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Archive for Monday, August 17, 2009

Mexican cartels go from drugs to full-scale mafias

August 17, 2009

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Mexico replaces all customs inspectors

Mexico City (ap) — Mexico has replaced all 700 of its customs inspectors with agents newly trained to detect contraband, from guns and drugs to TVs and other big-ticket appliances smuggled to avoid import duties.

The shake-up — part of a broader effort to root out corruption and improve vigilance at Mexican ports with new technology — doubled the size of Mexico’s customs inspection force.

The inspectors at all 49 of Mexico’s customs points were replaced with 1,400 better-educated agents who have undergone background checks and months of training, Tax Administration Service spokesman Pedro Canabal said Sunday.

He said the inspectors were not fired. Instead, government did not rehire them when their contracts expired, Canabal said.

The main focus of the overhaul is to combat tax evasion, although Mexico is also trying to seize more guns smuggled in from the United States and elsewhere that end up in the hands of ruthless drug gangs. Mexican cartels are responsible for the majority of cocaine smuggled from South America to the United States.

Canabal said the government hopes to improve its tax collection with the new system, noting that more than 40 percent of Mexico’s value-added tax is collected at customs. However, he said the main benefit will be stopping the flood of pirated and cheap goods that he said undermine Mexican industries.

— Shopkeepers in this pine-covered mountain region easily recite the list of “protection” fees they pay to La Familia drug cartel to stay in business: 100 pesos a month for a stall in a street market, 30,000 pesos for an auto dealership or construction-supply firm.

First offense for nonpayment: a severe beating. Those who keep ignoring the fees — or try to charge their own — may pay with their lives.

“Every day you can see the people they have beaten up being taken to the IMSS,” said auto mechanic Jesus Hernandez, motioning to the government-run hospital a few doors from his repair shop.

Mexican drug cartels have morphed into full-scale mafias, running extortion and protection rackets and trafficking everything from people to pirated DVDs. As once-lucrative cocaine profits have fallen and U.S. and Mexican authorities crack down on all drug trafficking to the U.S., gangs are branching into new ventures — some easier and more profitable than drugs.

The expansion has major implications as President Felipe Calderon continues his 2 1/2-year-old drug war, which has killed more than 11,000 people and turned formerly tranquil rural towns such as Ciudad Hidalgo into major battlefronts.

Organized crime is seeping into Mexican society in ways not seen before, making it ever more difficult to combat. Besides controlling businesses, cartels provide jobs and social services where government has failed.

“Today, the traffickers have big companies, education, careers,” said Congresswoman Yudit del Rincon of Sinaloa state, which has long been controlled by the cartel of the same name. “They’re businessman of the year, they even head up social causes and charitable foundations.”

Local officials say they do not have the manpower to investigate cartel rackets and refer such cases to the state, which hands them over to overloaded federal agents because organized crime is a federal offense. A federal police report released in April notes that often no one confronts the cartels, “not the police, because in many cases there is probably corruption, and not the public, because they live in terror.”

After media reports questioned whether Mexico was becoming a failed state, Calderon insisted to The Associated Press in February that his country is in the hands of Mexican authorities.

“Even me, as president, I can visit any single point of the territory,” he said. He has since sent 5,500 extra military and police officers to fight drug lords in Michoacan — his home state.

But in Ciudad Hidalgo and neighboring Zitacuaro, mayors have been jailed and charged with working for La Familia cartel, which controls swaths of central and western Mexico. Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators with low tires and chrome rims patrol the streets of Zitacuaro, even as trucks of army troops roll past.

In the Michoacan mountain town of Arteaga, La Familia boss Servando Gomez Martinez is revered for giving townspeople money for food, clothing and even medical care.

“It’s almost like Chicago, when Al Capone ruled everything,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement official who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “They control everything from the shoeshine boy to the taxi driver.”

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