National Public Radio on May 18 adds to the widespread speculation that the Mexican government is tilting to the Sinaloa Cartel in the country's increasingly violent narco wars. Reporting from Ciudad Juárez, where President Felipe Calderón has deployed 10,000 army troops and federal police, NPR "finds strong evidence that Mexico's drug fight is rigged," citing court testimony, current and former law enforcement officials, and an analysis of cartel arrests.
NPR identifies Juárez's "hometown favorite" as "La Linea," which is described as another name for the Juárez Cartel, although most sources call it a local gang affiliated with the cartel. La Linea is threatened by "the newest gang in town," local traffickers backed by the Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa crime machine is overseen by "the world's most wanted drug lord," Joaquin Guzmán Loera AKA "El Chapo"—who remains at large (presumably somewhere in the mountains of Sinaloa) despite a $5 million price on his head. The report states: "Everywhere in Juárez, people whisper the story about how the Mexican army and federal police are helping Guzman's gangs of assassins capture the city."
The report quotes various officials who take a similarly dim view of Calderón's supposed crackdown on the cartels. "The presence of the army and the federal police has not resolved the problem," said Manuel Espino, former congressman from Juárez and once head of Calderón's own National Action Party (PAN). "On the contrary, it's gotten worse. El Chapo comes to town to take over the territory. It makes us believe there's a complicity with the federal government."
Edgar Roman, news director of the city's Channel 44 TV, added: "When you're out on the streets of Juárez and you hear constantly from people that are eyewitnesses, relatives of victims, they're saying prior to the killings the army was here. They left here, and armed men came and killed somebody."
Last month, gunmen in Juárez killed six federal police officers and left a message painted on a public wall warning of a similar fate for officers "who ally with Chapo and all those mother------- who support him. Signed—La Linea." (Dashes in original.)
NPR spoke to a former Juárez city police commander who confirmed the story. "The intention of the army is to try and get rid of the Juárez cartel, so that Chapo's cartel is the strongest," said the ex-commander, who asked that his name not be used because of death threats he has received. He was on the force when the Sinaloa Cartel came to town, and says his entire police department worked for the local cartel. He is now seeking asylum in El Paso.
"When the army arrived in March 2008, we thought, damn, now all this violence is going to end," he said. "The number of deaths did drop for about three weeks. But during those three weeks, Chapo's people contacted the army and figured out what they were doing and how much money they wanted. They started to pay them off, and the Sinaloans just kept working."
Collusion between the Mexican army and the Sinaloa machine is further corroborated by sworn testimony in US federal court, where two top Sinaloa traffickers went on trial in El Paso in March. One of the government's main witnesses was a convicted former Juárez police captain, Manuel Fierro Mendez, who went on to work for the Sinaloans. He testified that he regularly provided intelligence on La Linea to an army captain, after which the military would make arrests and seize weapons and vehicles. DEA agent Matthew Sandberg testified at the trial, confirming the contact between Fierro Mendez and a Mexican army officer, code-named "Pantera."
NPR also analyzed thousands of press releases posted on the website of Mexico's Prosecutor General of the Republic (PGR), documenting every arrest of a cartel suspect charged with organized crime, weapons or drug offenses. The NPR analysis found that since federal forces arrived in Juárez, the murder capital of Mexico, in March 2008, there have been 104 arrests involving suspects identified as cartel members. Of those arrests, 88 were affiliated with the Juárez cartel—and 16 with Sinaloa.
Enrique Torres, spokesman for the military-police joint operation in Chihuahua state, said there is "no way" there is favoritism. "The work of the Mexican army in Chihuahua and here on the border is to damage the structures of criminal groups, regardless of their origin," Torres said.
Calderón himself has responded to the charges of favoritism. "These accusations are totally unfounded, false. In most cases, it reflects a misunderstanding of the facts, the result of other interests, I want to be clear," he said in February.
Joe Arabit, special agent in charge of the DEA's El Paso office, also backed up Calderón. "La Linea has controlled the [smuggling] corridor so there are more [Juárez Cartel] operators in this corridor than any other cartel," he offered. "Therefore, you're going to see more people from [that cartel] being arrested."
But this explanation overlooks the fact that as the Sinaloa Cartel has muscled into the city, La Linea gangsters switch sides and join the Sinaloans—also known as "la gente nueva," the new people. There's even a name for the cartel turncoats—chapulines, or grasshoppers.
The Juárez Cartel has also also long paid off the army, of course. In 1997, Mexico's then-drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was convicted and imprisoned for working for the Juárez Cartel, at the time the country's top drug mafia. But over the past years, the Sinaloa competition seems to have won favored status.
In January 2006, Texas peace officers witnessed the astonishing sight of a Mexican military Humvee trying to pull a marijuana-laden SUV out of the Rio Grande, where it had gotten stuck. Police video captured the entire incident. The Mexican government said it was a case of drug traffickers dressed as soldiers, using a military-style Humvee.
The following month, Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West and his deputy went to Washington, DC, to testify at a congressional hearing about the incident. He told the hearing: "When the deputies arrived at the border, where the drug loads were to cross, the deputies were met with the Mexican military in a military Humvee. The deputies reported seeing heavily armed soldiers in the Humvee. The deputies took a defensive position while the Humvee and load vehicles crossed back into Mexico."
"Until one person is in charge of all the drugs, they're going to keep killing each other," West told NPR, speaking of the Mexican cartels. "And they're going to use the Mexican government to help them do it."
Hudspeth County is across the Rio Grande from the Valle de Juárez, a region of cotton fields and small farm towns east of that city, which is now apparently being used as a corridor by the Sinaloans. Carlos Spector, an immigration attorney in El Paso whose family goes back three generations in the Juárez Valley, charges that the Mexican army is giving the Sinaloans a free hand there—including to assassinate their rivals. "The Valle de Juárez represents a model of how the cartel war is being fought and its relationship to the Mexican government," Spector said. "Nothing could happen without the military. So it was by omission, by refusing to act, that they participate with the drug traffickers."
NPR states that over the past two years, Sinaloans have used a "scorched-earth strategy" of murder, torture and arson to take over the Juárez Valley, under the direction of an assassin nicknamed Quitapuercos—pig killer. In the Juárez Valley community of Esperanza—rendered a "virtual ghost town" by the Sinaloans' terror campaign, NPR encountered an old woman, who sobbed as she told her story. "Because of the people burning and killing and threatening us, everyone has left," she said. "They've gone to Juárez. But I can't. I'm sick. I can't run. If they kill me, they'll be doing me a favor."
When asked about the army, she replied: "They just pass by. They never protect us."