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.”
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