Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Mexico’s war on drugs: Journey into a lawless land
With 1,400 dead this year alone, and gangs pinning up 'wanted' posters naming police they wish to see killed, Mexico's war on drugs is spiralling out of control. Richard Grant risked his life to travel through the mountains of the Sierra Madre – the most dangerous region of all – and witnessed the terrifying slide into anarchy
Wednesday, 4 June 2008
If someone had come up to me in my early twenties, when men are supposed to be at their most reckless, and offered me a fortune to go into a place like the Sierra Madre, I would have thought about it for about three seconds before saying no. But after years spent reporting gangs in South Central LA, where I had a gun pointed at me for the first time, the Zapatista uprising in southernmost Mexico, and riots in Haiti, my acceptable level of risk kept rising. I had begun to think the Sierra Madre would not be that dangerous, and besides, I was curious about the nature of anarchy. The forbidden mystique of the Sierra got the better of me.
The Sierra Madre Occidental, the Mother Mountain range of the Mexican West, begins just south of the Arizona border and extends for nearly 900 miles. It contains no cities or large towns, only two paved roads and almost nothing in the way of law and order. This rugged cordillera has always defied the efforts of governments – Aztec, Spanish and Mexican – to enforce control, and it is now one of the biggest production areas in the world for marijuana, opium and heroin, and a staging point for Colombian cocaine.
It is not the sort of place where you can just turn up without an introduction, and I spent years trying to make contacts who could take me in under their protection. Time and again, I was told that it was too dangerous to take a gringo into the mountains, because the drug lords were feuding, or battling the army. Finally, I found a way to get into the Sierra Madre, spent four months travelling down the range and was extremely lucky to escape from the mountains without getting killed.
Along the way, I glimpsed Mexico's future. In the past 18 months, and particularly in the last two weeks, the murderous narco-anarchy I saw in the Sierra Madre has gone nationwide. President Felipe Calderon has gone to war against Mexico's drug cartels, all of which were started by Sierra Madre clanfolk who came downhill – and he is now discovering that the Mexican state isn't strong enough to defeat them.
In Mexico City, cartel gunmen assassinated the nation's police commander in the grounds of his home. In the state of Chihuahua, drug gangs have, in the past fortnight, put up hit lists and wanted posters with names and photographs of police commanders, and offers of reward money for their deaths. In the border city of Juarez, the list was posted on a police memorial statue. No one dared take it down, and so far 17 names have been crossed off it – dead.
The narcos are also feuding with other, with 1,400 drug-related murders so far this year, and many towns and cities are under a virtual curfew. Several police departments have resigned en masse in terror, and three police commanders have fled to the United States requesting asylum. President Calderon is claiming signs of progress, but it looks like the whole nation is unravelling, turning feral, descending into lawlessness.
The morning I left for the Sierra Madre, the sun was shining brightly. With my guide, I crossed the border at Douglas, passed through two Mexican army checkpoints looking for guns and drugs, then entered the foothills. My grand adventure was under way at last.
Crossing the line into the state of Sonora, I made my first stop in the town of Yecora. A three-piece band was playing on a flatbed truck and a crowd of 30 or 40 people had gathered. I love norteño music.
I parked and rolled the window down. It was good, raw, soulful, caterwauling norteño. A hundred years ago, they sang corridos in the Sierra about famous bandits, outlaws, revolutionaries, or particularly bloody feuds and heroic-tragic deaths. Now they sing about the drug lords, who sometimes commission the songs out of vanity, and events both real and imagined from the lives of drug growers, local bosses, regional traffickers, smugglers, dealers, pilots, assassins. There's a great deal of macho bragging and posturing, and despite the accordions and polkas, the music form it most resembles is gangsta rap.
I walked over to the back of the crowd as the band was singing a narcocorrido about some drug lord who was the king of the Sierra, with many houses, fine women and impressive machine-guns.
The next song had hardly begun when three drunk men with twitching lips came up to me. They offered to sell me marijuana at $100 a kilo, premium quality, good price, "special for you". When I said I had just pulled over to hear the music they got very suspicious and accused me of working for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which is something you never want to hear in the Sierra Madre. I laughed it off with as much casual disdain as I could muster, said that I was a British tourist, bid them a sudden farewell and concentrated on maintaining a relaxed and deceptively speedy gait as I walked back to my truck.
I drove all the way out of the mountains without stopping again. Late that night, with enormous relief, I collapsed at a motel. I was safe.
Soon afterwards, I arrived in the town of Alamos. It would take a while to find someone willing and able to take me deeper into the mountains from there. Crossing the Sierra on a paved and well-travelled highway was one thing, but going into the mountains above Alamos by myself was different.
I studied the calm, impassive expressions on the faces of the grandmothers sitting in their doorways, the young couples arm in arm, the off-duty drug dealers standing outside the cantina, wearing silk shirts decorated with pictures of roosters, scorpions, pick-up trucks, AK-47s and the Virgin of Guadalupe.
I went into a cantina called Casino Señorial, a big concrete barn with the walls painted Tecate red and gold, white plastic tables and chairs and a giant, pulsating, multicoloured jukebox in the corner. The place was three-quarters full with men, and I could tell from the hard faces, lean shanks and tyre-tread sandals that most of them had come down from the Sierra.
On the wall behind the bar was a stuffed mountain lion, caught in the act of tearing the throat out of a stuffed deer. Fake blood was smeared around the wound and splattered down the wall. I sat down at the bar and ordered a caguama, a giant sea-turtle, or in this case a quarter-gallon bottle of Tecate beer.
Three women appeared and paraded on the concrete floor on stiletto heels. The whores collected money from the bartender and fed it into the jukebox. The music was all narcocorridos – "I'm one of the players in the Sierra where the opium poppy grows... I like risky action, I like to do cocaine, I walk right behind death with a beautiful woman on each arm... I've got an AK-47 for anyone who wants to try me..."
A group of men beckoned me over to their table. One of them was clearly in charge, a big, paunchy man with a glassy-eyed smile and a magnificent Roman nose. The others called him El Pelicano, The Pelican, and warned me that he and the younger man next to him were cops from the region.
I pulled up a chair and sat down and The Pelican thumped his empty caguama on the plastic table. The bartender scurried over with a fresh one and The Pelican looked at me to pay. They all looked ripped on cocaine, including the two cops.
Their lips were writhing and they were chewing at their tongues and guzzling down beer at a crazy pace. Five minutes after it arrived, the caguama was empty and The Pelican thumped it down on the table. Again I paid and five minutes later I paid again, and so on for the next 20 minutes.
They started making motions, as if lifting a key or a spoon to their nostrils. "Do you like perico?" asked the younger cop. Cocaine was perico, parakeet, because it made you chatter without knowing what you were saying.
"Not now, thank you," I said. Call me paranoid, but the idea of doing cocaine with Mexican cops made me nervous.
I got up to go to the bathroom and the two cops followed me in there. Then The Pelican raised his forefinger to stop me leaving, took out a plastic bag of cocaine, scooped a little mound on the end of his pocket knife and offered it to me.
They wanted me to buy some, which looked like a classic Mexican set-up: I would buy the cocaine, the cops would bust me and extort a large bribe, which they would then spend on cocaine. My instincts were telling me to leave but I didn't know how. To leave a Mexican drinking session before it reaches its natural conclusion, which is absolute drunkenness, is considered rude and disrespectful, and in the rougher parts of the Sierra it is a frequent cause of homicide.
The Pelican thumped down another empty caguama and I pulled out my wallet again and found that it was empty. A godsend!
I showed it to everyone at the table, thanked them for their fine company and outstanding hospitality and assured them that my house was at their orders if they were ever in Tucson.
I got up to leave and The Pelican said: "No, we need more perico. We need more beer. You can get more money from the wall of the bank. We are friends. Or are you too proud to drink with Mexicans?"
"We are friends without doubt," I said. "And there are no better people in all the world to drink with than Mexicans. I will go to the bank and get money from the wall."
I made my reeling exit, and headed towards and into the welcoming darkness of my guest-house.
The old adobe town of Urique was founded by a gold prospector in 1690. The sun was behind the canyon wall and the long dusk had begun. Behind Rafael's restaurant was a garden with some fruit trees and white plastic tables and chairs. There, I met two young men called Pancho and José. They had gel-spiked hair and were wearing cargo pants and Nike trainers.
"You want to buy some?" said Pancho without further ado, referring to the local marijuana, "$100 a kilo."
"Ah, no thank you."
"How about grenades? I have some good grenades and a rocket for them."
"The rocket shoots the grenades?"
"Yes. It works very well, very strong." He held up his arm and slapped it.
"It's not my business, but why would anyone need rocket-propelled grenades in Urique Canyon?"
Pancho gave me the patient, pitying look. "Helicopters," he said. "Sometimes the army comes in helicopters. We used to string cables across the canyons to bring them down, but these work much better."
"But I don't need to shoot down any helicopters."
"Hombre, you can use them for anything you want. If there are bandits on the road ahead, you stop and – BOOM!"
"How about some parakeet?" chimed in José. "We can get some right now from Pancho's aunt."
"No thank you. But tell me, how are the police here? Do they make trouble?"
"There is no problem," said José. They both grinned. "My brother is a police officer and we are training to be police officers ourselves."
Not so long ago, the largest town in each municipio would have a single resident comisario, or police officer, and he was responsible for law and order over hundreds of square miles of rugged, roadless mountains. His only real work was to confiscate moonshine, then sell it back to the townsfolk out of his office. That was the extent of the law unless there was a killing and the killer was considered too dangerous or troublesome for the victim's family members to kill. In that case, the local people would send for the judiciales, the state police, and they would ride up into the Sierra on mules.
Now, there are stations of municipal police officers in places like Urique and Chinipas. Pancho and José would soon be joining their ranks. Once they had their badges, guns and the power of arrest, their potential earnings would increase. Units of the state police and AFI (Mexico's equivalent of the FBI) were stationed in the Sierra Madre now, too, but this didn't mean that law and order had arrived. It usually meant more armed, ruthless men in town looking for a piece of the drug action – and a rise in teenage pregnancies and drink-driving accidents.
Trying to distinguish between police officers and drug traffickers can be a futile exercise in Mexico. The traffickers don't just buy protection against arrest; they hire state and federal policemen to transport loads for them and carry out executions.
Where once there was a relatively simple form of lawlessness in the Sierra, now things are more complicated, based on shifting arrangements of corruption financed by organised crime, linked to global black markets and affected by national and international politics. There are enormous amounts of money at stake now, and this was what drew the law into the Sierra Madre and also made it imperative to co-opt the law and keep it at bay.
Baborigame was an ominous, grim-looking town in a wide valley with heavily logged mountains around it. When Randy, another of my guides, first came here in the early 1990s, there was no law and no electricity, and a killing almost every night. The arrival of the law had resulted in a decline in the murder rate in town, and an increase in the murder rate out in the ranches.
The torrent of drug money that had flowed through Baborigame in the 1980s and 1990s had left almost no trace. The streets were unpaved and potholed. The drains didn't work. Aside from a few "narco" houses with bright paint and fancy wrought-iron fences, people lived in squalid shacks and adobes.
By this point in my journey I was tired and run down and I had lost tolerance for machismo. It is the root of the worst evil in Mexico, the real reason why men kill each other and rape women in such horrifying numbers. Not that those numbers are available; according to The Washington Post, fewer than 1 per cent of rapes are reported in Mexico.
In the Sierra Madre the practice known as rapto – a man kidnapping a girl and forcing her to marry him – is commonplace. This is what happened to Chana, a woman I met. From Coloradas de la Virgen, she was now living in Baborigame. Raped at 15 and made pregnant, she had to marry the rapist so he could help her to raise the child. She had another child with her rapist husband and then he was murdered, leaving her with two children to raise. It happens to thousands of women like Chana every year. It is indefensible, but it is the code of the mountains.
Back near Alamos, I picked up another guide, Gustavo. One of his jobs was doing clerical and translating work for the municipio, or county police department, and this gave him access to the murder reports and crime statistics from the area. I started looking into the numbers.
The population of the municipio was approximately 23,000, with 9,000 in Alamos, 3,000 in San Bernardo and the rest scattered in small mountain villages and ranches. Gustavo said they were averaging 90 reported murders a year, and that it was safe to add at least another 20 unreported murders to that figure. Let's call it 100 murders a year, committed by a population of 23,000.
I knew that Mexico's overall murder rate was twice that of the United States, but here was a rural county with a murder rate eight times higher than the most homicidal US cities.
We drove into a village of about two dozen shacks, most of them built out of crudely woven sticks and dried mud with palm-thatch or corrugated tin roofs. More often than not, they also had a solar panel, a TV satellite dish and a big American pick-up parked out front.
"With the money from your first crop you buy clothes, jewellery and guns," said Gustavo. "I can assure you that every one of these huts has at least one pistol and one rifle inside. Then you buy your truck, your solar, your satellite and TV. The last thing you spend money on is the house."
We drove on to the next village, Aguacaliente. It looked deserted. We walked along the stream looking for the hot springs that gave the village its name. A middle-aged man appeared in a blue shirt and white hat and walked down the banks holding a bucket. "That's a woman's job," said Gustavo. "He was sent down here to see what we're doing."
The man introduced himself as Señor Espinoza and we all shook hands. Gustavo ran through his clan credentials. With no prompting, Señor Espinoza started talking about the soldiers. "We had a nice crop growing in the hills and we were ready to pick it when the army came with planes and helicopters and a captain that could not be fixed."
"It is these new college-educated army officers," said Gustavo.
"There are a couple of them near Alamos who can't be fixed. They are not reasonable men," said Espinoza. "We used to grow a lot of opium here and the army have stopped that too. It makes no sense. The army and the federales were getting their share, the politicians were getting their share from the mafia, the gringos were getting their drugs and the people here were able to make a living. It was a good system for everybody and now it is broken. Even if we get a reasonable captain during the next harvest, we have no money now and will not be able to fix things with him."
He bid us a courteous farewell, apparently satisfied that we were harmless. We walked back to the truck and sat in the cab making peanut butter sandwiches.
"Gustavo," I said, looking in the rear-view mirror. It didn't look good. There were two young men leading horses directly towards us and they had very hard stares on their faces. Gustavo looked over his shoulder. Two more men appeared and then all four of them pulled down their hats, and when Gustavo saw that, with a piece of bread half-smeared with peanut butter on his knee, he said, "Go, go, go! Go now! Go!"
I started the engine and slewed out of there, fish-tailing in the sand.
The largest component of Mexico's economy is still drug trafficking, estimated at about $50bn. According to a leaked study conducted in 2001 by Mexico's internal security agency CISEN, if the drug business was somehow wiped out, Mexico's economy would shrink by 63 per cent.
As Gustavo pointed out, the drug business was not a healthy occupation or a good influence on society. It makes boys neglect their schooling and any other ambitions they might harbour. It causes men to die young and violently and worsens corruption.
Coming back across the Cuchujaqui river in the gathering dark, tired and beaten up from a long day on bad roads, Gustavo spoke. "The thing about Mexico is that everyone is out to get everyone else, except within your family and very closest friends. We live with our senses and suspicions on full alert. Maybe someone thinks your wife is prettier than his so he whispers something to the police, or the mafia, and the next thing the police are planting drugs in your truck and you're going to jail for 10 years, or there's a bullet in your head and you may never know why."
He paused a moment and let out a long sigh: "I don't know if you can understand what it is like to live this way."
© Richard Grant 2008. Extracted from Bandit Roads, to be published tomorrow (Little, Brown, £16.99). To order the book for the special price of £15.99 (inc P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897