“Sol Prendido” for Borderland Beat
The cartel has grown stronger and wants an empire in the world.
During the 2018 Christmas holidays, the Sinaloa Cartel had a double reason to party: they were preparing for the New Year and to open a new 10,839-kilometer cocaine route to Europe.
To ensure the success of the new route, each stop had been meticulously prepared, as would a legal airline investing millions of dollars in its expansion plans: the cartel hired air and drug trafficking experts to evaluate the viability of air ports, costs, allies and financial profitability.
After months of work in Culiacan, the cartel was ready to open the Mexico-Italy route to enter the black market in the Balkans, a region that includes 11 countries, among them Albania, Bosnia and Bulgaria, and where a gram of cocaine that costs six euros in Mexico can reach 86 euros there, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
In other words, the same amount of cocaine generates a profit of over 1,333 percent. These margins are comparable only to the profitability of oil or precious minerals.
The route included two stops. First, empty jets would leave Mexico for Colombia to supply cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel’s existing South American partners. Then, the aircraft would land in Cape Verde, Africa — off the coast of Senegal — to refuel and arrive safely in Catania, southern Italy, where the aircraft would be unloaded for a representative of the Sinaloa drug traffickers to sell the kilos to the ‘Ndrangheta, the most powerful Italian mafia in Europe.
In turn, the ‘ndrine — the ‘Ndrangheta’s operational units spread outside of Europe — would take the drugs through Europe, including the Balkan peninsula, and resell them to local mafias for distribution to drug dealers.
In this way, Albanian mafias and criminal groups such as the Bulgarian-born Oarza Brigade could be the final sellers of the cocaine that had traveled around the world from a private jet leaving from Culiacan.
But there was a problem with the meticulous plan: there are no Sinaloan drug traffickers fluent in English, Portuguese, Italian and Albanian to successfully negotiate kilos for euros.
Despite these complications, the European Union Agency for Police Cooperation (Europol) was certain that organized crime in Latin America had reached the Balkans at some point between 2015 and 2018.
In July 2022, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, an international NGO based in Geneva, Switzerland, contacted dozens of journalists in Latin America and Europe with a proposal: to create a network of investigators from both sides of the ocean to exchange information, contacts and documents to answer a question: how big is the presence of Latin organized crime in the countries of the Balkan peninsula, home to major mafias such as the Romanian or Kosovo mafia?
“Mexican cartels are known to cooperate with criminal networks based in the European Union (EU) to traffic methamphetamine and cocaine to EU ports for subsequent distribution within and outside the Member States,” warns the Europol report, prepared with the DEA, entitled ‘The Involvement of Mexican Criminal Actors in Europe’s Drug Market’.
This is the Mexico chapter of that collaborative journalism investigation.
The Silent Link
Few drug traffickers would risk getting on a commercial plane to cross international borders and personally oversee an illegal, million-dollar business. They avoid it for fear of their identity being discovered, as happened to José Rodrigo Aréchiga, better known as ‘Chino Ántrax’, arrested in Amsterdam, Netherlands, or Sergio Vega Mendoza, ‘El Látigo’, arrested in his own country at Mexico City’s International Airport.
They do not risk carrying false passports or wearing a suspicious wig that would give them away in a country where they have no police protection. Some do not even leave the plazas they dominate or the mountains where they hide.
So the Sinaloa cartel had to resort to an illegal and expensive labor pool to guarantee that the new Mexico-Italy route would be a success. One that is available to organized crime around the world: the hiring of brokers, the freelancers of high-flying crime.
A broker in this world is, in short, a facilitator who will guarantee with his life the success of an international project for any criminal group that hires him.
He is typically a former military officer, a retired policeman, a private spy or a public servant with power who connects criminal groups with each other, and who acts as a middleman, a translator of needs, a logistics provider, a contractor of cooks in clandestine laboratories, a corruptor of officials at sea and air ports, a buyer of properties abroad for use as warehouses, an undertaker of judicial investigations, a retriever of seized drugs, and more.
To make his resume stand out among other brokers, he will brag about his years in a security corporation, his military training, his family connections with high-level politicians or his years of operating with major cartels and terrorist groups.
“Brokers are part of a criminal model that resembles outsourcing, where a criminal organization decides to hire someone with a specialization instead of wasting resources on training someone in-house.” This is how they are described by Stu Sjouwerman, a cybersecurity expert, who identifies three typical spaces to reach one of them: the Deep Web, secret forums or encrypted and temporary chat rooms, and the Internet.
As in any job market, there are candidates for the dirty work of different prices, experience and contacts. There are rookies, veterans — like Xianbing Gan, a businessman who in February 2020 was sentenced in the United States for laundering millions of dollars for Joaquin El Chapo Guzman and Nemesio El Mencho Oseguera — and even celebrities — like Four, a Colombian-Australian who has operated the Mexico-Australia drug route with impunity for decades — but they all agree on one trait: their work requires discretion, even more than that of a cartel boss.
“Encrypted digital devices are increasingly a key tool brokers use to coordinate and conduct drug trafficking and other crimes covertly. Encrypted phones have provided these networks with a degree of anonymity and discretion,” warns Europol in a 2020 report.
The chosen ones
For the new Mexico-Italy route, the Sinaloa Cartel hired four main brokers: Guatemalans Daniel Tito Esteban Ortega and Luis Fernando Morales Hernandez, El Suegro, whose mission was to establish contact with the Colombians, and Jose Angel Rivera Zazueta, El Flaco, usually hired by El Mayo Zambada for international projects and who would be in charge of the Colombia-Cabo Verde route.
The fourth broker is known as Don Señor, who from Rome would be in charge of choreographing his workers to unload the aircrafts in Catania (Sicily), take the cocaine to vehicles, coordinate dozens of drivers to avoid customs, and drive the drugs to northern Italy to begin their journey to the Balkans.
The phase of hiring independent drug traffickers seemed to have gone well. The Sinaloa cartel was celebrating its elaborate plan that would boost its profits in a cocaine market, such as the European one, worth up to $10 billion annually, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. However, problems kept cropping up.
The phone of a broker who had worked for the ‘Ndrangheta was tapped by the Italian Investigation Group against Organized Crime, which since 2019 had launched Operation Falcon to stop the arrival of cocaine from Latin America. Thanks to that tap, the director of the corporation, Pablo Laccesse, learned of the plans hatched from Mexico.
Neither brokers nor Sinaloans knew it, but every part of their plan was listened to with attention by the biggest anti-mafia arm in the world, known for bringing down even the toughest capos dei capi and consiglieres.
Keeping track in Mexico
How is it that Latin American organized crime has managed to do business with criminals from the Balkan peninsula, from Albania to Serbia?
In countries like Ecuador and Colombia, there are plenty of reports in the press about local gangs and their links to the Albanian mafia. In Argentina there is data from the beginning of the century about criminal relations between local gangs and the Calabrian mafia in Italy. In Peru and Venezuela with Serbian gangs. Southern European criminals such as Robert Suloti, Milan Milovac or Darko Saric can be read in local media as evidence of the black connection between South America and the Balkans.
But in Mexico the relationship remains in the shadows, despite the fact that this year the anti-drug agency DEA placed the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Newl Generation Cartel with more than 44,000 representatives in more than 100 countries.
MILENIO undertook the task of locating citizens of the 11 countries that make up the Balkan region in two different Mexican lists: murdered foreigners and imprisoned foreigners. To do so, we used open data and information requests through the National Transparency Platform.
Between 2012 and mid-2022, the Mexican government recorded the murder of 3,121 foreigners, mostly North American tourists or Central American migrants. All the rest fall into the category of “Others”, which makes it impossible to officially know their nationality.
However, at least four murdered people from southern Europe were identified: the Bulgarian citizen Galina Chankova, the Greeks Martin Demerutis – linked to the Sinaloa Cartel – and Ciannistis Constantine, as well as the Romanian Constantin Sorinel Marcu, killed in June 2018 in Cancun, Quintana Roo, identified as the bodyguard who betrayed his boss Florian Tudor, leader of the Romanian mafia in Mexico.
Regarding foreigners in prison, up to the date of the investigation, of the 219,279,27 people deprived of their freedom in Mexico, 4,451 were foreigners. But the authorities only separate them by nationality, if they were born in the Americas. In the category “From a European country” 28 were included without further details.
But a newspaper search told another story: in January 2020, a Bosnian citizen was arrested in the state of Nuevo Leon for driving a cloned cab, which is the vehicle preferred by Mexican cartels to transport cocaine. In May 2008, five Albanian nationals were arrested in Chiapas for entering the country with fake passports from Bulgaria. A year earlier, another Albanian was arrested in Chiapas accused of being part of a gang of smugglers of undocumented migrants.
In December 2011, the then Mexican Federal Police arrested Greek citizen Charonitis Zacharias with more than half a kilogram of cocaine at the Mexico City airport, where he was attempting to travel to Greece with a stopover in Madrid, Spain.
In December 2015, authorities in the Mexican capital arrested 26 alleged members of an international gang linked to identity theft and bank card cloning, including two Bulgarian citizens and one Romanian.
In September 2022, nine migrants of Romanian origin were detained in Tijuana, where they arrived with illegal documentation seeking to cross into the United States. Their detention led to the arrest of three Mexican migrant smugglers.
And in May 2021, the Attorney General’s Office arrested Florian Tudor, leader of the Romanian mafia that operated in Mexico’s main tourist centers, where he duplicated credit cards.
More data pointed to an important presence of Mexican cartels in the Balkans, such as the discovery in November 2021 of 450 bottles of liquid methamphetamine hidden in vanilla containers that traveled from Mexico to Sofia airport, the largest seizure in the narcotics history of Bulgaria, a country integrated to the Balkan mountain range.
Or the 1.5 tons of methamphetamine of Mexican origin trafficked in 2020 through Croatia to Slovakia. Or the seven members of the Sinaloa Cartel arrested in March of this year in Colombia and Greece as part of the same Interpol-led anti-drug operation. Or the seizures in Albania of drugs packaged by the Ecuadorian gang Los Choneros, whose origins are linked to the Sinaloa Cartel.
In other words, there is evidence to support that the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel have managed to take their dirty business beyond the Balkan Mountains and the Dinaric Alps, but they have done so without exposing themselves to a significant number of murders and arrests to attract media attention on both continents.
For Fatjona Mejdini, director of the Observatory of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, this presence is explained by the network of brokers woven by the cartels. They are responsible for the successful international expansion of Mexican organized crime. They are the true global narcos on whose triumphs the heads of plazas in towns and cities from Tijuana to Tapachula hang themselves.
Although, sometimes, as in the new Mexico-Italy route, they are also responsible for the failures.
Intervened line: the plan is thwarted
Unaware that their every move was being listened to, the brokers hired by the Sinaloa Cartel agreed on all the steps to be taken over tapped phone lines. For months, the anti-Mafia arm in Italy listened to them talk about their contacts, their exploits, their friendships in the National Guard — a certain official who plays deaf, they said — and even their friendships with other brokers in Canada who were also looking to be hired on the job boards that open up in the deep corners of the internet. The wiretap seemed too good to be true.
Therefore, the police had to make sure the operation was real. They preferred to listen and follow up on what the drug traffickers agreed for January 9, 2020: on that day they would test the viability of the new route with a test load of 400 kilos of cocaine that ‘Don Señor’ received at Catania airport and unloaded to hide in a safe house on the outskirts of the city.
El Flaco, Mayo Zambada’s trusted confidant, called Don Señor from Cancun to confirm that everything had gone well. The good news came with a request: Don Señor followed the rules of veteran brokers and did not ask for a cash payment – difficult to comply with in the banking system – but to keep 32 bricks of cocaine for distribution, especially to a contact of his who represented a Chinese family based in Milan that wanted to do business with the Sinaloans.
That demand mixed with ambition and greed gave Pablo Laccesse’s agents confirmation that the plot was real and they were ready to act.
“In the Balkans, the local mafias of course know the Mexicans. They are probably the most famous drug traffickers in the world,” says Fatjona Mejdini, an organized crime expert based in Albania. “But the reputation they have is that the Mexicans are too violent and even the Albanian mafia or the Serbs don’t feel comfortable dealing with them.”
“The Balkan groups are more like businessmen who only use blood as an exception, not as a rule,” which is why, Fatjona adds, is that for Mexican cartels to do business in that region of the world they need brokers who know and imitate the style of the southern European mafias and not the sadism of Sinaloa.
Another difference is that Mexican cartels in the Balkans are not interested in drug dealing. The business of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is not in the sale of grams, as it does in Mexico, but in the tons that they can get through airports and seaports.
The trade in small doses is left to local groups, so there are no Sinaloans or Jalisco locals selling cocaine on street corners in Kosovo or North Macedonia, as is the case in the TV series.
The mission was thwarted when Don Señor delivered the cocaine to Charlie, another Italian broker who would take the drugs to his boss in compliance with the rule that no links should know each other to avoid information leaks.
On his way to deliver the merchandise, Charlie ran into a snow jam that was exploited by the Italian police. The goods were immediately seized and the delivery was thwarted. There was only one problem: Don Señor, Flaco and El Sueegro had no leads to arrest them.
Despite the operation, Europol finds that the Mexico-Italy route is not closed. Despite the fiasco of the criminal plan, European authorities have published two separate reports in which they claim that the route is still used to ship drugs on behalf of the cartels.
Interpol estimates, informally, that there are thousands of brokers of different ranks, costs and experience in the labor exchange used by organized crime. There could be tens of thousands because it is a black market. There are some celebrities who are known, such as El Viejo, The Finalist or Pan Haiping, but others are ghosts who daily change the world with their interventions, although nobody knows who they are.
They are the power behind the power. The people capable of making the expansion dreams of a farmer from Sinaloa who didn’t finish primary school and wants to conquer Europe or a farmer from Jalisco who doesn’t know where Italy is on the map and wants to dominate Africa come true.
These are the secret links of drug trafficking that explain how a Mexican drug trafficker with money, but without a passport, can plant his flag in a place as far away as the 11 countries that make up the Balkans and bring cocaine to their noses. Become millionaires.
And with that money finance the violence in Mexico.