Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mexican Drug War: Soldiers vs. Soldiers

The most severe blows against the military in the war on drugs have come from former soldiers

by Jorge Carrasco Araizaga, Proceso
translated from the original Spanish by Kristin Bricker

The most offensive casualties the Mexican Army has suffered in the war on drug trafficking aren't the result of confrontations with hitmen. Rather, they're executions carried out by ex-brothers-in-arms, trained by the Mexican National Defense Ministry, who have joined the ranks of organized crime, or by cells protected by high-ranking officials. In less than four months, 21 soldiers have been murdered by those who at one time were "incorruptible."

The Mexican Army's most lethal enemies have come from amongst their own ranks. Concentrated in Los Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf cartel, men who at one time were soldiers are responsible for the most severe attacks against the armed forces in their confrontation with drug trafficking cartels.

In the past three-and-a-half months, the Army's most significant and offensive casualties have occurred in Cancun, Quintana Roo; Chilpancingo, Guerrero; and Monterrey and the surrounding area in Nuevo Leon at the hands of drug traffickers who used to be members of the military or that, according to groups dedicated to drug trafficking, have formed alliances with active military personnel.

Contrary to President Felipe Calderon's discourse about the incorruptibility of Mexican soldiers, the most severe blows against the military have been planned and executed by those who were prepared and specialized, in Mexico as well as abroad, by the National Defense Ministry (Sedena in its Spanish abbreviation).

From October 3, 2008, to February 3, 2009, a total of 21 soldiers, including a retired brigadier general, were executed by Los Zetas cells that arose from the military, and by Beltran Leyva brothers' cells that are linked with military officials.

Of those 21 deaths, eleven were stabbed, eight were decapitated, and two were tortured to death. In contrast to the casualties that occur during confrontations with hitmen, these victims were kidnapped or rounded up and subjugated in front of numerous witnesses.

According to data published by Sedena, prior to Tuesday, February 3, the military had suffered 68 casualties, both active duty and retired military personnel, since operations against drug trafficking began in December 2006. The highest number of victims have been reported in Guerrero, Nuevo Leon, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Tamaulipas.

The military's two most recent casualties occurred in Cancun on February 3. Brigadier General Mauro Enrique Tello Quiñones and his assistant, infantry Lt. Getulio Cesar Roman Zuñiga, were tortured and murdered by a group Sedana identified as Zetas, with the participation of ex-members of the army.

Retired this past January 1, Gen. Tello Quiñones was in charge of the creation of a special anti-narcotics group made up of 100 soldiers which was going to be under the direction of the mayor of Benito Juarez in Cancun, Gregorio Sanchez Martinez.

A native of Coacolman in the mountainous zone of southwest Michoacan, which is dominated by drug trafficking, the mayor who in Cancun is known as "Greg" says that National Defense Secretary Guillermo Galvan Galvan appointed Tellez [sic: Tello] Quiñones.

Civilian Juan Ramirez Sanchez, Greg's nephew, was murdered along with the general and his assistant. [Greg] was questioned regarding his family's alleged ties to organized crime (Proceso 1684).

The Executioner

Tello Quiñones' death was a severe blow to the military. Not only because organized crime murdered a high-ranking soldier, but because between 2007 and 2008 the general was commander of the 21st Military Zone, headquartered in Morelia, where he participated in the anti-drug trafficking Operation Michoacan.

The intellectual author of these crimes was Octavio Almanza Morales, aka "El Gori 4," an ex-soldier who, until his capture on Monday, February 9, was the boss of the Gulf cartel's cell in Cancun.

Upon announcing his detention on February 11, Sedena's second-in-command of operations, Brigadier General Luis Arturo Oliver Cen, confirmed that El Gori 4 belonged to the military, which he joined on May 20, 1997, and was discharged on July 1, 2004.

El Gori 4's brothers Raymundo and Eduardo Almanza Morales, who were also members of the military, were Zetas with him in Cancun. According to Oliver Cen, both managed to escape the operation in which the Gulf cartel cell was detained.

According to the head of the Assistant Attorney General's Office for the Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO), a department of the Federal Attorney General's Office (PGR), Marisela Morales Ibañez, the two ex-soldiers fled to Belize. Neither Sedena nor the PGR indicated what military rank the Almanza Morales brothers earned in the military. El Gori 4 didn't appear in the list of most wanted criminals the PGR has on its website.

The murder of Gen. Tello Quiñones was the first execution undertaken by Almanza Morales, who recently arrived in Cancun to substitute Javier Diaz Ramon, aka "El Java Diaz," as leader of the Zetas. Diaz Ramon was detained by the military this past December 22 in the port of Veracruz.

Octavio Almanza Morales was Sigifredo "El Canicon" Najera Talamantes' deputy in the state of Nuevo Leon. His capture, which resulted from a tip, was important for the military. Sedena identifies him as a co-conspirator in the execution of nine of the eleven soldiers murdered in Monterrey last October.

The casualties occurred between October 17-22, 2008, in acts of extreme cruelty. The military agents were attacked with sharp, pointed objects and wounded in the neck and thorax. Some of the remains were dumped in vacant lots and others stayed at the scene of the crime (Proceso 1669).

The first attack against soldiers in Monterrey, where Operation Safe Nuevo Leon began in December 2007, occurred the night of Tuesday, October 14, in a downtown bar. Three soldiers were stabbed: Eder Missael Diaz Garcia, Roberto Hernandez Santiago, and David Hernandez Martinez.

Four days later, on Saturday, February 18, the cadavers of another three soldiers and an ex-soldier appeared in different places, also stabbed.

The bodies of David Hernandez Aquino and Jose Perez Bautista in a Country La Silla park in the neighboring municipality of Guadalupe. Another one, that of Gerardo Santiago Santiago, was left next to the cantina Los Generales in the Juarez municipality. The fourth victim was Eligio Hernandez Hernandez, an ex-soldier who worked for a private security company. He was stabbed while his hands were handcuffed behind his back.

The next day, Sunday the 19th, another three soldiers turned up dead in the Las Margaritas ejido[1] in the Santiago municipality. Anastasio Hernandez, Claudio Abad Hernandez, and Hector Miguel Melchor Hernandez--who was also a private security company employee--were found with slit throats.

The violent attacks on the military in Monterrey reached a climax on October 22 with three more murders. One of the executed was the Second Sergeant of the 7th Military Zone, German Cruz Lara. According to the autopsy, his body had stab wounds in the thorax and abdomen; blows to the head, chest, shoulders, and knees; and second-degree burns on the arms and forearms, back, and abdomen.

All of these deaths occurred when the commander of the 7th Military Zone, based in Escobedo, Nuevo Leon, was Division General Javier del Real Madallanes. As of December 4, 2008, the general is the Undersecretary of Police Intelligence and Strategy in the Ministry of Public Security, responsible for the federal police's operations against organized crime.

According to Sedena, El Gori 4 participated in all of these executions. El Gori 4 was detained along with six other people as suspects in the murder of the two soldiers in Cancun.

The Decapitated

The viciousness of the murders in Monterrey was just a warning of what would occur later in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, where eight soldiers were decapitated, seven of them while they were still alive, according to the investigation dossier obtained by Proceso.

The first case occurred on December 9, when Sergeant Carlos Alberto Navarrete Moreno was murdered. His head was deposited in a bucket on the monument to the Flags, along one of the busiest streets in the city, with the message: "According to the soldiers, they are combatting organized crime. They are kidnappers. This is going to happen to them because they're whores."

The other victims were soldiers between 21 and 38 years of age assigned to the 35th Military Zone based in Chilpancingo, who were intercepted in different areas of the city--some in front of numerous witnesses--by one or more armed commandos between 8pm on the 20th and the first minutes of December 21.

In total, seven off-duty soldiers were kidnapped: Captain Ervin Hernandez Umaña, Sergeants Juan Humberto Tapia Romero and Ricardo Marcos Chino, Corporals Jose Gonzalez Mentado and Juan Muñoz Morales, as well as soldiers Julian Teresa Cruz and Catarino Martinez Morales.

The following people were murdered along with them: Simon Vences Martinez, who was assistant director of the Judicial Police during the Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu administration[2], and 22-year-old indigenous man Oligario Vazquez Quiroz, native of the Tlacopa municipality, who worked cleaning in the 41st Infantry Battalion in Chilpancingo and was about to be promoted to soldier.

The dossier of the investigation into the murder AP/BRA/SC/02/2725/2008, compiled by the Guerrero Attorney General's Office and obtained by Proceso, establishes the soldiers' cause of death: "hypovolemic shock by external hemorrhaging, produced by the detachment of the cephalic extremity consistent with a wound produced by decapitation."

The forensic report, numbered 352/2008, states that the perpetrators used a "Giggy" saw, a very thin flexible serrated metal cable used by orthopedic surgeons to cut bones during surgery. It notes that, despite being gagged, they didn't die from asphyxia due to the fact that they decapitated them ante mortem.

Their heads were dumped in a mall parking lot near the 35th Military Zone in the south of the city. Their bodies were dropped in two places in the north.

Even though Sedena has not officially blamed these crimes on any particular organization, the military repression after the incident (which the military publicly declared "an offense that that would not go unpunished") has been focused on a Beltran Leyva organization cell in the Costa Grande region, which includes the Zihuatanejo port.

Groups who oppose the [Beltran Leyva] organization have hung "narco-banners"[3] accusing Colonel Victor Manuel Gonzalez Trejo, commander of the 19th Infantry Battalion based in Petatlan, of protecting Petatlan's ex-mayor Rogaciano Alva Alvarez and Reynaldo "El Rey" Zambada, detained this past October.

It was unofficially stated at the end of January that Gonzalez Trejo was replaced by Infantry Colonel Marco Antonio Hernandez Chavez, a soldier promoted last November by Calderon. According to the same source, Gonzalez Trejo is being investigated for the accusations against him.

Colonel Gonzalez Trejo isn't the only soldier in the zone that has been accused of protecting drug traffickers. Lt. Colonel Jose Alfaro Zepeda Soto was mentioned in narco-banners hung on pedestrian bridges and public buildings in the La Union and Petatlan municipalities, also in the Costa Grande and Acapulco, Guerrero; as well as Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan.

Lt. Colonel Zepeda Soto, who is commander of mortar platoon in Zacatula in the La Union municipality, is accused of protecting Jose Angel Pineda Sanchez, aka "El Calentano."

The narco-messages, addressed to the head of Sedena, claim that Zepeda Soto and El Calentano received money from Jaime "El Hummer" Gonzalez Duran, one of the founders and leaders of Los Zetas detained in early November 2008 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. The payment, they alleged, was in exchange for protection of the activities of the Gulf cartel's armed wing in Guerrero (Proceso 1678).

El Hummer also belonged to the military. He enlisted on November 15, 1991, and deserted on February 24, 1999, to join fellow ex-soldier Arturo Guzman Decenas and ex-cop Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano, other Zetas founders working for the Gulf cartel.

The Incorruptibles

Despite the fact that the deaths of soldiers in recent months are allegedly linked to the illegal activities of fellow members or ex-members in the military, Felipe Calderon stated on Tuesday, February 10, that Mexico's soldiers are incorruptible.

During the Mexican Air Force Day ceremony held in Tecamac, Mexico State, after requesting a minute of silence for the murder of Gen. Tello Quiñones in Cancun, he ventured: "General Vicente Riva Palacio rightfully said that society guards in its breast an incorruptible seed of morality and a core of men whom neither seduction nor fear can corrupt. That's how I view Mexico's soldiers." He added: "Mexico sees in the members of our institutions a reserve of those values that are the real security of our nation."

Beyond the soldiers murdered by ex-members of the military, there are various cases where soldiers have been murdered for their relationships with organized crime. The most recent occurred on Monday, February 9, when an armed commando group entered the prison in Torreon, Coahuila, to kill and then burn with gasoline three kidnappers who just hours prior had been imprisoned.

One of them was Ubaldo Gomez Fuentes, aka "El Uba," a second lieutenant who belonged to the 33rd Infantry Battalion's Military Intelligence Group. He was detained in early January in Coahuila for the kidnapping and murder of Monterrey businessman Rodolfo Alanis.

Ezequiel Flores contributed to this report from Chilpancingo.

Translator's notes:

[1] Ejido is a commonly held piece of land.

[2] Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu was governor of Guerrero from 1987-1993. He was former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari's brother-in-law. He was assassinated on September 28, 1994, amid rumors that he had had various confrontations with Salinas' brother Raul, who allegedly had links to the Colombian Medellin cartel. Raul was convicted and imprisoned for bring the intellectual author of Ruiz Massieu's murder, but was exonerated ten years later.

[3] Narco-banners are banners hung by alleged members of drug trafficking organizations. They tend to criticize police, the military, or government officials of protecting or working with rival criminal organizations.

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