The Cartel (44 page)

Pablo drives by the statue of newsboys hawking papers (he admits to sentimentality over that), parks in the paper’s lot, and crosses the square to the café, where Ana is hunched over the zinc-top counter by the window, nursing her hangover with shots of espresso.

He plops onto the stool next to her and she grunts a hello. Her face seems pained but otherwise she looks good. Then again, she always does. Ana is meticulous about her clothes, which are neat, stylish, and always pressed.

She’s a trim, small woman who sometimes compares herself to a bird. No one would call her pretty—she has a bird’s beak of a nose, her mouth is wide but thin-lipped, and she has no “figure” to speak of (“If you’re looking for ‘boobage,’ you’ll have to look elsewhere,” she’ll tell prospective lovers), but her short-cut black hair is thick, glossy, and, to Pablo, beautiful, and her brown eyes are warm (well, not this morning—they look like they ache) and intense.

Ana is interesting-looking, and Pablo never gets tired of seeing her, although he can get tired of listening to her because she can be something of a nag and she can get
overly
intense, especially about politics, which she covers with an energy and devotion that Pablo finds both incomprehensible and somewhat demonic.

This is where their professional worlds merge, because covering crime and politics in Mexico is, sadly, often the same thing, so they rely on each other’s expertise and often share sources. With Giorgio giving images to their words, they make up what Óscar calls—inevitably—“Los Tres Amigos.”

Ricardo gently sets a café con leche by Pablo’s hand and just as quietly withdraws.

“You’re a saint,” Pablo says. He pours a stream of sugar from the glass container set on the counter.

“That’s not going to help your waistline,” Ana says.

Pablo knows he could stand to lose twenty pounds—okay, thirty—and that his muscle tone is the consistency of flan, but he’s not going to start today. What he should do is go back to his former thrice-weekly evening
fútbol
sessions in the park.

That’s what he
should
do.

“I blame you for this, by the way,” he says.

“You’re a big boy,” Ana observes, staring blankly into her cup. “You could have said no.”

“I stand with Oscar Wilde on the subject of temptation.”


You seem quite able to resist
me,
Ana thinks sourly, then quickly attributes her sudden bitterness to the foul hangover. She’d invited him out last night with the full intention of finally seducing him into the sack, and then the alcohol took over.

Probably intentional, she thinks.

I mean, seriously, she asks herself,
would
you have? Even if he was, shall we say, persuadable? Would you have gone through with it or chickened out as you have in the past?

Probably the latter, she decides now. Still, it would have been nice of him to give you the choice. But probably better it didn’t happen. Lovers are a dime a dozen, good friendships rare. No sense in literally screwing this one up.

Besides, Pablo goes for beautiful women, witness his ex-wife—a tall, thin, blond Sinaloan with a body honed in the gym. Hurrah for her discipline, anyway. Pablo was
smitten,
and pursued her with the relentlessness he would only normally devote to a good story, and all his friends could have told him (they certainly told each other) that it wouldn’t work out, that Victoria was emotionally slumming, trying to find in him the warmer parts of herself, and that, for his part, he simply lacked the ambition that she would eventually need in a mate.

Ana likes Victoria. She’s a damn fine journalist and actually very nice, even funny, once you cut beneath the frost layer. She’s a wonderful mother to Mateo and has been very generous to Pablo on the visitation thing.

It just wasn’t a match, that’s all.

Victoria’s career is rising with a bullet, and Pablo’s…

Well, Pablo writes about itinerant poets who leave snatches of their verse under people’s windshield wipers. He writes about the
ambulantes
—the street vendors. It’s what makes him so lovable, like a big, ugly dog that you just can’t keep from jumping up on the sofa.

“Do you want to come over tonight?” she asks. “I’m making a paella and having a few people in.”

“I might have Mateo.”

“Bring him,” Ana says. “Jimena would love to see him. She’s coming, and Tomás. Giorgio, probably. First we’re going round to Cafebrería for Tomás’s reading.”

Cafebrería is one of Pablo’s regular haunts—a bookstore-cum-coffeehouse where the city’s artists and intellectuals gather. Pablo was going to hit Tomas’s reading anyway, Ana’s paellas are justly famous, and maybe Jimena will bring some
polvorones
from her bakery out in Valverde.

“I’ll bring a bottle of wine,” Pablo says.

“Just bring Mateo,” Ana answers. She takes a last sip of her espresso and looks at her watch. “We don’t want to keep El Búho waiting.”

Pablo gulps down his coffee, wishing he’d left time for a bite to eat. He leaves money on the counter and, with Ana, crosses the street into the offices of
El Periódico.


Óscar Herrera is the dean of Mexican journalism.

The last of the old-school editors, “El Búho”—the Owl—scans the city room looking for the red meat of a factual error, the scent of a stylistic sin, or the very whiff of literary pretentiousness.

His
aporto
is perfect, Pablo has always thought. El Búho’s thick, heavy-framed glasses make his eyes large, he blinks at slow intervals, and the hair on the top of his ears makes him look—well, owlish.

Pablo has progressed from, as a new reporter, sheer terror of El Búho to now, ten years later, just vague anxiety in his presence. And vast admiration and respect. Óscar Herrera—
Dr.
Óscar Herrera, to be accurate—is a figure of courage and probity who has stood up to presidents, generals, and drug lords who tried to influence his coverage of their respective and unfortunately intertwined activities.

Nine years ago they tried to kill him.

Narcos (although Pablo has always suspected it was the army acting on behalf of the PRI, and Óscar’s editorial colleagues joked that it was his own reporters) ambushed his car at a stoplight, killed his driver, and put three bullets into Óscar’s left leg and hip.

Now he walks with a cane, which he famously brandished at the television cameras as he left the hospital, growling about the incompetence of bad marksmen. Then he went back to the office and brutally edited the stories about the attack, correcting trivial factual errors and improper syntax.

Not that Óscar is merely a hard man.

He’s written three published volumes of poetry, as well as a critical appreciation of the novels of Élmer Mendoza, and Pablo knows that the man’s Saturday morning ritual is to go out to breakfast and then sit in his living room listening to Mahler symphonies on vinyl.

Now he sits with his stiff leg propped up on the table beside his cane and blinks at Pablo. “And
why
do you think that story about itinerant musicians who play at bus stops might be of interest to our readers?”

“It interests
me,
” Pablo responds truthfully.

Óscar blinks. There is some sense to that—when a reporter is interested in his subject, his research is more thorough and his writing more passionate. “But you would be writing about music, which our readers wouldn’t be able to hear.”

“They could on the e-edition,” Giorgio says. “We could record a track and run an MP3.”

Now Óscar frowns—he understands the technology, it’s part of his job—but that doesn’t mean he likes it. He’s only reluctantly yielded to the mixture of video clips on the daily e-edition of his paper, his belief being that if people wanted to watch television, they should. But the business managers at the paper insisted, so now they have video and audio tracks.

Óscar prefers written words on paper.

And beautiful photographs that help tell the story.

Memorable, as opposed to fleeting, images.

He asks Giorgio, “Could you shoot this?”

To Pablo’s gratitude, Giorgio answers, “I could shoot the hell out of it. Give you killer stills and video, if you want.”

Giorgio is an amazing specimen, Pablo thinks, looking at the man. His cheeks are ruddy, his voice firm, he is none the worse for wear despite having outdrunk them all—and he looks like he just got off the slopes from a morning skiing. And he’s positively glowing with energy this morning—Pablo suspects there was a woman involved in this—and it’s disgusting.

Óscar blinks again and says, “Eight hours, not a minute more. On more substantive matters, the drug situation.”

Pablo groans.

He’s not behind in his rent, doesn’t need a child support payment, so a narco story is simply an exercise in tedium. The truth is that the narcos are generally stupid, brutal thugs—once you’ve written about one of them, you’ve written about them all.

And anyway, who cares?

Apparently Óscar. “You object, Pablo?”

“Why give ink to these bastards?”

“Five Juárez police officers murdered?” Óscar asks. “I’d say that amounts to sufficient reason. I want to know what the ‘street’ says.”

Pablo had covered the murders.

A little over two weeks ago, snipers with high-powered rifles killed five men in various parts of the city. Two of them, Miguel Roma and David Baca, were Juárez cops.

Two days ago, Juárez police captain Julián Chairez was shot twenty-two times while he was on patrol at the corner of Avenida Hermanos Escobar and Calle Plutarco Elías.

Then, yesterday morning, Commander Francisco Ledesma, the third-highest-ranking cop in the city, was pulling out of his driveway to go to work when a white Chevy van pulled up, a man got out, calmly walked up to Ledesma’s car, and put four 9mm pistol rounds through the door lock.

Ledesma died before the EMTs got there.

His killing rocked the city. He was only thirty-four, charismatic and popular, and headed up a unit called Los Pumas, the city’s antigang task force.

There are about eight hundred gangs in Juárez—most of them in the poor
colonias
that surround maquiladoras—with about fourteen thousand members. These gangs are recruiting grounds for the “big” gangs that operate the drug trade under the Juárez cartel—Los Aztecas, Los Mexicles, Los Aristos Asesinos, and La Línea
.

Ledesma was going after those gangs, and Pablo guesses it got him killed.

But the details bother him.

Gangbangers spray bullets around, but this was clearly a professional hit—experienced
sicarios
shoot through the lock because the bullets go through the door in a tight pattern, which professional gunmen take pride in.

Five city cops—Chairez, Baca, Romo, Gómez, and Ledesma.

Pablo can’t blame Óscar for wanting the story.

Now El Búho turns to Ana. “Find out what our officials think. The governor is in town today, meeting with the mayor. Get quotes.”

“Images?” Giorgio asks.

Óscar answers, “If Ana gets an interview with the governor—”


When
Ana gets an interview with the governor,” Ana corrects.


Pablo drives out to the working-class Galeana neighborhood to find Victor Abrego, a Juárez cop he knew from the bad old days.

Something that Pablo has found almost impossible to explain to his American editors (because it’s inexplicable, he thinks) is the byzantine structure of Mexican law enforcement.

As in the U.S., there are basically three levels of police—municipal, state, and federal—but the resemblance ends there. What’s so different in Mexico is that the municipal police, the city cops, don’t investigate crimes. Their role is basically preventative—patrol, traffic control, community relations. They’re the first responders to a crime—assist the victims, secure the scene—but then their role ends.

The investigation of a crime is left to state police and prosecutors. A Juárez cop who responds to a murder call in Juárez turns the investigation over to a civilian state prosecutor or a state cop.

Unless it’s a federal crime.

If it’s a federal crime—there are allegations of organized crime or drug trafficking over a certain weight—the investigation is handed to the federal police and prosecutors.

So a narco killing in Juárez is handled at various times, often overlapping, by a combination of city police, state prosecutors and police, federal prosecutors and police, and a grab bag of intelligence agencies from the city, state, and national governments.

It’s no wonder, Pablo thinks as he looks for a parking spot in Galeana, that so few crimes are ever solved.

Mexico is a very good place to be a criminal.

There’s another factor at play in Juárez, and everyone knows it.

Most Juarenses are scared shitless of the city cops.

And for good reason. Not only can they be arbitrary and unpredictably violent, but the plain truth is that a lot of them work for two bosses—the chief of police and La Línea.

La Línea—“the Line”—was, until recently anyway, the chief enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel. Made up exclusively of current or retired city or state police, La Línea keeps the drug trade, well, in line. Someone tries to run a load through without paying the
piso
? La Línea collects. Someone loses a shipment and claims the customs agents seized it? La Línea learns the truth and deals out justice. Someone is a chronic problem or an unlicensed competitor? La Línea “lifts” him and makes him disappear.

And who are you going to go to for help?

The cops?

Pablo wouldn’t say that all, or even the majority, of the fifteen hundred Juárez police are La Línea, but he’s certain that a critical mass are, that those who are intimidate those who aren’t, and those who aren’t “go along to get along” if they want to keep their jobs or even survive.

Say that even two of the district commanders—there are six in Juárez—are La Línea. They control postings, they can shift La Línea cops to where they’re needed at the moment, transfer out or fire clean cops. Say a state homicide investigator is La Línea. How hard is he really going to investigate the murder of some narco who fell afoul of the Juárez cartel, a murder that La Línea probably committed? Is he really going to pass critical evidence along to the
federales,
or is he going to lose it somewhere in the process?

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