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


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 Ã�lvarez 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.

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.

“After the alarm was raised following the escape, the Federal Police took control of the prison, we were all shut into the hall, and armed personnel in balaclavas moved in,” recalled Fernández. Two years later this fact would prove crucial.

Soon after I published my interview with Luis Fernández in La Revista, he won his appeal and was released. Today there is almost no one still behind bars for what the authorities call “El Chapo’s escape.” Even the warden of the maximum security prison, Leonardo Beltrán Santana, whose path I crossed a couple of times in the VIP dormitory of the Reclusorio Oriente, was freed in 2010.

In May 2006, at the Nikko Hotel in Mexico City, I met a DEA agent who confirmed my growing conviction that Joaquín Guzmán and the drug trade were essential to understanding a key aspect of corruption in Mexico, perhaps the most important aspect of all: the one that involves top government figures putting prices on the country’s millions of inhabitants, as if they were head of cattle.

According to this agent, DEA informers infiltrated into the organization of drug lord Ignacio Coronel Villarreal had told him that El Chapo Guzmán left Puente Grande penitentiary after paying a multimillion-dollar bribe to the family of President Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN). And that the deal included systematic protection by the federal government of him and his group, the all-powerful Pacific cartel. Fox is now a leading advocate for the legalization of not only the consumption, but also the production, distribution, and sale of every class of drug.


I read avidly the thousands of pages of evidence in the case of “El Chapo’s escape.” Through the dozens of statements given by cooks, laundry workers, inmates, detention officers, and prison police commanders that make up the proceedings of penal case 16/2001, I learned of Guzmán’s passion for painting landscapes, how much he missed his mother, his “romantic” side, his brutality as a rapist, his need for Viagra, his taste for candy and volleyball, but above all his infinite capacity to corrupt everyone and everything in his path. Similarly, hundreds of sheets of official documents allowed me to confirm that in 2001 El Chapo did not escape from Puente Grande in that famous laundry cart: instead, high-ranking officials took him out, disguised as a policeman.

I also obtained recently declassified CIA and DEA documents on the Iran-Contra affair—something nobody seems to remember anymore—which is what turned Mexican drug traffickers from humble marijuana and poppy farmers into sophisticated international dealers in cocaine and synthetic drugs. I retrieved files eliminated from the archives of the federal prosecutor’s office, referring to the businessmen who, in the early 1990s, sheltered in their hangars the planes of El Chapo, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and Héctor El Güero Palma. Today, these eminent entrepreneurs are the owners of hotel chains, hospitals, and newspapers. I found a different account of the air crash that killed the former interior secretary, Juan Camilo Mouriño, on November 4, 2008, which suggests that the crash was not an accident but an act of revenge by drug barons for agreements not kept.

In similar fashion, I discovered the identity of the businessmen who appear as the owners of a company supposedly run by Ismael El Mayo Zambada, which operates out of a hangar in Mexico City International Airport and transports drugs and money, with both the knowledge and consent of the Communications and Transport Secretariat and the airport administration.

The story of how Joaquín Guzmán Loera became a great drug baron, the king of betrayal and bribery, and the boss of top Federal Police commanders, is intimately linked to a process of decay in Mexico where two factors are constant: corruption, and an unbridled ambition for money and power.

Semi-illiterate peasants like El Príncipe, Don Neto, El Azul, El Mayo, and El Chapo would not have got far without the collusion of businessmen, politicians, and policemen, and all those who exercise everyday power from behind a false halo of legality. We see their faces all the time, not in the mug shots of most wanted felons put out by the Attorney General’s Office, but in the front page stories, business sections, and society columns of the main papers. All these are the true godfathers of Narcoland, the true lords of the drug world.

Often the protection given to drug barons continues until they commit a major blunder, are ratted out by others anxious to take their place, or simply cease to be useful for business. Now there also exists the option of voluntary retirement, like that taken by Nacho Coronel or Edgar Valdez, La Barbie. There will always be substitute candidates for support to continue the criminal enterprise. Many have seen their time come in this way: Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Rafael Caro Quintero, Miguel �ngel Félix Gallardo, Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Joaquín Guzmán Loera alone will quit when he feels like it, not when the authorities choose. Some say he is already preparing his exit.

The current war on drugs, launched by the government of Felipe Calderón, is just as fake as that undertaken by the administration of Vicente Fox. In both cases, the “strategy” has been limited to protecting the Sinaloa cartel. The continuity of such protection has been underwritten by the shady police chief and Calderón’s secretary of public security, Genaro García Luna, and his team of collaborators: the previously unpublished documents presented here are irrefutable proof of this. García Luna is the man who aimed to become, with Calderón’s support, the single head of all the country’s police forces. He has even stated, with complete impunity, that there is no option but to let El Chapo operate freely and “bring to heel” the other criminal organizations, since it would be easier for the government to negotiate with just one cartel, rather than five. The bloody results of war between opposing cartels we know only too well.

Currently, all the old rules governing relations between the drug barons and the centers of economic and political power have broken down. The drug traffickers impose their own law. The businessmen who launder their money are their partners, while local and federal officials are viewed as employees to be paid off in advance, for example by financing their political campaigns. The culture of terror encouraged by the federal government itself, as well as by the criminal gangs through their grotesque violence, produces a paralyzing fear at all levels of society. [...] They have tried to convince us that the drug barons and their cronies are immovable and untouchable. [But] as citizens or as journalists, we must never allow the state and the authorities to give up on their duty to provide security, and simply hand the country over to an outlaw network made up of drug traffickers, businessmen, and politicians, allowing them to impose on all Mexicans their intolerable law of “silver or lead.” Pay up or die.


On December 1, 2012, Felipe Calderón’s government came to an end. His presidency bears the burden of more than 80,000 people killed in the “war on drugs,” over 20,000 disappeared, around 200,000 driven from their homes by the violence, and hundreds of thousands of victims of kidnappings, extortion, and general violence. Mexican society and the international community will not allow the terrible events of these last six years to be forgotten.

Calderón’s time in office has left Mexico ablaze. There is only one victor in his so-called war on drugs: Joaquín Loera Guzmán, El Chapo, who remains free, and more powerful and ubiquitous than ever. The US Drug Enforcement Administration says that during Calderón’s six-year term, Guzmán became the most powerful drug trafficker in history, while his enemies were decimated. El Chapo’s empire is Calderón’s chief legacy.

Now it is December 2012, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is back in power in Mexico. Many of the politicians and businessmen [involved] are figures who still hold positions of power, both in public office and private enterprise. As long as they remain in place, Mexico will continue to be Narcoland.

Published with permission from Verso Books. 

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