Sunday, December 18, 2022

Marco Antonio Ortega Siu: Former Mexican Naval Admiral And Drug Cartel Nemesis

WaPo  |  Organized-crime groups were carrying out acts of spectacular violence and growing savagery, ambushing military and police convoys on rural highways and filling mass graves with travelers hauled off buses. U.S. officials grew alarmed as violence exploded in Monterrey and other northern Mexico cities where Fortune 500 companies had invested heavily in plants and factories after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

With the threat to the stability of the Mexican government worsening, both countries were hungry for a crime fighter who could stand up to the cartels.

Using informants, wiretaps and surveillance, U.S. agents tracked drug bosses and relayed their locations to Águila’s commandos for the kind of “high-value target” operations the Americans used successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Águila’s forces didn’t hold back. Mexican commandos in helicopters took out Gulf cartel boss Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, a.k.a. “Tony Tormenta,” in a wild urban gun battle in 2010 that left bodies scattered in the border city of Matamoros. Two years later, special forces killed the leader of the Zetas, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano, after a firefight against cartel gunmen wielding a grenade launcher.

“Tactically, they were just awesome,” Evans said. But the special forces were trained to kill, not to make arrests and gather evidence for criminal prosecution. Their targets were extremely dangerous, but Evans would offer a “friendly reminder” that from time to time “it might be good to bring the guy back alive.”

In his response to The Post, Águila wrote that drug bosses were killed because they resisted arrest. “We never planned an operation to eliminate anyone,” he wrote.

To the Americans, the navy commandos seemed to be the rare entity capable of quickly launching complex, dangerous operations. Águila was indefatigable, working 16-hour days. He didn’t drink or smoke. And when U.S. agents shared sensitive information, Águila and his commandos acted fast — unlike the army. “There was never a leak,” Evans said.

One DEA agent recalled following Águila, then in his 50s, as he bounded off a helicopter during a hunt for a drug kingpin in northern Mexico. “I’m trying to catch up to him,” recalled the agent, who was not authorized to comment on the record. “I was embarrassed. Here I am, this younger buck, fumbling with my stuff.”

Even more startling: The Mexican officer wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. He rarely did; it was too bulky. “He had no fear,” the American agent said.

The DEA agents knew little about Águila’s personal life or why he didn’t seem tainted by some of the worst aspects of Mexican officialdom — the corruption, the timidity, the wariness of foreigners. Maybe, they figured, he was a kindred spirit.

“He’s blue-collar,” said Donahue, the former Mexico DEA chief. “Just like us.”

Indeed, the admiral was the son of a small-town salesman in Mexico’s southern Veracruz state, and the grandson of Chinese immigrants. “My family fought to get ahead every day,” Águila said in his written responses.

He entered the Heroic Naval Military School in 1975, a shy, diminutive 15-year-old in a world of “juniors” — sons of high-ranking officers. The academy was so rigorous that half his class of 150 dropped out before graduation, recalled a former classmate, retired Rear Adm. Jesús Canchola Camarena. Águila joined the marines, like other young men “drawn to adventure,” Canchola recalled. But what stood out was the young cadet’s leadership; he often served as coach in the students’ informal wrestling matches. He eventually became a decorated helicopter pilot.

Later, under Calderón, when the navy sought senior officers to build a top-flight special forces corps, many were reluctant, recalled another of Águila’s former classmates.

“It was very, very risky,” he recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank. “The navy had to protect itself from everyone” — both drug traffickers and their allies in government.

Águila was undaunted.

“He felt that if they called on him, and he had the ability, he should do it,” the friend said.

 

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