Mexican drug gangs dig into mining industry

The Zetas cartel, one of Mexico’s most violent groups, has moved into coal mining as it’s “more lucrative than drugs”.

By paying low wages, gangsters are making large profits from unregulated mines in Coahuila state [AFP/GettyImages]

On October 7, Mexican marines swooped in on one of the most powerful men in organised crime. But as the navy triumphantly announced the death of Heriberto Lazcano, leader of the Zetas gang, there was puzzlement over where he had been found. Far from the Zeta’s strongholds and practically unprotected, he had been watching a baseball game in the small mining village of Progreso.

Theories abounded as to what exactly Lazcano had been doing in Progreso, a one horse town in the wide open spaces of the sorthern state of Coahuila. Humberto Moreira, ex-governor of Coahuila says that he has the answer: “Heriberto Lazcano changed from being a killer, kidnapper and drug dealer to something still more lucrative: mining coal. That’s why he lived in the coal region, in a little village called Progreso.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Moreira says that the Zetas gang is fast discovering that illegal mining is an even more lucrative venture than drug running.

“They discover a mine, extract the coal, sell it at $30, pay the miners a miserable salary… It’s more lucrative than selling drugs.”

The Zetas are interested in any type of illegal business, from prostitution to extorting business, to mining coal. They’re capable of analysing where they can earn money from any type of illicit dealings.

– Samuel Gonzalez, former Chief of Mexico’s Anti-Organised Crime Unit

Moreiras remarks have sparked a host of claims and counter claims. He is used to controversy. The ex-governor of Coahuila (his brother recently took on the post) was one of the most powerful figures in Mexican politics until allegations of huge financial irregularities during his government brought him down. After his son was killed by organised crime, he began speaking of government corruption and impunity in the state he had once governed.

‘Narco coal’

His accusations have been borne out by the federal government, which also announced that it has found evidence of criminal infiltration in Coahuila’s mines. Two hundred government inspectors are heading to the region to investigate mines it suspects are tied to organised crime. The state government has also been tarred by the accusations. A Coahuila government body (PRODEMI) buys coal from the companies and then sells it to the state electricity company. Now the country’s attorney general is investigating its links with companies thought to have sold “Narco coal”.

The State of Coahuila presents a tempting target for any organised crime group looking to diversify from drug smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. It produces 95 percent of Mexico’s coal, churning out 15 million tons a year. Unregulated “pozos”, small roadside mines which are often little more than a hole in the road, abound; easy targets for those looking to make quick money.

An investigation by Mexican daily Reforma estimated that criminals were making half a million dollars a week off of these small unregulated mines, selling the coal on to legal businesses. The Zetas criminal group, dominant in Coahuila, is well structured to take advantage of the “Black Gold” rush. 

Mexico’s other criminal powerhouse, the Sinaloa Cartel, deals almost exclusively with running drugs, Samuel Gonzalez, former Chief of Mexico’s Anti-Organised Crime Unit, says that the Zetas are keen to sniff out new business opportunities wherever they lie.

Blurred lines

“The Zetas are interested in any type of illegal business, from prostitution to extorting business, to mining coal. They’re capable of analysing where they can earn money from any type of illicit dealings,” Gonzalez said.

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As the line blurs between organised crime and legal business in Coahuila, these are nervous times for state’s mining establishment. On the weekend before Al Jazeera travelled to the area, a mine owner was killed, and his finger cut off, a sign that he was being punished for speaking out against criminals. Senior mining figures refused to speak to Al Jazeera on the record. They did, however, confirm that organised crime has infiltrated their industry.

As mining executives sweat, and the investigations continue, human rights organisations say that little has changed for those at the bottom of the mine.

Coahuila’s pits have an unenviable safety history, the lowest point of which came in the death of sixty five workers in an accident in 2006. Even before Moreira’s revelations, Mexico’s federal human rights agency said that the infiltration of organised crime was stripping workers of even the basic safety protocols they enjoyed under legitimate businesses. Raul Vera, the Bishop of Saltillo, has long campaigned for miners’ rights.

“Here those in poverty are forced to seek work where they can and there’s little difference in terms of work safety for them between the way that organised crime and a legal owner of a mine treat them.”

As criminals and business interests continue to profit from Coahuila’s coal, hope still seems slim that the rewards will trickle down to those finding in the depths of the earth.

Source: Al Jazeera