Did I Just Meet the Mexican Drug Cartel?

“Have you been affected directly or indirectly by the influx of illegal immigrants and/or Mexican drug cartels?  If you have, I want to speak to you.  You will remain anonymous.”

I posted that ad a few years ago.  I got to Arizona with the idea in mind that I would get some stories from people whose lives had been impacted by illegal immigrants.  What I got was silence.  The few people that would talk to me had stories that were about their “brothers-wifes-cousins-next door neighbors-…”, well, you get the picture.

One day I opened up my email and there was a response from someone claiming they could give me some history and insight into the workings of the Mexican drug cartel.  After almost a week of exchanging emails utilizing spoof accounts and text messages on throw-a-way phones, it was time to meet a guy who wanted to be called Carlos.

With the hat and sunglasses he looked like a short version of Los Lobos.  Walking over slowly to the table I where I sat in the cool California morning he nodded and sat down.  Sliding forward one of the two large coffees on the table in front of me – bought so he could confirm my identity – I nodded and said, “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.”

“Thanks for the coffee,” he replied.  Taking a drink of the caffeine concoction that was somewhere between a sip and a gulp, he sat the cup down and asked, “What do you want to know.”

Not sure about what was safe to ask, I told him, “What do I need to know that I don’t already know?”  He smiled and talked for almost an hour without interruption.

When the Medellin cartel in Columbia got their trade routes broken up by the DEA, they started looking for other routes into America.  They found them through Mexico.

When NAFTA was signed into law, corporate farms in America started to expand into Mexico for the cheap labor that was to be found there.  With large harvesters and other mechanized means of planting, growing and harvesting huge numbers of Mexican laborers were replaced and found their livelihoods eliminated.

The Medellin cartel found many Mexicans who were hungry and were anxious to work even if it meant lugging ‘narco-bags’ through the desert into America; many of the Mexicans were entrepreneurs and saw the chance for them to make more money by running a smuggling operation than just working in one.

They also saw that moving cocaine as a capital-intensive business which needed to be subsidized by a ready source of income, namely marijuana.  Slowly forming their own cartels of sorts, cannabis quickly became the cash crop of Mexican federations because it grows abundantly in the Sierras and doesn’t require processing.  There is a downside to smuggling marijuana though.

Since marijuana is bulkier and smellier than cocaine it is more difficult to conceal and can’t be smuggled in through established ports of entry.  The cartels started looking for other spots and they found them with one of the most active crossing points being the desert along the U.S./Mexican border in Arizona between Nogales and Sasabe.  In a game of cat-and-mouse, the U.S. Border Patrol under the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security put up a fence that cost an estimated $3 million per mile.  It was soon to be defeated too – for pennies.

Shortly after the fence was put up, the cartels reached back into history.

“They erect this fence along a stretch of border in Arizona,” said Carlos.  Smiling, he takes a sip of his coffee and adds, “a few days later, we built a catapult and we’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.”  He paused, smiled and looked at me, “…they’ve got the best fence money can buy and we beat them with something two thousand years old.”

The most notorious and infamous of the cartel leaders is Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera.   Born in 1957, he has become the head of the world’s largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Sinaloa Cartel.

Alone among the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa is both diversified and vertically integrated, producing and exporting marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine as well as shipping cocaine.  Being short, even by Mexican standards, Loera is known as “El Chapo Guzmán” (“Shorty Guzmán”).

Though small in stature, “El Chapo” has worked his way to the pinnacle of the cartel smuggling business through violence and a strong sense of marketing.

“Chapo always talks about the drug business, wherever he is,” Carlos told me.  Chapo runs a distribution network that rivals Amazon or UPS.  In its longevity, profitability and scope, it might be the most successful criminal enterprise in history.

Chapo’s organization initially controlled just a single smuggling route through western Mexico into Arizona.  It wasn’t long before it was moving three tons over the border monthly and from there to Los Angeles and other points throughout the country.

Once distinguishing feature of the Sinaloa cartel has been the tendency to use unique and creative means to smuggle drugs.  In addition to using ‘mules’ to carry drugs through the desert, the cartel operatives also move drugs smuggled on commercial flights and eventually bought their own 747s with which they could load as much as 13 tones.

Container ships and fishing vessels as well as go-fast boats and submarines are also used.  First crude semi-submersibles and then fully submersible subs.

While the submarines can cost more than a million dollars, to the smugglers they are just a cost of doing business since in the case of an interception, someone onboard pulls a lever that floods the interior so that the evidence sinks while the crew is left on the surface to be picked up.

While billions of dollars are made by the Sinaloa cartel each year, they still try to prevent catastrophic losses by parceling out the risk as much as possible.  Before sending a 100 pound shipment across the border, traffickers might divide it into five carloads of 20 pounds each.

Chapo and his operatives further reduce their personal exposure by going in together on shipments, so that each of those smaller carloads might hold 10 pounds belonging to Chapo and 10 belonging to someone else.

The Sinaloa is occasionally called the Federation because senior figures and their subsidiaries operate semi autonomously while still employing a common smuggling apparatus.

The organizational chart of the cartel is fashioned to protect the leadership as well.  While no one has a precise figure for how many people work for Sinaloa, the estimates are all over the map.  Malcolm Beith, an author of a book on Chapo, states that “…at any given moment, the drug lord has 150,000 people working for him.”

John Bailey, a Georgetown professor who has thoroughly studied the cartel, says that the “…actual number of employees could be as low as 150.”

The reason for this large disparity is the difference between salaried employees and subcontractors.  While a labor force of hundreds of thousands may be need to move the product only a very few are required to oversee the day-to-day operations.

While drug cartels like Sinaloa don’t pay corporate taxes, they still need to make regular payments to federal, state and municipal authorities on both sides of the border.

When the DEA conducted an internal survey of its top 50 operatives and informants several years ago and asked them to name the most important factor for running a drug business, the informants overwhelmingly replied, corruption. 

Not only are officials bribed, but there are hundreds of “falcons” who receive anywhere from $100 to $1000 a month just to keep their eyes open and make a call if they see an upswing in border inspections or law enforcement activity.  “There are some towns on both sides of the border where virtually every cabdriver is on the payroll,” said Michael Braun, formerly of the DEA.  “They have eyes and ears everywhere.”

It’s not only officials who must be bribed, either. There are also the “falcons,” an army of civilian lookouts who might receive $100 a month just to keep their eyes open and make a phone call if they notice an uptick in border inspections or a convoy of police. “There are cities in Mexico where virtually every cabdriver is on the payroll,” Michael Braun, formerly of the D.E.A., recently told the New York Times. “They have eyes and ears everywhere.”

But cabdrivers, government officials and civilians aren’t the only ones on the ‘take’.  Guards at the U.S. border have been known to wave a car through their checkpoints for a few thousand dollars and since 2004, there have been 138 convictions in corruption involving members of the United States Customs and Border Patrol.  In some instances, job offers have been extended to the immediate relatives of known traffickers.

Pushing his chair back from the table, he stood up and adjusted his hat.  Glancing at his watch he mentioned that it was time for him to go.

Watching him walk down the boulevard, I couldn’t help but wonder who it was I had just spent some time with on a cool California morning.

NOTE: One of the first questions a naïve person would think to ask is why did “Carlos” choose me to talk to.  There’s just some questions you don’t ask a source; so if you ask why he talked with me, my answer is simple: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

By Jerry Nelson