Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mexico's Drug Cartels

"Plata o plomo" ("silver or lead"), is an expression meaning bribery or violence. Mexico's cartels have coalesced around the two most powerful, the Sinaloa and the Los Zetas, who tend to operate at opposite ends of that spectrum. They use the same set of tools, but they use them to different degrees.

The Sinaloa leaders have been in "business" for decades, tend to take a more patient approach to things, and generally aim to own officials and politicians. Not that they aren't capable of ruthless brutality, it's just not usually their preferred Plan A. Like intelligence organizations, they often bribe low-level officials and then facilitate their promotions. Sinaloa has formed very long-term relationships with many police and military officers, politicians, journalists and judges on both sides of the border, paying some of them millions of dollars per year.

Sinaloa head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is an almost mythical figure who has been a fugitive for over thirty years. Having bought a great deal of goodwill, he is revered, even, among Mexico's poor. He was arrested in 1993, continued to run his empire from a very comfortable prison situation, and "escaped" when it looked like he might be extradited to the US. Since then, both Mexico and the US have been "unable" to locate him.

The Los Zetas cartel was more recently formed by Mexican special operations soldiers, who have stolen and bought military weapons and know how to use them. It tends to apply a violent solution to any problem first. They bribe people, but find that it is faster, cheaper and easier to intimidate or eliminate them. Even those whom they choose to bribe tend not to stay on their payroll for years.

As a general rule, when you think 'corruption', think Sinaloa. When you think 'piles of heads dumped in a public square', think Los Zetas.

Mexican officials are under a great deal of pressure to "do something" as their presidential election approaches, and US officials as the "Fast and Furious" scandal gets ever dirtier. Stay tuned for exciting developments.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Biography of the Day: Tim Sullivan

‎"Big Tim" Sullivan, 1862-1913, was a New York state senator who controlled virtually all jobs and vice in lower Manhattan.

He was born to Irish immigrant parents. His father, a Union Civil War veteran, died young of Typhus. His mother remarried an alcoholic laborer.

At eight, Sullivan was shining shoes and selling newspapers. By his mid-twenties, he owned six saloons, with additional business interests in theaters, boxing and horse racing.

He married a childhood friend, Helen Fitzgerald, about whom little is known. Associates said that he never spoke of her, and that they were "wise enough not to ask".

He rose to political power during the heyday of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party machine infamous for patronage and graft. His electoral base was New York City's poor, among whom he was extremely popular. He sponsored picnics and steamboat excursions for tenement dwellers in the summer, and had food, coal and shoes distributed in the winter. He aligned himself with the women's rights movement and legislated humane treatment for cart horses. Despite his emphatic denials, his involvement in prostitution, gambling, extortion, organized crime and street gangs was widely known. New York's strict gun control laws began with the Sullivan Act, which he enacted in order to disarm rival gangs as he politically protected his own. He became known as "The Tammany Tiger" as spectacular ethnic gang violence flourished, and he further expanded his power by incorporating Italian and Jewish gangs into his predominantly Irish organization. Rivals took to sewing their pockets shut so that the corrupt NYPD couldn’t plant firearms on them. Many gangsters stashed their weapons inside their girlfriends’ “bird cages”, wire-mesh fashion contraptions around which women wound their hair. Ordinary citizens were disarmed, which solved the problem of victims defending themselves. The FBI finally got involved and was able to put a lid on things in the 1950's.

Suffering from tertiary syphilis, Sullivan slowly went mad and was committed to a sanitarium. He escaped, and his dismembered body was found on a train track. His family did not report him missing, and his body was unidentified for two weeks despite his fine clothes and monogrammed diamond cufflinks, prompting speculation of foul play.

His estate was valued at more than two million, a huge fortune in 1913.
Sullivan had one child with his wife Helen, a daughter who died in infancy. He did, however, father at least six illegitimate children, mostly with actresses.