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How Massive Profits Are Being Made Out of Mexico's Bloody Drug War

New book 'Narcoland' exposes how politicians and businessmen in the U.S. and Mexico are raking it in by backing illegal plantations and traffickers.

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Here I met Father Martín, a Peruvian priest with a dark, glossy complexion, an extraordinary sense of humor and a great heart, who had chosen to stay in Guadalupe y Calvo rather than accept a transfer to the safety of El Paso, Texas. He carried out his pastoral work with matchless energy, even if his sermons against the wrong kind of seeds fell on deaf ears. Talking to him helped me to understand the human dimension of the problem, as opposed to the perspective of military and police operations.

People have been doing this for decades. They don’t know any other way of life, and no one has shown them an alternative. No doubt in these humid ravines you could grow guava, papaya, or other fruits, but the lack of decent roads makes it impossible to transport such produce. To make matters worse, residents say some places here, like Baborigame, didn’t get electricity until 2001. Many illegal plantations have been supported by the Mexican and US governments. But the authorities don’t understand that being nurtured here are not just drug crops, but future drug traffickers. Kids don’t want to be firemen or doctors when they grow up; they want to become drug barons. That’s the only measure of success they know.

Stories abound of El Chapo roaming the streets of Guadalupe y Calvo, flanked by bodyguards dressed in black. People have embraced the myth of the generous godfather figure, the sponsor of baptisms, first communions, and weddings.

I climbed to the top of Mohinora, in the south of the Tarahumara range. At 3,307 meters, it’s the highest peak in Chihuahua. Below, in season, you can see the green valley flooded with red poppies. Its beauty is enough to make you cry—and so are the consequences of this trade. I had gone to research a story about child labor, but I came back with much more: the knowledge of a way of life which for these people is as necessary as the blood that runs in their veins—and that now increasingly runs in the streets.

At the end of 2005, the lawyer Eduardo Sahagún called me at the Mexico City offices of La Revista , the magazine of El Universal, the newspaper where I was working. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in the story of a client of his, Luis Francisco Fernández Ruiz, the former assistant warden of the Puente Grande maximum security prison, in the state of Jalisco. Fernández wanted to talk to me about his case. He was being tried along with sixty-seven other public employees who had been working at Puente Grande’s Federal Center for Social Rehabilitation Number 2 on the night of January 19, 2001, the night El Chapo Guzmán went missing from the prison. They were all accused of taking bribes and facilitating El Chapo’s escape. Fernández had already spent nearly five years in jail, and he still hadn’t been sentenced. “The state prosecutor’s office has always refused an on-the-spot inspection and a reconstruction of the escape, to establish how El Chapo got away and who was responsible,” the lawyertoldme.AllI’dheardabouttheaffairweretheHollywoodesque stories circulating afterwards, of how the drug baron had fled in a laundry cart. This improbable version of events was repeated so often in the domestic and international media that it had become an unquestionable truth; the same thing happened with many other stories of Mexico’s drug trade.

I finally met Fernández in the visiting rooms of Mexico City’s Reclusorio Oriente detention center. It was a short encounter, during which he expounded his innocence. The former assistant warden of Puente Grande told me of his dealings with the drug baron, and gave me his impressions of the man: “He was introverted, with a serious, withdrawn manner, not at all overbearing or rude, and he was intelligent, very intelligent.” There was no admiration in Fernández’s words, but a certain respect for the drug trafficker, who was in his custody from 1999 until the day he was sprung from Puente Grande.