The Narco-State of Chiapas Part III in a series

The Narco News Bulletin

Drugs: The Official Passport to the North

Part III

By Al Giordano

click to read Part I, Part II,

TAPACHULA, CHIAPAS: "The police all know how it works," says Jorge, the former Conecte for the Juárez Cartel. "Everyone knows everything. The federal anti-narcotics police can't enter La Colonia Obrera -- 'The Bronx" -- because they fear they won't leave alive. Police cars have been burned in this neighborhood. When an operation comes in it brings twenty police cars and they can't do anything because everybody hides. The dealers use radio inside their houses to keep contact with members of the municipal police. The police can enter as a result of a negotiation, but they need permission from the dealers to enter and make an operation. You see, the majority of the police in Tapachula are also consumers of cocaine, and many sell some on the side to boost their income."

Jorge's fantastic description of the widespread, almost total, corruption among Mexican police and military agencies is supported by members of the same criminal justice system. A 295-page report on the topic was released in April 1998 in book form as Everything You Should Know About Organized Crime in Mexico (1998, Oceano). The book was authored by the Mexican Institute for Organized Crime Studies, or IMECO in its Spanish acronym.

IMECO is a group of 20 current and former law-enforcement officials dedicated to document the corruption in the Mexican justice system. Some were members of the disbanded Federal Security Agency, including its former director. Half continue to work in the government's domestic espionage agency, the CISEN, or Center of Investigation and National Security. The members who are still inside the system participate in IMECO's work anonymously and undercover: they include members of the anti-drug FEADS agency and the federal and state prosecutors offices. The former director of the CISEN and of the Federal Security Agency, Lucio Mendoza Ríos, with 25 years of professional crime-fighting under his belt, is the public spokesman for the group.

"The experience of organized crime in Mexico is singular enough: it is articulated and protected by the State," according to the IMECO report. "In the heart of government exist the most powerful and extensive mafias, to the point where the majority of police corps have been transformed into criminal organizations... including the employees and directors of the nation's prisons, members of the armed forces, federal legislators, municipal presidents and members of the judicial branch."

"The innocent victims of crime (assaulted, kidnapped, extorted, defrauded), or the voluntary victims, such as drug addicts, deliver their money to the delinquents without badges," notes the IMECO report: "These, in turn, deliver their protection quotas to police agents and chiefs; the chiefs deliver part to the high officials of public security; the authorities deliver a fraction of the profits to the political bosses; and from there they reach the highest levels of government."

The skeptical view toward the judicial system that is held by the police professionals of IMECO and by Jorge, the former trafficker, is also widely shared among members of the Mexican public.

North Americans, who are so badly informed about the drug war by US media, still believe that their own law enforcement institutions are waging a sincere war on drugs. The Mexican public, on the other hand, has no such illusions: they are just too close, by nature of geography, to the transport routes. They see every day what the mass media obscures from public view in the US: that the US-imposed prohibition on drugs creates such a massive pool of "dirty money" to be made by police and politicians in exchange for protecting drug traffickers, that the very US policy that purports to combat drugs has, in fact, stimulated their sale and consequent abuse by driving the profits so high.

Thus, when looking at the border issues between Mexico and Guatemala, there are echoes of the same problems along the 3,000 mile US-Mexico frontier. One cannot talk about Mexico without also looking at the same effects of the drug war in the United States: corruption of officials is rampant there as well.

A case in point can be found in US Federal court, where US Customs agents are charged with accepting bribes to allow trailers of cocaine to enter the country. The facts are clear: Every tractor-trailer filled with cocaine that enters the US pays a bribe of $50,000 to US Customs officials. The three customs agents who are present to allow the truck to enter receive, between them, $10,000 dollars, or about $3,333 per agent, per truck. Where does the other $40,000 in bribes for each truck go? It goes up the ladder, to the regional customs chiefs, and from there to the highest levels of US government, to Washington itself.

In recent months there have been repeated scandals along the US-Mexican border involving Border Patrol Agents: shooting at Mexican immigrants, crossing into Mexican territory illegally to pursue immigrants, and other harmful activities.

Thus, we look at the Mexico-Guatemala border as simply a more transparent version of what happens at the US-Mexico border, indeed, at all national borders along the cocaine trail.

Jorge offers a trafficker's-eye view of the nature of the problem. Thus, the former Conecte was asked to comment on a scene witnessed by this reporter:

On a November night in 1997, during a 22-hour bus ride from Chiapas to Mexico City, a half-dozen young Guatemalan men boarded the bus. The trip was interrupted at many stops, with searches, at military and police checkpoints, including three roadblocks set up by the immigration authorities, the Migra.

At the military and police roadblocks, the Guatemalan men were left alone while other passengers were searched.

At each of the Migra checkpoints, the agents ordered the Guatemalans to grab their bags from the overhead rack and get off the bus. Minutes later, the Guatemalans would get back on the bus, return their bags to the overhead compartment, and bus continued onward. One of the Guatemalans told the reporter that he and his friends had pay the Migra officials 100 pesos -- at the time about $12 US dollars -- as bribes at each stop to be allowed to continue.

The reporter, unconvinced, asked Jorge to explain why, to pay a simple bribe, the Guatemalans would be ordered to bring their bags with them each time they got off the bus.

"The Guatemalan immigrants are called pollos -- 'chickens' -- and they want to get to the United States," answered Jorge. "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 who wants to pass. He gets them as far as the city of Puebla, south of Mexico City. If he has connections with the narco-traffickers, he can make a deal to ship drugs in the same bus as he's shipping the immigrants. When they can do this there is no risk. He delivers all the money to the police agencies: the Migra, the judicial police, the customs service, the federal highway police... all of them have to do business with each of these agencies. It's a lot. Also the federal prosecutor's agents must be paid."

"It's very well organized," says Jorge. "The Pollero or Conecte manages the shipment with radios. They advise the police checkpoint in advance to say that the bus or truck is coming through, how many people are on the bus, whether the payment's already been made, and the Pollero goes ahead of the bus with a lot of money to pay all the police agencies along the way, including the Army, which sometimes has its own checkpoints."

"The Migra official knows exactly how many illegal pollos are passing each day. He collects for each one. If they carry merchandise, he has to know, because he can collect more per person. Remember that the pollo has to pay $500 dollars to make it to Puebla. Many have to ship cocaine in order to afford it. The majority don't but there are many who do. Those who do carry merchandise go all the way to the US border, not just to Puebla. Most of them go to Matamoros and then into Texas."

"There's a similar system for bringing trucks of cocaine to the north," explains Jorge. "There are a lot of roadblocks and checkpoints: the army, the Migra, the judicial police, so many of them. The narco-traffickers make it their business to pay all the police. They carry dollars to pay at the checkpoints. They advise the chiefs of police in advance to let the shipment pass. The trucks typically carry one or two tons of cocaine apiece."

To Be Published Tomorrow:

Part IV

Why Some Drugs are Seized

Preview from Part IV:

"The officials receive about 30 percent. There are a lot of police agencies you have to deal with. And this is for, really, just one night: the product stays only one night in Tapachula before it heads North."

Information that cannot be stopped by border patrols

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