Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose “Juancho” Leon was summoned by Mexican traffickers for what he was told was business. Instead, dozens of attackers ambushed his entourage with grenades and assault rifles, killing Mr. Leon and 10 others in a brazen demonstration of power.
Mexican drug traffickers are branching out as never before — spreading their tentacles into 47 nations, including the United States, Guatemala and even Colombia, long the heart of the drug trade in Latin America.
The expansion comes amid a military crackdown in Mexico and the arrests of major Colombian suppliers, and poses a new challenge for efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.
In dozens of interviews with officials and specialists in seven countries, the Associated Press found that the Mexican mobs increasingly buy directly from the cocaine-producing Andes and have begun using countries as distant as Argentina to obtain the raw material for methamphetamine. Mexican gangsters have been arrested as far away as Malaysia as they seek new markets for cocaine and “meth” supply sources.
“There are more Mexican drug traffickers in South America today than at any time ever, period,” said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help Colombia dismantle its major cartels but may have actually helped the Mexicans gain traction in South America in the process.
In the past two years, Colombia extradited 14 warlords to the United States on drug-running charges and six major traffickers have been killed or arrested. Mexican emissaries and money are flowing into the country to fill the void.
“The belief is that the Mexicans are trying to get closer to the source of supply and take over the transport,” said Jere Miles, chief of the unit that tracks trade-based money laundering for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mexican traffickers have turned up in many Colombian cities and are working to get cash in the hands of peasants to boost coca production, said Colombian police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo.
“We have evidence of Mexicans sitting in Medellin, sitting in Cali, sitting in Pereira, in Barranquilla,” he told the AP.
In neighboring Peru, the world’s No. 2 cocaine-producing country after Colombia, Mexican traffickers are bribing customs officials at airports and seaports and laundering money by investing in real estate. At least four major Mexican cartels now buy cocaine directly in Peru, said Sonia Medina, chief public prosecutor for drugs and money laundering.
In the past three years, 40 Mexicans have been arrested in Peru on drug-trafficking charges, mostly low-level couriers smuggling 22 to 44 pounds of cocaine in suitcases, said Col. Leonardo Morales of Peru’s anti-narcotics police.
Traffickers rent homes in Lima’s best neighborhoods for weeks at a time. One suspect, Saulo Mauricio Parra Tejada, was arrested there in June after police found four suitcases with 234 pounds of cocaine in his car. A second man with Mr. Parra commandeered a taxi and fled in a shootout with police.
“We presume he was headed for the airport,” Col. Morales said.
Drug-related killings — with the sudden appearance of Mexican cartel-contracted hit men — are also on the upswing. Three Mexicans believed involved in the drug trade and 15 Colombians were murdered in Lima in the past two years.
“When Peru’s mafias dealt pretty exclusively with Colombians, you didn’t see that,” said Eduardo Castaneda, a Peruvian anti-drug prosecutor.
Other Latin American countries have started playing a role as transshipment points for the chemicals used to make methamphetamine, a highly addictive street drug.
Mexico supplies 80 percent to 90 percent of the methamphetamine sold in the United States, according to the DEA. The drug is made from pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, commonly found in cold and flu medicines and typically obtained in bulk from India and China.
In 2007, Mexico banned the import and domestic use of both chemicals. So the problem spread abroad. Last year, the United Nations identified, for the first time, the manufacture of methamphetamine and other illicit synthetic stimulants in 10 nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras.
The U.S. State Department has warned that a weak criminal justice system and pervasive corruption make it difficult for Guatemala to address the rise in drug activity.
In late November, 17 people were killed in an apparent battle between Mexican and Guatemalan gangs, reportedly over a stolen drug shipment, said Guatemalan Police Director Marlene Blanco.
Four months later, police discovered a training camp for the Zetas, one of Mexico’s fiercest gangs, a few miles south of the Mexican border in Ixtcan. They also found 500 grenades and thousands of bullets believed stolen from the Guatemalan army, and in mid-June, Guatemalan authorities confiscated nearly 10 million pseudoephedrine pills in a shipping container in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala’s main port on the Pacific. It was the country’s biggest seizure of the substance.
President Alvaro Colom, the national police chief and the interior minister say they have received death threats from traffickers in recent months.
Since the Juancho Leon murder in March 2008, 33 Zetas have been captured and are behind bars, said Giulio Antonio Talamont, the country’s prisons chief. They include senior Zeta commander Daniel Perez Rojas, a former Mexican soldier charged with orchestrating Mr. Leon’s killing.
Drug lords are infamous in Mexico for their jail breaks.
So nervous Guatemalan authorities recently doubled the number of soldiers ringing the prison where Mr. Perez, alias “El Cachetes” or “Puffy Cheeks,” and the other Mexicans are held. They jam cell phone signals and periodically rotate Mr. Perez from cell to cell for extra security, Mr. Talamont said.
The authorities are so nervous that they plan to hold Mr. Perez’s trial later this year in a makeshift courtroom inside the prison.