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Is Puebla like Bogotá? The geography of drug trafficking in Mexico

Puebla is like Bogotá thirty years ago. Like Puebla today, Bogotá was full of investors, housing developments and luxury cars. They later realized ... it was drug trafficking. Español.

Fernando Montiel Tiscareño
22 September 2015
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Puebla, Mexico. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In 2010, the most violent year in Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs” (2006-2012), the intelligence consultancy firm Stratfor produced an infographic detailing the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico, dividing the country among groups and painting their areas of influence in different colours.

The map has evolved over time due to government action and alliances and divisions within the groups, so that gangs appear and disappear in its different editions. In its 2010 edition, for example, 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 operating in the country.

But through a number of events such as the extradition of Benjamín Arellano Félix in April 2011; the emergence of the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel (the Mata Zetas) that same year through the discovery of 49 corpses in Boca del Río, Veracruz; the empowerment of self-defense groups in Tierra Caliente, Michoacán late in 2013 early 2014 – and the immediate retreat of the Familia Michoacana and Los Templarios; and, of course, the second arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera in February 2014 and his later escape in July 2015, among many other events, the cartography of Mexico’s tragedy has obviously changed.

In its 2015 edition, Stratfor openly acknowledged that its new geography of drug trafficking in Mexico could now be divided regionally rather than into specific groups; namely, groups managed from the State of Sinaloa, from Tierra Caliente in Michoacán, and from Tamaulipas State.

According to this logic, the country’s northwest would fall under the influence of the first groups, the south and the centre would be controlled by the second, and the rest (northeast, east, and south) at the mercy of the third, with major confrontations arising between them where their interests overlap: ie., in Guerrero (clashes between the second and third groups), in Durango (clashes between the first and third), in Hidalgo (between the second and third) and Guadalajara (where the three fight each other).

As opposed to previous editions which sought to show more precisely the areas of influence of the different groups, the 2015 Stratfor map renounces to give an accurate picture of the disputed zones.

Puebla, the sanctuary

According to Stratfor’s first maps, Puebla especially the northern zone – appears as an area in dispute between organizations operating out of Veracruz (the Golfo cartel during the time of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, before the region fell under the control of the Zetas, its former armed branch) and the different organizations located in Guerrero. But in its latest version, the “in dispute” category disappears and the state is shown as fully integrated in 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 its earlier editions – is the fact that infographics are, so to speak, static simplifications of social processes that are extremely dynamic, obscure and complex. In any case, there is something undeniable about this picture 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 some 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.

This search seemed to contradict the words of Mario Montero, then 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 a number of disputing groups was neither new nor unfounded. It should be recalled, for instance, that in March 2002, it was precisely in Puebla – in “La Escondida” residential development of Camino Real in Cholula – where the Army’s Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFES) arrested Benjamín Arellano Félix.

The place where the 2002 arrest and the 2008 search took place, is the very same place where, in 2014, José Luis Abarca Velázquez – former mayor of Iguala, Guerrero, allegedly the mastermind of the disappearance of the 43 students of the Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa Teachers’ College – bought some properties in the Lomas de Angelópolis housing development.

Based on this logic, it would seem that with regard to drug trafficking, Puebla was not a state like confrontational Tamaulipas, nor a drug-cultivating state like Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango – especially the area, shared among the three, known as the “Golden Triangle”-; nor a transit state like Veracruz or an internationalized state like the Federal District of Mexico City, and Baja California and Coahuila states, but rather a residential and money laundering state. (It should also be recalled that suspicions ran high at the time when the Abarca couple were said to have been arrested in Puebla, echoing another not very different episode when the Navy arrested Sergio Villareal Barragán, then one of the Beltrán family group’s main operators, in September 2010 – this time in the Puerta de Hierro housing development.)

Real estate and money laundering, nothing new

Some time ago, a Colombian citizen pointed out something to me: “Puebla is like Bogotá thirty years ago”. How is that? I asked 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 realize that it was drug trafficking”. This conversation took place seven years ago.

My conversation partner knew what he was talking about. He knew what it was like to live with the multiple facets and time frames of violence: first come opulence, growth, development, and a rich, full, cosmopolitan life; then, decadence and hell. A family member of his had been blackmailed; another had suffered a kidnapping attempt. In the end, he and his relatives abandoned all hope, and left the country. This is how they came to Puebla.

“They need a place to live. It’s not so hard to understand”. This is not my Colombian friend any more, but a sturdy man who speaks naturally about the subject. He is an expert, a life-long security professional. He measures his words: “If the border is where the business is, 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 says with a wicked smile on his face.

But not everyone thinks the same. Whatever my Colombian friend would have said and the security professional would admit, is now being refuted by an automobile dealer: “That’s not the reason. What is 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”. It sounds logical.

But is it really so unbearable to wait for a couple of extra hours to bring a Ferrari from Avenida Masarik in Polanco (an affluent district in Mexico City) that it is worth opening up a dealership in Puebla? Those who come from a wealthy lineage do know their peers. And knowing one of them, it is relatively easy to access information on the others. They are not many, not all of them are buying ultra luxury cars, and when they do so, they are not buying many units. So, if they are not the buyers, who is?

Puebla was not a disputed zone. It could not be therefore a question of local drug dealing or the production and transport of drugs through the state, or even drug buying by the local population. No, it has to do with the unclear origin of the fortunes currently financing luxury real estate developments in Puebla’s capital city. (Why are there so many shopping centres under construction which have been left unfinished for years?) This is about the citizens of Puebla, who are so intoxicated with modernity that they cannot see – let alone ask themselves – who is really running their State.

What about the government? It does not know, and does not want, or cannot, see what is really happening. We encounter here 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 subservience to Puebla’s anonymous masters of capital. There is no lack of rumors that can be overheard in the city: “Puebla is like Bogotá thirty years ago”. Really? “They need a place to live…” Indeed. It is not too hard to understand.

From the countryside to the city

Today, Puebla is suffering from the same process that has happened in other regions of Mexico. The foundations for the abuses were laid in the countryside, then refined, systematized and later expanded until they reached and overtook the city. Only then did the State show its concern and attempted a response - slow, reactive, late. The same thing has happened all over the country.

People’s disappearances in the country’s northeast – Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas; attacks on life and freedom of information such as the assassination of journalists in Veracruz; and slavery – centered in Tlaxcala – make up the chain of horrors that keep Mexico mired in fear and desperation. Today, in the midst of the national disaster, Puebla, which looked like an oasis with little to offer to the tabloids’ crime section, has joined the dynamics.

Ominous events had been happening in the State for some time, announcing what today has become undeniable; events that were neither isolated, nor local, nor coincidental, pointing to deeper problems: the operation of organized crime in rural areas.

The city’s website, municipiospuebla.com.mx, displays a number of news items on the same issues, beginning to draw a picture that is already familiar in Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Zacatecas. The news pieces mention impunity (“Huauchinango’s Public Prosecutor Declines to Charge Detainees for Cattle Theft” -April 8, 2014); public pressure (“Three Charged with Cattle Theft in Huauchinango” (April 14, 2014); 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); organized crime (“Armed Groups Rob Heads of Cattle in Broad Daylight in Mixteca” -August 14, 2014); open violence (“Farmer Assassinated for Investigating Theft of Cattle” -August 21, 2014); inaction by the authorities (“Increase in Bovine Theft Among Cattle Raisers in Sierra Norte” -January 13, 2015); the people’s desperation (“Two Minors About to be Lynched for Robbing Cattle” -March 31, 2015); and reactions that are unnecessarily late and inadequate (“Deputy Proposes Increased Punishment for Cattle Theft in Puebla” -April 2, 2015).

In the Chihuahua countryside, drug traffickers kidnap young men who are then forced to integrate an enslaved work force (“Disappearances in strategic zones” - Newsweek. April 13, 2015). In places such as this, organized crime has not only taken over production – ranches, farms, cattle, in exactly the same way as the Caballeros Templarios in Michoacán were doing in the avocado industry right up to the appearance of the self-defense groups – but also people’s lives. Years ago, Chihuahuans and Michoacanos probably thought that the sporadic violent actions – which would eventually evolve into a holocaust – were due to the random acts of cattle rustlers, bandits and highway robbers. At some point, undoubtedly too late, they realized their mistake.

Welcome to reality

Puebla is (still?) in a denial phase. In any case, reality prevails. The fall of the State’s Secretary of Public Safety, as a result of a fuel trafficking investigation – and together with his fall, that of most of the State security hierarchy – uncovered a sewer that nobody wanted to see.

Things will never be the same. Fear blinds, as does 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. The bullet holes are still there to be seen.

Could it be any different now that motorcades of luxury SUV’s parade through the city, arrogantly threatening pedestrians and other cars? Now that fake “patrol cars” and “traffic” and “police” motorcycles driven by civilians are crisscrossing it?

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

* * *

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

Welcome to reality.

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Translated by Danica Jorden
Danica Jorden is a writer and translator of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. [email protected]

This article was first published by La línea de fuego.

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