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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.

Photo Credit: Verso Books


The following is an excerpt from Anabel Hernández's new book Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers ( Verso Books, 2013). 

My introduction to the life of Joaquín Guzmán Loera began at 6:30 in the morning of June 11, 2005. That is when I boarded a bus that would take me and photographer Ernesto Ramírez to Guadalupe y Calvo, a small, storm-prone municipality in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, deep in the “golden triangle” spanned by the towering Sierra Madre Occidental. It was the start of a five day voyage to the land of drug kingpins: Ismael El Mayo Zambada, Eduardo Quintero Payán, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Rafael Caro Quintero, Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, a.k.a. El Azul—and Joaquín El Chapo (Shorty) Guzmán, the man Forbes magazine has called “the biggest drug lord of all time” (and in their latest ranking, the fifty-fifth most powerful person in the world). I still have the notebook in which I recorded the journey. It was one that was to change forever my view of the drug trade, which is today the backbone of organized crime in Mexico.

Most of the road to Guadalupe y Calvo runs through a dreamlike landscape of serried pinewoods. The sky was that intense blue you can sense in a black-and-white photograph by Manuel Álvarez Bravo. At 10:50 in the morning we arrived at the town of Rio Verde, where they hang meat on the line like washed socks. Unfortunately it’s no longer just beef, but also the bodies of victims from the “war on drugs.”

The winding road began to climb as steeply as a big dipper. The driver was an old hand. He threw the bus round the bends entrusting our fates to Pope John Paul II, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and St. Juan Diego, whose pictures were stuck on the windscreen. At one stop a newspaper vendor called Federico Chávez got on. The youngster exchanged greetings with almost all of the passengers; we were the only outsiders. Before we left Mexico City, Iván Noé Licón, a Chihuahua education official, had warned me on the phone to be discreet about our identity. “People are cagey with strangers, because they think they’re police,” he told me. So when some of the travelers took Ernesto for a priest, we didn’t say anything. It seems teachers and priests are the only outsiders who are greeted without suspicion in those parts.

After eight hours, we finally reached our destination: the municipal capital of Guadalupe y Calvo. From there we planned to tour the surrounding villages—although that is a manner of speaking, because on the bumpy tracks that link these hamlets it takes five or six hours to get anywhere. We met up with Chava, a local official who would be our guide and friend in this world we knew so little of. It was impossible not to be moved by the majestic beauty of the place, and the tragedy of its inhabitants. They were five unforgettable days.

As a journalist I had come to investigate the story of child exploitation in the area, where minors are put often to work by their parents on the poppy and marijuana harvests. These are kids who become criminals without even realizing it. Many, from the age of seven upwards, die of poisoning by the pesticides used on the plantations. Those who survive into adolescence are already carrying AK-47s, or “goat’s horns” as these weapons are popularly known.

We entered this mountain world along its narrow dirt tracks and cattle trails, learning of its customs, dreams, and legends, as well as its poverty. We visited remote places like Baborigame, Dolores, El Saucito de Araujo, and Mesa del Frijol, where more than 80 percent of the population grow drug crops. In these communities, long forgotten by federal or state social programs, you nonetheless see four-wheel-drive Cadillac Escalades, satellite dishes, and men with walkie-talkies and a pistol in their belt.