Stopping Drugs At Sea

The U.S. Coast Guard may be the least celebrated of the US. military services. It’s a law enforcement member of the intelligence community, but its glamour is limited. It doesn’t take lives, but saves them – those in peril at sea and those who may perish from deadly drugs on their way here. The Coast Guard’s reach is global, but its mission is to protect America. America first but internationally oriented, an enviable combination.

Catching the enemy in the act is not easy. It takes a seamanship that might be admired by a John Paul Jones. First a suspicious vessel has to be sighted among all those at sea. A drug carrier may elude attack by mingling in a congested area near a port the way a drug laden truck squeezes among other vehicles at a land entry. Heavy traffic is the smuggler’s boon. If his boat is farther out, say 300 to 400 miles, it’s pretty clear he has something to hide.

A Coast Guard team approaches the likely suspect and calls for it to stop. It usually does since it’s much harder to run away at sea than on land. There’s seldom violence because the operation follows a pattern understood by both pursued and pursuer. If the boat carries a U.S. flag, the team can board right way once it seems to be safe. If there’s a foreign flag, the team must get approval from headquarters that can be done quickly or may take a few hours.

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team (US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

Then comes the challenge of finding the suspected drugs which can be ingeniously concealed. The Coast Guard must match wits with some of the most inventive criminals on earth. The contraband may be in a secret compartment or under a false floor or in a spare engine on deck. In Miami Lt. Commander Daniel Delgado notes that on one occasion some fresh concrete seemed suspicious. Back in port, a jackhammer cut through the concrete to reveal the profitable cargo below.

Sometimes the trafficker may toss the drugs overboard to avoid detection and arrest. What floats to shore are known as “wash-ups,” debris that is often spotted by beach goers who pick it up and turn it in. It’s not a suitable souvenir.

For obvious reasons there are far fewer drug busts at sea than on land, but each haul is many times larger. The traffickers take their losses in stride. They can easily make these up in the trips that get through. Despite its best efforts, the Coast Guard estimates it only stops abut fifteen per cent of the sea smugglers.

There may be something if not purifying, at least cleansing by water. The Coast Guard is spared the every day scandals of land enforcement. There’s a going rate of $10,000 for a guard who lets a drug laden truck across the Mexican border – a pittance compared to what’s inside. A seagoing Coast Guard team faces no such temptation and can take pride in its accomplishments – not to detract from the heroism of the U.S. border patrol who can face every day violence from the aggressive drug cartels

At some point the U.S. must withdraw from its highly dubious efforts to intervene militarily in nations overseas with an idea of reforming them. Then more attention and budget can be given to the Coast Guard, a prime defender of the U.S. and those who want to come here without, to be sure, drugs.

A Cartel Victory in the U.S.

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.

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda

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.

Narcos Is News

The Drug Enforcement Administration, established by President Nixon in 1973, has been overshadowed by the more celebrated CIA and FBI. In the television series Narcos, two swaggering FBI agents taunt a DEA undercover: “Dogs at airports now do your work.” They picked on the wrong guy. The DEA agent helps bring down the notorious drug lord Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, now in prison, though that is hardly the end of the story of a battle that continues uninterrupted to this day.

The show pulls no punches as it tries to get to the heart of the matter. The drug villains are no cardboard creations but full bodied portrayals. Gallardo, elegantly played by Diego Luna, is a loving family man while perfectly vicious as a cartel boss. He dreams of creating an organization that mirrors any legitimate business, and he approves the hideous torture of a DEA agent who threatens that business.

The agent, real life Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, discovered a 2500 acre marijuana field in an obscure setting in Mexico. Gallardo’s cartel is enraged, but as one member notes, the field will be worthless once the U.S. legalizes marijuana, which implies a certain futility on the part of everyone. Suffering Camarena is drilled full of holes for a product that will soon be discarded for more profitable cocaine.

Enrique “Kiki” Camarena

The series shows that the problem is far larger than just trafficking. Politics are involved at the highest level. Outfitted in a tuxedo that seems as comfortable to him as working clothes, Gallardo attends sumptuous dinners as a ranking member of the Mexican elite. The president returns his calls, may even call him. Billions of dollars of drug money, thanks to American consumers, keep everyone content. Only unrelenting DEA pressure brings Gallardo to justice. But in the show’s final scene, Gallardo tells his DEA antagonist that by putting him out of action, you have splintered the cartels into various parts that will be even bloodier and more dangerous.

Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo

And what of U.S. involvement? The film doesn’t go there except to note accurately that American drug consumers finance the cartels that run and ruin Mexico. Without the demand there would be no supply. But are there powers beyond consumers that keep the drug trade going? Is there a culpable American establishment akin to Mexico’s? “Narcos” producers, why not take a look?

The Charitable Cartels

The drug cartels are killing more Mexicans than ever, far more than are dying from coronavirus, but with a new twist. They’re also trying to keep some alive by supplying needy Mexicans with food and other supplies they don’t get from the government. “Who do they think they are?” asks an indignant President Lopez Obrador. “The government?” That seems to be the case.

With much fanfare and social media promotion, the cartels are enjoying their new charitable image. It can’t hurt business. But true to form, they’re also imposing a strict quarantine in parts of Mexico. Troubled U.S. states like Michigan and New York might take note of their means of enforcement. No fine or reprimand but in one case – according to the Wall Street Journal – a stiff whacking of a violator with a paddle marked “Covid 19.” Mexicans stay willingly indoors.

Though drug czar El Chapo Guzman is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison, he is nevertheless an influence in the relief effort. His daughter Alejandrina is distributing boxes of supplies with his familiar face stenciled on them. No escaping El Chapo if you want to eat. Alejandrina in fact has a business offering products in the name of her father whom she describes as a “humble orange seller with many goals and ambitions.”

An unidentified woman distributes provisions in boxes stamped with the image of the convicted drug trafficker (Mexico News Daily)

There’s an even more impressive name associated with cartel enterprise: Osama bin Laden. In fact, a leader in the Sinaloa cartel is known as “El bin Laden,” who appropriately uses heavily armed gunmen in pickups to distribute supplies bearing, course, the image of bin Laden. He taunts authorities by saying if you don’t like bin Laden, then provide supplies of your own.

Sometimes the cartels cannot help themselves and go back to business. Some criminals disguised as health workers approach elderly people with sanitation tips. With a special lubricating oil on their hands they quickly slip off rings, bracelets and other jewels, leaving their victims in worse condition.

What matters is that in sickness or in health the cartels rule.

The Mexican Plague

What is more dangerous for Americans than the coronavirus? Going to Mexico.

Edgar Lopez, a golfer who lives in El Paso, Texas, was quarantined from coronavirus along with his Mexican girlfriend just across the border in Juarez. They were protected from the wrong ailment. Both were shot to death in broad daylight by assailants who were not caught and never will be. That same weekend an American woman and a young boy were shot and killed after crossing the bridge from El Paso. Another American woman was murdered inside a tortilla shop in Juarez

Americans used to be immune from drug cartel violence – bad for business. But no longer, and they are just a tiny fraction of the more than 2000 murdered so far this year in Juarez. Imagine if that number of people had been killed in a U.S. city. A frenzied media would be demanding accountability, urging concern and compassion. Yet the Mexican massacre hardly rates any coverage as if death across the border is somehow less consequential. Who really cares?

Yet a case can be made that Americans’ vast consumption of Mexican drugs finances the cartels that do the killing. To what extent then are Americans responsible, and shouldn’t the media be making that crucial connection? Or perhaps it doesn’t care to. Americans dying of overdose is one thing, Mexicans murdered quite another.

In the meantime Juarez is well on the way to reclaiming its title of the “murder capital of the world” in competition with equally crime ridden Acapulco, where in that same weekend of slaughter three police officers were gunned down while patrolling an upscale tourist district. Ten other people were also killed in the area, and an investigation continues of  a burned body in a car that may be that of a Canadian businessman who had disappeared.

A small sampling of a larger disaster that unlike coronavirus is man made and thus can be unmade by man if so desired. No search for a vaccine is necessary.

Coronavirus Hits Drug Cartels

There is one benefit – a silver lining – to the coronavirus epidemic. The super rich, wildly violent Mexican dug cartels are also struck. Production is way down, supply chains are broken and prices for drugs have risen 400 per cent. The cartels’ multi-billion dollar business in the U.S. is in jeopardy.

Continue reading “Coronavirus Hits Drug Cartels”

The Book Drug Cartels Hate

Jeanine Cummins could not have asked for greater accolades for her new novel, “American Dirt,” about a mother fleeing with her child in Mexico after a drug cartel has killed her journalist husband and fifteen others in a not untypical massacre. “Marvelous,” “masterful,” “dazzling,””riveting,” “a Grapes of Wrath for our times,” referring to John Steinbeck’s famed novel of American migrants heading west in the Great Depression.

Continue reading “The Book Drug Cartels Hate”