CALI, Colombia—Talk about a tough commute.
The flight—which originated in South America and had been tracked by radar since entering Mexican airspace—touched down at about 4:30 a.m. A task force led by the senior commander of military operations in that state moved out to intercept.
When soldiers worked their way through the traffic jam caused by the plane they were met by a light cavalry force consisting of some 50 vehicles belonging to well-armed, ground-based accomplices who had been waiting for the delivery. The sicarios had also cut down roadside trees and signs to create a makeshift runway for the aircraft. By the time the army showed up, the traffickers already were hustling to offload more than a half ton of cocaine.
In the pitched battle that followed, Mexican troops came under fire from military-grade weapons, including a high-powered .50 caliber sniper rifle. When the firefight was over the general in charge had been hit, his driver killed, and at least two more soldiers wounded. Two suspects were apprehended nearby. A portion of the contraband cargo, the .50 cal, a few other rifles, and two vehicles also were seized. The pilots and other traffickers, along with an unknown quantity of narcotics, apparently escaped.
To make room for more marching powder, the plane had been gutted of all seats save the pilots’. Authorities retrieved 26 individually wrapped packages of cocaine in the raid, altogether weighing some 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds). Given that the average U.S. street price for the drug is about $96 per gram, that makes the captured haul worth some $57,600,000 dollars.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a rather laconic statement later that day about the “confrontation,” confirming that the raid was indeed led by General José Luis Vásquez Araiza, who heads up the 34th military zone, and that “unfortunately they shot him.”
Quintana Roo Governor Carlos Joaquín González took to Twitter to offer his condolences to the soldiers and their families and to praise their “hard work and courage ensuring the security of Quintana Roo.”
Boilerplate rhetoric aside, security in Quintana Roo is in relatively short supply of late, as cartels carry out turf wars in areas once safe for tourists. The Associated Press reported six people were killed in drug-related violence over the weekend in the popular beach town of Cancún, farther north on the same highway where the plane landed.
This once placid region in southeast Mexico, near the border with Belize, is now part of a major smuggling corridor, which led to Quintana Roo’s murder rate nearly tripling in 2018. Though homicide rates fell slightly in 2019, decapitated and dismembered victims still draw unwelcome attention from the press, stoking fears that the steady stream of foreign visitors, so crucial to the local economy, might be scared away.
The image of a drug plane blocking traffic on a national highway in broad daylight has drawn eyeballs throughout the hemisphere. But the incident also highlights just how bold and fearless the cartels have become.
Most cocaine that enters the United States from South America makes a stopover in Mexico. It comes by land, sea, and air, in shipping containers and submarines and modified planes like the one captured this week. Cocaine production in the Andean nations is soaring, especially in Colombia, which now produces about 70 percent of the global supply.
To enhance their profits, Mexican cartels have recently taken to importing raw coca paste and refining it in their own country, so as not to have to pay middlemen to cook it on site. As heroin and marijuana have steadily declined in value, thanks to synthetic opioids and legalization respectively, cocaine remains a more stable and valuable commodity—making the cartels “desperate” to obtain it, according to Robert Bunker, a security analyst with the U.S. Army War College.
What Bunker describes as “the cartels’ increasing brazenness” is also fueled by their growing power, it seems, to get away with just about anything, including colluding with senior Mexican officials. In the last month, U.S. prosecutors have charged two high-level Mexican national police officers with taking millions in bribes.
“They have become so used to operating with such high levels of impunity that this is becoming the new standard of their activities,” Bunker told The Daily Beast.
In reference to the airborne smuggling episode in Quintana Roo, a high-ranking source within one of Mexico’s cartels (who requested anonymity for security reasons) described the operation as daring to the point of being foolhardy.
“I am surprised that a group with access to a plane and that amount of cocaine would land on a road instead of a more secure location,” the source said. He also said the tactics were “sloppy” and suggested the lack of “lookouts” and “exit routes” indicated the traffickers might be too cocky for their own good.
“There should have been blockades ready in case they were under surveillance,” he said.
Bunker said one of the more likely culprits behind the highway-as-tarmac plot is the Jalisco New Generation Cartel [CJNG]. Now one of the nation’s most powerful crime groups, the CJNG has been encroaching on Quintana Roo for the last few years, driving the surge in violence there.
Bunker also said the presence of a .50 caliber rifle and other assault weapons is in line with the CJNG’s paramilitary profile. Additionally, one of the two men arrested at the scene was a Jalisco native.
“The cartel unit was more than willing to go toe-to-toe with the Mexican armed forces in a tactical engagement,” said Bunker. That’s also in line with CJNG’s aggressive behavior, as the cartel has also shot down army helicopters and attacked military convoys in the past.
Quintana Roo isn’t the only tourist hotspot suffering from new and unusually high levels of violence in Mexico. Once the playground of Hollywood elites, Acapulco is now among the most dangerous cities in the Americas. Tijuana, on the border with California, was the site of a record-breaking 2,518 murders in 2018. Even Mexico City, long thought to be the safe-zone free from organized crime, has been rocked by gun battles among armed groups. Murders in Mexico reached an all-time high last year, with more than 35,500 victims.
Part of the spike in killings is due to the cartel world fragmenting, meaning no one group can maintain order and hegemony—what Bunker calls a “Pax Mafiosa”—over its territory.
Up until a few years ago, places like Quintana Roo had been relatively exempt from narco violence because government officials and powerful business owners—including wealthy investors from within established criminal organizations—wanted to keep the tourist dollars rolling in.
But today’s new breed of next-gen narcos like the CJNG have shown themselves all too willing to challenge that hierarchy. In Quintana Roo, the move of CJNG into tourist safe havens “is slowly changing the ‘off-limits’ rules that once existed,” Bunker said.
“These groups do not fear kicking over the old economic interests in Mexico or the power structure that exists behind them.”
The cartel insider agreed that the security situation in places like Quintana Roo could continue to worsen.
“The narcos are getting bolder,” he said, “and it isn’t going to get better.”