Mexico drug kingpins behind bars but violence and corruption go unchecked
Mexican authorities’ successes in jailing top narco-gangsters has led drug cartels to fragment while leaving politicians and businessmen unpunished
Omar Treviño Morales, leader of the Zetas drug cartel, is escorted by soldiers to a media conference in Mexico City on Tuesday, following his arrest in Monterrey. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Thursday 5 March 2015 13.55 EST
The routine has become almost familiar: a fugitive mafia boss is cornered by Mexican security forces and captured without a shot fired.
The stony-faced kingpin is marched by a masked special forces escort across airport tarmac dotted with army helicopters, to be whisked away for questioning.
Mexican politicians and police hail another victory in the drug war, warning that no mafia boss is too powerful to escape justice. US officials shower praise on their colleagues, and chalk up another victory in the drug war.
But all the while, violence fuelled by drug-trafficking and corruption continues to rage across Mexico, and shipments of marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine keep crossing the border into the US.
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In recent days the Mexican government has celebrated the capture of two top cartel suspects: on Wednesday Omar Treviño Morales, the leader of the notoriously brutal Zetas drug cartel, was caught in the northern city of Monterrey.
He was found in the wealthiest suburb in the country in a luxury house adorned with abstract art and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Last week it was the turn of Servando Gómez Martínez, leader of the Knights Templar cartel; he was caught in the central city of Morelia – reportedly after the authorities trailed a chocolate cake his girlfriend had cooked to celebrate his 49th birthday.
On both occasions the detained capos were marched before the TV cameras to waiting helicopters to take them to high-security jail, and the US Drug Enforcement Administration showered the Mexican authorities with praise.
La Tuta’s arrest, the DEA said in a statement, “is another win for Mexico in the fight against brutal criminal cartels”. The capture of Treviño, it wrote a few days later, “should serve as yet another warning that no criminal is immune from arrest and prosecution”.
Servando Gómez Martínez, aka “La Tuta”, leader of the Knights Templar drug cartel, following his capture in Morelia. Photograph: Jazm n Adri n/Demotix/Corbis
Security analyst and former intelligence official Alejandro Hope stresses that the latest arrests reinforce the now established trend of major cartels breaking up into smaller groups.
Both the Knights Templar and the Zetas were already shadows of their former selves, even before the capture of La Tuta and Treviño, thanks to earlier arrests of other leaders.
“These detentions underline the fragmentation of the cartels that has been going on for years,” Hope says. “Some of the smaller groups that emerge are particularly predatory, focused on extracting rent from local populations rather than drug trafficking.”
Hope argues that the central problem now lies in the failure of notoriously corrupt and ineffective local law enforcement institutions to contain the criminality and violence of such groups, often focused on such practices as kidnapping and extortion.
The unintended consequences of the kingpin strategy are illustrated by the 2009 death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who was killed in a two-hour gun battle with Mexican marines. His demise broke the organisation, but the emergence of multiple rival factions – and would-be successors – unleashed a wave of terror and violence.
The numerous Beltrán Leyva spinoffs include the Guerreros Unidos gang which, together with municipal police, allegedly coordinated the disappearance and probable murder of 43 student teachers in the southern city of Iguala in September.
The Zetas, originally formed in the late 1990s by a group of deserters from an elite military unit, appeared to be heading for fragmentation even before the arrest of Treviño, who took over the leadership after the capture of his more powerful brother in July 2013.
One emerging faction, calling itself the Legionarios, had reportedly offered a reward of $1m for information leading to his capture, alongside the $5m offered by the DEA and the $2m by the Mexican government.
Joaquín Guzmán, aka “El Chapo”, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel
Joaquín Guzmán, aka “El Chapo”, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, following his arrest at the Pacific resort of Mazatlán in 2014. Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP
But while the days when the Zetas openly drove around in convoys of dozens of vehicles brandishing grenade launchers appear to be over, Hope stresses that the “Zeta legacy” of extreme violence and diversified criminal activity remains.
Edgardo Buscaglia, a leading expert in organised crime around the world, is even more damning of the existing strategy, which he dismisses as little more than window dressing.
“It does nothing to deal with the challenge of the criminalisation of institutions, that is the main problem in Mexico,” he says. “If they keep detaining capos and capitos, but don’t stop the flow of drug money to politics, nothing will change.”
Buscaglia points to the fact that none of the major detentions of recent years have been accompanied by the kind of mass trials of politicians and businessmen he argues are required to dismantle the networks of complicity that ensure “the incentives for criminals to become organised criminals in Mexico are huge”.
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This is clearest, he says, in the lack of judicial action against collaborators of the world’s most infamous narco, the Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, arrested a year ago amid much fanfare.
The apparent solidity of the organisation in the post-Chapo era leads Buscaglia to argue that it is a mistake to overemphasise the trend towards fragmentation seen in other cartels. Rather, he says, the Sinaloa cartel is absorbing the smaller groups through tactical alliances.
“When large groups consolidate, some physical violence such as homicides go down, but economic crimes like extortion and kidnapping go up,” he says. “Mexico today, and for the foreseeable future, remains a mecca for organised crime.”
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