“I am not the president of Mexico, I am its boss”

The secret life of Latin America’s most powerful cartels

Latin America’s most powerful cartels

Poverty, tequila, omnipotent drug cartels, corruption and street gangs — this is how people who are far from Latin America imagine Mexico.

Locals, on the other hand, will say that Mexico is a country with a dynamically developing economy, high industrial potential, a complex social structure, and an ancient and rich history. Interestingly, both are true, the expert on Latin America Dmitry Morozov wrote an article about the bloody Mexican drug cartels, their ruthless business and about the terrible damage they inflict on their country and its people.

Paradise in the bush

Cocaine is one of the traditional drugs in Latin America, made from coca leaves. In pre-Hispanic times, the ancient Peruvians used coca as a pain reliever in the treatment of the wounded. Today the leaves of the shrub are consumed by Peruvian and Bolivian miners, and in Bolivia, coca and its consumption are just part of the national culture.

Today, the world’s production of cocaine is concentrated in three countries — Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. It is there that the soil composition and climatic conditions are most suitable for growing coca. Unsurprisingly, the main consumer of cocaine is nearby — the United States.

In the United States, about 22 million people regularly buy their next dose. In Europe, there are also enough people willing, but the high price — the costs of transatlantic transportation — and the competition with more accessible “synthetics” are affecting.

In recent years, more and more drug addicts have appeared in Latin America: the fact is that drug traffickers are paying increasingly for transit services not with money, but with a “natural product” that is sold on the local market.

But in order to sell a drug, it must first be delivered to the main consumer. Until the 1990s, the main routes for the delivery of cocaine to the United States ran through the Caribbean — its islands served as storage and transshipment points. Colombia was then the leader of the cocaine industry, and the Colombian drug mafia dominated the regional drug business and felt confident in the American market for illegal substances.

Colombian farmer sprays plantations with pesticides
Colombian farmer sprays plantations with pesticides

This changed in the early 1990s when the Americans took vigorous action to shut down Caribbean transportation channels. The transit has shifted towards Central America and Mexico — now this route is transported up to 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

According to some estimates, the annual volume of cocaine transported through Central America to Mexico reaches 900 tons (although it is possible that this figure is overestimated). It is the geographical factor — the location between the main producers of cocaine and its consumers — that has become a key factor in the transformation of Mexico into the world’s cocaine capital.

Drugs are transported to Central America by sea and air from Colombia and Peru, either directly or via Venezuela and Ecuador. Transportation by land is impossible — the path of the daredevils is blocked by the impenetrable swamps of the Panamanian province of Darien.

Sea transportation is carried out using high-speed boats, which allow you to escape the pursuit of the coast guard of the countries of Central America, which most often has outdated patrol vessels.

On average, each boat can load up to 600 kilograms of potion. Small fishing vessels are actively used: in this case, drugs are placed in containers — “torpedoes”, which are towed under water on ropes. If there is a threat of the vessel being detained, the cargo is quickly uncoupled.

The old method of transportation — on ocean-going container ships — has not lost its significance either. The fact is that only a very small part of the containers are checked, since it is physically impossible to inspect all the containers.

Added to this is the high degree of corruption in customs personnel. The inventiveness of drug dealers knows no limits. Handicraft submarines have become part of their practice.

The term is arbitrary, since this “transport” does not sink deeply, and it is easy to detect it from the air. But the advantages are also obvious — in particular, the ability to simultaneously move impressive consignments (up to 15 tons) of drugs and a large power reserve (from South America to Mexico it takes only one or two refueling).

Cocaine is airlifted on small, low-power planes called aircrafts. Their small dimensions limit the volume of transported goods, but the extremely weak technical equipment of the states of the region plays in their favor. For example, in Guatemala, only one radar station operates throughout the country. It is located in the capital’s airport and covers the airspace of only a third of the national territory.

Air ticket
Air ticket

In addition, for such aircraft it is easy to equip runways: as a rule, these are compacted areas of soil located in the selva or on the territory of large land holdings — the property of drug traffickers.

In Guatemala, for example, there are up to 800 such runways. Aviettes are a popular means of transporting cocaine from Venezuela to Central America. Departures are made from the provinces of Lara, Falcon, Trujillo, Zulia, Merida, Tachira and Apure.

Such a scale of activity of drug lords in Venezuela is not accidental: in this country the drug business is in the hands of the Los Soles cartel, which consists of officers of the Venezuelan army, and is led by Diosdado Cabello, one of the main figures of the ruling regime in the country.

This is one of the reasons for the loyalty of the generals to the President of the country, Nicholas Maduro: in the event of a change of power, there is a great risk that they will find themselves behind bars.

From Central America, drug shipments are transported to Mexico. The main route is the Pacific.

Cocaine kings

The 1990s saw the drug decline of the undivided domination of Colombian structures: with Mexico becoming the main drug hub, Mexican drug trafficking organizations began to climb rapidly to command heights. They quickly pushed back and subdued the Colombians.

In the first half of the 1990s, 19 large and dozens of small groups operated in Mexico. Already in 1993, their total revenue was $ 27 billion, which was equal to the country’s annual export earnings. The leading positions were taken by the drug cartels “Sinaloa”, “Juarez”, “Golfo”, “Tijuana” . In a matter of years, they turned into real transnational criminal communities.

Mexican police prepare to burn 2.5 tons of drugs
Mexican police prepare to burn 2.5 tons of drugs

At their service were the developed transport structure of the country, 30 seaports on both coasts and a dense network of highways. Tens of billions of drug dollars are laundered in Mexico every year, according to Mexican and American agencies.

The main centers of money laundering are the cities of Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez. Some of the “dirty” money is legalized through exchange offices in areas bordering the United States and through Mexican banks with correspondent accounts in American financial and credit institutions.

From the very beginning, the Sinaloa cartel took and still holds the lead in drug trafficking. In Mexico, his estates are located in the northern states of Sinaloa, Durango, Sonora, Chihuahua.

It also has branches in 12 Latin American countries, a network of cells in US cities, as well as in Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland and even Australia. “I am not the president of Mexico, I am its boss,” boasted its former leader Joaquin Guzman, nicknamed “Shorty,” now in prison in an American prison.

The cartel is firmly established in Colombia, where it owns large real estate — hotels and commercial enterprises, with the help of which it legalizes the proceeds from the sale of drugs. According to experts, Sinaloa controls up to 1,500 companies and enterprises outside Mexico.

Sinaloa’s strategy is to grow deeply into a particular country. He conducts patient preparatory work, calculated for the long-term stay of the group in the selected territory.

Contacts are established with representatives of local business and socio-political circles, and a mutually beneficial partnership is established with the local criminal community. Sinaloa favors negotiation and bribery, resorting to violence only in extreme cases. The cartel tries to stay in the background, act indirectly, not to attract public attention.

The Los Zetas group , formed in 2007–2008, deserves special attention . It arose as a structural subdivision of “Golfo” — its backbone was made up of natives of the special forces of the Mexican army. After breaking away from Golfo, it quickly expanded its area of ​​responsibility within Mexico, which included 12 states.

The tactics of this organization were radically different from those of the Sinaloa: the bandits subjugated or destroyed competitors and established complete dominance in the contested territories.

The cartel operated exclusively from a position of strength and never compromised. The reprisals against rivals were accompanied by manifestations of extreme cruelty and were clearly ostentatious — in order to paralyze the will of competitors and intimidate the civilian population.

The fabulous profits have exacerbated tensions within the Mexican drug community. Power struggles, splits and the formation of new groups followed. This process has intensified since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug traffickers and brought in army units for this purpose.

The authorities launched a large-scale attack on the drug cartels, but there was no radical change. The defeat of some groups made room for others, and the confrontation between competitors became more and more fierce. A criminal war broke out in the country.

In the 2000s, having gained strength inside the country, the Mexican tycoons turned their eyes abroad: expansion began in the countries of Central America, primarily Guatemala and Honduras, where entire regions are practically not controlled by the state.

Mexicans quickly established themselves in these countries, subjugating local drug clans and establishing tight control over transit. Sinaloa took over the dominant position again.

In 2008, Los Zetas invaded Guatemala and immediately made a name for itself with attacks on local groups and the murder of the leaders of the Guatemalan drug business.

In the shortest possible time, “Los Zetas” took possession of the drug routes in the northern regions of the country. The departments of Petén and Alta Verapaz became the base of the cartel, where a regime of terror was established against everyone whom the leaders of Los Zetas considered opponents.

The cartel was actively recruiting people from the ranks of the “kaibiles” — the special forces of the Guatemalan army, created during the years of the internal armed conflict to conduct anti-guerrilla operations. The bandits also resorted to the services of youth criminal groups to commit contract killings (for this, the cartel created special training camps where young murderers were trained).

In 2011, Los Zetas fighters staged a bloody raid on Pétain in order to punish competitors and demonstrate their strength. They captured two settlements, set up roadblocks, brutally killed 27 workers of the estate of the leader of a rival group. For almost the whole day, the power in the department was in the hands of the bandits, who then managed to escape without hindrance.

But the power of Los Zetas did not last long. Brute force tactics turned against the cartel: the organized chaos united the previously warring clans of drug dealers. The emergence of this “union” coincided with the demands of the Guatemalan society to curb the impudent criminals. The defeat of Los Zetas was swift. During 2011–2012, more than 60 leaders of Guatemalan groups were caught, their accomplices were taken from among the military and law enforcement officers. It is possible that in opposition to Los Zetas, the authorities secretly received support from Sinaloa and local drug lords. Los Zetas never recovered from its losses — today this cartel is still operating in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, but there is no trace of its former power.

It should be noted that the Mexicans managed to bring under control not only the Central American transit. In Peru, they finance the cultivation of coca and the production of cocaine, and control key drug shipment points. Thus, Sinaloa has consolidated its presence in the Peruvian ports of Chimbote and Paita, as well as in the south of Ecuador.

From Mexico, cocaine is shipped directly to the United States. The bulk of the goods goes there by sea along the Pacific coast. The main transshipment points are the ports of Manzanillo, Guaymas, Puerto Peñasco, Ensenada, Rosario. Also used are underground tunnels dug right under the Mexican-American border. Moreover, these are not primitive manholes, but well-equipped engineering structures, illuminated and air-conditioned.

Attempts by the Americans to use high technologies in the fight against drug smuggling do not give the desired results. Here is one example: in some sections of the border, the US authorities have erected wire fences with highly sensitive sensors. It would seem that the border is locked — a fly will not fly. The Mexicans have found an easy way out. They built a smaller version of a catapult out of ordinary planks and dropped small consignments of drugs into American soil, where they were picked up by accomplices.

Some of the cocaine, as mentioned above, goes to Europe. The path lies through West Africa, primarily Guinea-Bissau. Spain is considered the main gateway to the European continent. Italy occupies an important place — in this country Mexican drug dealers managed to enlist the support of mafia structures.

The commanders of Mexican drug trafficking are persistently seeking to control all stages of the cocaine trafficking. This is due to the fact that in the last decade, the interaction between the anti-drug departments of the United States, Mexico and Colombia has improved, primarily in the field of the exchange of operational information. As a result, the security forces began to intercept significantly more cocaine than before.

In order to avoid losses, the Mexicans are trying to establish production closer to Mexico. The experiment was carried out in Honduras, where they organized coca crops and built a laboratory for the production of cocaine. The project was not successful — Honduran soil is very different from Colombian and Peruvian, so the harvest was not too plentiful. But drug dealers are not discouraged: in 2018, the Guatemalan police discovered an entire hectare of coca in the department of Alta Verapaz, where Los Zetas rampaged until recently. A drug production laboratory was located next to the plantation.

Expensive potions

However, another profitable way is to expand the range of prohibited substances in order to reduce the dependence of their incomes on cocaine alone. In 2009–2010, the demand for heroin began to grow in the United States. Sinaloa and other groups immediately reoriented themselves to heroin production. The business promised huge profits, especially since the opium poppy grows in Mexico, which means that dependence on foreign producers disappears and the risk of losing the “product” is reduced.

In 2014–2015, Mexico entered the top three world producers of this plant. In 2005, the area under crops was 3.3 thousand hectares, in 2014–17 thousand, and in 2017 — more than 28 thousand. Poppy plantings are concentrated in the states of Guerrero, Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango. Today, up to 95 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States is produced in Latin America, primarily in Mexico. Experts note that Mexican heroin is of high quality, and the proximity of production to the consumer allows to reduce the retail price and dominate the market. Gone are the days when Mexican drug dealers were content to trade low-grade Colombian heroin.

Opium poppy
Opium poppy

Guerrero accounts for up to 40 percent of all the acreage under poppy. This state is one of the poorest, and for many villagers participating in drug trafficking is the only way to make money. Opium poppy is grown here on communal lands, so that in the event of a visit from law enforcement officers it would be impossible to determine who exactly owns the “criminal” plot.

The peasants cultivate plants and receive the primary raw material — opium, which is used to produce drugs. The growth of American demand guarantees stable income for peasant farms stranded in poverty: for a kilogram of opium, buyers pay peasants almost $ 900 — a lot of money for a Mexican village, because legal crops provide much less income. You can get up to eight kilograms of opium from one hectare — enough to make a whole kilogram of heroin.

The raw materials purchased from the peasants are transported to accumulation points, and then to the laboratory. Raw materials also come from Guatemala, where vast areas of the San Marcos department (bordering Mexico) are occupied by opium poppy. In this business, drug cartels make substantial profits: in Mexico one kilogram of heroin costs 35 thousand dollars, in the USA this figure rises to 71 thousand. There are signs that the tycoons of the Mexican drug business are seriously exploring the possibility of forging a transcontinental heroin partnership — their emissaries have been seen in Afghanistan. Americans believe that some of the opium comes to Mexico and from China.

But in the last year or two, the heroin boom has begun to fade, with American consumers increasingly opting for a synthetic alternative to natural drugs. The synthetics business is industrialized: Mexico plays an important role in the global turnover of the product. The main consumers are the USA, countries of Europe and Asia. It is characteristic that in Asian countries their own production is well established, but demand there greatly exceeds supply, local capacities cannot cope with orders, and Mexican “contractors” are always in business.

Mexican soldier in front of barrels with 15 tons of seized methamphetamine
Mexican soldier in front of barrels with 15 tons of seized methamphetamine

From China, India and Thailand to the ports of Mexico — in particular, Lazaro Cardenas and Manzanillo — the necessary precursors (substances for the manufacture of drugs) are supplied. There are special laboratories at the ports, whose products are sent back to Asia. In 2012–2013, drugs “imported” from Mexico were seized in South Korea and Japan, and a laboratory run by Chinese partners of Mexican drug dealers was dismantled in the Philippines. In Mexico itself, under pressure from the authorities, drug traffickers are moving laboratories to Guatemala and Honduras, whose share in the production of “synthetics” is increasing.

Recently, cartels have also tried fentanyl, a monstrously powerful drug that is gaining popularity in the United States and killing tens of thousands of people every year. It is produced in clandestine Chinese laboratories, but there is no doubt that it will soon reach the hands of the all-powerful Mexican drug cartels.

Recently, cartels have also tried fentanyl, a monstrously powerful drug that is gaining popularity in the United States and killing tens of thousands of people every year. It is produced in clandestine Chinese laboratories, but there is no doubt that it will soon reach the hands of the all-powerful Mexican drug cartels.

However, in search of profit, the bandits go beyond their usual boundaries.

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We provide some of OUR opinions on certain strange, Weird and Evil acts or Personalities buried in the pages of history. https://linktr.ee/CrimeGangs

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Crime, Gangs & Passion

Crime, Gangs & Passion

We provide some of OUR opinions on certain strange, Weird and Evil acts or Personalities buried in the pages of history. https://linktr.ee/CrimeGangs

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