Authorities in Colombia and Mexico have seized over two metric tons of cocaine disguised as printer toner. At Bogota’s El Dorado airport, police officers discovered the first batch of cocaine when a drug-sniffing Labrador detected traces of the narcotic concealed inside a shipment of forty eight boxes bound for an as yet unnamed company in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. After chemical analysis confirmed that the substance was in fact cocaine, Colombian police then notified their Mexican counterparts of the discovery, which led to the seizure of a second batch which had arrived at Mexico City Airport on a flight from Bogota some hours earlier.
“None of the operations resulted in arrests, but Colombian police and their Mexican counterparts have indications of the two caches’ owners: apparently the cargo would be received by member of the Sinaloa cartel and was sent by a drug trafficking networking rooted in Colombia’s Atlantic coast,” said the director of Colombian police, General Rodolfo Palomino in an official statement.
Referred to as “coca negra” or “black cocaine”, the practice of mixing cocaine base and/or cocaine hydrochloride with other substances in order to disguise its appearance and to make it undetectable to drug sniffing dogs has been used by Colombian drug smugglers since at least 1998. Once the substance has reached its destination, the drug is then extracted by passing it through a chemical solvent such as acetone.
According to the latest Colombia Coca Survey, which is produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in association with the Colombian Government, the cultivation and production of cocaine has increased exponentially over the previous year. In 2014, the net coca cultivation area alone had risen from 48,000 hectares to 69,000 hectares, an increase of 44 percent. This substantially increased production capacity and allowed Colombia to produce a staggering 442 metric tons of cocaine over the same period.
A spate of violence has swept through the neighbouring Mexican states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas over the weekend (25 – 26 July), leaving at least twenty two people dead. Beginning on Saturday afternoon, law enforcement officers from Tamaulipas’ state police encountered a group of armed men while on patrol in the territory between Rio Bravo and Valle Hermoso. According to Mexican authorities, the armed men fired on the police officers in order to avoid being taken into custody. The police officers returned fire, killing nine men who have as yet to be identified. After the gunfight ended, nine long guns, a quantity of ammunition and two vehicles were recovered from the scene.
South of Tamaulipas, in the state of Veracruz, thirteen deaths were reported within a 36 hour period. The killings began on Saturday night, with an official from the Institute of Security and Social Services for State Workers (ISSSTE) gunned in his own home down by two men. The official’s wife, who was present at the time of the attack, is also reported to have sustained serious injuries. Later that night, on a highway in Veracruz’s Yanga municipality, the bodies of three suspected human traffickers were found in the boot of a taxi parked by the roadside. Eyewitnesses have reported that a group of unknown assailants opened fire on the three men, having first allowed the driver to go free.
On Sunday, six bodies, all male and all showing signs of torture, were found in Xalapa, Veraruz’s capital. Another corpse was found on a road in Tlacolulan, a municipality 17 kilometres to the north of Xalapa. While rival criminal syndicates, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, are known to operate in Tamaulipas and Veracruz, it has not yet been established whether either of these groups played any part in the killings.
Mexican officials are searching for Joaquin Guzman, the fugitive drug kingpin who escaped from Mexico’s toughest prison, Altiplano, along a 1.5 kilometre long tunnel some 90 kilometres west of Mexico City. Known as “El Chapo” (Shorty) for his diminutive stature, Guzman is the head of the Sinaloa cartel, an organised criminal syndicate based in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa. In recent years, it has smuggled billions of dollars of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine into the United States and has fought numerous bloody battles for pre-eminence with other Mexican cartels. Since the arrest of Osiel Cárdenas of the Gulf Cartel in 2003, Guzman is considered by US authorities to be the most powerful drug trafficker in the world.
In a statement issued by Mexico’s National Security Commission, Guzman – who had been in detention since February 2014 – was last seen by prison officials entering the shower area of his cell at 8.52 pm local time on Saturday. When his cell was subsequently investigated, a hole ten metres deep was found in the floor of the shower area. This led down to a 1.5 kilometre long tunnel which appears to have been professionally excavated. Police found a motorcycle mounted on rails that is thought to have been used to remove dirt as the tunnel was being dug as well as equipment for pumping in fresh air. The tunnel led to an abandoned house which enabled Guzman to resurface and complete his getaway unseen. Locals claim that this property was purchased by outsiders almost a year ago and that construction work has been going on ever since it was taken off the market.
Mexico’s Federal Attorney General’s Office has announced that its organised crime unit is currently in the process of interviewing thirty prison employees, to determine whether or not Guzman’s escape was made possible by an insider. Given that he was able to successfully bribe his way out of prison in 2001, speculation that his jailbreak was aided and abetted by prison authorities has been widely debated. Adding his voice to those who believe the escape was an “inside job” is Mexico’s Interior Minister Angel Osorio Chong, who has fired Altiplano’s prison director and the head of the national penitentiary system in an attempt “to facilitate” the investigation.
In a gesture of solidarity, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced that “The US government stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture.” However, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has expressed his confidence in the police’s ability to hunt down the escapee, saying in an interview that they possess the “strength and determination to recapture this criminal.” A 60 million peso (US$3.8 million) reward for information leading to Guzman’s capture has been offered.
Mexican security forces arrested on March 4 the leader of Los Zetas drug cartel. This is the second important capture of a kingpin this month in a boost by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s effort to fight organized crime. Omar Treviño Morales alias “Z-42”, brother of arrested ex-Zetas leader Miguel Angel Treviño, was caught by Mexican federal police officers and soldiers in the city of Monterrey.
His capture happened just a few days after the arrest of the leader of the Knights Templar cartel called Servando Gomez who was the most wanted cartel leader in Mexico. Los Zetas cartel have been blamed for many of the atrocities carried out by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in a wave of violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2007. Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) said: “Omar Treviño was the heir to all the Zetas who were going down.” Indeed, the cartel has been weakened by the killing of former boss Heriberto Lazcano in 2012 and the subsequent capture of Miguel Angel Treviño in 2013. The U.S., which claims that Omar Treviño Morales is responsible for numerous kidnappings and murders as well as cocaine smuggling, had offered up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
Among the most infamous incidents pinned on Los Zetas are an arson attack on a Monterrey Casino in 2011 that killed 52 people, the massacres of dozens of migrant workers, and the dumping of 49 decapitated bodies near Monterrey in 2012. Los Zetas cartel originally founded by army deserters, controls several Mexican states mainly located in the north and south-eastern part of the country (as presented in the map below) and are considered as one of the most powerful cartel of Mexico.
This series of arrest happen in an attempt by PRI President Peña Nieto to improving security in northern Mexico, both to improve the quality of life for residents, and to help pave the way for the entrance of new investments in oil and gas. In addition to conducting several capture of senior Zetas leaders, police forces in the state of Nuevo Leon have succeeded in drastically reducing crime rates in the city of Monterrey. However, security issues continue to be a major cause for concern in another Zetas stronghold, the state of Tamaulipas.
In the state of Nuevo Leon, the creation of a new highly professional police force unit named the Fuerza Civil, has helped reducing the number of homicides. The capture of major drug kingpins is important, but it needs to be part of a broader, locally-focused security strategy. Generally, Mexico’s murder rate is falling but more needs to be done, and particularly when considering the violence-plagued states of Guerrero, Michoacán and Tamaulipas.
Those states are wrapped in a political-military conflict between numerous illegal armed groups that favour a spiral of security deterioration. The recent advance of the armed self-defense forces has accelerated this dynamic. The risk of an escalation in violence is latent as more actors enter in the complex issue of the drug war. Besides, as stated before, the capture of drug kingpins is certainly efficient in weakening the cartels but only on a short-term period. Los Zetas cartel are not just violent because their leaders are, they follow an economic model that relies on controlling territory by adopting a violent way. Within that territory, they extract rents from other criminal actors and move only a limited amount of illegal goods via their own networks. Thus, without that territory, they have no rent. Los Zetas’ model depends on their ability to be more violent and powerful than their competitors, so they can extract this rent.
On the overall, the arrests of drug kingpins has provoked internal conflicts within the different cartels that lost control capabilities and resulted in them being splintered into smaller criminal organizations. Those smaller organizations pose a direct challenge to Mexico’s domestic security because they will be in competition for turf and network control. Therefore, in spite of those publicized arrests, is it unlikely that the security situation in Mexico and especially in the states of Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Michoacán will be improved in the short-term. There is a need to improve Mexico’s security apparatus, which involves removing the incentives that drive drugs cartels to violence.
The United States consulate in Matamoros issued a statement on Wednesday (4 February 2015) warning all American citizens of an increase in violence, which US officials indicate has been attributed to a battle between Matamoros and Reynosa factions of the Gulf Cartel.
The US consulate has indicated that staff members have been advised to restrict travel in the city as there has been a surge in violence and an increase in reports of large convoys of armed drug gang members driving through Matamoros. A statement released by the consulate indicated, “while daytime convoys of armed Transnational Criminal Organization members are not necessarily unusual for Matamoros, the amount of violence that has resulted from gun battles between these rival factions is cause for increased vigilance.” TCO convoys have been also driving through Division Del Norte, Lauro Villar, Canales, Periferico and near the entrance to the Veterans International Bridge.
On Wednesday, Mexican federal troops killed eight alleged gang members in battles that occurred along a highway near the US border in the northern state of Tamaulipas. According to a federal and state police task force, the gunmen were killed in separate battles after they hijacked buses and used them to block a highway between the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, opposite the Texas border towns of Brownsville and McAllen. According to officials, an explosive device was found and deactivated in front of the mayor’s office in Matamoros.
According to federal data, Tamaulipas state led the country in kidnappings in 2014, with 264 reported cases, compared with 211 that were reported in 2013. Homicides rose from 555 in 2013 to 628 in 2014.