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How the Cartels Work

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The press went into overdrive: "Cartels Unleash Violence in Region," reported The Birmingham News. "Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over from Mexico," trumpeted The New York Times. The murders in Birmingham, asserted Newsweek, were "believed to be a hit ordered by Mexican narcotraffickers."

But the official line was dead wrong. Through an anonymous tip, police eventually arrested a local drug dealer named Juan Castaneda who had apparently been carjacked a few weeks earlier carrying nearly $500,000 in cash he owed his suppliers in Mexico. Castaneda had to get the money back before it was spent, or he would become the equivalent of a narco sharecropper, forced to work off the debt by selling drugs for free until the half million was repaid. (The cartels rarely kill members of their sales force, preferring to keep them working.) So Castaneda had hired a local hoodlum known as CJ to find the stickup crew responsible for the carjacking. Police say CJ and another thug named Train lured four of the victims to a meeting; the other dead man just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The jumper cables were the ones CJ used to kill his pit bulls when they became too old to fight. What made national news as evidence of the reach of the Mexican drug cartels was, it appears, a dope-dealer rip-off gone haywire.

To anyone who knows how the narcos operate, the murders looked pretty half-assed by Mexican standards. "The Mexicans don't leave scars," says Borland. "Some of those neck wounds didn't even lacerate the esophagus. Down in Mexico they decapitate people and line the heads up like they're bowling balls. If old CJ wanted to convince us that it was the Mexicans, he would have to bear down a lot harder."

But the lack of any evidence linking Mexican drug lords to the homicides did nothing to dissuade Robert Owens, the district attorney in Shelby County, from treating the murders as part of a broader conflict between rival cartels. Owens freely admits that his office is unprepared to make sense of such killings. "Our problem with dealing with cartel-level offenses is that none of us have the training, background or experience to accurately know what is going on," Owens says. "I don't know anything about drug cartels."

Chris Curry, the sheriff for Shelby County, is equally blunt. "I'm in the same situation as police chiefs in little towns all across the country," says Curry, who has only two Spanish-speakers on his entire force. "We don't have the operational intelligence to know what is going on right in front of our eyes."

For now, violence stemming directly from the cartels has been largely confined to U.S. towns along the Mexican border. In Phoenix, where the number of kidnappings has tripled since 2000, police have created a special unit to deal with the wave of abductions. Most of the victims are low-level couriers who are held for ransom when drug deals go bad: In Georgia, one of the newest distribution routes for Mexican drugs, a dealer was kidnapped last year in a dispute over a $300,000 drug debt and held hostage for a week.

Federal officials, however, continue to insist that the drug lords are personally ordering assaults within the United States. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican cartels now operate in 230 cities across the country. "Their violence is not contained at the border," declared Michele Leonhart, acting chief of the DEA. "It has reached as far as Chicago and Detroit, and even into small-town America." In March, according to the agency, the drug lord known as El Chapo traveled to the Mexican town of Sonoyta, a few miles south of the Arizona border. There, he reportedly ordered his men to "use their weapons to defend their loads at all costs" — even if it meant killing American cops. On August 20th, the Justice Department indicted El Chapo and nine other top drug lords on charges of criminal conspiracy. Leonhart accused the Mexicans of "calling the shots" in "street operations in U.S. communities like Chicago and New York."

So far, though, there's little evidence that El Chapo or his rivals want to wage war in the U.S. To do so would endanger their business — and business is good. As they say in the Sierra Madres, where El Chapo is based, No mates la gallina de los huevos de oro. "Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs." But if El Chapo should step up the violence, U.S. agencies are ill-prepared for the fight. In Operation Pocono Powder, for example, the DEA wasn't able to bust anyone close to the cartels. "The main guy running the deal was from Sinaloa," says the undercover agent who handled contact with the man. "He knew how to play the game. We never got a wire on him. Once the load got taken, he disappeared. The last we heard, an informant saw him back in Mexico working out at a gym with two security guys guarding him. All we got was the local guys doing the monkey work."

Although DEA officials still present the bust as an example of a "great case," it actually underscores how the cartels run rings around the agency, even on its home turf. The bust began with an informant in federal prison, who told the DEA that El Chapo was importing 1,000 kilos of coke a year into New York through a trucking company in California. The source enabled undercover agents to make contact with El Chapo's connection in California and to offer to buy 100 kilos. But the entire investigation was based on a ruse. The prison "informant," it turned out, had stolen 150 kilos from the cartels — he was simply using the DEA to take out his U.S. suppliers so he could explain the missing coke to his bosses back in Mexico.

"The guy was full of shit," says the undercover DEA agent. "He orchestrated it all. He actually fooled the Mexicans." Not to mention America's top enforcement agency in the War on Drugs.

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