Mexican oil investors face union, cartel
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – In May 2013, Adolfo Sastre Palacios, a powerful union boss in the southeast of
the Mexican state of Veracruz, survived an attempted stabbing by a rival. Five
months later, Sastre Palacios’ tortured and strangled body was discovered in a
mass grave. The grisly episode was a brutal settling of scores between leaders
embroiled in a turf war for lucrative contracts to an oil industry poised for
major growth: Mexico’s newly-approved oil reform, scrapping the state’s 75-year
monopoly on the sector, is expected to lure billions of dollars of private and
foreign investment in coming years.
But it also starkly illustrates the organized crime
techniques that corruption-tainted union bosses have adopted as their own in a
state that is the fifth largest contributor to Mexico’s GDP and where drug
cartel battles are resurfacing after a recent lull. Union bosses are widely
perceived not only to have copied the methods of organized crime, but also to
have established direct ties with criminal groups like the Zetas. Sastre
Palacios’ death was the culmination of months of mounting union tension. In
April 2012, the rival leader, Samuel
Calderón, had accused a faction led by Sastre Palacios and another union
figurehead, Marjorie Oropeza, of
hiring two Honduran hit-men to kill him, for 20,000 pesos ($1,550).
The May 2013 incident happened shortly after Calderón’s
release from jail, where he had been serving time on extortion charges.
According to one former Veracruz state official, cartel extortion used to run
to 20 to 30 per cent of salaries of workers earning over 15,000 pesos a month,
and union bosses were suspected of lining their own pockets at the same time.
Extortion was widely seen as a hallmark of the Zeta cartel, which had faded
from the state after a brutal turf war with the Jalisco New Generation (JNG)
cartel, dubbed the “Zeta-killers”. But since last year, the Zetas have quietly
been returning, fuelling uncertainty and fears of a return to previous levels
of extortion and violence.
Sastre Palacios’ Authentic Federation of Workers of the
State of Veracruz, Oropeza’s Workers’ Union Alliance, and the National Confederation
of Popular Organizations led by Ignacio
Martínez Acosta, all supply workers to subcontracting firms in the oil
industry, which is currently dominated by state monopoly Pemex. Under the oil
reforms, Pemex’s own famously corruption-tainted union is being kicked off the
Although the security situation in Veracruz had stabilized
after the cartel turf war had made it one of the most dangerous places in
Mexico, crime is now on the rise again as rival drugs bosses vie for supremacy.
Mexico’s state statistics office reports in its National Poll on Victimization
and Public Security Perception that the feeling of insecurity in the state rose
to 75.4 per cent this year from 70.1 per cent in 2012.
Meanwhile, a new study by the Citizen’s Council for
Public Security and Penal Justice, an NGO, found that four municipalities in
Veracruz (Coatzacoalcos, Pánuco, Poza Rica, and Tierra Blanca) qualify as
“failed” – a definition describing places where criminal groups operate with
impunity, extortion is generalised or homicide or kidnappings and
disappearances are routine.
Naval police have succeeded in beefing up security and
Veracruz also has a revamped state police force, although state authorities are
considered among Mexico’s laggards in bringing state and municipal forces under
a single command. Unscrupulous officers are still rife at the local police level,
contributing to rising levels of insecurity in rural areas.
While direct links between unions and the cartels
operating in Veracruz are hard to prove, state leaders have long displayed a
cozy connivance with organized crime groups, indicating a power structure at
the state level into which unions fit snugly. Such “narcopolitics”, as the
former official dubs it, in which officials are on the criminals’ payroll,
means it is “inevitable that unions are associated.”
Furthermore, the high incidence of oil theft from Pemex
installations – Veracruz is the state with the second highest level of oil
theft, according to Pemex – indicates insider collusion involving either
individual workers or the unions themselves tipping off cartels and providing
the technical know-how to steal the oil. Indeed, a captured leader of the Zeta
cartel was quoted last year as saying that Pemex workers were expressly
recruited by the drug bosses in order to facilitate oil theft.
As well as the oil industry, the Federal Electricity
Commission, or CFE, and Tamsa, the steel pipeline company, provide the state’s
biggest union base, but according to security experts the construction unions
also have a reputation for proximity to criminal groups.
Other unions and industrial sectors also appear affected.
Official news agency Notimex earlier this year reproduced a letter purporting
to be from unionized workers at telephone company Telmex, the railway company,
as well as Pemex, CFE and the Veracruz port, complaining of extortion by cartel
bosses. An alleged Zeta go-between on the payroll of the CFE, who was allegedly
in charge of extortion there, has also been identified in media reports.
The message typically was “it doesn’t matter what you do,
if you’re making money in Veracruz you’ll have to pay the derecho de piso,”
says the former state official, referring to extortion payments which he said
were worse in rural areas. Typically, cartel leaders tell unions to instruct
their staff to pay up or face problems. When the Zeta presence waned, some unions
continued to try to extort workers, he added.
The Zetas are usually easy to distinguish from the JNG
cartel because they tend to be Central American in appearance and sport
tattoos, while the JNG are white, taller and not tattooed, and are suspected by
some of links to the army, not least because of the quality of their weapons,
the former official said.
However, local gangs that are not full-blown cartels,
have also proliferated while security forces have focused on the bigger groups.
Such gangs are suspected of targeting shops, hotels and restaurants for
extortion. In addition, some experts say the Knights Templar cartel, which has
become a serious threat in the Pacific state of Michoacán, where it has seized
control of the port and attacked electricity installations, is now boosting its
presence in the state of Tabasco, bordering Veracruz in the southeast.
While the JNG was dominant, extortion decreased, but
there are still between three and four killings a week, says the former
official, who fears the Zetas are now baying for revenge. That turf war could
herald another spike in crime levels. With the oil sector reform, the stakes
will soar and the tried and tested economic links between the cartels, unions
and workers look certain to fuel an ever-higher social – and business – cost.
Republished with permission from Tenacitas