MEXICO: PUEBLA AND THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE DRUG TRADE. By Fernando Montiel T.

Translated by Danica Jorden*

Mexico, The War

A few years ago, intelligence consulting company Stratfor produced an infographic detailing the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico, dividing groups and areas of influence by colour.

Published at least as far back as 2010, the most violent year in Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs” (2006-2012), the map has evolved over time due to official actions, alliances and divisions within the groups, such that, in its various editions, gangs appear and disappear. In its 2010 edition, the map identified the Beltrán family, the Arellano Félix family, the Zetas, the Carrillo Fuentes organization, the Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa cartel and the Golfo cartel as the major groups. But through numerous events such as, among others, the extradition of Benjamín Arellano Félix in April 2011; the appearance of the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel (the Mata Zetas) that same year with the discovery of 49 dead bodies in Boca del Río, Veracruz; the empowerment of self-defense groups in Tierra Caliente, Michoacán at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 – and the consequent immediate retreat of La Familia Michoacana and Los Templarios; and, of course, the second capture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera in February 2014 and his later escape in July 2015; among many other events, evidently, the cartography of Mexico’s tragedy has changed.

For its 2015 edition, Stratfor openly acknowledged that its new geography of drug trafficking could now be divided regionally rather than into specific groups; to wit, groups being managed out of the State of Sinaloa, groups receiving their directions from Tierra Caliente in Michoacán, and groups run out of Tamaulipas State. Based on this logic, the country’s northwest would be under the control/influence of the first, with the south central of the country falling under the mercy of the second, and the rest (northeast, east, and south) controlled by the third, with major confrontations occurring where the interests of one or more overlapped with those of the others: ie., Guerrero (clashes between the second and third groups), Durango (clashes between the first and third), Hidalgo (between the second and third) and Guadalajara (where all three fought each other).

As opposed to previous editions which sought to more precisely illustrate the various groups’ areas of influence, the 2015 Stratfor map sacrifices a great deal of precision and eliminates many refinements, among them the disputed zones.

Puebla, Sanctuary

According to Stratfor’s first maps, Puebla especially the northern zone – appears as an area in dispute between organizations operating out of Veracruz (eventually the Golfo cartel during the time of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, in a region that later fell under the control of the Zetas, its former armed branch) and various affiliated organizations in Guerrero. But in the lastest version, the “in dispute” classification disappears to qualify the state as fully integrated into the area of influence of groups controlling the Atlantic corridor out of Tamaulipas.

Of course, much of what makes the most recent Stratfor map questionable – as was the case with many of the earlier editions – is that infographics, in a sense, are graphic, static simplifications of social processes that are supremely dynamic, obscure and complex. In any event, there is something undeniable about this illustration drawn up by the influential strategic studies and security consulting firm: the sudden – but not new – public eruption of organized crime in the State of Puebla.

For some years now, the state’s strange calm would from time to time give rise to indications that all was not well. In June 2008, the then Deputy Attorney General’s Office for the Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO, now SEIDO) requested the search of a residence in Lomas de Angelópolis as part of an investigation related to the Golfo cartel (Preliminary investigation PGR/SIEDO/UEDO/17404/2008).

Searching the home seemed to contradict the words of Mario Montero, then governance secretary of the state government, in the sense that Puebla was supposedly free of organized crime. However, the suspicion that the city – and the state along with it – was becoming a kind of sanctuary for various disputing groups was neither new nor unfounded. One only needs to recall that in March 2002, it was precisely in Puebla – in the “La Escondida” residential subdivision of Camino Real in Cholula – that members of the Army’s Special Forces Aerotransport Group (GAFES) arrested Benjamín Arellano Félix.

This Puebla, of the 2002 arrest and the 2008 search, is the same place where in 2014, José Luis Abarca Velázquez – former mayor of Iguala, Guerrero, to whose intellectual authority the disappearance of the 43 students of the Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa Teachers’ College is attributed – had just bought properties in the Lomas de Angelópolis subdivision.

Based on this logic, it would seem that with regard to drug trafficking, Puebla was not a state with the confrontations of Tamaulipas, nor a drug-cultivating state like Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango – especially the point between the three known as the “Golden Triangle”; nor a transit state like Veracruz or an internationalization state like the Federal District of Mexico City, Baja California or Coahuila, or even a residential and money laundering state. (It is important to also recall that suspicions ran high at the time that the Abarca couple were purposely arrested in Puebla, echoing another not very different episode when the Navy arrested Sergio Villareal Barragán, then one of the Beltrán family group’s principal operators, in September 2010 – this time in the Puerta de Hierro subdivision.)

Real Estate and Money Laundering, Nothing New

A Colombian pointed something out to me a while back: “Puebla is like Bogotá thirty years ago”. How is that?, I remember asking him. “Just like Puebla today, thirty years ago Bogotá was full of investments and investors, housing developments and luxury cars, and only later did we realise that it was drug trafficking”. That conversation took place seven years ago.

The man knew what he was talking about, knew what it was like to live alongside violence with its multiple facets and time frames: first comes opulence, growth, development, a rich, full and cosmopolitan life; then decadence, and then hell. A family member of his had been blackmailed, another endured a kidnapping attempt. In the end, he and the people close to him abandoned hope, and with hope gone, they left the country. And that’s how they came to Puebla.

“They need a place to live. It’s not so hard to understand”. This is no longer the displaced Colombian but a robust man speaking naturally about the subject. Known as an expert, the with a life spent as a security professional, he measures his words. “If business is on the border, in Tamaulipas, in Mexico City, and now in Veracruz, they’re not going to live there. They need a different, quiet place, such as Puebla”. He smiles wickedly.

But not everyone thinks the same. Whatever the Colombian would have said or what the security professional at another time and place would avow, is now refuted by an automobile dealer. “That’s not the reason why. What’s happening is that they’re coming here from the southeast to buy cars because there’s nothing over there. I’m talking about Veracruz, Campeche, Yucatán, Chiapas, Oaxaca”. Sounds logical. But what is really so hard about waiting a couple of hours extra to bring a Ferrari from Avenida Masarik in Polanco that would make it worth opening up a dealership in Puebla? The old money well-to-do know who is one of their own. And when you know one of them, it’s relatively easy to get information from the others. All in all, they are not many, and not all of them are buying ultra luxury cars, and when they do so, they’re not buying a lot of units. So if they are not the buyers, who is?

No, Puebla was not a disputed town square. So it could not be about local drug dealers or the cultivation and transfer of drugs by the state, or even potential drug buying on the part of the local population. No, it’s about the lack of clarity with regard to the origin of the fortunes that are financing luxury real estate developments in Puebla’s capital city. (Why are there so many shopping centres in construction that have been half finished for years?) It’s about how Pueblans are so drunkenly intoxicated with modernity that they cannot see – let alone ask themselves – who is really running this state.

The government? It does not know and does not want or cannot see what’s happening. And here we arrive at the great triad of its vices: ignorance, complicity and/or incompetence. It would be easy to believe and probably not difficult to prove its relationship or servility to Puebla’s anonymous masters of capital. There is no lack of rumors and a lot can be overheard in the city: “Puebla is like Bogotá thirty years ago”. Really? “They need a place to live…” without a doubt. It’s not too hard to understand.

From the Countryside to the City

Puebla today is suffering from the same process that happened in other regions of the country. The foundations for the abuses were first laid in the countryside, then polished, systematized and later expanded until they reached and overtook the city. And then came the state’s concerns and attempts to respond: slow, reactive, late. And the same thing happened throughout the nation.

Links like people’s disappearances in the country’s northeast – Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas; like the attacks on life and freedom of information represented by the assassination of journalists in Veracruz; and like slavery – whose epicentre can be found in Tlaxcala – make up the chain of horrors that keep Mexico mired in fear and desperation. Today, in the midst of the disaster, Puebla, which seemed like an oasis with little to add to the tabloids’ crime blotter, has become part of the dynamic.

For some time now in the interior of the state there have been ominous occurrences heralding what is today undeniable; events that were neither isolated, nor local nor coincidental that pointed to deeper problems: the operation of organized crime in rural areas.

A quick search of the municipal website, municipiospuebla.com.mx, displays diverse news items on the same themes that begin to draw a picture of what is already common knowledge in Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Zacatecas. The news mentions impunity (“Huauchinango Public Prosecutor Declines to Charge Detainees for Cattle Theft” -April 8, 2014); it mentions public pressure (“Three Charged with Cattle Theft in Huauchinango” (April 14, 2014); they speak of a type of crime which cannot be attributable to mere bandits (“Theft of 56 Head of Cattle and a Trailer in Xicotepec” -August 14, 2014); they speak of organized crime (“Armed Groups Rob Heads of Cattle in Broad Daylight in Mixteca” -August 14, 2014); they speak of open violence (“Farmer Assassinated for Investigating Theft of Cattle” -August 21, 2014); they mention inaction on the part of the authorities (“Increase in Bovine Theft Among Cattle Raisers in Sierra Norte” -January 13, 2015); they speak of the people’s desperation (“2 Minors About to be Lynched for Robbing Cattle” -March 31, 2015); and they speak of responses that are unnecessarily late and insufficient (“Deputy Proposes Increased Punishment for Cattle Theft in Puebla” -April 2, 2015).

In the Chihuahua countryside, drug traffickers kidnap young men to serve on an enslaved work force (“Disappearances in strategic zones” Newsweek. April 13, 2015). In those places, organized crime has not only taken over production – ranches, farms, cattle, exactly the same way the Los Caballeros Templarios group in Michoacán did in the avocado industry up until the self-defense groups appeared – but also people’s lives. Perhaps at that time years ago, Chihuahuans and Michoacanos thought that the sporadic violence – which years later would devolve into a holocaust – was merely due to the acts of cattle rustlers, bandits and highway robbers, nothing more. At a certain point, undoubtedy too late, they realised their mistake.

Welcome to Reality

Puebla is (still?) in a denial phase. In each case, reality prevails. The fall of the state’s Secretary of Public Safety following a fuel trafficking investigation – and with him, the good part of the security hierarchy – uncovered a sewer that nobody wanted to look into.

Things will never be the same. Fear blinds, as does the official propaganda. The oasis has disappeared. Puebla and its inhabitants will now have to get used to scenes like the one that took place in January 2014 when an armed commando attacked a bar – probably one proclaiming its “authentic Sinaloa ambiance” – in Avenida Juárez, wounding two people, and where even today the bullet holes are still visible. Should it be any different when now in the capital, convoys of luxury SUV’s parade, arrogantly threatening pedestrians and other cars? And the “Patrols” on “transit” or “police” motorcycles that aren’t the kind driven by civilians?

Note of 13 August 2015: “Seven bodies were discovered wrapped in blankets, with bullet wounds and bound feet in the town of Acateno, located north of Puebla and adjoining Veracruz…” (Milenio. August 13, 2015)

* * *

Did they really believe that Pueblan exceptionalism would manage to maintain the bubble when the world had already fallen all around it: in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala and Mexico State?

Welcome to reality.

Original article published in Rebelion.org: http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=202160

* Danica Jorden is a professional French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian translator