RYLE DWYER: El Chapo – the Mexican drug czar whose influence we should all fear

ALTHOUGH we should learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, we persist in following the failed tactics of the US in relation to drugs. Our drug problems, which began in Dublin, have gradually spread throughout the country.

Gardaí currently estimate there are around 100 heroin users in Tralee. How long will it be before other places witness the gunplay currently blighting the Finglas area of Dublin?

Our problems are minor compared to Mexico, but this should be a warning. On coming to power in late 2006 Felipe Calderon vowed to intensify the war on drugs in Mexico. Half a million people there are involved in the drug trade, producing marijuana, opium and amphetamines, as well as trafficking cocaine. The drug trade contributes $5bn annually to the Mexican economy.

Since the beginning of 2007, more than 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico. This compares with 3,526 killed in Northern troubles from 1969 to 2001. The Mexicans have deployed 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police against the different drug cartels fighting for control and access to the illicit drug routes to the US.

The Calderon government is depending more on the military than the graft-plagued police in waging this fight. In an effort to improve the quality of the federal police, their wages have been increased and 10,000 new officers recruited in the past two years. Recruits are now required to have a third-level degree.

New police standards were introduced in May as part of the clean-up. Some 3,200 of the 34,500 Mexican federal police officers have been weeded out of the force this year under the new regulations requiring they take lie detector tests, make full financial disclosures and submit to drug testing.

Last month 465 officers were arrested and formally charged, while more than 1,000 face disciplinary action after failing screening tests. Those included four commanders publicly accused of corruption by 250 subordinates in Juarez, which is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Corruption is endemic at the local level of the country’s 427,000 police. Traditionally low-paid, they are vulnerable to the drug money on offer for assistance.

The drug cartels have about 150,000 armed enforcers of their own. They have been warring with the government and each other, as well as engaging in violent internal struggles.

Last week the decapitated bodies of four men were hung from a bridge in Cuernavaca, little more than 50 miles from Mexico City. Two more headless bodies were hung from bridges in Acapulco later in the week. A message left with the bodies read: “This will happen to everyone that helps the traitor Edgar Valdez Villarreal.”

Born and reared in Loredo, Texas, Villarreal – nicknamed “La Barbie” – headed a group of assassins for the drug cartel led by Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed in a shoot-out with the security forces in Cuernavaca last December. Since then factions of his organisation have been engaged in a deadly feud for control.

Early last week the bodies of 72 migrant workers – 58 men and 14 women – were found in a ranch in the state of Tamaulipas. Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla, an 18-year old from Ecuador, managed to survive with a gunshot wound to the neck. His 17-year-old pregnant wife explained in a TV interview in Ecuador that he had paid people smugglers $15,000 to guide him to the US. Pomavilla told the police he was one of 74 migrants from central and South America en route to the US. People calling themselves ‘Zetas’ captured them and asked them to work for the drug cartel. One agreed, and the other 73 were shot. Fortunately, Pomavilla survived to tell what had happened and the other man is now cooperating with the security forces.

The Zetas are former soldiers, trained in the Mexican special forces and then recruited by the Gulf Cartel, which has also been engaged in protection rackets. Mexican immigration agents have already rescued 2,750 migrants who were being held captive, while ransom money was being demanded from their families.

Last Tuesday Mexican police in Cancún rescued a further six Cuban migrants who were being held for ransoms of up to $10,000, frequently demanded from relatives already in the US.

The cartels are trying to intimidate everyone. Last week two car bombs went off in the city of Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas. One bomb was outside a major TV station.

The media in Tamaulipas is so intimidated it has stopped reporting the violence. On the day after the bodies of the 72 migrants were discovered, for instance, the headline in the local newspaper was about the start of the new school year.

Zetas were part of the Gulf cartel run by Osiel Cardenas Guillen. Although he was captured in 2003, he continued to run the cartel from a maximum security prison in Juarez.

Within a couple of months of the Calderon government coming to power, however, Guillen was extradited to the US where he was sentenced to 25 years in jail without parole earlier this year. The Zetas, who broke away from the Gulf cartel, are believed to have formed an alliance with the Beltran Leyva cartel, which itself began as a breakaway from the Sinaloa cartel, built up in the 1980s by Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzman.

He was arrested in 1993 and was to be extradited to the US in 2001, but he managed to bribe prison guards to help him escape in a laundry truck. Seventy-one prison officials were later arrested for complicity in his escape.

GUZMAN, who grew up in grinding poverty with little formal education, is now a virtual role model for the poor. Last year Fortune magazine listed him as one of the world’s richest people, worth over $1bn. The US government has put up a $5m reward for information leading to his capture.

In April of last year Archbishop Héctor Gonzalez of Durango announced that El Chapo was “living nearby and everyone knows it except the authorities, who just don’t happen to see him for some reason”. A few days later the bodies of two undercover military officers were found near where the archbishop believed Guzman was living. There was a message with the bodies: “You’ll never get El Chapo, not the priests, not the government.”

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, El Chapo “is everywhere and nowhere, a long-sought criminal always a step ahead of the law, yet always in sight or mind”.

He has reportedly dined openly in restaurants in Culiacan and Juarez. His men entered first and seized the cell phones from patrons. Guzman entered and greeted all the customers. No one was allowed to leave until he had departed after his meal, but he paid everyone’s bill.

Even if someone does get Guzman, there will always be another to take his place while fortunes can be made from illicit drugs. If the drugs were legalised for addicts on prescription, this would break the hold dealers have on addicts and help take the enormous profits out of drug-dealing.

What has been happening in Mexico should be a warning to everyone. Having the Guzmans of this world as role models is a recipe for widespread disaster.


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