Jul 21, 2008 | 22:27 GMT

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Mexico Security Memo: July 21, 2008

Mexico Security Memo

Violence and a Shift in Sinaloa

Though cartel violence has made Sinaloa state notorious over the last several years, the state has experienced an unprecedented number of drug-related homicides during the past few weeks. According to tallies by Mexican newspapers, the state averaged about 7.2 killings per day over a five-day period in the last two weeks. By comparison, the average daily number of cartel-related murders for the entire country was about 7.5 during 2007. With the daily homicide rate for this one state now equal to the daily rate for the entire country last year, it is easy to see why the state qualifies as a hot spot. This past week the Mexican government responded to the deteriorating security situation in Sinaloa by deploying an additional 1,400 federal law enforcement agents to the area to augment the approximately 700 sent there earlier this summer. Military forces in the area are believed to number just over 2,000. In addition to dealing with an increase in cartel violence and expanding cartel arsenals, the federal reinforcements in Sinaloa will also contend with the effects of expanding work stoppages on the part of local law enforcement agencies that have been cooperating with federal anti-cartel efforts. The strikes are reminiscent of what occurred in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, earlier in 2008 when local law enforcement became fed up with being asked to cooperate with federal authorities who were simultaneously investigating them for links to organized crime. Several factors are contributing to the current rise in violence, though much of it appears to be associated with a realignment of Mexico's drug trafficking organizations — especially those with a presence in the northwest. The last 18 months of cartel wars and expanded government counternarcotics operations have certainly impacted the status quo. Rumors have circulated over the last few months of fractures and new alliances among various elements of the major criminal federations. While the credibility of these reports is difficult to assess, it seems clear that this is a year of flux in the Mexican drug trade. It is too early, however, to decide with confidence which of these new reported alliances will have staying power and which may already have crumbled. Indeed, the continued high levels of violence probably signal that the battle lines are still being drawn and any alliances are still in the process of being negotiated.

Semisubmersible Captured

The Mexican navy intercepted a semisubmersible vessel this past week in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oaxaca state. The vessel was loaded with a reported 5 to 6 tons of cocaine. Along with the seizure of the cocaine on board, the boat's four Colombian crew members were arrested. The crew said they had departed the Colombian port city of Buenaventura and had been instructed to deliver part of their cargo to Huatulco, Oaxaca state, and the rest to a beach in Sinaloa state. Besides demonstrating that semisubmersibles are still a popular drug trafficking platform, this incident provides two interesting clues about the current state of the drug trade. First, drug trafficking organizations are known for using multiple routes and methods of transporting their shipments. Although we have observed an increase in trafficking over land at the Guatemala-Mexico border during the last six months, this incident demonstrates that at least in the Pacific some shipments are still being routed directly from South America to Mexico. The second clue involves the intended destinations of the cocaine. It is unclear at this point whether the two deliveries were intended for two distinct cartels or for the same one. The former scenario would suggest that Colombian suppliers still have a significant amount of autonomy over how they fulfill their contracts in Mexico. The latter scenario would make it appear that the same cartel has a meaningful presence in both Oaxaca and Sinaloa states. (Presumably a cartel would only arrange to receive a shipment worth more than $70 million in a secure environment, such as an area where the local police and coast guard commanders were on the payroll.) Regardless of the cocaine's intended recipient, the incident demonstrates that even an unprecedented security presence and raging inter-cartel battles are not enough to deter drug traffickers from attempting to bring their products to market. (click to view map)

July 14

  • U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar reported a rise in violent attacks against Border Patrol agents at the hands of drug traffickers.
  • At least 12 people were reported killed in separate incidents around Chihuahua state. In one case, four men were shot dead in a mechanical shop in Chihuahua city.
  • The director of organized crime and kidnapping investigations in Coahuila state's Comarca Lagunera region was reported kidnapped. An anonymous telephone call to authorities in Torreon claimed the abduction in the name of the Juarez cartel.

July 15

  • Two police officers in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas state, were wounded when unidentified assailants armed with assault rifles ambushed their patrol vehicle.

July 16

  • Federal police announced the arrest of Jose Obed Olvera Salguero, an alleged accomplice of Chinese-Mexican cartel associate Zhenli Ye Gon, who is currently in Drug Enforcement Administration custody. Olvera is believed responsible for receiving ephedra shipments in Mexico.
  • A Sinaloa state police commander died after being shot more than 30 times by gunmen armed with assault rifles traveling in two vehicles in Culiacan.
  • At least one person died during a series of firefights between presumed drug traffickers in downtown Oaxaca, Oaxaca state.

July 17

  • The decapitated body of a police officer in Cajeme, Sonora state, was found near a residential area. Authorities found signs of torture on the body as well as an index finger that had been severed and placed in the victim's mouth.
  • At least eight people were reported killed in Sinaloa state including an elementary school teacher shot dead while vacationing with his family in Navolato.

July 18

  • Police reported a firefight between presumed drug traffickers along the Pan-American Highway in Chiapas state, near the Guatemala border.
  • Several armed men shot and killed a police commander outside his home in Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes state.

July 19

  • The bodies of three unidentified people with gunshot wounds were found in the trunk of a car in Chimalhuacan, Mexico state.
  • Authorities found the bodies of two federal police officers along a highway near Santiago, Nuevo Leon state, bound at the wrists and blindfolded and with gunshot wounds to the head. The officers reportedly were responsible for security at Monterrey's international airport.
  • At least 11 people were killed in separate incidents in Chihuahua state, including an unidentified victim found decapitated in Ciudad Juarez with his head a short distance away from the rest of his corpse.
  • A firefight between rival drug traffickers near Ciudad Lerdo, Durango state, left two dead and one wounded. All three victims appeared to be innocent bystanders.

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