On February 25, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) held a press conference celebrating the culmination of Operation Xcellerator, which it says resulted in the arrests of 755 Sinaloa cartel members in the United States and Mexico. Law enforcement agencies arrested the last 52 suspects the day of the press conference, which the DoJ held on the same day the House of Representatives voted on 2009 funding for Plan Mexico. Plan Mexico, also known as the Merida Initiative, is the US government’s estimated $1.6 billion military and law enforcement aid package to support the Mexican government’s increasingly violent war on drugs.
With Plan Mexico, the United States government wedded itself to Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s stated strategy of attacking the big drug trafficking organizations in Mexico head-on. Calderon didn’t invent this strategy; it is the same strategy the United States and Colombia used in Colombia under Plan Colombia.
Since the strategy in Mexico has not decreased the levels of illicit drug flows into the United States, and because it has not decreased drug-related violence (drug-related murders more than doubled in Mexico last year), pressure is on both the Mexican and US governments to prove some quantifiable successes in the war on drugs. They’re doing this by making (or creating) high-profile arrests of suspected members of Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).
DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart stated that Operation Xcellorator resulted in the arrests of “US cell heads” who worked for the Sinaloa cartel. She went on to say, “We disrupted this cartel’s operations.” However, unlike previous busts, the DEA did not state the name of a single high-priority target that was arrested or even indicted in Operation Xcellerator.
In fact, the only Consolidarity Priority Organizational Target mentioned in the press release announcing the culmination of Operation Xcellerator was Victor Emilio Cazares-Salazar, aka Victor Emilio Cazares Gastelum, an alleged Sinaloa cartel “command and control leader” who is still at large. The US government indicted Cazares-Salazar in absentia under Operation Xcellerator’s predecessor, Operation Imperial Emperor. The DEA says Operation Imperial Emperor resulted in the arrests of over 400 members of the “Victor Emilio Cazares-Salazar drug trafficking organization.”
The DEA’s mention of Cazares-Salazar in the Operation Xcellerator press release lead to confusion amongst the corporate media as to who he is and what he did or does within the Sinaloa cartel. The DoJ press release says, “The 21-month [Operation Xcellerator] investigation began shortly after the culmination of Operation Imperial Emperor, an investigation which resulted in the indictment of Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF)-designated Consolidated Priority Organizational Target (CPOT) Victor Emilio Cazarez-Salazar, believed to be a command and control leader within the Sinaloa Cartel. CPOT Victor Cazarez-Salazar remains a fugitive.” Both the Washington Times and the Financial Times incorrectly stated that Cazares-Salazar is the leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
This isn’t the first time there’s been DEA-related confusion regarding Cazares-Salazar. In its press release announcing his indictment under Operation Imperial Emperor, the DEA didn’t even mention the Sinaloa cartel. Rather, it claimed that Cazares-Salazar is the leader of his very own drug cartel, the “Victor Emilio Cazares-Salazar drug trafficking organization,” a “drug empire that rose to such heights of power in only two years.” Such a statement is suspicious because it is very unlikely that the extremely powerful Mexican DTOs, most of whom have existed in some form or another for decades, would allow a newcomer to create his own DTO and turn it into a “sprawling drug domain, headquartered in Mexico, [that] penetrated deep into all corners of this country” without a fight.
Who is Victor Emilio Cazares-Salazar?
To understand who Cazares-Salazar is, it’s important to understand how the Sinaloa cartel is allegedly structured. Hierarchical cartel structures have proven to be prone to decapitation–if the leader or leaders are taken out, the organization lies in shambles. The Sinaloa cartel, on the other hand, allegedly has various DTO leaders (often entire families) who work together in an alliance known as “the Federation.” Sometimes some leaders fall out of favor with each other (such as in the case of the alleged feud between Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers), but the Federation continues to control large swaths of territory in western Mexico.
Victor Emilio Cazares-Salazar is the brother of Blanca Margarita Cazares Salazar, who is allegedly head of the Sinaloa cartel’s money laundering operations. The Cazares-Salazars are allegedly allied with the Zambada family DTO, another Sinaloa cartel associate.
It was allegedly Victor Cazares’ alliance with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada that allowed him to take over the territory he allegedly controls. The Tijuana magazine Zeta writes, “One theory says that after the capture of Arellano Felix Organization [aka the Tijuana cartel] deputy Gilberto Higuera Guerrero on August 5, 2004, in Mexicali, his enemy, deputy Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada from the Sinaloa cartel, gained more territory in the capital [Mexicali, the capital of Baja California] and then cleared the way for Victor Emilio Cazares Gastelum. Coincidentally, around that time the DEA began to detect Victor Emilio Cazares Gastelum’s cell’s drug activity operations.”
Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, for his part, gained control of Mexicali when the Arellano Felix Organization chose him to replace his brother, Ismael Higuera Guerrero, after the latter was arrested in 2000.
A pattern begins to emerge: government authorities can arrest or kill as many cartel lackeys or even king pins as they want, but as long as there is a lucrative market, there will always be more to step up and take their place. Cazares-Salazar is at least the third consecutive alleged Mexicali deputy that the US government has indicted since 2000. With the arrest of Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, the Arellano Felix Organization reportedly lost control of Mexicali. But El Mayo’s organization moved in to fill the vacuum, and the drugs flow north unabated.
Furthermore, every two years the US government announces hundreds of arrests of alleged Sinaloa cartel members, but the Sinaloa federation adapts, fills in the holes created by the arrests, and remains one of the strongest drug trafficking organizations in the country. And if someday the US and Mexican governments manage to significantly weaken the Sinaloa cartel, as they did with the Arellano Felix cartel, there will be someone else to fill that vacuum as well.
Are All 755 Operation Xcellerator Suspects Really Sinaloa Cartel Members?
Like most operations of this size, Operation Xcellerator was a joint effort between the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service, attorneys from the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, and state, local, and foreign law enforcement agencies, according to the DoJ press release. The press release also notes the that the defendants are “entitled to a fair trial in which it will be the government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Department of Justice’s past behavior in operations of this magnitude raise questions about how many of the 755 suspects arrested in Operation Xcellerator will actually be convicted, and how many are really Sinaloa cartel operatives or “associates”–and how many aren’t.
That very question came into focus in an FBI dragnet called “Sudden Impact,” an 18-month operation that targeted false medical claims in connection with staged or fictitious accidents, according to the FBI. Former FBI director Louis Freeh wrote in his “A Report to the American People on the Work of the FBI, 1993 – 1998” that Operation Sudden Impact resulted in the arrest or indictment of 723 people. Like Operation Xcellerator, it was an almost two-year investigation that resulted in arrests throughout the operation. In both operations, a significant number of arrests were made on the day of the press conference to add to the excitement and media show.
The FBI mechanizations behind Sudden Impact have been detailed in prior media reports, including a past story published by Narco News.
Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] documents made public as a result of those news reports show that Operation Sudden Impact was designed to coordinate media coverage with raids and arrests made during a planned “national takedown” day on May 24, 1995. The goal of this coordination was to maximize positive public exposure for the FBI.
Included in the FOIA records released by the FBI about Sudden Impact is a Dec. 1, 1993, memo from FBI headquarters to some 40 field offices, which states the following:
It is recognized that (FBI) field offices will be at various stages of their investigation at the takedown date. It is believed that each office will most likely still be in a position to contribute significantly to the takedown event. At the culmination of this initiative, field offices may choose to participate by executing arrests or search warrants, announcing indictments, or announcing recorded convictions. Prior to this event, the media packages will be prepared by (FBI headquarters) and distributed to field office media representatives.
A fill-in-the-blanks press release was even drafted at FBI headquarters and provided to the local field offices to assist with maximizing the press coverage of the “takedown” day.
“Field offices are encouraged to prepare their own media release and as a guide, the FBI National Press Office has prepared the following draft copy of a media release for the May 24 takedown,” states a May 19, 1995, memo included in the FOIA documents.
The pre-packaged press release from FBI headquarters included a narrative about Sudden Impact, information about the number of people to be arrested and even canned comments from then-FBI Director Louis Freeh.
The pressure exerted by FBI headquarters to get all of the field offices to “contribute significantly to the takedown event” even if some were “at various stages of their investigation at the takedown date” poses a risk, however. That pressure to “contribute” — when it comes from superiors who hold the keys to career advancement — can foster a bandwagon effect that results in bad police work.
In fact, according to the media reports, that is precisely what seems to have played out in the case of the FBI’s Sudden Impact.
In one case, a San Antonio lawyer who was a target of Sudden Impact—his office raided and name splashed all over the media—was never even charged with a crime. In addition, according to FOIA documents, FBI headquarters later claimed it had no record of the attorney ever being of “investigatory interest” to the bureau.
A similar miscarriage of justice also seems to have played out for a Houston attorney whose law office also was raided (and his name released to the media) as part of Sudden Impact. In that case, the attorney was charged initially with insurance fraud, but the charges were later dismissed, according to the media reports.
Even though they were never found guilty, both men were included in Operation Sudden Impact’s “723 arrests or indictments” [emphasis added].
Press manipulation was not the only strategy employed by the FBI, the FOIA documents reveal. Operation Sudden Impact also was intended to impress Congress and affect pending legislation:
This initiative [Sudden Impact] through the diligent efforts of the participating field offices has served to further establish the FBI as a law enforcement agency actively involved in combating health care fraud,” states the May 4, 1995, FBI memo surfaced through the FOIA documents. “Congressional leadership also recognizes the bureau’s capabilities in investigating complex health care fraud cases and legislation has been introduced that would provide the FBI and all law enforcement with improved investigative tools, better criminal statutes and investigative resources.
The DEA’s Operation Xcellerator was also conveniently timed to coincide with Congressional legislation important to that agency: Plan Mexico. The House of Representatives voted on legislation that included Plan Mexico on the same day the Department of Justice held its press conference announcing the Operation Xcellerator arrests.
Plan Mexico has received sharp criticism from both the left and the right. Activist organizations such as Witness for Peace and Friends of Brad Will have pressured the US Congress to make the Merida Initiative a stand-alone bill to be considered on its own merits. Some Republican congressmembers supported this effort in 2008. They don’t believe Plan Mexico funding would pass so easily if it weren’t tucked into broad hundred billion dollar spending bills.
They may be right. The “war on drugs” approach to addressing drug problems is becoming increasingly unpopular. As Senator John Kerry noted during Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State confirmation hearing, “An October 2008 report by the GAO [Government Accountability Office] concluded that, although Plan Colombia improved security conditions in Colombia, it has not significantly reduced the amount of illicit drugs entering the United States.” What Kerry didn’t mention is that the GAO report said that cocaine production in Colombia had actually increased under Plan Colombia.
The reason for Plan Colombia’s failure is simple: drug traffickers evolve to adapt to changing market conditions. When US funds paid for aerial detection and fumigation programs, Colombian growers moved away from large-scale cultivation in open fields in favor of smaller plots hidden under trees or in tall weeds or amongst other crops. When the military brought down the Medellin and Cali cartels, who once dominated the Central American-Mexican corridor to the United States, Colombian traffickers formed smaller boutique cartels. These cartels no longer control the Central American-Mexican corridor; their Mexican colleagues do. The case of Mexicali and how it has changed hands over the years as the US imprisons the deputies who control it is reproduced at the international level: the players change, but the game continues.
As the failures of the war on drugs become more obvious, the DEA finds itself relying on one of the only tools it has left to shore up support for pro-drug war legislation: media spectacle.
However, in its efforts to shore up support for the drug war, the DEA may actually be playing into the Mexican DTO’s hands. If a significant number of the Operation Xcellerator arrests are not associated with the Sinaloa cartel as the DEA claims, the arrests may have benefited major DTOs.
DTOs have been known to propose truces to the Mexican government that include taking out “unorganized crime,” that is, the small-time drug runners in exchange for the government leaving the large DTOs alone. Proceso reporter Ricardo Ravelo obtained a Mexican Secretary of Defense report dated January 14, 1997, that illustrates such proposals. The proposal was from the late Juarez cartel leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes to then-Secretary of Defense Enrique Cervantes Aguirre. Ravelo sums up the document in his book, “Los Capos”:
“He [Carrillo Fuentes] didn’t want to turn himself in. He was interested in negotiating and coming to an agreement with the government. He also asked that his family be left in peace and that they let him work without being bothered. In turn, he would grant the State 50% of his possessions; he would collaborate to do away with unorganized crime; he would act like a businessman, not a criminal; he wouldn’t sell drugs in national territory, but rather in the United States and European countries; he would bring in dollars to help the national economy; and he wouldn’t act violently nor in rebellion.”
General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico’s former drug tsar who was arrested for his alleged ties to the Juarez cartel, gave testimony that one of Carrillo Fuentes’ agents had three meetings with Secretary Cervantes Aguirre regarding the proposal.
The proposal was never finalized. Both Amado Carrillo Fuentes and a lawyer involved in the negotiations who claimed to represent the Secretary of Defense died in 1997. Carrillo Fuentes reportedly died of a fatal overdose of Dormicum during plastic surgery to change his appearance. The overdose was foreseeable and preventable, leading to speculation that he was murdered*. The lawyer, Rafael Perez Ayala, was found stuffed in the truck of his car.
* There are also reports that Carrillo Fuentes staged his death, and that he is not actually dead. Kristin Bricker, NarcoSphere