Hard truths about the war on drugs from a retired US intel officer

Hard truths about the war on drugs from a retired US intel officer

Chris Reed, deputy editorial and opinion editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, recently wrote a piece entitled “Add Mexico to Afghanistan, Iraq to list of nations U.S. has severely wronged.” I was surprised to find that the article centered on the views of Don Winslow, author of THE CARTEL, etc.

Given my own opinions on the US-Mexico relationship, formed during my intelligence career and reflected in my crime fiction, you can imagine my interest.

HARD TRUTHS

Don Winslow and I both write crime fiction set in Mexico. Our books often reflect real events. But do we share similar views?

Yes, to a significant extent.

Reed’s article maintains that Winslow believes that “the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] made it so easy for cartels to move cocaine, marijuana, heroin and now fentanyl across the border into the U.S. that it has warped Mexico’s economy, undermined its democracy and gotten more than 100,000 Mexicans killed.”

The NAFTA agreement gave the US “an economic incentive to not inspect the thousands of trucks that cross the border every day with a thoroughness that would limit the cartels’ ability to earn billions of dollars by catering to American appetites for illegal drugs . . [Winslow’s] research found that DEA agents call NAFTA “the North American Free Drug Trade Agreement.”

https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/story/2021-09-17/chris-reed-add-mexico-to-afghanistan-iraq-on-list-of-nations-u-s-has-severely-wronged

FILLING THE SIEVE

Fast forward 6 years from 1994. I was beginning to focus my intel career on the Western Hemisphere. The drug cartels were firmly entrenched and making millions every week from America’s insatiable appetite. Stories about missing persons, cartel violence, and mass graves were gruesomely common. Mexican tabloids routinely pasted horrific images across their front pages.

Gruesome and dismembered sells.

The US was spending heavily to stop the drug trade. FYI, the latest reports claim that the US has spent a trillion on the war on drugs, $34 billion in 2020 alone. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/17/the-us-has-spent-over-a-trillion-dollars-fighting-war-on-drugs.html

Those of us in the intelligence community did our best to fight organized crime, target cartel leaders, and staunch the flow of drugs into the US.

But we were pouring our efforts, like water, into a sieve. Lots of dirt got sifted out to be sure (Pablo Escobar, El Chapo, etc) but the rest of the US was subsidizing the drug war we were trying to stop.

The odds were not in our favor.

Related: Detective Emilia Cruz’s Origin Story

FOLLOW THE MONEY

In his article, Reed quotes Winslow’s 2015 open letter to the White House:

“It’s not the ‘Mexican drug problem.’ It’s the American drug problem. . . It’s simple: no buyer, no seller. We fund the killing, fuel the killing, and sustain the killing (my emphasis) . . . You’re so concerned about terrorists thousands of miles away that you don’t see the terrorists just across our border. The cartels are more sophisticated and wealthier than the jihadists and already have a presence in 230 American cities. The cartels were running the ISIS playbook — decapitations, immolations, videos, social media — 10 years ago.”

In short, organized crime/cartels are armed, cunning, and ruthless, and we are paying them top dollar.

The year after Winslow penned that letter, US drug users spent $150 billion on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine, according to the Rand Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR3140.html

Let’s get some perspective. $150 billion is more than 7% of the US GDP. According to largest.org, which calculated the largest industry sectors in the US, $150 billion per year is more than each of the following economic sectors: durable goods manufacturing, finance and insurance, and state and local government spending. https://largest.org/technology/industries/

That was in 2016. What are we spending now?

More recently, Addiction Centers posted an astounding graphic, claiming users in the US spend $56 million per day on meth and almost $47 million per day on cocaine. I didn’t see their methodology but neither do I have information to say those numbers aren’t for real. https://addiction-treatment.com/in-depth/what-america-spends-on-drug-addictions

BY THE NUMBERS

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control keep rolling out statistics that should be front page news, but sadly are not.

Let’s start with cocaine. According to the CDC about cocaine-related deaths in the US:

  • 90,000 deaths by overdose in 2019.
  • 93,000 deaths by overdose in 2020.

Now some joy about fentanyl. FYI, it’s called the “Drug of Mass Destruction.”

  • 42,687 overdose deaths (OD) involved fentanyl in the 12 months leading up to May 2020.
  • Fentanyl OD rates are rising 2.5 times faster than heroin ODs.
  • Fentanyl ODs outpace prescription opioid ODs 550.94%.
  • 2.2 lbs (1 kilogram) of fentanyl contains 250,000 lethal doses.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, “Fentanyl seizures in 2021 have nearly doubled 2020 numbers, according to records quietly released by Customs and Border Protection. The “Drug Seizure Statistics” tool run by the agency disclosed [earlier in September] that agents already seized 9,337 pounds of fentanyl by the end of July, a 94 percent increase from the 4,791 pounds seized in the entirety of 2020 . . . Experts say that just two milligrams of fentanyl can cause a lethal overdose to people with no tolerance for the drug, meaning the amount of the drug seized by CBP through July could potentially kill two billion people.https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/fentanyl-smuggling-surges-at-border/

NYPD data from April 2021 shows that one out of every 10 bags of cocaine sold on the street in NY contains fentanyl.

  • 80% of the heroin tested by the NYPD contains fentanyl.
  • 2/3 of OD deaths in NYC involved fentanyl.

I recently saw articles about the party scene in New York City coming back, warning friends to stay hydrated and carry Narcan because the cocaine supply is laced with fentanyl. https://gothamist.com/news/if-youre-partying-again-in-nyc-be-wary-of-fentanyl-laced-cocaine

No articles telling friends not to take cocaine.

WHAT THIS BUYS FOR MEXICO

In RUSSIAN MOJITO, I wrote: “Money flowed through each operation, and in Mexico, money and drugs always swam in the same river.”

The money that the US pays to consume illicit drug washes through every sector of Mexican society. Drug money is a way to sidestep Mexico’s rigid social system, lack of rural infrastructure, and weak civil leadership.

Fueled by the US appetite for drugs, organized crime is leaching away civil authority. Politicians are easily bought and even if they weren’t, the organs of civil order are too small, too poorly paid, and too poorly vetted to stand against the bulldozer of organized crime.

Organized crime factions vie for control of the industry even as they branch out into extortion, kidnappings, fuel theft, etc. The result is more violence, more pressure on civil authority, more money to line pockets.

For example, look at the 6 June 2021 elections in Mexico. Think of it as Mexico’s mid-terms. 500 seats in the lower house of the federal Congress, 15 state governorships and thousands of local leadership positions were up for grabs.

It was a massively violent election season. Reuters reported that 97 politicians were killed and almost 1000 were attacked, most at the local level.

In Tijuana someone threw a severed human head at a voting station on election day. Plastic bags filled with body parts were found nearby.

If you read the news from the region with any regularity, bodies in trash bags are mentioned far too often.

THE BRUTAL BENCHMARK

In the Detective Emilia Cruz series, she keeps a binder of reports of missing women that she calls Las Perdidas. Emilia’s hunt for them is a running theme throughout the series and the plot of the 2019 Silver Falchion award winning story, The Artist.

Why write about missing persons? Because the numbers of missing and disappeared persons has become the benchmark of how bad things are in Mexico.

The number of missing in Mexico continues to rise. No one really has a hard number but something like 90,000 people have gone missing in the past 15 years.

That’s a quarter of St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s the entirety of Murfreesboro, Tennessee down the road from me.

It’s the number of overdose deaths in the US in 2019.

Mexico is littered with mass gravesites full of unidentified bodies but lacks good recordkeeping so it’s hard to know just how many bodies have been discovered. Nor is there a link between finding bodies and a database of the missing. Ergo, identification lags far behind discovery. http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2021/09/platform-on-mass-graves-is-born-in.html

When they were looking for the remains of the 43 students who were victims of a mass kidnapping back in September 2014, the tragedy I wrote about in 43 MISSING, they found scores of unidentified bodies in graves in the state of Guerrero, not so far from the resort city of Acapulco.

But those weren’t the bodies they were looking for.

THE BIG QUESTION

Chris Reed and Don Winslow remind us that US drug use paid for all those graves.

Why aren’t more people talking about this?

 

Some links to check out:

National Security this Week with guest Carmen Amato: https://kymnradio.net/2021/08/04/national-security-this-week-with-carmen-amato-8-4-21-intelligence-operations/

The Ascent of Narco Noir: A Literary Game Changer: https://www.criminalelement.com/ascent-narco-noir/

CLIFF DIVER: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 1: https://geni.us/cliff-diver

A pivotal bone-chopping moment of awareness

A pivotal bone-chopping moment of awareness

On his radio show National Security This Week, thriller author and former US military intel officer Jon Olson asked me why I’d specialized in Western Hemisphere issues as an intelligence officer.

Related: National Security this Week broadcast

Build things and Fix things

As I told one senior manager during a career development talk, I like to build things and I like to fix things. That was sort of the theme of my career, especially in the last half.

The Western Hemisphere appealed.  I grew up Italian and Catholic and easily embraced local traditions of family, church, and holidays in Mexico and Central America.

So the Western Hemisphere gave me the opportunity to combine problem solving with a cultural fit.

Related: Inside my CIA Career: The Point of it All

Related: More about Carmen

The precise moment of awareness

I can tell you the exact minute my fate was sealed.

I was sitting at my desk in the office eating lunch and surfing around online. Came across a video posted by the Blog del Narco website.(I tried to link but my anti-virus software advised against it.)

For those who aren’t familiar, this uncensored site posts graphic content of narco activities in Mexico, much of which is created by the cartels and gangs themselves. It’s a “look what we’re up against” kind of site that has ebbed and flowed over the years. As you can imagine, staff is continually targeted by cartels.

So this particular video shows a clearing in the woods. There’s a dead man in the foreground, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. The video is kind of grainy, but he’s definitely dead.

There’s another guy, fully dressed, and he’s got an axe and he’s trying to chop off the dead guy’s arm at the bicep.

But either the axe is dull or the dead guy has bones like concrete because our woodsman is chopping and chopping and getting nowhere.

Meanwhile, off camera, male voices are hooting and hollering at the guy with the axe, yelling advice, questioning his strength and technique.

My bite of sandwich literally fell out of my mouth. It was such a visceral lesson in what was happening in Mexico.

You know, I remember that video in black and white. But I am not sure that it wasn’t in color.

The moment lasted

The Agency is a fairly flexible organization that wants well-rounded officers. If you have transferable skills, an understanding of how the intelligence community works, and how the different intelligence mission areas support each other, you can move across the organization.

CIA challenge coins

 

Related: Inside my CIA Career: Variety and the Spice of Life

It’s not common. Most folks, stay in a single mission area for their entire career. I was very lucky to have been able to work across all 3 major mission area: analysis, operations, and S&T, largely because I had transferable skills that could be applied to a variety of positions that focused on or were in the Western Hemisphere.

Remember, I wanted to fix things . . .

 

Featured image by Jason Abdilla via Unsplash

March for the Missing in Acapulco

March for the Missing in Acapulco

The road has disappeared under a wave of sorrow and anger. In a case of weather mimicking emotions, it is raining and thousands are unintentionally decorated with multicolored umbrellas. The raingear doesn’t hide the posters with faces of the missing. Rather, the umbrellas become a symbol of the lengths to which people will go to get answers.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Protest marchers in Acapulco, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Protest marchers in Acapulco, Oct 2014

Rally for answers

I wish the scene was one out of the Emilia Cruz mystery series. Indeed, in MADE IN ACAPULCO, a rally takes place in the exact same place to raise awareness of the plight of those missing in Mexico’s drug war and Emilia must confront her own failure as a cop to stem the tide.

But the rally I’m talking about here is real and took place last week in Acapulco. Thousands turned out for a peaceful protest in the rain that shut down Acapulco’s main boulevard, the Costura Miguel Aleman, in an effort to get answers as to the fate of 43 teaching college students who were taken away by local police in the nearby town of Iguala.

Photo courtesy AP/Eduardo Verdugo: Protest marchers show faces of the missing, Acapulco, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy AP/Eduardo Verdugo: Protest marchers show faces of the missing, Acapulco, Oct 2014

On 26 September 2014, sparked by a protest over supposed bias against teachers from rural areas, the now-missing students clashed with police and masked men. Reuters reports that “Authorities say many of the missing students were abducted by police.”

Authorities have been using sniffer dogs, patrols on horseback and have been sifting lakes in the state of Guerrero, where Iguala and Acapulco are located, to determine the wherabouts of the students. According to the online edition of The Guardian newspaper, 19 mass graves have been found and 28 bodies so far exhumed. None of the bodies so far found have been matched to any of the missing students.

Photo courtesy Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Acapulco protest rally, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Acapulco protest rally, Oct 2014

An arrest

According to ABC News, “Mexican officials announced the arrest of Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, the purported leader of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang suspected of acting with local police in taking away the students. He was detained Thursday on a highway leaving Mexico City, federal prosecutor Tomas Zeron said.

“Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said he hoped the arrest will bring new leads in the case.

“The government is combing the hills of southern Guerrero state with horseback patrols and has divers looking in lakes and reservoirs behind dams, but has not found the youths missing since a confrontation with police Sept. 26 in the city of Iguala. Officers are suspected of turning the students over to the gang.

“Authorities have arrested 36 police officers along with 17 alleged members of the gang. Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, are being sought for their presumed involvement in the disappearances, Murillo Karam said.”

Related post: Author Dilemma: When the News Writes Mystery for You

Endless road?

The end of this story is still ahead of us, but the circumstances that sparked it–police corruption, drug cartel influence, the endless money to be made from the drug and violence business–have no end in sight. The Emilia Cruz mystery series is fiction, but also a way of making folks aware of what is going on in Mexico.

Related post: Be Angry and Pray Hard

As the first and only female police detective in Acapulco, Emilia Cruz walks a fine line between the corrupt and the dead of her department. Her personal crusade to find out what happened to women who have gone missing in Acapulco is less fiction, however, than it is fact.

2016 Update

The 43 missing students have never been found, although the remains of 1 has been identified. I have decided to use this case as inspiration for a Detective Emilia Cruz novel. The working title is 43 MISSING.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

El Chapo, Soft Power, and Dirty Faces

El Chapo, Soft Power, and Dirty Faces

When I heard that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, notorious head of the Sinaloa Cartel had been arrested, two things came to mind: Monocle, the British magazine about all things cultural, and a great old James Cagney movie.

Wait. This will make sense.

Soft Power Fiesta

Monocle2Monocle, which describes itself as “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design,” is a glorious monthly catalog of worldwide innovation. Every year the magazine publishes its ”Soft Power Survey.” It’s a ranking of the top 30 countries able to exert influence through attraction rather than coercion.

Mexico made it to the list for the first time in 2013 when Monocle gushed about the influence of Mexican food. Mexico rose higher in the rankings to number 24 this year (December 13/January 14 edition) but the entry carried this caveat: “But we all know the problem—Mexico will have won when there are more news stories about its culture and less about drug crime.”

As I read the reporting about extradition possibilities and and who will take over the Sinaloa Cartel, maybe this time El Chapo will fade from view for good. Without the specter of El Chapo, Mexico’s soft power should continue to rise. And it’s about time.

James Cagney as Role Model

It’s a little late in El Chapo’s career to be recommending role models, but at this juncture I’d suggest the late great Hollywood actor James Cagney.

Wait. This will make sense.

cagneyIn the 1938 gangster movie, “Angels With Dirty Faces,” James Cagney and Pat O’Brien are childhood friends who go separate ways. Cagney becomes a famous gangster who is looked up to by street kids. O’Brien becomes a priest who wants to set those kids on the right path. Crime doesn’t pay, Cagney is sentenced to the electric chair and the execution is to be broadcast on the radio. Knowing that the kids will be listening, O’Brien implores Cagney to “turn yellow” at the end so the kids will stop idolizing him. Cagney refuses, but at the very last puts on the act and goes out bawling like a baby. Of course, it has the desired effect on the kids clustered around the Philco and O’Brien knows Cagney did it for him.

Would it have an impact if El Chapo appeared to be a coward in captivity? Would it reduce his status as an idol for so many who seek the narco lifestyle?

Not that I think he’s going to do a Cagney any time soon. Cagney had class.

Grace Before Meals

So I’m taking a line through Pat O’Brien’s character (who played a priest in so many movies I thought he was one) and saying a little prayer that El Chapo fades from the scene and Mexican food propels the country upwards on the soft power charts.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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