Mexican marines arrest port captain of Pacific import hub on suspicion of ties to drug cartels

By Alexandra Olson, AP
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mexican port captain jailed for alleged drug ties

MEXICO CITY — Mexican marines have arrested the captain of a major Pacific coast port that has become a hot spot for the smuggling of methamphetamine precursor chemicals, accusing him of drug trafficking ties.

Manzanillo port Captain Jorge Arturo Castaneda was the second top official to be arrested for alleged drug links this week. On Tuesday, federal police arrested Cancun Mayor Gregorio Sanchez for allegedly protecting two violent drug cartels.

The Mexican Navy said Castaneda was arrested Wednesday in a joint operation with the organized crime unit of the federal Attorney General’s Office. The statement said he was suspected of ties to organized crime but gave no details.

Navy officials said there would be no further comment, and the Attorney General’s Office had no immediate information.

As captain, Castaneda was in charge of authorizing the arrival and departure of ships in Manzanillo.

Security forces have made several major seizures of methamphetamine precursors in Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas, the two biggest ports on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

In April, nearly 4 tons (3.6 metric tons) of ephedrine were seized in Manzanillo. Last week, authorities seized 88 tons (80 metric tons) of ethyl phenyl acetate, also known as phenylacetic acid in five shipping containers sent from China to Manzanillo. It was the second seizure of its type this month in the port.

Drug traffickers have turned to phenylacetic acid for making methamphetamine since Mexico effectively banned imports of another precursor, pseudoephedrine.

Corruption is a major impediment in Mexico’s efforts to combat drug trafficking. Since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, hundreds of officials have been fired or arrested for allegedly protecting drug gangs, from municipal police officers to top federal officials.

There have also been fears that drug cartels may try to influence the country’s July 4 state and local elections, concern thta was heightened with the arrest of Cancun’s mayor, who had taken a leave of absence to run for governor in the Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo.

On Thursday, Ricardo Najera, the spokesman for the federal Attorney General’s Office, said Sanchez had denied the drug trafficking, organized crime and money laundering charges against him at his arraignment Wednesday night. The judge in the case will decide by Saturday whether the evidence warrants ordering Sanchez to stand trial.

Sanchez’s party claims the charges are a politically motivated attempt to knock him out of the race, an accusation the government has denied.

Speaking during a visit to Canada, Calderon said Sanchez’s arrest “in no way had any political motive. I even regret that it could generate political tension, a possible confrontation between political parties. I really regret it.”

In the northern city of Piedras Negras, meanwhile, a soldier was killed and another wounded when gunmen ambushed army troops inspecting flood-risk zones, the Defense Department said Thursday.

Three gunmen in a car opened fire on the military patrol Wednesday in the city across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. The soldiers had been inspecting neighborhoods to prepare for floods after several days of heavy rains.

Officials said soldiers captured the gunmen and seized 12 guns, including 10 assault rifles, ammunition and bulletproof vests from the assailants — an arsenal typical of Mexico’s brutal drug cartels.

The statement did not say if the gunmen were affiliated with any particular gang.

Soldiers have increasingly come under attack in northeastern Mexico, where the Gulf cartel is battling its former ally, the Zetas gang of hit men.

Mexican and U.S. officials said the Gulf cartel has aligned itself with the Sinaloa and La Familia gangs seeking to wipe out the Zetas in the region.

The Defense Department also said a member of the Arturo Beltran Leyva cartel was killed in a gunbattle with soldiers Wednesday in the northern city of Monterrey.

The agency identified the man as Sergio Adrian Martinez, a former state police officer who was allegedly the leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel’s operations in San Pedro Garza Garcia, a wealthy suburb of Monterrey.

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