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Mexican Drug War

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But the future of the business may be methamphetamine. During the 1990s, when the market for meth exploded in the United States, new regulations made it more difficult to manufacture large quantities of the drug in this country. This presented an opportunity that the Sinaloa quickly exploited. According to Anabel Hernández, author of “Los Señores del Narco,” a book about the cartel, it was one of Chapo’s deputies, a trafficker named Ignacio (Nacho) Coronel, who first spotted the massive potential of methamphetamine. “Nacho was like Steve Jobs,” Hernández told me. “He saw the future.”

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Two years ago, Antonio Pena Arguelles was handling millions in drug money and working as the intermediary between the violent Zetas cartel and senior Mexican politicians. On Tuesday, U.S. authorities seized him at his suburban San Antonio home, where Pena was allegedly hiding from his former employers. What brought him there, however, involves a story of betrayal, deceit and the assassination of a Mexican political candidate by unknown gunmen that would lead the Zetas to want to kill him.

According to court documents obtained by the San Antonio Express-News, Pena began his criminal career largely on the U.S. side of the border: receiving drug money from Texas border cities and wiring the funds between banks in Mexico, Texas and California. He is believed to have built up a small fortune: millions in a Swiss bank account and millions more tied up in ranch properties in Mexico. One ranch Pena owned near the border city of Nuevo Laredo allegedly acted as a conduit for moving drugs, allowing the Zetas to bypass federal police officers encamped nearby.

From the ranch, Pena’s contacts branched out to allegedly include a sitting Mexican governor and the former mayor of Nuevo Laredo. He was the “go-between” between the narco underground and the professional class, and navigated “circles with politicans and business leaders.” In 2008, Pena allegedly met up with Yarrington Ruvalcaba, a former governor (now under investigation by Mexican authorities) to discuss a “financial dispute” with the Zetas’ second-in-command.

It was the killing of gubernatorial candidate Torre Cantu in June 2010, however, that turned Pena into a wanted man by his own cartel. By then, the Zetas had split with their former allies the Gulf Cartel. Their mutual stomping ground — the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas — was descending into war. Cantu was the state’s front-runner one of the early casualties. While traveling to a campaign event, a group of gunmen attacked his convoy, killing the candidate and six others.

According to the Express-News, Pena and his brother Alfonso were given $5 million to bribe Cantu, but the candidate never received the money. Rather, Pena and his brother stole it. Cantu was killed — by whom exactly, it’s not known — and the Zetas were none the wiser.

It wasn’t until the next year when the Zetas discovered what happened: they had been double-crossed.

In November, the Zetas kidnapped Alfonso, killed him and displayed his body in pubic alongside a “narco-banner.” The banner accused Pena of orchestrating the assassination. Pena also received a text message from Miguel Trevino Morales, second-in-command of the Zetas. ”Don’t be an idiot and pay attention to whom you rob from and about that candidate,” Morales texted. The message also said Pena’s brother gave up the location of ranch properties co-owned by Pena and former Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas.

Pena fled back to San Antonio, where he was captured by U.S. authorities. Now 56, he’s charged with money laundering and could face 20 years in prison. His arrest also coincides with the breakup of a major Zetas gun-smuggling ring operating out of San Antonio.

But Pena’s rise and fall also sheds light on how — the debate over “spillover” violence aside — the United States has become an increasing location for cartel operatives on the run. An internal conflict within the Gulf Cartel which began late last year has reportedly caused several lieutenants from the cartel to skip across the border to South Texas.

Because in the U.S., cartel members don’t have to worry so much about being hunted down by the military or their rivals. And if Pena thought San Antonio was safe from assassins sent after him by the Zetas, then this means U.S. citizens probably don’t have that much to worry about either, as it means the reach of Mexico’s cartels have some limitations. Either way, fugitives like Pena make for interesting, if quiet, neighbors.

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How ill are the Mexican drug wars getting? The drug cartels are building their own armored trucks.

Rival drug gangs are playing around with really serious military hardware, including .50 caliber machine guns and grenades. At least some of them figured out an armoring solution for the uptick in firepower: armoring. Chop shops add inch-thick steel plates to a standard truck chassis like that of a Ford F-150. At least 100 of the so-cold “El Monstruo” monster trucks have been discovered by Mexican security officials this spring, with the most recent two found this weekend. (Thanks to Justin Elliott for the tip.)

The Mexican media call these Los Monstruos “tanks,” and not without reason. One discovered in April had room inside for 12 gangsters, with “two turrets on top and six lateral firing ports” built in. Others are cruder, resembling up-armored SUVs that can withstand “rounds from M-16 and AK-47s,” according to one report.

Still, our pal Paul McLeary thinks that’s not quite accurate — not least of which because these are wheeled vehicles, not tracked ones. A Monstruo captured last month looks “more like the down-on-its-luck little cousin of an MRAP or MAT-V than an Abrams or a Leopard,” Paul observes.

Either way, expect to see one of these on, say, season six of Breaking Bad.

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