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Aug 11, 2008 | 22:17 GMT

8 mins read

Mexico Security Memo: Aug. 11, 2008

Mexico Security Memo

A Decline and then Spike in Violence

While much of the past week saw a slight decline in violence, the 28 drug-related homicides across Mexico on Aug. 9 served as an ugly reminder of the brutal nature of the country's cartel war. In one case in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, gunmen shot four members of a family dead after the family had received a death threat the previous evening. The rest of the killings — which took place in Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Mexico, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Baja California states — offer a snapshot of the current hot spots for violence. Sinaloa and Chihuahua continue to top the list of deadliest states, despite the presence of a few thousand federal police and military forces. In Juarez in particular the majority of the violence appears associated with fractures among previous cartel alliances, according to U.S. counternarcotics sources. While we have observed several noteworthy successes against criminal groups during those operations, authorities have yet to make any significant progress in curbing the intercartel violence that continues to rage. Chihuahua and Sinaloa states are far from being the only places requiring federal attention. In Michoacan state, for example, federal law enforcement officials announced this past week that additional federal agents will soon be deployed to the state. Reports later emerged of overflights by Mexican military airplanes and helicopters around the state capital, possibly associated with the arrival of reinforcements to the area. Despite being the first state to which President Felipe Calderon deployed military forces upon taking office in 2006, Michoacan's dense forests, long coastline and remote areas continue to be havens for drug cartels involved in trafficking, marijuana cultivation, and synthetic drug production. As the government continues to shift soldiers and police from one hot spot to another, the Michoacan situation offers a glimpse of the long-term consequences of continuing to field too few troops in cartel strongholds.

The Federal Response

Well aware of these concerns, the Calderon administration been keen to publicize that it is in this fight for the long haul. Indeed, the administration's approach has been noticeably comprehensive, and included not only troop deployments, but also approving an unprecedented number of extradition requests for drug traffickers as well as pursuing broad policy changes. The removal from office last week of key anti-drug official Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos reportedly came as part of Calderon's most recent move to restructure the country's counternarcotics authorities. Indeed, a STRATFOR source in the Mexican government confirmed this past week that Vasconcelos is being considered as a candidate for drug czar, which would be a new position in the Mexican government presumably similar to the White House's director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Details of planned federal police reforms also emerged this past week with the announcement of a new federal anti-kidnapping unit composed of 300 agents that will have authority over all kidnapping investigations in the country. This move follows a theme that we have observed during the past year, in which Calderon's administration has emphasized the role planned for law enforcement, while downplaying the possibility that the country's military forces will be engaged in counternarcotics operations in the long term. This announcement will also likely score political points for the administration, as it comes amid renewed public concern and political debate over Mexico's kidnapping problem prompted by the recent high-profile kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy from Mexico City. While reorganizations such as these may allow for a fresh perspective on combating organized crime, fundamental challenges remain that will not be solved by 300 federal agents.

A Sinaloa Seizure in Nicaragua?

The Nicaraguan navy intercepted two speedboats this past week loaded with more than 1 ton of cocaine several miles off the country's Caribbean coast. A Nicaraguan naval official said the cocaine belonged to the Sinaloa drug cartel and that Sinaloa is among the groups that most often use Caribbean waters for drug trafficking. Seizures such as these often serve as opportunities to examine the status of trafficking routes not only between South America and Mexico, but also within Mexico itself. Assuming that the Nicaraguan navy is correct in its assessment that the drugs belonged to Sinaloa, the cocaine would have to take one of three routes as it traveled to Sinaloan hands in Mexico. The first would be to continue via boat directly to Mexico's Caribbean coast; the second would be to transit across Central America for transfer to another boat in the Pacific for delivery to Pacific beach in Mexico; and the third would be to enter Mexico via its land border with Belize or Guatemala. Considering the increasing Mexican cartel activity in Central America and the greater monitoring of ships and planes approaching Mexico, transit over Mexico's land border appears to be among the more likely options. If true, it raises the possibility of a stronger Sinaloa presence in Guatemala and Belize than we had previously considered. Further details about the intended route of this shipment will offer greater insight into the presence of Sinaloa traffickers. (click to view map)

Aug. 4

  • Authorities in Guerrero state reported the death of a police officer in La Union who was killed the night before in a firefight with criminal groups.
  • An army raid on a suspected cartel safe-house near Morelia, Michoacan state, resulted in the seizure of several firearms, luxury vehicles, small amounts of drugs, and approximately $100,000 in currency.
  • A municipal government official in Coalcoman, Michoacan state, died after being shot several times while driving to his home.

Aug. 5

  • A police officer in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, was shot dead by armed men traveling in two vehicles while he drove.
  • Two people died and seven were detained during a firefight between military forces and armed men in Tumbiscatio, Michoacan state.
  • Gunmen traveling in a vehicle opened fire on a police patrol in downtown Aldama, Chihuahua state, killing the two officers inside.

Aug. 6

  • Sonora state police officers exchanged gunfire with several armed men in the border city of Nogales. Officers seized several firearms and small amounts of drugs after the engagement.
  • A police commander in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, died when he was shot multiple times outside his home.
  • Authorities in Los Mochis, Sinaloa state, seized more than 1 ton of cocaine from a truck during a routine highway traffic inspection. The truck that had originated in Michoacan state and contained fake police uniforms, weapons and ballistic vests.
  • The body of a police commander from Coacalco, Mexico state, was found with two gunshot wounds in the nearby city of Ecatepec. The commander had been abducted from his home July 30.

Aug. 7

  • A Sinaloa state police officer died when he was shot several times outside his home in Culiacan.
  • Two police officers from Soledad, California, were arrested by Mexican authorities in Tijuana, Baja California state, in possession of 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
  • The body of an agricultural businessman from Balancan, Tabasco state, was found on the Tabasco-Chiapas border. He had previously been reported kidnapped.
  • Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito was relieved of his command of military counternarcotics forces in Baja California and Sonora states. Aponte created controversy when he publicized the names of allegedly corrupt state government officials and acted outside normal government policy.
  • Authorities in Vista Hermosa, Michoacan state, found the bodies of four federal agents with gunshot wounds and signs of torture.
  • Authorities in Juanacatlan, Jalisco state, raided a large farm that was used to produce large quantities of synthetic drugs. Four suspects were arrested in the raid, which resulted in the seizure of large quantities of chemical precursors and a small amount of processed methamphetamine.

Aug. 8

  • The police chief in Huaniquo, Michoacan state, was reported kidnapped by several armed men.

Aug. 9

  • The body of a woman with signs of torture was found along a highway near Veracruz, Veracruz state. Authorities reported that her hands had also been cut off.
  • The bodies of two unidentified men wrapped in a blanket and with signs of torture were discovered near Tijuana, Baja California state. A note was found near the bodies that read, "This will happen to those that keep working for [Sinaloa cartel associate] El Mayo Zambada."

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