From Stealing Yucca Plants to Smuggling Cocaine: Mexico’s Crime Cartels Develop Creative Diversity
Are cartels on course to become Mexico’s true government?
By Regis Yaworski
When the average person thinks of a Mexican drug cartel, their thoughts center on cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin.
The extent to which these criminal units have developed and diversified is a testament to the immense power base they’ve established, often exceeding the imagination of all us gringos who can only stare in awe at their handiwork.
I will get into hot water over this, but it's like the cartels may be on the verge of becoming the true government of Mexico.
Let me establish my credentials here: I choose to live in Yucatan state of Mexico for five or six months of the year. In terms of being an expert on cartel activity, I am not. I’d guess that unless you’re a senior police inspector on the force of a major Mexican city, you are not an expert on crime cartels. And it would help if you’re on a cartel payroll, which is not a major stretch of imagination.
But because I winter in Yucatan, I make it a point to read five to ten news articles daily from Mexico, so I can summarize events that make it into the public realm.
In addition, I draw great entertainment value from irony, which — unintentionally — seems to be part of Mexican culture. An obvious case in point is how secretive and careful one has to be when trying to buy a few scraps of weed in a country that pumps fentanyl, meth and cocaine into the world.
Let me share another example.
The state of Guanajuato, which used to be the darling of some Canadian and American tourist promoters, has become the most violent state in the nation. In the first eight months of this year, more than 3,100 murders were committed in Guanajuato.
This causes me to reflect on a measure from a while back in which the government banned saltshakers on restaurant tables because, you know, salt isn’t good for your health.
On a recent Sunday, a group of gunmen invaded a Guanajuato bar and killed 12 people, kidnapping another two. The murder rate that Sunday was 31 in total. What I wonder is whether there were saltshakers on the bar tables. If this seems a cynical comment, it’s part of the irony of Mexico where the effects of sodium on human health appears to override the effects of bullets.
Cartels adopt military-grade armaments and weapons
Colombian police intercepted two semi-submersible boats headed for Jalisco state. These boats are successors to the “cigarette boats” of the past. They rarely actually submerge but are equipped with sophisticated satellite navigation systems able to detect police vessels and drop below detection limits. Costing $1.2 million US, each, the two were hauling $18.6 million US in cocaine.
There are cartels that own tanks, numerous armored vehicles and helicopters. Not to mention the most modern firearms from rocket-propelled launchers to sniper rifles that would be the envy of the US Navy SEALs.
In addition to trafficking in deadly drugs, the cartels appear to have developed a fondness for tapping into petroleum pipelines, re-selling gasoline.
They are into extortion, often dominating entire city commercial districts by collecting protection money from merchants who either pay up or close up.
My example of the yucca harvest is not fiction. Cartels have taken to raiding farm properties where yucca is grown, hacking and ripping the plants and depriving farm families of their income, not just today, but for years into the future.
As part of protests over mismanagement of water supplies, farmers and students have been taking over highway toll plazas. The cartels, meanwhile, have simply taken over the farmers and students and gather a large share of the tolls collected. So far, the national guard, army and police have been unable to stop the hijackings.
There are reports of other agricultural crops falling under cartel control.
Of course, as criminal organizations, the cartels have to engage in money laundering, the process of turning “dirty” money into “clean” money to obscure its origins.
The biggest dangers come from cartel turf wars
The bigger damage, in the long run, are the turf wars between cartels.
The homicide rate in Guanajuato is blamed on turf wars between the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), led by the Guzman family (sons and other relatives of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman) and Caborca Cartel, led by Rafael Caro Quintero. Homicides are up 28 per cent over 2019 in the Sonoran desert, Televisa reports. Guzman is set to spend the rest of his life in a US prison but his enterprise is in a major expansion mode.
The scariest headlines are yet to come. There are strong indications that the CJNG is gradually moving into Mexico City. Of 14 cartels operating in the city, La Union Tepito gang has the dominant power. CJNG, however, appears to be allying itself with Fuerza Anti-Union, traditional enemies of Union Tepito, according to Alessandro Ford, acknowledged expert on organized crime.
If CJNG secures a foothold in Mexico City, it will be one step closer to becoming a national power.
Authorities in Mexico City stick with a story that the capitol is a cartel-free bastion of peace and safety.
In recent months, numerous severed heads and headless bodies have been showing up in the municipalities of Guanajuato, including the dismembered body of a former candidate for mayor. In response, police have arrested Adan Ochoa, alias “El Azul”, alleged head of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, who publicly declared war on CJNG or anyone showing allegiance to CJNG.
The state of Zacatecas has become another battleground recently with 14 armed civilians killed and three police officers wounded during what is described as Mexico’s most violent weekend in history.
According to Mexico News Daily: “Official numbers show that between Friday and Sunday there were 273 murders throughout the country, with 114 occurring on Sunday alone. Thirty-four people were killed in Guanajuato, 34 in the state of México, 26 in Jalisco, 16 in Chihuahua, 14 in Puebla and 11 in Mexico City.”
The murder rate in Mexico in total in 2018 was 33,341. A good portion of those murders occurred in border cities in which there are active cartel wars, such as Tijuana, Juarez and Reynosa. In contrast, just four occurred in tourist hotspots like Cancun, La Paz in Baja California Sur and Puerto Penasco in Sonora but this changes each year.
Kidnapping, human trafficking and sexual assault are among the dangers reported annually.
In terms of cartel activity, one can’t help but report that, early in the coronavirus pandemic, several cartels were distributing hundreds of boxes of groceries to needy families. This was viewed as a political statement to point out that the government was doing little or nothing to relieve suffering although there was a crack-down on minors buying “junk food”, ironically in areas where crop failures were common.
So, seeing several hands up for questions: Yes, madame.
Why do I keep going back to Yucatan?
Well. I may be deceiving myself, but it appears that of the 32 states in Mexico, there is some cartel activity in 31 of them. There is a contention that Yucatan is off-limits.
I love Yucatan and the fishing villages of Chelem and Chuburna along with Chicxulub. I love the Mayan culture and the people. I love the capitol city, Merida, nicknamed The White City for its colonial beauty.
There is a belief that the cartel leaders love it, too, and enjoy the cultural aspects and may even own properties among the cobblestones and mansions. This may be a myth but unless I’m forced by airline or other stopovers, I avoid all the rest of Mexico. Merida is a safer city than Regina or Winnipeg in Canada and its culture is a magnet.
There is one aspect of the cartel story that keeps me personally grounded; they can distribute all the free groceries they want to the needy and they can even maintain civility in Yucatan, but as long as they produce or distribute fentanyl, they cannot be confused with Robin Hood.
Cocaine can kill. The difference is that fentanyl will kill. It’s a matter of time, but the chances of a fentanyl user escaping alive is probably in the same odds of winning a lottery.
(In the interest of disclosure, I advise readers that I lost my oldest grandson to a fentanyl overdose almost two years ago. I don’t expect cartel leaders to have a conscience and I assign the same degree of morality on pharmaceutical companies. Let’s just drop the pretence that you’re providing valuable service when you’re dispensing certain death.)
Mexico is truly in trouble
There is no question that Mexico is in trouble. It’s a land of beauty, natural richness and cultural abundance. The country needs tourists and expats from Canada, the United States and Europe. By and large, citizens welcome newcomers and little villages like Chelem are sustained by our dollars.
Nobody I know is going to wander the beaches or the outdoor markets or Mayan ruins if they believe they could be caught in a crossfire, kidnapped or assaulted by way of cartel action. Increasingly, the cartels are becoming the true government of Mexico.
It doesn’t help that there is also a degree of corruption in police, military and political ranks to challenge us gringos in terms of who to trust: That, too, is probably the doing of the cartels.