916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

A collection of my best clips.

Hezbollah, Mexican organized crime connection debated

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Ex-associates in Corpus Christi called Manssor Arbabsiar a joke, a floundering businessman who smoked too much, drank too much and often solicited prostitutes. Neighbors in Round Rock knew him as a rude and unfriendly recluse.

But on Oct. 17 in a New York courtroom, the former car salesman and restaurateur pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The plot: Arbabsiar — working for Iran’s Quds Force — hired a hit man he thought was a member of the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. The assassin was actually a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Full story.

Major narco leaders not among FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the man labeled the world’s most powerful drug trafficker — is not among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

Neither is his rival, Heriberto Lazcano, though he is said to run one of the most vicious illicit networks to move tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. Nor is Miguel Ángel Treviño, believed to be Lazcano’s second in command.
Full story.

Eatery’s code battle highlights Old Austin’s struggle

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
To code and fire officials, the violations are cut and dry: Casa de Luz, a popular eatery and South Austin institution, has a dining area that isn’t up to restaurant requirements, they say, and has been operating illegally for years, posing potential dangers to customers in emergency situations.

But the dispute, which came to a head late last month, has captured the attention of a throng of Casa de Luz patrons and supporters who say the city’s push to enforce a one-size-fits-all code amid rapid urbanization is hurting the places that keep Austin’s character alive.
Full story.

She still wears black

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Magazine
 
Sgt. Yvonne Vann wants to testify. She wants to tell the jury what was taken, what she lost in the early hours of May 28, 2011, when authorities allege 42-year-old Mark Anthony Gonzales, intoxicated and on antidepressants, opened ambush-style fire on Bexar County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Kenneth Vann, her colleague and husband.

A veteran and sheriff deputy for almost 24 years, Kenneth, 48, had been waiting in a marked patrol car at a red light in east San Antonio when he was attacked. He died at the scene, and the slaying ignited a massive investigation that involved local and federal agencies and garnered national headlines.
Full story.

Private security for Mexican citizens a growing business

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Some private security companies in Austin and across Texas have begun tapping into a burgeoning demand: personal protection services for wealthy Mexican citizens visiting the United States.

The increase over the past two years correlates with a wave of Mexican citizens, typically well-off business owners and entrepreneurs, looking to relocate to Texas in the wake of the bloodshed seething south of the U.S.-Mexico border, and some security businesses have noted the rising need statewide, agents said.
Full story.

Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.
Full story.

Convict couldn’t handle freedom

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
Most inmates want out of the pen. Randall Lee Church burned a house down to get back inside.

Released in April after years of incarceration, he could not adjust. “Everything had gone fast forward without me,” he said in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.
Full story.

Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 

Story proposal selected for 2011 John Jay/HF Guggenheim Reporting Fellowship

MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.

The handover was swift, unexpected and unprecedented in number, lauded as a “clean sweep” across drug cartel ranks and a triumph for President Felipe Calderón, who only a year earlier had pledged to use extradition in his all-out offensive against Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations.

Yet as 2012 presidential elections loom for both Mexico and the United States, analysts are taking a closer look. Shipping Mexican cartel leaders to U.S. judges might score immediate hits and headlines. But it might make affairs more dangerous in the long run, as the leaderless organizations splinter into violent offshoots competing over more fragmented turf.

And some question whether extradition really is bringing the two nations closer to a successful end of their multibillion-dollar shared struggle.

“It might be too soon to tell, but it certainly makes for good politics,” observed Héctor Ramírez Schulz, a penitentiary system official in Mexico City.

In 2007, the approach seemed promising. Cárdenas and four of the other defendants had been on U.S. law enforcement’s radar as foreign narcotics kingpins, a designation given by the president of the United States to only the most significant international players in the business.

Plucked out of their bastions, severed from their connections in their own country, their handover was hailed as the start of a new era of U.S.-Mexico cooperation. Since then, the number of accused narco-traffickers extradited into the U.S. legal system has surged, with more waiting in the pipeline.

The question is whether the policy has exacerbated the unintended consequences of Calderón’s tough measures — spreading and more brutal violence.

“The problem in our nation, most people don’t understand, is social, structural,” said a former official of Altiplano, the federal prison outside Mexico City where high-ranking traffickers are held, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We do not have legitimate authorities, our justice system lacks credibility. It’s hard to take any action when you have a corrupt system.”

Shipped across borders

The number of criminal suspects extradited from Mexico to the United States has more than doubled since 2005, from 41 cases that year to 94 in 2010, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Mexico has gone from handing over one criminal a year, since the extradition treaty between the nations went into effect in 1980, to a peak of 107 in 2009.

Only about 40 percent of them are extradited for drug-related crimes, slightly more than murder cases, estimates Ignacio Torteya III, a lawyer who has kept up with the transfers for years, first as a briefing attorney for a federal judge and since 1997 retained by the Mexican consul general in Brownsville.

For U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte, who heads that agency in the Justice Department’s Western District of Texas, the high cartel ranks, not only the numbers, make it a success story.

“We’re not just talking about the transport of low-level traffickers here. We’re talking about significant players within these organizations,” he said.

Mexico often received negative hype for its refusal to extradite fugitives in cases that might result in the death penalty. But a greater hangup came with an October 2001 Mexican Supreme Court decision that forbade extradition if a suspect faced life in prison — cruel and unusual punishment under the Mexican Constitution.

The ruling’s reversal in 2005 was “light at the end of the tunnel,” said Almonte’s chief deputy, Fernando Karl. It allowed drug-related extraditions to gain momentum under President Vicente Fox and to reach full speed under Calderón.

The Mexican anti-drug strategy calls for the relentless dismantling of cartel leadership through roadblocks and raids, arrests and shootouts. But sending the arrested leaders to the United States is key.

The Colombian government used the same approach against its cocaine cartels of the 1980s and ’90s, whose leaders preferred tombs to extradition. Several even formed a group to fight against it — the Extraditables, including the infamous leader of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar.

Corruption and incompetence in that nation’s legal system are mirrored today in Mexico: shoddy police work and dismal prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses, Mexican prison and law enforcement officials acknowledged. Recently leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City state that only 2 percent of those detained ever are brought to trial.

North of the border, “it’s a totally different ball game because the United States prosecution team has all their ducks in a row,” El Paso criminal defense lawyer Joseph “Sib” Abraham said. “The U.S. federal court system is quite intimidating, and it’s rather forceful. They have the wherewithal to prosecute cases and they do it rather aggressively and successfully.”

‘El Mata Amigos’

Ideally, the accused should be tried where they made their criminal career, judged by their peers, said Daniel M. Brinks, a government professor with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. But with de facto “narco states” operating parallel to the Mexican government, major drug figures fall like “heavy rocks into paper bags” in Mexican jails and courts, he said.

“It is not enough to put them in prison. Sometimes, you have to send them away,” Brinks said.
One of the heaviest of the heavyweights was Cárdenas.

A man of many legends and many nicknames — among them “El Mata Amigos,” or Friend Killer — he reached the apogee of his notoriety when he and his gunmen assaulted U.S. federal agents in 1999 in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. As the Mexican journalist José Reveles describes it, the insult that he could — and if threatened would — strike again left U.S. officials with a sour taste.

Cárdenas was captured in the same city by Mexican soldiers amid gunfire and grenade explosions in 2003, but his true fall didn’t occur until his 2007 airlift to the United States, observers agree.

He had run the Gulf Cartel’s multibillion-dollar enterprise in the northern state of Tamaulipas while locked up with some of Mexico’s most dangerous and brilliant criminals in Altiplano, known then as La Palma — ousting underlings, forging alliances and throwing street parties— loud ones in Ciudad Acuña for Mexico’s Day of the Child, complete with clowns, cake and banners crediting him. So the stories go.

Cárdenas wasn’t the only one. Mexican newspapers trotted out examples of narco leaders living the good life behind bars, with plasma TVs, prostitutes and other amenities that, Mexicans quip, gave them a better quality of life than the average citizen. Sandra Ávila Beltrán, the “Queen of the Pacific,” had Botox injections at a maximum-security prison. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera ran Puente Grande prison in Jalisco state until he was smuggled out in a laundry truck.

It wasn’t until Cárdenas was extradited — without ever facing prosecution in Mexico — that his organization started to break up, Mexican officials said.

Cutting off a hydra head

In a secrecy-shrouded plea deal, Cárdenas was sentenced in 2010 to 25 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $50 million of drug proceeds. Public reaction in Mexico and the United States was mixed. Critics thought the sentence too light, the amount forfeited too low. Others speculated that he must have provided valuable information.

But whatever the case, the effect of his extradition in Mexico was perhaps only increased violence, Mexican academics and journalists say. The most common metaphor they use to describe the removal of major cartel leaders like Cárdenas is the hydra — lop off one head and another grows back.

Then there’s the analogy of metastasized cancer — the spread of smaller, more dangerous factions.
Cárdenas wasn’t the only leader of the Gulf Cartel, said Ricardo Ravelo, a Mexican journalist for Proceso magazine and author of a number of books on narcotics trafficking and the legendary kingpin. Before him came Juan García Abrego, sent to a U.S. trial in 1996. After Cárdenas came his brother Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, known as “Tony Tormenta,” killed in a Matamoros shootout last year, followed by Jorge Eduardo “El Cross” Costilla.

The narco organization “has demonstrated a lot of dynamic in Mexico and across the world because it can reinvent itself time and time again, whether its leaders are arrested, extradited or killed,” Ravelo said. The CEO of a company can walk away, but the power, the connections will stay with the business.

And a leader’s departure can lead to more danger, some Mexican journalists and officials argue. Cárdenas’ removal allowed the rise of the Zetas into a rival cartel. It had grown from a core group of Mexican army deserters he had recruited as a Gulf Cartel enforcement arm.

The exhibitionistic style of Zeta killings has spawned imitators among the shadowy groups that have since complicated Mexico’s drug turf map — epitomized in recent weeks by executed victims in Veracruz, some of them dumped under a bridge, who fell afoul of a new group, the “Mata Zetas” or Zeta Killers.

Similarly, “La Mano con Ojos,” or The Hand with Eyes, has escalated brutality in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City. That gang, analysts said, formed after the 2010 arrest of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez, a top assassin for the Beltran Leyva cartel.

But, U.S. officials contend, those who replace the heads of the beast generally aren’t as powerful, not as well-connected, not as insulated.

“There are a lot of ripples that occur at a lot of different levels once you take out the leadership element,” said Paul Craine, assistant special agent in charge at the Houston division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It launches internal infighting by creating a vacuum where players try to determine who is going to take over as leaders, disrupting the criminal networks.”

Over time, the pressure erodes a gang’s influence and power, Craine said. As DEA officials put it, it’s not a sustainable business model.

The whole head of the snake must be targeted and extradition is only one method of many — U.S. and Mexican law enforcement must target the flow of dirty money and weapons, DEA officials said. The Mérida Initiative, a $1.4 billion U.S. assistance package, has poured money into training, equipment and other counternarcotics efforts in Mexico and Central America.

Still, law enforcement officials and legal experts said the drug war has increasingly centered on the capture of narco leaders, whose removal can take years and occur haphazardly. After working dozens of extraditions in a 32-year FBI career, retired special agent Peter Hanna said: “You just never know who you’re going to get.”

Synchronized elections

Mexico and the United States both hold presidential elections next year, and for the outgoing Calderón, the results could be a referendum on his legacy, the drug war — its effectiveness and Mexico’s willingness
to continue it.

Drug analysts and law enforcement officials in both countries also worry about what will come next. Some argue Calderón’s extradition strategies have failed because other tactics didn’t evolve in tandem, such as better federal police, cleaning up judicial system corruption, fighting money laundering more aggressively and controlling military abuses.

Reveles, who has followed the illicit drug trade for decades, asked, “Where are the billions of dollars attached to these heads? Where does the money go?”

Ravelo, the writer for Proceso, said the fight should continue. Many analysts agree. Progress might take decades but few want a return to the old days, when the government formed pacts with the cartels.

The United States needs to do more — Merida funds “are certainly a step in the right direction, but they are woefully short,” said Michael A. Braun, a former DEA assistant administrator and chief of operations.
Then there’s the larger part of the equation — demand.

“Perhaps it’s too soon to tell whether the extraditions, among other tools, are working,” said David Shirk, a University of Southern California professor. “We might be dousing the flames but leaving the fuel. As long as there are billions of dollars to be made, there is always going to be someone to sell.”

As published Oct. 10, 2011

Photo collage created by Jazmine Ulloa

 

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.

“These things don’t come out in the newspapers,” said the woman, who works as a housemaid in Brownsville and asked her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety.

In recent months, she and other residents say, sporadic shootouts in broad daylight, like this one, seem to have become more common in Matamoros, once one of the quieter cities along the Texas-Mexico border.

With little trust in authorities and few reports from the media, it is difficult for Mexican residents to discern what is fact from hearsay. But to be caught in the crossfire is a legitimate fear, families say — even more distressing, is constantly seeing their schools shut down, their news outlets silenced and their streets blockaded by Mexican soldiers and military trucks.

Such concerns are driving Matamoros families away from the border city and into the Rio Grande Valley, residential and commercial real estate agents said. The migration follows a steady stream of Mexican nationals, including journalists, officials and business leaders, who have relocated to the United States since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a sweeping battle against drug cartels in 2006.

But families from Matamoros have only been moving to the Valley in higher numbers since last year, real estate agents said. And some brokers noted calls from Mexican nationals had become even more frequent in the last six months.

“They call and tell me, ‘I need (a home) fast. I want to take my children out of school. There is too much danger here,’ ” said Sandy Lee Galvan, a real estate agent with Century 21 Johnston Company in Brownsville. “Many want to pay cash upfront.”

‘Violence escalates, migration escalates’

Drug war violence along the Mexican side of the lower Texas borderline began to intensify in late February, first after a bloody turf battle erupted between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas, and now has amplified as drug cartel men increase their assaults against the Mexican army.

“As the violence escalates, the migration escalates,” said Mary McGowan, broker and owner of All Star Realty in Brownsville.

Real estate agents are taking inquiries from Matamoros, Monterrey, Victoria and Valle Hermoso, and even from families living farther in the interior of Mexico. Many Mexican nationals are not stopping in the Valley but choosing to go farther north, to San Antonio or Austin, and even into other states, agents said.

But those who do stay prefer gated communities and condos throughout Brownsville and Rancho Viejo. Near McAllen, the sweetest deals are in the Sharyland community, said Leanne Richards, broker for Trendsetters Realty in McAllen.

“Everyone wants to get their children into the Sharyland school district,” said Richards, who has worked in real estate in the Valley since 1994. In the past, Richards recalls few Mexican families calling in to inquire about homes in the area. When they did buy, it took time and they purchased expensive $500,000 homes, she said.

Now people are buying properties costing between $80,000 to $120,000 because they want to move out soon. Many also choose to rent.

“They tell me, ‘We are not going back to Mexico, we are afraid,’” Richards said.

The high number of asylum applications from Mexico in part shows this increase in migration. The number of people applying for asylum under “credible fear of persecution,” jumped from 179 in 2007 to 312 in 2008, and increased again slightly to 338 in 2009. These figures were based on people who pleaded for asylum at the nation’s southern ports of entry, according to U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Separate statistics collected from U.S. immigration courts showed an increase in the number of asylum petitions from Mexico in the first two years since Calderón initiated the drug war offensive, from 2,793 applications in 2006 to 3,459 in 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of petitions dropped to 2,816 in 2009.

Hard to keep count

Nonetheless, tracking the number of people coming into the Valley, Texas or the United States from Mexico out of fear is difficult, experts said. No agency seems to be keeping count.

Part of the reason is because the way Mexican families are moving into the country runs the gamut. Some Mexican nationals have double citizenship, others apply for investor visas or asylum, and some come in illegally.

To judge the economic impact, thus, is much tougher. But Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso points to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as an example.

Between 30,000 to 500,000 people have fled from Juarez to the United States, according to estimates based on the number of abandoned homes and the assumed number of people per household, he said. The number may be exaggerated, and it is uncertain how many of these people reside in the bordering city of El Paso, “but the impact is tangible. You can see it,” Campbell said.

“It is very sad and tragic but the suffering in Juarez is contributing to the economic stimulus of El Paso,” he said. “There is also a cultural side. There is a sort of rejuvenation and reincarnation of Mexican culture in the United States.”

Many of the people fleeing Juarez are some of the wealthiest in the city and have injected a lot of money into El Paso’s economy, the professor added.

Business boom

Real estate agents in the Valley said Mexican nationals moving in are helping keep the housing market afloat. Richards, for instance, estimated Mexican nationals to make up between 40 to 50 percent of Trendsetters’ clientele in Hidalgo county.

Many families also are “realizing it is a great time to make investments in the United States,” said Norma Rasco, a real estate agent with Rancho Viejo Realty.

“Mexican nationals are cash buyers, and in this economy, cash is king,” she said.

The stimulus is true of business in the Valley as well, financial leaders said. Larry Jokl, a commercial real estate agent with Brownsville Real Estate Management Company, said he helped six Mexican clients move their businesses to the Valley last year.

“In the first three months of this year, I have had a dozen clientele from Mexico who have looked to locate their businesses here, two of whom already have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville Economic Development Council has hosted about half a dozen prospects, or companies serious to relocate in Brownsville, from Mexico since January. On any given year, that number would have been about two, said Gilbert Salinas, spokesman for the city’s development council.

“A recurring theme has been that due to security issues in their country, they are now putting their plans on a fast track to break into the U.S. markets,” he said. “Business men and women always have that — breaking into the U.S. market — in the back of their mind. Now they are making it a priority.”

As published April 3, 2010

 

Shrimpers head to Mexico to fuel boats

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Fuel prices have more than doubled since 2001, when Pedro Purata bought a 16,000-gallon shrimp boat he dubbed the “Alma Marie.”

The wooden boat, coated in layers of peeling black and white paint, now rocks gently on the bayou waters – moored to the dock along with more than half of the Port of Brownsville’s shrimp boats. Although some need repairs, most simply lack the fuel to head to Louisiana, where shrimping season has begun.

“There has never been this many boats tied to the dock during this season,” Purata said in Spanish, pointing to boats along the Port of Brownsville Shrimp Basin. “We just can’t afford the fuel.”

But before the Texas coast kicks off its shrimp season July 15, Purata and many other shrimpers along the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline say they are sailing south.

Like other industries in the United States, shrimping businesses have been hit hard by soaring fuel costs and some are finding relief, if only temporary, by filling up their tanks on Mexican shores. And it’s legal.

“The bottom line is that if we weren’t going to Mexico for fuel we would be out of business,” said Carlton Reyes, president of the Brownsville-Port Isabel Shrimp Producers Association.

Diesel fuel sells for about $2.40 per gallon at Mexican ports, half the price along U.S. coastlines, where costs can reach up to $4.20 a gallon.

Reyes owns six 18,000-gallon shrimp boats and pays $45,000 to fuel each in Tampico, Tamaulipas, as opposed to $75,000 per boat in Brownsville, he said. That saves up to $180,000 for his entire fleet.

His trip to and from Tampico takes four days and costs $5,000 to $6,500, including fuel, port and customs charges. But shrimpers travel to the city from as far as Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, Reyes said.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Florida, said low fuel prices in Mexico are worth the trip even for Florida shrimpers.

“It’s available to them, and I hope it’s something that a lot of them do,” he said. “They can’t fish if they have to pay $3 or $4 a gallon. We’d have 80 percent of our boats tied to the docks at that price.”

A host of factors may lie behind Mexico’s lower fuel prices, said Michelle Michot Foss, chief energy economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

State-owned petroleum company Petroleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, distributes Mexican fuel, and the government sets prices. But labor costs and environmental regulations are also less in Mexico than in the United States, Foss said. Modern refining facilities in the United States also cost more to maintain, she said.

Although crude oil is imported from Mexico and refined in the Gulf of Mexico region in the United States, there is no way to track whether the same refined products are going back into Mexico to be sold at lower prices, Foss said.

The only joint venture in which this does happen is at Deer Park Refining in Baytown, Texas. PEMEX and Shell Oil Co. have a “swap agreement,” where crude oil is processed at Shell and sent back to Mexico.

Less than 11 percent of refined diesel fuel is imported into Mexico from the United States, said Eric Potter, associate director for the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT Austin.

Before considering traveling to Mexico, local shrimpers would typically fuel up at S&S Sales shrimping company at the shrimp basin. S&S would sell 8 million to 9 million gallons of diesel fuel a year to local and outside boating companies on credit, office manager Jack Snodgrass said.

The company has not done so this year, however, because it can no longer afford enough fuel in the United States, Snodgrass said. Even its own seven shrimping boats were filled in Tampico, he said.

Without credit, some shrimpers at the port can’t buy fuel up front – not even to get to Tampico. Reyes said some 70 percent of Brownsville shrimp boats remain docked because owners can’t afford the fuel.

Meanwhile, Purata said he was lucky enough to make the trip to Tampico but would sell his boat if anyone would buy it.

“The way the situation is right now, this is isn’t a business,” Purata said. “We know March, April and May are slow, but we also know that the price of diesel fuel won’t go up that much.

“This year is a different story.”

As published June 20, 2008

Photo by Jim Rob