Drugs and Bananas

Things are seldom what they seem in the tumultuous illegal drug world. There’s so much money that nothing stays fixed that long. Take Honduras, a small nation nestled among other small nations in Central America on a direct route for drugs coming from South America to Mexico and then to the final destination: bountiful, drug-consuming America. This requires frequent readjustment for the riches therein.

So America probably shouldn’t have been surprised when one of its favored anti-drug warriors turned out to be the opposite. Even U. S. Presidents Obama and Trump feted Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez with millions in aid as he pledged to use an “iron fist” against the drug traffickers. “The party is over for criminals,” he announced.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

Behind the scenes, he was doing something else – helping those same criminals to thrive. Famed drug lord El Chapo, who is now serving a life sentence in the U. S. for his criminal activities, was looking for a drug route through Honduras to expand the reach of his Mexican Sinaloa cartel. Ok, said Hernandez. A million will do it. El Chapo complied and handed a briefcase with a million dollars to the President’s brother. Said a pleased Hernandez: “You can stuff the drugs up the noses of the gringos.” 

Hernandez applied the usual trappings of repression to his country. The media were paid or threatened to be silent as he went about his work. Extradited to the U.S. two years ago, he is now on trial in New York City with the prospect of an El Chapo style conviction.

But Honduras is known for more than drugs. It was the first “Banana Republic,” no offense intended. Keeping a close eye on the nations to its south, the U.S. made many forays into Honduras, but the most successful was privately conducted by Sam Zemurray, who had bananas on his mind and in his vision for Honduras. He cajoled a compliant government into letting him acquire a few thousand acres to grow his favorite crop, and the rest was history: banana sales around the world led to fabulous riches for the fruit companies who added railroads and banks to the landscape. The local population was less richly rewarded.

Keeping Honduras on the map, bananas gave way to guns. Concerned by communist penetration of Central America during the Cold War, the U.S decided to conduct military operations on? – you guessed it – a banana plantation in Honduras. The target was the Soviet-aided Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Writes David Vine in his book Base Nation, “Honduras was like a stationary, unsinkable aircraft carrier strategically anchored at the center of the war-torn region.” Stationed there were U.S.-backed Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas, resulting in a major scandal of the Reagan administration when it was disclosed that proceeds from U.S. arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Contras against a congressional prohibition.

Harvesting bananas in Honduras, 1952 (Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Cold War is over, but Honduras is still busy with another war against drug traffickers. No rest for the geopolitically useful. The outcome awaits the future. But the present is not so bad. The Honduran economy is growing, and a government crackdown seems to be curbing crime, including the fearsome homicide rate. Honduras has not turned into a drug republic. Long live the Banana Republic.

The Rule of the Drug Cartels

The Mexican drug cartels can read the signs. Come on in. The weather is fine. They oblige and are now rapidly adding to the forces already here across an open border which is controlled by the cartels. It’s almost as if it’s their border, all 2,000 miles of it. Undermanned with no responding strategy, U.S guards hardly get in the way. Drugs and people flow freely in.

The last time I looked illegal migrants in El paso and across the river in Juarez were almost all vigorous males, not the least hesitant about entering the U.S. Robust and amiable, they patiently awaited the cartel command as to when and where to cross. They obviously don’t qualify for asylum and aren’t looking for jobs. These are assured on the vast drug cartel distribution network spanning the U. S. or among the tens of thousands of illegal armed marijuana farms proliferating in the American west – slices of Mexico recovered from what was lost to the U.S. in the 1840s war The cartels have their own notion of empire.

Almost all U.S. attention is focused on the hordes of illegal migrants now entering the country. While they are difficult and overwhelming some cites, they are rarely killing people. Drugs are, especially deadly fentanyl, which is combined with more everyday drugs, an unsuspected killer. This is tolerated because of the polarization in the U.S. between those who take the drugs and those who promote them, wealthy, well placed individuals and organizations who enjoy the profits and are indifferent to the victims. Perhaps this is the greatest inequality of all.

Much encouraged, the drug cartels are moving south as well as north. Ecuador is their present destination for a southern takeover. They demonstrate this by breaking into a tv studio in the port city of Guayaquil, brandishing their guns, threatening the staff and announcing who is boss in Ecuador until they are hauled off by late arriving police. Riots in prisons with kidnapping of guards have further signaled the arrival of the cartels – vast drug traffic along with a surge in murders and other violence to keep people in line.

Screen grab of live video of gunmen taking over television studio in Guayaquil (TC Television network)

And this in Ecuador of all places, one of the most peaceful countries in Latin America. If only it were not next to Colombia, a top producer of cocaine. Colombia had the traffic all to itself until a U.S. sponsored crackdown put it out of business. Then, as author Eduardo Gamarra explains, it’s a balloon effect. Squeeze in one place, the bulge appears elsewhere. Ecuador is now living with this deplorable bulge.

President of Ecuador Daniel Noboa (Fernando Sandoval / Asamblea Nacional, 23 November, 2023)

Newly elected Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa has promised to react with an “iron fist” by imposing a state of emergency and using the military to bring the cartels under control. In this he is following the example of the Central American nation, El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has adopted harsh security measures and jailed close to 100,000 people to restore peace. Also under cartel control is Honduras, which like Mexico, is a virtual narco state. The cartels are the state. Other Latin American nations face a similar threat. The iron fist reaction is not kind to customary civil liberties, but the people are desperate for relief from this especially violent rule.

Good-bye Cartels

Two years ago, I was driving through the Mohave desert in southern California when I came upon an assortment of white canopied structures as far as the eye could see. What were they doing in this arid zone? They were illegally growing marijuana under the watchful eye and stern control of Mexican drug cartels – a patch of violent-prone Mexico transferred to the U.S. Don’t get too close, residents warned, or they will come out with guns and threaten you. As in Mexico, shootouts occur among rivals and dead bodies are a familiar sight. These alien occupants steal water from people in a parched land, destroy wildlife with overuse of pesticides and undercut legal American growers by avoiding taxes and burdensome regulations. A cartel paradise courtesy of the U.S.

Illegal marijuana farms in the Mojave Desert

But fortunately, not to last. On a recent trip back to the desert, these marijuana farms had altogether disappeared, not one to be seen wherever I looked. It seemed like magic but was the result of hard tedious work. People were fed up with the costly, dangerous cartel intrusion and officials of sprawling San Bernardino County acted accordingly. Sheriff Shannon Discus organized a task force with heavy machinery to smash green houses, machetes to cut plants and guns for protection that steadily eliminated one farm after another. By now some thousands have been destroyed containing over a million plants. The desert is back to normal.

And what a desert! Its austere serene beauty is fit for more than marijuana. How about tourism instead? A manager of a popular inn located in the pleasant town of Twenty-nine Palms says she can live in a bubble now undisturbed by outside commotion. Just add a fancy restaurant to traditional digs and here come the guests. A staffer at the same inn says life may be easier now for a close friend who made the mistake of leasing some land at $2,000 a month to friendly Mexicans who turned out to be cartel toughs, a familiar transaction in these parts where land is cheap. At the first sign of inquiring police they fled with all the equipment they could take ahead of demolition.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office raids on illegal cannabis farms

On my first trip I visited a dot of a desert town called Landers where a post office marks the center. There two apparently anxious women were discussing in hushed voices the latest doings of the local cartels. As elsewhere homeowners were possibly outnumbered and definitely outgunned by the intruding Mexicans who treated them, well, like Mexicans. So what if they were Americans. The land actually belonged to Mexico before it was appropriated by the U.S. in the 1840’s war with Mexico. Some cartel leaders want it back. The marijuana invasion is a start.

Today the once near deserted post office is bustling with activity. The farms are gone, says a relaxed resident who notes that the remains of one can be found down a dirt road at the foot of a nearby mountain. There I observed the hulk of a greenhouse that had seen better days of a prospering cartel. Elsewhere remains of farms consisted of heaps of ruble. Demolition had been thorough, making the emphatic point that the illicit growers should not think of returning.

While a cloud has lifted for the people of the Mohave desert, the drug cartels have suffered a genuine setback. This at a time when they are making aggressive advances on the border with drugs and migrants. They are virtually unstoppable. San Bernardino shows they can be stopped and furnishes an example. The outraged people of the county made their concerns clear to county officials. If nothing was done, they could take the law into their own hands. Indeed that’s a western tradition. Law enforcement got the message and went to work. There is much more work to be done as cartel farms continue to spread in California, Oregon and elsewhere.

Appalled by cartel violence, some hawkish Republicans talk of bombing drug labs in Mexico and other kinds of military action. It makes more sense to clean up the U.S. first, from eliminating all the marijuana farms to disrupting cross country drug and human traffic to closing the now open border. Hit the cartels where it hurts in the pocketbook. Their existence depends on U.S sales. Cut them, and the cartels may be weakened to the point that besieged Mexicans can finally rebel the way San Bernardino did.

Drug Cartel Ties to Washington

Hunter Biden’s wandering laptop seems to have an inexhaustible supply of information, much of it damaging to the user and his father President Joe. The latest revelations published by The London Daily Mail indicate prolonged business dealings with prominent super rich Mexican businessmen, notably billionaires Carlos Slim and Miguel Aleman Velasco, who made many visits to the Vice President’s office in 2014.  Hunter was continually excited by the prospect of investing with these heavies in Mexico and Latin America, not that it always worked out, leading to his heartfelt complaint: why are you so silent after all I’ve done?

On one occasion Joe flew with Hunter on Air Force 2 (at taxpayers’ expense) to meet Aleman’s son to consummate a deal considered “flippin’ gigantic.” Relations were congenial, if not in fact cozy, with rest and fun on Caribbean beaches and ample time to discuss such things as the flow of Mexican drugs to the U.S.

Former VP Joe and son Hunter Biden with Carlos Slim in 2015

President Joe and Hunter would probably indignantly deny this. The meetings were all about business. But business is not conducted in a vacuum in Mexico. Everything revolves around the drug trade of which wealthy businessmen form a part, like it or not. Along with all other Mexicans they belong to the cartels from whom they take their instructions and make a lot of money. They will not do so if they go astray, and their lives will be forfeited as well. The cartels react briskly to signs of disaffection. Consider the Mexican homicide rate and the bodies hanging along the highways.

So, the Bidens may as well shake hands with the cartels. They have put their stamp of approval – their brand – on the true enemies of the U.S., which will be used to their advantage. The cartel chiefs are reassured. Nothing to worry about from the U.S. So, it’s business as usual with the satisfaction of paying off top officials. Not that this is apparent to the American media which continues to describe the cartels as separate from the government with no-up-to-date analysis of the actual workings of the government – who’s in charge? who does what to whom? We know more about Syria or Somalia, where we are actively intervening, than about next-door Mexico, which we leave alone.

Why this reluctance to face the reality of the cartels? Qui bono? Mexican drug sales in the U.S. may amount to as much as 100 billion dollars a year. No one knows for sure. While most is laundered back to Mexico – easily done – enough remains in the U.S. to fill obliging pockets. It can be said that the Bidens’ dealings are done openly compared to far greater behind-the-scenes operations.

These carry grave risks, the cartels are poisoning more Americans than ever with their drugs, especially lethal fentanyl. They are also spreading what can only be called armed camps by the tens of thousands around the U.S. These are illegal marijuana farms complete with an armed guard or two to keep neighbors at a distance. Put them all together and if properly coordinated, they constitute a veritable army. Colonel Douglas MacGregor told Tucker Carlson that we will eventually be fighting them here in the U.S. May the best man win.

But have no fear. The drug cartels have made it known they favor peace. Notes Mexican President Lopez Obrador, as he anticipates the upcoming talks on the Ukraine war in Saudi Arabia: “We don’t want the Russia-Ukraine war to continue. It’s very irrational. The only thing that benefits from it is the war industry.” Mexico will stick to its kind of war.

The Fate of Journalists in Mexico

On a sunny afternoon in seaside Acapulco, Journalist Nelson Matu was getting out of his car in a shopping center parking lot. Gunmen – we don’t know how many – quickly moved in to pay their respects to journalism in Mexico. They fired, killing him, and fled never to be apprehended. They never are. Killing offending journalists is a licensed activity, as it were, among the drug cartels that rule Mexico.  The death of journalists is collateral damage. Matu had been a longtime irritant, covering violence for fifteen years and directing a group of journalists similarly inclined. He had survived two previous assassination attempts. The third succeeded. The cartels are persistent. This is why Acapulco, once the famed playground of the rich and famous, is now shunned. The U.S. State Department warns not to go there.

The body of another journalist, Luis Martin Sanchez, was found in a village north of Acapulco in the violence-ridden state of Guerrero. There were signs of possible torture and two messages on cardboard attached to his chest explaining their action, a typical cartel ploy. Sanchez had been a correspondent for La Jornada, a newspaper in Mexico City that had already lost two other newsmen to cartel violence. Sanchez’ death brings to seven the number of journalists murdered so far this year. It’s estimated that over 150 have been killed since 2000. The figure is imprecise because some just disappear and never turn up. It’s reasonable to fear the worst.

Missing persons bulletin for Luis Martin Sanchez Iniguez issued by the Mexican state of Nayarit Attorney General’s Office

It doesn’t take much to arouse the cartels. Israel Vasquez usually wrote about neighborly goings on. He wasn’t on the violence beat. But one day he got involved in a story about a group of dismembered bodies discovered in a church in the town of Salamanca. As he was preparing a broadcast for Facebook on the subject, two men on a motorcycle pulled up and shot and killed him. No stone can be overturned in the cartel view.

If Mexican journalists are fair game, their American colleagues are not a target. Few go to Mexico, but those who do are treated with care. The cartels know that while Americans are indifferent to the slaughter of Mexicans, they’re outraged if an American is harmed. The media follows suit. That means bad publicity for the drug business. A day of reckoning can be put off. Meanwhile, the cartels are making much progress in the U.S. The latest round of immigrants are mostly robust young men who obviously don’t need asylum in the U.S. Indeed, we may need asylum from them since many will doubtless link up with the vast drug distribution network stretching from coast to coast. When I was recently on the border, they seemed anxious to get on with their journey and not at all apprehensive.

Israel Vazquez Rangel

One destination might be the many thousands of drug cartel marijuana farms springing up in the American west. Though clearly illegal and undercutting legal American growers, they seem strangely tolerated. They are virtual armed camps since if anyone gets too close, out comes a threatening armed guard. Invasion, anyone? People in the area are terrified and local law enforcement can’t cope. The cartel farms are better armed. Surely, this is a national problem, but where are the feds? Could the FBI set aside its current preoccupation with classified documents to get involved? Unlike Mexican journalists, U.S reporters don’t have to worry about being killed if they come to take a look. This is America. So what’s keeping them?

Was Stalin Mentally Ill?

Soviet ruler Josef Stalin caused the death of some twenty million innocent people in his storied career. Some had challenged him, others had offended him and still more just simply existed. That was reason enough. He had the power, and he enjoyed using it and frankly, took pleasure in killing. He never showed any regret for his atrocities while he held sway over a good chunk of mother earth and its people. What can we say? Was he mentally ill, a category to which we assign today many malefactors?

Let’s say the great dictator assembled a group of psychiatrists to tell him what was wrong. They dutifully examined his words and deeds and came to the unanimous conclusion that he was mentally ill. Unfortunately, the psychiatrists got the remedy, not Stalin. They couldn’t even make it to a labor camp in Siberia. They couldn’t even escape the room. “I may be mentally ill,” said Stalin as he quickly disposed of them, “but you’re dead and I’m alive.” And ready to go on to greater glory and renown as arguably the most effective ruler of the 20th century.

That’s psychiatry Stalin-style. But what does it say about our world today? Is mental illness congruent with remarkable statesmanship and the ruthlessness that accompanies it? If so, we may have to reconsider the casual way we equate mental illness with crime. It can be inaccurate and misleading. Crime speaks for itself. Today’s drug cartels gained control of Mexico some years ago, yet they are as violent as ever, displaying their joy in killing fellow Mexicans and maybe planning the same fate for Americans. The only cure is getting them somehow out of the picture.

Mercy and compassion alone will not do. As long as it’s not punished, crime will spread. What happened in Mexico is a wake-up call for the U.S. Over and over mental illness is cited as the cause for the rapidly increasing crime in the inner cities where drug cartels prey on local gangs. But does sympathy for the addicted also explain the inattention of the media and the U. S. Government to the drug trade? Do they think it’s a system that needs counseling, not suppression? The same goes for violent local criminals. In a typical case Kemal Rideout casually slashed a woman to the bone on the New York City subway for no apparent reason. When he was caught about to leave town, his lawyer claimed – what else? – he was mentally ill and could not help himself. This had worked four times before when he had committed violent crimes and avoided prison. Why not try again? Others look to his example.

Oddly, while the U.S. is increasingly lenient with drug cartels and inner-city criminals, it’s issuing more threats than ever against foreign powers, large and small, with economic sanctions and military action. It’s now engaged in a proxy war with Russia that doesn’t have a clear purpose and is not going very well. It may be time to look back at an earlier great power, the Roman Republic-Empire, which had a run of close to ten centuries – impressive; we’re just getting started – that historians say became so enfeebled at home it could no longer hold off the barbarian forces that finally took it over. Could a plague of mental illness spell the end of the U.S.?

Strategy of the Drug Cartels

The police, adequately suited up and armed, were ready. So were the media staked out by the Father Rahm church in El Paso where a massive influx of migrants was expected in a much-anticipated border crisis. This would be the result of a law expiring – Title 42 – that denied entry of immigrants on grounds of disease. But nothing happened. The invaders failed to appear. I drove several miles to the east of El Paso where I’d seen a number of migrants and police the day before. Now I didn’t see anyone. The police around town were relaxed and joking. Just an average day, they said.

Migrants in El Paso waiting to be processed

Had the cartels lost their punch? That didn’t seem likely. Here’s a conspiracy theory: President Biden made a call to his favorite drug cartel boss. How about doing me a favor. Call off your boys for a few days. It’ll make me look good. No open border. The boss complied and may ask for a favor in return.

Now for the facts. The Mexican drug cartels which basically control the entire 2000-mile border don’t care for dramatics, only for business which has never been better. They’re making tons of money from charging migrants to cross the border. If they don’t pay, they don’t cross. This comes on top of enormous earnings from drug sales to Americans already on the other side. Americans and Mexicans are both cash cows. Why jeopardize a good thing by making an unnecessary splash. So there will be no flood of migrants, just the usual trickle and occasional stream. The cartels are nothing if not strategists. In this respect they have no match on the other side.

Routinely, migrants gather at Father Rahm’s church awaiting their processing and dispersal to various parts of the country. In contrast to past migrations, there are hardly and women or children, just vigorous young males who don’t look as if they need asylum. They say they want work and indeed could make up for job shortages in some areas of the economy. They could also add to the cartel drug distribution network around the U.S. A group of three acted rather mysteriously. They seemed to head back toward Mexico. Homesick already? As they approached the border, they ducked into a building controlled by the U.S Border Patrol. I tried to follow but was stopped. Have to get permission higher up. Border Czar Kamala Harris? Were they informants of some kind or specially privileged? Surely not cartel members. You never know in this murky drug business.

Other migrants await their turn on the other side of the Rio Grande, now a muddy stream easy to cross. A much-traveled foot bridge leads to Juarez, known as the murder capital of the world when I was there a few years ago. Now it is several rungs down on the homicidal ladder and its downtown is as active and vibrant as that of El Paso, though a photographer tells me there have been some shootouts at a popular night spot. An expatriate familiar with border life says Americans are pretty safe In Juarez. The cartels are tolerant. If, say, a boisterous American gets carried away at a local bar and starts railing against the drug cartels, he will be gently escorted out and put to bed. Anything violent would be bad for business. Murdering an offending Mexicans is another matter, unreported.

Migrants in Juarez awaiting cartel orders to cross the Rio Grande

About fifty migrants are waiting in makeshift tents close to the footbridge in Juarez. Once again, they are almost all youngish men, this time from Venezuela. They are cheerful and approachable and could use a little money. They know they must await the command of the cartel to cross and hope it will be sooner rather than later. The cartel in turn conquers by dividing. The aim is to send a group over at a certain point to draw the attention of the Border Patrol. Thus diverted, they leave an opening for drugs to be sent across. Not a moment is wasted. It’s strategy.