Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, reputed to be the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, was recently arrested after a long manhunt. His capture fixes attention once again on the extremely wealthy, utterly brutal drug cartels that have plundered Mexico and are increasingly active in the United States, where they earn as much as sixty billion dollars a year from American consumers who keep them in business as long as there’s a black market for drugs. Where cartels go, crime and corruption are sure to follow. Chicago is a current example.
For decades, communism raised alarms, but the threat was external – the Soviet Union, Europe, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam. Today the cartel threat is internal, but where are the alarms?
They have certainly been raised in Mexico for those willing to listen. For a country so concerned with the violation of human rights anywhere in the world, the U.S. seems oddly indifferent to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Mexicans at the hands of the cartels, often accompanied by torture. Mexico has nice places for Americans to live or visit in relative safety, but beyond lies the crime contested land where Mexicans must live.
Cartels continue their advance in Mexico. Federal troops are now embattled with the Knights Templar cartel in Michoacan State, site of Mexico’s largest port, Lazaro Cardenas, where the cartel, ignoring the government, has been shipping iron ore to China in return for precursor chemicals for its thriving drug trade. In response, local defense forces, known as vigilantes, have sprung up to fight the cartel and subsequently, one another. Ties to other cartels are suspected. Guillermo Valdes, a former Mexican intelligence chief, told the Wall Street Journal the drug lords are intent on political power: “They are openly confronting the state to see who governs Michoacan.”
Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel is Mexico’s largest. Among its possessions is the border city of Juarez known with reason as “the murder capital of the world.” Guzman somewhat subdued the violence by driving out his rivals, eliminating some, as it were, for life. So Juarez slipped a few rungs down from murder capital. But observers say it could reclaim that title now that Guzman has been removed and others will fight bloodily to replace him.
It must be said that Sinaloa has not acquired its status by violence alone, such as distributing a video of the torture and execution of four members of the rival Zetas cartel. Guzman is credited with being an inventive boss. He is said to have devised the air conditioned tunnel which allows drug runners, crawlers really, to reach the United States undetected underground. In his book, “The Last Narco,” British journalist Malcolm Beith writes of Sinaloa: “There is a level-headedness about the leadership that the other groups lack.” Guzman prefers the bribe to the bullet. He wants to put people on the take. Let’s enjoy our profits together. Writes Beith: “El Chapo has an apparent ability to corrupt and infiltrate elements of law enforcement on both sides of the border and seemingly play the authorities’ every move to his advantage.” In 2001 he made a spectacular escape from a maximum prison thanks to his many connections.
His cartel and others have ravaged Juarez. Its downtown is boarded up and abandoned, though there are signs of revival in other parts of the city. Across the border is a dramatic contrast. Cheerful shoppers are out in El Paso in plain view of Juarez. Many are refugees from Juarez violence and have no intention of returning. After a family of eight, including three small children, were stabbed to death, among other murders, over the Christmas holidays, the US Consulate General in Juarez issued yet another warning to visitors to enter the city with great care and avoid public places. “Violence could continue in unspecified areas of the city for the foreseeable future.”
There are, to be sure, daily commuters across the arched bridge over the trickle that remains of the Rio Grande. A young woman who works in a store in El Paso says she is able to leave her Juarez home at night without fear of being robbed, kidnapped or killed. Some from El Paso go to shop in Juarez where goods are cheaper. Many families are divided between the cities. A middle aged man in El Paso often visits family members in Juarez, but he is under no illusion. “There’s still an undertow of violence,” he says. “The same old story.”
News reporting in Juarez is not for the timid. Diana Washington Valdez, an investigative reporter for the El Paso Times, remains under a death threat for her revelations about the cartels. She has been warned not to go back to Juarez, advice she has heeded. She also varies her routes in El Paso. At a book signing for “The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women,” her searing account of the serial murder of women in Juarez, she attracted three cartel members who did not wish her well. Fortunately, an informant – there are many – tipped off the FBI whose agents also showed up for the signing. With that, the interlopers had second thoughts and left.
There have been other incidents. A journalist friend asked Valdez to join her on a brief trip to Juarez. Valdez decided against it. While in Juarez, her friend was seized, beaten and subjected to “state rape,” or torture by medical device. Unlike others, she did manage to get back to El Paso. It’s taking a chance to be a source of Valdez. Four of her Juarez contacts have disappeared without a trace – the penalty for leaking. (White House take note. There’s punishment for leakers beyond threatening, reviling, exiling or jailing them. The cartels may be scornful. When is that squeamish White House going to learn from us? What are neighbors for?)
To this Juarez has come, writes Ricardo Ainslie in his recently published, riveting book, “The Fight to Save Juarez.” He says a narco-corruption culture has taken over a once thriving, livable city “with so little crime that people in the poorer neighborhoods could sleep without fear in the open air.” As residents note forlornly, “Those were the good old days.” To be replaced by the drug menace from which there is no escape. “It was in the music they listened to, the way they dressed and the social hierarchy within which they lived: the only people with power were the narco-people.” A young federal policeman complained to Ainslie: “The girls here won’t even look at us. They all want narco-boyfriends, not men like us who are trying to do something for our country.”
Ainslie says of the culture that has overtaken Juarez: “It is a monster the likes of which Mexico has never known.” He might have added that every time an unwitting American smokes, snorts or injects a drug, he is quite likely contributing to the death of another Mexican.
And the monster is on the move with a global reach from South America to Europe to Malaysia to Australia. Its main target these days seems to be Chicago. “The link between drugs and violent crime could be hard to overstate in Chicago,” writes the Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Its investigative reporter John Lippert says Guzman was recorded as saying, “I want to make Chicago my home port,” and he’s done that.
He chose Chicago because it’s the transportation hub of the Middle West with easy road and rail access to much of the country. Given the drug traffic along it, the Eisenhower Expressway has been dubbed the Heroin Highway. With so many factories closed, tens of thousands of unemployed are available for recruitment, among them the street gangs that can peddle drugs with appropriate ruthlessness and add to the violence by fighting among themselves. A large Hispanic immigration population allows the cartel operatives to blend in. Jack Riley, head of the city’s Drug Enforcement Administration, told Huffingtonpost.com: “These days we operate as if Chicago is on the border.”
“The cartel’s scope is staggering,” writes Chicago Magazine. Forcing out freelance distributors, Guzman has centralized operations from shipping and warehousing to sending money back to Mexico. In view of his accomplishments, the Chicago Crime Commission branded him “Public Enemy No. 1,” an honor previously conferred only on mafia boss Al Capone. In return, the drug king has paid Chicago the compliment of sending his underlings to live in the area, the better to supervise the trade. In fact, Sinaloans are increasingly moving up from Mexico along with their drugs to various parts of the country, a silent invasion as it were, too silent for the media apparently. No PR. These well heeled migrants don’t exactly head for the slums. They need dwellings to match their pride and prestige. No question about their affording them. And contrary to caricature, the drug bosses may look just like the rest of us – only different habits.
Americans have offered some assistance to the cartels. They would not be able to operate so effectively on their own. Plenty of money is available for those whose services can be bought. The Department of Homeland Security reports 358 convictions of Customs and Border Protection employees and some who assist them since 2004. It’s all too easy and profitable for a Border Patrol guard to wave a drug vehicle across the border. A bribe of two thousand dollars or more per crossing nicely supplements a modest salary. An FBI Special Agent told CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, who has been bawled out by the White House for too vigorously reporting the Fast and Furious scandal: “They’re using Cold War-style tactics: money, sex, drugs to convince officers to work with them and to help get their products and their people across the border.”
But information of this kind is not always welcome. Investigative reporter Valdez tells of two law enforcement officers whose whistle-blowing got them in trouble, not the corrupt officials they exposed (Where have we heard that before?) Greg Gonzales, a former deputy sheriff, and Wesley Dutton, a rancher and former state livestock investigator, were both confidential sources for the FBI. They helped with a number of successful investigations but then apparently went a bridge too far, noting cartel parties attended by U.S. bankers, judges and law enforcement officers. They discovered US lawmen helping to move drug loads dropped by air on ranches along the border. They added that the cartels were in the habit of giving big donations to American politicians who could influence key law enforcement appointments.
That did it. Outraged denial from above. Gonzales says he lost his job at a security company because “I would not keep my mouth shut, and someone threatened me by holding a knife to my throat.” Dutton says an election official dropped by his ranch to ask him what it would take to withdraw the allegations against him. Both claim their careers were over when “big names” on the U.S. side of the border began to show up in the drug investigations.
Some big names have been identified; namely, large American banks found laundering Mexican drug money. Paramount was Wachovia that over a four-year period allowed $378.4 billion in Mexican drug money to be transferred to U.S. bank accounts from which all kinds of useful purchases could be made. As usual, a whistle-blower, Martin Woods, was punished for his integrity. A veteran British money laundering investigator, he noticed that Wachovia knew very little about the customers making large, suspicious deposits. For this disclosure, he was harried at work, and says the London Observer, reprimanded by management in a letter “unrelenting in its tone and words of warning.”
But Woods had it right. After an investigation by the DEA and other U.S. agencies, criminal proceedings were brought against Wachovia, which was fined a mere two per cent of “09 profits and no one went to jail. It was widely believed that in the ’08 crash, Wachovia and other banks were partially rescued by drug money. Writes the Observer: “The conclusion of the case was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the ‘legal’ banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars – the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other parts of the world – around their global operations, now bailed out by the American taxpayer.” Now fully vindicated, Woods agrees: “If you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering banks and the thirty thousand people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point.”
Sometimes the U.S. Government appears to be aiding the cartels in a rather complex effort at investigating them. DEA agents have posed as money launderers, handling hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal cash to try to trace them to the drug kingpins. Robert Mazur, a former leading DEA agent, told the New York Times:” They are super-insulated, and the only way to get them is to follow their money.” But the results of such an effort, allowing cartels to continue their dealings for months or even years, are inconclusive. Writes the Times: “The high-risk activities underscore diplomatic concerns about Mexican sovereignty and blur the line between surveillance and facilitating crime.”
Still more controversial was the so-called Fast and Furious effort launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Often over their objections, gun dealers were pressured to sell their weapons to known cartel members. If they refused, they could have lost their licenses. As in the case of drugs, the aim was to let some two thousand guns cross the border, mostly from El Paso, and track them to the cartel chiefs in Mexico. But it was never clear what then was to be done, and the tracking never occurred anyway.
Fast and Furious was exposed when a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was shot and killed by Mexican gunmen in December 2010 just north of the Arizona border. Among the weapons found were some delivered by Fast and Furious. An outcry erupted and a scandal was born, only heightened by the refusal of the White House to release critical documents to the U.S. Congress. With no official explanation, a cover-up was charged and theories for the “gun walk” abounded. To date, the most plausible and Machiavellian one is that the ATF was trying to help arm the Sinaloa cartel because it was considered less menacing than its rivals and easier to deal with. Fast and Furious weapons were indeed discovered at the Juarez home of a Sinaloa enforcer, Torres Marrufo.
Lost in the uproar was the fact that dozens of Mexicans have also been killed by these weapons. Mexican poet Javier Sicilia who lost a son to the violence told Univision News: “Americans are not often moved by the pain of those outside their country. They are moved by pain of their own. Well, turn around and watch the massacres.”
It is one thing to trace not very successfully the drug money and guns going to Mexico, but what about the other direction? Surely the money going into the United States is as crucial since it impacts on our society. We know about rather small time corruption, but how high does it go? Considering the amounts involved, the potential for mischief is clear. Yet neither government nor media has seen fit to investigate. This has led to no end of possibly excessive conspiracy theories involving cash needy businesses and money soliciting politicians. Are they vulnerable to cartel inducements?
Two years ago, the New York Times reported a cartel takeover of a horse breeding operation in Oklahoma. The Zetas cartel bought, trained, bred and raced quarter horses – a popular racing breed – throughout the Southwest for millions of dollars. With a regard for their origin, the horses were given names suggestive of the drug business like “Coronita Cartel.” Federal agents raided a ranch in Oklahoma and a race track in New Mexico, and seven cartel members were arrested and indicted. Said Richard Weber, chief of the Internal Revenue’s criminal investigation unit: “The case is a prime example of the ability of Mexican drug cartels to establish footholds in legitimate U.S. industries and highlights the serious threat money laundering causes to our financial system.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of spillover into the United States,” says Fred Burton, vice president of Stratfor Global Intelligence, which provides analysis of world affairs. The cartels “can order a hit from Mexico, a home invasion, a kidnapping. This is not just a border issue. This is an issue that affects our entire country.” He also notes the cartels are recruiting well trained U.S. soldiers to serve as hit men – “sicarios.” Indeed some cartel members join the U.S. military to get proper training.
Meanwhile, much of Mexico remains in the grip of the cartels. Writes Anabel Hernandez in her recently published book “Narcoland:” Currently, all the old rules governing relations between the drug barons and the centers of economic and political power have broken down. The drug traffickers impose their own law. The businessmen who launder their money are their partners, while some local and federal officers are viewed as employees to be paid off in advance, for example by financing their political campaigns.”
Woe to the Mexicans who don’t have the means to appease the cartels. Beheadings are commonplace, and sometimes severed heads are rolled around for fun. Other tortures are more protracted like slicing off the arms and legs of a victim while he remains alive. An executioner complains that cutting through hard bones is too much work. Give the man a raise.
Despite this, Mexicans have endured and offered resistance. During the years of violence in Juarez, Lucila Murguia de Arronte looked ahead. She envisioned a Juarez free of cartels and recovering its once prominent role in Mexico. Her dream in the nightmare around her took the form of a strategic plan for the city involving all aspects from health and education to industry and of course, reduction of crime. Numerous civic groups and thousands of Juarez citizens have contributed to the plan, a public involvement new to the city. To revive the deserted downtown, the plan emphasizes building an automotive production center with direct access to the U.S. market across the border. Government, customarily evasive and secretive, has now shown an interest in what people have to say.
Continuing public participation is critical for the plan, says Lucila, director of a group that provides help for the disabled. People have been consumed by the violence. “They get together to talk about the crime. Everyone has a story. Do this, do that, for protection against crime. It has been hard to change the subject.” Many put wire fences around their streets and homes to keep the predators out. Lucila has no illusions. The danger is not going to go away, she says. “There is change on the outside, but problems are within.” But she and those who work with her are determined ultimately to rescue Juarez with an invigorated citizenry.
“At seventeen, I saw what damage drugs can do,” says Michell Vazquez, now twenty-one. In the intervening years, he has tried to move other youngsters in a different direction. It’s not easy. Crime can run in the family. “They want to kill because their parents kill,” he says. And it’s true that the majority of those killed and those who kill are young. Can poetry help?
A student of literature at the University of Juarez who also writes a weekly column on city affairs for the Juarez daily, El Norte, Michell believes a revival of Mexican culture is one answer to the destitution and lack of hope. So he gathered some friends and they boarded city buses to read Mexican prose and poetry to somewhat startled but appreciative riders. It provides another way of looking at Juarez and Mexico – something beyond crime.
At thirty-five, Carlos Gutierrez had a wife, two children and a thriving business providing concessions for major sporting events. But a local cartel started demanding ten thousand dollars a month from him in a customary extortion scheme. He paid until he couldn’t afford to any longer. In response, a group of cartel thugs seized him, cut of both legs below the knee and left him to die as an example to any other resisting businessmen. He survived thanks to prompt medical attention and then fled with his family to the United States where he learned to walk again with prosthetic legs and ride a bicycle as well.
This caught the attention of a group in El Paso which helps asylum seekers from Mexico, including many journalists who are threatened. Noting his ability on a bike, it sponsored a 700-mile ride for him from El Paso to the Texas capital Austin. He finished “Pedaling for Justice” with energy to spare in mid-November, a rebuke to the cartel that was unable to kill, disable or daunt him. Alejandra Spector of Mexicans in Exile says a pact of silence remains in Juarez. People are afraid to talk for fear of who will listen. Carlos’ actions speak louder than words.
The cartels mostly kill rivals or anyone who interferes in their business. But if innocent people die in the process, as they often do, it can’t be helped and can even be enjoyed. That was probably the case when two dozen sicarios stormed into a party in the working class neighborhood Villas de Salvacar, their guns blazing, some supplied once again by Fast and Furious. They managed to kill fifteen teenagers who were celebrating a birthday and seriously wounding another fifteen. The reason? Still not determined. Let the bullets fly where they may.
Hearing the noise from the bloody scene, Luz Maria Davila ran to the house to check on her two sons at the party. She found both dead. It took the police and an ambulance forty minutes to arrive. No hurry when the cartels might still be about. People also wondered how a convoy of heavily armed sicarios could make it to the Villas when there were police and military checkpoints all over the city.
Grieved but not bowed, Luz Maria demanded answers from authorities for this monstrous crime. They were slow to respond, even hinting the teenagers might have been involved with the cartels. When the governor of the state of Chihuahua, protected by a half dozen bodyguards, arrived at her home to offer his condolences, Luz Maria said if progress wasn’t made on the case, she would seek help from American law enforcement. Author Ainslie writes: In a country where power at the top is absolute, it takes unimaginable courage for a working class citizen to speak so unflinchingly to that power.”
Nevertheless, she continued to speak. When President Felipe Calderon sent word that he wanted the parents who had lost children to come see him, she replied: “He can come here if he wants to talk to me.” At a subsequent meeting of the president with various groups to discuss the killings, she managed to evade his guards while he was speaking and confront him. “Excuse me, Mr. President, I can’t say you are welcome,” she exclaimed, “because you are not welcome. It has been two years since murders are being committed here, and no one has done anything. Don’t just say ‘yes.’ Do something to make Juarez what it once was, not the bloody place it is now.” The crowd erupted in applause, “finally focusing public opinion on the continuing violence,” says Ainslie. “In her suffering and loss, Luz Maria had found a powerful voice that would soon touch the soul of a nation.”
The cartels don’t fear the Mexican police or military. They have more respect for American law enforcement but think it can be avoided as they push their trade north. What they dread is the legalization of marijuana, their main product which accounts for almost all U.S. drug seizures. Legalization could undermine their business, even put them out of business. It’s time to scare them. Colorado is a start.