The Capture of Z-40 and the end of the Zetas?

It is a remarkable endorsement of Peña Nieto’s public relations strategy that it took a high-profile arrest to put the Mexican drug war back on the radar of the U.S. media. Prior to yesterday’s capture of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales aka Z-40, I can’t recall any recent reports on drug trafficking organizations on my local NPR station. The relatively low profile of the capture and its subsequent announcement suggests that Peña Nieto intends to continue his strategy of giving the cartels as little publicity as possible. Whether the capture is an indication that the administration simultaneously plans to pursue the cartels with vigor is unclear. Peña Nieto is yet to announce an official anti-crime program and in the first months of his government there was a pullback from the aggressive strategies of the Calderón administration.

There are plenty of good commentaries on the capture, especially Alejandro Hope’s here. Most analysts think this is the end of the Zetas as a coherent organization, and that is probably accurate. Some have pointed out that Z-40 controlled the group’s narcotics smuggling into the U.S., and his arrest will prove a huge blow. The group’s cellular structure, however, means that there will continue to be narcos behaving with the militaristic macho brutality under the name “Zetas.” It will be interesting to see whether they become mercenaries for other trafficking organizations, heavily-armed local gangs operating locally, or something else entirely.

The fact that the Marines were responsible for the capture is interesting on several levels. First, this is a continuity of trends under Calderón when the Marines were the organization responsible for most high-profile captures or killings. As Hope points out, this also suggests that there is still communication and cooperation with the DEA despite the early (and very public) disagreements between Peña Nieto’s administration and U.S. agents, since the Marines were the DEA’s trusted and preferred institution. I would also note that this is a reminder that there is still no police option in Mexico for such arrests, even though Peña Nieto has promised reform.

Update 7/17/2013: A New York Times report on the capture confirms that U.S. intelligence sharing contributed directly to Treviño’s capture:

A senior American law enforcement official posted along the border, who was not authorized to speak on the record, described a recent meeting with his counterparts in Mexico City. “What I got from that meeting is that Mexico wants to prove it can handle this fight on its own — or at least on its own terms,” the official said.

Still, the Mexicans recognized the need for American help, and the two governments began sharing information on Mr. Treviño several months ago, with the Americans passing along word of the birth of Mr. Treviño’s child a little more than a month ago, the official said. The Americans also shared the information that he appeared to be making trips to visit the baby in the Nuevo Laredo area, near where he was captured, the official said.

The authorities traded intelligence gleaned from conversations caught on wiretaps and informants’ tips that led Mexican authorities to Mr. Treviño’s truck, moving before dawn on a highway near the border, the official said. Mexican marines in a helicopter intercepted Mr. Treviño and arrested him and two aides without a shot. Eight guns and $2 million in cash were confiscated.

“The reason they caught him without layers of security and without firing a shot,” said Art Fontes, a former F.B.I. official who spent years tracking Mr. Treviño, “is because he had $2 million in the vehicle and he thought he could buy his way out.”


Enrique, Felipe, and the Drones


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I have never considered the Washington Post to be a credible source for news on Mexico, having read far too many articles laced with outdated assumptions and simplistic jargon. That said, the recent article on drug war cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. is a credible piece of reporting. And although it still contains the aforementioned assumptions and jargon, it contains some very interesting points and is well worth reading.

A few observations:

First, Calderón’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. seems to have been greater than previously thought. More striking still is the extent to which both sides seem to have seen counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan as a model for Mexico. Calderón’s paranoia and militarized approach to the drug war was apparently directly responsible for the use of drones in Mexico, and would have gone further if Calderón had his way:

As the Mexican death toll mounted, Calderon pleaded with Bush for armed drones. He had been impressed by the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, two former U.S. officials said. The White House considered the request, but quickly rejected it. It was far too likely to result in collateral damage, they said.

Second, that Peña Nieto’s team was apparently so wholly unaware of the forms and extent of U.S. involvement speaks to a striking lack of communication between the outgoing and incoming administrations last year. This, perhaps, may partially explain why Peña Nieto has been so egregiously slow in formulating any sort of public anti-drug policy.

Lastly, that Peña Nieto has failed to lay out an anti-drug policy has given rise to the perception that he might be planning a return to the Pax Mafioso, essentially offering a truce to the trafficking organizations in exchange for peace. That his administration has systematically limited information about drug violence and aggressively encouraged journalists to reduce reporting on killings and kidnappings provides further evidence that such a strategy might be in the works. According to the Post, that is a concern that exists in Washington as well.

Police Corruption


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It has now come out that many of the arrests of protesters on December 1, 2012, during Peña Nieto’s inauguration, were the result of false testimony by police. This is obviously troubling, not just because it represents a rather high-profile case of human rights abuses, but because it is symptomatic of a profoundly corrupt culture of policing. What happened on December 1 was the rule rather than the exception, as police force that is undertrained and underfunded is ordered to perform tasks of investigation and enforcement they are unprepared for. Any examination of the criminal justice system, such as the Presunto Culpable documentary runs into examples of police ineptitude and abuse. In short, false denunciations seem to be as much a part of Mexican policing as wiretaps are in the United States. It goes without saying that this sort of corruption, the sort that undermines public confidence and does little to create a credible system of criminal prosecution, is in no small part responsible for the country’s inability to address the drug trade. Attempts to repair that institutional weakness, moreover, have received little meaningful support from the U.S. as part of the Merida Initiative, which instead funded helicopters and ammunition.

The 1976 Transition and the López Portillo Assassination Plot

In 1976, U.S. State Department officials in Mexico reported the rumor that outgoing president Luis Echeverría might plan to assassinate his successor, José López Portillo before the latter could take office. The diplomatic cable, reported by Animal Político and released on Wikileaks, was based primarily on an offhand phrase in a posthumous article by Daniel Cosío Villegas and rampant rumors in Mexico City. Behind the officials’ admittedly wild speculation, is a more interesting picture of Mexican political life at a key moment. Not only was it popularly believed that Echeverría was capable of great wickedness–his involvement in massacres in 1968 and 1971 was widely suspected–but it was also clear that the PRI was less stable than in previous moments. Cosío Villegas, ever an acute observer,  rightly signaled that presidential transitions were often fraught moments as outgoing leaders clung to power more frequently than commonly believed. The 1976 transition was particularly problematic, especially as Echeverría had apparently packed congress and secured the loyalty of the upper echelons of the military and party leadership.

While the rumors proved just that, they were accurate interpretations of internal strains within PRI that occurred well prior to more visible breakdowns in the 1980s and 1990s. The careers of Echeverría loyalists after 1976 were often difficult, as the new President asserted his authority and clipped the wings of opponents. Whereas in past transitions such housecleanings had often allowed some room for maneuver on the part of out-of-favor politicians, López Portillo seems to have had little sympathy for his opponents. As those understandings of the political rules broke down between 1976 and 1982, the foundations of PRI rule weakened. In that sense, the atmosphere of fear and insecurity in 1976 presaged the regime’s terminal crisis in 1993-1994.

The Lunacy of the Mexican Left

Over the weekend, a leader of the Mexican Workers Party (the PT) sent a letter to Kim Jung Un, praising him for his “great achievements” and declaring that “progressives from the whole world feel great admiration” for him. The letter even suggested that the North Korean leader was “widely acclaimed as the man of the year.” Ridiculousness aside, this is in a way symptomatic of the broader problems plaguing the fragmented and fractious Mexican left. Any reform attempts to move in a social-democratic direction inevitably run into these more retrograde elements following often outmoded doctrinaire party lines. Those wondering why the more left-centrist PRD has recently tended to align with the right-leaning PAN and PRI need look no further than the ideology of those to the PRD’s left.

Guns and the Border

Last week a USD Trans-Border Institute study reported that, on average, 252,000 guns are smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico – significantly more than previously thought. The methodology, while not exact (the calculations were based on a percentage of total gun sales in the border region), seems plausible and confirms long-running suspicions about the magnitude of the problem. While I am somewhat skeptical that simply reducing the flow of weapons into Mexico will reduce levels of violence–the weapons smuggling is demand-driven, not supply-driven–it is important to acknowledge that the the extent of U.S. complicity in the violence goes beyond demand for drugs.

It is also worth noting that, from a historical perspective, there is some precedent for controlling cross-border arms flows. During the Mexican Revolution, the Wilson administration strategically used access to the U.S. arms market to tip the balance of power toward the eventually-victorious Carranza faction. But where those decisions bordered on interventionist, current policy seems to violate a moral imperative to, in the very least, do no harm.



The New Quinazo?

Though the writing has been on the wall for Elba Esther Gordillo, I’m not sure anyone expected it to go down like this. The longtime (and famously corrupt) leader of the teachers union has been arrested at the Toluca airport on charges of embezzling untold sums from the union. The charges were brought after the government discovered irregularities to the tune of 2.6 billion pesos. In statements, the government revealed that investigations had discovered that from 2008-2012 funds had been diverted to make payments for shopping trips, plastic surgery, art gallery purchases, and the acquisition of property abroad.

If the charges are unsurprising, the rapidity of Elba Esther’s descent is striking, and ineluctably reminiscent of Carlos Salinas’s arrest of Joaquín Hernández Galicia, “La Quina”, the head of the PEMEX workers’ union in early 1989. That move was a personal settling of scores and a political statement of authority; it was hardly the inauguration of a new era of rectitude. Peña Nieto has made much noise about anti-corruption plans, but the motivations for this new quinazo are probably more personal and political than they are puritanical. Elba Esther stood in the way of Peña Nieto’s education reform, there was a longstanding prickly relationship, and, quite simply, Elba Esther no longer had the power she once held. Like Al Capone and tax evasion, embezzlement was merely the means to an end.

What’s next for the SNTE? It is fairly likely that Peña Nieto’s government intervenes in an old-school priísta cooptation of the union, ensuring that the educational reform moves forward. The worst case scenario involves extreme infighting and factionalism, and there is certainly grassroots activism that–if upsized to the national union–could prove very problematic for the government. To wit, the militant teachers’ union in Oaxaca, which led massive protests there in 2006 and has continued to protest annually, is actually dissident from Elba Esther’s wing of the SNTE. There is thus no reason to believe that the union will now return to democracy, nor that the government will allow it to do so.

Corruption or Ineptitude?

I think that will be the lingering question from Felipe Calderón’s government. This report that the bicentenario/centenario ‘Tower of Light’ monument in Mexico City had nearly 400 million pesos in irregular spending suggests, perhaps, a bit of both. The whole project has been a mismanaged, over-budget boondoggle. Cue snarky joke about a fitting memorial to 200 years of misrule.

Peña Nieto’s early approval ratings

The article is gated, but El Universal has a poll showing a 56% approval rating for Peña Nieto after 3 months from Buendía y Laredo (Full description and details of the poll there). Given the number of reforms he’s pushed through, I’m actually surprised it’s not a bit higher. As the pollsters note, the PEMEX explosion hurt the government’s image.

By way of comparison, that number is above Obama’s current rating (unsurprisingly), though lower than the 67% approval rating that Marcelo Ebrard had at the end of his term as Mexico City’s mayor. The same Buendía y Laredo poll, perhaps most surprisingly, gave Calderón a 64% overall approval rating at the end of his term. The rejection ratings for Peña Nieto and Calderón are rather close though, 29% to 25% respectively.