Following The Beast As It Snakes Its Way Through Mexico

Following The Beast As It Snakes Its Way Through Mexico

By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News

HUEHUETOCA, Mexico — After more than three weeks of silence, The Beast growled again, blew its whistle, and finally left Tenosique, Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. Heading north, the train took on hundreds of Central Americans as shelters emptied along the way, from Veracruz to Puebla.

Held up for weeks by the Mexican government, and after pressure from the Obama administration, the freight train was running again. But many on board were having second thoughts about continuing on to the United States.

By the time the freight train reached Mexico City and a migrant shelter in the state of Mexico, many had gotten off. The journey had become more perilous. The border with Texas seemed more distant, unwelcoming, and unreachable. Instead, the migrants hoped to find jobs at the booming aerospace and auto plants in central Mexico.

“They’re in the eye of the storm,” said Ruben Figueroa, an immigration activist at a shelter in Tenosique and a former immigrant who once worked in North Carolina. “As always, their future — our future — is tied to U.S. electoral politics.”

In recent months, Central American migrants, including 63,000 unaccompanied minors, have streamed across the U.S. border, mostly in South Texas. The flow has intensified debate among Americans about migrants from Central America, who for decades have made the trip north to enter the United States illegally by stowing away atop freight trains.

Last month, I traveled for four days along some of southern Mexico’s busiest migrant routes.

By car and bus, I followed the path of The Beast, so named because of the many migrants killed or maimed beneath its wheels. I continued along the route, watching The Beast zip through Central Mexico, from Puebla to Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Guanajuato, and Queretaro. I talked to migrants on their way to Arizona and California, as well as entry points on the Texas border by way of Ciudad Juarez or Reynosa.

The barriers — from increased vigilance on both sides of the border to exploitation by criminals — had intensified, pushing some to take drastic measures.


At a shelter in Huehuetoca, just outside Mexico City, Jaime Eduardo Gonzalez of Guatemala has decided to travel with a new companion: a 22-inch machete.

“Many of us travel alone, accompanied only by God,” he says, wrapping the machete with clothes and tucking it into his tattered suitcase. “These days, carrying a machete also helps.”

He says he uses the machete to clear brush as he walks parts of the country on foot, away from the watchful eyes of Mexican authorities. But he also keeps it to protect himself. Gonzalez, 20, says he was held against his will by a criminal gang in the state of Veracruz, and was nearly killed when he escaped.

“There are some bad people along the way,” he says.

Now, with machete in tow and fear in his eyes, he plans to reach Los Angeles, where his mother and brother live.

Ever Javier Melendez, 20, is heading in the opposite direction. Originally bound for the United States from his home in La Ceiba, Honduras, he had made it as far as San Luis Potosi state. There, members of the criminal group known as the Zetas took all his money and documents, even a letter he carried with a phone number for relatives in case he died.

“They wanted me to work for them, help them with the smuggling business,” he says. “They slapped me around with a gun and then put it to my head. I agreed, but on the first opportunity, I ran away and caught the train south.”

El Bajio

The railroads cut through Queretaro state on their way north or northwest, not far from rural communities like Pozos, San Luis de la Paz, and on to San Luis Potosi. They pass through a region thriving economically, where factory workers build cars, airplanes, and refrigerators in new factories, and fields of tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce stretch for miles.

Almost one-third of Mexico’s automobile manufacturing industry is based in Queretaro, and the state is expanding into the burgeoning aerospace industry with more than 33 companies.

Lucas Anderson and Wilmer Lopez walk along 5 de Mayo Street and inquire at a coffee shop about possible jobs. The owner politely shakes his head and suggests they try factories in the outskirts of the city instead. “There is always work there,” he says.

Later, he confides, “They say they’re Mexicans, but you can tell in an instant they’re Central American.” The cafe owner prefers not to give his name, fearful that extortionists may target his business.

I catch up to the two men. They tell me they’re from Mexico. I was just in Honduras, I respond. “I loved your country,” I say. They look sheepish.

Yes, they say, they’re from Honduras and they’re looking for temporary jobs before they can continue on their journey to Texas, where they have family and friends in Galveston.

“We still want to get to Texas,” says Anderson, 20.

“But it’s not a good time, so we’re looking for a job, anything,” adds Lopez.

I ask what has changed about the trip through Mexico. “Everything,” Anderson says. “It’s like crossing the United States, with so much security, technology, and, worse, criminals hunting us down as though we’re animals.”

El Paso

In Ciudad Juarez, The Beast ends its journey. A new journey begins on the U.S. side in places like El Paso, known as the Ellis Island of the Southwest.

The flow of migrants from Central America, U.S. authorities say, is slowly inching from the Rio Grande Valley toward El Paso.

Attorney Carlos Spector has practiced immigration law for more than 30 years. In recent years he has represented Mexicans fleeing violence in their country, so many that he has a weekly radio show called “La Hora del Exiliado” (The Exile Hour). He recently picked up five new asylum cases — all Central Americans.

He suggests that the U.S. involvement in Central America’s wars during the 1980s helped plant the seeds for the instability and turmoil there today.

“Whenever the United States tries to use military force, or meddle in internal affairs, as it did in Central America in the 1980s, there will be consequences that are no different than, say, Iraq or Afghanistan,” he says. “The chickens have come home to roost.”

Photo: Cronkite News Service/MCT/Jessie Wardarski

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Mexico Unveils Proposed Rules For Opening Of Energy Sector

Mexico Unveils Proposed Rules For Opening Of Energy Sector

By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News

The administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto unveiled proposed rules Wednesday for a historic opening of the country’s energy sector, ending seven decades of state monopoly and paving the way for billions of dollars in investment by foreign companies.

The so-called secondary rules, needed to set regulations for the implementation of the reform passed last December, call for flexible contract terms for private companies and would give Mexican suppliers preference if they can match terms offered by foreign companies. But few details of the proposed rules were released.

For U.S. investors, the more details that can be provided, the better, said Tony Garza, former U.S. ambassador and now counsel at the Mexico City office of White & Case.

“In the broadest sense, investors, whether they’d be Texan or other, are looking for clarity, certainty and some comfort with respect to the enforceability of contracts,” he said. “Specifically, they’ll want to see the language that will be used attendant to sharing of profits and risk in both the production sharing and licensing arrangements.”

Said one Texas energy executive: “The devil is in the details. Time to get serious.”

The rules must be approved by Congress, which isn’t expected to vote until a special session ends in late June.

Oil and gas companies from around the world have been watching the developments in Mexico. In North Texas, most of the speculation is around oil giant Exxon Mobil and Hunt Oil, the Dallas-based private drilling company with a long resume of international projects.

“We expect that some of the biggest players, if not the biggest, will come from Texas,” Mexican Ambassador Eduardo Medina Mora said in a recent interview in Washington. “Texans have the knowledge, the resources and proximity, which are huge advantages.”

With 10.4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, Mexico ranks behind only Venezuela and Brazil in Latin America. State-owned Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex, ranks as the 10th largest oil company in the world.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which founded Pemex, had expected to secure early backing for the energy rules from the opposition conservative National Action Party, or PAN. But in recent weeks, PAN has made passage of electoral reforms a condition for its support on energy.

Photo: OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development via Flickr

Immigrants In U.S. Sending Money To Fight Drug Cartels

Immigrants In U.S. Sending Money To Fight Drug Cartels

By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY — The punishing wave of violence and uncertainty that has swept Mexico’s central state of Michoacan is generating much-needed financial help for the self-defense groups that have sprung up in response, and it’s coming from immigrants abroad.

Dallas businessman Roberto Chavarria is among those sending help. Sitting at a hotel in downtown Dallas, he described his options matter-of-factly.

“Many immigrants like myself have dreamed of this moment, when our people say, ‘Enough,’ and fight back, so the challenge is for us to help in the best way possible,” he said. “I either stand on the sidelines and watch from afar, or I get involved.”

The Mexican diaspora, especially from Michoacan, is increasingly playing an integral role in raising money, via charities or through social media, to support the citizen militia movement spreading over the lowlands of western Michoacan known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, to more than 20 towns.

The movement is spreading so quickly that this past week a new, government-appointed commissioner for Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, warned groups to refrain from conducting any operation without the presence of federal authorities — a sign of the uneasy relationship between the government and the community groups.

“We will not stop until we clean Michoacan of the criminal elements that have held our state hostage,” said Estanislao Beltran, one the self-defense leaders. Beltran, like many others in the movement, spent years in the United States, in his case El Paso, Texas, and retains strong ties to migrant groups in Texas, California and Illinois.

Taking a page from Irish Americans and other immigrant groups seeking to help their homeland, Mexican immigrants are united in their frustration against the government’s inability to protect their families back home from the Knights Templar cartel.

Many have had to send sweat-earned dollars to help families forced to pay ransom to cartel kidnappers, or have heard stories of relatives raped or killed, and now they are spurred to act.

“The solidarity of these migrants with their communities is not just a question of honor, but also one of responsibility,” said Primitivo Rodriguez, a native of Ixtlan, Michoacan, and head of the Mexico City-based Coalition for the Political Rights of Migrants Abroad.

It is unclear how much money is involved. Estimates have ranged as high as a $250,000 raised, but Mexican military officials and some immigrant groups say those estimates are exaggerated.

Felipe Reyes of the Michoacan club in Houston said the movement back home is too young and chaotic and the dynamics on the ground are changing too rapidly to generate solid backing at this point.

“Yes, we’re moved,” he said. “But who can you trust? Many of us haven’t been back in years, precisely because of the security problems, so we’re out of the loop.”

Others question whether some of the self-defense groups could have ties with a rival drug-trafficking organization known as Nueva Generation Jalisco.

Many see the Jalisco criminal group as vying for dominance, especially after the capture last week of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, by driving out the Knights Templar with the help of the self-defense movement.

There have been questions about the self-defense groups’ financing and their use of high-powered weapons, normally legally off-limits to anyone in Mexico except the military.

A photograph of Castillo, the commissioner, at a meeting with vigilantes included a man the government identified as a major drug trafficker still wanted to face charges. Castillo has said he didn’t know the man.

Other leaders are warning immigrants to use caution in sending money, warning that con artists are too common.

“The support from abroad has been overwhelming,” said a leader known as Beto, or Comandante Cinco, the top commander in the region of the city Apatzingan.

“That’s why we are urging our paisanos to send their support through family members and have them deliver the aid to our accountants throughout Michoacan.”

Many immigrants, he said, are writing checks in the name of militia leaders, “and there’s the risk that everyone will call themselves a leader. We have to make sure there is accountability, and the best way to ensure that is through family members.”

Comandante Cinco vehemently denied that the self-defense groups have any ties to criminal organizations.

“Look, we’re not Boy Scouts with squeaky clean pasts, that’s for sure,” he said. “But our cause is legitimate and right.”

Comandante Cinco, who said he once owned a restaurant in Oakland and lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said help from abroad is crucial. He said the movement has about $100,000 in weekly expenses, and that money is coming from everywhere, including citrus growers, mining companies, businesses on both sides of the border, migrants and “ordinary people fed up with living like slaves.”

Beltran added: “This is healthy movement for the liberation of our communities.” He urged migrants to help out “in whatever way they can.”

Michoacan has been sending immigrants north for decades.

Some, recently deported by U.S. immigration authorities, see their work with self-defense groups as a source of income.

Others see it as a noble cause.

The movement includes housewives, grandmothers and businessmen who don’t even know how to fire a gun.

Aroldo Mendoza Ortiz, a pharmacist with family in Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas, Texas, joked that he walks slowly, worried that his gun, tucked in his pants, will go off by accident.

“We’re not trained gunmen,” he said. “We’re just tired of the security situation and trying to fix it the only way we know how.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Unusual Joint U.S.-Mexican Effort Nabs World’s Most-Wanted Drug Lord

Unusual Joint U.S.-Mexican Effort Nabs World’s Most-Wanted Drug Lord

By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The operation that led to the capture of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman was an unusual joint effort carried out by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials who were down to the wire in a manhunt for the world’s most-wanted drug capo, according to a top U.S. law enforcement official.

Guzman, head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, and an associate were captured at 6:40 a.m. Saturday in a modest yellow-and-white beachfront hotel in the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan in Mexico. No shots were fired.

The weeks-long operation that led to his capture involved agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Department, as well as U.S. marshals.

The top U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Americans were given less than a month to work closely and on the ground with the Mexican navy to capture the longtime fugitive, whose empire stretched from the streets in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, throughout North America and to Europe, West Africa, Asia and Australia.

“The Mexican government gave us a set time, and we were right down to the wire in fact, down to the last day,” said the U.S. official. “This couldn’t have been more dramatic, but the arrest was a credit to our long working relationship with Mexican marines, who led the operation.”

In Mexico City, President Enrique Pena Nieto confirmed the capture via his Twitter account, and Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam lauded the work of Mexican authorities, particularly marine commandos. He credited U.S. intelligence for assisting but did not elaborate.

Asked whether U.S. law enforcement officials had assisted on the ground in Mazatlan, a Mexican official said only, “This was a Mexican operation.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Department of Justice had placed a $5 million bounty on Guzman’s head, called the capture a “landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.” He said the U.S. government “salutes the government of Mexico, and the professionalism and courage of the Mexican authorities, for this arrest.”

Guzman’s arrest, which captivated Mexicans in Ciudad Juarez and throughout the country, was likened to the killing of Osama bin Laden. “El Chapo Captured!” screamed the headline of an afternoon newspaper in Ciudad Juarez.

The capture is seen as a major boost for Pena Nieto, who has been criticized for focusing more on the economy than security concerns. It should also lay to rest, for now, questions about his willingness to cooperate with U.S. authorities, an issue that has dogged his administration during the 14 months of his presidency.

The arrest is considered bigger than the capture last July of Miguel Angel Trevino, known as “40,” the leader of the Zetas paramilitary group, the organization known for its brutality and for its campaign of kidnapping and extortion along the Texas-Mexico border.

“Chapo’s arrest is a major coup, probably more symbolic than substantive. The trafficking networks will recompose themselves, but the symbolic impact of getting Osama bin Guzman is enormous,” said John Bailey, a longtime Mexico observer at Georgetown University and author of Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap. “It shows that the U.S.-Mexico cooperation is effective and continuing under Pena Nieto.”

In the weeks-long operation led by Mexican marines, several top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel were captured in their home base of Culiacan, Sinaloa. One of the arrests took place in the home of Guzman’s former wife.

Murillo Karam said Saturday that Guzman escaped capture by two minutes when marine commandos were delayed by steel reinforcement that allowed him to escape through one of several tunnels at a location in Culiacan. Guzman then fled by car to Mazatlan.

The U.S. official said authorities had received “solid information” that Guzman and another top Sinaloa leader, Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, had held a recent meeting in Culiacan and that the authorities had also come “very close to capturing Mayo.”

“We were going after both of them,” the official said, adding that the authorities had learned of a rift between the two men.

U.S. authorities cautioned that the arrest of Guzman does not put an end to the Sinaloa cartel. Guzman was more of a figurehead than the dominant leader, they said.

The real power now lies with Zambada, whose key bodyguards were among those arrested last week. One official suggested that Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, known as “El Azul,” would find a “way to keep the organization going, but in a more quiet, less violent way.”

“This is a big, huge hit, but not the end of the Sinaloa cartel,” the official said.

The Sinaloa cartel, also known as the Federation, is considered the godfather of Mexican drug cartels, going back to the days of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the architect of the organization and the man who groomed Guzman from a young age, beginning in the 1980s.

The Sinaloa cartel grew into the wealthiest and most powerful cartel, one whose riches have corrupted generations of Mexican politicians and compromised its justice system.

The organization has smuggled billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States and has waged brutal wars with other Mexican gangs over turf and drug-trafficking routes, particularly in Ciudad Juarez, which connects to major markets in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and beyond.

More than 11,000 people have been killed in recent years in Ciudad Juarez alone, the result of a war waged between Guzman’s loyalists and allies-turned-rivals in the Juarez cartel.

In recent months, the violence has fallen dramatically, but fears rose Saturday that the power vacuum left by Guzman’s capture would spark renewed bloodshed as Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, seeks to reassert control.

More than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in cartel violence since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon confronted the cartels.

“A big blow,” Calderon tweeted Saturday, congratulating his successor.

A U.S. investigator and expert on the Sinaloa cartel said: “Long-term, this is a big victory for Pena Nieto, and it will help build credibility for his administration and hopefully security and prosperity for the country. In the short term, you can expect much uncertainty.”

The U.S. law enforcement official concurred.

“Chapo has a grip on every key plaza in Mexico, the United States and Europe,” the official said. “There will be a domino effect.”

AFP Photo/Ronaldo Schemidt