What this bust shows is that the larger Mexican cartels, which for a long time ignored heroin as a revenue generator, have in the last few years figured out the new market that exists in the U.S., created by the overprescribing of narcotic pain pills nationwide, and shifted priorities.
Through the 1990s and into the last decade, these cartels didn’t dabble too much in heroin. Other drugs were more popular and profitable. Plus, in Mexico heroin is viewed as about as scuzzy a thing as it in the United States.
That’s changed in the last few years. Mexican cartels, which already dominated on the western side of the U.S., have recognized the widespread opiate addiction among Americans and moved to take control of the markets on the eastern half of the U.S. that once were served mostly by Colombian heroin traffickers back to the 1980s — the same way Mexican cartels wrested the cocaine market from the Colombians in the 1990s.
Pills to heroin to Mexican drug cartels in areas that never had much of any – all in the space of 15+ years.
The news today that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from Mexico’s maximum security prison either makes you laugh or cry – both.
His capture in 2014 was greeted as a sign that the country had turned away from its history of shoddy, corrupt criminal justice, and toward something more modern. President Enrique Pena Nieto got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine.
So Guzman’s escape is all the more dismal. This was his second – the first coming in 2001 in a prison laundry basket.
This time, he used a tunnel that ran from an out building under construction a mile from the prison to exactly under his cell. Talk about precision! (Watch this video for more amazing detail of the tunnel. Begins about 1:30 into the presentation.)
All you can do is make jokes about it. With my long interest in the corrido, I offer this, the first (post-escape) Corrido to Chapo Guzman.
I was interested in knowing more about that huge heroin bust in New York City last week.
The seizure totaled 154 pounds (and $2 million in cash), the largest ever in that city – larger even than the legendary French Connection bust of the 1970s (100+ pounds). Which is saying something, as New York was the U.S. heroin hub for most of the last century.
I was surprised to see the traffickers were from Mexico. Virtually all the heroin coming into NYC and New England has been, since the 1980s, from Colombia – that’s what I understood.
So I reached out to a law enforcement source in the NYC metro region who works heroin. The source said that while the traffickers were Mexicans, the heroin was from Colombia: “Colombians have almost totally removed themselves from the distribution directly in the US.”
This is because:
“1. Colombian communities have matured and the criminal elements have for the large part been killed, jailed or been deported.
2. The Colombian drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) can make money still selling it to other DTO’s in Colombia and/or in Mexico and parts nearby without the fear of the long arms of US authorities. Example: If they sell to Mex DTO they make $5,000 with minimal exposure. If they sell in US directly they make $10,000, but with possible major problems.
3. For Colombians, they can make major profits if they can get it to Western Africa and/or Europe with less exposure.
4. In today’s world, post 09/11, the Achilles Heel entry point into the US is over the southwest border. That area is within the realm of the Mex DTO’s. The Colombians feel they have more control if they conduct business in their area of operation and have less problems.”
All of which is to say that what happened to cocaine in the late 1980s – Mexican DTOs took over the trade from Colombians and, fueled by those profits, began the growth into the organizations they are today – is now happening with heroin as well.
If that’s so, it’s likely there’ll be more busts like this one, given the nationwide demand nowadays for the drug generated by widespread addiction to opiate painkillers.
The interesting part of this story is that they have apparently moved into the Cleveland market. I know they’re in Columbus, Nashville and Memphis, Indianapolis and elsewhere.
Until recently, apparently, they hadn’t made a move into northern Ohio, which seemed too close to Detroit, another heroin hotspot.
But things change in the underworld, particularly as the Xalisco Boys (delivering black-tar heroin like pizza with drivers and operators standing by) work like a lot of corporations in that they’re always competing with each other and seeking new sales territories.
Never ceases to amaze me how this system evolved and spread like a fast-food franchise – gaining special momentum after it arrived in 1998 in midwestern and Appalachian areas where pain pills were just then being massively over-prescribed.
That was the first example of a heroin distribution system discovering the market inherent in pain-pill overprescribing.
Here goes some of the above cited newspaper story:
“This group utilized numerous men to act as couriers to deliver the heroin to customers. Many of these couriers were brought illegally to the United States from the Nayarit/Tepic area of Mexico to the Painesville area with the promise of working on a farm or in an automobile garage. Once in Ohio, these individuals became couriers for the drug trafficking group, according to court documents and the FBI.”
Tepic is the capital of the state of Nayarit, which is on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Tepic is a few miles from Xalisco, where this system started and where the guys who started the system are from.
When neck-deep in writing a book, I’m never sure if it’s any good. Too much time spent laboring over every phrase, whether one clause should be separated by a comma or a semicolon, which adjective best describes a person’s mood – on top of all the facts that, like cats, need to be corralled and herded in one direction or another.
And new facts you learn every day that may change everything.
Then there’s the rewriting – which is what writing is all about.
So I’m thrilled to hear reaction to the book – that people couldn’t put it down. Love hearing that, I have to say.
I’ve had great appearances at the LA Times Bookfest and at Vroman’s, with more to come at Powell’s Books in Portland, Elliott Bay Town Hall in Seattle and Bookstore West Portal in San Francisco, not to mention the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, where I’m heading as I write.
Amazon.com chose Dreamland one of its Best Books of the month, alongside books by Toni Morrison, TC Boyle and others. That was nice of them.
The NY Times ran a column of mine on the front page of its Sunday Review opinion page. Nice of them, as well.
KPCC in LA aired an interview i did on their show, Take Two, and CSPAN did the same with an interview at the Bookfest, then covered the LA Times Bookfest panel I was on with some terrific nonfiction crime authors – Ruben Castaneda, Barry Siegel, and Deanne Stillman, and Tom Zoellner doing a bang-up job moderating.
All in all, an exhausting but fulfilling first few days to a book’s life.
Thanks to all who’ve bought the book, and especially to those who’ve written me about it with such feeling.
I just sat through a meeting of a Mexican immigration attorney in Tijuana at a shelter for recently deported men, as she explained President Obama’s recent remaking of immigration policy.
At the Casa del Migrante in east Tijuana, Esmeralda Flores wound her way through the intricacies of US immigration law. But the cold hard facts were, she said, “that none of you are eligible” for the temporary reprieve in deportations that the president announced.
Even if you crossed again tonight, it wouldn’t make any difference, she said.
About 30 men, rough and worn out, listened as she spoke. All had to be living in the U.S. as of November 20 – ironically Mexico’s Revolution Day holiday – to be eligible; and they weren’t.
Most of the men had lived for years in the United States. Most had learned to co-exist with their illegal status.
One I met was Filiberto Ruiz, who crossed at 15, and got his first job washing dishes in Oceanside without papers. He showed me, nevertheless, his real Social Security card and California driver’s license, all obtained without legal papers.
“For years, I didn’t need a green card,” he told me. “I preferred not to have one. I knew that sooner or later I’d be going to prison and then I’d lose all that money I’d spent getting a green card.”
Ruiz, now 50, was one of those who took advantage. He got involved in drugs, was deported several times, walking back in at the border crossing in each time. Then things got rough after 9/11 and he was caught one more time and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for illegal re-entry.
All of this – Ruiz, the men at the meeting, and the hundreds of thousands just like them, the president’s speech – are the fruit of Americans’ schizophrenia and double standards when it comes to immigration, particularly the low-wage sort from Mexico.
We have spent all our time enforcing immigration law at the border, where it’s politically sexy to do so. We’ve not enforced the law on Americans – people who hire illegal immigrants, from housewives to factory owners to sandwich shops and homeowners with pools that need cleaning.
So every working-class Mexican learned this fact: Cross the border and you could live and work without too much trouble; even brushes with the law were sometimes not enough to disqualify you from living and working illegally in America.
Father Pat Murphy, who runs the Casa del Migrante, told me of a family in San Diego who own a pool-cleaning business, a house, with kids in school, and 25 years in America – and are illegal.
But these days all that led to that appears to have changed. Tonight it fell to Esmeralda Flores to explain the truth to the 30 or so men who sat with her.
On a related note, Tijuana is a town of deportees: My taxi driver this evening was a deportee; so was the guy who changed the shower head in my hotel room.
Soto was the tuba player for many years for Banda El Recodo, the holy mother of all bandas in Sinaloa.
He grew into something of the Michael Jordan of the tuba, in that he was a great player, but also made his persona into something younger tuba players wanted to follow and emulate.
He was, in other words, the first star tuba player – something that Mexican tuba playing didn’t have before him.
Soto spent 20 years with Recodo. He retired due to his illness in 2012 and his place was taken by another great and influential tuba player, Alfredo Herrejon.
During his years with Recodo, though, Soto raised the bell on his tuba so that the audience could see his face, thus plucking tuba players forever from the obscurity and ignominy they endured with the bell covering their face down to their nose.
I want to say he was among the first to engrave his tubas with florid designs – but others please correct me if I’m wrong.
Soto also had a signature tuba mouthpiece – the Jokoki – made by Pablo Garibaldi of Garibaldi Music in Paramount, CA.
L.A., and the Fashion District in particular, is the “epicenter” of narcodollar money laundering, mostly by Mexican drug cartels, said authorities at a press conference today.
They came together from the FBI, DEA, IRS and US Attorney’s office to announce a bunch of arrests in the Fashion District early Wednesday and describe a scheme through which dollars are laundered into pesos.
In one location, they came upon boxes of cash that they expected would total $35 million when they were done counting, which they weren’t by midday. They seized another $19 million in bank accounts and $10 million at a house in Bel-Air – $65 million in all.
Among all that’s interesting in this topic is the fact that virtually all of this takes place within the immigrant economic ecosystem in L.A., which has long fascinated me as it basically involves almost no native-born Americans. In this case, mostly Chinese sewing-company owners were doing business with Mexican drug traffickers.
Apparently these exchanges with Fashion District businesses on behalf of drug traffickers has become a popular way of laundering money ever since 2010 when Mexico put strict controls on the quantities of dollars that could be deposited in its banking system without being reported.
Used to be traffickers would just pack stack of dollars into a car and drive home. Now putting that money somewhere isn’t as easy. Hence this new Black Market Peso Exchange scheme.
Basically, it works thus: traffickers in the US with ill-gotten bucks find a peso broker – someone whose job it is to search out companies already selling goods into Mexico. A trafficker delivers large quantities of these dollars to Fashion District companies to pay for massive deliveries of clothes down to Mexican clothing importers who are in the scam.
“The cash never crosses the border, but the goods do,” said Robert Dugdale, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s criminal division in L.A. The Fashion District firm sends the clothes to a clothing importer in Mexico. The clothes are sold for pesos and the pesos are given to the cartel traffickers, after the broker takes a cut for himself.
A lot of this appears to depend on Fashion District clothing companies with owners who are willing to say nothing when some guy shows up with a duffel bag of cash, using only a nickname as ID.
Homeland Security had previously sent out notices to 160 companies in the district, telling them of U.S. legal reporting requirements for cash. The selection of which companies were notified “was not random,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations here.
Apparently this scheme has sent floods of cash through the Fashion District. Be interesting to see after all this what happens to some of these companies.
One Fashion District company – Q.T. Fashions on 12th Street – allegedly laundered $140,000 in ransom money for the kidnapping of a cartel courier, a U.S. citizen, whose load of cocaine was confiscated by law enforcement. To get repaid, members of the Sinaloa Cartel kidnapped him, took him down to Mexico, tortured him and got the family to take the ransom money to QT Fashions, which allegedly got the cash down to Mexico. The hostage was eventually freed.
Photos: Stashes of cash; Source: US Attorney’s office
Find his book on Juarez – Murder City, it’s called – and read that. Pretty fine piece of journalism, and reflective of the guy and his take on his craft and the world. With the rough-edged, opinionated, cranky prose that made him worth reading, and listening to. I met him once, at a conference at Cal State Northridge.
There aren’t too many out there like him any more.
Los Tigres del Norte got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today.
The only band that matters in Mexican pop music received their star on Hollywood Boulevard before hundreds of fans, Marco Antonio Solis – El Buki – and lots of glitzy Mexican TV reporters with impossibly tight and short skirts.
The boys got Star 2527, just outside the Buffalo Wings and Live Nation at Hollywood and La Brea. Not far from Lon Chaney and Ethel Merman, as it happens. So there’s that interesting juxtaposition for Hollywood, a district of the city that’s more about immigrants from Mexico and Central America (and Armenia and Thailand, for that matter) than it is about making movies these days, anyway.
The best way to understand Mexican immigrants, by the way, is to dissect the best Tigres’ corridos on the topic.
I recommend Pedro y Pablo, Ni Aqui Ni Alla, El Gringo y El Mexicano, Tres Veces Mojado, La Jaula de Oro, La Tumba del Mojado, El Mojado Acaudalado, A Quien Corresponda. Well, there are many.
And for machismo drenched in melodrama, nothing compares to El Tahur.
Some of the best drug ballads in Spanish have come from LTN: El Avion de la Muerte, Pacas de a Kilo, Camioneta Gris, and of course, the song with the first sound effects in Mexican music (gunshots), Contrabando y Traicion.
The first great political corrido in Mexican pop was theirs: El Circo, about ex-president of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his brother, Raul.
Their first album in four years, La Bala, is ready to drop in October. The single from the album is the story of a family whose 18-year-old son is involved with cartels and whose rivals come looking for him and kill his 7 -year-old brother with a stray bullet.
Here’s a bunch of photos I took when traveling with the band many years ago.
Some of you may remember that I had a scary run-in with drug trafficking Mennonites years ago when I went down to their colonies in Chihuahua, south of Juarez, to write a story about the Narco-Menonita phenomenon.
To recap: humble Old World, German-Speaking Mennonite peasants have become major drug traffickers of marijuana and cocaine. They took unkindly to my presence and I had to leave with police escort.
Mostly, the Old Colony Mennonites are known around Mexico for their overalls, their one-room schoolhouses, their dairy farming, milk and cheese, and their supposedly simple way of life, close to God and earth. Not long ago they were all driving horses and buggies.
But there’s a whole other side to that community that I discovered when I went down there.
As it happens, I don’t know how much of what I told the filmmakers they ended up using. HOWEVER. I did do a reenactment of my tense standoff with the narco-Mennonites. (Reenactment may be another word for `big fat idiot American reporter’).
Destination America’s website provides me with little encouragement. It features links like:
The headline: The numbers of detained unaccompanied children dropped in half, to 5,500 in July.
Also fascinating in the DHS report: The monthly apprehension numbers show a huge leap in March and April, up to 7,000+ and reaching 10,000+ in each of May and June.
So most of those 57,000 kids that were reported detained since October actually came since March.
The suddenness of that surge reflected in the DHS figures adds credence to the idea that this was the result of rumors – spread by a Honduran television reporter, according a US official I spoke with – that the time to leave was now or never given pending legal changes in the U.S. So people began bolting.
But it’s remarkable that the situation on the ground – both harrowing violence and civic disintegration in Central America, dependence on jobs in the U.S., and the huge numbers of immigrants here — is such that rumors would spark a migration fever like that.
I find the whole furor to be surreal in another way. The surge in apprehended minors is really a sign of how well the immigration system is working. Certainly, total apprehensions, which are barometers of the the size of the flow of people trying to cross, are well down these days.
Years ago, when total apprehensions were always over a million annually, thousands of kids — most of them teenagers between 13 and 17 – came to the United States illegally and many of them were alone. But they were lost in the hundreds of thousands of adults who were also crossing.
But with those numbers down (well below 500,000 a year), the kids stand out more. It’s possible too that coyotes are seeing these kids as their last, or maybe a far more important, revenue stream and spreading rumors too. Desperate measures, perhaps reflecting a serious crisis among our friends in the human-smuggling industry.
Not to say that it’s a good thing that thousands of kids are streaming north, but it helps to keep some perspective.
Here are the DHS apprehension figures since January, 2014: