Retired Mexican General Salvador Cienfuegos seemed clearly headed for a U.S. prison. An exhaustive investigation by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) showed that the former Mexican defense minister had taken heavy bribes to keep the military from interfering with the cartels whose drugs are poisoning Americans. As an aside, he aided one cartel against its rival. Such is politics in the narco state.
The DEA was dumbfounded. One of its top cases had exploded for no credible reason, hardly discouraging other traffickers from doing their business in the U.S. Mike Vigil, former international operations chief for the DEA, said freeing the general was a “huge gift” from President Trump to Mexico, perhaps for its help in slowing immigration. Keep the people out, let the drugs in.
Even by Washington standards the explanations offered were threadbare. The U.S. said there were “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” in the decision, too sensitive apparently to specify. A U. S. Justice Department spokeswoman said the case was dismissed because of confidence in the Mexican justice system, which in fact doesn’t exist. But don’t worry, U.S. Attorney General William Barr was assured, Mexico will soon serve up a narco boss trafficking in fentanyl. No name was given. Don’t want to alarm him.
From academy came a comforting explanation. Gladys McCormick, history professor at Syracuse University whose specialty is Mexico, said prosecuting Cienfuegos would have compromised intelligence for years to come. His arrest was “scandalous,” she added. “ He truly is untouchable and sacrosanct because of what he represents and the secrets he carries with him.” Cienfuegos could not have said it better.
It’s generally agreed this was a rare procedure in contrast to normal behavior. For example, U.S. prosecutors have resisted efforts by Turkey to get charges dropped against a state owned bank accused of violating sanctions on Iran. But Turkey is in the Middle East and hardly a threat. Drug smuggling Mexico is right next door.
Ordinarily, it was just another murder among the many thousands that have occurred so far this year on the way to establishing a homicidal record for Mexico. But this one struck a nerve – Bianca Lorenzana, a 21 year old resident of Cancun whose dismembered body was found in plastic bags. Local women decided they had had enough. Ten women are murdered every day in Mexico.
Hundreds gathered peacefully at first, but then with a rage that perhaps emulated current U.S. protests began spraying graffiti and destroying property. As they tried to break into city hall, the police arrived and started shooting live ammunition. Four people were wounded, including two journalists, always a special target. Three have been murdered within the last month in Mexico, maintaining the country’s standing as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.
The protesters were quickly dispersed and eight were arrested. The very limited U.S. coverage suggested the police were operating on their own without official approval, which is nonsense. They are an arm of the drug cartels which basically run Mexico. As such, they behave in cartel fashion. While U.S. police are routinely injured in dealing with protests, Mexican police are only hurt by one another in typical cartel rivalry. Anyone who dares to confront a cop, much less throw a stone at him, is lucky to die without being tortured first
Tourists can visit seaside Cancun because the cartels allow it. They don’t mind picking up some loose change on top of their mammoth drug earnings. The day they decide to shut the place down, that will be the end of it. The women victims, alas, are only part of the story. The cartels don’t discriminate but kill anybody regardless of race, gender or religion. Understandably distressed, Abelardo Vera, hotel association president in Cancun, told reporters: “We’re living in the worst horror movie – robberies, extortion and people being murdered and mutilated every day. It’s unacceptable.”
The cure for this lies no longer in Mexico but in U.S. hands with proposals ranging from the legalization of marijuana that undercuts the cartel market to outright attack on the cartels as they assemble for their murderous business. That means taking some responsibility for the country that is being ruined by the drug traffic financed by the U.S.
Arturo Alba Medina became the seventh journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, approaching the record of twelve murdered last year, surpassing even the killings of news people in war-torn Syria. Alba Medina, a TV anchor, died significantly in the border town of Juarez, known from time to time as the “murder capital of the world.” There’s a lot of competition in Mexico for that title.
The various Mexican governments promised to catch the killers, but they hardly ever do since the killers are in control; namely, the drug cartels who run what is considered a “narco state.” Not just offending journalists, to be sure, are victims of their wrath. Mexican murders this year are about to overtake last year’s record of more than 35,000.
By any standards this is a major story, especially happening next door to the U.S., but try finding it in the U.S. media. More likely there will be reports of these kinds of deaths in distant Somalia or Libya. Media compassion is very selective. Slavery and the Holocaust are voluminously covered for good reason, but why so little on the current slaughter of Yemenis by Saudi Arabia with some U.S. assistance or the massacres in Mexico?
Ignoring Mexico can be attributed to that well-worn accusation “racism.” Mexicans don’t matter except in the U.S. where they vote. But the reason for this is probably more complex and indeed sinister. Americans profit from the Mexican violence, both those who take the drugs and those who take the drug money. Aside from some modest efforts to stop the trafficking, including a new border wall, illicit drugs continue to pour into the U.S., poisoning a vast number of people especially distraught by the coronavirus and the accompanying restrictions.
The American media has noticed this development and cited China as responsible. China is the manufacturer of deadly fentanyl which is delivered, however, by the Mexican cartels who control everything and every person that crosses the U.S. border. Once again the cartels evade blame. To whose benefit? Americans can get all the drugs they want that are killing them at a cost of some 100 billion dollars a year. Half of that is laundered or smuggled back to Mexico. The remainder stays in the U.S. to keep the cartels in business.
The bribes start at the border – maybe $5,000 or is it now $10,000? – to let a truck load of drugs through the border. Then right up the social scale to all kinds of respectable groups that need or desire the money. Those who resist or object can pay a serious price, as two FBI investigators (names omitted) learned when they tried to find where the money goes beyond the border. On discovering that it reaches bankers, judges and law enforcement, both lost their jobs and one had his life threatened by a knife. ”Big names,” they said, did them in.
Mexico is in essence a colony of the U.S. But it differs from previous colonial powers in that it takes no responsibility for the land that provides for it. Mexico can go about its business unmolested, a business that amounts to a humanitarian crisis for Mexicans. The U.S. is rebuked for its imperialism that led to the conquest and annexation of half of Mexico in 1848. Today’s imperialism is hidden but just as deadly.
Can disease lead to great art? It did during the plague of 1400 in ever active Florence where peoples’ fear and anxiety were relieved by a sculpture embodying their Christian faith that has been admired down the ages – far outlasting the disaster that gave rise to it.
The Black Death, or bubonic plague, of the mid 1300s devastated Florence, as it did the rest of Europe, killing half its population. Then in 1400, the plague struck again. Lacking today’s medical help, Florentines turned in desperation to their Christian faith. City fathers commissioned a vast sculpture to adorn the door of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, an esteemed structure where all the children of Florence were baptized.
The ambitious project distracted attention from the disease as Florentines rallied behind it. Among them was a young goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had fled the city to avoid illness. Hearing of the competition for creating the sculpture, he rushed back and won over better known adversaries. Not that he had any doubts, as he explained: “By universal consent and without a single exception the glory was conceded to me.”
People came to the studio to watch the work in progress as Ghiberti and his helpers went through several painstaking steps of bronze casting. Bronze was preferable to marble but much more expensive and much harder to deal with. It was a matter of civic pride. Florence would thrive on the beauty it creates. Completed after twenty years, the door was considered one of the finest works of the budding Renaissance – 28 panels depicting the New Testament with figures that seem to emerge gravely and sedately from the Bible. The epidemic had not turned out as badly as had been thought, the sculpture much better.
Art continued when disease had disappeared. In view of his success Ghiberti was asked to sculpt another door of the Baptistery, and this he did untiringly for thirty more years. This time he depicted the Old Testament in ten bronze panels that were infused with the growing humanism of the Renaissance – graceful, flowing figures that seemed to invite observers into the religious gatherings. Another artist on the rise in Florence, Michelangelo called it the “gates of Paradise.”
Sublime art does not accompany Covid 19. Satire prevails. Mona Lisa has a mask. A protesting woman says, “Stand back six feet and tell me you love me.” But Renaissance Florence shows that in a time of great turmoil and fear people can be lifted out of personal concern with a vision greater than themselves. Art conquers disease.
At first glance the dusty town of Douglas, Arizona, appears to be just another sleepy stop along the U.S.-Mexican border. Not exactly. It has been the center of a battle between the forces of the drug cartels and an aroused citizenry determined to reclaim their town. It looks as if the citizens have won.
In Douglas a young vibrant man Robert Uribe, decided to run for mayor, a post more prestigious than profitable since it pays only $300 a month. But it turned out that pay was not a problem since his father-in-law is a Mexican drug cartel leader. Once elected, he blossomed out in fancy clothes, a Rolex watch and numerous trips unrelated to his office. More importantly, he began to imitate the cartels’ way of doing business, shouting orders in dictatorial style, firing subordinates who objected and rearranging the town in his own interest.
It looked as if the Mexican cartels had gained a foothold in the U.S, always an ambition of theirs. But they hadn’t counted on the people of Douglas. Tanya Duarte led a recall drive that was thrown out on a technicality, but then she and others found a suitable candidate to run against Uribe in a recent election. A Mormon with ten children, Donald Huish campaigned against corruption in Douglas. “What you see is what you get,” says Tanya. A straight forward and incorruptible candidate handily won.
Now is the time for healing, says the mayor. A tarnished image will not be easy to repair. As a rule, the cartels don’t like to lose. When Tanya and her husband, a policeman, were shopping in Walmart, a stranger approached and asked “Do you know who you are up against?” Are you concerned? her husband asked. No, she replied and that suited him. Tanya says the best thing to do with the cartels is not to succumb to them. Otherwise, you are trapped.
Where does Douglas go from here? How to bring people to a town now famous for strife? Some possibilities according to residents: start with the Gadsden Hotel, the most sumptuous on the U.S. border with a sweeping staircase of white Italian marble and a mesmerizing stained glass mural above. Below ground, there’s a cartel tunnel stretching from a home across the border in Agua Prieta to a warehouse in Douglas. With a little agility visitors could even descend into it and trace the steps of the smugglers. They could also view a sampling of so-called artcars that are festooned with thousands of novel objects in a display that might have confounded Michelangelo. Take that, cartels.
A haze moving from California wild fires reduces visibility along the border at the town of Douglas, Arizona. So drug runners try their luck at scaling the so-called Obama fence and escape into the U.S. with their valuable cargo. A border patrol agent tells me it’s standard practice for traffickers to operate in a group of three or four using ropes to maneuver over the 20 foot high barrier in a matter of minutes.
As if to confirm what he said, our conversation was interrupted by a call summoning him to stop a climb-over in the middle of the day. He sped off, helping to snag the intruders, though one escaped to the cluster of homes to the north, surviving no doubt to enjoy future riches in one of the world’s most profitable enterprises.
The Border Patrol guard the nine mile long, twenty foot high fence that was constructed in the Obama years. Its iron bars are entwined with concertina wire that is rather easily brushed aside by the climbers, though they are sometimes nicked by it and may end up in the hospital. Beyond the Obama fence, the 30 foot high Trump fence is under construction to mixed opinion.
The Border Patrol says it’s too early to tell how it will work, though one agent thinks cameras and sensors would do the job just as well. The wall must also be manned since the cartels are ingenious in finding ways over, under and around any barrier. Warner Glenn, an iconic cattle rancher from an esteemed local family, says one day traffickers came through his ranch disguised as workers on the fence. He doubts that anything will stem the drug invasion – too much money in too many hands. Most of the drugs come through routine ports of entry often manned by guards susceptible to lavish bribes that are a mere pittance for the cartels.
In his book “The Life and Times of Warner Glenn,” fellow rancher Ed Ashurst describes adventurous life on the ranch, including a conflict with that rare specimen in the area, a jaguar. Glenn was taking its picture as part of his concern for wildlife when the jaguar suddenly leaped at him only to be thwarted by his dogs leaping to save him. There are dangers beyond cartels in the area.
To the west of Douglas, rancher John Ladd no longer has to watch teams of black clad groups with automatic weapons cross his 20 thousand acre ranch. The Trump fence he says, has deterred them and given him some peace. He doesn’t have to worry about a repetition of the incident when a cartel gun was pointed at him. But he notes cartel scouts are still positioned on mountain tops where they can report the movements of the Border Patrol to the planners across the border. To remove them will require more substantial U.S. forces.
Along with drugs, cartel chiefs are arriving in the U.S. the better to direct their product and also to prepare for the day when they can exercise political power. Ladd says the nearby town of Naco, which is divided by the border, has more cartel members on the U.S. side than on the Mexican. In fact he recognizes some former classmates among them.
Longtime rancher Jim Chilton has never been in greater danger. The Trump fence on his fourteen miles along the border has only been partially built. Fearing they will soon be cut off, the cartels are pushing more drugs than ever across his ranch. He has some Border Patrol protection, but there have been confrontations that will likely continue, given that ranchers like Chilton are a first line of defense against what can only be called an invasion of the U.S. He wants Trump to be reelected so that he can complete the fence which will take another seven months.
Mexican ranchers are especially vulnerable. Chilton says those across the border cannot stay on their ranches where they are caught in a crossfire of cartels fighting for the drug routes once controlled by el Chapo Guzman now in prison. There’s a mistaken belief that eliminating a top drug lord somehow stalls the business. On the contrary, his disappearance leads to a fierce struggle among competitors to succeed him and a spike in Mexico’s prodigiously high homicide rate. If anything, there’s an increase in drug smuggling. Whatever perils Americans face cannot compare to the travail of Mexicans in this narco state neighboring the U.S.
Don’t go to Agua Prieta, we were told. Too dangerous. Indeed there have been drug cartel shootings as recently as June a year ago. But today I can vouch that it’s easy and quite safe to visit the border town across from Douglas, Arizona. It’s humming with activity with a growing population, though it is of course under the control of the drug cartels which are in charge of the rest of Mexico.
My guide for the day, Keoki Skinner, is an American who has lived in Agua Prieta for thirty years. He married a Mexican woman, and they have five bilingual children who are at home in both countries. He takes pride in Cafe Justo, a coffee co-op started by a Presbyterian ministry that has lifted some forty growers in the south out of poverty. The prized coffee is roasted, sipped and sold at a congenial setting in Agua Prieta.
Similarly, a group of equally industrious women called DouglaPrieta Works are engaged in sewing and painting a variety of items for sale here and in the U.S. They take time out from their pleasant work to offer visitors some food from the garden they tend. The aim of this kind of enterprise is to make conditions in Mexico livable so that people don’t feel they have to risk crossing the border for a better life.
But they are not entirely free where they live. Drug money rules Agua Prieta, as it does the rest of Mexico, and it’s an exacting boss. Offend it, and you become part of the statistic of an ever rising murder rate. If people mind their own business in Agua Prieta, the cartels leave them alone. Besides, the town is profitable and a nice place to live for relaxing cartel chiefs. Keoki points out their splendid mansions, what he calls “drug architecture,” clearly distinguishable from the lesser abodes around them. The most ostentatious one of all, outfitted with columns, is presently empty because its owner was forced to flee. Nobody seems in a hurry to take it over
Another home is owned by a sicario (combination body guard and hit man) who was given it as a reward for saving the life of the drug chief he served. His door looks open, but Keoki is not tempted to go in, though he says, not in jest, that if he’s in trouble, he would call a sicario rather than the police. His one brush with cartel activity came one night when he was awakened by the sound of an air cannon shooting bundles of marijuana across the border – a latest device to get their product to avid consumers
Wherever you go in Agua Prieta it’s hard to miss the houses of exchange where dollars of U.S. drug profits are converted to pesos. Business is booming. Yet many billions remain in the U.S. circulating into willing hands who are not so willing to have the fact revealed. That may explain why so little is heard or read about cartel activity. In a vast contribution to economic inequality in the U.S., the money that Americans pay for their poison further enriches the affluent.
Can Agua Prieta serve as a model for other Mexican towns under cartel supervision? It’s currently spared violence and can prosper. The cartels could moderate, but don’t count on it. Money is king. Many say the U.S., now involved in countless wars and struggles half a globe away, must turn its attention to the more threatening struggle just across its border.