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The Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández is recognized worldwide as one of the most important reporters on the War on Drugs. Over two decades, she has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. And earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders placed Hernández on its list of “100 Information Heroes,” created to pay tribute to “the courage of the journalists and bloggers who constantly sacrifice their safety and sometimes their lives to their vocation.”
Hernández’s life has been at risk since she published Los Señores del Narco in 2010. The book—released in English last fall as Narcoland—breaks with conventional narratives of the “drug war,” which pit the Mexican government against drug traffickers. With unprecedented access to sources and tireless study of documents, Hernández instead makes the ironclad case that the war is a sham, its aims “limited to protecting the Sinaloa cartel.” The book exposes the intricate ties between Mexico’s leading drug traffickers and the leadership of the Mexican state. Published in 2010 to explosive effect, Narcoland remains one of the most widely read books in Mexico.
Since 2011, Hernández and her family have been the target of an escalating series of violent assaults. She has found decapitated animals on her doorstep. Gunmen attacked a family gathering. Last December about a dozen unidentified men armed with AK-47s invaded her house in Mexico City, terrorizing neighbors and injuring one of her bodyguards. She was lucky not to be home then, but the threats against Mexican journalists are deadly serious: Scores have been killed with impunity since 2000. Hernández’s courage, and her deep understanding—the product of years of relentless reporting—of the “drug war,” make hers an essential voice, one we ignore at our peril.
Nick Alexandrov: How did you begin covering the drug cartels?
Anabel Hernández: I’ve been a journalist since 1993, when the newspaper Reforma was founded in Mexico. Back then, Reforma didn’t hire experienced journalists, but journalism students, who were trained to become the kind of reporters Reforma needed. In 2000, when my father was kidnapped and killed [and the police refused to investigate unless the family paid them], my views on everything changed, and I started to investigate corruption in Mexico. The first case I discovered is known as “towelgate” [involving illegal use of funds for redecorating Fox’s houses], which occurred when Vicente Fox was president. Investigating that kind of common corruption eventually led me to the drug cartels.
For example, in 2005, a woman who’d worked for UNICEF told me that in an area called the “Golden Triangle,” between Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango, children were being forced to work in marijuana and poppy fields. So I went there. I was in Guadalupe y Calvo—a little town in the middle of the “Golden Triangle”—and that was the moment when I started to investigate drug trafficking. When I saw the fields, and how these people live—this little part of the biggest chain—I wanted to find out, What is happening here?
The conflict is often described as a battle between the Mexican government and the drug cartels. How do you understand that relationship? Is there a “drug war” in Mexico?
There is no “drug war.” I have been investigating the drug cartels for almost 10 years. I have access to a great deal of information—documents, court files, testimonies of members of the Mexican and US governments—and I can tell you that in Mexico there has never, never been a “war on drugs.” The government, from the mid-1970s until today, has been involved with the drug cartels.
First, the federal government tried to control the drug business, and was successful in doing so for several years. In Mexico, the early drug gangs were small, and given the freedom to operate. The gangs had to pay government officials, who would grant the smugglers permission to continue operating. And the federal police protected these gangs, and even helped them traffic drugs, to be sure the drugs would get to the US and not stay in Mexico. Meanwhile, the government tried to impose conditions on the traffickers, insisting that they not resort to violence.
But what I found after reviewing US congressional documents is that, starting in the late 1970s—and particularly by the time of the Iran-Contra scandal—the CIA helped connect Mexico’s small gangs with the big Colombian cartels. Mexico started to be a huge hub for trafficking between Colombia and the US. The Colombians arrived in Mexico, and used the Mexican gangs’ routes, which had previously been used for marijuana and poppies, to traffic cocaine.
When these Mexican gangs started trafficking cocaine, they became powerful, and their relationship with the Mexican government started to change. That was when the drug cartels formed, and these cartels were soon bribing mayors of little cities, governors, members of Congress.
So you can’t say that there’s a “war on drugs” in Mexico, since the government is part of the drug cartels. The cartels control many areas of the government, and many areas of the country, and the government just pretends to fight them.
Consider the case of El Chapo Guzmán [the head of the Sinaloa Cartel who was reportedly captured in the city of Mazatlán by Mexican marines in February]. I have documents showing that the authorities always knew where he was, all his different addresses, and they protected him—always! So it’s impossible for me to believe the official version of how El Chapo was captured. The government claimed, “Oh, Chapo was hiding at such-and-such an address,” but really the authorities, since 2007, had information about his properties.
In Narcoland, you explain how a number of prominent drug traffickers in the past seem to have faked their own deaths in order to retire from organized crime. You also write that El Chapo “will quit when he feels like it, not when the authorities choose.” What’s your understanding of El Chapo’s alleged capture?
I’ve read many of the articles about that event, and mainly they give the official version, based on information provided by the Mexican and US governments–the DEA, for example. Meanwhile, in Chicago there are documents that prove connections between the Sinaloa Cartel and the DEA. So for me, it’s difficult to believe the official story, since I’ve been investigating these issues for years.
For example, on February 22, 2013, Mexican TV news networks, as well as the Guatemalan government, claimed that El Chapo had been killed in Guatemala. I immediately thought, “It cannot be possible!” But I decided to call one of my sources to check. When I asked him what he thought, he just started laughing, and asked me if I thought the cartel boss could be in Mexico and Guatemala at the same time.
It’s also impossible to believe that El Chapo was alone in Mazatlán. He could not even have been in Mazatlán, because Mazatlán is not a territory of the Sinaloa Cartel. It is a territory of the enemies of El Chapo Guzmán.
I also know that he was supposed to have three circles of security guards—circles of security guards. So there’s just one way in which the official story could be true, and that’s if El Chapo were betrayed by El Mayo Zambada [a fellow Sinaloa leader]. That would mean there’s a war going on within the Sinaloa Cartel—but right now there isn’t such a war. El Chapo wasn’t an insect. He was a really, really powerful man. Sinaloa is still the most important cartel. But even if El Chapo Guzmán has been captured and put in jail in the way the official version claims, it doesn’t mean anything, because the ties between the government and the Sinaloa Cartel are still there.
What is the situation like for reporters in Mexico? And what has your life been like since you started covering the cartels?
What’s happening to journalists in Mexico is terrible. More than 80 journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years. And no one is in jail for that—no one. The impunity is the main reason why journalists are still being killed. At the end of the day the government is essentially granting criminals permission to kill the journalists, which leaves us in a very insecure situation.
Since Vicente Fox was president, the federal government has started to create institutions that pretend—pretend—to take care of journalists. But these institutions don’t work. They have money, they have people, but they don’t work because the government doesn’t want them to work.
The president wouldn’t care if 100 journalists were killed tomorrow. Mexico is often thought of as a democracy, but really the government is very authoritarian. It doesn’t want transparency, it doesn’t want to be held accountable, and it doesn’t like uncomfortable questions. And that’s why the government wants to let these murders continue. And many things the government is saying to the international community—that it’s working to protect journalists and so on—are not true.
But the biggest problem isn’t that journalists are being attacked. The biggest problem is that people cannot get information. So right now you see many areas in Mexico where the media doesn’t want to inform people what is happening, and where the public doesn’t have the information necessary to make important decisions—like which politicians are corrupt and involved with the drug cartels, and which congressman or candidate is not. Without information, the public cannot make decisions. And now, in Mexico, we have black times.
But you yourself are in great danger. Last December there was an armed break-in of your house during which almost your entire block was locked down.
For me personally, it’s been a nightmare, because I don’t see any way out now. The men who got inside my house put their guns to my neighbors’ heads—that’s including one six-year-old girl. The attorney general is still investigating the case, but last February the government announced their intention to take away my bodyguards, claiming this had nothing to do with me personally. That’s what the government said! One part of the federal government said that, but another part is still investigating the case against me. It’s crazy.
Do you have any idea as to who might have been responsible for the break-in and other attacks against you?
The break-in wasn’t a robbery—it was a perfect operation. My biggest problem is with Genaro García Luna, who was chief of the federal police. I have proof that people very close to García Luna still work in the federal police, and are still corrupt. And I’ve been speaking out about this for several months, because last year I found decapitated animals on my doorstep, for example. I think—I’m not sure—but I think what happened in December is related to all this. And again, the government wants to remove my bodyguards. If the authorities do that, they understand—because they know what has been happening to me and my family for the last three years—that I will not survive to see the next day.
So the government knows exactly what risks you confront as it threatens to remove your bodyguards. And as you just mentioned, the break-in last December is hardly the only case of intimidation you’ve faced. What motivates you to continue writing?
You know, I’ve asked myself that many times, because sometimes I really wonder if I’m doing the right thing. My family is very tired now. My mother has asked me several times to stop. After the December break-in, my sisters asked, “Can you imagine if you had been home, with your 17-year-old daughter and your 4-year-old boy, when the armed men entered?” Of course, I’ve been really scared since that moment. Since December, my life has been horrible. My kids cannot sleep, but we still live in the same house, because I don’t have anywhere else to go.
But at the end of day, I like being a journalist. It was my decision to investigate the corruption, the ties between the government and the drug cartels. And I really think that good journalists can change things. We have a lot of proof of that, like Watergate in the US. Information has forced corrupt people to give up their positions of power. And I see my work as similar, and I want to serve society by providing information.
Right now I am investigating what is happening in Michoacán—I want to get beyond the official version [about the new police, or “self-defense,” force]. The truth there is very dark, and I’ve published some articles in Proceso about it. As a result, the self-defense groups threatened me, warning me never to go to Michoacán. But the world has to know that the government and the self-defense groups really don’t want to eliminate the drug cartels. For them, it’s a question of which cartel holds power, but the same sick things will continue regardless: rapes, extortions, kidnappings, methamphetamine labs. And if the public doesn’t understand these issues, they will think, “Ah, yes, now in Michoacán the people are free, they can live happily and go to school.” But it’s not true. So that information is very important, because it can help the public understand the situation, and even save their lives. At the end of the day, that’s why I’m still doing this job.
Generally there’s a simplistic account of the “drug war” that’s prominent in the US, which maintains that the US government is trying to fight drug traffickers in various ways. What’s your view of the US role in Mexico?
The world doesn’t understand what is happening. I go to New York for a conference, to London, Paris, Sweden, Amsterdam, and people in countries with strong democracies just say, “Oh, what is happening in Mexico is crazy, these Mexicans are crazy and very corrupt. To keep safe, just don’t go to Mexico.” But the problem is everywhere: The Sinaloa Cartel, for example, launders its money through Wells Fargo, Bank of America, HSBC—the most important banks in the world. And this money is everywhere. And the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug exports are the biggest drug exports in the world. These drugs are in New York, Paris, Madrid, Brazil, everywhere. And if drugs are in the streets, then corruption is also there.
We have a huge white elephant crossing the border into the US every day. This elephant—tons of cocaine—is walking across the border, walking in New York, in Los Angeles. And no one sees the elephant? It’s just not possible. Do you think that poor Mexicans are very corrupt, but the US, French and UK governments aren’t?
Laundering drug money is a big business in the US, not in Mexico. So why does the US government always make a list of all the businesses in Mexico that are involved with the drug cartels? Where are the lists of the US businesses that also launder this money? Where is the list of US businessmen who launder this money? Is it that the officials don’t want to make it public?
So if you think that you’re safe because you’re not in Mexico, you’re wrong, because the drug cartels are a part of your life—through the banks, through legal businesses, through many channels.
And going off your point about these issues affecting the entire world, what message do you have for people in the US who are drug users?
I do not judge drug users, but I think they have to understand that when they buy one gram of illegal methamphetamine or illegal marijuana, they’re helping the Mexican drug cartels buy a weapon to kill someone in Mexico. But the problem is not just drugs. Now these cartels also traffic women, they kidnap people, they’re involved in child pornography—the most terrible crimes. So understand that when you consume drugs, you are giving these people money to rape a child, make a video and sell it on the Internet. In this global world, you cannot think, “I take illegal drugs, and it’s my problem,” because the money you spend on drugs funds organized crime around the world.
Organized crime is a problem with a global scope. What measures do you think would be most effective in dealing with this problem?
I think first the world has to start fighting the “war on drugs.” If you look at the Iran-Contra files, you will see that while Ronald and Nancy Reagan were telling schoolchildren, “Just say no to drugs,” President Reagan was opening the door to tons of cocaine from Colombia. What kind of “war on drugs” is that?
If the government wanted to stop the drug cartels, the authorities have to confiscate the money, close the banks that launder that money, and then create new banks. But you cannot pretend you are fighting against the drug cartels if no one from HSBC, Wells Fargo or Bank of America is in jail.
I’ve spoken to many cartel members, and when I ask them, “Why did you do it? Why did you kill these people? Why did you torture these people?” They say, “Anabel, look: You have to understand one point. Our business is the money. If we have to kill someone for that money, we will. But the heart of our business is not the violence. The heart is the money.”
And if they still have money, they can bribe officials all over the world, they can buy bullets and guns, they can buy cocaine. So if you take the money away, it’s like cutting off the cartels’ legs. The drug cartels will not be able to react quickly to big operations aimed at putting their bosses in jail.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I want to encourage people not to be indifferent about what is happening in Mexico. The country is still violent. Many families are suffering. And I think the international community bears some responsibility. And don’t be indifferent about what’s happening to journalists. Because if the world doesn’t have information about what’s really happening in Mexico, then when you have these problems, you will not understand. So I think it’s an international responsibility to help journalists in Mexico survive this bad time.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.
This interview originally appeared on Substance.com.