The War Next Door

Page 7 of 7

We drive through some of the most rugged and isolated terrain in the world, high atop jagged outcrops where the clouds literally meet the earth. Below the path is a plunge of thousands of feet. The road is muddy and slippery, and there is no guardrail. After two hours of white-knuckled driving — during which we cover perhaps 10 miles — we reach the village. Three dozen houses are scattered in the valley, modest homes with gardens and clothes drying on laundry strings. A tiny airstrip for narco planes is tucked into the brush, visible only by the small red markers strung across the treetops to guide pilots. On a hilltop, in a graveyard, stands a cluster of huge, ornate mausoleums the drug traffickers have built for themselves while they're still alive. It was in these mountains that the United States introduced narcotics to Mexico, setting off the chain of events that would result in the creation of the cartels and culture in Sinaloa. During the Second World War, the American government encouraged farmers in Sinaloa to plant fields of poppy to provide morphine for wounded soldiers. As so often happens, one war has led to another.

At the lone restaurant, a small gathering of men eyes us suspiciously. The driver refuses to let me get out of the vehicle. "The law doesn't work out here," he says. "It's dangerous to ask questions of these people. We don't know who they are. We must go now." This is as close as I will manage to get to Chapo and his base of operations — an airstrip in the mountains used for smuggling drugs, a graveyard filled with self-erected monuments to the narcos and their reign.

Back in Culiacán, the front page of the newspaper features a street-by-street diagram of the recent beheadings and assassinations: EL MAPA DE LA MUERTE. The killings also continue apace across the nation, in border cities and resort towns and industrial centers. In the first week of October alone, at least 49 people are murdered in Tijuana. Every sign in Mexico points to a war that is only just beginning. "The confrontation is escalating," says Astorga, the sociologist. "The narcos are threatening governors, the military, mayors. Eventually the state will find a way to prevail. In the end, war is not good for business."

But here in Culiacán, the defeat of the narcos doesn't appear likely anytime soon. The local leaders I meet talk about long-term solutions. Twenty-five-year plans are standard — the political euphemism for "never." "The federal government is overwhelmed, and so is the state government," a leading politician says. "If here the police feel unsafe, how are the citizens going to feel?"

Of all the perversities of American drug policy, none is greater than the fact that the metaphorical War on Drugs has inflicted an actual war on some of the hemisphere's poorest people. The Bush administration's answer to the chaos in Mexico is something called the Mérida Initiative, which was signed into law this summer. The plan will provide $1.6 billion to the Mexican government, much of it for high-caliber weapons, night-vision goggles and air support — the kind of resources that the super-rich drug cartels already have in abundance. "We've had the same policy on drugs since the Nixon administration," says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "We ask other countries to fight the war for us. The same thing happened in Colombia. We try to export the problem by asking other countries to not sell us the goods we want to buy. Thousands are dying every year in Mexico for our war."

In the end, the chaos in Mexico is the direct result of America's misguided War on Drugs — the Latin American version of blowback. Every effort to counter the cartels only serves to empower them. Cracking down on cocaine use in the United States has encouraged the Mexicans to produce more heroin and crystal meth, at the same time as they fight over the shrinking coke market. Killing the heads of the Mexican cartels has sparked a civil war, as lower-level rivals fight to replace the fallen leaders. Yet some DEA officers I speak to, who refuse to be named, ache for an even more aggressive war on drugs, the kind of force used in Iraq, with a full-frontal assault in the Sierra Madres by the United States military. Others favor supplying more aid to Mexico, as the Bush administration is doing with the Mérida Initiative. "The initiative is a step in the right direction," says Pamela Starr, the author of a recent report on Mexico for the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is designed to build Mexican law enforcement, and it is focused on the police and the judiciary."

But if the past is any guide, the Mérida Initiative will prove to be yet another strategic miscalculation, increasing the very violence it seeks to curb. The result could be a failed state in Mexico on the scale of Afghanistan — a lawless society ruled by drug lords. "The violence threatens the government's ability to govern effectively," says Starr. "It threatens the oil supply. It makes Mexico a potential transit point for terrorists. The worst thing in the world that could happen to the United States is to have an unstable country on its southern border."

In fact, there are already signs that the violence in Mexico is moving into the United States. In major cities like Los Angeles and Dallas, Mexican street gangs are turning up in growing numbers, as the cartels increase their reach across the border. In June, two vehicles filled with Mexican narcos disguised as U.S. policemen staged an attack in Phoenix, unloading 100 rounds of high-caliber ammunition into a dope dealer who had angered their boss. Three of the hit men were apprehended after fleeing into an alley, but the rest of the assailants escaped.

The surest way to curb the violence is the one the U.S. government refuses to consider. "There is no national conversation about legalization, and we need to start doing that," says David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute. "From the Mexican point of view, decriminalization would rob organized crime of the monopoly it now has in the black market. The monopoly is what gives the drug traffickers enormous resources. They can challenge and compromise the state in extremely dangerous ways. They use profits we're creating to undermine our efforts to fight them."

In Culiacán, no one wants to discuss the decriminalization of drugs. They know that any move to legalize narcotics would devastate the local economy, even as it freed the city from the death grip of narco culture. The "war" on drugs being waged by the United States keeps the town prosperous, and residents at all levels of society have a stake in protecting Chapo and the cartels from foreign interference. When I get back to New York, my translator calls to say that my reporting has continued to cause a stir in Chapo's world. Julio and his friends are now certain that I was a DEA agent gathering intelligence on Chapo and the Sinaloan cartels. The accusation isn't nonsensical: The same month I was there, U.S. forces helped free hostages held by the rebel group FARC in the jungles of Colombia by having soldiers pose as journalists.

Sara says that Julio has been threatening her, insisting that they talk face to face. Terrified that he might kill her, she agrees to meet — but only in a public place. At a restaurant, she shows him links to articles I've written. Julio angrily tells her that he is being threatened for talking to me. He is worried that he could be shot by Chapo's men.

"If someone has to go 'into the floor,' it will be you, not me," Julio tells her — narco shorthand for getting killed.

"It's so stupid," Sara says to me. "But in this war, people die for stupid reasons."

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