Published July 21, 2009
Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon was summoned by Mexican traffickers for what he was told was business. Instead, dozens of attackers ambushed his entourage with grenades and assault rifles, killing Leon and 10 others in a brazen demonstration of power.
Mexican drug traffickers are branching out as never before — spreading their tentacles into 47 nations, including the U.S., Guatemala and even Colombia, long the heart of the drug trade in Latin America.
The expansion comes amid a military crackdown in Mexico and the arrests of major Colombian suppliers and poses a new challenge for efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.
In dozens of interviews with officials and experts in seven countries, The Associated Press found that the Mexican mobs increasingly buy directly from the cocaine-producing Andes and have begun using countries as distant as Argentina to obtain the raw material for methamphetamine. Mexican gangsters have been arrested as far away as Malaysia as they seek new markets for cocaine and "meth" supply sources.
"There are more Mexican drug traffickers in South America today than at any time ever, period," said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help Colombia dismantle its major cartels but may have actually helped the Mexicans gain traction in South America in the process.
In the past two years, Colombia extradited 14 warlords to the U.S. on drug-running charges and another six major traffickers have been killed or arrested. Mexican emissaries and money are flowing into the country to fill the void.
"The belief is that the Mexicans are trying to get closer to the source of supply and take over the transport," said Jere Miles, chief of the unit that tracks trade-based money laundering for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mexican traffickers have turned up in many Colombian cities and are working to get cash in the hands of peasants to boost coca production, said Colombian police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo.
"We have evidence of Mexicans sitting in Medellin, sitting in Cali, sitting in Pereira, in Barranquilla," he told the AP.
In neighboring Peru, the world's No. 2 cocaine-producing country after Colombia, Mexican traffickers are bribing customs officials at airports and seaports and laundering money by investing in real estate. At least four major Mexican cartels now buy cocaine directly in Peru, said Sonia Medina, chief public prosecutor for drugs and money laundering.
In the last three years, 40 Mexicans have been arrested in Peru on drug-trafficking charges, mostly low-level couriers smuggling 22 to 44 pounds (10 to 20 kilograms) of cocaine in suitcases, said Col. Leonardo Morales of Peru's anti-narcotics police.
Traffickers rent homes in Lima's best neighborhoods for weeks at a time. One suspect, Saulo Mauricio Parra Tejada, was arrested there in June after police found four suitcases with 234 pounds (106 kilograms) of cocaine in his car. A second man with Parra commandeered a taxi and fled in a shootout with police.
"We presume he was headed for the airport," Morales said.
Drug-related killings — with the sudden appearance of Mexican cartel-contracted hit men — are also on the upswing. Three Mexicans believed involved in the drug trade and 15 Colombians were murdered in Lima in the past two years.
"When Peru's mafias dealt pretty exclusively with Colombians, you didn't see that," said Eduardo Castaneda, a Peruvian anti-drug prosecutor.
Other Latin American countries have started playing a role as transshipment points for the chemicals used to make methamphetamine, a highly addictive street drug.
Mexico supplies 80 to 90 percent of the methamphetamine sold in the U.S., according to the DEA. The drug is made from pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, commonly found in cold and flu medicines and typically obtained in bulk from India and China.
In 2007, Mexico banned the import and domestic use of both chemicals. So the problem spread abroad. Last year, the United Nations identified, for the first time, the manufacture of methamphetamine and other illicit synthetic stimulants in 10 nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras.
In Argentina, ephedrine imports rose from 5.5 tons in 2006 to 28.5 tons the following year, according to the DEA. Half the 1.2 tons of ephedrine Argentine authorities seized last year was bound for Mexico in a shipment of sugar.
Also last year, police took down a methamphetamine lab in Buenos Aires linked to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. In all, 23 people — including nine Mexicans — were arrested.
Court papers say the cartel exploited Argentina's lax financial oversight and plodding judiciary to set up shell companies to import ephedrine from India and China. The papers say employees then ground up the ephedrine, liquefied it and shipped it in wine bottles to Mexico.
In another case, three young entrepreneurs were found in a ditch, hands bound with plastic. Investigators say they were pumped with bullets in a gangland-style killing for crossing Mexican mobsters.
Two of them, Sebastian Forza and Damian Ferron, apparently tried to shortchange Mexicans who were buying in bulk from them.
They owned pharmacies and "adulterated the ephedrine, thinking they'd take advantage of the Mexicans' stupidity," said Tony Greco, who recently retired from the DEA after six years in Argentina.
A month later, Argentina began to tightly restrict sales of ephedrine. Greco said Mexican gangs in Argentina have since returned to trafficking cocaine from Bolivia, where the U.N. says coca production is up for a third straight year and whose president, Evo Morales, expelled the DEA last year. Greco said the cocaine is shipped from there to Europe, Africa and Asia.
In the meantime, the sale of drugs used to make meth has also spread. In Honduras, authorities seized 3.5 million pseudoephedrine pills from smugglers last year, arresting four Mexicans. In El Salvador, police are investigating the disappearance of 2 million pseudoephedrine pills from a 2008 shipment, and cough medicine purchased in bulk has been sent north. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have now all passed laws prohibiting most uses of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
Peru, where the drugs remain for sale, is among countries where traffickers routinely take a group of people, hit as many retail outlets as possible and buy the maximum amount of pseudoephedrine they can get, in what police call "smurfing."
In Malaysia, three Mexicans were arrested last year and charged with trafficking 63 pounds (29 kilograms) of meth. If found guilty, they face the death penalty.
Guatemala is struggling to combat the Mexican crime invasion with loaned helicopters from the U.S. and organized crime investigators from the U.N. Guatemalans feel their country, wedged between Mexico and Colombia, has become like "the meat in a hamburger," then-Interior Minister Francisco Jose Jimenez said last year.
The U.S. State Department has warned that a weak criminal justice system and pervasive corruption make it difficult for Guatemala to address the rise in drug activity.
In late November, 17 people were killed in an apparent battle between Mexican and Guatemalan gangs, reportedly over a stolen drug shipment, said Guatemalan Police Director Marlene Blanco.
Four months later, police discovered a training camp for the Zetas, one of Mexico's fiercest gangs, a few miles south of the Mexican border in Ixtcan. They also found 500 grenades and thousands of bullets believed stolen from the Guatemalan army, and in mid-June, Guatemalan authorities confiscated nearly 10 million pseudoephedrine pills in a shipping container in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala's main port on the Pacific. It was the country's biggest seizure of the substance.
President Alvaro Colom, the national police chief and the interior minister all say they have received death threats from traffickers in recent months.
Since the Juancho Leon murder in March 2008, 33 Zetas have been captured and are behind bars, said Giulio Antonio Talamont, the country's prisons chief. They include senior Zeta commander Daniel Perez Rojas, a former Mexican soldier charged with orchestrating Leon's killing.
Drug lords are infamous in Mexico for their jail breaks.
So nervous Guatemalan authorities recently doubled the number of soldiers ringing the prison where Perez, alias "El Cachetes" or "Puffy Cheeks," and the other Mexicans are held. They jam cell phone signals and periodically rotate Perez from cell to cell for extra security, Talamont said.
The authorities are so nervous that they plan to hold Perez' trial later this year in a makeshift courtroom inside the prison.