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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico drug cartels thrive despite Calderon's offensive

Nearly four years after President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led crackdown, the cartels are smuggling more narcotics into the U.S., amassing bigger fortunes and extending dominion at home.

August 08, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Juan Jose Suarez Coppel, Pemex's general director, acknowledged to a congressional committee that rampant kidnapping of workers forced the closing of oil and liquid gas plants in the Burgos Basin in northeastern Mexico, among the company's most lucrative installations. Traffickers have been stealing oil for years, but the goal in this case was to halt production and control the region.

The kidnapped workers' families told The Times that state officials, prosecutors and the army have proved unable or unwilling to help; hope that their relatives will return alive diminishes daily.

The spread of drug-related chaos across Mexico can be roughly gauged by the list of places the State Department says American citizens should avoid.

Two years ago, Americans were cautioned about border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. But a warning issued in July includes highways around Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city, as well as the states of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas along the border, Durango and Sinaloa in the northwest and Michoacan on the Pacific coast.

Gun battles have spilled into the famed resort of Acapulco. The mayor of Cancun, Mexico's top tourist destination, was arrested in May on drug-trafficking charges in the middle of his campaign for governor of the state of Quintana Roo.

An assessment of the drug threat issued early this year by the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center said Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, or DTOs, "continue to represent the single greatest threat to the United States."

Mexican cartels, with operations in more than 2,500 U.S. cities, are the only ones working in every part of the United States, it said. They have largely displaced Colombian and Italian traffickers.

"The influence of Mexican DTOs, already the dominant wholesale drug traffickers in the United States, is still expanding," said the report, known formally as the National Drug Threat Assessment.

Cultivation and smuggling of Mexican marijuana had doubled since 2004 to an estimated 23,700 tons, it said. Production of heroin had more than quadrupled by 2008, to an estimated 41.9 tons. A separate State Department report said poppy cultivation doubled again between September 2008 and September 2009 and that cannabis production had reached its highest level since 1992.

Production of methamphetamine is also on the rise, despite the Mexican government's efforts to crimp the flow of precursor chemicals. Its availability in the United States has hit a five-year high.

The availability of cocaine north of the border has declined, however. The U.S. drug assessment report cited several possible explanations, including major seizures by Mexico. It also cited a drop in production in Colombia and the increasing flow of cocaine to other markets.

Calderon administration officials have cited the data on cocaine as a sign they are winning the war against drug-trafficking groups, and they dispute some of the U.S. statistics on marijuana and other drug production as excessively high.

Seizure rates for marijuana and heroin have often been higher under Calderon than under his three predecessors, according to Mexican government statistics. Yet in some cases, the Calderon record is no better, and comparisons are even less favorable when adjusted for the growth in the drug market.

Mexican forces seized 74.2 tons of cocaine during Calderon's first two years in office. Without a record-setting 25.9-ton seizure in the Pacific port of Manzanillo in November 2007, the total would be about equal to the amount impounded in a similar period under Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, and under Ernesto Zedillo in the mid-1990s. It is far short of the 98.6 tons seized under Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1989 and 1990.

Only two top-ranking cartel leaders have been killed, Arturo Beltran Leyva and Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villarreal. But authorities are arresting more suspects, nearly 78,000 from the start of Calderon's term to January of this year. Of those, roughly 96% were street dealers, lookouts and other low-level helpers. But only about 2% were charged and convicted of a crime, according to official statistics. The rest remained in jail or were released.

The arrests have been unevenly distributed. Fewer than 1,000 of the 53,000 drug-trafficking arrests studied in a report this year by Edgardo Buscaglia, an international expert on organized crime and a legal scholar at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, involved people working for the Sinaloa cartel, the oldest and mightiest of the narco-empires.

Those figures have led many in Mexico to conclude that Calderon's government is going easy on the Sinaloa traffickers, whose leader is the country's most wanted fugitive, billionaire Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman. The motive, this argument goes, would be to reduce violence by allowing one group to essentially win. Calderon has vehemently denied favoritism.

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