The Big Scam

When I first returned to Mexico City in the wake of the great 1985 earthquake, the biggest drug pushers in that distant neighbor nation were Sherwin Williams Paint (“tinner” or “activo”) and Resistol-Dupont glue (“chemo”.)  Street kids were huffing down gallons of these pernicious intoxicants.

A few months ago, my Mexico City medicinal marijuana distributor burst into my rooms at the venerable Hotel Isabel.  R. was agitated.  She had just encountered an eight-year old child smoking crack in Tepito, a high crime neighborhood here in the maw of the Monstruo.  R. is a child of the streets herself but she was horrified that the crack pipe had come to the barrio.  “An eight year-old kid, John!”

Things have changed in the Mexican drug marketplace during the protracted hiatus that I have been in residence in Chilangolandia and not for the best.

We know the story by rote now.  In the mid-1980s, the Colombianos, weary of dodging the U.S. Navy in the Caribbean, moved the cocaine biz to Mexico and its porous, nearly 2000 mile border with the United States and contracted with the Sinaloa boys who owned the black tar and brown heroin smuggling routes into the U.S. southwest.  Pretty quick, the Sinaloa boys were splitting profits with the Pablo Escobars and soon would take over the trade, contracting for coca production in the Andes and distributing the blow in El Norte, thus achieving true cartel status.

Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has declared a war on drugs – I calculate that in the past 25 years, I have covered five distinct drug wars.  Billions have been wantonly flushed down the drain since Reagan’s declaration of war in 1982 and the W word has become a much bigger business.  For the cartels, the “war” is a price support system that gooses up profits.  For the drug warriors, the “war” is the goose that keeps laying the platinum egg and security budgets have ballooned.  The greater the perceived threat, the higher the ante zooms.

Marijuana is a case in point.  Although the U.S. has become the world’s number one producer of fine marijuana, drug war honchos keep bamboozling the U.S. Congress that Mexican cartels are reaping millions moving the yerba into the U.S. market.  The truth is that marijuana is a bulky, low-rent drug that necessitates all sorts of costly logistics to traffic into the U.S. and yields little profit for the cartels.

Although the multi-ton loads occasionally taken down by U.S. and Mexican authorities on both side of the border push up drug war numbers and provide a rationale for budget increases, to the cartels marijuana often functions as a decoy – the next truck over will be smuggling much more compact and profitable loads of cocaine, speed, and heroin where the real money is made.

Since Mexico’s northern border militarized after 9/11, the cartels have to hold the loads in Mexico longer, and time being money in the capitalist ethic, the drugs have leaked into the Mexican street.  The cartels now do battle over retail sales, control of “plazas” (routes, cities, whole states) and even neighborhoods and street corners.  23,000 have died in the past three years – 2700 alone in Ciudad Juarez in 2009, about one murder every two and half hours.  Kids are on the crack pipe in Tepito and life in the Mexican street has become an annex of “The Wire.”

Has the U.S., deliberately given Mexico this drug problem and why?  Some of us think that one intended consequence of border militarization was to up drug supply and use in Mexico.  Only then could Mexico be manipulated into becoming a willing partner in Washington’s drug war.  Mexico has in fact traditionally argued that drugs are a North American problem.  If the gringos would only dry up demand north of the border, the problem would go away.  Besides, drug money provides Mexican banks with much needed liquidity.

Drugs and immigration are hot button issues that are shamelessly exploited by U.S. corporate media and Washington uses such Mexico bashing to win security and energy concessions south of the border.

 A little context.

I need to qualify the following chronology of Mexican presidencies and their various efforts to fight Washington’s drug wars: I entertain the not-so-crackpot theory that each of Mexico’s five neo-liberal presidents have had favored narco-lords (“consentidos”) whose allegiances they cultivate by cracking down on their rivals.  It is in the interest of the Mexican government to deal with one strong capo rather that five or six unruly mobs with conflicting demands and unpredictable ambitions.

* Miguel De la Madrid (1982-88) – De la Madrid’s favorite narco was a rude capo by the name of Rafael Caro Quintero, a Sinaloa boy with 10,000 hectares of marijuana under cultivation in Bufalo Chihuahua (U.S. production had not yet gained dominance.) Somehow De la Madrid’s defense secretary who then ran the nation’s rudimentary drug war could never locate this enormous swatch of greenery.  Then a DEA contract pilot did a flyover, spotted the patch, and informed his boss, Kiki Camarena, a U.S. agent based in Guadalajara, of the find. Caro Quintero’s gunsills kidnapped the two, tortured them to death, and buried them in a shallow grave on a Michoacan hog farm.  Caro, who carried picture I.D. describing him as a Mexican security agent, then fled to Costa Rica.

The discovery of Camarena’s body put the Reagan administration on a war footing with Mexico.  Ambassador John Gavin, an even worse actor than his boss, threatened invasion.  De la Madrid, whose government was hopelessly beholden to Washington for the 1982 Mexican debt crisis bail out, had no alternative and Caro Quintero was brought back home to face the music and wound up running a discotheque in a Mexico City penitentiary.

But Rafael Caro Quintero, who had once purportedly offered to pay off Mexico’s record $102 billion USD foreign debt, was a Sinaloa boy and De la Madrid’s commitment to the Sinaloa cartel remained solid.

* Carlos Salinas (1988-94): De la Madrid’s party, the long-ruling PRI, had stolen the 1988 election and his successor Carlos Salinas needed Washington’s approbation badly, entering into preliminary negotiations with George Bush I for a North American Free Trade Agreement.  Bush wanted two concessions: a brake on the flow of Central American migrant workers through Mexico into the U.S. (Mexico subsequently upped deportation rates 100 per cent) and the head of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the Sinaloa capo who made the Colombian connection. Salinas complied.

Salinas’s consentido was one Juan Garcia Abrego whose family had been involved in moving contraband across the east end of the border for generations.  The Gulf Cartel, as his gang was dubbed, dominated the trade in Salinas’s native state Nuevo Leon and black sheep brother Raul reportedly partied with Garcia Abrego on the weekends.  The Gulf Cartel flourished by utilizing landing strips on Navy bases in Tamaulipas to fly in the blow from the south.

But the Sinaloa boys did not vanish from the scene after the incarceration of Felix Gallardo – they just moved the shop closer to the border in Tijuana.  The 11-member Arellano Felix clan, all nieces and nephews of Uncle Miguel Angel, took over the empire.  Their juice during the Salinas years was made abundantly clear after the Cardinal of Guadalajara was assassinated in May ’93 during a shoot-out between Arellano Felix pistoleros and another Sinaloa faction under the tutelage of a young turk named Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Indeed two Arellano Felix brothers were given safe conduct to and from Mexico City to negotiate the matter with Papal Nuncio Giralamo Prigione.  When Prigione rang up Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, to inform the President that the two most wanted drug dealers in Mexico were sitting in his living room, Salinas seemed uninterested.

* Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000): During Zedillo’s stint at the helm of state, the U.S. Congress humiliated Mexico with annual certification of the country’s cooperation in the White House-declared War on Drugs. To placate the Clinton administration, which had once again rescued Mexico from default during the economic collapse of 1995-6, Salinas’s successor (and ultimately bitter rival) each year would offer up a fresh capo on the eve of the certification vote.

Zedillo’s final tender was the Salinas pet Garcia Abrego and the trade shifted from the Gulf Cartel to the middle of the border in Ciudad Juarez under the stewardship of yet another Sinaloa boy Amado Carrillo, “The Lord of the Skies”, who revolutionized the business by flying DC-6’s loaded with Colombian blow straight into the border region.

One reason for Carrillo’s spectacular success: he enjoyed the protection of Zedillo’s drug czar General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo. The General went down in 1997 just weeks after he had been praised at a ceremony in the Clinton White House.  Gutierrez Rebollo’s fall presaged Carrillo’s – “The Lord of the Skies” expired the next year in a private hospital not a mile from Los Pinos, purportedly during a liposuction procedure.

* Vicente Fox/Felipe Calderon (2000-2010): The Mexican political structure changed spots in 2000 when the right-wing PAN party candidate Vicente Fox vanquished the PRI.  A month after Fox’s inauguration in December, El Chapo Guzman walked out of a Super-Maxi in Jalisco, and has never been seen or touched since although he remains in plain sight as testified to by the recent face-to-face interview of his closest confederate El Mayo Zambada by veteran newshound Julio Scherer (El Mayo offered to hook Scherer up with El Chapo.)

Under Fox, the Chapo (“Shorty”) consolidated his position as Mexico’s Narco of the Decade and is currently listed by Forbes Magazine as the 42nd most powerful potentate on the planet, ahead of world leaders like France’s Sarkozy.

The latest phase of this charade began six days after Fox’s successor Felipe Calderon took the oath of office.  Calderon, like Salinas, had been awarded the 2006 election amidst widespread allegations of fraud.  Half the electorate believed that he had obtained office by wholesale flimflam and he needed the authority of the military and the backing of Washington to legitimatize his presidency.  30,000 troops were dispatched to Calderon’s home state of Michoacan and the President donned an Army field jacket two sizes too big for him under the illusion that war confers authority.

Three years later, 23,000 Mexican citizens are dead and Calderon has learned that the people in whose name the war is being fought turn against their rulers when the wars they fight are perceived to be losing ones.

As noted, Mexican presidents boost the fortunes of their consentidos by taking down their rivals and leaving the favored ones alone.  In an analysis of 50,000 drug war arrests since 2006, specialist Edgardo Buscalgia counts only 2000 low level Chapo operators – the rest are all in the employ of Chapo’s rivals, the Beltran Leyva gang in particular.

The Beltran Leyvas, who had split off from El Chapo and formed their own cartel, were taken out last December in a Cuernavaca search and destroy mission, their hideaway probably discreetly disclosed to authorities by El Chapo himself.  Not unsurprisingly, the Army, which is thought to have been compromised by the drug cartels, was kept purposefully out of the picture – Navy Marines were the primary security forces deployed in the raid.

For the past 20 years, the Generals had been the go-to guys in Mexico’s many drug wars, having replaced relentlessly corrupt police agencies.  Now the Navy has replaced the Generals.

Many years ago, Ronald Reagan’s defense minister Casper Weinberger wrote a book called “The Next War”, a series of scenarios of future international conflicts.  In one script, the U.S. is forced to invade Mexico because the drug cartels had seized the presidency and presented a national security threat to Washington.  This scenario is still operative at the Pentagon and has become a crowbar to beat Mexico into submission.

What does Washington want from Mexico? On the security side, the U.S. seeks total control of Mexico’s security apparatus.  With the creation of NORCOM (the North Command) designed to protect the U.S. landmass from terrorist attack, Mexico is designated North America’s southern security perimeter and U.S. military aircraft now has carte blanche to penetrate Mexican airspace.  Moreover, the North American Security and Prosperity Agreement (ASPAN in its Mexican initials) seeks to integrate the security apparatuses of the three NAFTA nations under Washington’s command.  Now the Merida Initiative signed by Bush II and Calderon in early 2007 allows for the emplacement of armed U.S. security agents – the FBI, the DEA, the CIA, and ICE – on Mexican soil and contractors like the former Blackwater cannot be far behind.  Wars are fought for juicy government contracts and $1.3 billion in Merida moneys are going directly to U.S. defense contractors – forget about the Mexican middleman.

On the energy side (the “prosperity” euphemized in the ASPAN), the designated target is, of course, the privatization of PEMEX, Mexico’s nationalized oil industry, with a particular eye out for risk contracts on deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico utilizing technology only the EXXONs of this world possess.

Those of us who have opposed every U.S. war from Vietnam to Afghanistan must demand an end to the White House’s War on Drugs.

JOHN ROSS & “El Monstruo” wind up their three-month coast-to-coast odyssey this week in Boston with presentations at the Harvard Coop (Tues. April 27th), the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (Weds. the 28th), Mass Global Action (Thurs. the 29th), the IPS-Jamaica Plains Forum (Fri. 30th) and an International Workers Day rally on the Boston Commons Sat. May 1st (12-2.)



JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to