Pubdate: Mon, 13 Dec 1999
Source: Time Magazine (US)
Copyright: 1999 Time Inc.
Page: 62
Contact:  Time Magazine Letters, Time & Life Bldg., Rockefeller Center, NY,
NY 10020
Fax: (212) 522-8949
Author: Elaine Shannon, Washington And Tim Padgett, Miami


How Arrogance And Violence Bred A Massive Drug-War Slaughter

IF YOU DON'T LIVE IN THE BORDER Region between the U.S. and Mexico, it is
hard to understand how totally the drug business has come to dominate life

But last week, as FBI and Mexican backhoes began digging into what may be
mass graves containing dozens of victims of the region's drug cartels, it
was suddenly a lot easier.

FBI sources say the grave uncovered last week is probably the first of
many; they will continue exploring for more this week. 

"In law-enforcement circles, there have been rumors of these for a long
time," says a senior Drug Enforcement Administration agent. "Hell, there
are bodies [from drug-related killings] buried all over the place down here." 

The carnage is a sign of an epic shift in the drug business. From the early
1970s until a couple of years ago, if you went out on the streets of New
York City to score cocaine, you'd look for a Colombian trafficker or a
Dominican who dealt with a Colombian. Nowadays, you're just as likely to
find yourself face-to-face with a Mexican. Your dealer's ethnic roots
probably won't matter to you so long as the product is as advertised. 

But to  DEA  agents, the decline and fall of Colombia's once impregnable
Cali cartel is a sensational development surpassed only by the meteoric
rise of the Juarez Cartel now headed by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. As the
U.S. has cracked down on drug cartels in Colombia in the past decade, the
business has shifted north and into the hands of Mexican traffickers, who
play by the same bloody rules that characterized the lethal reign of the
Colombians. Mexico's narco-industry is now a $30 billion-a-year business.

"The flow of drugs through Mexico to the U.S. is not slowing down," says a
U.S. official. "If anything, it's increasing." The Juarez cartel has risen
faster than most tech stocks, thanks to the vision of its late founder,
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and the ruthlessness of his dumber but meaner
younger brother Vicente. For a long time, Mexican criminals were simply
subcontractors whom the Colombians paid a set fee, usually $1,500 to $2,000
per kilogram, to truck cocaine over the U.S. border and to warehouses in
California or Texas. There, Cali cartel employees would reclaim the goods,
move them to major retailing hubs like Manhattan and Los Angeles and
wholesale them to distributors. The Colombians pocketed a chunk of the
wholesale and retail markups.

The Mexicans risked their necks for chump change. But kingpins like Amado
changed all that. He fancied himself the Bill Gates of Mexican drug
traffickers, a visionary who earned the nickname "Lord of the Skies" for
the multi ton shipments of Colombian cocaine he received in Boeing 727s.
When he died in 1997 after botched plastic surgery,  DEA  agents were
skeptical that his brother Vicente would last as the successor head of the
Juarez syndicate.

But in Vicente's favor, says a U.S. agent, "he's vicious." After a
two-year-long war against factional leaders, notably Rafael Mufloz
Talavera, found shot to death in his jeep in Juarez in September 1998,
Vicente secured his bid to succeed his brother. He has since been indicted
in El Paso, Texas, and in Mexico on drug-trafficking charges. any of the
bodies being unearthed south of Juarez are believed to be victims in that
war, as are any Americans who Mexican officials say might be among the dead.

U.S. agents believe the war has subsided, but they admit they don't have
good intelligence on the inner workings of the Juarez cartel or on Vicente
himself. "We don't really know where he is," admits a top U.S. official.
"He could be anywhere. We assume he's somewhere in Mexico, probably
Chihuahua." Still, Vicente is no Amado, a fact that emboldens his rivals,
especially the recklessly homicidal Arellano Felix brothers, who run the
Tijuana cartel. Shortly after Amado Carrillo's death, Mexican officials
told TIME, the Arellanos phoned in a death threat against U.S. anti drug
czar General Barry McCaffrey as he toured the border. Specifically, they
threatened a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

The arrogant brutality wasn't a surprise: the brothers reportedly once sent
the severed head of the wife of a rival to him in a box of dry ice.

But U.S. officials do know this: the Juarez cartel and the other Mexican
syndicates control an ever larger slice of the illegal drug market in the
U.S. They still transport cocaine for Colombian gangs, but they also move
their own cocaine onto the street through retail-distribution established
decades ago to sell Mexican marijuana to middle-class Americans. These
networks have become one-stop shopping outlets for Mexican marijuana,
methamphetamine and heroin.

The Mexican move into retailing is bad news for U.S. law enforcement
because the Mexicans are even harder to track than Colombians. Mexican
gangsters have ready-made support structures in most cities in the U.S.,
large extended families who put down roots in the U.S. years ago. U.S. drug
agents complain that, unlike the Colombians, who tend to stand out by the
way they dress and speak, Mexican criminals are practically invisible even
in non-Hispanic neighborhoods. They cross the border at will,
indistinguishable from the millions of U.S. and Mexican citizens who
present themselves at border checkpoints daily. When they're in Mexico, as
demonstrated by the Juarez killing fields discovered last week, they can do
just about anything they want often with the help of Mexican police.

What most angers families of those presumed buried near Juarez is the
alleged involvement of local, state and possibly federal police in the
narco-murders. Recent studies by U.S. and Mexican researchers have shown
that many Mexican police recruits are actually convicted criminals; they
join police forces to get a piece of the narcotics action, usually as
cartel enforcers.

A state-police commander in Tijuana told TIME last year that he quit when
cops under him killed an honest anti-drug detective in 1996. "I realized I
was working with police more vicious than the traffickers who pay them
off," he said. Vicious, perhaps, but also well paid to ignore and even abet
what goes on in the borderlands. U.S. DEA and other law-enforcement agents
often refer to the corrupt, usually low-paid Mexican police as
"lafamiliafeliz" the happy family, always smiling and never enforcing the law.

Last Friday, when Mexican Attorney General Jorge Madrazo and FBI Director
Louis Freeh visited the first Juarez grave site, called Rancho de La
Campana, Madrazo insisted that police were being investigated. "We're not
going to cover up for anybody," he said. Mexico, with multi-million-dollar
U.S. help, has tried to create more professional, better-paid and less
corrupt anti drug units.

But even the new, vetted squads have been tainted - two Tijuana agents were
charged last year with kidnapping - or have balked at pursuing targets like
the Arellanos, who still freely frequent clubs and boxing matches on both
sides of the border.

During the `90s, only one Mexican drug-cartel leader Juan Garcia Abrego has
been arrested. As a result, exasperated U.S. officials are increasingly
declining Mexican cooperation. For example, in a major sting that netted
Mexican drug-money launderers last year, called "Operation Casablanca," the
gringos didn't even consult their cross-border counterparts.

Americans, however, shouldn't get too righteous about the Mexicans'
failings: the drug crisis, after all, is fueled by the insatiable Yanqui
appetite for snorting, shooting and smoking what grows in Latin America. 

And the U.S. even plays a role in the violence: of the estimated 4,000
illegal guns seized in Mexico since 1994, more than 75% were traced back to
U.S. smugglers as were the rocket-propelled grenades the Arellanos
threatened to fire at McCaffrey. It's something else to consider in the
coming weeks while peering into the death pits outside Juarez.
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