Possible prisoner exchange between the Sinaloa cartel and the Mexican government

There are rumours circulating in Mexico that a politician who was kidnapped last week might be exchanged for a high-ranking member of the country's most poweful drug cartel. 

On May 14th media sources reported the arrest of Ignacio Coronel Villareal also known as Nacho Coronel the night before in Guadalajara. However curiously these could reports have not yet been confirmed or denied by the authorities. Nacho Coronel is the brother in law of the infamous Joaquin Guzman Loera also known as El Chapo (Shorty) who heads the Sinaloa cartel and has been on the run since his escape from prison in 2001. Both Nacho Coronel and El Chapo feature on most wanted lists from the DEA and FBI and they both have $5,000000 rewards for information leading to their arrest.

The day after Nacho Coronel was supposedly detained the former presidential candidate for the ruling PAN party Diego Fernandez de Cevallos disappeared. Even though authorities denied that there is was link with organized crime most in Mexico speculated that he had been kidnapped. Speculation was confirmed the following friday when a “proof of life" photo (above) was sent to El Milenio newspaper, subsequently family sources confirmed that the photo was indeed that of the missing politician. His vehicle had been found near his ranch, in the state of Queretero in the centre of the country, and there were bloodstains inside that were matched to the politician. Fernandez de Cevallos is much more than a former presidential candidate; nicknamed “Diego the boss” he is considered to be one of the important figures in Mexican politics and is the most important member of the ruling elite to have been kidnapped in recent years. 

Another interesting aspect to the case is that on Wednesday 12th of May, the day before Nacho’s arrest, about 200 marines and other security and law enforcement personnel raided orchestrated an operation in Culiacan the capital of the state of Sinaloa in which they arrested the former wife of El Chapo. The operation secured six houses seven luxury cars and boxes of expensive jewellery, all thought to have been bought with the proceeds of organized crime. However by the time news of her arrest had been leaked the following day she had already been released, supposedly by an order of the Mexican president Felipe Calderon.

On Monday 17th in a different part of Mexico armed men fired up to 150 rounds and detonated two fragmentation grenades outside the local headquarters of Televisa the national media channel. A note was left at the scene that made reference to Nacho Coronel and El Chapo. Later that night the news anchor Lopez Doriga announced that Televisa had made the decision to report no more on the case of Fernandez de Cevallos. 

The culmination of the events mentioned has caused rumours to circulate that Fernandez de Cevallos was kidnapped by the Sinaloa cartel in order to negotiate the release of Nacho Coronel. The rumours come amidst allegations by US broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR) that the Mexican government are favouring the Sinaloa cartel. There were also an allegation that a deal has been made and now the military are protecting the Sinaloa cartel. The government quickly denounced the claims however for many Mexicans the idea does not sound inconceivable. In many regions where the military have taken over law enforcement responsibilities the violence has continued and the cartels have been acting with a impunity. In Ciudad Juarez, currently the most dangerous city in the world, residents have complained about the fact that despite the president deploying 7,500 soldiers as well as federal police the killings and kidnappings continued and vehicles with heavily armed cartel members could still roam the city without fear of arrest. The NPR article stated that “everywhere in Juarez, people whisper the story about how the Mexican army and federal police are helping Guzman's gangs of assassins capture the city.”

Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, former investigator for the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission has stated that "the military option was a disaster," and that "instead of coming to lower the level of violence, it was totally ineffective for ending the violence, and those causing the violence seized control of the city." Members of the military have also been accused of crimes such as abuse of authority, theft and extortion. 

The war against the drug cartels would be much simpler if all the authorities could work together. However law enforcement agencies in Mexico are divided into federal, state and local forces and systematic corruption has meant that to a degree these forces have become separate entities with different aims and objectives. Local police forces are often disbanded by federal police who confiscate their weapons and accuse them of having links with the drugs trade. It is deemed that the military are less corrupt than the police so they have been increasingly used in a law enforcement role and there have been cases of shootouts between the military and the police. However recently evidence of links with the military and the drugs trade have been appearing. Last week there was an assassination attempt on a retired military general who had spent time in prison for protecting another powerful drug cartel leader Amado Carillo Fuentes. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro is still in intensive care in a military hospital after being shot outside his residence in the capital. 

A video that was released in April shows a kidnapped Mexican soldier being interrogated in front of a camera and details to what level the drugs cartels have infiltrated the military. The soldier explains how he receives bi-weekly payments to share information with a cartel infamous for their brutality known as the Zetas. He then explains that his superiors get paid more and that they provide the Zetas with military equipment and ammunition. The video highlights how the cartels are able to stay one step ahead of the military because they are given the exact whereabouts of military installations and roadblocks. The Mexican daily newspaper La Reforma also recently published a story detailing the amount of information that Guzman and the Sinaloa cartel have access to, including files from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The web of corruption does not stop at the US border and there have been several cases of members of US law enforcement agencies being involved in the drugs trade. Richard Padilla Cramer a former US anti-drug official was arrested last year for allegedly organizing a cocaine shipment from the US to Spain and selling top secret information to a Mexican drug cartel.

Law enforcement agencies are being corrupted by the different criminal cartels and they are becoming integrated into the fierce turf war for control of the US drugs market. The consequence of not complying with the drug cartels demands is well known to those who are given the repsonsibility of combating the narco-traffickers. Police and to a lesser extent soldiers are often found executed on the side of the road or hanging from bridges, sometimes they have been decapitated. The threat of such extreme violence  leads to a conflict of interest where many are unwilling to do their job properly. An example of this is that after the attack at the police station in Nayarit mentioned earlier in the article only the local police responded even though the usual response in a case involving such high-powered weaponry would involve the federal police and the military. There has also been controversy over a police surveillance recording recently leaked to the press. The footage that was filmed over a period of 90 minutes clearly shows a large group of heavily armed men arriving in the small town of Creel, Chihuahua. However despite the law enforcement authorities witnessing what was taking place there was no attempt by the military or the federal police to confront them. This allowed the armed men to carry on their activities unopposed, in this case shooting seven members of the same family in a house in the small town. 

What do the recent events mean for Mexico? The current situation shows the immense power of the drug cartels and the impossible task of arresting their leaders. If indeed the Fernandez de Cevallos rumour is true it means that the Sinaloa cartel has the ability to kidnap one of the most powerful people in Mexican politics, in a different part of the country, in retaliation to something that happened only a day before. Speaking today in Madrid the famous Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called the dissapperance of the politician more proof of the insecurity in Mexico and that the incapacity of the Mexican government to combat it. Fuentes also said that the government should have more courage to decriminalise drugs, he said that if this does not happen the problem will grow and  Mexico does not have the capacity to confront narco-trafficking by force.

The Fernandez de Cevallos case has huge implications for the state of Mexican politics and the “War on Drugs.” It will serve as a warning from the Sinaloa cartel to all politicians “no one is safe work with us or we will get you.”


Select newsletters to receive