NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO - On a recent Saturday night, well-heeled patrons at a fashionable restaurant in this embattled border city shared part of an evening with one of Mexico's most notorious drug lords.
Accompanied by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of a cartel of traffickers operating along the Mexican border, swept into the restaurant, shocking its 40 customers.
After his gunmen locked the doors, the drug kingpin warned the diners against leaving the restaurant or using their cell phones until he had finished eating. But to atone for the inconvenience, Guzman picked up the tab for everyone in the house.
"He was there to prove a point," said FBI agent Arturo Fontes, commenting about the separate accounts by two Nuevo Laredo residents about the visit to the lavish beef and seafood eatery.
"He was there to let people know he's in town," the agent said, "that he's here to stay and he is controlling part of the (territory) in Nuevo Laredo."
Can you imagine such a thing occurring in the USA? Someone at the top of the FBI's Most Wanted List putting on such a show of impertinence and invincibility? I think not. In the US the various law enforcement organizations, from the local cops to the DOJ, would consider this a direct facial slapping and and react with appropriate force. Not, however, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The urban warfare being conducted is between the Sinaloa cartel, led by Guzman, and the old and established Gulf cartel, led by Osiel Cardenas, who, by the way, is in a Mexican federal prison (as was Guzman, but he escaped). US officials estimate that Guzman has about 200 gunmen on the streets and Cardenas has 300 to 500. The gunmen are armed with modern weapons including rocket launchers.
The goal here is to gain control of the I-35 corridor from Laredo, Texas to Dallas and thence to the east coast US cities. 39.7 billion dollars of legitimate goods crossed 4 bridges from Mexico into the US last year. The border crossings from Nuevo Laredo to Laredo are the busiest, by far, along the 2000 mile border, far too many vehicles to inspect more than a tiny percentage.
The Cost in Blood
There were about 80 drug related murders committed in this war in 2003 and 2004 each. The murder rate so far this year points to a total by year's end of 130 or so. Things are heating up. A Guatemalan gangmember's's body was found recently with a note attached,
Chapo Guzman. Send more idiots like this so we can kill them!In addition, more than a dozen police commanders have been murdered during the two year war as well as several newspaper and TV reporters.
The Spoils of War
It is estimated by US authorities that the various Mexican cartels earn between 10 and 30 billion dollars a year in drug related business opportunities.
To put those numbers in some perspective, the estimated income for 2005 for the Mexican tourism industry is 10 billion dollars. That makes drug trafficking income from 100% to 300% the size of the total income from the Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Acapulco and all the thousands of other tourist destinations in Mexico.
Well, as you can see from the opening paragraphs of this post, the authorities in Nuevo Laredo, including local, Tamaulipas State and Mexican federals, aren't doing much. President Vicente Fox Quesada has sent an 800 man army unit to the area, but they are outgunned and constantly outmaneuvered by the bad guys who know the turf too well. The authorities are easily bought off by the cartels.
"If a police commander is gunned down (in the United States), we'd go and run search warrants, pick up suspects, question people, and I don't see that happening," the agent said. "That's why it's out of control because they (traffickers) know nothing is going to happen."
Last week, Reforma, a leading Mexico City newspaper, published extracts from statements by a protected witness. The informant charged that Guzman considered an assistant attorney general who coordinates national investigations a friend and ally.
The official formerly served as a prosecutor in Sinaloa, the state where the gang operated. The federal Attorney General's Office denied the accusation.
"There's just too much money to be made," Grayson (George Grayson, an expert on Mexico at the College of William and Mary in Virginia) said. "You can't pay your police and your middle-level army officers enough when (drug traffickers) come to you, and you don't have to do anything actively. You just take your unit east instead of west, and you find a nice contribution to your retirement account."