To help fight COVID-19, Mexico is going to give away the mansions of 2 once-powerful drug kingpins

el chapo guzman
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, center, arrives at an airport in Long Island during his extradition to the US, January 19, 2017.

  • Mexico’s president recently a “mega raffle” with 22 prizes valued at $12.5 million, the proceeds of which will be used for COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Among the goods being given away are mansions that belonged to two of Mexico’s most well known cartel bosses: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – The million-dollar houses of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, formerly boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, deceased boss of the Juárez Cartel, will pay for COVID-19 vaccines for Mexicans.

Mexican government recently announced it will hold a “mega raffle” on September 15 with 22 prizes and a total value of $12.5 million, including the two former drug lords’ seized mansions.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the money raised from the lottery will go “back to the people.”

“All of the money raised is going to be delivered to the people and help to buy [COVID-19] vaccines and medicines and to give away some scholarships” he said at his daily morning press conference on May 27.

The houses failed to sell when previously raffled by the Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People, or Indep, which Lopez Obrador created to redistribute seized assets.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, far left, in a photo found in one of his houses after a raid.

Carrillo Fuentes’ former residence is located in the exclusive Mexico City residential neighborhood of Jardines del Pedregal and is valued at about $4 million, according to Indep.

The property, seized more than 20 years ago, is over 32,000 square feet and has an indoor pool, nine bedrooms, several Jacuzzis and saunas, a wine cellar, and a party salon. According to the listing, Fuentes’ house is fully furnished.

El Chapo’s property is located in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state on Mexico’s west coast and his cartel’s home turf. It was where Guzmán escaped arrest in February 2014 by using a secret tunnel under a bathtub. Public records don’t say if the tunnel is still there.

El Chapo’s house has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, garage and a front garden, according to the public listing. Although more modest, it is valued at $200,000, a high price for Sinaloa’s real-estate market.

The lottery also includes a historic box at the Estadio Azteca, the iconic Mexico City stadium that holds over 87,500 people. The box has its own story: It is where then-President Miguel de la Madrid handed the World Cup trophy to Diego Maradona in 1986, crowning Argentina champion.

Estadio Azteca
Mexico’s Estadio Azteca.

According to the listing, the stadium box is “in an excellent location” and has a 20-person capacity, a bathroom, and four parking spaces. The box is valued at $1 million and would be held until 2065.

In 2019, Mexico offered six other homes seized from Guzmán. Only three sold, bringing in a total of $227,844. One of them, the steel-enforced safe house where Guzmán sheltered after his first prison escape in 2001, went for $107,530.

The government held a similar raffle in September 2020 in which the top prize was the presidential jet, but the $130 million Boeing 787 Dreamliner failed to sell.

Lopez Obrador decided to hold another lottery where 100 winners would get $1 million in cash, but that also failed when only 30% of the tickets were sold. There have been no more attempts to sell the plane.

Drug lords’ mansions

mexico marine drug cartel
A Mexican marine lifts a bathtub covering a tunnel in one of Guzmán’s homes in Culiacan. The tunnel leads to the city’s drainage system.

Guzmán was one of the most notorious and elusive of Mexico’s drug kingpins until his final arrest in Mexico in 2016. He was extradited in 2017 and convicted in a US federal court in 2019 on 10 charges, receiving a life sentence in a US federal “supermax” prison.

In 2009, Forbes magazine ranked Guzmán at number 701 on its annual list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion. (A woman believed to be Guzmán’s eldest daughter has a fashion line called “El Chapo 701,” referring to his ranking.)

Guzmán owned six houses in Culiacan alone. Most are middle-class properties, but they all have one thing in common: a hydraulic system installed under the bathtub to lift the tub and provide access to the municipal sewage tunnels he used to escape.

He also owned an apartment in Mazatlán, Sinaloa’s most famous tourist beach. The property is part of the Miramar apartment complex and is where he was last captured. The complex became a tourist attraction and remains Mexican government property.

El Chapo also built a picturesque luxury hacienda for his mother, Consuelo Loera, in the town of Badiraguato in the mountains of Sinaloa, where Guzmán was born. The hacienda has four rooms, a large kitchen, and a small chapel in the back.

Mexico Sinaloa Badiraguato Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sign billboard
A billboard welcoming Lopez Obrador ahead of his visit to Badiraguato, February 15, 2019.

After a violent attack by a group believed to be Guzmán’s enemies in 2016, Consuelo Loera left the property, which remains abandoned.

Carrillo Fuentes – known as ‘El señor de los cielos,’ or “the lord of the skies,” for using planes to smuggle tons of drugs into the US – died 1997 during plastic surgery to change his appearance.

Many of Carrillo Fuentes’ properties have met the same fate that Guzmán’s now face. His more luxurious residences – among them a 2,000-square-foot apartment and a 6,000-acre ranch – were in Argentina, where he lived for a year in 1996.

In 2018, Argentina auctioned his three properties there, selling them for a total of $14 million.

He had several other properties in Mexico, including an arabesque-like mansion in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, and a luxurious mansion in southwestern Jalisco state; the latter was known as “Casa Versace” after the Italian brand established its first Mexican boutique in 1994.

Carrillo’s property in Sonora was recently demolished by the state government, while Casa Versace was bought by a private owner and turned into a reception hall.

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Mexico’s powerful Jalisco cartel is hunting down and killing members of an elite police force in their homes

Mexico oil refinery sign Salamanca Guanajuato
A sign at Mexican national oil company Pemex’s refinery in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state, September 19, 2017.

  • The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is targeting and killing police officers at their homes in Mexico’s most violent state.
  • The cartel has declared war on the Guanajuato state police’s elite Tactical Group, which it says treats its members unfairly.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) is targeting and killing police officers at their homes in Guanajuato, Mexico’s most violent state and the most dangerous for police.

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), the cartel abducted several members of an elite police force in Guanajuato and tortured them to obtain names and addresses of other officers.

Now CJNG members are showing up at officers’ homes on their days off and murdering them in front of their families, the news agency said.

According to Poplab, a news cooperative in Guanajuato, at least seven officers have been murdered on their days off in 2021.

AP said the offensive against the state police officers – members of a force known as the Tactical Group – poses “the most direct challenge yet” to President López Obrador’s so-called “hugs, not bullets” policy, which is characterized by the desire to avoid conflict with cartels and instead focus on addressing the root causes of crime through government welfare and social programs.

However, the CJNG – generally considered Mexico’s most powerful and violent criminal organization – doesn’t share the desire to avoid conflict, having declared war on the Tactical Group, which it says has treated its members unfairly.

Mexico Guanajuato police
Police stand guard behind sandbags at the entrance to Santa Rosa de Lima, birthplace of a local cartel that goes by the same name, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, February 12, 2020.

“If you want war, you’ll get a war. We have already shown that we know where you are. We are coming for all of you,” read a professionally printed CJNG banner that was hung on a building in Guanajuato this month.

“For each member of [the CJNG] that you arrest, we are going to kill two of your Tacticals, wherever they are, at their homes, in their patrol vehicles,” the banner said.

AP said that officials in Guanajuato – where the CJNG is engaged in a turf war with the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and other local gangs supported by the Sinaloa Cartel – refused to comment on how many members of the Tactical Group have been killed.

State police did, however, publicly acknowledge the latest case in which an officer was kidnapped from his home last Thursday and killed. His body was dumped on a highway.

Without offering an exact figure, Guanajuato-based security analyst David Saucedo said there have been many cases of cartel violence against police.

“A lot of them [the elite police officers] have decided to desert. They took their families, abandoned their homes and they are fleeing and in hiding,” he told AP. “The CJNG is hunting the elite police force of Guanajuato. … This is an open war against the security forces of the state government.”

Cartel gunmen went to the home of a policewoman in January, where they kidnapped her and killed her husband. The female officer was subsequently tortured and shot dead.

Tactical Group officers are among the 262 police who have been killed in Guanajuato between 2018 and May 12. According to Poplab, more police have been killed in Guanajuato than in any other state since at least 2018.

The average since that year of about 75 killings of police per year in Guanajuato is higher than the annual average of officers killed in the entire United States, which has a population 50 times that of the Bajío region state.

Violence against police in Guanajuato, Mexico’s worst state for homicides in recent years, has become so bad that the state government published a special decree on May 17 in which it pledged to provide an unspecified amount of funding for mechanisms to protect police and prison officials.

Mexico Guanajuato police
A policeman drives past town hall in Apaseo El Alto, Guanajuato state, February 10, 2020.

“Unfortunately, organized crime groups have shown up at the homes of police officers, which poses a threat and a greater risk of loss of life, not just for them, but for members of their families,” said the decree issued by Gov. Diego Sinhue.

“They have been forced to quickly leave their homes and move so that organized crime groups cannot find them.”

AP said that state officials refused to describe the protection measures offered to police. They also declined to comment on whether officers would receive financial assistance to rent new homes or whether there were plans to build secure housing compounds for police and their families.

Federal security forces are deployed in Guanajuato but have failed to stem the violence or put any significant dent in criminal activity.

The federal government argues that its “hugs, not bullets” approach to security will result in a reduction in violence, but 2 1/2 years after it took office, homicide numbers remain extremely high, declining just 0.4% in 2020 from the record set in 2019 despite the coronavirus pandemic and the deployment of almost 100,000 National Guard troops.

Despite a campaign promise to withdraw the military from the nation’s streets, López Obrador has continued to use the armed forces for public security tasks but given them a clear directive to avoid direct confrontations with cartels wherever possible.

Former United States ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau said last month that the president sees combating cartels as a distraction from his political agenda and has adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward them.

“He sees the cartels … as a distraction from focusing on his agenda. So he has basically adopted a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards them, which is troubling to our government, obviously. I think it’s a big problem for Mexico,” he said.

Source: AP (en), Infobae (sp)

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Mexico still has the most violent cities in the world, but new hotspots are emerging

Mexico Guerrero homicide crime scene
People and soldiers at the scene of a homicide in Chilpancingo, in Mexico’s Guerrero state, November 15, 2017.

  • For the fourth consecutive year, Mexico has dominated a list of the most violent cities in the world.
  • But smaller towns have risen in the rankings, reflecting new hotspots where criminal groups are fighting for control.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For the fourth consecutive year, Mexico has dominated a list of the most violent cities in the world but smaller towns have shot up the rankings, reflecting new hotspots where criminal groups are fighting for control.

The most violent place in the world in 2020 was Celaya, a city of around half a million people in the central state of Guanajuato, according to the report by a Mexican non-governmental organization, the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal).

The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) have been battling around Celaya over control of oil theft, drug trafficking and other criminal economies,

A few years ago, Celaya wasn’t even on the list. But since 2018, it has shot up more than thirty places, with 699 killings in 2020, or a homicide rate of over 109 per 100,000 habitants.

The situation is similar in nearby Irapuato, also in Guanajuato, which has gone from newcomer to fifth-most violent city in the world, with 823 homicides last year.

Located only a few hours away from Celaya and Irapuato, the city of Uruapan has climbed to eighth in the rankings, with a homicide rate over 72 per 100,000 habitants. It is the deadliest place in the state of Michoacán, which has seen regular clashes between the CJNG and about a dozen other criminal factions, all seeking control of key cocaine and fentanyl trafficking routes.

And the city of Zacatecas, in central Mexico, only appeared on the list in 2019 but broke into the top 15 most violent cities in 2020. This coincided with the CJNG invading 17 municipalities in Zacatecas state in April 2020, during the country’s first lockdown and clashing with the Sinaloa Cartel and other groups throughout the year.

Latin American and Caribbean cities made up the overwhelming majority of the list, claiming 46 of 50 spots. But notably, some of the most murderous cities of past years, such as Kingston, Jamaica or Caracas, Venezuela, have dropped below smaller Mexican newcomers.

InSight Crime analysis

Guadalajara Mexico crime scene homicide murder
Forensic technicians at the scene of a homicide on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico, January 10, 2018.

Bloodshed in Mexico has reached such a level that continued outbreaks of violence in individual, medium-sized cities can register on a global scale, due to larger cartels with a national presence facing smaller but entrenched adversaries.

In August 2019, InSight Crime reported that Irapuato, an important industrial and trade center in central Mexico, had become an unfortunate model for similar cities in the country. At the time, clashes between the CJNG and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel had already been raging since 2018.

Despite the arrest of Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel leader, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” in August 2020, shocking acts of violence have not stopped.

The fighting is brutal but fragmented, having broken down into neighborhood- and street-level feuds that appear endless.

With the fall of Yépez Ortiz, his group began to internally fracture, with smaller groups claiming pieces of the illicit oil economy, leading to additional violence at the same time that the government was executing a plan to militarize the area.

Uruapan tells a different story as the climb in homicides there has been more sudden. While located in the western state of Michoacán, which has consistently been a patchwork of rival clans, Uruapan saw violence spike in late 2019 when the CJNG moved in and faced off against Cárteles Unidos.

The latter is an alliance between members of Los Viagras and Cartel del Abuelo, two Michoacán-based groups, who have teamed up to defend their control of drug trafficking routes.

Similarly, Zacatecas had actually seen homicides drop by 9% in 2019 before they spiked again in 2020 after the CJNG moved in.

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A new DEA map shows where cartels have influence in the US. Cartel operatives say ‘it’s bulls—‘

drugs mexico cartels
Mexican soldiers stand guard next to packages of marijuana at a military base in Tijuana, June 13, 2015.

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest report on illicit drugs and drug trafficking details what the agency says is cartel influence in the US.
  • Security experts and cartel operatives in Mexico dispute the DEA’s depiction, however, arguing the links are more tenuous than the DEA describes them.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released its annual National Drug Threat Assessment, in which it maps out the states where Mexican drug cartels have gained “influence.”

Asked about that depiction of cartel presence in the US, security experts and cartel sources told Insider “it’s bullshit.”

The DEA’s report says Mexican transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, “maintain great influence” in most US states, with the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion showing the “biggest signs of expansion.”

A map included in the report shows the Sinaloa Cartel, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, Cartel del Golfo, Organización de Beltran-Leyva, and Los Rojos as the most “influential” drug organizations with presence in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Chicago, New York, Florida, Kansas, Colorado, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, among other states.

“Mexican TCOs continue to control lucrative smuggling corridors, primarily across the SWB [Southwest Border], and maintain the greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States,” the report says.

DEA map cartel influence in US
Major Mexican organized-crime groups’ areas of influence in the US, according to the DEA’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.

But operatives for the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion interviewed by Insider said their criminal organizations maintain “only clients or helpers” across the border and “not members of our organization.”

“You would never see anyone in the US saying they are part of the organization [Sinaloa Cartel], because that is bulls—. The members and leaders of the organization are in Mexico, not in the US. What we have there are clients or associates, people helping transport, or gang members working with us,” a Sinaloa Cartel operative told Insider.

The operative explained that most of the gangs or “associates” in the US work as independents.

“We wholesale to them and what they do to that merchandise is their problem. We don’t give a f—. They can loose it, sell it, snort it, whatever, as long as they pay up,” he said.

One of the most prominent cases used to prove Mexican cartels’ presence in the US was that of Pedro and Margarito Flores, two brothers from Chicago accused of importing cocaine for the Sinaloa Cartel.

Pedro and Margarito Flores
Pedro Flores, left, and his twin brother, Margarito Flores, in undated photos from a wanted poster released by the US Marshals Service.

The Flores brothers admitted to smuggling at least 1,500 kgs of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel into the US every month between 2005 and 2008. According to their guilty pleas, they also sent more than $930 million in “bulk cash” back to the cartel in Mexico.

US authorities allege the brothers were part of the Sinaloa Cartel, but a phone call of a negotiation with then-Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman that was made public during Guzman‘s trial in 2018 revealed Flores brothers bargaining over the price of a 20 kg shipment of heroin.

“Do you think we can work something out where you can deduct five pesos from those for me?” said a man identified as Pedro Flores.

“How much are you going to pay for it?” said the other man on the call, allegedly Guzman.

‘It just doesn’t make sense’

Philadelphia cocaine drug bust
A fraction of the cocaine seized from a ship at a Philadelphia port on display at the US Custom House in Philadelphia, June 21, 2019.

Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico and former official with CISEN, Mexico’s top security intelligence organization, said the DEA warns of Mexican drug cartels being active in the US in order “to keep asking for money.”

“It’s DEA’s bulls—. They have been doing this for years, and it just doesn’t make sense. Cartels today are not structured [like] a hierarchy organization, but more like a decentralized network,” Hope told Insider.

“The logic behind the DEA [report] is to argue there is an invasion of external forces so they can justify more budget and support from the US,” he said.

Neither DEA headquarters nor its offices in Texas and Arizona responded to requests for comment on the map.

The report describes the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion as “one of the fastest growing cartels” and says the organization “smuggles illicit drugs into the United States by accessing various trafficking corridors in northern Mexico along the SWB including Tijuana, Juarez and Nuevo Laredo.”

“The cartels dominate the drug trade influencing the United States market, with most cartels having a poly drug market approach that allows for maximum flexibility and resiliency of their operations,” the report states.

The report doesn’t describe how these organizations maintain their presence in the US.

“The DEA has a problem with semantics. What does influence actually mean? What does presence even mean? An associate is no other thing but a client,” Hope said.

US drug market mexican cartel control DEA map
The cartel areas of influence map from the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment.

An operative for Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion said the organization maintained a large group of members in Mexico who are “mostly on the armed side of the operations,” while most contacts in the US were clients.

“Most of what we can call members of the Jalisco organization are on the arms [side], like sicarios, and some producers that are on a payroll, but everyone else is either a client we are selling to or an association to have access to certain route” for distribution in the US, he said.

Some intelligence officials believe Mexican cartels do have a real presence on US soil but function differently there.

“The substantial difference is that drug criminal enterprises are not displaying force at the border with the US because it is not needed. We should take into account that keeping a low profile is good for their activities and business, just as any other corporation,” said a high-level foreign intelligence official in Mexico who asked for anonymity.

The official said cartel associates in the US have something like membership, even if they aren’t part of the cartel structure, and “are using the brand” to prove their drugs’ quality.

“We need to consider that they act just as another transnational company, with their level of organization, distribution, reach, and territory control. They do have a presence in the US in how their drug has a brand backing up certain quality,” the official said.

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How American guns help Mexican cartels overwhelm Mexico’s police and military

Mexico cartel guns suspects
Suspects stand behind seized guns at a press conference in Tijuana, Mexico, March 24, 2010.

  • About 70% of guns used in crimes in Mexico that are seized and traced originated in the US.
  • Weapons sent illegally from the US to Mexico and used by criminal groups are overwhelming Mexican security forces.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – Almost 50 years after Mexico’s first law to restrict the use of firearms was implemented in an attempt to keep the country at peace, Mexico finds itself flooded with foreign weapons.

Mexico’s prohibitive laws against firearms have not stopped thousands of weapons from being used in its streets, directly threatening its own security forces.

About 70% of guns used in crimes in Mexico that are seized and traced originated in the US, according to an updated Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on efforts to combat firearms trafficking from the US to Mexico.

The weapons sent illegally from the US to Mexico and used by criminal groups are now overwhelming security forces in most Mexican states, and it is “almost impossible” to fight back, a state police officer in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas told Insider.

A Mexican police officer is killed by a gun every 16 hours, despite their own heavy armor and armament, according to a 2020 report by Causa en Común, a nonprofit organization focused on security issues in Mexico.

Mexico City forensic crime scene gun
Mexican forensic experts observe a gun used in an assault in La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, May 6, 2019

Heavily armed military personnel have been deployed throughout Mexico to fight crime, but state and local police forces, many of which are riven by corruption, are outgunned by criminals and face other challenges, such as low pay.

Criminal groups “are using military tactics and equipment like tanks, landmines, rocket-launchers. It is getting to a point where we are not equipped enough to fight back, and most of the time we rather leave than stay to fight,” the officer said, speaking anonymously to avoid retaliation.

English journalist Ioan Grillo, who has covered crime in Mexico for more than 20 years, says most of the automatic weapons sold legally in the US end up in the wrong hands in Mexico, driving armed conflict there.

“At least 200,000 guns cross illegally from the US into Mexico every year,” Grillo told Insider.

Drug cartels use high-powered firearms, such as .50-caliber rifles, that can rip through armored vehicles, as well as weapons capable of shooting down government helicopters, as happened in Michoacan in 2016.

Grillo’s new book, “Blood, Gun, Money,” examines how Mexico’s biggest challenge has its origins in the US.

“Mexico is now dealing with a hybrid armed conflict fueled by the ‘iron river’ flowing south of the border,” Grillo said. “This needs to be addressed and stopped by both countries.”

Mexico guns rifles firearms
Hundreds of firearms on display before being destroyed at the Morelos military headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico, August 12, 2016.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a press release that firearms trafficking to Mexico is “out of control” and urged Congress to “move quickly to crack down” on it.

“Neither Mexico nor the United States can solve these challenges alone and I look forward to continue working on these issues with [Sen. Dick] Durbin and our partners in Mexico,” Meeks said. (Meeks and Durbin requested the updated GAO update.)

This armed conflict has its deepest roots in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, where the vast majority of those more than 200,000 guns come across from Texas, which has a strong gun culture.

“Ciudad Juarez has become the number-one for illegal guns trafficking into Mexico,” Grillo said.

Ciudad Juarez was known as the “murder capital of the world” in the late 2000s, when violence largely related to organized crime caused more than 13 murders a day, according to official figures.

During four years of research for his book, Grillo interviewed an illegal arms trafficker at a local prison in Ciudad Juarez, who described how Mexican cartels benefit from the US’s permissive gun laws.

“This trafficker thought gun shows in Texas were illegal because of how easy it was to get a hold of powerful firearms,” Grillo said. “They enter gun shows in places like El Paso and buy firearms from alleged collectors who are selling all kinds of guns without asking for any documentation.”

Texas Ft. Worth gun show
Guns for sale at a gun show in Fort Worth, Texas, July 10, 2016.

A hitman, or sicario, for the Juarez Cartel interviewed by Insider confirmed the use of gun shows to supply his organization and described how they traffic arms into Mexico.

“There are some people [with clean records] we send to El Paso or to Tucson to legally buy guns or ammo in small quantities … and then we traffic them little by little,” he said.

“But the real firepower, we get it from dealers who have the permits to sell military-grade weaponry,” the man said.

The sicario also said they buy “heavy weaponry” from “private security agencies” or even from members of the US military.

“If [the guns] are trafficked through Juarez, we disassemble them and put them inside old fridges or a bunch of scrap [metal], and we pay Mexican customs to let all the scrap into Mexico. When it is through Arizona, we bring them all the way from Vegas in containers and smuggle them through the desert,” he said.

But while he points to gun shows and gun stores in the US, some gun owners point further up the chain.

Former Las Vegas gun dealer Wesley Felix accuses the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) of framing him and his family during Operation Fast and Furious, a federal investigation between 2009 and 2011 that allowed illegal gun sales so authorities could track their buyers and sellers.

“In my family’s case, the ATF knowingly worked with known criminals and used a confidential informant to illegally purchase many firearms without our consent or knowledge,” Felix said, adding that he believes his store was targeted because it sold class-three weapons, which includes machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and silencers.

Mexico guns for peace
A boy looks at one of the sculptures in an exhibition called Guns for Peace at Bishopric Hill in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, Mexico, March 31, 2015.

Felix recently sent a letter with more than 30 pages of documents to the Mexican government addressing this issue. Insider obtained a copy of the letter and documents and confirmed their receipt through a Mexican diplomatic source.

In March 2016, the US Justice Department said it and the ATF “deeply regret[ed]” that firearms related to Operation Fast and Furious were used in violent crimes, “particularly crimes resulting in the deaths of civilians and law enforcement officials.”

Felix believes the problem facing Mexico as it grapples with drug-related violence is not cartels or even gun shops like his but “the biggest cartel, which is the US Department of Justice.”

But Grillo said a solution will rely on actions by the US and Mexico and that one country alone will never end illegal arms trafficking.

“Gun culture is rooted inside the US. It is very different from what happens in Mexico. But this issue has to be addressed by both countries. Both of them need to stop the iron river,” said Grillo.

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Mexico’s tourist corridor is becoming a dream destination for drug traffickers

Playa del Carmen Quintana Roo Mexico police soldiers beach
Municipal police stand guard on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, January 17, 2017.

  • Recent high-profile drug plane interceptions suggest the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is growing as a drug-trafficking hub.
  • Most of the drugs are likely smuggled on to the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A recent string of high-profile drug plane interceptions suggests the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is being increasingly relied upon as a drug trafficking hub.

On February 5, local media reports claimed a Cessna-type jet suspected of being used by drug traffickers had been found partially incinerated after it landed in the community of Nuevo Tabasco, close to Quintana Roo’s border with Campeche.

Military officials were present at the site, as it was suspected drugs transported by the plane might have been hidden in mountains surrounding the illegal landing spot, according to local media outlet, Quadratín Quintana Roo.

The report added that the aircraft had been detected by Mexico’s air force earlier that morning, before it was found partially destroyed hours later.

Last year, the state saw a number of irregular landings linked to drug trafficking.

In October, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed in a morning press conference that a plane carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine had landed at Chetumal Airport in southern Quintana Roo just hours earlier.

López Obrador reported that three suspicious jets had been detected entering Mexican airspace before they were swiftly pursued by members of the nation’s military and Secretary of National Defense. While one plane landed in Chetumal, with authorities subsequently detaining a member of its crew, the remaining two aircraft managed to evade authorities.

Mexico soldier Cancun
A Mexican soldier patrols a street in Cancun, August 19, 2007.

Military sources suggested the planes could have arrived in the state from Colombia or Venezuela, according to Sol Quintana Roo.

Last July, the state’s then-police chief, Alberto Capella, tweeted that a plane suspected of being involved in illicit activities had strikingly landed on a public highway in the municipality of Chunhuhub.

After consulting military sources, Milenio reported the Hawker 700 jet had initiated its journey in Venezuela, before landing on the Mexican road in broad daylight, where a truck was awaiting its descent. The media outlet added that authorities later found both vehicles abandoned, discovering just under half a ton of cocaine worth over $5.2 million left in the deserted truck.

Drug planes from Argentina and Colombia also disembarked in Quintana Roo last year.

Authorities intercepted an aircraft piloted by two Bolivian nationals traveling from Argentina to Mexico’s largely touristic Cozumel island in January 2020, seizing around a ton of cocaine in the process.

Some of those making such flights have reportedly managed to transport their illicit loads onward overland.

Most crews have evaded capture, despite being traced and pursued by authorities.

Just beyond Quintana Roo’s southern border, Belize has also seen such flights land illegally, as drugs are increasingly trafficked northward. On January 29 of this year, a clandestine aircraft carrying over 90 kilograms of suspected cocaine disembarked in the nation, with nine people detained following its descent, media outlet Amandala reported.

InSight Crime analysis

Mexico Cancun soldiers mall shooting
Mexican soldiers in a mall following reports of gunfire, in Cancun, January 17, 2017.

Illicit flights disembarking in the state have largely carried sizeable shipments of cocaine, ultimately fueled by record production of the drug in a host of South American countries including Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

While 2021 has only seen one such flight disembark in Quintana Roo so far, last year eight aircraft linked to drug trafficking were reported to have made irregular landings in the state, preceded by 2019’s staggering total of 14, according to the Quadratín Quintana Roo.

However, the media outlet added that Mexico’s air surveillance system – controlled by the nation’s air force – reports an average of three irregular flights made within the state’s boundaries per week.

Although cocaine has passed through Quintana Roo for decades, security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime that an increased number of drug flights landing in the state in recent years may be a product of the tightening land border between Mexico and Central American countries, as well as former US President Donald Trump’s pressure on the Mexican government to act in this respect.

Most of the drugs that are successfully transported on from Quintana Roo ultimately reach the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production, according to Hope.

The analyst added that those who receive the cocaine in Quintana Roo may be linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG). The drugs may also be collected by residual members of the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, who have been known to operate in the state, Hope suggested.

InSight Crime reported on how Quintana Roo has seen an increase in violence related to organized crime of late, with independent cartels battling for control over lucrative drug distribution points. Such battles have been spilling over into events attended by tourists, allegedly including a music festival in Tulum last October.

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Trump’s crackdown on the US-Mexico border has been a moneymaker for border agents working with traffickers

FILE PHOTO: A police officer gives a leaflet with information about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to a person entering to Mexico from the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A police officer gives a leaflet with information about COVID-19 to a person entering Mexico in Ciudad Juarez, March 29, 2020.

  • President Donald Trump has cracked down on the US-Mexico border throughout his time office, increasing enforcement and putting up new barriers to entry.
  • But instead of stopping illicit traffic across the border, those tighter restrictions have likely facilitated the corruption that criminal groups rely on to move drugs and people into the US.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – President Donald Trump’s crackdown on the US-Mexico border hasn’t stopped illicit traffic crossing it or deterred officials who secretly help it across.

Mexican drug cartels have been paying more money to more US agents than ever before in order to move drugs and people across the border, according to documents and sources who spoke to Insider.

The Trump administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to virtually close the border. Trump has built and often bragged about 400 miles of new border wall, installed dozens of surveillance cameras manned by the military, and boosted the number of border agents.

But none of that has had the desired effect: Traffickers have paid millions of dollars to US border agents to keep drugs and people flowing throughout Trump’s time in office.

“We pay as much as $10,000 to a migra [Border Patrol officer] only to look the other way while we are using a tunnel to smuggle drugs and to tell us of new trends on surveillance,” said a Mexican woman in charge of smuggling operations for a drug cartel in El Paso, Texas.

As Trump tightened surveillance on the border, their costs went up.

border wall
Contractors erect a section of 30-foot high border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, September 10, 2019.

“We used to pay no more than $5,000 to a single agent a month or every two months, but now we are paying twice that every month for a migra to give some information,” the woman told Insider.

The cartel operative, who asked not to be identified to avoid retribution, said cartels not only have ties to the Border Patrol but to CBP officers at the international bridges as well.

“Some of them provide us with the shift role so we know who is gonna be working where on that week and plan our shipment. That way we know if one of the agents working [with us] is gonna be on a shift and exactly on which lane number,” she said.

In addition to bribes with money, cartels use young girls, according to a Mexican diplomatic source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

“They are bribing CBP officers on ports of entry with girls. The girls start hanging out with them and they convince the officers to let illegal cargo through,” the source said.

The cartel operative in El Paso confirmed that was a method to entice border agents.

Border agents “love alcohol and women,” she said. “We started inviting some of the agents to party across the border, in a house we have in Juarez [in Mexico], and we set him up. At the beginning the officer working for us started because we were threatening him with showing his pictures with an underage girl to his wife, but later he learned to love money.”

FILE PHOTO: A woman touches a family member through the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, United States, after a bi-national Mass in support of migrants in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A woman in Mexico touches a family member through the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, after a bi-national Mass in support of migrants, February 15, 2016.

Stricter controls at the border are directly responsible for an uptick in corruption cases, most of them related to organized crime, according to David Jancsics, a professor at San Diego State University and author of the 2020 report “Corruption on the US-Mexico border.”

“Tighter border security may further increase the level of this type of bribery. A trust-based strategic conspiracy between the corrupt partners is already the dominant form of border corruption in the United States,” Jancsics said.

Jancsics’ report estimates that workers with the Department of Homeland Security accepted $15 million of bribes over a 10-year period.

“By the logic I would say with Trump the corruption must be worse than before, but it’s very difficult to say. We only know of people arrested, which are small numbers – the tip of the iceberg,” said Jancsics.

During the Obama administration, cases of misconduct among border officers dropped steadily. But since 2017, when Trump took office, cases have reached a five-year high, according to a recent internal Customs and Border Patrol report.

There were 286 total arrests during fiscal year 2018 – 268 CBP employees arrested twice, one employee arrested four times, and one employee arrested five times.

The charges include drug smuggling, bribery, theft, and sharing classified government data, records show.

“As an Agency charged with law enforcement activities, CBP regards any violation of law by its employees as being inconsistent with and contrary to its law enforcement mission,” the CBP report states.

During 2020, at least a dozen CBP employees were arrested on suspicion of working directly with criminal organizations at the border, according to media releases.

Trump and border patrol
President Donald Trump with US Customs and Border Protection officers at McAllen International Airport in McAllen, Texas, January 10, 2019.

In August, a Border Patrol agent in Arizona was arrested on suspicion of trafficking drugs for a Mexican criminal organization. The same month, a US border agent was arrested in Juarez and accused of smuggling 30 rounds of ammunition, a loaded firearm magazine, and a bulletproof vest.

In September, six border agents were arrested on suspicion of stealing cocaine and marijuana from dealers to sell in the US. That month, a CBP officer in Laredo was arrested in connection with four murders and one kidnapping.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent in San Diego, said corruption is part of Border Patrol culture.

“To my knowledge, no other agency is as bad as the Border Patrol in terms of corruption. Since Trump took office he has empowered corrupt agents. They feel Trump is one of them and they can do whatever they want,” Budd said.

Budd worked with former border agent Raul Villarreal, who was arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 and convicted four years later of running a human-smuggling ring that brought hundreds of immigrants across the US-Mexico border illegally.

“It still is very common for Border Patrol supervisors to smuggle drugs or people using their own official vehicles. There are agents that have cartel connections before even entering BP,” Budd said.

Budd, now a whistleblower about Border Patrol corruption, thinks management is responsible for corruption and abuse inside the agencies.

“I’ve been advocating in Washington for the Border Patrol and CBP [to] be managed by an external agency. That would be the only way out,” Budd told Insider.

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