in Mexico by helicopter within minutes, the government says.

But much of the blame for the current anarchy lies with local police
and prosecutors, not federal authorities, said Zepeda, the
criminal-justice professor.

Local police have a better idea of who the drug traffickers are, where
the drugs are moved and even where the bad guys may live. But they are
either corrupt, scared to act or in over their heads, said Elena
Azaola, an expert on crime at Mexico's Center for Research and
Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology.

"They're not investigating these killings, finding out who are the
responsible people and what is the reason," Azaola said.

The Mexican government says it is working to professionalize the
police forces. The U.S. aid package has earmarked millions of dollars
for forensic laboratories, satellite communications gear and computer
systems to help prosecutors assemble court cases.

The government also says it is trying to purge corrupt local police
officers. But it is targeting federal agencies first. On Aug. 15, for
example, it fired all 700 customs inspectors at Mexico's airports and
border crossings and replaced them with better-educated agents who had
undergone psychological and criminal background checks.

Some recent arrests

The government also has chalked up some recent victories with the
arrest of suspected La Familia leaders Rueda on July 5 and Miguel
Angel "The Truck" Beraza Villa on Aug. 2.

On Aug. 23, the army said it had arrested Luis Ricardo Magana on
charges of being the main coordinator for La Familia's methamphetamine
shipments to the United States.

Calderon has urged Mexicans to be patient.

"The final victory in a problem so big, with roots so deep, with
trunks so aged and rooted in the life of the country, cultivated over
years and decades, may take a long time," he said in a speech on Aug. 

But many Mexicans are starting to wonder if they'll ever be rid of the
drug gangs.

"There's no work here, and so people turn to crime," said Maria
Guadalupe Rodriguez, a 53-year-old shoe-shiner in Zitacuaro's main
plaza. "You get rid of one group, and another just pops up."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr