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.


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.”



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


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


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.


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.


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.


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

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

I’ve always liked to be in the water, but by no stretch of the imagination can I call myself a strong swimmer.

I didn’t take swimming lessons until I was in 5th grade, when I learned to do a passable crawl and a backstroke that always sent me into the next lane over. Years later, I got my scuba certification and travelled the Pacific with my gear in tow.

My husband is a swimmer, too. He competed on his high school swim team and still likes to swim laps to keep fit. Our best vacations have been on the shores of Adirondack lakes.

We lived in Mexico when our kids were ready to learn to swim. The American school had an enormous pool used for regional competitions, with football stadium-style bleachers running along one side of the modern pool house.

Lessons were held after school when a legion of mothers, maids, and chauffeurs invaded the locker rooms to get the elementary students ready. The mothers wore stiletto heels, skinny pants, and pounds of jewelry, along with the obligatory sleek ponytail. Maids were limited to navy, black, or gray dresses with white cotton trim. A few pinks stood out, indication of a dedicated nanny. Chauffeurs always wore suits and ties.

Once the children were chivvied to the pool, mothers, maids, and chauffeurs took to the stands, although not together. The mothers sat in a tight clique on the lower benches, with their employees scattered above. Most maids used the time to do the children’s homework.

The swim coach was a handsome young man who strode up and down the pool deck in sweatpants and a coral necklace. The rumor was that he was a former Olympic athlete.

He never got in the pool, but merely called out instruction to the flailing kids. No one seemed to care. I got the feeling, as he preened around the pool, that being a swim coach wasn’t his only source of income.

After the lesson, the locker rooms filled again. Most of the children left the school grounds in pajamas and bathrobe, some carried across campus to the cars by the chauffeur.

My kids survived having neither maid nor chauffeur and figured out the swimming process on their own. My son was a lifeguard through high school. My daughter got her scuba certification when she was 14.

But the Mexican swim coach lives on in fiction. He anchored a memorable moment in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY:

Hector took Luz to the Colegio Americano for Victoria’s swimming lesson. Luz met the little girl at the school’s aquatic facility, got her suited up, then carried Victoria’s towel and backpack to the bleachers.

The little girl scampered over to her class. The swimming teacher was Coach Carlos, a muscular young man who taught the children by walking along the edge of the pool in tight warm-up pants and no shirt, flexing his biceps. Most of the mothers sitting in the bleachers during swim lessons couldn’t keep their eyes off him. There were far more maids than mother in the bleachers, however, all staring at the Coach Carlos show. Luz usually looked, too, although he was cocky and arrogant and way out of her league.

Coach Carlos said something to Victoria. He lifted her into the water, the muscles in his back rippling as he bent. He probably has lots of parent-teacher conferences, Luz thought. She pulled her eyes away and opened Victoria’s backpack. English homework again.

When the lesson was over Victoria ran back to Luz to be dried off. They went into the locker room and Luz dressed Victoria in pajamas and robe for the ride home and an early bedtime.

They were walking toward the front gate of the school, where Hector waited with the Suburban, when Luz heard the click of high heels on pavement. A hand tapped her on the shoulder.

It was Señora Portillo, with her son whining next to her and the Portillo’s chauffeur walking behind with the boy’s backpack and swim bag. Señora Vega and Señora Portillo were friends, part of a circle of beautiful coffee-drinking women who met regularly at the upscale Café O on Monte Libano in Lomas Virreyes.

“Luz de Maria, are you free to work for me the Saturday after next?” Señora Portillo asked. “I need some extra hands for Enrique’s birthday party and Selena said you can sometimes be helpful.”

“Saturday after next?” Luz verified.


Luz was off again that weekend. If she worked for Señora Portillo on Saturday it meant she could not go home. But it also meant another 200 pesos and that was a real windfall so Luz said yes.

“Alberto can pick you up.” Señora Portillo indicated the chauffeur. She extended a piece of paper to Luz with the date, time, and address on it. Her attention immediately refocused on a high-heeled mother strolling by who was obviously a friend.

The chauffeur nodded at Luz as his employer chattered to her friend. He was a blunt-faced tank of a man poured into a sharkskin suit. Almost certainly a former boxer. “I am Alberto Gonzalez Ruiz,” he said.

He spoke formally, but his diction was sloppy. Luz had the sudden silly thought that he probably had gotten hit in the head a lot during his boxing career.

She gave him a weak half-smile.

“I shall be pleased to see you that day,” he said meaningfully. Señora Portillo ended her other conversation and Gonzalez Ruiz followed her out of the school gate.

Luz watched him go, her mouth dry. Chauffeurs made lots of money. Lots.

swimming lessons

“Rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” — Literary Fiction Review


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swimming lessons


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


swimming lessons

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