Friday, February 08, 2008

Drug violence has moved into Mexico City

Crackdowns pushing cartels into capital, against government

08:46 AM CST on Friday, February 8, 2008

MEXICO CITY – Long a meeting place for Mexican drug cartels and their Colombian suppliers, this sprawling capital is now on the front lines of the government's drug war after the discovery of paramilitary narco cells planning a high-level assassination with possible collaboration of city police and former army soldiers.

The cells, uncovered in upscale neighborhoods favored by politicians and entertainers, had huge stockpiles of high-powered weapons, including grenade- and rocket-launchers, designed to penetrate the highest level of armor.

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"Mexico City was a peaceful place for narcos, as they coexisted with the government. But now it's beginning to look a lot like Bogotá," said Raul Benítez, a military and national security expert at the National Autonomous University. "Mexico City residents are not used to this kind of narco-violence, and that's sending shock waves across the population."

In the latest incident, the editor of El Real newspaper was shot to death Thursday as he drove in the Mexico City suburb of Chimalhuacán. And on Wednesday, Mexican authorities said they seized more than two tons of ephedrine – a chemical used to make amphetamines – at the capital's international airport, which has become an important transit point for drugs and weapons.

The ephedrine had been shipped from China in 155 boxes and was destined, through the Mexican Postal Service, for clandestine labs in the states of Colima, Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Michoacán and Mexico, officials said.

The latest military crackdown against cartels began Jan. 1 in cities like Nuevo Laredo, a Gulf cartel stronghold, and Culiacán, a Sinaloa cartel stronghold. The pressure may be pushing cartel operatives to more anonymous settings, such as the Mexico City metropolitan area, with its 18 million people.

After one raid late last month in the nation's capital, the head of intelligence for the capital's Judicial Police resigned amid reports that he was being investigated for allegedly providing bulletproof vests to a Sinaloa cartel hit squad that had set up shop in a tony southern Mexico City neighborhood.

In another recent bust, active police officers and former soldiers allegedly confessed to planning the assassination of a high-level official in the attorney general's office who has overseen the record number of extraditions of drug lords to the U.S.

The official, José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, said his would-be assassins were likely working for the Sinaloa cartel, but they could have been working the Gulf cartel based on the Mexico-Texas border.

"I don't think I'm the most popular guy with any of them," he said in a radio interview.

Bigger battles

Analysts and officials say the recent activities show the rapid "Colombianization" of Mexico, a reference to the Colombian cartels' attacks on high-level law enforcement, judges, politicians and journalists during the 1980s and early 1990s in the city's top cities, including the capital, Bogotá.

And it's no longer just cartels battling each other for territory and control of smuggling routes, but cartels battling the government in the face of the crackdown.

"There's no difference between a Pablo Escobar in Colombia and a Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano," said a U.S. anti-drug official, comparing the fallen Colombian drug capo to Mr. Lazcano, the alleged head of the Zetas, the paramilitary enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel. The Zetas have adopted violent confrontations with the government, much like their Colombian counterparts did in retaliation for the extradition of South American drug figures to the U.S.

President Felipe Calderón's government is unwavering in its crackdown, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora vowed in a meeting with citizen groups that demanded results in their Mexico City neighborhoods.

"There will be no retreat," said Mr. Medina Mora. "We are not going to take a step back."

But in Mexico City, tough words will be increasingly scrutinized.

"On the border, the national media tend to ignore these issues," Mr. Medina Mora said. "That won't be the case here, and that will pose great risks for Calderón if he doesn't deliver."

Mexico City has long suffered from high levels of street crime and police corruption, but it had been relatively immune from the daily killings and cartel turf wars that have become features of border cities like Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

Last week, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard met with Bogotá's former mayor, Antanas Mokus, and solicited advice on dealing with the security challenges ahead.

The nation's capital has historically been a haven for drug traffickers, some of whom have lived side by side with some of the nation's elite. It's a place for financial operations and other transactions.

In August and September of last year, three of Mexico's most wanted were captured in Mexico City, including Juan Carlos de la Cruz Reyna, the alleged Gulf cartel link to Colombian suppliers, who were also arrested having lunch in the upscale Polanco neighborhood.

In mid-January, the Mexico City newspaper Reforma cited a city government study that said a police cartel was involved in moving drugs through the capital's international airport.

Recent drug seizures at the airport have sparked apparent retaliation against private customs brokers via al-Qaeda-style beheadings. After the Dec. 12 seizure of a half-ton of cocaine at the airport, three such brokers were executed and two of them had their heads severed, airport officials said. Allegedly, the Gulf cartel and its Zetas were involved in those killings.

Amid the growing violence, more than 500 city police have been stationed at the newly expanded international airport, the target of narco-traffickers fighting for control, officials say. An airport spokesman insisted the airport is safe for all passengers.

Conflicting reports

Mexico City police officials have differed on the level of penetration of the narcos, with Police Chief Joel Ortega acknowledging the phenomenon and Attorney General Rodolfo Félix Cárdenas saying there is no evidence the cartels have set up shop in the capital.

"We don't know if they are operating continuously in Mexico City," the city attorney general told reporters.

Despite the assurances, Ricardo McGregor, the head of intelligence for the attorney general's Judicial Police, resigned late last month after federal officials said he was under investigation on suspicion of providing the bulletproof vests seized in a recent raid on alleged Sinaloa operatives.

Mr. McGregor denied any wrongdoing and said he stepped down to facilitate the investigation. He said that the bulletproof vests were stolen from an armored car company that he used to work for, but that it happened during an armed robbery on the streets of Mexico City.

Up to 30 agents in the unit then failed to show up for work, according to media reports.

Meanwhile, neighbors of the narcos in Mexico City were caught off-guard by the discovery of narco cells next door.

Along the cobblestone streets of San Ángel, Jardines del Pedregal and Coyoacán they spoke in hushed tones and asked their names not be used for fear of retaliation.

A 41-year-old woman walking her dog in Coyoacán remarked, "I'm sure there are hundreds of other houses packed with narcos. We're not alone."

A mile away in San Ángel, a 71-year-old whispered, "Dios mío! I'm afraid to leave my house, and we're not on the border."

News assistant Javier García contributed to this report.

Drug violence has moved into Mexico City | Dallas Morning News | News for Dallas, Texas | Mexico News


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