*****Down by the River

drugs, El Paso, Rio Grande, narcotraficantes, DEA, Border Patrol, Mexico, Texas

U.S. Border Patrol agents on the Rio Grande (photo: c1.staticflickr)

By Charles Bowden. Investigative reporter Bowden has produced a number of excellent nonfiction books, and this 2002 book about the porous U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez and the heavy traffic in drugs and violence spanning the Rio Grande there–was highly regarded from the start. Since it’s a dozen years old, as I read, I couldn’t help hoping the situation has improved. Ample recent evidence here, here, and here, suggests it has not, and ongoing drug-related violence throughout the Central American region is a principal reason its children are fleeing here.

The rivalry, lack of cooperation, and mutual undermining of DEA, FBI, and CIA agents in their interactions with the corrupt Mexican hierarchy clouded any comprehensive understanding of the problem and precluded any effective action. When one of these government agencies would get the goods on a bad guy, another would put on the brakes, maybe because the man was one of their thousands of snitches–an always shaky investigational strategy, as any TV watcher knows–or maybe for some other reason. The Mexican drug lords outflanked the clueless American agents at every turn, playing one against the other.

Bowden had no idea it would take eight years to sieve the truth from the slurry of lies and to assemble the fragments of this accounting from hints, scattered news reports, reportorial digging, and conversations with people afraid to talk. He doesn’t discuss the risks to himself, but they had to be industrial grade. He frames the whole convoluted, vague, and hopelessly tangled mess with the story of the death of one 26-year-old El Paso man, Bruno Jordan. Jordan’s family lives close to a border bridge, dangerous Ciudad Juarez crowded up to the Rio Grande’s opposite bank. Jordan was shot down in a K-Mart parking lot in what the police claimed was a car-jacking by a 13-year-old boy, and what his family believes was a hit. Bruno had nothing to do with drugs, but his older brother headed the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center and, in the course of his career, had rubbed a great many of the vindictive and ultra-violent narcotraficantes the wrong way.

The cupidity and corruption of Mexico’s elected leaders, the federal police, the army, and every “get tough on drugs” task force they set up is old news now, but the extent of it is nonetheless shocking. According to a source Bowden cites, when Vincente Fox became president, one of his cabinet members said, “All of our phones, faxes and e-mails are monitored by the narcos. We are surrounded by enemies. We cannot attack corruption unless Washington ends its indifference to wrongdoing by the Mexican elite.” But Washington ignored it, for political reasons of its own, and instead, for decades, has touted the phony War on Drugs.

confiscated drug money

Confiscated drug money (photo: wikimedia.org)

While the people live in poverty and terror, the drug czars live in multimillion-dollar mansions, protected by gun-toting federales. One provincial governor cracked down on the drug lords who live in luxury and some safety in his prisons (operating their networks unimpeded, of course), by decreeing they could no longer have Jacuzzis in their cells. At the time of Bowden’s writing, Northern Mexico was essentially a lawless region where the amounts of money are so huge that anyone can be bought. According to the DEA, in 1995 Amado Carrillo Fuentes’s Juarez-based cartel alone was generating approximately $200 million every week.) With cash flow like that, the Mexican government couldn’t afford to shut it down if it wanted to. “Unsuspecting” U.S. and European banks launder perhaps $.5 to $1 trillion dollars a year of this dirty money. Have an account at Citibank?

U.S. law enforcement and border officials may not be corrupt individuals, but everyone they must deal with is likely to be, or might be, today, or another day. In a 2013 interview Bowden talked about the continued violence and murder in Mexico, spawned by Americans’ drug habits, and how this violence is routinely ignored by politicians, bankers, and others who wink-wink don’t ask where the money comes from, calling it “the willful ignorance of the US press covering Mexico. The Mexican press is terrorized. The U.S. press does not like to challenge power.”

Author Charles Bowden died August 30, 2014, at his Las Cruces, New Mexico, home.

Mother Jones encomium and other excellent links.