Geopolitics

Fingerprints But No Body: Is Chief Of Mexico's Biggest Cartel Dead?

VANGUARDIA, EXCELSIOR, MILENIO, INFORMADOR (Mexico)

Worldcrunch

MEXICO CITY - Authorities in Mexico were busy Tuesday trying to determine if one of the country's most feared drugpins had been killed over the weekend in a firefight with military forces.

The showdown took place Sunday at a crossroads in the northeastern Mexican city of Coahuila, when the Naval forces were attacked by firearms and explosives. The Navy finally won the firefight, killing two “criminals,” according to Mexican paper La Vanguardia.

In the dead men’s vehicle, the navy found two grenade launchers with 12 live grenades, as well as a rocket-launcher and assault weapons. And perhaps more importantly, were the fingerprints left behind of one of the men, which may be those of Heriberto Lazcano, a.k.a El Lazca, the drug lord who is the U.S. and Mexico’s No. 2 most-wanted man.

The Secretary of the Navy announced that there are “strong indications” that El Lazca is dead, according to the Mexican newspaper Excelsior. The Navy, however, could not produce the body of El Lazca. Military spokesmen confirmed that the government did not have the body, reported Milenio.

Lazcano, 38, was believed to live and work in Coahuila, while the cartel he ran, Los Zetas, was considered the most powerful and most feared in Mexico.

Los Zetas began as a breakaway branch of the Gulf cartel, which hired policemen and special forces soldiers at far higher wages than they can get in the impoverished state of Tamaulipas, where Los Zetas is based.

Determined to break the power of the cartels, the Mexican federal government has built new military bases in the state, where in spite of the violence policemen are paid far less than in more prosperous states, which makes them vulnerable to corruption by the cartel’s money. In April, soldiers tried to capture El Lazca at a private concert in Coahuila, but he escaped. He was almost caught again in September at the airport of Mérida, La Vanguardia reported.

Before becoming a drug lord, El Lazca served in an elite unit of the Mexican air force, and left the military in 1998 as a corporal. He was recruited by the Gulf cartel shortly afterwards along with deserters from elite units, to form a bodyguard for the cartel’s leaders. El Lazca took over after the outfit's first chief was killed in a restaurant in 2002. Los Zetas broke awayfrom the Gulf cartel in 2010, according to Informador. He is also known as Z3 and El Verdugo (the executioner). Los Zetas is known for its extraordinary brutality.

The death of El Lazca would be a triumph for the Mexican president Felipe Calderón, who is leaving office in two months, said La Vanguardia. If true, it would be the biggest blow against the cartels, which have killed over 60,000 people in their wars, since Calderón became president six years ago. The U.S. government was offering $5 million for El Lazca's capture, and the Mexican government 30 million pesos ($2.3 million).

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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