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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico drug bosses may have set truce

According to media reports, trafficking chiefs in the state of Sinaloa agreed last month to curb their bloody rivalry. Killings there have in fact declined.

January 29, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — Have some of Mexico's most notorious drug bosses declared a truce?

After a record year of bloodshed, killings have dropped by two-thirds from the December level in the state of Sinaloa, the historic center of Mexican drug trafficking, according to tallies kept by local and national news media.

Those reports have fueled speculation that leaders of the two biggest Sinaloan drug gangs, which have been locked in a fight for territorial control, reached an agreement in December to hold fire, after finding that the battle was sapping time, energy and money better spent on the drug business.

A truce would be welcome in Sinaloa, where ambushes, shootouts and kidnappings have occurred day and night. More than 120 people were killed in the state in December, according to Mexican news media; January looks set to end with about 40 deaths.

Riodoce, a respected weekly newspaper based in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, first reported the potential truce earlier this month. Mexico's foremost investigative magazine, Proceso, published a similar account this week.

U.S. law enforcement officials said there was no evidence of a truce, though they acknowledged that it was a plausible tactic to free the drug-running business of disruptions. Mexican authorities said they were analyzing the reports, and that it was premature to judge their veracity.

Several officials and experts cautioned that any cease-fire could be fleeting. Killing continues in most of Mexico; even in Sinaloa last week, a top drug-gang lieutenant and alleged money launderer, Lamberto Verdugo Calderon, was killed in a gun battle.

"It's the kind of thing we will never really know if it was decreed or not," Sinaloa state legislator Yudit del Rincon said from Culiacan. "They heated up the ground to the point they couldn't work, and they ended up being the most affected."

The report in Riodoce, written by Javier Valdez, a veteran journalist who covers the drug war, said a truce was broached Dec. 11 in a secret meeting at a fancy seafood restaurant in Culiacan. A grenade attack on an army post the day before had brought thousands of troops into the streets of the nearby Sinaloan city of Navolato.

A few days later, a second meeting brought together top-level representatives of the so-called Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and the group commanded by the Beltran Leyva brothers, Riodoce reported. In this gathering, agreement was reached to halt gun battles and ambushes; contract killings already in the pipeline would be allowed to proceed; and the parties would review progress at the end of this week, according to Riodoce.

In addition to potential damage to their smuggling business, Guzman and other bosses were worried about lower-level henchmen branching out on their own, breaking the chain of command and making overtures to traffickers in Colombia and Argentina, Proceso reported.

Another motive behind any cessation of hostilities could be to ward off the army. President Felipe Calderon deployed 45,000 troops in several states, including Sinaloa, to fight traffickers and quell violence.

Riodoce reported that two of five army battalions stationed in Sinaloa were pulled out around the time of the alleged accord. A spokesman for the army in Mexico City declined to comment on the report.

This would not be the first time drug lords brokered an arrangement. In 2007, Guzman's Sinaloa organization agreed to split up territory with the rival Gulf cartel. The deal collapsed, and fighting between the two enemies was part of the driving force behind last year's bloody toll.

Luis Astorga, preeminent historian of narco-trafficking in Mexico and a native of Sinaloa, said that rather than a peace treaty, there might have been a business-motivated "reconciliation" between Guzman's forces and the followers of the Beltran Leyvas. The two factions were united as recently as last spring but divided bitterly and turned on each other. Given that history, any agreement now would be fragile. But Sinaloans are eager to believe in a real truce, Astorga said.

"Sinaloans are in love with the mythology of the narcos," he said.

"The weaknesses of the state are obvious to them, so rumors fly and they want to believe it.

"Logic, however, tells you: Wait and see."

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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