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Dec 23, 2006 | 02:44 GMT

6 mins read

Mexico: The Vital Role of 'Gatekeepers' in the Smuggling Business

In mid-2005, former Mexican President Vicente Fox sent some 1,500 soldiers and federal police to the U.S.-Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo in an effort to bring escalating drug-related violence under control. The effort failed, and by May 2006 the homicide rate had more than doubled compared with the same five-month period a year earlier. One possible reason for the violence in Nuevo Laredo is the continuing war between two rival cartels over whose "gatekeeper" will control the transhipment of drugs and other contraband through the city on their way north into the United States. Until now, little has been revealed about the all-important role of gatekeepers in the flow of narcotics from Mexico into the United States, and the flow of money back into the hands of Mexico's drug lords. Sources familiar with this aspect of the drug trade, however, say the gatekeeper is one of the highest and most powerful people in a cartel's hierarchy, perhaps second only to the kingpin. In drug-trade lingo, the "gatekeeper" controls the "plaza," the transhipment point off of one of the main highways on the Mexican side of the border where drugs and other contraband are channeled. In Spanish, the word "plaza" means a town square, though it also can mean a military stronghold or position. In this case, it means a cartel stronghold. A gatekeeper oversees the plaza, making sure each operation runs smoothly and that the plaza bosses are collecting "taxes" on any contraband that passes through. The going rate on a kilo of cocaine is approximately $500, while the tax on $1 million in cash heading south is about $10,000. Gatekeepers also ensure that fees are collected on the movement of stolen cargo and illegal immigrants — including any militants who might be seeking to enter the United States through Mexico. Regardless of a person's country of origin, money buys access into the United States through these plazas, though the fees charged for smuggling Middle Eastern and South Asian males into the United States are higher than for Mexicans or Central Americans. The gatekeepers' primary concern is ensuring that appropriate fees are collected and sent to cartel coffers — and they operate in whatever manner best suits a given circumstance: intimidation, extortion or violence. Of course, one of their main jobs is to ensure that corrupt Mexican police and military personnel are paid off so plaza operations can proceed undisturbed.
The main plazas in Mexico along the Texas border are in Matamoros, south of Brownsville; Reynosa, across the border from McAllen; Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo; and Juarez, south of El Paso. These locations provide easy access to the U.S. interstate highway system, which the cartels use to deliver their drugs to the markets they control in major U.S. cities. Plazas also are operated in Piedras Negras opposite Eagle Pass and in Ojinaga opposite Presidio. The plaza between Matamoros and Brownsville is controlled by Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, or "Tony Tormenta," the brother of Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who reportedly is running his cartel from a Mexican prison. Other gatekeepers operating in the area are Juan Gabriel Montes-Senano and Alfonso Lam-Lui. Control of the Reynosa-McAllen plaza, which belongs to the Gulf cartel, reportedly is in flux. There are two prominent commanders from Los Zetas in the area: Gregorio "El Goyo" Sauceda-Gamboa and Jaime "El Humme" Gonzalez Duran. Some reports suggest that El Goyo recently was removed from his position as gatekeeper on the orders of Gulf chief Guillen, possibly because he was losing effectiveness due to alcoholism, drug addiction and cancer complications. El Humme, believed to be second-in-command of Los Zetas, might have been brought in to take over. Edgar Valdez Villareal "La Barbie" and Miguel Trevino Morales operate in the contested plaza of Nuevo Laredo. La Barbie is a highly placed leader in the Sinaloa federation of cartels and chief of its enforcement arm, Los Pelones — the Sinaloa equivalent of Los Zetas. He previously operated out of Acapulco, where he reportedly oversaw the capture, videotaped torture and execution of a team of Zeta operatives. Another gatekeeper in this area is Miguel Trevino Morales, who is believed to be affiliated with the rival Gulf cartel. The war between the two cartels over this important plaza is one of the reasons for the skyrocketing violence in the city. Martin Romo-Lopez controls the plaza in Piedras Negras, while Sergio Abranda, Crispin Borinda-Cardenas and Benjamin Cuchtas-Valisrano operate in the plaza in Ojinaga. The area around Juarez is firmly under Sinaloa federation control, and more cartel members appear to be moving into the area. The plaza in Juarez reportedly is controlled by the Escajeda family, through cousins Oscar Alonso Candelaria Escajeda and Jose Rodolfo Escajeda. Other alleged smugglers operating in the Juarez area are Jose Luis Portillo, Gonzalo Garcia and Pedro Sanchez. These men and the Escajeda cousins reportedly were associated with the Juarez cartel, which has been heavily damaged by the inter-cartel wars and the arrests of leaders. Many of the cartel members have since aligned themselves with the Sinaloa federation. Because some provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act have made wiring money out of the United States more complicated than before — forcing the cartels to physically transfer money between operatives along the border — the gatekeepers also must ensure that these operations run smoothly. To facilitate this, the gatekeepers also operate the cartels' money-laundering operations, using small businesses along the border. U.S. law enforcement sources say there has been a fivefold increase in bulk currency seizures along the border in 2006 alone. Although there are multiple smuggling routes through Mexico for drugs and other contraband, the plazas are the cartels' critical chokepoints. Therefore, efforts to shut down the flow of drugs or illegal immigrants cannot be effective until the gatekeepers are dealt with effectively. The gatekeepers' ability to heavily influence Mexican law enforcement and government officials through cash payouts and intimidation, however, suggests this will be no easy feat. Even if Mexican law enforcement officers were to begin focusing their efforts on the gatekeepers, any success would be short-lived unless a sweeping, nationwide effort were made. When Fox sent the Mexican army into Nuevo Laredo in 2005, the impact on the cartels was minimal. A large, overwhelming law enforcement effort on both sides of the entire border would be required to shut down the plazas and bring down the gatekeepers, something Mexico is ill-equipped to do. The Mexican government's recent efforts against the cartels in Michoacan state could prove to be effective against local organizations in the short term, but as long as the plazas are controlled by powerful gatekeepers, and the other routes through Mexico to the U.S. border are not impeded, the narcotics and drug money will continue to flow north and south.

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