2012: THE MOST OUTLANDISH STORIES FROM THE DRUG WAR IN MEXICO
Posted by Patrick Radden Keefe
Last year, the Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo released a crackling art-house thriller,“Miss Bala,” about an aspiring beauty queen who becomes embroiled in the violent drug cartels of Tijuana. The premise of a willowy innocent caught in the crossfire had all the hallmarks of a telenovela, and some critics groused that the film was implausible. But in the real-life maelstrom of Mexico’s drug war, a certain gaudy surrealism is not unusual. In fact, Naranjo had based the film on an actual incident, in 2008, in which a pageant winner from Sinaloa was arrested in the company of a gaggle of cartel strongmen. (She said that she had been kidnapped by her boyfriend, a member of the Juárez cartel.)
But if art imitated life in “Miss Bala,” life gained the upper hand again last month, when another beauty queen from Sinaloa, twenty-two-year-old Maria Susana Flores Gamez, was caught by a bullet during a shootout between cartel hit men and Mexican troops. This time, the story had an extraordinary twist: an AK-47 was recovered near Flores’s body, and she had gunpowder residue on her fingers. According to a federal prosecutor handling the case, she fired at the soldiers before she died. This Miss Sinaloa didn’t just fall in with the assassins, the allegation goes—she was one of them.
Welcome to the inherent looniness of the drug war. It has actually been a good year for Mexico, in at least one respect: the murder rate dropped precipitously along some stretches of the border. (Though whether this can be attributed to the kill-or-capture campaign of outgoing President Felipe Calderón is not at all clear. The largest cartel, the Sinaloa, vanquished a number of challengers during this period, and black-market monopolies are often more peaceful than the alternative.) But it was a colorful year as well, due to the systematic, try-anything-once eclecticism of the smugglers, and the antic game of Tom-and-Jerry escalation that they tend to play with law enforcement on both sides of the border.
1. On the Fence
“Show me a fifty-foot fence and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder,” a drug warrior once told me, and the cartels have long excelled at so-rudimentary-they’re-obvious methods of pushing product across the border. In this instance, a group of smugglers near Yuma, Arizona, tried to drive a Jeep right over the fence. “Ramps!” you can almost hear them saying beforehand. “We could use ramps!” If you could inscribe the Quixotic essence of the drug war in a single image, the photograph above might very well be it.
2. The Best Parking Spot in Nogales
Not all smuggling methods are so rudimentary. On East International Street in downtown Nogales, Arizona, authorities recently discovered what may have been the most valuable parking spot in the country. Most of the time, it looked like a regular spot some fifty feet from the border. But occasionally, a van would pull into the spot and a camouflaged plug would open in the concrete underneath, revealing a hole that was ten inches in diameter. That apparently innocuous parking space was the terminus of a narrow tunnel that began in an abandoned hotel in Mexico and ran underneath the border. While the van appeared to idle in the spot, smugglers would feed parcels of marijuana up from the hole in the ground through a similar hole in the bottom of the van; using this method, they could smuggle a million dollars’ worth of weed into the country in forty minutes. Then the plug would be replaced with a hydraulic jack, the van would roll away, and the space would become available. (This is a bit of a cheat, in that the story originally broke in 2011, but it got its fullest exploration in a terrific feature in Businessweek this year.)
3. The Narco Backers of the “Passion of the Christ” Prequel
It’s always a little surprising to reflect on the religiosity of contemporary narcos, in light of the more or less non-stop mortal sins that the profession entails. But I was especially surprised to learn that when Hollywood producers began the process of developing a prequel to Mel Gibson’s hugely successful 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the chief investors was an alleged narcotraficante named Jorge Vásquez Sánchez. After Sánchez was arrested in Chicago, in 2010, and pleaded guilty to extortion and other crimes, it emerged that, through some spectacularly ill-advised loans, the producers had come to owe him a ten-per-cent stake of any future profits from the film. The project, “Mary, Mother of Christ,” was well on its way to production, and had attracted the megapastor Joel Osteen as a producer, before the identity of the unsavory backer was revealed this year. A spokesman from Osteen’s church said that the pastor had no inkling of Sánchez’s involvement. Somehow, I believe him. (The film, which stars Ben Kingsley, is due out next year. Because Sánchez forfeited his stake in the production to the federal government, we are all, in a sense, now investors in the film.)
4. The Knights Templar Play Dressup
Actually, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the cartels would have their eyes on Hollywood: a morbid theatricality is a persistent feature of narco culture. Earlier this year, during a routine patrol of a town in Michoacán, the Mexican Army discovered a training ground that belonged to the Knights Templar, a slightly zany offshoot of the already zany cartel known as La Familia Michoacana (about which William Finnegan wrote in 2010). When they searched the site, the soldiers discovered a hundred and twenty hard plastic helmets—a special order, it appeared, as each featured a plunging nose guard like those worn by the twelfth-century Christian order from which the cartel takes its name. The headgear apparently featured in the cartel’s initiation rites.
5. But the Kid Is Not My Son
In June, authorities made an exciting announcement: the Mexican Navy had captured the son of the fugitive drug baron Joaquín (Chapo) Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. At a press conference, officials presented a dark-eyed, baby-faced young man in a Polo shirt and a bulletproof vest and said that he was Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar. Chapo is a maddeningly elusive figure, so capturing one of his immediate relatives would represent a significant coup. But almost immediately, a lawyer for the Guzmán family announced that, in fact, this was not Chapo’s son. Then a woman named Elodia León, who had no apparent relation to Chapo, came forward to say that the young man in custody was her son, that his name was Felix Beltran, and that he was a twenty-three-year-old car dealer. It was a tremendous embarrassment for the Calderón administration, and a reminder of the obstacles that authorities on both sides of the border face: in the fog of the drug war, sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve captured the wrong guy until his mother comes forward to tell you.
6. Lazcano Delicti
Of course, sometimes that fog works in the other way, too. In October, the Mexican Navy killed several suspected members of the Zetas outside a baseball game in Coahuila. When they examined the bodies of the dead, they discovered that one of the men they had killed was no mere Zeta gunman, but Heriberto Lazcano, the founder and head of the cartel, whose gentle demeanor had earned him the affectionate sobriquet “The Executioner.” After making this discovery, they rushed to the funeral parlor where the corpses had been sent, only to discover that during the night, a band of masked Zetas had stormed the place and made off with the body. So Mexican officials were forced to take credit for the kill, but without producing the body, a scenario that would spawn Hoffa-like conspiracy theories even in the best of times, never mind in the final months of a Calderón administration that was desperate to show results in its offensive on the cartels. (As it happens, Lazcano had already constructed a tasteful mausoleum for himself, though, as of this writing, his body has not turned up there.)
7. Laundering Drug Proceeds at the Race Track…
The Zetas had a tough year across the board, experiencing another blow in June, when federal prosecutors cracked down on an elaborate scheme the cartel had allegedly devised to launder their profits by racing quarter-horses in the United States. According to authorities, over several years, the cartel spent a million dollars a month on expensive horses and raced them in competitive events. As the New York Times related in a fascinating exposé, the older brother of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the No. 2 man in the Zetas, managed a sprawling ranch in Oklahoma, and an estimated three hundred horses. If he feared detection, he did not act like it. One of the horses that he raced was named “Number One Cartel.”
8. …and at the Casino
Laundering money is a major challenge for cartels—it can be as difficult as smuggling drugs. But the horse-racing caper is not the only instance in which cartel members sought to mingle business and recreation. In a year full of noteworthy stories about the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, it almost went unnoticed that the Sinaloa cartel may have used his casinos to launder their profits. One Chinese-Mexican businessman named Zhenli Ye Gon, who ran a pharmaceutical company that allegedly supplied methamphetamine precursors to the cartel, was what might tactfully be described as an avid gambler; he boasted about betting a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a hand at baccarat. You know how as long as you’re gambling, a casino will comp your drinks, maybe even buy you a steak dinner or treat you to a hotel room? Well, one casino gave Ye Gon a Rolls Royce. According to court documents, he spent over seventy million dollars at the Venetian in 2006 alone. Investigators say that he was using Mexican currency-exchange houses to transfer funds to the casino, a red flag that should have triggered serious scrutiny. (The casino has denied any wrongdoing, and is coöperating with investigators.) The cartels have proven so adept at laundering money that it should come as little surprise that they would do so in the heady, cash-rich milieu of Las Vegas. But the sheer volume of money coming in has obliged them to adopt more conventional methods as well: it emerged this year that they have also relied on major banks, like HSBC. (HSBC just settled an expansive money-laundering case by agreeing to pay a fine of nearly two billion dollars.)
9. A Letter from La Barbie
One of the major arrests in recent years was Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a former high-school football player from Laredo, Texas, who moved to Mexico and became a ruthless enforcer for the Beltrán-Leyva cartel. (He was the subject of a profile in Rolling Stone.) La Barbie has been locked up in Mexico since his arrest, in 2010, and last month he sent an unusual letter to the El Paso Times, in which he alleged that senior Mexican officials made direct overtures to the cartels in the hopes of making deals—taking high-level meetings with the Zetas, La Familia, and others. Of course, claims of corruption are rife in Mexico, and no one would dispute that kickbacks to law enforcement pose a major problem. But it is unusual to have such testimony from a high-ranking cartel member himself. Less clear is how credible La Barbie’s charges are: he has been seeking extradition to the U.S., and the letter might represent a last-ditch gambit to get himself over the Rio Grande. Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat issued an official response to the letter, dismissing it as La Barbie’s effort to “discredit” those who might bring him to justice. Interestingly, the statement did not deny any of his specific allegations.
10. Washington and Colorado Legalize Marijuana
But the most outlandish drug story of 2012 from the Mexican point of view, surely, would be the successful initiatives this November to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. Some sixty thousand people have died in Mexico in violence related to the drug war over the past six years, at least in part because of the Calderón administration’s aggressive posture toward the cartels—a posture that was both encouraged and facilitated by the United States. Yet the U.S. may now be embarking on a state-by-state shift to legalize one of the cartels’ most popular offerings. (By some estimates, Mexican cartels derive up to forty per cent of their revenue from marijuana.)
The question facing Mexico’s new President, Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office earlier this month, is whether it makes sense for Mexicans to continue fighting and dying in an effort to crack down on the manufacture and movement of a drug that may end up ultimately becoming legal in the U.S. anyway. Peña Nieto has said nothing definitive about his plans, but there are indications from his advisers that a reassessment is in order. “Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States … it now has a different status,” one of his senior advisers said. But one thing is clear, he added: this new legislation “changes the rules of the game.”
Photograph: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP.