This is a source for analysis, interviews, and commentary on security in Latin America. Herein you will find rumors, the results of off the record interviews, and information you'll not find in international or United States news media.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Torture and human trafficking in Reynosa

Based on an informant's tip, Mexican soldiers kicked in the door at a house in Reynosa, Tamaulipas on 28 March. They found 55 immigrant hostages huddled together. The smell of urine mixed with screams as the heavily armed men barged in.

Blood splattered the walls and floor in one room used for torture. The culprit: a 2x4 spiked with nails used to beat and punish the immigrants as they waited for their family members in the US to pay the ransom: US$3,000 a head.

The leader - allegedly the son of a local police agent - and four others were arrested. After handcuffing the leader, he was hooded and pushed into a bathroom, where two soldiers allegedly filled a bucket of water and used a near drowning technique to force him to reveal the location of two other such houses.

This bust and the following reporting surfaced worries about human rights abuses among soldiers with the Mexican army. Through their work, however, we continue to receive proof that the Gulf Cartel - solidly in control in Tamaulipas - continues to operate human trafficking networks.

Friday, March 27, 2009

"We're Sending Federal Agents to the Border"

The Dallas Morning News, along with a number of other major newspapers in the US, has given decent coverage to Clinton's visit to Mexico. But in many cases, this coverage is only skin deep.

I was reading this story just a few minutes ago, and the below paragraph jumped out at me:

The White House said Tuesday that it was sending hundreds of additional federal agents to the U.S.-Mexican border to help border states deal with the spillover effects of the violence and to stop the flow of guns and money from the U.S. to Mexico.

I was recently in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and spent a lot of time talking to Federal agents, off the record.

They did mention that Washington was planning on sending more federal agents, but when I asked if these agents would be rotated out from other posts, they told me that it was not likely.

The story I heard was that when the White House makes these announcements, it's for public consumption, not to bolster the faltering morale of the federal agents working on the border under stressful conditions.

The truth is, when Congress loosens the purse for more federal agents, the time between the moment when the funding comes down and when the new agent becomes an effective force on the ground can be as much as 18 months, maybe more.

New recruits need to be trained. Depending on the agency - ICE, ATF, DEA, etc - the academy training takes at least six months, likely more.

There is a background check process.

Then, the greenhorn, or FNG (F#$king New Guy), has to be paired up with a veteran. And as some of the veterans told me, this pairing doesn't mean you have double the effectiveness. If anything, two men - a vet and a rookie - add up to less than one agent as the rookie's steep learning curve in the field forces the veteran to slow down.

So when the White House tells us that more federal agents will be sent to the border, take that as good news, but keep in mind that will be around a year and a half before this new group adds value.

I applaud the effort, but it is one that should have been made years ago.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

South Am Security Paradigm Continues Shifting

Not two days after I published a piece with the ISN on how we're seeing a paradigm shift on security in South America, Brazil follows up on the Obama/Lula meeting and takes the lead on suggesting that the MercoSur countries - Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay - develop a sub-regional police force modeled after Interpol.

Here is the story in Portuguese (thanks Mr. H. for sending this along).

The premise of the piece is that Brazil will present at the next MercoSur meeting a proposal to create "Mercopol" - a security organization that brings together the federal police units of each member country.

A few reactions:

First, it seems that Brazil is testing the geopolitical waters. By floating this idea within a forum that it closely controls (albeit with some bickering from Argentina), Brazil can get a sense of how the region as a whole would cozy up to the idea of a South American police force formed under UNASUR, as Lula mentioned in his meeting with Obama.

Second, this proposal will give all countries involved in MercoSur, even the observers and the associate members - thinking Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador here - a chance to approve or disapprove, again within a forum that is not too heavy in terms of political liability on the regional level.

Third, if Mercopol were to be formed, I suspect there would be a heightened opposition to Venezuela's full entry into MercoSur (still held up in the Brazilian Congress much to Chavez's chagrin).

Finally, this is yet another example of Brazil taking a leadership role. The UNASUR Defense Council (Brazil's idea) has already stated that it will not place drug trafficking and organized crime on its agenda because these are not military problems. And this is absolutely correct. What we need, however, is a federal police complement to UNASUR's Defense Council.

Mercopol could easily morph into such an organization and perhaps feed into Ameripol, which to date has done little more than meet and talk.
Bottom line, Brazil is making moves to become South America's head cop. We will see if some of the region's top cop countries - Colombia and Chile specifically - fall in line behind Mercopol.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mexico's Narco Counterculture

In Mexico, you can go from nothing to a hired hit man in as little as three months, according to Mexico's Secretariat of Public Security (SSP). The hired gun position within most DTOs is the third up the ladder. Informant and recruiter comes first.

The analysis describes the three month process of becoming a narco hit man as one that has become something of a narco counterculture, one that presents "work in the gang as synonymous with success."

Minimum wage in Mexico is about 700 pesos a week (roughly US$65). Working as only an informant can bring as much as US$140 to US350 a week. The job requires that informants simply report on what moves in their area of responsibility. If invited to move up the ladder, young assassins can earn as much as US$700 a week, ten times more than they likely earned with a legitimate job.

Mexico as a Hollow State

The good people at the National Journal agreed to post a discussion I offered on why Mexico is a hollow state, and why the country will never become a failed state.

See the post here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Zetas as a Criminal Brand Name

On 11 March, I published a piece on how the Zetas are evolving.

One of the most common evolutions is the use of the name "Los Zetas" as a criminal brand.

Armed thugs across Mexico have begun calling themselves Zetas simply to provoke fear in their victims - a useful tool for control when attacking a small village to search for and then carry away targets for ransom kidnapping.

The Houston Chronicle published a piece on 22 March that underlines exactly what I was talking about.

Here is an excerpt:

Solis said he and other townspeople suspect those who raided Cuauhtémoc in early February, kidnapping the 23-year-old son of a bean-and-grain trader, are simply “bad characters from the area who have just taken the Zeta name.”

Fear of the Zetas borders on hysteria in this corner of Durango state, residents and officials agreed. Village boys playing with toy trucks have taken to shouting “here come the Zetas” when staging chases, Solis said.

When a rumor started March 10 in a town nearby that scores of Zetas were planning to attack, stores in the area closed, classes were canceled and people fled.

“A psychosis prevails across the whole region,” said Isidro Aguilar, the police chief of Guadalupe Victoria, a market town 25 miles from Cuauhtemoc, who otherwise denied that the area faces a crime plague. “There are people who are taking advantage of it.”

Pen and Pad with Napolitano

In a recent pen and pad secession with DHS Chief Janet Napolitano, a journalist asked a very good question:

Is that part of the problem, Madam Secretary, that the Mexico portfolio, you know, touches on so many agencies? Is the Administration at all thinking about housing them all, you know, particularly, you know, security, so that it’s not State and Department of Justice and Homeland Security but sort of creating a Mexico Security Czar?

This is entirely true. We have the DHS coming in with CBP and ICE. There is the DOJ with the DEA, the FBI, and the ATF. There is the DOS, which runs the Merida Initiative, and there is the White House - where an number of Obama-backed initiatives are born and passed along to others to implement.

Her answer:

You know, I don’t know about that. I mean a lot of the issues I deal with involve many agencies. I mean that’s just the problems of today don’t really match up with government, you know, organizations of — that we have in a way. They — they — and so one of my tasks is to be able to work with my colleagues on the Cabinet, with the White House, and with others and to recognize, you know, there are things Homeland Security will be doing, there are things that are going to impact the Department of State, impact DOJ and so forth, and that’s — that’s — you know, that — that’s the effort that’s going on now, is to make sure that we all know what each other is doing and are speaking with a consistent voice.

But — but if I had to sum up where we are, it’s that this issue’s getting top attention in multiple departments of the U.S., that planning is well underway and that we are having extensive discussions with our federal colleagues within Mexico and it is really focused on assisting the Mexican Government with their fight against the cartels. One facet of that assistance is looking at what we can do to stop cash and guns, and you guys didn’t ask me about cash which is kind of interesting, from going south.

One aspect of it is supporting our state and local law enforcement along the border and being ever prepared to respond with more resources should we see spill-over violence in the way I described it to you occurring...

I don't think a Mexican Drug Czar is the answer, but we can certainly make sure that the lines separating different agencies stay in place.

Operation Armas Cruzadas, the anti-gun smuggling program operated by ICE, is a good example. ICE agents are not arms experts. They are not well equipped to build a solid case against errant arms dealers, and they don't have the local knowledge (in places like Arizona and Texas) where most arms are legally purchased before slipping into the gray market.

With the exception of the X Caliber case (see below post), which was a fluke, the ATF has long demonstrated expertise when combatting gun smuggling. When ICE comes in with its own arms smuggling operation, it muddies the waters, creates conflict on the ground among agents, and further complicates the mission. This is just one example. Moving forward, I would argue that the one item that will most quickly deep six our efforts to control the border, to stop arms and cash from moving south, and to stop drugs from coming north, will be our inability to manage one large communications nightmare between so many agencies.

Friday, March 20, 2009

S*#t Hit the Fan

On 18 March, a judge dismissed the charges against a Phoenix gun dealer accused of helping move weapons south to Mexico to arm the drug trafficking organizations.

Details are here and here.

I blurred the edges of the photo to cover identification tags on the weapons.

I was in the ATF office in Phoenix on Monday, and some of the guys were talking about testifying later in the week. The trial was big news with these guys, and many of them had worked hard to bring this errant gun dealer to justice. From what I read and heard off the record, I was convinced that the prosecutor had an airtight case. Then a judge throws the case out because there was not enough evidence to lead to a conviction. This is a shot in the gut for the ATF and the US government. Even when a solid case is presented in court, these guys still can't get a break. The case will go to appeal, but I'm not hopeful there will be an overturn on the judge's decision. We'll see.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Locals of Douglas/Agua Prieta

Agua Prieta, Sonora - just across the border from Douglas, Az - is perhaps the only Mexican border town that hasn't seen astronomical violence.

Even in the next town over, in Naco, men find time to corner one another and spray pick ups with hundreds of bullets.

But not in Agua Prieta. This is a town where everyone knows the name "El Chapo" - the head of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel - and no one knows the name "Calderón" - the president of Mexico.

El Chapo keeps a strong grip on Agua Prieta, preventing all but what many consider a normal level of violence.

About a year and a half ago, there were a few days when local cops found bodies here and there, but that was soon over. It was more of a message to anyone even thinking about trying to take over Agua Prieta: just keep thinking.

The locals in Douglas don't know much about gun smuggling. And they don't know much about the violence that rages across Mexico. Many of them get on with their daily lives, interestingly unaware of what's going on just to the east in El Paso/Juarez, or to the west in Nogales.

There is one local, however, who knows more about gun smuggling across the Douglas border than anyone else. He owns the only gun store in town.

"I get five thousand dollar bribes every week," he told me yesterday as an opening statement to what turned out to be a 45 minute monologue on why he keeps to the law and how the guys at the ATF - Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms - won't leave him alone.

And with good reason. While staying well within the law, he can sell all the ammunition he wants to corrupt Mexican cops. Its such a large loophole that the ATF has asked him nicely not to sell to the Mexican cops.

Within the law, he can sell as many "long guns" as he wants. These are the so-called "weapons of choice" - the AR-15 variations and AK-47s.

About a year ago, he sold between five and ten long guns to a couple guys - nothing illegal about it - and some of the guns were used in Naco at a shoot out. When the guns traced back to his shop, the ATF agents on the case could only get the name and information of the men who bought the guns, but not the men who smuggled them across the border. This gray area - called the gray market - is where the legal trail ends, and the black market begins. Again, the gun dealer is just running a business.

If a guy comes into the store, obviously a gang banger or an otherwise sketchy individual, and wants to buy a gun, there's nothing the gun dealer can do if the guy checks out. Refusing a sale might get the gun dealer into trouble, especially if the customer wants to start talking about discrimination.

Back at the Border Mart, there is no talk of guns or drugs, really. People come and go, and "coyotes", known as "polleros" or chicken herders, often come in for a quick stop after a long day of smuggling people into the US.

Today, I'm heading back into Agua Prieta to learn more about how and why this town has managed through the recent trying times of violence, the economy, and a new feeling from the gringos who don't seem to want them any more.

Maybe I'll find someone who knows the president's name, not Obama (everyone knows him) but Calderón.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hiding guns in a massive load...

In Tucson, I recently spoke with some of the men who work the trenches, fighting gun smuggling south, from Arizona to Mexico. On the road from Phoenix to Tucson, I pass three separate trucks that exemplified what they said was a nightmare for Border Patrol and a boon for smugglers. Feats of engineering and twine-supported balance and load capacity that astounds . Many BP agents will not stop these guys because it would take their whole shift just to unload and search these vehicles. Meanwhile, smugglers know that they can wrap up a few guns at the bottom, in the middle, and pass on through...

I took this photo just a few hours ago, southbound on I-10, headed to Tucson - about 4 hours away from the border.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Headed to the Border

I'm headed tonight to the US/Mx. border in Arizona to investigate tunnel technology, Border Patrol search and rescue, Project 28, death in the desert, open air gun shows, and drug addiction.

Blogging will be limited until 21 March.

For now, I'll share a photo I received today: one of the largest weapons seizures in Mexican history.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Escalation and IEDs in Mexico

Rocket and grenade launchers, high powered machine guns, .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles, and fragmentation grenades have become common on the lists of items seized by the Mexican army in 2009.

A number of analysts in both Mexico and the United States have noted a trend that shows an escalation in violence driven by the use of more powerful weapons and explosives, especially grenades. Fragmentation grenades are easy to come by in Guatemala, and it's nothing to smuggle them north. Just last week, the AFI stopped two men in a truck near Veracruz (read Zetas affiliation), and found in a hidden compartment 66 frag grenades, allegedly purchased from an arms dealer in Guatemala.

On 19 February, an "armed commando" stole between 20 and 30 kilos of explosives from a mining company in Durango. Five days before that heist, another 121 kilos of explosives and 230 blasting caps were stolen from a separate mining company. Some of the explosives from the first theft were recovered, but most of it remains somewhere in the Mexican black market.

"There's only one reason why someone would steal that much explosive," an agent with the ATF told me last week, raising an important question: when will we begin to see improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Mexico?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Juarez: Unintended Consequences

Federico Ziga, the president of the National Chamber of the Restaurant Industry and Comdiments (CANIRAC), recently told El Proceso that most of the narco-violence in Juarez happens in or around restaurants. Their battles have destroyed businesses, economically and quite literally. Few items are salvageable when it rains lead. But since thousands of soldiers and federal police have arrived, there has been peace - the goal - and at least one unintended consequence: economic stimulus. According to El Proceso, each soldier spends roughly US$2.00 a day on food and other items. With at least 5,000 soldiers in town, small and mid-sized restauranteurs enjoy a daily injection of some US$10,000 - multiply that by six months (the time period many believe that the soldiers will be in place), and we have a back of the envelop guesstimate of the soldiers' impact on the local economy, roughly US$1.8 million. This is not counting the hundreds of federal police who stay in hotels, eat a nicer restaurants, and generally speaking tend to spend more money. Juarez is at peace, for now, and her restauranteurs are doubly rewarded.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

FBI "capacity building" in Chiapas

For me, the term "capacity building" has always held a certain air of UN-esque newspeak for, "let's spend some tax payers' money, teach some people in developing countries a thing or two, and then leave before they get the picture."

And I normally wouldn't match the FBI with capacity building, especially in the last place anyone seems to do anything constructive: Chiapas, Mexico.

For a long time, I've talked about why Mexico needs help controlling its southern border, where most of the immigrants from Central America, and the rest of the world, pass through before entering into the maze of violence, corruption, and possible desert death that Mexico has become for illegal immigrants.

Chiapas is the state where many immigrants first meet the harsh realities of making it to El Norte, and by a long margin, Chiapas is one of the poorest and most often forgotten states in Mexico when it comes to federal attention.

Enter the FBI.

On 3 March, FBI agents began a week long "capacity building" class for investigators who work with the Chiapas state Attorney General's office. The class, "Criminal Intelligence Analysis", will offer instruction on developing informants, interview and interrogation techniques, threat evaluation, organized criminal profiling, the intelligence process (not sure what that means), and phone call analysis - among other items on a long list of things to cover in just one week.

What strikes me as the most interesting aspect of this class is that here we have a perfect example of police training other police. There is no military involvement here. In a region that is littered with bodies due to using the military in the role traditionally defined for police forces, Mexico stands out as a country where there is a deeply entrenched need for security sector reform and a professionalization of the police forces.

This FBI class takes a small but exemplary step in that direction. Bravo.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What was lost with Reyes' Death - one year ago

Colombia's weekly news magazine, La Semana, recently published an interesting and insightful piece about the five things the FARC lost with Raul Reyes' death.

At the time of his death, one year ago on 1 March, 2008, Reyes was considered the FARC's number two leader; he commanded a considerable amount of respect around the world as a moderate, well spoken, and deeply committed member of the FARC's leadership council.

What was lost:

1. The FARC lost Reyes' international contacts. Reyes was close with a number of older members of Germany's Stasi - secret police from the Communist days in Eastern Germany. Through many of these contacts, Reyes was able to procure arms through the black market.

He was also the FARC's spokesman with many international organizations, and was responsible for rallying international support for the FARC's position when it came to negotiating with the Colombian government.

2. Many of the organizations that kept in touch with the FARC through Reyes were exposed when the Colombian government reviewed files recovered from his computer. These groups were subsequently forced to retreat from their supportive role, further isolating the FARC on the international stage, especially in Europe.

3. Also through a thorough review of Reyes' files, the Colombian government learned how the FARC communicated on both a domestic and international level. The guerrilla organization's communications protocols, what the leaders knew, and what the leaders didn't know was also disclosed. Without this knowledge, the deception used to rescue Ingrid Betancourt and the US captives, among others, would not have been possible.

4. The information on Reyes' computer also alerted the Colombian diplomatic corps to the linkages between the FARC and a long list of illegal organizations around the world. With these proven ties, Colombia's international efforts to stymie the FARC's support within illegal realms, especially the black market, have received a boost.

5. Colombia attacked Reyes in a FARC camp located within Ecuador, disrespecting that country's sovereignty while maintaining that if the Ecuadorians had been in on the operation, then the FARC would have found out. Colombia's relations with Ecuador have been severely damaged well into the future with a poor prognosis for any improvement, at least during Correa's mandate.

One year after Reyes' death, on 1 March, 2009, we still find two Andean countries with no diplomatic ties. But the FARC has been forever crippled.

If you ask Uribe if it was worth it, he would not hesitate to tell you yes.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Guinea Bissau: President Assassinated

Mexico's El Universal reported (from an EFE news clip) this morning that the president of Guinea Bissau was assassinated in an explosion on 1 March.

Guinea Bissau is a western African nation long plagued by the drug trade, corruption, and civil unrest. It's difficult to pin down a specific actor in this assassination. But it's nearly certain that the country will now become - more than ever - an ideal spot for moving drugs from South America into Europe.

More on Guinea Bissau's role as a transit nation here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Zetas Threaten President of Guatemala

The Guatemalan National Police made public on 1 March that Los Zetas have made a threat against the life of President Alvaro Colom.

Someone representing Los Zetas made the phone call to the police emergency line - 110 - on February 28.

The President's security has been doubled.

More on this news as events develop...

Juarez: Calderon's Big Bet

According to the Mexican government, nearly 8,000 soldiers will take on at least three mexican DTOs fighting for control of Juarez: Sinaloa, La Familia, and the Juarez Cartel.

As of this blog post, some 800 have already arrived, and the rest are on the way.

What a way to begin March: a month that could possibly be the bloodiest we've seen on record for Juarez.

This border city has registered the highest number of so-called "narco-executions" in the country, with 2,750 in the past 14 months.

Nearly 8,000 soldiers will be used to not only secure one city, but completely remove all presence of any drug trafficking organization from Juarez, said president Calderon. That's a big bet.

This is the first time he's poured this size of a force into one city. As we watch the fall out, I think it will be interesting to consider the outcome if Calderon does not succeed.

Borrowed from the idea of a failed state, the idea of a failed city could be one that has descended into anarchy, where most law abiding citizens leave, and those that remain are willing to work within a new system, full of criminals, vigilante gangs, the wretched, and run by one drug overlord.

This is a worst-case scenario. Best-case: Juarez becomes a city where the Mexican government tried and failed to exercise sovereignty within its own territory.

Unfortunately, the path to either conclusion above, or one where Calderon's bet pays off, and Juarez becomes a peaceful place, is one littered with bodies.

At some point, someone has to win. If it's not Calderon, then one DTO will have to triumph over the rest. And it's hard to see how three or more of these groups could come to some sort of time-share scheme for the plaza, or some sort of compromise. There's simply too much money at stake, and the nature of Mexican organized crime is that alliances never last as long as conflict.

If the Mexican military cannot save Juarez, we will watch as the various DTOs, vying for control, slowly and steadily rip the city apart, along the way rendering it ungovernable, insecure, and ultimately a black hole of death and violence just south of the US border.

Calderon has thrown down the gauntlet, making Juarez the new focus of his own personal War on Drugs.

On one hand, it is a very risky maneuver. And if he loses, he loses big. Mexican organized crime will have won one of the biggest battles to date in the war Calderon has waged since he entered office.

On the other hand, he's knocking on Obama's back door with the realities of violence in Mexico.

Calderon knows that bloodshed on the border will be a headline story for mainstream media in the US.

I can already see Lou Dobbs, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, O'Reily, and others invite a cadre of "experts" who will all weigh on on Calderon's big bet, and who will either admonish or support Obama for not getting more involved.

Calderon has repeatedly asked Washington for help. To date, his requests have been answered with some small results: the Merida Iniative, Project Reckoning, and Operation Xcellerator, to name a few. Obama is also slowly moving towards banning assault rifles again.

But even when we put all this together, it still is not enough.

How many more bodies will have to pile up before Washington realizes that Mexico can't do it alone? Calderon is determined to win, but if he loses, Obama will have no choice but to get involved and make bets of his own.

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