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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Get off the Fence

The Dallas Morning News reported this morning that we may see an “enhanced role” for the United States in Mexico. True, the drug trade in Mexico is out of control, but I have to agree with those who are cautious about any "enhancement", or joint operations.

This is Mexico’s fight first, and while the US must support its southern neighbor, that support should come by way of what the US can do inside its own borders, first.

That aside, the DMN article reminded me of a presentation I gave in November 2008 at a government intelligence agency base in Texas. The presentation was on the presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations in the Americas, outside of Mexico.

During my 6-hour stay with government intelligence employees, the one resounding comment I heard was, “we need to get off the fence.”

The US needs to decide, from an intelligence-gathering point of view, whether or not Mexico will be seen as a friend or an enemy. That fundamental distinction will set the tone for all decisions for “enhanced roles” down the road. And as far as I can tell, that decision has not yet been made.

Now, back to the presentation: the slide that got the most attention was a map of the United States, I borrowed from the Los Angels Times (see below).

Apart from the problems with drug demand and gun trafficking from the US into Mexico, we need to focus on eradicating - or at least complicating - the down stream operations of Mexican organized crime inside the US.

The laundry list of what the US government can do inside our own country is long enough not to continue worrying about the supply side. Sure, share intelligence, but let the Mexicans fight their own battle. We have enough to do at home.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Look Inside Brazil's Foreign Policy Team

A source of mine in Brasilia, and someone close to the maneuvering of politics within the Brazilian Congress and Lula’s administration, recently made an interesting comment.

Lula, he says, becomes quite upset at the lack of coordination between the various cabinet-level politicians who operate a specific segment of Brazil’s foreign policy.

Brazil’s foreign policy is officially delegated to Foreign Minister, Celsom Amorim, and Lula’s Foreign Affairs adviser, Professor Marco Aurelio Garcia, who has been a foreign policy adviser with the Workers Party (PT) for well over a decade.

Professor Marco represents the PT’s hard left, based on ideology from the party’s socialist position formed in the 1960s. His position contrasts somewhat with the relatively more moderate position taken by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, aka Itamaraty, and under Amorim’s charge.

Amorim undoubtedly drives Brazil’s over all foreign policy maneuvers, but insiders report that it’s Professor Marco who works behind the scenes to maintain Brazil’s cordial relationship with the region’s leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Paraguay.

If Obama seeks to appease Brazil, and use the South American giant as a regional proxy in South America, his team must appease both Amorim and Professor Marco – not an easy task as both men often disagree.

Defense Minister, Nelson Jobim, also has a voice in Brazilian foreign policy. So does Carlos Minc, the Environmental Minister. In the area of foreign trade, Ministers Reinhold Stephanes with Agriculture and Miguel Jorge with Development and Foreign Trade, weigh in.

In addition to this not to small group, another appointee to Lula’s administration, Harvard Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, is in place to advise on long term, strategic foreign policy decision making. His voice and ideas fall directly in line with what Brazil would plan for a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States.

Mangabeira, my source reports, recently visited Washington to engage with the Obama administration. He claims links to the first couple because he was at least a professor for Barak Obama when he attended Harvard.

Perhaps Mangabeira’s influence led to the 26 January phone call between Presidents Obama and Lula. But the press never covered Mangabeira’s visit, nor was the Brazilians embassy directly involved in the visit.

Either way, Lula has unofficially committed to a trip to DC in March, and it is quite possible Obama will visit Brazil before the end of the year, maybe even before the end of the North American summer months.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Border Surge and Unintended Consequences in Spain

A colleague of mine who writes for Latin American Thought recently sent over an interesting article from El Espectador, a Colombian print weekly.

The article outlines how Colombian organized crime has installed itself inside Spain.

Citing the recent murder of a Sr. Leonidas Vargas, killed while resting in a hospital bed in Madrid, the author pointed out that in the past the assassin would have been sent from Colombia - most certainly on his way home before the Spanish authorities could respond to the crime. Today, however, the assassin probably didn't even leave Madrid, asserts the author. I completely agree.

For years now, Spanish police have done away with the idea that Colombian assassins travel from Colombia to do their work in Spain. Today, these men live and work in Madrid, perfectly blending in with Madrid's business class.

The are called "debt collectors," and are sent to force their targets to pay a drug trafficking debt - often marked in dollars - with their own life.

"You pay or you die."

There is very little about this scenario that we haven't seen in Latin America. There is even little novelty of this occurrence in Spain, especially for those of us who follow the trends of Latin American drug trafficking.

But what I find interesting is how Spain may become over time a new battle ground for rival trafficking groups who seek to use the Iberian peninsula as a spring board into the rest of Europe.

Until now, we haven't seen blood shed between the Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). There is a business agreement in place, one forged many years ago. But this agreement considers only the movement of product into the United States. When the EU is under consideration, all bets are off.

Spain becomes a more important transit country when we consider Venezuela's role in moving bulk quantities of cocaine from Colombia to Europe, as much of it flows through Spain.

Spain is a stopping point on the drug route from Western Africa into the EU, and places such as Guinea-Bissau and Senagal, which have become reception points for drugs flowing out of Brazil and Argentina.

Finally, if all the talk of a "border surge" turns into reality, then we will see Spain, again, become a hot transit zone.

The Colombians are already in place. And I recently read that street gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha are heavily networked throughout Spanish cities. What, then, will happen once the Mexicans come into town?

A spike of violence in Spain on the heels of any border surge, I think, would be the text book definition of unintended consequences.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Citizen Command of Juarez - update

Update 20/1: The Mexican army has declared an alert in the state of Chihuahua due to the formation of what it calls a "new criminal group." The army assumes that this group may turn into something similiar to "La Familia" a civil justice group in Michoacan that eventually fell into the services of one drug trafficking organization, used to wipe out members of a rival criminal group. If the Citizen Command of Juarez does begin working with a DTO, it will be very interesting to see how that plays out. Either way, the future does not bode well for Juarez.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Citizen Command of Juarez

Over the weekend, a militia group in Juarez popped out of nowhere. They call themselves the Citizen Command of Juarez (CCJ), and through a number of emails sent to newspapers and other media, this group claims it will kill one criminal every 24 hours until there is peace again in Juarez.

This group is allegedly supported by local business men who are “tired” of the impunity for criminals in Juarez.

Leaders in the local business community have negated any connection to this popular militia.

As many know, Juarez suffered some of the worst violence in Mexico in 2008, and it’s likely to experience a similar stretch of murder and mayhem in 2009.

The birth of this militia may not take the group farther than a couple killings and maybe some more media play before they are stopped. Cleary, the men this group wants to target are untouchable – too powerful to worry about a bunch of civilians with (American) guns.

There is one significant point to make, however. When citizens have enough evidence to support the idea that the cops and the military can’t contain crime and violence, the argument to take justice into one’s own hands becomes stronger. Given what Mexico faces in 2009, groups like CCJ will spread, if they haven’t already…

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Opening for Obama to Engage Brazil

The new administration will seek to engage Brazil in an unprecedented way. This is one of the strongest conclusions made by nearly everyone I spoke with while preparing a recently published piece on Obama’s plans for Latin America.

The specifics of how, when, where, etc are yet to come. As many have already noted, there is a (long) short list of people on deck to take over for Tom Shannon. And Cuba will certainly be the first LatAm country to receive some long overdue attention, setting the tone for the Obama administration’s efforts south of the border.

But when it comes to Brazil, there are few in DC who can put their finger on exactly how the US can answer Brazil’s biggest question: so what? So what if you want to work with us, the Brazilians might say to Obama’s team. What’s in it for us?

From Brazil’s point of view, the US is not a free trader. Brazil has perennially confronted – and defeated over a cotton subsidies issue – the US at the WTO. Sugar and ethanol subsidies further exacerbate trade challenges, and to date there has been little to no support from the US on any matters concerning Brazil’s desire to become a player on the UN Security Council (never mind it’s one of the most defunct multilateral forums in existence today).

But let’s say that whoever replaces Tom Shannon has a keen ability to break through to Lula’s people, winning over the especially skeptical Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister and a strong advisor to the president. Then what?

What can Obama possibly offer that doesn’t have to go through Congress or be subjected to the geopolitical strategies of other UN Security Council members? The most clear answer is to support Brazil’s efforts to combat South America’s drug trade.

In a recently released policy paper on Brazil’s new national defense posture, the Brazilian military announced that it will begin shifting its focus from the southern borders to the Amazon basin, specifically to its borders with Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. To date, the “Cobra” operation, run by Brazil’s Federal Police to patrol the Colombia-Brazil border, has met limited success, largely due to inadequate resources.

With the military high command united behind securing Brazil’s most porous borders, Brazil is in a position to provide support in material and man power to her neighbors that have the desire but not the ability to stop drugs flowing from their countries to flourishing markets in the US and Europe.

And I was waiting for the news to come out. I knew it was a matter of time before Lula would make public his first offer of assistance to combat drug trafficking in the region. It happened on 15 January in a small border town between Brazil and Bolivia, where an international road that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific will be finalized later this year (and the Chinese are happy about that).

Lula said, “he would grant Morales’ request for helicopters and other logistics support to patrol the porous frontier that is a major cocaine-trafficking route from the Andes…”

And this is where Obama’s people – and the Drug Enforcement Administration – should tread carefully. Lula is reaching out in an unprecedented way to assist Bolivia with an international challenge that Brazil now realizes is in its national best interests to combat.

The State Department under Clinton and the DEA should recognize Brazil’s political abilities in the region, and follow her lead. If Obama wants to appease Brazil, the best way is to whole heartedly support the region’s true leader – one with the ability to influence both Colombia and Bolivia (and Venezuela).

With enough support, Brazil could be encouraged to assist Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela with the region’s drug trafficking challenge. The US need not be the region’s policeman when a capable and ready Brazil is in place. It would be folly to try and force a reversal to the days when the US’ agents crawled all over the place poking around behind the backs of local police.

Finally, two caveats: I do not want to down play the DEA's important role in the region, but it is important the DEA remains a team player, as hard as it is sometimes due to concerns over corruption and operational integrity.

And second, I do not wish to promote the use of the military to do police work. The Brazilian Federal Police should take the lead on combating drug trafficking in the region. But I must recognize that in Latin America security sector reform is more of a dream than a reality. And the reality now is that if Brazil’s military will step forward to assist Bolivia and stop the cocaine and coca paste leaking out of that country and through Brazil into Europe and the US, we – and Obama – should welcome that initiative and do what we can to support it.

Thankfully, Lula has committed the Brazilian military before Obama’s team could come in and make that suggestion, which would have been a mistake and bad start considering Brazil’s sensitivities over issues of sovereignty – like what its military does and does not do.

With this announcement in place, the Obama administration has a clear hand to play. Let’s hope they do.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Peru, dollars, and China

Word has come through that Peru is talking about swapping out its local currency for dollars amidst negotiations for a major loan. But the most interesting aspect of this economic news is that the Peruvian government is talking to the United States and China.

The Peruvian Finance Minister, Luis Valdivieso, said Peru is looking for some US$ 9 billion in loans to help finance some $35 billion in development projects.

Considering the change of the Presidential guard next week and other issues around the world, the US might stall - or prolong - the negotiations in the face of increasingly drastic Peruvian need. It will be interesting to see if China bails out Peru, with a long-term strategic look at what Peru has to offer in return, apart from repaying the loan and what Garcia has already given China by way of mining concessions...

Failure in Mexico: The State vs. the states

During the week of 5 January, Mexican military forces engaged and captured Enrique "El Primo" Rivera Garin, a suspected operator of the Beltran Leyva brothers cartel in the town of Tlapa de Comonfort, located in the state of Guerrero.

At the time of his arrest, Rivera had on his person some five kilos of cocaine, two assault rifles, a shotgun, three handguns, thousands of dollars in cash, over seven yards of detonating cord, and a cartridge of industrial explosive.

After his arrest, the town's mayor fired the entire police force. He suspected that the whole group had been working with the narco cell run by Rivera.

Reflecting on what Boz recently posted concerning a range of ideas and positions on Mexico as a failed state, I came to the conclusion that we shouldn't be talking about that yet. It's ok for the DOD to engage in long range planning. That's what they do.

In a Dallas Morning News article, the author takes a moment to consider Ciudad Juarez as a failed city, noting that the mayor and other city officials now commute from El Paso.

The same could probably be said of Tijuana. And I spoke with a contact in Culiacan yesterday who told me that he was all but convinced that it was time to leave the city. He said the violence there is the worst it's ever been. Most violent acts are likely not even reported.

I would submit that rather than consider Mexico as on the road to a failed state, we should dig deeper, look at the state level within Mexico, not simply the State. We should also look at the possibility of failed cities, and towns - especially towns like Reynosa, Matamoros, and Nuevo Laredo on the US-Mexico border where the chances of failure appear most likely.

Violence in Mexico has finally gained traction in US news. But rather than talk about possible eventualities, which is interesting I admit, let's focus on realities.

Ciudad Juarez is an ugly reality. So is the small town of Tlapa de Comonfort.

My question is how many small towns in Mexico are under the complete control of narcos. How many cities? And how many Mexican states? Counting those numbers, we will over time gain a better handle on whether or not Mexico will fail at the national level or become something perhaps even worse: a hollow democracy that, due to the ideals of sovereignty, shields corruption, crime, and violence that extends from the top all the way to small, forgotten towns all over the country.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Inside Los Zetas

On the last day of 2008, Mexico’s El Universal paper published an interesting summary entitled “Los Zetas” por dentro. Its author had obtained a document prepared by the Mexican PGR (Attorney General), based on interviews conducted with former members of Los Zetas. As someone who has followed this group for some time, I was pleased to learn something new.

Many understand that the Los Zetas is a well organized drug trafficking organization, formed by members of a group of Mexican soldiers who deserted their unit, known as the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFES).

The GAFES deserters, totaling around 40 men, stuck together and offered their services to the Gulf Cartel, and Osiel Cárdenas, specifically. But once he was extradited around two years ago today, Heriberto Lazcano, aka El Lazca, took absolute control of Los Zetas. The group slowly but surely took complete command and control over all of the drug trafficking corridors formerly operated by the Gulf Cartel, primarily the plazas from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Tx in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

When El Lazca took over the Gulf Cartel’s operations, Mexico experienced a cascading moment in the country’s drug trade. For the first time in Mexican history, we had a military unit operating like a drug trafficking organization (DTO). In Mexico, it’s normally the other way around.

And based on what we know from Colombian history, when you have a disciplined military unit operating as a DTO, it’s very hard to dislodge entrenched soldiers. The Zetas differ in one very important aspect: they are willing to take the Mexican military head on – and so far, the Mexican military has, at best, disrupted only a fraction of the group’s operations.

The men who stuck with El Lazco, who were part of the original Zetas, are referred to as the Zetas Viejos within the DTO. They are the men who work as commanders and operate from command/control positions in the group’s various hard points within its drug trafficking network. One very clear example is Miguel Triveño, aka El 40, who runs the Nuevo Laredo plaza – perhaps still the most lucrative drug trafficking corridor in the Americas.

El 40 and El Lazco clearly are Zetas Viejos. They are also known as Cobras Viejos, or L Viejos. Logically, the younger recruits, and next down in the line of command, are called Zetas Nuevos. These men include Mexican military deserters, former policemen, family members of Los Zetas, and – most notably – men trained within the Guatemalan Special Forces, known as Kaibiles. The Zetas Nuevos operate on the frontlines, take orders only from the Zeta Viejo commander they serve under, and act with the utmost brutality and lethal force.

These are the guys you read about when there’s a story that claims two trucks pulled up to a stopped car and unloaded a full clip into the target – overkill. Their calling card includes lots of brass bullet casings littered on the ground, kidnap and torture, decapitation, disfiguration, and in some cases very professional “double-tap” styled assassinations. In this regard, they differ little from the enforces who work for La Familia, the Beltran Leyva brothers, or the Tijuana Cartel.

But where the Zetas differ, I think, is again with the military order that reigns throughout the organization and the crisp, clean nature of many of the group’s operations. There are documented cases of paramilitary training for new Zetas, especially those with little to no military experience. Training camps dot the landscape in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, hidden within large acre ranches.

The Cobras Nuevos, or L Nuevos, form the next level down the chain of command. These are the men who serve the Zetas Viejos directly as bodyguards. When the Zetas Viejos travel, they take a trusted contingent of gunslingers, and those men are the Cobras Nuevos. According to the PGR, sometimes Zetas Nuevos join them as the drivers to back up the Cobra Nuevos. They are all armed with one long barrel rifle, likely automatic, and a sidearm.

The next level down is where we get into the Zetas’ money laundering and business operations. A nation-wide network of men are in place with the sole purpose of covering up all the illicit business operated by members of Los Zetas. It’s not clear in the article, but it makes sense to consider that each Zeta Viejo operates his own group of business owners and accountants. Within the Zetas DTO, the members of this group are appropriately referred to as productividad.

The lowest members within the Zetas DTO chain of command are called halcones. These men serve as the eyes and the ears of Los Zetas wherever they may be. I’ve read stories that recount how in states like Tamaulipas, where Los Zetas have complete control, the halcones stand on overpasses that cross major highways just to take note of the traffic flowing in and out of town. These men likely work in business, politics, at bars, at hospitals, anywhere, and everywhere. These men are likely part of the Mexican “blue collar” infrastructure that keeps the country running. Makes me think of the movie The Fight Club – these guys are everywhere.

In addition to potentially thousands of halcones and members of the productividad who operate both in Mexico and in the United States, we can’t forget that the Zetas Viejos have any number of police commanders, politicians, high-level businessmen, judges, lawyers, military soldiers and mid- to high-level commanders, etc. on the payroll.

All that information funnels through the Zeta intelligence network, and is likely the principle reason why no man who betrays this group is safe in Mexico or the United States, or anywhere really. It’s very much like when Pablo Esobar in Colombia would send his assassinations to kill people who tried to flee from him in Spain, Russia, or even Turkey.

The Zetas’ counter intelligence organization has no peer in the Americas, and it begins with the halcones. Like most intelligence organizations, gathering information is easy, shifting through it to make sense of what’s important and what’s not is where the work gets tricky.

Obviously, this network is not without faults. A high-level Zeta leader has already been captured this year. Miguel Angel Soto Parra, who oversaw Zeta activities in central Mexico, is now in custody. He will likely join some of his other Zeta Viejo buddies caught last year, and join the list of those to be extradited to the US.

The bottom line, however, is that the Zetas is a well trained, well informed, and absurdly rich organization that will take more than the Mexican military to bring down. We tend to focus on just the top members, but when you consider all the levels within the organization that I’ve described above, the whole Zeta DTO expands into a massive criminal organization that likely employs thousands in a country where finding a legitimate job is very difficult, if not next to impossible in today’s economic climate.

It will be very interesting to watch how Mexico’s organized criminal map unfolds in 2009. I’ll make one safe prediction: Los Zetas will still be around in 2010, and quite possibly beyond Calderon and Obama’s respective administrations.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Overwhelming the System

According to a New York Times article, published 11 January, federal immigration cases are overwhelming the justice system from federal to local courts.

Some of the below highlights of this article are based on a study recently concluded by a Syracuse University research group known as the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Quoted material follows:

  • Federal prosecutions of immigration crimes nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, reaching more than 70,000 immigration cases in 2008.
  • Immigration prosecutions have steeply risen over the last five years, while white-collar prosecutions have fallen by 18 percent, weapons prosecutions have dropped by 19 percent, organized crime prosecutions are down by 20 percent and public corruption prosecutions have dropped by 14 percent.
  • United States attorneys on the Southwest border, who handle the bulk of immigration prosecutions, usually decline to prosecute drug suspects with 500 pounds of marijuana or less — about $500,000 to $800,000 worth. As a result of Washington’s decision to forgo many of those cases, Mr. Goddard said, local agencies are handling many of them and becoming overwhelmed.

On a light day, judges sentence between 40 and 60 criminals at a time. On heavy days, over 200 immigrants are handed sentences that vary from a few weeks to six months.

Reminds me of the Dark Knight when Two-face – before his accident – put 500 of Gotham’s criminals before a judge…

This article underscores one point more than any other. Eventually resources will dry up. We’ll never have enough judes, prosecutors, or ICE agents to capture, try, sentence, and the deport all the illegal aliens flowing in and out of the United States. And it’s quite clear that deportation is not a long term solution. Some of those deported are back inside the US in well under a week.

We can't police our way out of our problems with immigration.

Obama may have not wanted to touch the immigration lightening rod topic during the campaign, but one way or another it’s going to catch up to him.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama to meet with Calderon today - January 12, 2009

Much has already been published about Obama’s first “official” meeting with a world leader. Mexican President Felipe Calderon will meet with president-elect Barack Obama this morning at the Mexican Cultural Center in Washington DC. Calderon has an agenda heavy with a number of items that include immigration, security, and trade, yet he will receive very little by way of promise or action.

Mexico’s Proceso news magazine is quick to point out that Calderon supported McCain in the presidential campaign. But Obama will not hold that against him. Nevertheless, it will likely be at the back of both men’s minds, and if Obama wants to, he could use that simple fact to pressure Calderon, if only a little.

What Obama will make clear is that every request Calderon might make will have to go through the US Congress first – immigration reform, NAFTA tweaks, and support for the drug war top that list.

Obama has also played “the wall” cards close to his chest. The construction of the new border fence continues, and during the presidential campaign, neither Obama nor McCain made much of the issue. The truth is there was little daylight between each man’s position – use a wall near the cities and rely on a “virtual fence” in the long stretches between populated areas.

This will not be good enough for Calderon, but he must face the larger picture. Dozens of immigrants may still loiter around the Chevron station off of the 285 loop in Atlanta, looking for work as they do in every major city in the United States, but there are enough Mexican immigrants returning home to capture the national media’s attention. Once again, Congress comes into play, and the new Congress, once seated, will most certainly focus on the economy. The Mexicans, sadly, may have to wait it out through the summer and into the fall before we see any significant movement in Congress, and that’s with or without strong support from the Obama Whitehouse.

Calderon has done well to get his foot in the door first, ahead of a long line of world leaders eager to make a positive first impression on the new US president. To what avail? As optimistic as I’d like to be on this point, I must agree with the Proceso when it points out that little more that rhetoric will come of this meeting.

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