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.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Operation Xcellerator

Yesterday, the Drug Enforcement Administration (not Agency as many like to put it), released the results of Operation Xcellerator (photos here).

I'll quote their press release:

"To date, Operation Xcellerator has led to the arrest of 755 individuals and the seizure of approximately $59.1 million in U.S. currency, more than 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, more than 16,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 8 kilograms of heroin, approximately 1.3 million pills of Ecstasy, more than $6.5 million in other assets, 149 vehicles, 3 aircraft, 3 maritime vessels and 169 weapons."

I'd say that's major news.

On the heels of Project Reckoning, which focused on the Gulf Cartel, this operation seems to have delivered a gut shot to the Sinaloa DTO.

It's a given that most of the 755 arrests were mid- to low-level operatives. But they are a functioning part of a much larger machine, one that cannot run smoothly without even the smallest cog.

Here is some information on what was not reported.

Two reactions to this news:

First, the renown of the intelligence networks operated by Mexican DTOs has been somewhat dissipated - at least when they operate on the US side of the border. In Mexico, these guys can buy off just about anyone, and set up a pipeline of information that extends all the way to the top levels of state and municipal government - even federal government in some cases.

This level of corruption is simply not going to happen inside the United States.

The Mexican DTOs have a well funded and deeply entrenched network of lookouts, informants, and others who work within their own capacity to provide information, but the high number of arrests in Xcellerator suggests that the operation maintained integrity until boots started kicking in doors.

Second, we've gotten a glimpse, and only a glimpse, of the extent to which Mexico's DTOs have stretched their operations across the United States. This is not just a border state phenomenon. We have seen in Texas and in Arizona where there has been violence directly related to Mexican DTOs, and it's spreading.

I talked here (paragraph 5) about when five Mexicans where found dead in their apartment outside of Birmingham, Alabama. And in another case, a man was abducted and tortured until police came to the rescue in Atlanta. He owed Los Zetas money - never an ideal debtor.

Here is a map of all the places - towns, cities, hamlets, etc - that have reported a Mexican DTO presence.

For better or for worse, Mexican immigrants are working and living in just about every state. Most of these people are hard working and give a necessary contribution to their community, even if they syphon some of the "commons".

But as we get a glimpse of Mexican DTO activity in the United States, and especially as Washington begins to absorb this reality (and they take a very long time on The Hill), we will see the merging of two formerly separate worlds: immigration policy and drug trafficking interdiction.

Where and when the two will meet is largely up to Janet Napolitano, her staff, the president, and Congress.

Until then, I'm sure we will continue to see more shining examples of the DEA's exemplary work in the field of interdiction - but while necessary, interdiction is less than half the battle...

Iron River (partially) Disrupted

Phoenix-based gun dealer George Iknadosian, will soon go on trial to defend allegations that he sold hundreds of weapons - mostly AK-47 - to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.

The complete NYT story is here.

I also prepared a piece some time ago, here.

I have various reactions to this news. First, this guy was not the Sinaloa cartel's only source of armament, but considering how fast this group goes through bullets and weapons, I must wonder how US efforts to break up gun smuggling networks will affect the battles raging between Mexico's DTOs.

Inside the US, the ATF and other investigative bodies do not target gun smugglers based on their cartel faction. They follow a lead, gather evidence, build their case, and present it to the US attorney's office before gathering arrest warrants and such.

But as this process picks up speed, and I know it will under this administration, it will be interesting to see how a constricted illegal gun flow to Mexico affects the DTOs operational readiness to defend turf and/or go on the offensive.

I'm no military man, but it seems logical that if you're lacking in bullets and guns, you're going to defend, not attack. And lately it has been a number of offensive strategies that have kept the murder numbers high - Mexico already broke 1,000 murders for 2009 by the way.

A second thought has to do with the Mexican military. Will this supposedly incorruptible force become more compromised over time as the DTOs focus their bribery power on the men and women who control the army's arm supplies?

We already know that the Mexican army faces a serious desertion rate, and those who leave the army and join the DTOs are in a perfect position to engage their friends who are still in the army with cash and requests for help with raiding arms depots. We'll see if that happens.

A final thought - and this is more related to my next blog post - the trial of Iknadosian will reveal just how organized and well greased these smuggling systems are. US citizens still do not appreciate how effective and well organized the Mexican organized criminal factions can be. They have been in place for decades, and only until recently, they've been flying below radar. This fact alone explains why there are so many mid- to low-level DTOs operatives in place in all 50 states. Some of them smuggle guns, but most of them work on the other side of this market - bringing products into the US and distributing them to a neighborhood near you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

PDVSA: Ongoing problems with contractors

Some 3,000 oil workers in the Venezuelan state of Zulia suspended their strike only once PDVSA agreed to pay their salaries. These are not PDVSA employees. They work for companies PDVSA has contracted out to perform a variety of tasks.

The fact that PDVSA will pay the workers directly, rather than settle its debts with the companies, suggests that due to cash flow problems, PDVSA can't pay off its debts with contractors.

Southern Pulse has reported - twice now - that US companies working in the region have shut down individual wells due to PDVSA's inability to make payments.

This seems to be a trend that will see PDVSA struggle as it tries to keep operations going amid a weakening oil price climate and increasing domestic turmoil over the Venezuelan economy in general.

More Coke to EU

Poland's Internal Security Agency confiscated a ton of coke late last week. Along with EU organized criminal groups, members of an unnamed Colombian drug trafficking organization were also arrested.

Poland has been used as yet another gateway into Europe from Colombia and Venezuela. Apart from Project Reckoning, implemented by the DEA, I haven't seen any significant arrests of Latinos inside the EU over the past few years until today, and they're bummed.

Moving a ton of coke from Colombia to Poland is serious work - logistics, money, heavy lifting, and bribes. Money lost is not as valuable as time for these guys.

If the old rule stands - that the amount seized is roughly one third of the actual flow - then Poland is a serious player in the Colombia-EU coke trade.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Finally Serious about Militias in Rio de Janeiro

Earlier this week, the Rio de Janeiro state government created a specific group of lawyers to combat organized crime. This is a first. In the past, the judiciary in Rio has taken a back seat to the Military and Civil police, as well as the infamous Batalion of Special Operations, recently made popular by the move, Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad).

There will be five prosecutors assigned only to cases involving organized crime AND militias. This is an important point.

Militias in Rio de Janeiro have been around since 2000, but only recently have they received any attention from the state security apparatus. A inquiry committee last year found that at leat 225 people should be indicted for their involvement in the city's militia groups.

The Justice League is the largest and well known militia. It operates in western Rio, and like many of the other militias, these guys are well organized, pay a salary to all its members, and makes money mostly from extortion, calling it a "protection fee". Protection from the drug gangs, that is.

These guys also extort small business owners who operate in Rio's informal economy - mostly street vendors. They also sell illegal cable TV connections - TV a gato in Portuguese - and operate an illegal propane tank service. Many people in RIo use propane tanks to fire their stoves.

Militias control nearly 200 separate communities in Rio, and while many people don't like having them around, they can't complain. When the militias come into town, the drug trade is completely removed from the community. Militias were initially formed to operate outside the law when targeting drug traffickers in Rio.

This is part of the reason why the government took so long to target them head on. People down here consider that the militias are the lesser of two evils. But the development of a state level prosecution team to focus on organized crime and militias is a step in the right direction. The government should work to control these pockets of urban turf, whether they're owned by drug traffickers or militias.

It's refreshing to see that Rio is doing something... Finally...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fundamental Shifts in South America

Lately I've been emailing a number of correspondents in the region, trying to get them to pay more attention to Brazil. We'll see what comes of that effort, but for now, I wanted to share a slightly moderated version of the email I've been sending most of them on how and why there is a fundamental shift going on in South America:

...There's a large story that could use more coverage down here that has everything to do with how Brazil is slowly but surely consolidating its role as South America's leader, despite Chavez's staying power or Washington's relationship with Bogota.

Take, for example, the fact that Uribe met with Lula on 17 February to discuss bilateral relations, trade, etc. On the agenda is also a discussion about border protection and Brazil's role as a mediator/facilitator in Colombia's ongoing dealings with the FARC. The helicopters used to rescue the recently released hostages were furnished by Brazil.

Brazil's Petrobras is a major supporter of Colombia's small yet robust biofuel program. And PDVSA looks to Petrobras to help with refinery needs - not to mention Brazil's potential to eclipse Venezuela as a serious, professional oil exporter in the next 20 years.

UNASUR was Brazil's idea, and when Ameripol meets, Brazil is one of the loudest voices, I'm told.

Obama called Lula very early in his administration, and he will travel to the US in March. When Obama comes down here, I think he will promote - privately - the idea of Brazil as a regional policing force. Brazil will resist initially, but if Obama takes that position, it will give Brazil at least tacit approval of its new role in the region.

Along those lines, Brazil will be replaced by Colombia as Washington's number one partner in the region, especially when Amorim (Brazil's leftist Foreign Minister who does NOT like Tom Shannon) is out of office in 2011.

There's more: Brazil is currently developing five separate infrastructure projects (w/o Chinese help) to link its interior with the Pacific, through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In the mid- to long-term, Brazil will increasingly be interested in protecting these assets from criminal groups inside these Andean countries that seek to use them for black market purposes. These projects link a portion of Brazil's economy with security issues inside her neighbors.

Also, when Brazil's recently discovered natural gas deposits come online (late 2009, early 2010), the country will depend less on Bolivia, and will be in a position to actually export natural gas. This makes Brazil an attractive partner for Chile, currently struggling under its less than ideal natural gas partnership with Argentina.

In short, there are many factors, some mentioned above, that point toward Brazil's future as the leader in the region. We're both aware that some media sources have covered the story of the "Giant that awoke," but the stories I've seen only scratch the surface...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pricing on Weapons Smuggled into Mexico

I've been asked by the Dept. of Homeland Security to remove this post. Apparently what I thought was public information is still sensitive.

My apologies.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hutchinson-Whampoa Drops Manta Concession

The world's largest container-terminal operator, Hutchinson-Whampoa, will drop its concession to modernize and operate Ecuador's deep water port at Manta, according to a 6 February Bloomberg report.

This news comes after a 3 January speech by President Correa, who said Hutchinson would have to leave the country if it did not develop Manta according to the government's wished.

It is an "unacceptable" position, according to Hutchinson.

This is an interesting turn of events. On one hand, I believe Correa was speaking to a domestic audience, eager for him to make nationalistic statements.

On the other, Hutchinson doesn't need Manta. It is the closes port to China across the pacific, but apparently ports in Peru, Chile, Panama, and Mexico are just as if not more attractive.

I suspect Correa may be lobbying to win back his Chinese investors. We'll see if he does or not.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The "middle" of the end for the FARC?

Colombia's Semana news magazine posted an interesting piece yesterday. Four Colombians presented themselves to Panama's Servicio Nacional de Fontera, located some 50 kilometers from the Panama/Colombia border.

Most speculate the four Colombians were members of the FARC. Reading the story, I was reminded of the FARC's desertion rate, and how in the past couple years, we have seen this rate rise, slowly but steadily.

Meanwhile, on 10 February, El Tiempo reported that a joint force of Colombian police and military apprehended Jesus Antonio Garcia Largo (aka Chucho Mapurilla) in Putumayo, near the border with Ecuador. At 51 years old, he is a 35 year FARC veteran who spent some time with the 48th Front . Chucho was also one of the FARC's remaining ideological leaders...

These two news items, when taken together with the conciliatory position the FARC has taken recently (apart from the Indian massacre in Nariño), points towards what I would call the "middle" of the end for the FARC as an armed threat inside Colombia.

I say "middle" because I've already considered the beginning of the end, here, as well as questioning if they were even still revolutionaries in 2005, here.

Moving forward, I think it is important to note the desertion and attrition rate - measured both by what the Colombian military says (see last to paragraphs in this piece) and by what we see reported, like Panama yesterday.

It is anyone's guess how much longer the FARC will remain as an organization that closely resembles what it was during the Pastraña administration, but I think we can all agree that the FARC has peaked and is now on its way down.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The PRI's Comeback?

Upcoming legislative elections in Mexico may tell us just how tight a grip organized crime has on the political establishment.

According to a poll released on 9 February by Mexican daily El Universal, the former ruling party, the PRI, currently enjoys nearly 40% of the potential vote, while Calderon's PAN party would take 25% and the beleaguered PRD would take 15%.

The PRI, as I have commented before, is a party known to have close ties to organized crime in Mexico's northern states, and likely in other states across the nation.

With all 500 members of Mexico's lower house and at least four state governors up for re-election on 5 July, we'll see if the PRI takes control of the lower house. If so, I'll be sure to let you know which members have suspected ties with organized crime...

Cancun in Trouble

Mexico's armed forces took control of the Cancun police on 9 February after the death of Brig. General Mauro Enrique Tello Quinones. As far as I know, this is the highest ranking military officer killed by organized crime in Mexico in the past few years.

The retired general had just taken a consulting post in Cancun to help develop a "new strategy" to combat organized crime. I'm not sure what that new strategy might have been, but apparently policemen within Cancun didn't want to find out.

Not long after the general's tortured body was found with two others, the Cancun chief of police was arrested, suspected of the murder. Francisco Velasco will remain in custody as the military seeks to unravel this mystery.

Obviously Cancun is a major tourist destination. If you knew that security in Cancun had been compromised so much that the military had to take over, would you fly there this year for Spring break? It reminds me of when heads first rolled in Acapulco.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Maras and Heavy Weaponry

Two stories in Central America surfaced late last week, suggesting that street gangs, aka "maras" or "pandilleros" in Spanish, have begun purchasing heavy weaponry.

Funds from extortions, kidnapping, and drug sales, have been used by maras in El Salvador to purchase at least two AK-47s, one M-16s, a G-3s, and even a light anti-tank weapon (LAW).

According to Oscar Bonilla, the director of El Salvador's National Council of Public Security, cited the arrest of five street gang members, and the seizure of their weapons (listed above), when discussing this trend.

The five gang members were arrested while transporting the arms police believe were to be used to attack a maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, located about an hour from San Salvador. This is the prison that is thought to house a critical mass of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) senior members.

This news comes on the heels of a separate incident, where gang members used "heavy caliber rifles" and police uniforms to surprise and murder six individuals in the areas of Quezaltepeque and Kejapa, about 20 miles from San Salvador. Reminds me of what the Mexican organized criminals like to do - use police uniforms.

The articles rounded out the news with a few statistics:

In 2008, the economic costs of violence in Central America reached US$6.5 billion, or some 7.7 percent of Central America's combined GDP

During this time, businesses and families spent some US$1.2 billion to protect themselves

Between 90,000 and 100,000 gang members live in Mexico and Central America, many of them deported from the United States.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Nicaragua's Vulnerability

On 1 February, Mexico's El Universal published a piece on the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization's presence on Nicaragua's Pacific coast.

According to the piece, the Sinaloa DTO has been present in Nicaragua since 2003. I'm not surprised to see this news: we've long known that DTOs are crawling around Central America.

What makes this news more interesting, however, is Nicaragua's demographical distribution. Most of the country's population is concentrated on the Pacific side. Truth be told, only a small amount of the country is actually patrolled and controlled by the government, seated in Managua.

There is a thin strip of population on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, but if you've ever been to Bluefields, you'd note that most people there identify themselves more with Jamaica than with Managua.

And to the north, where Indian tribes rule, there is little to no connection with Managua, other than the occasional armed altercation between Nicaraguan police and the coastal Indians, armed to the teeth.

The vast expanse between Managua and the country's easter coast is a no man's land, especially to the north, where Nicaragua borders with Honduras.

The news in Mexico claims that DTOs are once again focused on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, but I agree with others, who claim the middle of the country is much more vulnerable.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Obama on the lookout for Corruption

For those of you who read Portuguese, Jornal do Brasil published today a short piece of mine about corruption in the US and Brazil, and Obama's admission that he had made a mistake on Daschel.

You can find it here.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Paraisopolis and the PCC - history and symbology

Sao Paulo was once again in the news earlier this week when at least 120 members of the Military Police - including an elite squad - entered and occupied one of Brazil's largest favelas.

Paraisopolis is home to about 80,000 people, and is the size of approximately 80 soccer fields, or some 798,695 square meters. There are some 17,200 houses. Bottom line: closely-packed quarters.

The violence started when a police action in the favela on Sunday night resulted in the death of a 25 year old man who the police called a drug trafficker and car thief. People inside the favela, however, thought otherwise, calling him a "trabalhador" or, simply put, worker.

Most of the violence was focused at two entrances to the favela, where Volkswagen vans, tires, trash, furniture, and other flammable items were piled and set ablaze.

Rocks, bottles, sticks, and other items were thrown at the police, but there were enough shots fired from sniper positions inside the favela to provoke the police to bump up the number to 300 Military Police, as well as call in a support unit which sent in an armored vehicle and a helicopter.

As far as I can tell the violence has subsided. But all those who are interested in this incident need to understand that there is a symbolic quality to Paraisopolis that few foreign reporters understand: this is PCC territory.

In 2003, members of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), or the First Capital Command as the prison gang is known in English, were placed in charge of Paraisopolis by the leader of the PCC - a very shrewd man known as Marcola.

Marcola, who is currently in prison, made his stamp on history in May, 2006, when he ordered a general strike on Sao Paulo police that brought the city to its knees.

But when he ordered his men to take over the drug trafficking network in Paraisopolis, he sent in a team of 50 men, who acted as a type of paramilitary group that enforced the law within the "city inside a city." For Marcola, Paraisopolis was a very important community to control, influence, and develop as a support system for the PCC.

When the police come in and act like they run the show, there will always be trouble.

According to my sources, there were two mid-level Military Police guys who were calling themselves the "donos" or "owners" of Paraisopolis. This news most certainly made its way back to Marcola. And I'm sure he made a phone call to put his people inside the favela on the alert. But Marcola is smart enough to know that he can't just start killing cops. There needs to be a reason. And that reason was delivered by the very security organization that does not want to go head to head with the PCC.

Reading the news Monday morning, I was reminded of Black Hawk Down, and how Mark Bowden described in his book the way the locals in Mogadishu would pop out of nowhere and fire randomly and sometimes lethally on the US Rangers who were completely surrounded.

It explains why the Military Police in Sao Paulo went in with so much force. The other explanation is that Paraisopolis is located near Morumbi, a well-heeled neighborhood in Sao Paulo. The Secretary of Public Security couldn't let the burning tires and thrown bottles go without some sort of response.

I have to consider that Marcola used this incident as an opportunity to test the reaction forces and willingness of the relatively new government in place. Paraisopolis was a test of will between two men: Marcola and the Secretary of Public Security for the state of Sao Paulo.
Makes me wonder if Marcola has something else up his sleeve...

Stay tuned.
Powered by Southern Pulse |