Mexican officials capture key lieutenant of Sinaloa drug cartel

Jesus Alfredo Salazar Ramirez
MEXICO CITY -- A drug capo described by Mexican officials as "one of the most important lieutenants" for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the fugitive leader of the Sinaloa cartel, has been captured, the Defense Ministry announced Sunday.

Jesus Alfredo Salazar Ramirez, known as "The Doll," was taken into custody Thursday by military officials and federal prosecutors in the state of Mexico, outside the capital, according to a news release [link in Spanish]. Salazar is the alleged leader of a cell within the Sinaloa cartel known as "The Salazars" and is wanted in both the U.S. and Mexico on drug trafficking charges.

Guzman's Sinaloa drug cartel is probably the most powerful in Mexico. Many Mexicans suspect the federal government has favored the Sinaloa gang in its six-year crackdown on the myriad groups that control drug production and distribution in the country.

The government of outgoing President Felipe Calderon strenuously denies such rumors and argues that it has gone after all cartels with equal zeal. The arrest of Salazar may bolster that argument among some here, especially as it comes after the arrest last week of another top Sinaloa lieutenant, Jose Salgueiro Nevarez, alias "El Che."

Calderon leaves office in December with Mexicans deeply divided about his legacy and his career-defining decision to crack down on the drug cartels. The president boasts that his government has killed or captured two-thirds of the 37 most dangerous criminals in the country.

But more than 50,000 people have died since Calderon unleashed the Mexican military on the drug gangs, and it is unclear if the cartels' power has ebbed: The Times' Tracy Wilkinson reported Saturday that Coahuila, Mexico's third-largest state, has quietly been taken over by the Sinaloa cartel's bloodthirsty rivals, the Zetas.

Salazar, Mexican officials allege, controlled the growth, production and trafficking of drugs in the state of Sonora, which borders Arizona and New Mexico; and part of the state of Chihuahua, which borders New Mexico and Texas. Most of the drugs, officials said, was sent to the U.S.

Officials said Salazar is also suspected of directing numerous executions, including the slaying of Mexican peace activist Nepomuceno Moreno in November 2011. Moreno was a grieving father who had joined the high-profile peace movement headed by poet Javier Sicilia.

Moreno had accused police of abducting his son. He was gunned down by men who intercepted his car in the Sonoran capital, Hermosillo.

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An industry fortified by Mexico's drug war

Mexico drug war displaces families in Sinaloa highlands

Leader of Mexico's Zetas drug gang proves elusive even in death

-- Richard Fausset 

Photo: Mexican authorities Sunday provided a photo of alleged Sinaloa drug cartel figure Jesus Alfredo Salazar Ramirez, who was taken into custody last week. Credit: Sedena


Study: Pot legalization in U.S. states could hurt Mexican cartels

Pot

MEXICO CITY -- This may not weigh heavily on the minds of voters in Seattle, but if Washington and two other U.S. states decide to legalize marijuana in next week's election, the effect on drug traffickers in Mexico could be enormous.

Such is the suggestion of a new study by a Mexican think tank.

"It could be the biggest structural blow that [Mexican] drug trafficking has experienced in a generation," Alejandro Hope, security expert with the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, said in presenting the report.

Producing and distributing marijuana inside the U.S. would supply a less expensive and better quality drug to the millions of American who smoke it, Hope said. Demand for Mexican pot would decline, cutting into cartels' profits by 22% to 30%, the study calculates.

The consequences would be most dramatic, Hope added, for the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which is based in western Mexico and controls most of the marijuana production.

It is estimated that around one-third of Mexican drug gangs' income is from marijuana, surpassed only and narrowly by cocaine.

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Myanmar, Laos see large increase in opium cultivation, U.N. says

NEW DELHI -- Despite stepped-up eradication efforts by the government, the amount of land used to grow opium in Myanmar increased 17% during 2011, the sixth straight annual increase, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the second-largest opium grower in the world after Afghanistan. In contrast with Afghanistan's production, which tends to be on larger plots and on a more industrial scale, growers in Myanmar tend to work smaller fields in remote border highlands areas.

Land devoted to opium production in neighboring Laos, meanwhile, grew 66%, albeit from a far smaller base, while in Thailand it declined by 4%, according to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The area where the three countries meet, called the Golden Triangle, has been a notorious region for drug production and smuggling for decades.

"The opium numbers continue to head in the wrong direction," Gary Lewis, the U.N. office's regional representative, said in a statement from Bangkok, Thailand. "Unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy."

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Iran wages its own war against drugs

Iran drug interdiction
HIRMAND, Iran -- The featured speaker -- an 11-year-old girl -- waited hours for the helicopter to land near the watch tower and high concrete walls in this remote region not far from the Afghanistan border. Close by, a military band  played marching music on large drums and trumpets, sounding  a discordant note in an arid desert where drug smugglers make their fortunes ferrying drugs into Iran.

The spectacle was orchestrated by the Iran government on Wednesday to showcase the success of its anti-narcotics forces in thwarting drug-smuggling into the country. 

Flanked by her mother and other relatives under a burning sun, young Zahra stood before reporters to  praise "the role of my martyred dad and his comrades in fighting narcotic traffickers."

Her father, a border agent killed three years ago, was one of more than 3,700 agents who have died in ambushes or in clashes with outlaws over the last three decades along Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just two nights before the event staged for the media, three more border agents were killed.

“Iran is fighting with the illicit drug traffickers on behalf of all humanity, ” said Gen. Ali Moaiyedi, chief commander of the anti-narcotic police.

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As police move in on Rio's favelas, a drug lord seeks amnesty

Favela
RIO DE JANEIRO -– As authorities move to bring some of Rio de Janeiro’s worst slums under their control, the leader of a powerful drug-trafficking gang there has said he wants to turn over his weapons and the territory he commands to the Brazilian government in exchange for amnesty.
           
Marcelo Piloto, head of the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, gang in the Mandela favela in northern Rio, said that he and many other drug traffickers would be eager to take advantage of a voluntary demobilization program similar to that available to leftist guerrillas in Colombia.
 
“I’d do whatever it takes to get some kind of amnesty,” the heavily armed leader said in an interview on his home turf recently. “Any way I can pay my debt to society.”
 
The offer took on more urgency this week, when authorities in Rio announced they would invade and retake the favela that Piloto controls Sunday. In the past, they’ve entered with tanks and helicopters to reclaim a small number of the more than 1,000 favelas in the city that until recently had been out of the reach of the state.

Drug gangs still dominate many of the city’s slums, but over the last few years security forces have begun a process of “pacification.” Police continue to expand their control, and many believe they could eventually take back the whole city.

“Many, many drug traffickers are saying they want amnesty,” said Jose  Junior, head of AfroReggae, a favela-based cultural organization that has worked with traffickers to turn themselves over. “But amnesty doesn’t exist in Brazil. What exists at the moment is that there are benefits for those who turn themselves rather than being caught.”

According to a website belonging to Rio police, Piloto is wanted and a reward of thousands of dollars is offered for his capture. His current whereabouts are unknown.

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--Vincent Bevins

Photo: A Brazilian police sharpshooter secures a position atop a school building in front of a favela  as Rio de Janeiro's government moved to "pacify" the slum on Sept. 20. Credit: Antonio Scorza / AFP/Getty Images

Top drug cartel leader in Mexico possibly killed in firefight, officials say

Heriberto Lazcano

This story has been updated with additional information.

MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities said late Monday they may have killed the top leader of the notorious Zetas paramilitary force in a gun and grenade battle in the state of Coahuila, in what would be the most important blow to powerful drug cartels in the six-year government of President Felipe Calderon.

In a brief statement, the Mexican navy said there were "strong indications" that special forces had killed Heriberto Lazcano, maximum leader of the Zetas. He was one of two people killed in a skirmish with a marine patrol on Sunday near the town of Progreso, the navy said.

The marine patrol was responding to citizens' reports of armed individuals in the area when it came under gunfire and a barrage of grenades, the statement said. The patrol returned fire, killing two men. Initial forensic tests indicated one of the dead men was Lazcano, the navy said.

With Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, head of the vast Sinaloa cartel, Lazcano was at the top of Mexico's most-wanted list. Authorities offered a bounty of more than $2 million for his capture. The U.S. also offered a reward of $5 million.

Lazcano was a soldier in the Mexican army who quit in the late 1990s and was recruited as one of the original members of the Zetas, formed initially as the paramilitary force working on behalf of the Gulf cartel. Under Lazcano, the Zetas broke from the Gulf cartel nearly two years ago and rose to become the strongest criminal organization after the Sinaloa cartel.

Under Lazcano, the Zetas quickly branched out from drug-running to a large array of crimes including the trafficking of migrants and kidnapping. The Zetas have been locked in a deadly battle to wipe out the Gulf cartel and challenge Sinaloa as the groups vie to control northern and central Mexico.

[Updated at 10:50 p.m.: Nicknamed the Executioner, Lazcano is held responsible for some of the most grisly massacres and attacks in Mexico's drug-related history. In 2004, a crusading newsmagazine  coincidentally named Zeta, based in Tijuana, identified Lazcano as having been the triggerman in the slaying of an editor, Francisco Ortiz, in front of his two children. The folklore around Lazcano includes stories that he fed some of his victims to his collection of lions and tigers.

The navy said additional forensic tests would be conducted in the coming hours to confirm the dead man’s identity.

If it is Lazcano, his demise would represent an important victory in Calderon’s military-led offensive against drug cartels, launched shortly after he came to power in December 2006. The final months of his government -- he steps down Dec. 1 -- have seen a dramatic push that has led to the capture or killing of a number of top cartel capos, primarily from the Gulf and Zeta groups.

In most of the successful strikes, Mexican forces have worked with intelligence provided by U.S. agencies active in Mexico and especially in the northeast corridor that abuts Texas.]

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-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: This undated file photo from the Mexico attorney general's office website shows alleged Zetas drug cartel leader and founder Heriberto Lazcano in an undisclosed location. Credit: Associated Press


Mexico captures alleged Zetas chief linked to numerous crimes

Squirrel

MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican navy on Monday announced the capture of an alleged Zetas field commander who it accused of numerous high-profile crimes, including the possible murder of an American who disappeared while reportedly jet-skiing on a border lake two years ago.

The suspect, Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, alias the Squirrel, was paraded before reporters in a televised presentation in Mexico City. Without offering evidence, naval spokesman Vice Admiral Jose Luis Vergara alleged that Martinez was linked to a long string of crimes, including the 2010 execution of 72 migrants, mostly from Central America, in the northern state of Tamaulipas as well as two massive prison breaks, also in Tamaulipas, in which nearly 200 inmates escaped.

Vergara identified Martinez as a regional commander of the notorious Zetas paramilitary force and close confidant of top Zetas capo Miguel Angel Trevino. He said Martinez was suspected in overseeing several secret mass graves containing some 200 victims and of executing 50 people "with his own hands."

In addition to Martinez's other alleged crimes, Vergara said he was "presumed responsible" for the possible killing of David Hartley, a 30-year-old Colorado native. Hartley disappeared Sept. 30, 2010, on what his wife, Tiffany, described as a jet-ski outing on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border south of the Tamaulipas city of Nuevo Laredo. No body was found, and the only version of events came from Tiffany Hartley.

A top Mexican investigator of the incident was killed shortly thereafter -- also by Martinez, Vergara alleged Monday.

Vergara said Martinez was captured Saturday in Nuevo Laredo several hours after a shootout with navy special forces who eventually intercepted the car in which he was traveling.

Martinez seemed nearly buoyant at the meeting with journalists, offering a tight smile, nodding vigorously to reporters' questions, flashing a thumbs-up and pumping his handcuffed fists in the air as he was led away. A reward of slightly more than $1 million had been offered for his capture.

His arrest is the latest in several important blows dealt by the Mexican military to both the Zetas and their former patron, the Gulf Cartel.

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-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, alias "the Squirrel," is presented before reporters in Mexico City on Monday. Martinez is suspected in a string of high-profile crimes. Credit: Mario Guzman / European Pressphoto Agency


Son of controversial Mexican politician slain in border town

Son of controversial Mexican politician slainMEXICO CITY -- The son of a controversial Mexican politician was slain under mysterious circumstances in the border state of Coahuila on Wednesday, triggering an outpouring of condolences from the country’s political class as well as speculation about the motives behind the shooting.

The body of Jose Eduardo Moreira Rodriguez was discovered by police late Wednesday on a rural road outside of Ciudad Acuña -- across the Rio Grande from the west Texas town of Del Rio -- shortly after he was reported missing, according to Homero Ramos, the Coahuila state prosecutor.

Moreira, 25, was the oldest son of Humberto Moreira, the former governor of Coahuila and the former president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Humberto Moreira quit as head of the national party, known as the PRI, in December after being embroiled in a financial scandal centered on falsified loan requests during his governorship, in which he left the state with more than $3 billion in debts.

His son had been employed as a social programs coordinator for the state government, which is headed up by his uncle, Ruben Moreira. As part of that job, Jose Eduardo Moreira was reportedly known for touring the countryside without bodyguards, according to Mexican news reports.

As a border state, Coahuila has struggled mightily with the drug cartels in recent years, particularly the ruthless paramilitary band known as the Zetas. In some cases, the criminals have sparred with state government forces; in others, they have allegedly collaborated with government employees.

Recently, Coahuila has been the scene of particularly intense clashes between government forces and various outlaw bands after an audacious prison break last month, believed to have been orchestrated by the Zetas gang, in which more than 130 inmates escaped through the front door.

On Wednesday afternoon, state government forces reportedly killed five alleged criminals during a shootout in the Coahuila city of Piedras Negras. That has fueled a theory that the slaying of Jose Eduardo Moreira could have been an act of reprisal against the government.

The administration of outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, while not endorsing this theory, issued a statement Thursday saying it would not tolerate “attempts at intimidation” on the part of criminals.

Ramos, the state prosecutor, said in a news conference Thursday that “no hypothesis will be ruled out” and added that federal police, prosecutors and military personnel were taking part in the investigation.

The finance scandal involving the victim’s father had been viewed as a public relations embarrassment for the PRI during this year's presidential campaign, in which its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto -- now the president-elect -- promised that the party had turned over a new leaf.

The PRI ran Mexico for most of the 20th century in an authoritarian manner that was often marked by graft and political chicanery.

After leaving public life, Humberto Moreira has remade himself as an entrepreneur, rolling out a line of sugar-free jams and jellies.

“They killed my son Jose Eduardo, a clean young man, a social activist who was dedicated to working with the most humble people of Acuña, Coahuila,” Moreira said in a statement given to the newspaper Mileno.

Peña Nieto, the president-elect, said on his Twitter account that the slaying “should not go unpunished.”

Calderon, the outgoing president, called the slaying “a cowardly assassination.”

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--Richard Fausset. Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

Photo: Jose Eduardo Moreira Rodriguez, who was found shot to death Wednesday. He was the son of a former Mexican governor and political party leader. Credit: Alberto Puente / Associated Press


New film takes 'quiet' look at Mexico's drug-war violence

MEXICO CITY -- A new documentary on drug-war violence in Mexico is perhaps most remarkable for what it does not portray.

There are no shootouts, no decapitated bodies hanging from highway overpasses.

Instead, award-winning filmmaker Natalia Almada takes her audience into the quiet, busy world of the Humaya Gardens cemetery in Culiacan, the Sinaloa capital considered the historic center of Mexican drug trafficking.

Here death is relentless. With its garish mausoleums and extravagant crypts, the cemetery is the final resting place for numerous drug cartel capos and their legions of mostly young henchmen.

The film, "El Velador" ("The Night Watchman"), follows Martin, who works the graveyard shift, so to speak, at Humaya Gardens. He arrives at sunset, sits or dozes through the night (it is too dangerous to actually patrol the grounds after dark, he says, because of partying, trigger-happy drug goons) and tidies up in the morning, picking up beer bottles and sweeping before walking off in the yellow daylight.

"I fell in love with him as a character," Almada said, citing Martin's "quiet, stoic presence."

"He asks us to live with him, in the cemetery, at his pace," she said. "He is the clock of the cemetery."

Almada said her goal in making "El Velador" was to offer a "more contemplative" view of the violence that dominates Mexico today, not the sensationalistic portrait too common in the daily media.

"I wanted to humanize it, to put it on a more human scale," she said in a telephone interview from the U.S., where the documentary has been screening this week.

Almada's film is stark and sparse. There is virtually no dialogue. Martin occasionally offers a comment; we hear a single conversation among gravediggers about whether the latest kingpin has really been slain, as authorities claim.

What we do hear are the sounds of daily life amid the dead: a shovel hitting earth, a priest's intonations, a child playing hopscotch on tombs. And, from the radio in Martin's beat-up truck and his wavy black-and-white TV set, we hear the litany of drug-war mayhem as broadcasters read the "nota roja," the crime news. Bodies dumped roadside, young men kidnapped; "Culiacan has become a warzone," the broadcaster says.

And at times it seems the cemetery can barely keep up. In one sequence, the builders are finishing a gravesite even as a body waits in a hearse and a woman is heard wailing for her son; the concrete crypt is drying as mourning wreathes are being gathered.

"It's also the futility of it all," Almada said. The death toll rises and rises. Martin waters the dirt. A widow mops her husband's mausoleum, over and over again.

Almada filmed in Humaya Gardens off and on for several months in 2009-2010.

"El Velador" is a co-production of Altamura Films, Latino Public Broadcasting and American Documentary/POV. It begins airing in the Los Angeles area Friday on PBS affiliates. Check local listings.

You can watch a trailer here, and the film will be streaming on the POV website until the end of the year.

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In drug-trafficking hub, artist is in demand

Mexico drug war displaces families in Sinaloa highlands

In Sinaloa, the drug trade has infiltrated "every corner of life"

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Video: A trailer from the documentary "El Velador."  Credit: Altamura Films


Indian drug kingpin mysteriously escapes police custody

NEW DELHI — Indian police are embarrassed after word leaked out this week that an alleged drug kingpin suspected of running a $40-million heroin and methamphetamine network walked away from the police unit guarding him and the escape was kept from the public for days.

Ranjit Singh, who uses the alias Raja Kandola, was reportedly being transported back to Delhi’s Tihar Jail by train Monday after a court hearing in northern Punjab state when he flew the coop about 11:30 p.m.

Police officials were not available for comment, and versions differ on exactly what happened. Some media reports say Singh was escorted by four officers aboard the Jammu Mail express train, others by six. Most agree that the train made a stop at Ludhiana, about 160 miles north of New Delhi.

Mukesh Gautam, a crime reporter with the Dainik Bhaskar daily newspaper, says sources told him that five of the officers were asleep when the train stopped and Singh asked the sixth to go buy him some tea. When the officer returned, Singh was gone. Another version has Singh offering spiked drinks to the policemen and slipping away, although it’s unclear why Singh would be entertaining the police.

Gautam says even these versions may be questionable. A few years ago in a similar case, he said, police initially reported that a prisoner escaped from a rail carriage only to eventually admit he had slipped away earlier from the hotel where they were all staying. “Maybe it’s the same situation,” he said.

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