The Scourge of Ice in Michoacan
(International Relations and Security Network, 07/12/2006)
Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of in-depth stories on drug smuggling in the Americas. Each piece will focus on a specific city and the surrounding region, beginning with Buenaventura, Colombia and moving north through Central America and Mexico, to conclude with Washington, DC.
The men and women that control narco-trafficking organizations in Mexico are economic actors. They make business decisions based on demand, costs and risk, like any CEO of a Fortune 500 organization. As 2006 comes to a close, it appears the most obvious business decision made by many of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations has been to focus more on supplying the US market with methamphetamine, known as “ice” or “meth” on both sides of the border. There is, however, one exception.
The Mexican state of Michoacan, considered the center of the country’s methamphetamine production, is home to an organization that calls itself “La Familia” [The Family]. Based in Morelia, the state capital, La Familia is a criminal organization formed by men born and raised in Michoacan, and they do not like what methamphetamine is doing to their city and state. The public health effects the drug has on a city are much worse than the degenerative effects of crack-cocaine. Meth is cheap, produces a longer, more intense high than cocaine, and compared to cocaine or heroin, meth is much easier to make.
On 19 August 2005, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced a haul of 55 pounds of methamphetamine at the conclusion of Operation Three Hour Tour. At the time, DEA administrator Karen Tandy claimed the operation had broken up a meth smuggling pipeline between the US and Mexico that supplied the drug to close to 23,000 users a month. It is unlikely that she was referring to Mexican users.
As the production of meth in Mexico has skyrocketed to meet demand in the US, the number of Mexican meth addicts has jumped. While it is difficult to find exact statistics on the number of meth users in Mexico, it is clear that cities along the US border harbor countless numbers of listless addicts.
“There are just as many meth addicts in Nogales, Sonora, as there are in Nogales, Arizona, maybe more,” a Mexican national from Sonora, who asked not to be named, told ISN Security Watch in a recent phone call. “Mexican drug use is a Mexican problem, and meth is obviously the worse of them all,” he added.
Beyond the border, however, Morelia has a serious problem that will not be tackled by the Mexican government but by organized crime.
La Familia is considered one of the heaviest armed and best organized factions loyal to the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s top three drug smuggling organizations. La Familia relies on support from other factions of the Gulf Cartel and repays in kind when requested, but its primary goal is to “clean” and pacify Michoacan.
According to an article written by Mexican security analyst Ricardo Ravelo and published by news and analysis magazine Proceso on 3 December, La Familia has four thousand members throughout Michoacan’s 113 municipalities. Each member earns between US$1,500 -2,000 a month. The organization itself spend some US$1.5 million a month in bribes, has good relations with the state police forces, and only hires individuals born and raised in Michoacan.
The organization’s head of public relations, a man who calls himself "The Uncle," said in a 22 November interview that the current focus of his organization is to pacify Michoacan and remove the scourge of methamphetamine from his state. According to him, meth addicts die within two years of first becoming addicted to the drug.
The Uncle said his organization’s principle targets are “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of what many consider to be Mexico’s most powerful drug smuggling organization, The Sinaloa Federation, and the Beltran-Leyva brothers, three men who work directly under Guzman to control the Sinaloa Federation’s interests in the cities of Culiacan, Sonora and Monterrey.
The Crystal King
Another member of the Sinaloa Federation, Ignacio Coronel Villareal, is known as "The Crystal King" because of his preference to work with the production and distribution of methamphetamine. By the end of 2006, he may have worked himself into a top position within the Sinaloa Federation, running the organization’s methamphetamine operations.
His current network runs from Morelia along Mexico’s Pacific coast in the states of Nayarit, Sinaloa and Sonora. The Crystal King’s principle distribution outlets cross the border at Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona. His string of methamphetamine production labs run from Morelia north to Nogales.
The drug smuggling route that runs along the country’s Pacific coast is heavily used by methamphetamine-dealing organizations. It is likely most of them work directly with the Sinaloa Federation so they may pass through controlled areas in Sinaloa, Nayarit and Sonora with little trouble.
During Operation Baja Kings, run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2003, associates of The Crystal King were captured smuggling some 80 pounds of methamphetamine with over 90 percent purity. It was considered the largest single bust of methamphetamine at the time.
Since 2003, Coronel may have moved from his traditional center of operations in Guadalajara, Jalisco to Morelia according to the Mexican Attorney General’s office. Meanwhile, the US government has announced a US$5 million reward for information leading to Coronel’s arrest. It remains to be seen if La Familia gets to him first.
Long road ahead
If La Familia wants to eradicate the presence of methamphetamine labs in Michoacan, it must focus on the illicit import of ephedrine, the principle precursor chemical for methamphetamine production.
On 6 December, Mexican authorities seized just under 20 tons of precursor chemicals at the Michoacan port of Lazaro Cardenas. This is the largest seizure of precursor chemicals in at least the past six years.
Mexican authorities had received an anonymous phone call that instructed them to search a specific container off loaded from a Chinese vessel.
Such a large haul of precursor chemicals is enough material to make a significant amount of methamphetamine. This seizure alone suggests the presence of massive meth-cooking operations in the mountains of Michoacan.
Authorities commented the chemicals were on route to methamphetamine super labs in the mountains of Michoacan, where they would be cooked into the drug, packaged and shipped north for distribution in the US.
“There is little regulation of precursor chemicals in Mexico,” a Mexican security specialist who spoke on condition of anonymity, told ISN Security Watch. “It is likely that Mexico produces many of the chemicals need for drug production,” he said. “But many of the chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine also come from Asia,” he added.
Drawing the line
Mexican organized crime dictates the country’s involvement in the drug trade. Acting as the middle men between US consumers and Colombian suppliers, Mexican criminals moved beyond growing marijuana and producing a limited amount of opium tar as Colombian organizations fell under the weight of Colombian and US law enforcement. The cocaine trade has generated billions for Mexican criminals, and violence in Mexico’s cities has contributed to a prevailing sense of insecurity in many cities, especially along the northern border and along the Pacific coast.
As methamphetamines become more popular in the US, Mexican super labs will continue to supply the demand. The men and women who run Mexico’s organized criminal factions are economic actors, except, that is, for a small few.
La Familia's recognized strength within the Mexican criminal underworld will certainly lead to more violence as it battles with the Sinaloa Federation to remove the latter’s presence from Michoacan. As 2006 comes to a close, it will be said that this year was more violent than the last. The next may be even more violent, but at least a line has been drawn. Methamphetamine, more than any other drug on the market, destroys lives and the social fabric of any city crowded with meth addicts. Even Mexican criminals can see that.