Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America
By Ioan Grillo
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc Copyright © 2015 Ioan Grillo
All rights reserved.
This book is about the move from the Cold War to a chain of crime wars soaking Latin America and the Caribbean in blood. But it starts in the United States. Specifically, in a Barnes and Noble bookshop in a mall in El Paso, Texas.
I am sitting in the bookshop café, nursing my third cup of coffee and flicking through a pile of new books. As you do with new books, I am eyeing the photos, skimming the intros, and just feeling and smelling the paper. I am also waiting for a drug trafficker who has spent four decades delivering the products of Mexican gangsters to all corners of the United States.
The man I am waiting for is no criminal warlord controlling a fiefdom in Latin America. He's a white New Yorker with a university education. That is why I want to start the book here. Latin American journalists complain the U.S. side of the equation is never examined. Who are the partners of the cartels wreaking havoc south of the Rio Grande, they ask. Where is the American narco? Here, I found one.
A curious twist of fate led me to this meeting. A fellow Brit was cycling through the southwest United States on an extended holiday. Texas was nice, but he fancied something edgier, so he slipped over the border to Chihuahua, Mexico. Unwittingly, he entered one of the most violent spheres in the Mexican drug war, venturing into small towns to the west of Ciudad Juárez, at the time the world's most murderous city. He didn't do too badly, hanging out in cantinas and raising glasses with shady locals. Until gangsters held him in a house, threatened to cut his head off, and got him to call his wife in England and plead for a ransom payment.
Attacks on wealthy foreigners in Mexico are actually very rare, but there have been sporadic cases, some of them deadly. In this case, the thugs had jumped at an opportunity that fell in their lap. Thankfully, they released the Brit on receipt of the cash, and he made it home unscathed. He kept in contact with one of the people he had met on the border, an older man called Robert. While Robert knew the kidnappers, he apparently wasn't involved. He is the man I am going to meet now, one of the gangsters' U.S. connections.
The British cyclist had put us in touch, and I talked to Robert over e-mail and then phone to arrange the get-together. He lives on the Mexican side of the border in one of the Chihuahuan towns. But I told him I didn't want to go there after the kidnapping and suggested we meet in El Paso, a stone's throw from Juárez but one of the safest cities in the United States. In a Barnes and Noble bookshop. Who would hold you up in a Barnes and Noble?
As I finish my beverage, I spy Robert strolling toward me. He probably spotted me first. He is in his sixties, in jeans and a baseball cap, with sun-worn skin and a raspy voice. I get yet more coffee, and we chat. He's good company. Soon we decide we want something stronger and move on to a cowboy-themed bar in the mall where they serve local brews in ridiculous-size glasses. I hear Robert's tale as we sip from the flagons.
It goes back to 1968, when the United States was in the midst of the hippie movement and fighting its hottest Cold War battle in Vietnam; when dictatorships ruled most of Latin America, and a recently martyred Che Guevara inspired guerrillas across the continent. Robert is from upstate New York, but in 1968 he went to university in New Mexico. Here he had the fate of landing a roommate from El Paso who had a cousin in Ciudad Juárez. His roommate told him he could buy marijuana for forty dollars a kilo from his cousin. This lit a fuse in Robert's mind; he knew that back home in New York, this amount sold for three hundred dollars.
The basic business of importing is buying for a dollar and selling for two. But with drugs, Robert realized, he could buy for a dollar and sell for more than seven. And he didn't even need to advertise. This was after the summer of love, and American youngsters were desperate for ganja from wherever they could get it, feeding a mushrooming industry south of the border.
"I was young, I was broke, and I was hungry," Robert says. "Then marijuana came like a blessing ... We scraped our money together for the first load. When it came through, we bought another. Then another."
It is hard for most of us to fathom a business with a markup of 650 percent. You put in fifteen hundred bucks and you get back more than ten grand. You put in ten and get back seventy-five. And in two more deals you can be a multimillionaire. Narco finances turn economics inside out.
As Robert made regular drives back east with his car trunk stuffed with ganja, he could go through school without even having loans. "I was living like a rich kid, driving a nice car, living in a big place," he says.
When he graduated, he had a business to go into. He traveled to Chihuahua to buy bulk loads of marijuana and partied in Juárez discos with rising drug lords. He spread out his commerce to new horizons. He traveled to Mississippi and Alabama, where he sold to the Dixie Mafia, a network of villains in the Appalachian states. He went to San Francisco to sell to students on the lawns of Berkeley. He bought houses and nightclubs with suitcases of cash.
However, Robert's drug-dealing dream hit a wall in the late seventies when he got nabbed by agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA did what it calls a "buy and bust." An undercover agent pretended to be a dealer and asked for three hundred pounds of grass from Robert's partner. After police nabbed the partner in his car, they stormed Robert's luxury house, arrested him in his swimming trunks, and grabbed sacks of weed from the kitchen and garage.
This is the flip side of narco economics. Robert splurged on lawyers, got his assets seized, and served close to a decade in federal prison. Yet after he got out, he went back into the trade, moving ganja and a little cocaine with a new generation of Mexican traffickers. This time, he kept a lower profile, shifting smaller amounts to stay off the radar. He carried on past middle age, through marriages and divorces, booms and busts, through the end of the Cold War and the opening of democracy across the Americas. By the time he hit his sixties, he suffered from chronic asthma and heart disease. And he was still smuggling weed.
When Robert started trafficking drugs, his Mexican colleagues were a handful of growers and smugglers earning chump change. They needed Americans like him to get into the market. But over the decades, the narco trafficking networks grew into an industry that is worth tens of billions of dollars and stretches from Mexico into the Caribbean to Colombia to Brazil. Mexican gangsters transformed into cartels and established their own people stateside, often their family members. Two of their biggest distributors were the Chicago-born twin sons of a Durango heroin king. While Robert had been a big shot back in the day, he fell to the position of a small-time smuggler.
South of the border, the cartels spent their billions building armies of assassins who carry out massacres comparable to those in war zones and outgun police. They have diversified from drugs to a portfolio of crimes including extortion, kidnapping, theft of crude oil, and even wildcat mining. And they have grown to control the governments of entire cities and states in Latin America.
"Back in the old days, it was nothing like this," Robert says. "They were just smugglers. Now they prey on their communities. They have become too powerful. And many of the young guys working for them are crazy fucking killers who are high on crystal meth. You can't deal with these people."
I ask Robert if he feels guilty about pumping these organizations with cash year after year. They could never have gotten so big without working with Americans.
He looks into his glass for a while and sighs. "It is just business," he says. "They should have legalized many of these drugs a long time ago."
Some months after I interview him, Robert is arrested again, driving over the border with a trunk full of ganja. He is sixty-eight. He spends four months in prison, pleads guilty, and is given supervised release on time served and medical grounds. He tells the judge his trafficking career is over.
Flip from El Paso over the Rio Grande and fourteen hundred miles south onto a hillside in southern Mexico. I am in the mountains in the state of Guerrero, close to where traffickers grow marijuana and produce heroin. The fate of these hills is locked with that of smugglers in Texas and drug users across America by the pretty green and pink plants here. It's the domain of a cartel called Guerreros Unidos, or Warriors United, a small but deadly splinter of an older trafficking network. The hill is beautiful, thick with pine trees and bright orange flowers. Strange crickets jump on the earth, and exquisite butterflies arc through the air.
The smell of death is overwhelming. It's like walking into a butcher's shop stuffed with decaying meat; putrid, yet somehow a little sweet. While I would describe the smell as sickening, it's not noxious. It's a movie cliché that people throw up when they see or smell corpses. That doesn't happen in real life. Corpses don't make you physically nauseous. The sickness is deep down, more an emotional repulsion. It's the smell and sight of our own mortality.
The stench of rotting human flesh is all over this hill from a series of pits where police and soldiers are pulling out corpses. They are dank, maggot-ridden holes that the victims probably dug themselves. The corpses are charred, mutilated, decomposed.
In Mexico, they call this a narcofosa, or drug trafficking grave. But many of the victims here are neither drug traffickers nor police officers, nor in any way connected to the world of narcotics. They are shopkeepers, laborers, students who somehow ran afoul of the Warriors' criminal empire. The troops dig up thirty corpses on this site, near the town of Iguala. And it's just one of a series of narcofosas dotting these hills.
Residents in close-by shacks describe in hushed voices how the Warriors brought their victims here. They would come at night in convoys of pickups, openly holding Kalashnikov rifles to their terrified hostages. Often they were with police officers. The Warriors were alleged to control most of the Iguala police force as well as the town's mayor and his wife.
Some of the corpses have been here for months, but no one came searching — until an atrocity that made world headlines. On September 26, 2014, Iguala's police and their colleagues, the Warrior gunmen, attacked student teachers, killing three and abducting forty-three.
The global media finally learned where Iguala was. How could forty-three students disappear off the face of the earth? It sounded like Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnapping schoolchildren, but this was right next to the United States. Thousands of troops poured in, uncovering mass graves like the one that I am standing in. But they still couldn't find the students.
After more than a month, they followed the trail to a garbage dump ten miles away. Mexico's attorney general said the Warriors murdered the forty-three there, burning their corpses on a huge bonfire with wood, tires, and diesel and throwing the remains into the nearby river San Juan. Police found charred bones in a bag, which was allegedly in the river, and sent them to a laboratory in Austria. It confirmed that the DNA in a bone fragment matched that of one of the disappeared.
However, family members and many journalists refused to believe the government's account. Mexican prosecutors have a history of cover-ups that have left widespread distrust. An independent report by experts also rejected many of the official conclusions. The families demanded police keep searching for the other forty-two students and further investigate the web of corruption that led to this atrocity.
Mexico seemed to have gotten numb to murder. Between 2007 and 2014, drug cartels and the security forces fighting them had killed more than eighty-three thousand people, according to a count by Mexico's government intelligence agency. Some claimed it was many more. I covered massacres where nearby residents seemed eerily detached. When an individual goes through a traumatic experience, the gut reaction is to block it out. Communities do the same. People became weary of killers, cartels, and carnage. Victims become statistics.
Iguala changed that. The fact that the victims were students, the blatant police involvement, the inept government response — all shook the heart of Mexican society. Maybe the moment had just come. At the end of 2014, people took to the streets in hundreds of thousands to protest narco corruption and violence. The faces of the disappeared students filled posters on Mexico City walls and were held up in solidarity from Argentina to Austria to Australia. They were humans, not numbers.
The attacks and protests shattered an illusion called Mexico's Moment. It was a mirage conjured up by the team of President Enrique Peña Nieto and bought by some American pundits and media. It said that drug cartel violence wasn't really that bad, that we could sweep it aside and talk about an expanding Mexican middle class, spring break in Cancún, and iPad sales.
Iguala put violence back on the front page. It highlighted the problems that had been building up for years — of cartels that have become an alternate power controlling mayors and governors, of their tenuous links to federal security forces, of the international community failing to change a disastrous drug policy. It made many realize that the problems will not go away if we ignore them but only if we confront them and change things.
In a painful irony, the disappeared students in Iguala had planned to attend a march commemorating a massacre of students in Mexico in 1968. This takes us back to the height of the Cold War, the era of dictatorships and Guevara guerrillas (and when Robert first bought weed in Juárez). As Mexico was about to open the Olympics that year, soldiers shot dead at least forty-four people at a protest in Tlatelolco square in Mexico City. The Iguala attack on students created an agonizing equation:
46 years after soldiers killed
46 students were murdered or disappeared
* * *
Despite this dark similarity, the atrocities reflect the different worlds of the Cold War in the twentieth century and the crime wars in the twenty-first. The Tlatelolco massacre was almost certainly orchestrated from the top. The one- party government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, dubbed the Perfect Dictatorship, was worried students would disrupt the first ever Olympics in Latin America. It massacred protesters to scare them off the streets. This was in line with authoritarian regimes across the continent in the era, fighting descent with bullets.
In contrast, Iguala reflected the brave and twisted new world of narco power. Mexico now has a multiparty democracy, and the supposed leftist opposition governed Iguala. But the real power was this mysterious cartel, smuggling drugs, controlling politicians, making alliances with security forces. It is a dark force of shady interests that we struggle to even see.
Whereas the motive for repressing protesters in the 1960s is clear, the Iguala attacks left many stupefied as to why a drug cartel would target students. The trainee teachers are known for disruptive protests and had commandeered buses from the local bus terminal. Were gangsters attacking students as a form of terror, working with corrupt authorities to clamp down on protests? Or did the students unwittingly take a bus in which the cartel had stashed a heroin shipment? Or in their paranoia, did the gunmen think the students worked with a rival cartel. Or were the corrupt police defending a public event of their narco mayor and his wife? Whatever the mechanics, the specter is of a town controlled by gangsters responding to a public order incident with mass murder.
As hundreds of thousands marched on the streets against the terror, protesters called Iguala a state crime, putting it alongside the massacres of dictators. It was a provocative point. There was no proof that President Peña Nieto was involved in the attack. But city police officers, who are agents of the state, were on the frontline of it. Journalists also raised questions about what soldiers and federal police were doing during the shooting. In other cases, federal agents have been convicted of working with drug traffickers in Mexico. It sparks a debate about the responsibility of government when chunks of state apparatus are captured by cartels. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gangster Warlords by Ioan Grillo. Copyright © 2015 Ioan Grillo. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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