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.

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?

Save The Children

Despite the growing tension over immigrationand drugs, normal life goes on between the U.S.and Mexico. People continue to cross the bridge connecting del Rio on the U.S. side with Acuña on the Mexican. One of those is Bob Kapoor who, like other citizens in del Rio, wants to take advantage of the lower prices in Mexico for basic services like medical needs. He finds Mexican doctors as qualified as American while charging much less. The same goes for a vet for his dog.

Bob and Jyoti

But there is another reason for his near daily border crossing. He and his wife Jyoti are financing an orphanage in Acuña for some twenty-five abandoned children ranging in age from two to twenty-one. They were found on the street where children tend to play all day and then go home. But some stay. The street with its attendant dangers is their home.

The orphanage is a welcome change. “We’re abig family,” says Bob. Whatever the age differences, the company of children make upfor the lack of parents. In most cases the mothers, usually on drugs, have given them up and prefer not to see them again. Occasionally, a grandmother will appear and ask for a child who may or may not want to leave the orphanage and the close friends he or she has made.

The scene outside is not reassuring. Like other border towns Acuña is part of a drug cartel network that extends along the 2000 mile U.S. border. Nobody does anything that upsets a cartel without paying a substantial price. So the orphanage provides protection against a possibly fatal mishap.

Acuña, says Bob, is in the hands of a “pretend cartel;” that is, one that’s aspiring to be the real thing in a smaller town that tends to be ignored by the larger criminals. That doesn’t mean the “pretends” are any less methodical in theirtrafficking. One practice is to give a baby to one or two people trying to cross the border. With that in hand they are sure to be accepted in the U.S. Once they are, they give the baby back to a cartel member who returns it to Acuña for yet another trip until the baby expires and thus is no longer useful. Prospective temporary parents can be housed in one of Acuña’s run downhotels not too far from the orphanage.

Occasionally, del Rio experiences a surge of migrants instead of the usual trickle. Thousands of Haitians piled up under the border bridge in great distress until they were sent to various parts of the U.S or stayed to work in Acuña. The Kapoors await the next expected surge in their modest but popular hotel in the busy heart of del Rio. Called the “Whispering Palms,” it’s famed for a whistling parrot named Larry with the lifespan of a healthy human who favors guests he likes with a gentle peck. It’s a comforting sight and sound in the tumult of change.

On the Brink

For scenery it’s hard to beat a twelve mile stretch of road along the Rio Grande outside the Texas border town del Rio. There’s one problem. It’s a favorite crossing point for illegal immigrants trying to reach the U.S. They usually succeed but not always. The climb down to the river isn’t easy, and the current can be swift. There’s an occasional drowning. The National Guard greet most of the crossers and detain them for the Border Patrol.

The area is a special project of Texas Governor Greg Abbott to show he is serious about border control. His Abbott fence is now completed along the route. It’s not a thirty-foot-high Trump affair, only ten feet with razor wire on top. Migrants have cut holes in it with shears and are sometimes able to scale it. But Sergeant Alejandro Moy says it has helped his competent National Guard team to apprehend those crossing.

Sergeant Alejandro Moy

Between the fence and the migrants are the homeowners who pay a price in insecurity for their splendid setting on the river. They can expect daily visits from weary, bedraggled migrants wondering where to go next. Barking dogs alert them to the newcomers who may just be passing through or ask for some food.

Sometimes they want more. Diane Schroeder, a watchful resident, says she once had to save a horse from a migrant intent on transportation. Nelson Puo, a retired Border Patrol officer, caught a couple of migrants trying to make off with his refrigerator. He handed them over to the Border Patrol. He says every day he has to be on the look-out. It’s steady work, though good fishing is a compensation.

In effect, like it or not, the del Rio homeowners are a front-line defense against this southern invasion. Their equivalent are the large ranchers on the Arizona border whose property is violated at night by cartel groups clad in black and well-armed. But the ranchers have the advantage of distance. The interlopers steer clear of the ranch house to avoid a shootout. There’s no distance between the Rio Homeowners and their invaders who are closer than neighbors and not as well intentioned. Like the National Guard the residents have guns but cannot fire them unless fired on.

Still, they cope. Doughty Diane Schroeder is not put off by a glimpse of an armed black clad cartel boss giving orders on the opposite riverbank. Her husband, a truck driver, heard a noise outside one night with the dogs barking. When he opened the door with his gun, two trespassers flung themselves on the ground, pleading, “Don’t shoot!” He didn’t, to be sure, and learned that they were not trying to escape from Mexico but to return to it. Apparently, they had made a drug delivery and were going back to make another. Instead, they were turned over to the Border Patrol.

Diane Schroeder

Despite occasional shots from across the river and a lot of unwelcome visitors, the Rio residents seem determined to stay where they are. “This is America,” says Nelson Puo. “Why would I have to move out?” It’s a testament to the Texans that their property values have gone up from $7000 a lot to $10,000. If the migrants continue to come, so may the Texans. It’s a standoff.

The Open Border

The National Guard had just rounded up a group of migrants at the border town of del Rio, Texas. There were four Cubans, four Venezuelans and one Nicaraguan who had met and joined up on the long trek to the U.S. It was often touch and go whether they would make it. Obstacles abounded, manmade and natural. They had to struggle through a jungle and unwelcoming people.

The Venezuelans – three men and a young woman – had the most circuitous route through Honduras and Guatemala in Central America, then up through dangerous Mexico controlled by the drug cartels. They were robbed so often they couldn’t pay the badgering police who threatened to send them back or maybe do something worse. So they took odd jobs to raise the necessary cash and resumed their journey to the Mexican border town Acuna opposite del Rio.

The Venezuelans

Knee deep they waded across the Rio Grande into the easiest part of their journey – entrance to the U.S. Always quite open along its 2,000 miles, the border today has never been more accessible under the Biden Administration’s highly permissive policies. This group in particular, unarmed, with no drugs and seemingly quite happy to be here, would have little trouble staying.

Sergeant Alejandro Moy, who is in charge of several miles of the border outside del Rio, is glad to welcome this kind of group and amiably questions them. They are much like the other 1,000 people he has detained over the year. Others more criminally inclined may elude capture or find another route to carry out their drug trafficking.

Sergeant Moy along with the rest of the National Guard is at a disadvantage. He has a weapon but cannot use it unless he is shot at first. Nor does he have the power of arrest. So he must await the arrival of the Border Patrol to take the detainees into custody. Since there are not enough Border Patrol, the wait can be as long as three hours.

The Cubans

In the past I had no trouble spotting Border Patrol. On this trip, covering sixty miles on the border, I didn’t see any. I’m told they’re not available because they’re burdened with paperwork in processing the migrants. That leaves a lot of the border uncovered and open to the continual flow of drugs and people.

The only solution is sufficient manpower, and that is conspicuously lacking. The question is why are U.S. troops protecting borders in various parts of the world but not our own? Technological improvements are a help, as is the Trump fence when it’s completed, but the drug cartels are too wily, armed and organized to be stopped by these impediments. Their forces must be met by our forces on the other side.

Once the newcomers are processed, they go to a temporary holding center. Every fifteen minutes a bus arrives with some twenty migrants and then departs with twenty others, mostly healthy-looking young men who are sent to various parts of the U.S., presumably to work and maybe, some Democrats hope, to vote.

I met a relaxed and cheerful Cuban couple – Landy Andres DeTenssen and Rosa Leyum Gonzales – who said they wanted to escape oppression in Cuba for freedom in America. Like others they had to pay along the trip and skirt the dangers, but here they were in the land they longed for. They would like to report on their progress in their new home in Florida. By all means, I said.