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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


Women play major roles in the drug trade

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
At the lowest level of the illegal drug trade are cases like that of Laura Trevino, her mother and two sisters.

The four women arrested in June allegedly stashed approximately 37 pounds of cocaine packages inside “girdles” three of them wore underneath their clothes. Authorities said they attempted to smuggle the narcotics through the B&M International Bridge.Court testimony later revealed Trevino had admitted to organizing the operation and would be paid $2,000 after they had crossed into the United States, a small percentage of the nearly $1 million estimated street value of the drugs.

The case was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. But among the roles women play in the illegal drug business, a majority of them, like Trevino and her family, still take a huge risk for a small cut of their load’s worth.

Women have had long-standing roles in Mexico’s illicit drug trade despite presumptions that in the country’s macho society the business has been entirely male-dominated. Many have also historically held powerful positions, though they have had to “pay their dues twice as hard” to move up the drug syndicate, officials and researchers said.

In the past, women in the narcotics trade tended to fall behind-the-scenes, but their roles have grown more prominent in recent years as their participation in all areas of the business has increased – and continues to rise.

To track the increase, researchers point to the number of women behind bars for drug-related crimes, which began to rise at alarming rates in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 101 percent, according to a 1997 prisoner’s report from the Federal Bureau of Statistics. Since, the increase has slowed, rising only 3 percent by 2006, as the latest figures show.

However, the Sentencing Project estimates that the annual growth of female inmates, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasingly at nearly double the rate for men.

“Recently, women have been entering the business at increasing levels at every level of the drug cartel,” said Howard Campbell, anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But most women in the trafficking business don’t get caught. So, incarceration and indictment rates may not fully speak to the issue of who is doing it.”

He found rising numbers of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses at U.S. and Mexican prisons, increases of women dying in drug violence and interviewed dozens of women for a study published in the winter edition of the Anthropological Quarterly.

Two key reasons account for the increases: Mexican drug cartels are at large and have grown in size and profitability, while poverty in Mexico and along the border remains high, Campbell said.

Women have then been able to expand their positions in the drug trade, where many find the lucrative opportunities to move up economically. Their position can serve as a vehicle to empowerment, Campbell said.
At the highest level of drug cartels in the recent limelight have been “queen pins” Enedina Arellano Felix and Sandra Avila Beltràn. Felix is alleged to have become one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel across California’s border after her brothers were murdered.

Beltran, dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” was indicted on drug charges in Florida four years ago and is said to have developed smuggling routes through Mexico for a Colombian cartel. A beautiful woman, Beltran would ask to do her make-up before her court proceedings and gained even greater fame for her haughty and arrogant behavior.

More women have also become notorious brokers and money launderers. Large sums of money are laundered in a small street in Mexico City, where beautiful women in low-cut dresses provide currency exchanges for tourists, Campbell said.

However, the majority of women continue to fall into the lowest levels of the illegal drug trade, said Correctional Program Specialist Marueen Buell of the Prison’s Division for the National Institute of Corrections.
In the business, these women are known as “sirenas,” “las sanchas” and, as in the case of the allegations against the Trevino family, “mules.”

The most expandable and most essential group is the “mules.” They are the “laborers” who run the risk of moving the illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States.

“There are risky, huge implications for carrying drugs, but there is a susceptibility among these women because they may not be as aware of these risks or the economic circumstances are so bad at home,” said Rosalie Pacula, director of Rand’s Policy Research Center.

Although not the case for all, the majority of women who enter the lower levels of the narcotics trade tend to be poor and living in desperate conditions, said Jasmine Taylor, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. As a growing number of them become the head of the household, they must provide for their families.

“So their life situation is used as an enticement to enter this line of work,” Taylor said. “Another way they join the drug trade is by being coerced by a male actors, husbands, boyfriends.”

While women might be entering the business in higher numbers, illegal drug organizations may have also increased their use of women as drug couriers in response to past law enforcement strategies, Pacula said. As technology becomes more advanced, smugglers need to find new, creative ways to get the drugs across.
Traffickers know women can play on gender stereotypes to avoid being questioned, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Women are also told to wear sexy clothing and flirt with officials.

“There have been more women, women with children and whole families [caught smuggling],” said Capt. Jack PeÐa with the Criminal Investigations Division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Drug traffickers think that they can use women to cross the drugs because they may look less suspicious. But we are checking everyone.”

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said smugglers are constantly changing their methods.

During various periods, teens and even senior citizens will be used to cross narcotics, said Roger Maier, U.S. CBP public affairs officer for El Paso.

“If you happen to see more instances of females caught with drug loads recently, it may not necessarily be indicative of an overall trend because we have seen it before and we will likely see it again,” said Rick Pauza, Laredo’s U.S. CBP public affairs officer.

Whether women are being used at higher rates also depends on the region smugglers are in and possibly the drug being crossed, Pacula said. The booming Mexican city of Tijuana across from southern California, for example, has a large population of young people from which drug-traffickers draw upon, she said.

Nevertheless, as the illicit drug trade expands in profitability, women are going to take the risk to enter into the trade by their own accord, Taylor said.

“Now in the last three years, the number of women searched has increased,” she said. “But money is still a strong motivator for women to join the business.”

As published Aug. 17, 2008