We are in the safe house. The sun bakes at ninety and the humidity keeps stride with the sun. Texas wobbles under the blows of summer, the storms threaten, the whiff of tornadoes gives a tang to the changing skies. The street is tree-clogged, narrow, and lined with stretch versions of ranch-style houses. Plano, hugging the north flank of Dallas, is one of the richest suburbs in the United States. This section of that sanctuary houses managers, the lower end of the Plano pecking order. Weekends reverberate with lawn mowers, weekdays find the street abandoned as couples work to pay for their homes.
The woman scrubs diligently in the kitchen. Not compulsively, she notes, just rigorously. She is short and friendly. She was born in Mexico and raised in the United States and most of her life has revolved around the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA. This is not her home, she is just helping out. This could never be her home. Everything about the house is wrong. It reeks of a failed marriage, of depression. And of Anglos. This last failing is never mentioned, it is too obvious for mention. Anglos mean a cold world, a soulless world, a place where there may be money but something essential is always missing.
That is why she is here. He's gone now, doing errands, but she is here to fill this missing thing, unnamed, unmentioned, but obvious. Too obvious to discuss. She has been tied to him most of his life, through his single time, the second marriage, and now with the new divorce she is, well, back in the picture. She is bright and works hard. And she prides herself on being practical, on not succumbing to the fatal temptations of the imagination, and this house is not practical nor is this place. Nor is this thing about the death.
"They have to let Bruno go, leave him in peace," she offers.
"But that's hard when he's your own brother," I reply. I don't mention the glass of water and the candle.
She nods, but still she knows.
She has been busy telling me everything, about the details of the ruin, the little discrete acts, the betrayals, the hopes dashed. And the hopes once again renewed, just as the hopeless kitchen counter is being renewed as it emerges from months of neglect and begins to shine and smell fresh once again. She is preparing the playing field for her chicken tacos. It has not been easy. The cilantro, for example, sold in Plano is not really cilantro. Here, smell it. See? It is off, like something dead, something faint and lacking soul.
"Phillip," she announces, and she always calls him Phillip even though every one else calls him Phil, "has to stop this stuff about drugs. It is all he wants to talk about. I go to Mexico and I see hotels and nice businesses and at the trade conferences, no one talks about drugs. And I don't see drugs. He has to stop this."
"But that is not easy," I reply. "It is everywhere if you look, if you know how to look. It is too big to ignore."
And then I trail off because I understand her point. It is a healthy point.
I can't even produce a metaphor for the drug world anymore. I don't even like the phrase the drug world since the phrase implies that it is a separate world. And drugs are as basic and American as, say, Citibank. Mexico's three leading official sources of foreign exchange are oil, tourism, and the money sent home by Mexicans in the United States. Drugs bring Mexico more money than these three sources combined. The United States and Mexico share a common border more than 1,800 miles long. Its official, licit, World Bank-type economy is piddling -- 4.5 percent that of the United States. Both nations, along with Canada, are officially partners in a common market under the umbrella of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Mexico and the United States are partners in an unofficial economy called the drug business.
The number for the money in the Mexican drug business, around $30 billion annually, came from the Mexican attorney general's office in the mid-1990s, and is smaller than the current take. The number is roughly the same as that quietly issued from time to time by the agencies of the United States government.
When the drug industry does get mentioned, it gets dismissed by Mexicans blaming the United States for creating the drug market because of its vile habits and the United States blaming Mexico for permitting the drug industry because of its corrupt practices. I disagree with both positions. Drugs are a business, one of the largest on the surface of the earth, and this business exists for two reasons: the products are so very, very good and the profits are so very, very high. Nothing that creates hundreds of billions of dollars of income annually and is desired by millions of people will be stopped by any nation on this earth. A Mexican study by the nation's internal security agency, CISEN (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional), that has been leaked to the press speculates that if the drug business vanished, the U.S. economy would shrink 19 to 22 percent, the Mexican 63 percent. I stare at these numbers and have no idea if they are sound or accurate. No one can really grapple with the numbers because illegal enterprises can be glimpsed but not measured. In 1995, one Mexican drug-trafficking expert guessed that half the hotel room revenues in his country were frauds, meaning empty rooms counted as sold in order to launder drug money.
A part of me sympathizes with the woman cleaning the kitchen that is not hers, that is a relic of her lover's failed marriage. I can taste the desire to move on, to leave all the arrests, tortures, corrupt politicians and cops on both sides of the line, to abandon talk of deals and busts. To smell the roses and let the cocaine go to hell or the customers. Outside in the yard, a small dog lazes in the sun, a mongrel from El Paso. The dog is called Cokie, short for Cocaine. And here, the dog's world has been reduced to the decent order of bones, water, a food dish, and two rubber balls for play. The trick is to pretend Mexico does not exist. Or if it does exist, that it is very much like the United States, just with a different cuisine and language. For decades the man of this house kept Mexico at bay. And then, it came visiting in a form that trade agreements and folkloric dances tend to ignore.
The visit was violent. In Juárez, the Mexican city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, the world has been reduced to this: between 1993 and 2001, at least 2,800 people were either murdered or raped or kidnapped or simply vanished. In Mexico City, the attorney general's office has placed the mug shots of 1,400 federales on a Web site to better enable citizens to identify them when they rob or torture them or, perhaps, kill someone. A Mexico City suburb has followed suit with its police force so that, the mayor explains, the local citizens can protect themselves from the community's eight hundred cops. The mayor already had fired half of the force for corruption. Recently, one Mexican politician called for reinstating capital punishment in Mexico -- solely for police offenders.
The house is cluttered with DEA bric-a-brac -- plaques, citations, photographs, the litter from a career. The woman wants such things gone, consigned to the past. She wants the breath of a fresh, new life. There is a logic to this since in the end this work with DEA has brought ruin. Yet, it is hard to let it go. It is hard to pretend it never happened. Others can do this, but for those who were involved in the blood rituals such an act requires personal mutilation. I understand this dread of burying the past at the very same instant I share her desire to erase it. Or better yet, to have never known it at all.
There are things -- the gulag of slave labor camps in the former Soviet Union, the burning bodies of the Holocaust in Europe, the clanking chains of human bondage in the United States -- that intelligent and honest people know occurred and yet grow weary of contemplating. The drug business is not like such things. Beyond some songs, a few action-packed movies, the drug business is never really acknowledged. Drugs may be the major American story of our era, the thing that did more to alter behavior and law, that redistributed income to the poor far more dramatically than any tinkering with tax codes, that jailed more people and killed more people than any U.S. foreign policy initiative since the Vietnam War. But this vital force, this full-tilt-boogie economic activity, is absent from our daily consciousness and only surfaces when discussed as a problem. And this problem is always placed on the other side of town or the other side of a line or the other side of the river.
Imagine over a quarter of a trillion dollars in a decade, imagine thousands of murders in a decade. Then imagine such things never existed. That is the drug business in one impoverished nation, Mexico. On the U.S. side of the line, all the numbers and consequences are larger.
The woman is right. Clear the house of this clutter, sell it, move on.
But there are these things, strands I think, yes, strands weaving together to form a tapestry. In this instance, the tapestry has these little loose ends that are visible, but the weave and tapestry themselves are not. One tiny strand involves Matamoros, the Mexican town facing Brownsville on the Rio Grande. A dozen or so men armed with automatic weapons took over the three-story state police station there one afternoon this season. They carried AK-47s, wore bulletproof vests and masks, and at first the state police thought it was nothing, simply some prank being played by the federal police. The men seized a Mexican soldier being held in a kidnapping case. When they finally left they showered the police station with bullets. In 1984, a similar group of men took over a Matamoros hospital where a business rival was being treated. They left five dead. Then there was a prison riot in 1991 when a drug group took over and burned the place to the ground. Or the time when Juan García Abrego, the business leader of Matamoros, caused some headlines by kidnapping an American and ritually sacrificing him in pursuit of insights. García Abrego had lineage and was intertwined with the family that ruled Mexico, including the man then occupying the presidency. And then there was the matter of American FBI and DEA agents held down at gunpoint in broad daylight for twenty minutes on November 9, 1999, and the gunmen demanded they give up an informant, and some of the gunmen were cops and some were cartel members, and one gunman sported a gold-plated AK-47, a problem that one of Phil's cousins, a man named Sal, had to investigate and try to iron out. All of this, these strands from an invisible tapestry, all of these strands are merely details in the life of a huge ongoing organism, something called the Gulf cartel, and the Gulf cartel is but a small part of the pattern of the giant tapestry itself, and like the other parts of the tapestry, the Gulf cartel comes and goes in official consciousness. It is said to be a criminal group and from time to time there are reports it is on the run. There is a fistful of such businesses, cartels, on the line and, most days, they barely exist in the newspapers or the government meetings or the idle chat at the counters of the coffee shops. This recent episode -- where an entire state police station is seized -- will pass and soon it will never have happened at all.
Just as the songs that flutter across Mexican radio come and go seemingly without a trace. The safe house, the one owned by Phil Jordan on the quiet street just north of Dallas, is in a community where, for the past several years, the adolescents of all those affluent parents have been busy overdosing on heroin. For a while, this was news and then, like the narco songs of Mexico, the dying seemed to slip away and become forgotten. In Mexico, the songs remember,
From Cuchillo Parado in the state of Chihuahua
Flew a magnificent eagle
Carrying a load as his master had ordered
Wearing a bulletproof vest, like he was human
And with a kilo of white powder in his talons
In the city of Dallas, they were waiting for the eagle...
The woman is right, I know she is right.
So I ask her about chiles, which kind is she going to use in the tacos, and she says jalapeños and also some sweet yellow peppers. Plus, of course, a salsa cruda she will create. I can taste the chiles on my tongue, smell the meat frying in the pan, feel the warm tortillas. This is a better country, clearly she is right in this matter.
The drug business lacks any honest metaphors, as I have mentioned. The common ones such as drug lords and drug czars are falsely grand. It is simply a business and like all businesses it has merchants and like all merchants they have power and access to people in power. The merchants are natural lobbyists. They are strictly business. I do not think drug merchants would ever have come to any particular notice except for the fact that they sold a product which gives people pleasure and threatens the shackles of government control. Nor would even these conditions have mattered if they sold materials that had evolved in Europe and been slowly absorbed, like alcohol, into the fabric of governments and banks and capitalism. But of course, this is not how it all happened and so we are left with a secret commerce and secret events and a secret structure. And with enormous profits. We are left with a history unwritten, one almost erased as soon as it happens to hit the page.
This unwritten history takes place down by the river, on the fabled banks where two nations meet. The official history is about the corruption of Mexico. The unwritten history, or the one that is almost instantly erased, is about the corruption of both nations. In this unwritten history, the drug merchants are almost the only honest players: vicious, greedy, murderous, and candid about their behavior. They are also the only real defenders of cutthroat capitalism since they literally cut throats and employ people based on their talents and with little regard to their sex, race, class, color, or religion. They are also one of the few industries in the developing sectors of the earth that really do redistribute income and do so at a level without parallel in the thousands of assembly plants now employing the poor of the planet.
Phil will be back in a while, the kitchen will sparkle, the tacos will blaze on the tongue. The house will be cleaned, probably put up for sale, and what happened here will also be erased. And the tendrils of power and corruption and pain that reach into this house will be snipped and destroyed and no trace of their existence will be left. Sanity will be restored. The photo on the refrigerator, the one staring out at this very instant, will be gone. She has not gotten to the refrigerator yet, but she surely will. Bruno will go into a file, be remembered but seldom mentioned. He will become a brother lost to a secret time and business.
I can't argue with her, not at all. But like Phil, I just can't seem to live her way, follow this path of clarity and good sense. And I am not alone. There are cemeteries, official and unofficial, there are prisons in Mexico and the United States, there are guarded conversations by thousands of people in cafés and cantinas, conversations by people who find themselves in the same place where I now seem to live. They have tasted a world that others seem to feel either does not exist or has little importance to the greater world. We are all captives of a kind of black hole where people and events enter and then never seem to escape the power of the hole and are condemned to live in darkness and solitude.
I'm talking to an El Paso cop and he mentions the name of a detective and he says, "Never go near him. He's my uncle, he works for the Juárez cartel."
I'm talking to an undercover narc, one who has a contract on his head paid for by the Juárez cartel. The contract calls for him to be kidnapped, taken across the bridge to Juárez, and skinned alive. He says, "They've got a photograph of me, the one they are using to hunt me down. My nephew gave it to them."
So, I can't argue with the woman who tells me to let it all go. But it is not easy to forget everything.
It's like this. Long ago, there was a murder and I became interested in that murder. The murder was never solved. It is a cold case. That is not a problem. Unsolved murders are the essence of this particular black hole. The dirty laundry of two nations must be examined to understand this unsolved murder. That also is not a problem. This black hole teems with dirty laundry.
Here is the problem: once you enter this black hole and truly live in it and taste it, then you understand.
And this understanding does not matter at all. It becomes a curse and the curse never lifts. In the myth of Prometheus, he is punished for bringing fire down off the mountain by having eagles eat his liver each and every day.
In this black hole, no one ever brings fire down off the mountain, the guards prevent such escapes. But there are two eagles and they never stop tearing at your entrails. Not for a single second. The other people you know, your friends and neighbors, cannot see these eagles and are puzzled by the descriptions you bring back from this alleged black hole, this place you insist exists. After a while, you stop talking about it, cease mentioning the eagles, pretend the entrails are not being shredded.
I'll tell you how it happened. It will take a while, but I will tell you what I know.
There is a glass of water and a burning candle. I am in this black hole, with thousands of other lost souls. I am the one who watches and yet is incapable of doing anything. A child plays in the sunlight. The house is cardboard and salvaged wood, the yard light brown dirt without grass. The air sags with dust and exhaust and the sweet stench of sewage. Electricity comes from a cord snaking across the ground from a neighbor's house. Water is a hose from a neighbor's faucet. The privy leans. The child works. He stands on street corners and juggles, his face pancaked with white makeup. He is very short and slight. Hardly anyone notices him as he juggles various balls and the traffic stands waiting for the light to go green. On January 20, 1995, a man goes down in El Paso, Texas. His killer is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years. This alleged killer is thirteen years old.
The case is closed.
Copyright © 2002 by Charles Bowden
Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family
Down by the River
Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family
Down by the River is the true narrative of how a murder led one American family into this world and how it all but destroyed them. It is the story of how one Mexican drug leader outfought and outthought the U.S. government, of how major financial institutions were fattened on the drug industry, and how the governments of the U.S. and Mexico buried everything that happened. All this happens down by the river, where the public fictions finally end and the facts read like fiction. This is a remarkable American story about drugs, money, murder, and family.