Read El Narco Online

Authors: Ioan Grillo

El Narco (9 page)

Coincidentally, the CIA had also code-named its own regional operation against communists in the 1970s Operation Condor. Observing Mexico’s eradication campaign, the agency was sharply aware the Mexican government was using antidrug equipment for political work. As it said in a declassified memo to the White House:

“The army will also take advantage of the eradication campaign to uncover any arms trafficking and guerrilla activities … Army eradication forces may devote as much effort to internal security as eradication. They do not however have their own airlift support capabilities and they may seek helicopters and other equipment from the Attorney General’s limited eradication sources.”

The rest of the memo is blacked out with a felt pen. We can presume that has the really juicy parts. But don’t worry. It is for our safety that we can’t see it.

After two years of Operation Condor, it seems that the Mexican government had enough of battering the hell out of the narcos. In March 1978, Mexican officials informed DEA agents they would be making no more verification flights. The eradication campaign would officially continue—and still be praised by the White House—but without a bird’s-eye view. President Carter raised no fuss, in line with his less confrontational attitude to drugs. But agents in the field moaned to their bosses there was a cover-up. DEA agents on the U.S. side also noticed that Mexican marijuana was flooding back in, the scare over venomous weed forgotten.

Another posthumous event left a stain on the legacy of Operation Condor. Prosecutor Carlos Aguilar had led the head-busting in Culiacán and been lionized as a Mexican Eliot Ness. His reward was to head antidrug operations in the whole of northeastern Mexico. However, after a few years, he left the force and splashed out on a hotel and several other businesses in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. In 1984, he was arrested with six kilos of heroin and cocaine but jumped bail. In 1989, Texas marshals arrested him in Harlingen and handed him to Mexican police, but he managed to maneuver his way out of any prison time. Then in 1993, he was shot in the head in his own house in an apparent drug-related hit.

So what really happened to Operation Condor? Had top Mexican officials been finally tempted by drug dollars? Had Mexico slipped back into an attitude that you can only bust so many dealers and accept that the traffic goes on? Or had the whole operation been an exercise to batter El Narco down to size and show who was boss? Once they had taken a beating, the gangsters went back to trafficking, knowing the politicians really ran the show.

The questions all highlight the complex nature of corruption and drug trafficking in Mexico. It is a delicate dance of bribes, busts, and switching sides. It is widely accepted that during decades of PRI rule, drug money flowed into the system like groundwater into a well. So much is proven by the constant stream of police and officials arrested for taking bribes. But there is still debate as to how far up the rot of corruption spread and how systematic and organized it was.

A popular saying in Mexico is “If you have God, why do you need the angels? And if you have the angels, why do you need God?” The adage applies to corruption and drug trafficking. In some instances, traffickers could have a local beat policeman paid off—an angel figure. In that case, they wouldn’t need his bosses on their payroll. In other instances, they could have a police chief or a governor—a God figure—and they wouldn’t need to pay off his subordinates. Sometimes, they could have both God and the angels and be sitting pretty.

Of course, the system was tenuous. Another policemen could arrest a man who was paying off his colleague, or officers could take down a villain paying their boss. But things were kept in check by the PRI power structure. Lower-ranking police would kick back money up the chain of command. Higher-ranking officials didn’t even need to know where the bribes were coming from or have any contact with gangsters. Everyone respected the hierarchy, and if any official couldn’t keep order, he could simply be replaced by another aspiring PRI member.

In the context of the PRI’s elaborate corruption, the plaza system emerged to control trafficking. This plaza concept is crucial to understanding the modern Mexican Drug War. First mentions of it can be found in the late 1970s in border towns. By the 1990s, there are references to plazas all over Mexico, from the southern Caribbean coast to the peaks of the Sierra Madre.

The plaza in Mexico refers to the jurisdiction of a particular police authority, such as Tijuana or Ciudad Juárez. However, smugglers appropriated the term
to mean the valuable real estate of a particular trafficking corridor. As the trade through these territories moved from kilos to tons, it became a more complex operation to organize. In each plaza, a figure emerged who would coordinate the traffic and negotiate police protection. This plaza head could both move his own drugs and tax anyone else who smuggled through his corridor. In turn he would handle the kickbacks to police and soldiers, paying for his concession.

Accounts show that police were the top dogs in the deal.
Officers could smack gangsters around and, if they got too big for their boots—or showed up on the DEA radar—take them down. Police could also bust anyone who wasn’t paying his dues, showing that they were fighting the war on drugs and clocking up seizures and arrests. The system ensured that crime was controlled and everyone got paid.

Up in the Sierra Madre, Efrain Bautista and his family survived through these shifting currents of the 1970s, quietly selling their crops of marijuana in the market town of Teloloapan. Efrain said no leftist guerrillas were in his village, so they avoided the military attacks aimed at insurgents. In the nearby community of El Quemado, troops stormed in looking for guerrillas and dragged away every able-bodied man. Many never returned. Efrain also said his crops were on remote highlands between jagged rocks and forests and avoided the paraquat spraying. However, the relentless feuds eventually forced him to flee.

As marijuana money oozed into his community, Efrain remembers, many of the young men bought more sophisticated weapons, particularly Kalashnikov rifles. Russian Mikhail Kalashnikov developed his AK-47 assault rifle during the Second World War as a weapon that Soviet peasants could easily maintain and use to defend the motherland against marauding foreign armies. Like Russians peasants, farmers in the Sierra Madre took to the rifle with enthusiasm, affectionately calling it the Goat’s Horn because of the its curved ammunition clip. Efrain remembers when his family first got hold of one.

“In our mountains, people used to have shotguns or really old American Colts or Winchesters from the days of the Revolution. We used to fight our battles with those guns or even with machetes. But then we started seeing the Goat’s Horns around. They were incredible weapons that could spray bullets in seconds and hit targets from five hundred meters away. We asked the people we sold the marijuana to and they said they would look into it. And then one day they had this brand-new AK-47—so we paid for it with our entire crop of marijuana. We took it up to the mountain and would hunt snakes or coyotes with it. But then we had to use it to defend our family.”

Efrain’s clan had endured various feuds over the years. Many of the participants sold marijuana, but the feuds were about unrelated beefs, such as women and disrespect. At the end of the 1970s, Efrain’s family bit off more than they could chew. The feud began with argument over a drunken card game, but turned into a fight to the death.

“The family we were fighting had this guy who was a real killer. He had this innocent, boyish face that made you think he wouldn’t hurt anyone. But he was an authentic murderer. He killed two of my cousins and a brother. I had to take my family and run for my life.”

Efrain settled in a slum of tin-roof houses in the Mixcoac area of southern Mexico City. When he arrived, he was twenty-five years old and had a wife and three young children to support. He had sold marijuana for a decade, providing thousands of kilos to pot puffers across the United States. But he didn’t have a peso of savings to show for it and had to start from scratch. He was one more of thousands who have drifted in and out of the drug business during its decades of growth.

“We were totally broke and had to sell chewing gum on the street just to get some money to eat. But we all worked hard and saved anything we could. I got jobs in construction and would work long hours carrying bricks and cement. After years, I got enough money to buy a taxi and we started to live okay. My youngest son could even finish high school and get a job in an office. But I miss the mountains. That is where my heart is.”



Main Entry: car·tel
Etymology: French, letter of defiance, from Old Italian
, literally, placard, from
leaf of paper.
Date: 1692
1 : a written agreement between belligerent nations
2 : a combination of independent commercial or industrial enterprises designed to limit competition or fix prices
3 : a combination of political groups for common action


, 2003

In the seething high desert of Colorado, nestled between lonely cacti and abandoned ranches, lies the most secure prison on the planet. Known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies or simply Supermax, the prison has a foolproof way of keeping its 475 inmates from murdering each other or escaping—they are kept in permanent lockdown, held twenty-three hours a day in twelve-by-seven-foot cells. Human rights groups complain the years of isolation drive the convicts mad. Officials say they get what was coming to them.

The list of inmates at Supermax reads like a who’s who of the world’s most infamous terrorists and criminals. The September 11 attackers on New York and Washington; Theodore Kaczynski, alias the Unabomber; Barry Byron Mills, who founded the bloodthirsty prison gang the Aryan Brotherhood; Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, an underboss for the New York mafia; Richard Reid, alias the shoe bomber; Ramzi Yousef, of the 1993 World Trade Center explosion; and more killers, rapists, arsonists, racketeers, and bombers fill the sterile desert hell.

Among this collection of the world’s greatest villains is an aging Latino with graying, curly hair and swarthy skin that earned him his old nickname, El Negro. El Negro has survived more than two decades in isolation and so only has only another 128 years to go before he completes his first century-and-a-half term and then can begin some multiple sentences handed out at another trial. With such an insanely long term, you may think prosecutors had a personal grudge against him. They did. His unforgivable crime, they say, was conspiring to kidnap DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who was then raped and murdered in Mexico in 1985. This killing, the DEA said, was ordered to protect Mexico’s first drug cartel.

Funnily enough, the only kingpin of Mexico’s first cartel to sit in an American prison is not Mexican at all; he is a Honduran, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros. To catch him, American marshals abducted him from his home in Honduras in 1988, flew him out of the country, and threw him before a U.S. judge. That didn’t go down too well in Honduras. The drug lord’s supporters burned down the U.S. embassy in retaliation.

Matta was at the heart of the cocaine explosion in the 1970s and 1980s, which meant he was also at the heart of a spiderweb of conspiracy theories, coups, and revolutions connected to it. In those heady years, cocaine spread across America like wildfire and swept over into ghettos in the form of crack. The mind-bending chemical inflamed the much talked about Miami crime wave, inspiring the 1983 classic movie
; sparked L.A. gang wars, inspiring the 1991 classic
Boyz N the Hood
; and fueled far worse violence in Colombia, which was too bloody and far away to have any hit films made about it. It also financed U.S.-backed guerrillas in Nicaragua, U.S.-backed generals in neighboring Honduras, and the pineapple-faced dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega. In fact, with so many conspiracies, wars, gangsters, and side stories of cocaine in the eighties, you can get lost in a dozen tangents.

But the story that is most crucial to the development of El Narco in Mexico is the emergence of what people started calling cocaine cartels. These conglomerates were billion-dollar operations that revolutionized the drug business. And Matta was a key player. His crucial role was to link up the biggest traffickers in Mexico with the biggest cocaine producers in Colombia, so it is apt that his homeland, Honduras, lies conveniently between the two nations.

I first got interested in Matta when I raced into Honduras hours after a military coup in 2009. The sweaty Central American country, which inspired the term
banana republic
has a long history of coups by mustachioed generals smoking cigars. But the 2009 coup grabbed special attention because after the end of the Cold War, politicians said we lived in a golden age of democracy where military takeovers by dubious Latin armies didn’t happen. Watching troops shoot down protesters on the street, it was evident they did.

While covering this unhappy tale, I met a local journalist who said she knew the family of Honduras’s most famous trafficker. I asked her to call them on my behalf, although I expected they would tell a meddling British reporter to get lost. But to my surprise, Ramón Matta, the son of the gangster slowly dying in the Alcatraz of the Rockies, came to meet me in my hotel lounge.

Ramón was a charismatic and smooth thirty-five-year-old with a finely trimmed goatee and stylish clothes. He cheerily answered my questions and chatted away for several hours over endless rounds of strong coffee. Ramón told me about the good sides of being the son of Latin drug lord—as a kid, he got flown to Spain to see the 1982 soccer World Cup—and the bad sides—it is hard to get a job or even car insurance. But he was mostly concerned about his father’s health and the difficulty his family had in visiting him.

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