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Aug 18, 2008 | 21:48 GMT

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Mexico Security Memo: Aug. 18, 2008

Mexico Security Memo

Violence in Juarez Persists

The bloody turf battles that have been waged for the better part of this year in the northern state of Chihuahua — and in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in particular — continued this past week. The usual cadence of violence in the state was punctuated by two particularly brutal incidents. In the first, eight men armed with assault rifles fired shots at the outside of a drug rehabilitation clinic in Juarez, then entered the building and opened fire again, killing eight people and wounding six others. In the second, at least 13 people — including a 1-year-old child — were killed when a dozen armed men entered a dance hall in Bocoyna, Chihuahua state, and fired indiscriminately at about 100 people celebrating a family gathering. Details of the family's identity were not released, making it difficult to assess why the family would have been targeted. The attack on the drug rehab center follows a similar attack during the previous week that left two dead. If the attacks were designed as intimidation to ensure a market of addicts for local distribution of narcotics, it is more likely that a local street gang would have conducted them — as they would have more to lose than would major drug trafficking cartels with markets north of the border. It is also possible, however, that those managing the clinics engaged in other activities detrimental to a cartel or local gang, or refused to cooperate with a local cartel presence. Regardless, the confluence of various criminal groups in the Juarez area and their struggle for control of the city will ensure that incidents like this continue.

Sinaloa Cartel Activities in Central America

Authorities in Costa Rica announced this past week the arrest of a Cuban-American and a Costa Rican believed to control overland drug trafficking routes in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua for the Sinaloa cartel. Authorities seized more than 600 pounds of cocaine from a warehouse during the arrest. The capture follows the seizure earlier this past week in Nicaragua of more than 1.5 tons of cocaine that belonged to a then-unidentified Mexican cartel, as well as the arrest of several Mexican nationals in Panama in possession of more than 150 pounds of cocaine. Authorities do not know how long the cartel had operated the route, but suggested that the Mexicans had only recently arrived in Central America. Reportedly, a lack of trust on their part drove them to more closely oversee the smuggling operation. The increasing presence of Mexican drug traffickers in Central America is a shift that we have observed over the past year, as maritime and airborne routes to Mexico have become more difficult to use without detection. Several details of these most recent investigations offer keen tactical insight into how drugs are moved from South America to Mexico. Drugs on the route detected in this case, for example, enter Costa Rica via highway through an international port of entry and are kept several days in a safe-house near the border. The shipment is then transported overland across the entire country, entering Nicaragua on horse or on foot at a remote part of the international border. The shipment is then carried to the inland Lake Nicaragua, where is it picked up by boat and transferred to another vehicle as it continues on to Honduras. Besides these tactical details, this incident offers an opportunity to consider the overall state of the drug trade. It is a testament to the current power of Mexican cartels in general that it is the Mexican groups — and not Colombian groups or others — that have extended their reach into Central America. This reach will not only prove useful for drug trafficking purposes, but also probably will be exploited for delivering drugs to the emerging consumer markets in much of Latin America. The shifts in cartel activity are also a testament to improvements in Mexican aerial and maritime interdiction.

Federal Police on Strike

Several hundred federal police agents in four states carried out a brief work stoppage Aug. 15, demanding additional days off, better pay and more powerful weapons. The strikes — which were carried out by agents assigned to Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Sinaloa, and Tabasco states — left some airport posts in Guanajuato and highway checkpoints elsewhere temporarily abandoned. The Aug. 15 strikes appear to have been a response to the announcement from Mexico City this past week that federal agents would no longer accrue vacation days, therefore making more agents available for duty. The strikes also follow a demonstration this past week by more than 700 federal agents attending a training academy in San Luis Potosi who walked out of class in protest of lax security at the academy. (Several agents have been kidnapped and ambushed in recent weeks while attending the academy.) Work stoppages, protests and walkouts have become common among state and local Mexican police forces over the past year, as an increase in cartel attacks on police has made the job too dangerous for officers to settle for the salary and working hours they signed on for. Strikes by federal police agents, however, are much less frequent — and their spread could potentially have a devastating impact on the government's strategy in the cartel war. One clue as to how the government might react to expanded strikes can be drawn from an example we highlighted last week. Following the killing of four federal agents in Michoacan state, a federal police commander there alluded to agents' concern for safety when he reassuringly announced the arrival of reinforcements and a "change in strategy" to prevent future targeting of agents. A more cautious approach to combating the country's drug cartels is simply one option of many, which President Felipe Calderon's administration are likely considering to prevent this latest headache from becoming a more pressing concern. (click to view map)

Aug. 11

  • A group of alleged drug cartel enforcers verbally threatened reporters in the parking lot of a newspaper building in Nogales, Sonora state.
  • Three men driving along a highway in Durango state died when they were shot by men armed with assault rifles.
  • One person died and another was wounded when the vehicle they were traveling in failed to stop at a highway checkpoint in Sonora state. Authorities said the checkpoint — located just a few miles from a federal policy building — had been erected by an organized criminal group.
  • Authorities discovered the body of a police commander in Huaniqueo, Michoacan state, who was reported kidnapped several days before.
  • A deputy police chief in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo state, and his bodyguard died when they were shot outside the chief's home.

Aug. 12

  • Federal authorities revealed that six officials in the anti-organized crime unit (SIEDO) of the federal attorney general's office were arrested the previous week on charges of spying for the Beltran Leyva drug trafficking organization. An investigation that began several months ago based on military intelligence uncovered a Beltran Leyva counterintelligence ring inside SIEDO that was leaking classified information on cases and upcoming operations.
  • A deputy police chief in Tepalcatepec, Michoacan state, died when he was shot multiple times by armed men traveling in a vehicle.
  • Two federal police officers died during a firefight with armed men along a highway in Sinaloa state.
  • The body of an evangelical pastor who was kidnapped July 23 was found buried behind a safe-house in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state. The kidnappers initially demanded $200,000, but the family could only pay about $20,000.

Aug. 13

  • The charred body of an unidentified man who had apparently been shot multiple times was found in the tourist town of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state.
  • Two owners of a shipping company were kidnapped simultaneously in separate incidents in Poza Rica, Veracruz.

Aug. 14

  • A group of approximately 20 armed men traveling in 10 vehicles evaded capture after a prolonged pursuit by police in Tijuana, Baja California state.
  • A firefight between military forces and armed men in Rincon de Romos, Aguascalientes state, left at least one soldier and two gunmen dead.
  • Authorities in Sonora state reported that a gunbattle between smuggling gangs in Cananea left one person dead and at least three wounded.

Aug. 15

  • Authorities in Aguascalientes state reported the kidnapping of four people, including the police chief of Tepezala, a judge and police commander in the state capital Aguascalientes.
  • A severed, blindfolded head was found in Ecatepec, Mexico state.
  • One person died and another was wounded in a firefight between alleged alien smuggling groups in Mexicali, Baja California state.
  • At least 25 homicides were reported in separate incidents in Chihuahua state during a 36-hour period.
  • Two police officers were wounded in an apparent assassination attempt in Puebla, Puebla state, during which gunmen fired more than 80 rounds. Some reports indicate the officers were bodyguards for a deputy state attorney general.

Aug. 16

  • Hit men suspected of having ties to a drug cartel opened fire on a family gathering in the town of Creel, Chihuahua state, near the U.S. border, killing 13 people. Masked gunmen fired on the dance hall where a family gathering was taking place. The Mexican government sent 160 federal police and soldiers to the town after the attack.

Aug. 17

  • A firefight between federal police and gunmen traveling in three vehicles along a highway in Colima state left at least one dead.

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