Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Exclusive: Video offers brutal glimpse of cartel

Exclusive: Video offers brutal glimpse of cartel
Execution raises questions about tangle of corruption

10:02 PM CST on Wednesday, November 30, 2005
By Alfredo Corchado and Lennox Samuels / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY – The four men sit bruised, bloody and bound on the floor before a curtain of black garbage bags. Prodded by an unseen interrogator, they coolly describe how they enforce the rule of Mexico's Gulf cartel: Enemies are kidnapped, tortured and shot in the head, their bodies burned to ashes.

Among those killed, the men say in a video sent to The Dallas Morning News, were a radio reporter who "didn't want to work anymore" for their cartel and a chamber of commerce leader who called too loudly for federal help against the drug gangs. "Break him because he is causing controversy," was the order from his cartel boss, says one of the men.

After six minutes of such confessions, a 9 mm pistol held by a black-gloved hand enters the picture and fires a bullet into the head of one of the self-proclaimed killers.

After unseen interrogators question the men, the video ends when a pistol enters the frame and shoots this man in the head. Authorities on both sides of the border said the interrogation video appears genuine, offering a rare and extraordinary look into the Gulf cartel's inner workings and its well-armed allies, known as the Zetas. They also said the crude home movie raises unsettling questions about the cartels' possible reach into Mexico's government, military and media – though a government spokesman said that impression could be misleading.

For instance, the suspected Zeta members said on the video that they are collaborating with some Mexican law-enforcement officials. Two of the captives say they are former soldiers, trying to recruit military colleagues, federal agents and others to work for the cartel.

The video never reveals the interrogators or the identity of the gunman. But experts who reviewed the video say they believe some of them were with the military, perhaps hired by a vengeful private citizen whose relatives were harmed by the Gulf cartel.
Exclusive: Video offers brutal glimpse of cartel
Taped killing a 'way to bloody waters'
Transcript of interrogation

Excerpts of interrogation
"All four guys appeared to work for the Zetas. All were executioners whose duties involved recruiting from the military, AFI [Mexico's version of the FBI] and gangs for the Zetas," said a law enforcement investigator who has seen the video. "This is probably the most graphic and telling look into how these guys operate. They are ruthless, cold-blooded and sinister."

A senior official in Mexico's intelligence service, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the video "essentially confirmed some of our worst concerns. Corruption is endemic, as is the collusion between organized crime and regular residents."

Asked how credible the video is, another law enforcement investigator said: "Credible 100 percent. A guy gets his brains blown. You can't make that [expletive] up."

Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, head of the anti-organized crime division of the Mexican attorney general's office, said the video is being investigated, but he disputed the captive men's allegations that high-ranking law enforcement officials were cooperating with drug gang leaders.

Authorities don't doubt the authenticity of the video, but its source is unknown. He said he believes their statements were coerced. "When you look at the video, the men, after answering a question, constantly look to someone for approval. They were tortured, we believe, precisely so they could make certain statements," he said.

He called it a "counterintelligence strategy" by a rival cartel "aimed at turning the federal government against the Zetas in even greater ways since we're already going after them."

Mexican officials say that more than half of the original Zetas – mostly former military commandos – have been arrested or killed, but the gang still has cells scattered around the country, engaged in a savage war for supremacy in the drug trade.

Source unknown
Though investigators expressed no doubts about the authenticity of the video, none claimed to know its source or how the men were captured. Investigators say it may have been made by rivals of the Zetas to intimidate them.

Mexican authorities said they received a DVD containing the video in June. U.S. officials declined to discuss the disc in any detail. Some said they didn't even want to see the video because it could force their agencies to confront awkward questions of governmental corruption.

Sometime after federal authorities got a copy of the DVD, The Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash., received a disc in the mail, with no explanation and no return address. The Sun forwarded a copy to The Dallas Morning News because the men on the video referred to the killing of a Mexican journalist written about by The News.

Guadalupe "Lupita" García Escamilla was gunned down April 5 in Nuevo Laredo. On the video, one of the captives says she had been on the Gulf cartel's payroll, apparently to keep a lid on news unfavorable to the cartels.

Lupita García Escamilla "She didn't want to work anymore, and to make sure she didn't talk, the order was given to kill her," says one of the handcuffed men.

In October, The News profiled Ms. García and quoted law enforcement officials saying they suspected that the radio reporter was helping drug traffickers, was responsible for managing cartel-related news to keep stories from gaining national attention, and had been executed by one of the cartels.

The senior Mexican intelligence official said the DVD "gives you a sense of the sophistication of how these guys work, how sensitive they are to publicity, and how they want to control the news."

Ms. García's mother, Beatriz Escamilla, who had insisted her daughter was not tainted, reacted with shock and dismay when told about the DVD. She said she would like to watch it.

"You hear so much from outsiders about my daughter's alleged involvement that now, with this video, I'm beginning to have doubts," she said. "We hear it, but we don't want to believe it."

In the video, which is time-stamped May 16, the suspected Zetas also discuss a killing that hadn't happened yet – the June 8 assassination of Nuevo Laredo's chamber of commerce president.

At the time, Alejandro Domínguez was head of Nuevo Laredo's CANACO, or chamber of commerce, and was calling for a strong federal presence in the city.

Mexican law enforcement officials say the Peña referred to on the video is Zeferino Peña Cuellar, a ranking Gulf cartel member.

"Peña is going to put us on the CANACO guy to break him because he is causing controversy and calling for the presence of the army, the AFI and other institutions," says a man calling himself Fernando Cruz Martínez. The man, whose identity could not be verified, says he had been in the Mexican army eight years.

Mr. Domínguez became Nuevo Laredo's police chief June 8 and served just hours in the job before being ambushed outside a business office and killed by gunmen who fired three dozen times. Later that week, the administration of President Vicente Fox launched Operation Safe Mexico, sending in troops and federal police to take over law enforcement in the city.

Alejandro Domínguez
The federal officials removed all of the city's more than 700 police officers on suspicion of corruption. Fewer than half were reinstated.

Brutal business
As the Gulf cartel has battled the Sinaloa cartel for control of the gateway into the $30 billion U.S. drug market, the violence has spilled across the border. On the Mexican side, in Nuevo Laredo, more than 150 people – including some Americans – have died in drug-related violence this year.

The four captives on the DVD indicated that violent death was a routine means of doing business for the cartels' enforcers.

Questioned by an unidentified person off camera, the men casually refer to brutal acts carried out at a "guiso"– a culinary term meaning "stew" or "barbecue" – that has been appropriated for cartel savagery.

One of the men, who identifies himself as Sergio Alberto Ramón Escamilla of Nuevo Laredo, animatedly – almost enthusiastically – describes the process:

"The guiso is when they grab somebody, extract information from him or drugs or money from him, something like that, they take away from him whatever they wanted, whatever he carried that was an offense. After having him tortured he is executed or sent to a ranch or to those places, and there they give him the last shot and throw him into a barrel and burn him with different fuels, like diesel and gasoline."

The News could not verify the man's identity.

Another on the video says he was hired "to pick up people and to kill people because the place [Nuevo Laredo] belongs to the Zetas."

According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the talkative Mr. Escamilla, who appears to be the youngest of the four, was reported missing May 14 by his parents. They told authorities he was arrested by AFI agents and turned over to a drug trafficker called La Barbie, or Edgar Valdés Villareal, said by authorities to be the right-hand man of Joaquín "Chapo" Guzman, reputed head of the Sinaloa cartel.

AFI denied any involvement in the disappearance, according to the paper. Two AFI agents declined to respond to questions in telephone calls from The News.

Alleged corruption
On the video, the captive Mr. Martínez appears to suggest that there was an understanding between the cartel and the country's attorney general's office, which is known by the initials PGR. He makes the reference while talking about a government move against a deputy of reputed Gulf cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas.

Law-enforcement officials on both sides of the border say the Lazcano and Goyo referred to on the video are high-ranking Zetas.

"Lazcano and Goyo are angry with the attorney general because when there was the operation against Fat Man Mata they were not alerted, and they're thinking about breaking him because they are given a fee, see? And they didn't comply with that," Mr. Martínez says.

"Fat Man Mata," also known as José Guadalupe Rivera Hernández or Eugenio Guadalupe Herrera Mata, was arrested April 27 by authorities with the attorney general's office and the Federal Preventative Police, according to the Public Security Ministry. The ministry said the suspect obtained arms for the Zetas and controlled drug retailers in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo.

The senior intelligence official, commenting on the DVD statement, said the cartel members apparently "felt they had paid enough money to the PGR to at least be tipped off, and that didn't happen."

No one in the office is mentioned by name. The attorney general at the time was Rafael Macedo de la Concha, who resigned April 27 and is now a military attaché in the Mexican Embassy in Italy.

Mr. Macedo could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Vasconcelos of the PGR rejected that allegation. "We can say without a doubt that Macedo de la Concha is completely clean. I can affirm that with total and absolute vehemently. He's not involved at all in any act of corruption, as is mentioned on the tape."

"Macedo de la Concha saw the Zetas as traitors, deserters who undermined the prestige of Mexican military. That was one of the main reasons he went after them with so much determination."

Behind the camera
For some Mexican experts, one of the most significant aspects of the video is not what the suspected Zetas say, but who is asking the questions.

Two law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believe the DVD was made – and the four men killed – by current or former members of the Mexican military hired by a prominent member of the Nuevo Laredo community bent on avenging the killing of a close relative by cartel elements.

"The most important factor here is that a civilian hired members of the military to do his dirty work," said a senior Mexican intelligence official. "That's chilling news for the government."

On the disc, the men show signs of being beaten, with bruised and bloodied faces. They are on the floor, apparently beaten and forced to sit in front of the plastic bags, in what looks like the living room of a house. Authorities said the setup is typical of execution sites, with the bags used to contain gore and to transport the men after they have been killed.

The video ends after one of the four captives is executed, but officials said all four men almost certainly were killed. One official said he concluded that military personnel captured and killed the men because of the way they were handcuffed.

Two of the four, who identified themselves as civilians, had their hands bound behind their backs. Two who said they were ex-military had their hands bound in front of them. That would be a standard courtesy that military officers would extend to fellow soldiers, the official said.

For now, the DVD is being investigated by authorities on both sides of the border.

Mr. Vasconcelos said he believes the interrogation was carried out by a cartel competitor whose brother was killed by the Zetas.

"We have several operations under way" to learn more about the video, he said. "We want to know the truth."

News assistant Javier García in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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The DVD arrived by mail in mid-October at the offices of the Kitsap Sun, a daily newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 in Bremerton, Wash. The first three letters of the postmark on the envelope were 782; the remaining letters were blurred. Inside the envelope, addressed to editor Scott Ware with a machine label, were two identical copies of the video of the interrogation and killing.

"We still have no idea why the package was sent to him, and by whom," said Jeff Brody, managing editor of the Kitsap Sun. "One of our employees, a native of Mexico, translated the interrogation. We Googled the name of the murdered radio reporter, found The Dallas Morning News stories and sent a copy of the DVD to reporter Lennox Samuels. We made the original DVDs available to the FBI office in Seattle."


Mexican AG Investigating Homemade DVD
By TRACI CARL, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY - Mexican officials said late Wednesday that they are investigating a homemade DVD purporting to show four drug hitmen for the Gulf Cartel being beaten and interrogated, then one of them being shot in the head.

The DVD, time-stamped May 16, was being analyzed by Mexico's Attorney General's Office, according to an official there who said he wasn't authorized to give his name. He had no further details of the investigation.

Last month, a copy of the DVD was sent anonymously to the Kitsap Sun, a newspaper in Bremerton, Wash. That newspaper forwarded it to The Dallas Morning News, which published a story for Thursday editions on its contents.

According to the News, the DVD shows four men sitting bruised, bloody and bound before a curtain of black garbage bags. Prodded by an unseen interrogator, they describe themselves as hitmen for the Gulf Cartel, detailing how they kidnapped, tortured and killed their enemies, including a radio reporter.

The reporter, Dolores Guadalupe Garcia, worked for a station in the northern state of Nuevo Leon. She died of multiple gunshot wounds in April, and her attackers were never identified.

In addition to crimes already committed, the men discuss what they describe as the planned killing of Alejandro Dominguez, according to the News. Dominguez was gunned down June 8 hours after becoming the police chief of the border city of Nuevo Laredo.

That killing prompted President     Vicente Fox to send more federal troops and agents to the city, which is on the front line of Mexican drug cartels' battle for territory.

On the tape, the News reported, the alleged hitmen claim to be working with Mexican law enforcement. Two of the men say they are former soldiers trying to recruit military colleagues and federal agents to work for the cartel.

After six minutes of confessions, the News reported, a hand in a black glove appears from behind the camera and shoots one of the men in the head with a 9mm pistol. The hand is the only part of the interrogators to appear on-camera.

Jeff Brody, managing editor of the Kitsap Sun, told the News that two identical copies of the DVD were sent to editor Scott Ware in mid-October.

"We still have no idea why the package was sent to him, and by whom," Brody said.

He said the newspaper forwarded the DVD to the News because an Internet search turned up an article the newspaper had written about Garcia's slaying. He said the newspaper also sent the DVDs to the FBI.

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