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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: gangs

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages


The news just gets grimmer in Mexico as the drug war nears the end of its fifth year and claims more and more innocent lives. On Thursday, gunmen burst into a casino in the northern city of Monterrey and set fire to the place, killing more than 50 people, Ken Ellingwood reports in The Times.

The attack was described by the federal government as an act of terror. President Felipe Calderon has ordered three days of national mourning, but no official decree was needed to observe a palpable sense of gloom among ordinary citizens on Friday morning even here in Mexico City, far from Monterrey.

In Mexico's current armed conflict, when a night-life or entertainment establishment is attacked, authorities assume an extortion deal gone wrong. A business owner refuses to pay a hefty "tax" to an organized crime group, or is being extorted by more than one group, a deal frays, and eventually, innocent lives are lost. In other instances, a business might be attacked out of sheer competition between cartels.

In the past year, Monterrey has seen such attacks more than its people probably care to count. In early July, more than 20 people were killed when gunmen assaulted a crowded bar in downtown Monterrey on a Friday night. The hitmen even killed the hot-dog vendor outside.

The violence in Monterrey is presumed to be a result of the localized war between the two major cartels that seek control over Mexico's wealthiest city -- the Gulf cartel and their former armed wing, the Zetas -- which were founded by ex-members of an elite Mexican military unit.

The Zetas in particular are known for their brutal attack techniques, so much so that late last month a new self-described cartel announced its debut with the online video: the Mata Zetas, or "Zeta Killers."

The Spanish-language video link shows a group of men in flack jackets, hooded masks or helmets, and holding high-powered military-grade assault rifles. They stand in silence as a voice-over announces the group's fight against "these filthy Zetas" in the state of Veracruz. The image achieves its goal, striking fear in the observer. The group looks fierce, cold-blooded and trained.

The Mata Zetas identify themselves as a subgroup of the so-called Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. If that's the first time you've heard of that cartel, you're likely not alone. Even journalists these days have trouble keeping track of all the organized-crime groups.

As Mexico's military and federal police seek to arrest or take out top cartel figures, the drug groups inevitably splinter in the subsequent power vacuums, and new self-described "cartels" are formed, although it is practically impossible to know how large or organized the new groups can be. Out of those, subgroups branch out, often seeking to claim new territory or "clean up" against a rival. Since last year, for example, three new cartels have emerged in the battle over the southern port and resort city of Acapulco.

In the western state of Michoacan, a new cartel giving itself the medieval name of Knights Templar has begun terrorizing communities there. That group is said to have splintered off from the fearsome La Familia. As Tracy Wilkinson reported in The Times, the June arrest of the reigning La Familia leader ensures only one thing: "Removing the top capos, which is Calderon's stated strategy, provokes violent power struggles as potential successors compete for their share of the ever-lucrative drug trade."

Yet the U.S. and Mexico governments argue the fight against Mexico's transnational organized crime groups must continue, despite more than 40,000 dead in Mexico alone.

How many more new cartels can form before the conflict runs its course?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: Screen-grab of video announcing the formation of the so-called 'Zeta Killers.' Via YouTube

Police chief in Ciudad Juarez claims Mexican feds tried to kill him

Julian Leyzaola Juarez police chief

The police chief of Ciudad Juarez has alleged that officers with Mexico's Federal Police attempted to kill him during a chaotic operation on Monday night, ratcheting up an increasingly bitter turf war over who gets to police the troubled border city.

Police Chief Julian Leyzaola said that Federal Police officers fired on his vehicle without warning during a massive police response to a series of shootouts late Monday in the municipal prison. In a statement, the Federal Police said Leyzaola's vehicle had crossed a security line, "out of protocol," while federal authorities attempted to contain what they called a possible prison break.

One television news crew caught a federal officer saying "Who was that?" when Leyzaola's convoy passed, the El Paso Times reported.

"Why did they fire at me?" Leyzaola said during a news conference Wednesday (link in Spanish). "This was a secured zone. They had no reason to fire on me."

The spat suggests another breakdown of coordination among security forces in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 8,000 people have died since the flare-up of narco-related violence in 2008. It's not the first time such an incident has grabbed headlines; federal and local police officers have openly confronted each other at crime scenes in the past (link in Spanish).

Leyzaola, a former military officer, most recently served as "top cop" in Tijuana, where he was praised by U.S. authorities for significantly bringing down the crime rate. But for the international human-rights community, the chief is a red flag.

In Tijuana he faced allegations of routine torture of police officers suspected of corruption. Less than a month into the job in Ciudad Juarez, as The Times reported, he again faced claims from human-rights lawyers, this time for unlawfully rounding up and disappearing suspects.

Seventeen people died in the Monday night incident in Juarez, including one woman. Eleven of the victims were not serving sentences but in "preventive" detention, in most cases for just days or weeks before their deaths, reports El Diario de Juarez (link in Spanish). Surveillance footage from inside the prison showed masked gunmen with assault weapons firing into the temporary cell where those 11 inmates reportedly died. Six others were killed in other cells, reports said.

Leyzaola filed a court claim against the Federal Police on Wednesday. He's also calling for the federal force stand down and leave the local police work to him, but President Felipe Calderon's top national security spokesman said Wednesday that the agency has been successful in the city and will not be leaving.

In June, Leyzaola survived an alleged assassination attempt in downtown Juarez. He reportedly survived four assassination attempts during his time in Tijuana. In a U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 that was leaked earlier this year, a U.S. official wrote of allegations that Leyzaola favored one cartel capo over another as they battled for Tijuana's smuggling route.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, former police chief in Tijuana, is sworn in Ciudad Juarez in March. Credit: Agence-France Presse.

Officials retake prison from rioting inmates in the Dominican Republic

Prison guards using rubber bullets and other means fought back rioting inmates Wednesday to regain  control of a lockup in the Dominican Republic, an official said.

The guards managed to keep the prisoners from controlling a cellblock at San Felipe prison in the northern province of Puerto Plata, the Associated Press reported. Dozens of inmates had reportedly electrified their cell doors with wires.

The melee left sixteen inmates belonging to the Nacion Los 42 gang wounded, said Ismael Paniagua, penitentiary security director. No fatalities were reported.

— Emal Haidary

Is the drug war creeping into Mexico City?

Military operation napoles mexico city

On a street corner waking up for the day Thursday in downtown Mexico City, La Plaza observed a military unit on patrol.

A green Humvee was stationed in front of a convenience store, with several armed soldiers inside. One stood behind a mounted automatic firearm. Two troops in green fatigues and combat vests and carrying long assault rifles were strolling down a street, patrolling in the way police officers normally do in this congested capital.

We don't see this often in Mexico City.

Soldiers are generally only visible when they are being transported in cargo vehicles from government buildings in the city center to large bases in the west and south. None of the large-scale operations -- or wild shootouts -- that have become common elsewhere in Mexico have occurred here, making Mexico City somewhat of a haven from the drug war that has left more than 34,000 dead.

But this week the Mexican military pursued drug-trafficking suspects in operations smack in the middle of the sprawling capital.

Marines raided a hotel and a home in the middle-class districts of Napoles and Del Valle, arresting one suspected member of the Zetas cartel. On Wednesday, army units searched homes in the Iztacalco borough (links in Spanish). Is something changing?

Continue reading »

Guatemala declares 'state of siege' to combat Mexican drug cartel, limiting rights

Police guatemala suspects zetas coban

The brutal Mexican drug-trafficking organization known as the Zetas has made inroads in Guatemala, controlling territory near the Central American country's border with southern Mexico and prompting the Guatemalan government on Sunday to declare a "state of siege" aimed at curbing the gang's growing power.

The state of siege declaration for the northern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz in turn prompted worry among human rights activists and the Guatemalan press. The declaration allows the government to detain suspects or conduct searches without warrants, and limits public gatherings and the news media.

President Alvaro Colom's government said the state of siege -- which is just below a declaration of war -- would be in place for at least a month and could be extended to the four departments, or provinces, along the Mexican border.

Cartels from Mexico are believed to be taking over established crime rings in Guatemala and recruiting among locals, including the country's poverty-stricken indigenous groups. The Zetas -- one of Mexico's fiercest cartels -- are reportedly attempting to wrestle control of the lucrative trafficking corridor through northern Guatemala from local groups, seizing rural farms to use as depots for drugs and weapons. Meanwhile, in western Guatemala, Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel is also setting up bases, reports have said.

Continue reading »

Hit movie depicts violence in Rio slums as Brazilian military mounts major anti-gang operation

A new film depicting violent conflicts between gangs and police over control of the slums above Rio de Janeiro is breaking box-office records in Brazil. "Tropa de Elite 2," or "The Elite Squad 2," is a sequel to a 2007 film about military police special forces in Rio state known by the acronym BOPE, or also, the Skulls.

Directed and co-produced by filmmaker Jose Padilha, the film revisits the original "Tropa de Elite" story of a Skulls commander named Nascimento (played in both films by Wagner Moura) as he battles gangsters entrenched in Rio's favelas. By late November, "Tropa de Elite 2" helped push box-office receipts in Brazil 18% above the total from 2009, Bloomberg reports.

You can see the trailer here. Readers are warned that it contains some graphic images.

The movie's release in October came a month before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva authorized a military-led invasion of the Complexo do Alemao slums, sparked by a series of attacks against police stations. Fifty people died in the siege, including three police officers, Marcelo Soares and Chris Kraul reported in The Times. Here's an Associated Press video report on the raid.

Brazil, which is scheduled to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, is under pressure to regain control of large sections of territory in its second-largest city that have long been ruled by powerful gangs. From the Times story:

Violence had swept over many of Rio's slums the previous week after state police established units in a dozen favelas, a challenge to the impunity with which many of the drug gangs had operated. The units are seen as the first step toward establishing a stronger state presence in the slums, an effort that will include more schools and health clinics.

Much of the enforcement action is directed at the city's most powerful gang, the Red Commandos, formed in 1979 in prisons, where political prisoners taught common criminals guerrilla tactics.

There are economic implications for Rio as well, Reuters reported, as the city's high crime rate costs it as much as $100 billion a year. Police and soldiers are now in control of Alemao, and services are slowly trickling in to residents. The government announced it would keep soldiers in the slums for at least six months, The Times reported.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: A trailer for the film "Tropa de Elite 2." Credit: YouTube

The troubled state of Tamaulipas: 'The narcos rule our lives'

Reynosa barletti la times

Tamaulipas, a state in Mexico's northeast across from Texas, is currently the site of some of the most severe clashes in Mexico's drug war. Fierce fighting between drug gangs and the military in the streets of several cities has been reported, and at least one town emptied out in response to the violence, its residents becoming "refugees" in their own country.

A few weeks ago, a battle in the city of Matamoros ended in the death of the Gulf cartel capo known as "Tony Tormenta." News reports across the border made it sound terrifying.

Tamaulipas' crisis stems mainly from a turf fight between the state's two chief criminal organizations. The Gulf cartel and its splinter group, the Zetas (originally composed of former Mexican special forces soldiers), are battling over routes used to send drugs into the United States.

For people in Tamaulipas attempting to go about their daily lives, the drug war is a source of confusion, fear and helplessness.

Here are two recent in-depth reports from the state by Los Angeles Times correspondents in Mexico, Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson.

Continue reading »

Gang killings in Oaxaca force response from governor

Oaxaca killing santo domingo reuters

Two leaders of a university student gang were gunned down last week in front of a popular tourist attraction in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The shootings are not believed to be drug-related but rather tied to the complex world of provincial politics in Oaxaca, where deals, scores, and broken alliances are often settled through violence. Campus-based student gangs, known as porros, are among those accused of carrying out fatal attacks against the teacher-led movement that sought to oust Gov. Ulises Ruiz in 2006.

The victims in the Friday shooting, Ruben Maldonado Marmolejo and Jose Maria Gonzalez Porras, were approached by gunmen outside the Santo Domingo church, a tourism landmark in the historic center of Oaxaca, also capital of Oaxaca state, at about 1:30 p.m. Ruiz was at an official event only a few blocks away, one report said.

The gunmen fired and fled on motorcycles, while the dead men's bodies were left uncovered for an unusually long time as police investigated, reports said. This allowed the scene to be widely photographed, as seen in the above news agency image.

Continue reading »

Mexico's drug war: Massacres continue unabated

Tepito shooting death mexico drug war

Four mass shootings have left 48 dead in a week across Mexico, signaling an unabated pace for drug-related violence in the country's four-year drug wars, which has claimed more than 28,000 lives overall.

The 28,000 figure was reported by federal authorities in August, and since then hundreds more have been slain, disappeared, or turned up dead. The carnage has extended from the southern state of Guerrero to the border city of Ciudad Juarez, by far the deadliest in Mexico and sometimes called the deadliest city in the world. More than 2,600 people have died in Ciudad Juarez this year alone, and "very close to 7,000" people have been killed since intense daily violence began there in January 2008, according to independent researcher Molly Molloy, who keeps a tally of deaths in Juarez.

Here is a breakdown of this week's worst killings, following the coverage of The Times, wire services, and Mexican news sources:

* On Friday, Oct. 22, gunmen stormed a house party in Ciudad Juarez and began shooting, leaving 14 people dead after one of the victims died the next day. The shooters were reportedly looking for a man identified as "The Mouse," but it was unclear whether the man was at the house or if anyone there knew him (link in Spanish). Several of the victims were identified as teenagers, recalling a similar massacre in Juarez in January that left 15 mostly young people dead at a party.

* On Sunday, Oct. 24, 13 people were killed inside a drug rehabilitation clinic in Tijuana after gunmen stormed the building, lined up the victims, and executed them. The mass killing was the worst seen in recent memory in Tijuana, where only days previously the government trumpeted the seizure and destruction of 134 tons of marijuana bound for the United States. A state investigator initially said the clinic massacre could be related to the drug bust, but officials have not elaborated on the possibility since.

* On Wednesday, gunmen approached a carwash in the city of Tepic, Nayarit, and opened fire, killing 13 men. The gunmen, arriving in SUVs and carrying rifles, shot at workers and managers but gunfire erupted first from inside, witnesses and authorities said. The carwash was tied to a drug treatment center.

* This morning, six young men died after a shooting before dawn in Mexico City's gritty Tepito neighborhood. Despite Tepito's notoriety as a hub of black market trade in drugs and contraband, mass shootings are not common within the neighborhood. Mexico City's attorney general said at least two of the victims had criminal records, while the city's government secretary warned that the Tepito incident should not be tied to the massacres in Juarez, Tijuana or Tepic (links in Spanish).

There are numerous cases in recent months of mass kidnappings or discoveries of mass graves, to say nothing of isolated killings or kidnappings in cities and towns up and down Mexico. Early this morning, four people outside Ciudad Juarez died after gunmen opened fire on a bus taking them home from work at a border factory.

In late August, the case of 72 migrants executed in the state of Tamaulipas shocked Mexico and left several Latin American nations in mourning. The discovery of mass graves -- called "narcofosas," or "narco-graves" -- is now common in Mexico. Four bodies were found in a grave days ago in Oaxaca state and six to eight were found near the city of Monterrey earlier this month (links in Spanish).

Late last month, 20 Mexican tourists were kidnapped in a mass "levanton," or "lifting," near the resort port of Acapulco. The men were traveling together from the state of Michoacan, and their whereabouts remain unknown. As the Times' Ken Ellingwood reported last week, the case is a complete mystery.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A man places a candle near the body of a shooting victim in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, October 28, 2010. Credit: Agence France-Presse

The killings don't stop in Ciudad Juarez

El diario file photo juarez violence

Drug-related violence continues to consume Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico, just across the border from El Paso. Last Thursday's toll of 25 killed over a three-hour period rattled a city that is already accustomed to numerous deaths a day.

It was the highest single-day toll recorded in the border city since the violence erupted there more than two years ago. Victims in Thursday's shootings range in age from 15 to 67. They were mostly ambushed inside their homes, reports the El Paso Times.

Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said the killings were believed to be acts of retaliation by the Juarez cartel for an alleged kidnapping of a child by the rival Sinaloa cartel. What's not clear is what all those victims had to do with the alleged kidnapping.

The El Paso Times article gives details on some of the crime scenes and names the victims, the kind of information that becomes rarer each day in Mexican news reports on the country's violence. In Juarez, mounting death figures have become mostly anonymous numbers for the city of 1.3 million. According to librarian Molly Molloy, who keeps a running tally of drug-related violence in the city, five people were killed Friday, five more were killed Saturday, 14 were killed Sunday, and eight were killed Monday.

See this profile on Molloy's work in the Wall Street Journal. Molloy's tallies rely heavily on the reporting by the Juarez newspaper El Diario. Here's its local news section, which carries daily detailed reports on the killings. Slayings are so common in the city now that in August the paper felt compelled to report that a period of 26 hours had passed without a death (link in Spanish).

The Juarez and Sinaloa cartels have been fighting an all-out war over the lucrative Juarez-El Paso border-trafficking route that has claimed more than 6,500 lives since January 2008. By one tally, reported in the Journal, more people were killed in Juarez in 2009 -- 2,633 -- than in eight major U.S. cities combined.

This afternoon, El Diario reports, three Juarez women were ambushed in a home and shot to death (link in Spanish). A baby girl was found inside the home, unharmed.

When, and how, will it end?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: File photo of women at a crime scene in Ciudad Juarez. Credit: El Diario


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson