TAPACHULA, CHIAPAS; MAY 12, 1998: La Colonia Obrera, "the Worker's Colony," bustles downhill from the center of this border city of half-a-million people. By day, it's a noisy marketplace. Street vendors and stores push clothes, toys, tropical fruits, tamales, everything that is legal to sell. Guatemalan merchants flood into Tapachula and its barrio popular, where the sellers offer a good rate of exchange. Today they're trading 1.35 Mexican pesos for each Guatemalteco quetzal.
This is the section of the city where, night and day, most cocaine users go to cop their fix. "The Bronx," says one of its residents who has seen New York City in Hollywood movies, "this is the Bronx of Tapachula."
"Tapachula has the least expensive cocaine in all of Mexico," boasts Jorge (not his real name, of course not). "We're the port of entry into Mexico. If you want to ship cocaine, it's obligatory to have contacts here. Tapachula is accumulating a grand power."
Jorge, a former Conecte for the Juárez Cartel, gave up the business, he says, when he stopped using cocaine. "Tapachula has principally been the territory of the Lord of the Skies," he says in a reference to Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the pronounced-dead (but like other mythical figures, rumored-to-be-alive) boss of a gigantic organized crime group that authorities and the media have labeled The Juárez Cartel.
In the past two years, however, an all-out battle has begun to wrestle Tapachula from the grip of the Juárez organization. And some have accused the state government of choosing sides to favor the handing of Tapachula over to the Tijuana organization of the Arrellano-Félix brothers. But in the Spring of '98, the Juárez group was still king in Tapachula.
"His people come to Tapachula with money, with pure US dollars. They don't cross the border into Guatemala. There are people here in Tapachula with the experience to be able to receive and deliver the cocaine for them."
Bringing the cocaine from Guatemala or other southern countries into Tapachula isn't easy. There are only three roads that cross the Mexican border. Every visitor has to go through immigration -- the Migra -- and, after that, through the Mexican customs service. At customs, the visitor pushes a button that is connected to a traffic light (the narco-traffic light?): if the signal turns green, the border-crosser can pass. If the light blinks red, the traveller's body and bags are thoroughly searched.
A smuggler can try to avoid this game of chance by crossing under the bridges on the Suchiate River, or wading across it as Florencia and Elida did. But the banks of the stream are patrolled by armed police on both sides. And, a few miles past each of these border posts, the roads that lead into the city of Tapachula and the rest of Mexico feature roadblocks set up by the military and the Migra. At these official outposts, cars and trucks are routinely taken apart and put back together again in the search for drugs or arms. Police don't need a reason or "probable cause" to search; you are searched because you are there.
Every bus that passes is boarded by a military soldier, who squeezes the luggage in the overhead racks and will often demand to search the contents. Sometimes the soldiers go under the bus, into the baggage compartment, and sift through backpacks and boxes. It's not uncommon for one or more passengers -- men or women, Mexicans or foreigners -- to be taken off the bus and subjected to physical search. Traveling through Chiapas for any motive, including tourism, means adding hours to the commute to accomodate these official interruptions.
Yet in spite of this extreme military and police presence, mountains of cocaine are moved into Tapachula and begin their northbound journey.
"By land," answers Jorge. "One generally has to do it by land because the land is very large and it's very easy to free up the customs service. The people in Tapachula who can do this are principally ex-Judicial police. They have the experience to avoid the police. They know exactly where the police are stationed in the mountain passes, because they were police. Some police have stopped being police officers because the money is so much better in trafficking."
"The people who are sent to Tapachula by the grand cartels don't receive the money. And they don't receive the shipment. They just make the logistics for the job to be done. And they receive a commission for each kilo shipped under their plan," explains Jorge. "They contract people wo carry ten kilos on their backs over the border. Ten people adds up to a hundred kilos. The ones who carry ten kilos are called cargadores. Then there are the smaller carriers who don't have a lot of experience. They carry one kilo. Those that come in by the river usually carry a maximum of one or two kilos. Normally, they are women, lovers of the police commanders. These people need to have the protection of the municipal police as they pass through this territory."
"Every 10 or 15 days, they pass a commission of money of what was sold in a week to the chief or his agent. The chief, the ex-policeman, is called the conecte. He makes the job possible. He pays the supplier and all the police agencies. He takes care of it. The place where the payment happens could be in Tapachula or further up the road in Huixtla where the prices, and also the commissions, rise."
"The payment happens in Tapachula... or in Huixtla, where the prices, and also the commissions, rise"
"The Conecte has the men. He knows the place, the hour, the number of the shipment, he has everything in his hands. He's a person trusted by both parties. He has contact with the cargador in Guatemala and with the cartel in Juárez. He's kind of like a consultant. A different person, the official buyer, brings the money in dollars. And the deal isn't made until the money is counted and it conforms to the quantity being shipped. These men want transportation for their product, police that can be bought, and some even have little airplanes that go up and down the coast. Once you pass through Tapachula it's very easy. The problem is getting the product over the border into Tapachula. For this you need official help."
To Be Published Tomorrow:
Drugs: The Official Passport to the North
Preview from Part III:
"The Guatemalan immigrants are called pollos, or chickens, and they want to get to the United States. They have a pollero, who is equal to a Conecte in the drug trade but he deals mainly in men. He has to govern an area and he has to live in Tapachula. He charges $500 US dollars for each Central American that wants to pass. He gets them as far as the city of Puebla, south of Mexico City. If he has connections with narco-traffickers, he can make a deal to ship drugs in the same bus as he is shipping the immigrants. When they can do this there is no risk. He delivers all the money to all the police agencies: The Migra, the judicial police, the customs service, the federal highway police... all of them have to do business with all of these agencies. It's a lot. The federal prosecutor's agents must also be paid."
What was the US Ambassador doing on vacation in April with the governor of Chiapas?
see May 2000 Narcos of the Month