Mexican President Felipe Calderon is in Washington on Wednesday for an official state visit. His battle against the violent drug cartels is high on the agenda.
Calderon has deployed 45,000 federal troops and police to combat the drug gangs. Yet in the midst of this crackdown, the Sinaloa cartel — the largest, oldest and richest in Mexico — appears to be flourishing.
An NPR News investigation has found strong evidence of collusion between elements of the Mexican army and the Sinaloa cartel in the violent border city of Juarez.
Dozens of interviews with current and former law enforcement agents, organized crime experts, elected representatives, and victims of violence suggest that the Sinaloans depend on bribes to top government officials to help their leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, elude capture, expand his empire and keep his operatives out of jail.
"I work in the police and because of this I know the government is protecting Chapo Guzman. It's hitting all the cartels but Chapo," said Luis Arturo Perez Torres, 25, until recently a federal police officer stationed in a suburb of Mexico City.
Guzman is the world's most wanted drug lord. His home base is the Pacific coastal state of Sinaloa, known as Mexico's "Sicily." It's the premier narco-state, with a long coastline for smuggling cocaine from South America, and rugged mountains to hide cannabis crops.
Manuel Clouthier, a congressman from Sinaloa state and a member of Calderon's political party, is deeply frustrated by his country's drug war. He says drug-related murders average 200 a month in his state.
'We Should Be Tearing It Out By The Roots'
"The Calderon government has been fighting organized crime in many parts of the republic, but has not touched Sinaloa," said Clouthier. "I know this. I'm Sinaloan. My family lives in Sinaloa. It is like we're trimming the branches of a tree, when we should be tearing it out by the roots."
Asked if the government is going soft on the country's biggest drug cartel, Clouthier responds, choosing his words carefully. "I believe that much of the problem of not combating a certain cartel in a certain state has much to do with corruption and lack of will," he said.
On Tuesday, reporters asked a senior White House official, in light of Washington's large package of security aid to Mexico, if Calderon's government is protecting Chapo Guzman. The U.S. is giving $1.3 billion in military and judicial aid to Mexico for its drug war, as Mexican drug cartels are major suppliers to the illicit U.S. narcotics trade.
The Obama administration official said the president has a long-term commitment to Calderon's struggle against the cartels. He mentioned that Mexico has arrested and extradited important cartel figures in recent months.
NPR Analysis Of Arrest Data
In an effort to find out whether federal forces are favoring the Sinaloa cartel, NPR analyzed thousands of news releases on the federal attorney general's website announcing arrests for organized crime, weapons and drug offenses. The information surveyed spanned from the day Calderon assumed the presidency in December 2006 until last week.
NPR created a database and screened the information for every person the government arrested, prosecuted or sentenced who was associated with one of the seven major drug cartels.
The analysis showed that the Mexican government crackdown has not hit the Sinaloans as hard as it has other cartels.
Nationwide, 44 percent of all cartel defendants are with the Zetas and Gulf cartels. Only 12 percent of the defendants are with the Sinaloa cartel. The numbers contradict the Mexican government, which claims it has arrested twice the percentage of Sinaloa gang members.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), a former federal prosecutor who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, was asked to review the NPR analysis.
"I think you've identified an issue of concern," he said. "And that is, why is the Sinaloa doing so much better than the others and why is the Sinaloa cartel been the one that has escaped a lot of the prosecutions compared to the other cartel numbers?"
In response to NPR's findings, the Mexican Interior Secretariat on Tuesday said all drug cartels are being "attacked proportional to their size." A spokesman re-released figures the agency put out three months ago: 72,000 persons have been arrested for drug crimes; of those, 24 percent are members of the Sinaloa cartel, and 27 percent are Gulf cartel and Los Zetas.
A veteran Mexican crime journalist says this figure may include every drug arrest, including street-corner dealers. NPR only counted federal arrest records of named cartel associates.
Calderon Denies Selectively Fighting The Cartels
The growing criticism in Mexico that Calderon is selectively fighting the cartels prompted him to speak out at a press conference in February.
"These accusations are totally unfounded, false. In most cases, it reflects a misunderstanding of the facts, the result of other interests, I want to be clear," he said.
The Mexican president went on to name several Sinaloa crime bosses the government has arrested — the biggest being Vicente "El Mayito" Zambada, son of El Mayo Zambada, a close ally of Guzman's.
NPR's analysis is supported by a Mexican law professor and organized crime expert, Edgardo Buscaglia. He teaches at ITAM, a Mexico City university, and at Columbia University in New York. Buscaglia has done his own analysis of cartel arrests.
"If you look at the main organized crime group in Mexico, that is, the Sinaloan confederation, it has been left relatively untouched," he said.
Senior U.S. officials, who declined to speak on the record for this report, say they believe Calderon is sincere about rooting out corruption in his government and taking down all the drug mafias.
'Extraordinarily Brazen' Drug Cartels
A senior DEA official, speaking on background, said certain cartels are so "extraordinarily brazen, they've demanded the government's attention first."
Los Zetas, for instance, are involved in everything from drugs to extortion to stealing gasoline. La Familia Michoacana beheads its rivals, and has even threatened the president. They are more of a public threat than the Sinaloans — who U.S. law enforcement sources say stick to narcotics and money laundering and try to stay out of the spotlight.
A senior State Department official, also speaking off the record, concurred. "When you have limited capability, there's no doubt that you set priorities and do triage, and that's what we're seeing," she said.
A former U.S. counterintelligence agent who analyzes drug mafia activity in Mexico agreed that Calderon's government may be playing favorites with the Sinaloans, but if that's true it could be a standard law enforcement strategy to attack organized crime syndicates.
"The FBI has the long history of that in breaking the back of Italian crime groups here in the U.S. If you need intel to go after these organizations, you have to go to individuals who are involved in this to begin with. You're not going to get this info from choirboys," said Fred Burton, now an analyst with the Austin-based global intelligence firm Stratfor.
Sinaloa Cartel Excels At Bribing Officials
But does the Sinaloa cartel's reputation for well-placed bribes help keep its members out of jail?
"A cartel cannot flourish at their level without civil and military protection at the highest levels," said Jorge Carrasco, who covers organized crime for the respected Mexican newsmagazine Proceso. The magazine recently put Guzman on the cover with the headline, "The Untouchable."
The Sinaloans are widely regarded as the most sophisticated cartel in transportation, intelligence gathering and bribery.
A few examples:
-- Last year, Proceso reported on how a Sinaloan faction controlled several airports around the country through a network of corrupt federal agents. The faction even had its own hangar at the international airport in Mexico City.
-- Last week, the Mexican newspaper Reforma described how the Sinaloans had thoroughly infiltrated the federal police. The drug gang knew where the cops were being sent next and how many buses would carry them. The newspaper added that a navy investigation uncovered that the Sinaloans controlled eight seaports for cocaine smuggling from South America.
-- A 2007 army intelligence report obtained by The Wall Street Journal and shared with NPR describes how Guzman would visit his marijuana ranch in Sinaloa "in caravans of six vehicles, with the protection of the Mexican army."
-- Jose Gomez Llanos is on the U.S. Treasury's list of foreign narcotics kingpins. He is suspected of being a money launderer for Guzman. He is currently the top federal prosecutor in the state of Tamaulipas.
-- A 2008 corruption scandal implicated the chief of the nation's organized crime unit, Noe Ramirez Mandujano. He was accused of taking $450,000 to tip off the Beltran-Leyva cartel, at the time a powerful member of Guzman's so-called Sinaloa federation. Mafia analysts note that federal law enforcement in December 2009 killed and captured two of the Beltran-Leyva brothers, Arturo and Carlos, respectively, which has weakened their crime syndicate to Guzman's advantage.
U.S. Concern About Mexican Corruption
"Has the Sinaloa infiltrated the Mexican government? Absolutely. Has the Sinaloa infiltrated the Mexican military? Absolutely. Calderon has a very difficult job trying to root out corruption within his own ranks," said McCaul, the Texas congressman. He added that he believes the Mexican president has been quick to rid his administration of corrupt officials.
A senior U.S. government official involved in counterdrug policy in Latin America, who asked that his name not be used, acknowledged that corrupt officials in Calderon's government are a real concern.
"We have to gauge intelligence sharing [with Mexican law enforcement] against how high the cartels have penetrated. Do we endanger our sources? Right now there's great pushback from our intelligence community for greater intelligence sharing," he said.
NPR's analysis found 400 public officials — from local cops to army officers — who have been arrested for working for the drug mafias in the past 3 1/2 years. The pattern is clear: All the cartels infiltrate local and state agencies; but the Sinaloans and their former ally, the Beltran-Leyva organization, were more likely to pay off the military and senior federal officials compared with other cartels, according to the arrest data.
"The Sinaloa has been clearly the winner of all that competition among organized crime groups. And as a result of that, they have gained more economic power, they have been able to corrupt with more frequency and corrupt with more scope. Now you see that Sinaloa is the most powerful criminal group, not just in Mexico, but all over Latin America," said Buscaglia, the law professor and organized crime expert.
How Vast Is The Government's Role?
Buscaglia stops short of saying he thinks it is Calderon's policy to "protect" Guzman, or that the government wants to "help" the drug baron defeat other cartels as a way to restore balance in the underworld and ultimately reduce violence.
Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, El Paso who studies drug trafficking in Mexico, agrees.
"This isn't to say that the president of Mexico has deliberately made a deal with Chapo Guzman," Campbell said. "But people below him may have, and the outcome may be about the same."
Anabel Hernandez is an award-winning investigative reporter who has spent five years researching a book on Guzman. In an interview, she said she is convinced that two successive administrations of the National Action Party have favored the 53-year-old drug lord, ever since he bribed his way out of a maximum-security Mexican federal prison in a laundry truck in 2001.
"When the Sinaloan cartel began to be protected by all the apparatus of the government after 2001, it felt the power for the first time in history to occupy plazas that for dozens of years belonged to other cartels. So you saw them take on the Gulf cartel in Nuevo Laredo [in 2005], and now the Juarez cartel in Juarez," she said.
Hernandez concluded: "My hypothesis, after five years of investigation, is that Joaquin Guzman Loera is the best example of corruption in Mexico."
Forbes magazine recently named Guzman as the second-most-wanted fugitive in the world, after Osama bin Laden. They are both protected by mountains, native cunning and legions of informers.
A former senior DEA official with experience in Mexico, who asked to not be named, said in an interview that Guzman has effectively penetrated every civilian and military force in Mexico.
The former agent said he knows of a Mexican general who once tried to catch the elusive drug lord.
"The general was up against enormous obstacles," he said. "Every time he got close, his own men would tip off Chapo."