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MADRID – The economic crisis in Spain, with a crippling jobless rate at 26 percent and labor strikes growing violent, has unleashed a brutal turf war between rival Latin American drug cartels. Spain’s rapid economic and social collapse in the second half of 2012 created compelling opportunities for drug cartels from Mexico to “relocate” their operations.
The challenge, however, is that since the 1980s the Colombian drug cartels dominated the multi-billion dollar drug industry in Spain, which is the entry point to the rest of Europe. This conflict between rival Colombian and Mexican drug cartels for domination of Spain is producing an unprecedented “turf” war – precisely at time when Spanish law enforcement agencies on a national and regional level are experiencing crippling budget cutbacks.
Exodus of cartels from Mexico
Mexican drug cartels, whose leadership and organizational structures were decimated by former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s six year campaign, are now confronting the reality that the “war” against them has escalated under Calderon’s successor Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in last December.
Although Peña Nieto campaigned on the promise to “change course” in Mexico’s six-year war on the drug cartels that has claimed more than 60,000 lives, his own strategy promises an escalation, but in a different manner. Peña Nieto has promised that the army will “return to the barracks” and the role of local police forces – easily corrupted and not trained to engage in high-level armed combat—will be limited. Instead, he has announced the creation of a Gendarmerie, an armed force that will operate on a nationwide level.
Last month, France promised to dispatch advisors to assist Mexico in creating and training this elite force.
Mexico’s political class is now debating whether the Gendarmerie will incorporate U.S. drones for strategic attacks on drug cartel leaders along the U.S.-Mexico border region. Mexico has allowed U.S. drones to operate in its territory since the spring of 2011.
That Nieto appointed General Óscar Naranjo, former national chief of Colombia’s police, as his advisor on national security matters – and that he traveled to Colombia last September – sent powerful signals to Mexican cartels that there would be continuity in Mexico’s drug war.
The “Battle for Spain”
That fact makes Spain an appealing place for drug cartels. The “Battle for Spain” began in 2007, when the Sinaloa drug cartel first began to move into Madrid, setting up operations. The most audacious interception occurred late last summer, when Spanish National Police seized hundreds of kilos of cocaine.
The Spanish National Police issued a statement that read in part: "Thanks to the exchange of information with the FBI, one knew that the suspects planned to initiate important shipments of cocaine by ship, hidden in containers with legal, declared cargo. They adopted great measures of security to ensure the success of the operations, and sent various containers without any type of drug. Finally, they sent their first shipment in a boat from Brazil. The container, which was intercepted in late July in the Port of Algeciras, concealed 373 kilos of cocaine."
This spoke as much about Spain’s reliance on the FBI for intelligence, as to the already-established network among Mexico’s drug cartels to use Brazil as their base for operations to Africa and Europe.
Spain’s leading newspaper, El País, estimated that the net profit per shipment -- $1.5 million USD– was to be used to establish headquarters in Madrid. Law enforcement officials believe the Sinaloa cartel had budgeted almost $20 million to buy real estate, vehicles and safe houses to establish their operations.
That was not to be: during the drug bust four top officials of the Sinaloa cartel were arrested August 2012. As the BBC reported, “Jesus Gutierrez Guzman and the three others - named as Rafael Humberto Celaya Valenzuela, Samuel Zazueta Valenzuela and Jesus Gonzalo Palazuelos Soto - are all wanted in America over allegations of drug-trafficking and money-laundering.”
It is the relentless war on drugs against the Mexican drug cartels that cause them to act out of desperation. Spain’s anti-drug czar, Eloy Quirós, who runs the Drugs and Organized Crime Unit (known as Udyco), believes the Mexican drug cartels have set out to “conquer” Spain – and not forge an alliance with Colombian drug organizations already present in the Iberian Peninsula. He points out that, since 2007, Mexican drug cartels have set up operations in the Portuguese ports of Leixoes and Lisbon.
“It is evident that they want to pursue the same strategy that they have implemented in Latin America,” he told El Pais, referring to the vast network that Mexican drug cartels have built in Central America and Brazil in recent years.
With the promise of an intensified – if perhaps less violent – approach to the war on drugs in the coming months in Mexico, Mexican drug organizations are setting their sights on Spain with a renewed sense of urgency. “There is no doubt that the incoming Mexican administration wants to move decisively against the cartels in the first year of Enrique Peña Nieto’s term,” an intelligence officer working for the U.S. in the Mexican capital said in confidence. “Mexico has no choice.”
Spain vulnerable in economic crisis
Mexico’s confidence – and success – bodes ill for Spain. At a time when this nation is in the throes of an existential crisis – several regions have scheduled elections to decide if they want to withdraw from Spain and become independent countries – efforts by Mexican drug cartels to “take over” Spain intensify.
Late last summer, in addressing the National Audience, Spain’s equivalent of Congress, José Ramón Noreña, chief prosecutor of Spain’s Special Anti-Drug Prosecutor’s office warned that, “Obviously, the panorama is disturbing, but I know that the Security Forces are working to prevent this [Mexican drug cartel invasion.”
Some observers see this as wishful thinking. Mexican drug cartels have already used their base in Madrid to shuttle to Rome to establish a working relationship with Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia organization for the joint takeover of the Australian cocaine market.
“Spain is the gateway to Europe for the Mexican drug cartels,” said one official in Rome on condition of anonymity. “But once they are in Europe, they can reach the entire world.”
NAM contributor Louis Nevaer is a New York-based author and economist. His books include New Business Opportunities in Mexico (Quorum Books, 1995), New Business Opportunities in Latin America (Quorum Books, 1996), NAFTA'S Second Decade: Assessing Opportunities in the Mexican and Canadian Markets (South-Western Publishing, 2004).
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