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.

Fentanyl – Dark Side of Technology

NOT Candy, colored Fentanyl pills

Like Covid, Fentanyl is created in a laboratory and is an equal killer of humankind. Both attest to the dark side of technology that leads not to the lengthening of life but the shortening of it. Humans may not be able to prevent Covid, but Fentanyl is largely a matter of choice. Technology is not altogether to blame. It’s only a partial master. Time to confront it. 

Deadly drugs in nature cannot compete with the lab. Humans with a certain cast of mind can take pride in outwitting nature. Until recently, nature provided the popular drugs like heroin and cocaine. Farmers grow and cultivate the plants from which the drugs are painstakingly made – a laborious, expensive process and visible to competitors who enviously eye the goings on. 

The lab makes this all much easier and profitable. Precursor chemicals from China are sent to Mexican labs where they are converted into white powder and pressed into pills, many brightly colored to attract users. No harm in anything looking so innocent. 

But harmful they are. An amount hardly visible to the eye can kill. Even sniffing it can be deadly. Fifty times more potent than heroin, it’s also much smaller than other drugs.  No lugging around bales of marijuana. It’s the number one killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45. 

More of it than ever is crossing a mostly open U.S.- Mexican border. The U.S Border Patrol is woefully undermanned. It’s possible to go seventy miles along the Texas border and not see a single agent. National Guard may be on hand, but they cannot make an arrest and can only shoot if they’re shot at first. They are mainly a welcoming committee for illegal immigrants anxious to surrender. 

One reason the Border Patrol Is absent is that it’s bogged down with all the paperwork involved in the myriad migrants crossing the border. This is the scheme of the ever-inventive drug cartels which control the Mexican side of the border. By tying up the Border Patrol, they can more easily move their drugs across elsewhere. It’s a no-lose situation – profits from people along with drugs. Human trafficking is a growing menace with ugly results. 

Americans take more painkilling pills than any other people on earth. As a result, they are sometimes considered a pampered people who have not endured the privation of wars and conflicts that have engulfed other peoples and are often caused by U.S. attack. Some say dangerous drugs are all too readily available. Who can resist? So let’s cut the supply. Policing has worked fitfully in the past, but forty thousand U.S. troops on the Mexican border could seal it and thus keep out the bulk of the drugs reaching the U.S. 

In his book Fentanyl Inc., Ben Westhoff writes that hard drugs can never be eliminated altogether because one way or another people will have them. The answer is what he calls “harm reduction,” clinics that allow the use of drugs in clean and controlled settings. These have been established in Canada, Spain, Slovenia and elsewhere with a marked decline in deaths from drugs. But does this encourage greater use of drugs knowing they won’t lead to arrest or illness? 

Harm Reduction Clinics

The problem remains, the cures are elusive but must be pursued if a society is to continue to function in a safe and civilized manner.

Welcome, Fentanyl

Americans are now welcoming all kinds of people across the U.S.-Mexican border without knowing who they really are. The same goes for drugs. Some are worse than others – like fentanyl, which is easily lethal and, accordingly, the drug cartels’ biggest money maker in earnings that reach an estimated sixty billiondollars a year in the U.S.

More than 100,000 Americans die each year from Mexican delivered opioids, most of which are likely to be fentanyl. It’s their fault, we’re told, because they should know what they’re doing. But often they don’t. The drug cartels now conveniently lace other drugs with fentanyl so people can take it unawares. In effect, they are murdered, a crime yet to catch public attention. 

How have the cartels arranged this? The don’t control the U.S. media which has little to say about their activities – an exclamatory mention every now and then.  Their readers and viewers may know more about Yemen and Somalia than about present day Mexico, where the cartels function.

For an example of certifiable ignorance, we hear continually that the Mexican government should crack down on the cartels. The fact is the government is the cartels. It’s a narco state. They’re not going to crack down on themselves. Is this beyond the capacity of the media to discover? Apparently, since the media has not provided a credible analysis of Mexico in recent years. Unlike Yemen and Somalia the subject is taboo. 

Seemingly, someone has something to lose. Unquestionably, drug money is woven into the fabric of American life. The cartels enjoy considerable freedom of movement in the U.S. with networks of distribution extending throughout the country and into the inner cities where local gangs can be employed, often emulating the shootouts in Mexican cities.

Indeed, the cartels have brought Mexican habits to the U.S. Their illegal marijuana farms are proliferating in California, Oregon, Wisconsin and no doubt elsewhere. They are in effect armed camps, not to be approached by Americans at risk of being shot. Local law enforcement can’t cope, and where is the FBI?

Large Ilegal Marijuana Farm

Technological advance is a two-edged sword – great good orgreat evil depending on its use. Fentanyl, as they say, is a good medicine and a bad drug. It can relieve pain from open heart surgery and also create a high like no other for the determined user. In his book Fentanyl Inc., Ben Westhoff describes what he calls “psychonauts” delving into the mind for the ultimate thrill,even approaching death.  Still more man-made chemical drugs are on the way like carfentanil which is a hundred times more potent than fentanyl. The sky is the limit or the casket.

Bullets Along the Beaches

Come enjoy our beautiful beaches, sparkling waters, lively bars, fabulous food, and picturesque towns, boast the tourist ads for Mexico. All too true, but one activity is conspicuous in its absence from the promotion – shootings courtesy of the drug cartels.

They are on the rise in the vacation wonderland along the Caribbean in the state of Quintana Roo. In late January shootings killed two Canadian tourists in a five-star hotel in Playa del Carmen. Close by a few days later a beachfront bar manager was murdered. In December a group of men riding ski jets opened fire on a beach at Cancun, killing a drug dealer and wounding four tourists. In November visitors in Puerto Morelos were locked in their hotel rooms as gunmen opened fire on the beach, killing two people. In October an attack in a bar in Tulum left two tourists dead, one of them a U.S. travel promoter.

Homicides have dramatically increased along the beaches as tourism has risen. Where people congregate so do drugs for use and sale. The cartels arrive to pick up some loose change along with their massive U.S. profits and violence is sure to follow. Its minor compared to the mayhem elsewhere in Mexico, but important enough for the U.S. State Department to issue a warning about travel in the region. The CDC had added its own alert to the high incidence of Covid 19 in Mexico.

Armed guard with bathers on the beach. Photo by: Business Insider

Politics have played a part in the crime wave. Elections were recently held for mayor and police chief in various towns along the coast. That meant that cartels were going to have to make new arrangements with authorities to continue to operate. It also has led to renewed violent competition among the cartels for the best location at beaches, bars, and casinos.

Foreign gangsters from Russia – where else? – and Romania have joined the action, concentrating mainly on money laundering and sex trafficking. A Romanian boss who used to enjoy a cozy relationship with top Mexican officials has been caught and imprisoned, but crime fighters caution that his operation continues to function. As in the case of the local cartels, removing the man at the top hardly matters. He is quickly replaced given the money involved.

Hardy visitors to the beaches can take comfort in the fact that the cartels don’t wish them harm. They are business and killings are bad publicity. The international media is indifferent to the endless murder of Mexicans, but foreigners are another matter. Hands off. The cartels get the picture. Accidents can happen despite their best efforts of killing only their own. Bullets can go wrong. But it also should be kept in mind that there are limits to cartel patience with intruders, however innocent, on their domain. Occasionally bullets are a warning. Don’t forget who is in charge here.

Meanwhile, adventurous travelers can enjoy the reasonable prices and spectacular setting of Quintana Roo. With a little caution like not criticizing drug cartels while drinking in a bar or harassing the armed guards who mingle with tourists on the beach, it can be a fun vacation.


Reckoning in Tijuana

Mexico is not at war, but its people can hardly tell the difference. Cartel violence is an equivalent, racking up one of the world’s highest homicide rates and killing more journalists than any other place on earth, nine last year and more the fifty since 2018. So far this year, three have been killed for their courage to report the doings of the drug cartels which virtually control Mexico and brook no opposition. The penalty is invariably death.

The question is how the journalists manage to carry on, but they know their work is vital since no other country. including the U.S., takes much interest in what they face. Mexico’s overwhelming violence is studiously ignored while media and government attention is focused on the possibility of violence half a globe away in Ukraine. It’s a close ally, we’re told. But what is neighboring Mexico?

Three years ago, Mexican President Lopez Obrador held a press conference in Tijuana, especially susceptible to violence. Reporter Lourdes Maldonado Lopez told him, “I fear for my life “, referring to a dispute she had with a former employer, the boss of a media outlet and a top regional politician – read drug cartel. The president said he would investigate. That didn’t prevent her from being shot to death in her car in Tijuana in January.

Lourdes Maldonado Lopez. Photo by: BBC News

On learning of this, the president said – not very accurately – he hadn’t been aware of any likely violence. But then his policy has been one of forbearance toward the cartels. He says he looks forward to an era of good feelings: “we must purify public life so that materialism doesn’t dominate us, so that ambition, ego and hate are set aside.” But are the cartels listening?

To pacify whatever critics may exist across the border, Mexico has established a protection program for endangered journalists, including a panic button for emergencies. None of this helped Lopez in her hour of need, but then was it meant to? The cartels decide who lives or dies in Mexico.

Earlier in January, photo newsman Margarito Martinez, who covered crime in Tijuana, was shot and killed after numerous threats on his life, and reporter Jose Luis Gamboa, who connected local authorities with organized crime, was stabbed and left dying on a street in Veracruz state. The killers are hardly ever caught, much less put on trial. After all, they’re working for the state – the drug cartels.

We can imagine the uproar if this many journalists were killed in the U.S. Yet Mexico is right next door. Perhaps the same attitude prevails as it does on the border. Drugs are allowed to pour across, in particular fentanyl which can kill by overdose or by any dose since it’s regularly laced to other drugs that can be swallowed unaware.

Someone is benefiting from this extraordinary pillage. Along with drugs, many billions in drug money spread around the U.S. If those who profit care little for the American lives lost to drugs – 100 thousand a year – why should they care about Mexicans? American eyes, currently fixated on distant Ukraine, should turn south, and focus on the genuine U.S. enemy, the drug cartels.