Mexico City – A gang-related arrest in Mexico took a surprising twist last week when a portion of the suspect's testimony was leaked, revealing that the criminal organization La Familia Michoacana is also involved in the illegal trade of uranium to China.
Sidronio Casarrubias – the head of the Guerreros Unidos crime gang who was arrested last year and interrogated about his alleged involvement in the disappearance of 43 college students from Iguala, in the state of Guerrero in September 2014 – said the uranium operation in Mexico is being carried out under the orders of mogul Carlos Ahumada, a prominent Argentinian-born businessman who spent a couple of years in jail in a bribery scandal.
Casarrubias said Ahumada, who holds a dual Mexican-Argentinian citizenship, owns two uranium mines in Guerrero.
“The cargo is moved by small boats,” said Casarrubias shortly after he was arrested, but whose testimony was released only recently and published by Milenio newspaper.
“Ahumada traffics uranium … hidden among other metals,” he said, according to a Ministry of Public Security agent quoted by Milenio. “[Familia Michoacana members] take it to the port in Lázaro Cárdenas, but the majority is taken to the port of Colima [both in Michoacán], where it’s handed over to the Chinese.”
The Mexican government considers Guerreros Unidos a regional splinter group of La Familia Michoacana.
Mexico has one of the world's biggest reserves of uranium, but very little is used by the country's only nuclear energy plant, Laguna Verde. Under existing laws, all sources of uranium can be exploited only by the Mexican government. When a private company finds uranium while mining for other metals, it is required to report it to the government and shut down the mine.
It's believed that the price of a kilo can hit $6 million.
Casarrubias' testimony is alarming in a couple of ways. That the destination of the ore is China is a potential point of friction with the United States, and the possible involvement of drug gangs in the trade of material that could be used in an atomic bomb is worrisome, to say the least.
Chinese and Mexican groups have been linked in the past. In April 2014, Mexican Marines seized 300,000 tons of illicitly-acquired iron on four ships at the port of Lázaro Cárdenas that was bound for Hong Kong.
José Fernández Santillán, a security expert at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM), explained to FNL that the transnational competition for illegally-trafficked substances and chemical elements has been boosted by the rise of small Asian companies that are "difficult to control" compared to bigger enterprises.
"These companies, what they do is take advantage of legally weak countries along the Asian coast to set up their illegal operations," Fernández Santillán said. "And on this side of the Pacific, Mexico is a key piece, because it's also part of a corrupt and weak legal state."
Mexico is a signatory to the 1969 Treaty of Tlatelolco, aimed at the denuclearization of all of Latin America, and 40 years later then-President Felipe Calderón signed onto an International Atomic Energy Agency treaty promising to wipe out all highly enriched uranium in the country.
"The trafficking of any substance or product [in Mexico] can't be understood without acknowledging corruption at three levels of government: the federal, which controls the ports and mines, and the state and municipal [levels] in Michoacán, through where the uranium supposedly circulates,” said Gerardo Rodríguez, an analyst at the University of the Americas in Mexico.
Besides Guerreros Unidos, drug cartels like La Familia Michoacana have also been implicated in the illegal trafficking of the radioactive ore.
Shortly before Casarrubias, drug trafficker José María "El Pony" Chávez testified that Ahumada had failed to report discovery of uranium at a METAL mine Campo Morado he co-owned in Guerrero. Chavez said Ahumada had members of Familia Michoacana cartel sell it quietly to the black market.
According to Casarrubias testimony, the Familia Michoacana leader, Jonny Hurtado, who goes by the nickname “El Pescado” or "The Fish," would get rides on helicopters provided by Ahumada – sometimes just to go watch a soccer game, or when federal police were closing in on him.
The Attorney General’s Office was sufficiently concerned to open an investigation of the businessman, who made his fortune from real estate, soccer teams and, most recently, mining.
Fox News Latino was unable to reach Ahumada for comment.
This is not the first time that the Mexican government has targeted the businessman. In 2004, the businessman got caught up in a Mexico City influence-peddling scandal that stemmed from a romantic affair he was having with the mayor’s cabinet chief, Rosario Robles.
Ahumada was taped with top aides to the leftist presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, handing out bundles of U.S. dollars.
He was arrested in Havana and extradited to Mexico as part of the subsequent investigation and was incarcerated until May 2007, when he was cleared of all charges.
Gardenia Mendoza is a freelance reporter in Mexico City.