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How the Cartels Work

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Alabama offers an especially illuminating microcosm of the way the drug cartels operate in America. The state has been cut up into territories, with no sign of the violent turf wars over markets that plague Mexico. Distribution in the north of the state is handled largely by established black drug dealers; the rural areas are increasingly handled by Mexican migrant workers looking to supplement their income from day labor. Even if the feds manage to bust a dealer, it's almost impossible to connect such a low-level flunky to a drug kingpin in Mexico. "The problem is how smart they are," says Borland. "The dealers are illegals, so they're not documented. There's no credit cards, no driver's licenses. They're ghosts. All the dealer is, is a face and a name — which is probably not his real name. One false move and he disappears into thin air."

Alabama is crisscrossed with interstate highways, making it an excellent site for transshipment. Police routinely set up roadblocks to catch narcotics on the highways, but the drug couriers have developed highly sophisticated evasion techniques. A three-car structure is used. First comes a sweeper car going 80 or 90 miles per hour, to flush out any law enforcement with a speeding violation. Next comes a station wagon laden with coke or cash, often driven by an unthreatening-looking elderly couple. Behind is a chase car, charged with crashing into the police if a pursuit begins. Even if the cops do manage to stop the car with the drugs, the courier's higher-ups know instantly that the shipment has gone off track: The drugs are embedded with GPS tracking devices.

In a recent bust called Operation Rico Suave, the DEA set up on a drug cell that was dealing coke in the affluent area of Huntsville, Alabama. According to agents, the regional manager of the operation was a Mexican named Galdino Zamora, who oversaw a trucking operation that was secretly shipping 50 kilos of high-quality cocaine into Alabama each month from Brownsville, Texas. Unlike Mafia wiseguys, Zamora didn't even bother to erect a legitimate front operation to fool law enforcement. Instead, he just hid in plain sight, living inconspicuously in a modest home and spending his days taking care of his lawn. From the cartel's perspective, there was no reason for Zamora to hide: He had contact with only one dealer, a local coke slinger named Reco Willingham. The DEA made 33 arrests in the case — but the bust didn't make a dent in the flow of drugs. "Only three of those guys mattered to us," says Borland. "The big guys in Brownsville fled back to Mexico. They get one glimpse of us, and they're gone. We never see them again. By now there will be a new Galdino Zamora in Huntsville. We just don't know who he is. He'll have a different cover. He'll work in a taco stand."

Perhaps the biggest tool the cartels rely on is the ignorance of their opponents. In places like Alabama, few cops or federal agents speak Spanish — let alone know the code words and secret signals used by couriers. DEA agents recount horror stories of local sheriffs who stumble onto a cache of drugs and then try to run their own case, ordering the courier to get on the phone and call his contact. "Mexicans are calm, educated, trained," says Borland. "They don't shit the bed like a high school kid when they're arrested. They will agree to cooperate and give names and addresses to appear like they're furthering the investigation. But when they make a phone call, they will use code words — like 'I'm sick' — to signal that they've been busted. The contact walks away from the deal instantly. If it's 10 kilos of coke, it's nothing to them."

Borland recalls asking one sheriff how he knew that a courier had said what he was ordered to say when he was forced to call his boss and set up a meeting to trade the drugs. "That's what I told him to say," replied the sheriff, who spoke no Spanish. Borland shakes his head in amazement. "I pointed out to him the fact that the courier is a criminal, and he might be lying."

The cluelessness of local law enforcement was on conspicuous display last August, when deputies in Shelby County discovered five bodies splayed on the floor of an apartment outside Birmingham. To the local cops, it looked like a classic slaying by the Mexican cartels. The five dead men had all been systematically tortured before they were killed. Jumper cables, modified to fit a household outlet, had been attached to their ears to administer electric shocks. There were traces of duct tape on their mouths and noses, bruises on their arms and wrists, and burn marks on their ears and necks. Even death hadn't been the end of their ordeal: The necks of the victims had been slashed postmortem — a signature common to narco murders in Mexico.

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