© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mexico's Drug War: A Rigged Fight?

When President Felipe Calderon visits Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Mexico's brutal drug war will be high on the agenda. Fighting among the cartels -- and between government forces and the cartels -- has cost nearly 24,000 Mexican lives since Calderon took office in late 2006.

The U.S. is giving $1.3 billion in military and judicial aid to Mexico to help Calderon's battle against the drug mafias. Mexico's drug cartels are the major foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamines to the United States, and Mexico is a main conduit for cocaine coming mainly from Colombia.

An NPR News investigation in Ciudad Juarez -- ground zero of Calderon's cartel war -- finds strong evidence that Mexico's drug fight is rigged, according to court testimony, current and former law enforcement officials, and an NPR analysis of cartel arrests.

In that border city, federal forces appear to be favoring one cartel, the Sinaloa (named after the coastal state in northwestern Mexico), which the U.S. Justice Department calls one of the largest organized crime syndicates in the world.

'El Chapo' Seeks Control

A woman in stretch pants and sneakers peddles music CDs of narco-ballads in the streets of Juarez. Her most popular inventory represents the two narcotics cartels battling for control of the city, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The hometown favorite is La Linea, or the Juarez cartel. The newest gang in town is a group of freelance local traffickers backed by the Sinaloa cartel, whose chief is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera.

"La Linea is from here. It's the Juarez cartel," the woman says. "Chapo wants to take over Juarez, but those with La Linea don't want to give it up. This is why there's so much killing."

With a $5 million bounty on his head, Guzman is the world's most wanted drug lord. He is said to live deep in the state of Sinaloa -- hundreds of miles from Juarez -- protected by mountains, an army of pistoleros, loyal villagers and his own wolfish cunning.

Everywhere in Juarez, people whisper the story about how the Mexican army and federal police are helping Guzman's gangs of assassins capture the city.

Fear And Suspicion

Most residents are afraid to talk about it openly. Their suspicions are based on what they see, and what they live. Over the past two years, the president has dispatched 10,000 army troops and federal police to Juarez to quell the violence that's been killing six victims a day.

"The presence of the army and the federal police has not resolved the problem," says Manuel Espino, former congressman from Juarez and former head of the National Action Party, the president's party. "On the contrary, it's gotten worse. El Chapo comes to town to take over the territory. It makes us believe there's a complicity with the federal government."

Veteran journalists in Juarez see it, too.

Edgar Roman is news director of Channel 44, a Juarez television station.

"When you're out on the streets of Juarez and you hear constantly from people that are eyewitnesses, relatives of victims, they're saying prior to the killings the army was here. They left here, and armed men came and killed somebody," Roman says.

The drug traffickers, whose death squads cause much of the mayhem, make the same accusation.

Mexican federal police patrol the streets of Ciudad Juarez during an anti-narcotics operation in March 2009. More than 24,000 Mexicans have died in the country's brutal drug wars since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.
Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Mexican federal police patrol the streets of Ciudad Juarez during an anti-narcotics operation in March 2009. More than 24,000 Mexicans have died in the country's brutal drug wars since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.

A Message On A Wall

Last month, gunmen killed six federal police officers and left a message painted on a public wall: This is what happens to officers "who ally with Chapo and all those mother- - - - - - - who support him. Signed -- La Linea."

NPR spoke to a former Juarez city police commander who confirms the story.

"The intention of the army is to try and get rid of the Juarez cartel, so that Chapo's cartel is the strongest," says the ex-commander, who asked that his name not be used because of death threats he says he received in Juarez.

He was on the force when the Sinaloa cartel came to town, and he says his entire police department worked for the local cartel. He is now seeking asylum in El Paso.

"When the army arrived in March 2008, we thought, damn, now all this violence is going to end," he says. "The number of deaths did drop for about three weeks. But during those three weeks, Chapo's people contacted the army and figured out what they were doing and how much money they wanted. They started to pay them off, and the Sinaloans just kept working."

Testimony: Military-Sinaloa Cartel Ties

Collusion between the Mexican army and the Sinaloa mafia in Juarez is further corroborated by sworn testimony in U.S. federal court, where two top Sinaloa traffickers went on trial in El Paso in March.

The presence of the army and the federal police [in Ciudad Juarez] has not resolved the problem. On the contrary, it's gotten worse. [Sinaloa boss] El Chapo comes to town to take over the territory. It makes us believe there's a complicity with the federal government.

One of the government's main witnesses was a convicted former Juarez police captain, Manuel Fierro-Mendez, who went on to work for the Sinaloans. He testified that he regularly provided intelligence on La Linea to an army captain, after which the military would go arrest people and seize weapons and vehicles.

In an exchange with lead prosecutor Russell Leachman, Fierro-Mendez described the need to have control over local, state and federal agencies "and have free rein to continue trafficking drugs without any problem."

Later in the day, Leachman asked Fierro-Mendez: "And was the influence with the military an important factor?"

"Very important," he replied.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Matthew Sandberg testified at the trial, confirming the contact between Fierro-Mendez and a Mexican army officer, code-named Pantera, the Panther.

NPR Looks At Arrest Data

In an effort to get a more precise picture of who the authorities are pursuing in Juarez, an NPR News investigation analyzed thousands of news releases posted on the website of Mexico's federal attorney general's office, the Procuraduria General de la Republica. The news releases document every arrest of a cartel member charged with organized crime, weapons or drug offenses.

Juarez is the murder capital of Mexico, and now the most patrolled and policed city in Mexico. The NPR analysis found that since federal forces arrived in the state of Chihuahua in March 2008, there have been 104 arrests involving suspects identified as cartel members. Of those arrests, 88 were affiliated with the Juarez cartel, and 16 with Sinaloa.

But Enrique Torres, spokesman for the military and police joint operation in Chihuahua, says there is "no way" there is favoritism.

"The work of the Mexican army in Chihuahua and here on the border is to damage the structures of criminal groups, regardless of their origin," Torres says. "We've arrested many criminals for many crimes, who belong to all the drug trafficking groups."

In February, growing criticism that Calderon's forces are selectively fighting the cartels prompted him to address the issue at a news conference.

"These accusations are totally unfounded, false. In most cases, it reflects a misunderstanding of the facts, the result of other interests, I want to be clear," Calderon said.

Roots Of Sinaloa's Success

Is the reason that fewer of Guzman's people are in jail that they are smarter traffickers?

Tony Payan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, El Paso and the Autonomous University of Juarez, says the Sinaloans operate in "apache raids" in Juarez.

"[Chapo] sends his people into the city and they clean out a number of people they've already identified," Payan explains.

"But they do it in a very disciplined way; they're not sloppy," he adds. "The Juarez cartel has proven to be very sloppy."

There's a simple explanation why the authorities arrest more traffickers from the Juarez cartel, says Joe Arabit, special agent in charge of the El Paso office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA is a strong supporter of Calderon's crackdown on the cartels.

"La Linea has controlled the [smuggling] corridor so there are more [Juarez cartel] operators in this corridor than any other cartel. Therefore, you're going to see more people from [that cartel] being arrested," he says.

Shifting Alliances Among Cartels

But this explanation overlooks an important detail, say local journalists who cover street crime. As the Sinaloa cartel has muscled into the city, La Linea gangsters switch sides and join the Sinaloans, also known as la gente nueva, the new people. There's even a name for them -- chapulines, or grasshoppers.

The small number of arrests of Sinaloa operatives is striking to Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, El Paso and an expert on Mexican drug trafficking. He sees a larger strategy at work.

"It appears the cartel de Sinaloa is winning the battle over the cartel de Juarez, and it doesn't seem possible for them to do that without some sort of backing from the Mexican military," he says.

"For the drugs to get to Ciudad Juarez and from there into the U.S., they have to pass through military-controlled territory. And so the military is either absolutely inept, or they're corrupted by the Chapo Guzman cartel. There's really no other explanation," Campbell says.

Other Cartels Also Involved In Corruption

This is not an exclusive arrangement -- corrupt elements of the Mexican military are for hire for any cartel.

Two former Juarez police commanders -- one interviewed by NPR and another who testified in federal court -- said the Juarez cartel also pays off the army.

Indeed, in 1997, Mexico's then-drug czar, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was convicted and imprisoned for working for the Juarez cartel, at the time the country's top drug mafia.

Four years ago, a detachment of soldiers was caught escorting a shipment of marijuana through Juarez cartel-controlled territory.

Cartel Wars Spreading Across The Border?

In January 2006, Texas peace officers witnessed an astonishing sight: a Mexican military Humvee trying to pull a pot-laden SUV out of the Rio Grande, where it had gotten stuck. Police video captured the entire incident.

The Mexican government concluded it was a case of drug traffickers dressed as soldiers, using a military-style Humvee.

The following month, Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West and his deputy went to Washington, D.C., to testify at a congressional hearing about the incident. The dope was being smuggled into his county.

"When the deputies arrived at the border, where the drug loads were to cross, the deputies were met with the Mexican military in a military Humvee. The deputies reported seeing heavily armed soldiers in the Humvee. The deputies took a defensive position while the Humvee and load vehicles crossed back into Mexico," West testified.

The paunchy, no-nonsense lawman in a white hat is worried these days that the drug violence is about to spill over the Rio Grande into his county.

"Until one person is in charge of all the drugs, they're going to keep killing each other," he says of the Mexican cartels. "And they're going to use the Mexican government to help them do it," he said in a recent interview in the town of Fort Hancock.

Hudspeth County is across the Rio Grande from the newest Sinaloa-controlled territory, el Valle de Juarez.

The Juarez Valley is a region of cotton fields and farm towns east of that city -- so close to Texas that you can watch the Walmart trucks creeping past on Interstate 10. For decades, this has been a valuable smuggling area. That's why the Sinaloa cartel wants it.

A Fight In The Valley

Carlos Spector is an immigration attorney in El Paso whose family goes back three generations in the Juarez Valley.

"The Valle de Juarez represents a model of how the cartel war is being fought and its relationship to the Mexican government," Spector says. He and other sources with direct knowledge of the Juarez Valley say it appears that the army's policy is to stand by and let the Sinaloa hit men do their work.

"Nothing could happen without the military. So it was by omission, by refusing to act that they participate with the drug traffickers," Spector says.

In the past two years, Sinaloans have used a scorched-earth strategy of murder, torture and arson to take over the Juarez Valley, under the direction of an assassin nicknamed quitapuercos -- pig killer.

The community of Esperanza is a virtual ghost town, with dogs wandering the streets.

An old woman wearing a soiled plaid dress and accompanied by her granddaughter made her way down the deserted road like an apparition. The walker she leaned on scraped on the gravel.

"Because of the people burning and killing and threatening us, everyone has left," she said. "They've gone to Juarez. But I can't. I'm sick. I can't run. If they kill me, they'll be doing me a favor."

When asked about the army, she replies: "They just pass by. They never protect us."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.