Monday, June 14, 2004

The Gifts of a Mexican Drug Lord (

The Gifts of a Mexican Drug Lord (

The Gifts of a Mexican Drug Lord
Jailed Kingpin Courts the Poor With Alms for Children
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page A01

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico -- Four trucks pulled up outside the Casa Hogar Elim orphanage on Children's Day, one of Mexico's most popular holidays. Guadalupe Carmona de Gonzalez, who runs the children's home, said men unloaded thousands of dollars worth of chicken, rice and milk, and boxes of brand-new dolls and toys.

They also brought four big sheet cakes decorated with Winnie the Pooh and the Little Mermaid and a note drawn in icing: "For the children at Casa Hogar, from your friend Osiel Cardenas Guillen."

Carmona said the children squealed in delight. But authorities in Mexico and the United States expressed dismay at the thought of Cardenas, one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers, ordering shipments of goodies from his cell in Mexico's main maximum-security prison.

In at least three other places along the U.S.-Mexico border on Children's Day, April 30, children received truckloads of bicycles, dolls and other toys from Cardenas, who has been incarcerated since his arrest last year in a spectacular shootout between his bodyguards and Mexican soldiers. Cardenas, 37, a former police officer, also sent thousands of dollars for relief supplies to the border city of Piedras Negras in April after floods that killed more than 30 people.

Officials said Mexican drug dealers have long been silent benefactors, building roads and churches and passing out cash or drugs to win support -- or silence -- in the communities where they work. But officials said Cardenas's public donations appear to be the first of their kind.

"Those toys represent the suffering of many people, the destruction of many families," said Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's top organized crime prosecutor.

Officials in both Mexico and the United States say that grass-roots support is a key reason the Mexican cartels continue to operate, despite what U.S. officials call a "golden era" of cooperation between law enforcement agencies in the two countries and a series of high-profile arrests.

Larry Holifield, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Mexico and Central American office, called Mexican trafficking groups "the most powerful in the world" in a recent speech in Panama and estimated their trade at $65 billion a year.

In interviews in three cities on the 225-mile stretch of the border closest to the Gulf of Mexico, the home territory of Cardenas's Gulf Cartel, local officials and citizens said drug traffickers continued to overwhelm law enforcement. Since January 2003, there have been 108 drug-related deaths in this area, from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros, the Gulf Coast city south of Brownsville, Tex. The vast majority of the killings are unsolved, according to the Center for Border Studies and Human Rights in Reynosa.

"We're never going to be as powerful as they are," said Ronaldo Rivas Carrillo, municipal police chief in Valle Hermoso, a city of 60,000 people just south of Matamoros, which also received a truckload of toys from Cardenas.

Rivas said Cardenas's power comes not just from the cartel's superior weapons and collusion with corrupt police and officials, but also from his campaign to win hearts and minds among the poor. Much of the cartel's support comes from young people, who see the cartels as exciting, rich and a ticket out of poverty, Rivas added.

"I compare it to the war in Northern Ireland, where when they tried to find the guerrillas, the little children would go and warn them," he said. "Here it's the same thing. The groups have penetrated very deeply into society, and they are absorbing the youth."

Rivas and other officials said cartels received help from locals, such as shoeshine boys or taxi drivers, who accepted money or drugs in exchange for informing the traffickers about police or army activity. They said others looked the other way, whether out of gratitude or fear.

In Reynosa, residents said a man who left no name or telephone number paid $1,000 in cash to rent a private hall for a Children's Day party. Private buses then took 300 poor children to the hall, where four trucks with no license plates arrived filled with expensive toys.


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