The US Secretary of Homeland Security hints at a Bin Laden-style killing of leading Mexican mobster

Janet Napolitano recently completed a short tour of five Central American countries. She kicked off in Mexico, where she and the Mexican Interior Minister, Alejandro Poiré, signed security agreements and, it seems, had some heart-to-hearts about the continued search for Forbes Rich-Listed Joaquín ‘Shorty’ Guzmán. In the press conference that followed the meetings Napolitano admitted:

“Well, let me just say it took us 10 years to find Osama Bin Laden and we found him and you know what happened there. I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen with Guzmán, but I am suggesting that we are persistent when it comes to wrongdoers and those who do harm in both of our countries. So that issue continues.”

Joaquín Guzmán is certainly the prize target. He is the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He was jailed in 1993 but has been on the run since escaping in 2001 in a laundry basket. Sightings have been made every now and again of ‘Shorty’ in and around his gang’s state capital, Culiacán. His latest wedding to an 18-year-old bride was well attended. But he is an elusive character and the photograph the press use to illustrate their stories is a grainy picture taken nearly 20 years ago when he was still behind bars.

The Mexican government’s wanted list of mobsters has been growing gradually smaller but killing or capturing Guzmán would be a major coup for the president. After lower house losses in 2009 Felipe Calderón is a lame duck at present and his National Action Party (PAN) seems set to be kicked out of the presidency and the Senate in July’s elections. It would be a boost for the PAN candidate for the top job, Josefina Vázquez Mota, if the wealthy gangster were taken off the beat.

His gang is arguably the most ‘successful’ of the major groups and forms the most important part of the ‘old’ foundation alliance with the Gulf organisation and the Knights Templar. Taking out its mysterious leader would also help stop the comments from across the country that the government has been favouring the Sinaloa gang by cracking down harder on its rivals, the ‘new’ foundation of Los Zetas, La Familia and organisations from Juarez and Tijuana. Analysts of the violence believe that the Sinaloa criminals may have finally wrested control of the border city of Ciudad Juarez from the local gangs; critics of the government say that this was achieved with an ‘understanding’ from the security forces. The president has categorically denied any such plots.

The US has already been given permission from Mexico City to fly unmanned drones over the Sinaloa mountains and Chihuahua deserts of its neighbour to see what it can see. Will the next step be boots on the ground? The American government would want to avoid the kind of backlash seen in Pakistan after the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden there. The Mexican constitution outlaws foreign intervention on its soil. But, as we saw in that villa near the Afghan border in May last year, sometimes the small issue of national sovereignty can be gently pushed aside when its comes to the elimination of the Washington’s ‘high value targets’.

Hacking the gangs

Going online to fight the Mexican gangsters

The wing of the hacking group Anonymous based in the Mexican city of Veracruz recently threatened to expose names and activities of Los Zetas criminal organisation which it accused of being involved in the disappearance of one of its members.

In the video below (in Spanish), Anonymous warned that on Saturday 5 November, if their colleague still had not been freed, they would name taxi-drivers, police officers and local authorities who had “dedicated themselves to being the eyes and ears” of the gangsters. The word “polizeta” is also used; it combines ‘policeman’ and ‘Zeta’ to demonstrate the proximity between the law and the lawless.

Source: MrAnonymousguyfawkes, YouTube, 2 November 2011

The video’s defiance – “You made a big mistake taking one of us. Let him go. If anything happens to him then you sons of bitches will remember the 5th November” – is laudable in a world where the gangs have developed spiders’ webs of fear and violence across Mexican society.

However, just 24 hours after posting the video the Veracruz ‘hactivists’ seemingly backtracked on their threat due to the overwhelming risk they were placing on their lives. We have seen how the gangs have intimidated and murdered reporters and they have the capacity to terrify anyone reporting the conflict differently from how they would like with torture, rape and extortion.

Nevertheless, it seems that that the wider hacking community considered and dismissed the Veracruz decision. The larger wing of the global Anonymous group, ‘Anonymous Iberoamerica’ posted this belligerent and daring blogpost on Wednesday 2 November, restating their repudiation of the criminals and their refusal to be dominated. The Twitter hashtag #OpCartel has remained in use and there is incessant online activity and discussion over this bold challenge, despite the past reactions of the authorities to Internet debate of the drugs problems.

The violence carried out by the gangsters is often of a nearly unspeakable brutality but Mexico would quickly lurch a hundred paces backward into serious problems if the media never reported and disputed the problems. The freedom of the press must not be privatised and restricted. As a leading Latin American nation and a member of the G20, if Mexico were to lose this pillar of democracy its stumble towards lawlessness and political default would be more acute. The politicians are hesitating and treading water ahead of the presidential elections on 1 July 2012. It seems that Anonymous is not prepared to wait that long and is ready to risk death rather than to continue to be subordinated by the fast-moving, well-connected and devastatingly violent criminal gangs.

This blog will cover the Mexican general and presidential elections live from the country in June and July 2012.

The Quetzal Conundrum

Rising violence will be the biggest problem confronting the next president of Guatemala

The first-round of the Guatemalan presidential election on 11 September produced no clear winner and so a run-off will take place on 6 November. Retired former general Otto Perez Molina (36%) and businessman Manuel Baldizon (24%) will contest the second vote. At barely 2%, support for the only left-leaning candidate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan rights champion Rigoberta Menchú, hardly registered.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of public security formed the core of the election campaigns. The people are worried about powerful criminal organisations from Mexico, such as Los Zetas gangsters, tapping into the Central American underworld of mara criminal units and building allegiances and animosities. In May this year, outgoing president Álvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the northern jungle region of Petén after 27 people were brutally killed at a ranch. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 (the second-highest in the region after El Salvador, according to a World Bank report).

Mr Perez Molina adopted a clenched fist as his campaign logo and has promised a firm response to the violence; his pledge to expand the role of the army in the fight against the gangs has been supported by rival Mr Baldizon. However, with weak state institutions and a glance north to current Mexican public feeling about the deployment of the military to battle the gangsters, letting the army loose in the rainforests will be far from an easy twirl of the presidential pen.

Mr Baldizon has hinted at another tough measure to deal with the violence: increasing the use of the death penalty, last used in 2000. This may well be popular with the people but Guatemala must not just look inwards in the battle. The Mérida Initiative pledges much greater US support for Mexico than for Central American nations. Renegotiating the terms of such agreements and calling upon cross-border aid and debate through such institutions as the Central American Parliament, or PARLACEN, (which was founded in Guatemala), would be a prescient and less regionally divisive reaction to the growing crisis.

Mr Baldizon’s pledge to continue the social programmes started by incumber leftist Mr Colom poll well in a country with critical levels of poverty, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, but his promise to ensure the national soccer team qualifies for the 2014 World Cup is a distraction.

By focusing on the destructive violence, Mr Perez Molina has maintained healthy support that will probably see him home in the run-off. Training his eye on the gangsters is one thing but it would also be wise to devote some attention to the July 2012 Mexican presidential elections, which are set to be the most important event in the current drugs violence crisis. If Mr Perez Molina really wants to use his ‘clenched fist’ he will have to shake hands and ensure neighbourly support first to combat this cross-border problem.

The wars on what?

The similarities between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’

A commentator writing in The Daily Telegraph, a British conservative newspaper, simply said that ‘a man has died in a war’. The truth is that Osama bin Laden was often considered, by both supporters and opponents, as more than just a man. Some have seen him as a mysterious sage who loved honey and the BBC World Service at the same time as being a scourge of mighty Western powers. And the circumstances both preceding and following his demise are certainly more than just a war.

It is hard to define the limits of the ‘war on terror’. Far from the traditional battlefield scrap, this challenge has relied heavily on intelligence gathering, multi-national cooperation against a moveable enemy, pre-emptive drone strikes, increased border security and the launching of two military interventions in Muslim countries.

There are similarities between the fight against terrorism and another ‘war’ which only loosely fits the customary definition of belligerence. The ‘war on drugs’ is much closer to home for the US and this blog first looked at possible links between al-Qaeda and the Mexican drugs gangs in February 2011 (see ‘Jihad in Juarez‘ – 20/02/11) .

This other ‘war’ has also required more cross-border teamwork, the need to adapt to a changeable and, at times, faceless enemy. It too has called for the use of drones, although at the moment the unmanned aircraft have been surveying Mexico for gang hideouts and signs of activity rather than taking out human targets, as they have been directed to do in Pakistan. The use of drones against the gangsters in the future cannot be ruled out.

There is another similarity between the two ‘wars’: the culture of celebrity. In Mexico, the aura of myth and legend surrounds many key gangsters as it did around bin Laden, and none more so than Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He is rumoured to eat regularly amongst normal diners in Sinaloa, picking up the tab for everyone in the chosen restaurante and in 1993 he was smuggled out of jail in a laundry basket. Huge multi-million dollar bounties have been placed on his head, along with other main celebrity criminals like Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva gang), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez organisation) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Los Zetas).

But although ‘the head of the al-Qaeda snake has been cut off’, the organisation is, as the UK Defence Secretary said recently, still “alive and well”. The same can be said for the gangsters in Mexico. For as more and more are either captured or killed by the police and military, more and more are ready to fill empty shoes and continue their lucrative and violent trade. As Mexico is starting to discover and as the US has realised, these new ‘wars’ with the new type of assailants are long-term struggles against mobile enemies who, as bin Laden had said in the past, ‘love death as much as Americans love life’.

Jihad in Juarez?

Fears are growing in Washington over organised and violent crime in Mexico but defiant rhetoric must be backed up by defiant actions.

US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a bold message to the gangsters south of the border recently:

“Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.”

Napolitano also elaborated on fears that Al-Qaeda could get in contact with some of the gangs in efforts to exert more destabilising influence over the region.

However, Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake rejected the idea that, in particular, Los Zetas could start to get cosy with the Islamist terror group. He emphasised the differences between the situations, with Al-Qaeda driven by religious interpretation and the Mexican gangs by drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Jihad or not, gang members in Mexico won’t be too bothered by this latest challenge from Washington. Words have come and gone before. There have been some major bilateral policies, such as the Merida Initiative.

However, despite the help it offers Mexico, the lack of support that scheme gives for Central American nations tarnished by inflitrating Mexican gangsters is a problem. The US obviously takes its border security very seriously and major strengthening efforts have been concentrated in frontier states, although this is not an area free from controversy.

This is an important year for Mexican politicians, with the presidential election coming up in 2012. Gangs have been extending links into Central America and the US is still nervous. Napolitano’s call could be seen as a spur in the side of the politicians, reminding them that whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential residence, next summer must remain focussed on the war.

The US can help and it works closely with Mexican intelligence services, but this is a nudge to remind everyone where this all started. Mexicans prefer to highlight the incessant consumer demand in the US. Finger-pointing doesn’t help and dialogue often simply puts off substantial movements; meaningful actions must continue to be the main focus of both Mexico City and Washington.