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Drug War Fables

El Chapo is the face of a curiosity we cannot escape

The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord by Noah Hurowitz. Simon & Schuster, 448 pages.

At this moment, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is likely sitting in a soundproof, eighty-four-square-foot cell. He spends twenty-three hours a day there, with nothing to look at but a black-and-white television and a four-inch window. Scoring one last favor, he might have gotten a room with a view out of the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” Colorado’s ADX supermax prison. He was whisked off to this icy stronghold in 2019, when the Eastern District court of New York sentenced him to life plus thirty years on murder and drug charges. The case was brought against him by the U.S. federal government and tried from November 2018 until February 2019.

El Chapo will not escape from the ADX, which has housed illustrious jailmates such as Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski. There will be no mile-long tunnel dug under his room, like in 2015 at the Altiplano prison just west of Mexico City; no laundry cart getaway, as in the 2001 jailbreak from Puente Grande prison in Jalisco. That the Americans can be trusted to hold El Chapo is precisely why the Mexican government agreed to extradite him in 2017, after years of grandstanding.

Even in his tiny cell, El Chapo looms large in the North American imagination, like Pablo Escobar once did. He has been the subject of derided Sean Penn profiles in Rolling Stone, was once an entry in Forbes wealthiest people lists, the namesake for podcasts from the scumbag left, and a character in a popular Netflix serial. He is also the subject of dozens of books, many stemming from his widely followed Brooklyn trial. The latest, Noah Hurowitz’s El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord, dutifully recounts the kingpin’s rise and fall. But it also raises a deeper question: Why are we so obsessed with El Chapo in the first place?

The answer lies in the so-called War on Drugs and the narrative we build around it. We can think of the War on Drugs as an exchange of goods between the United States and countries such as Mexico and Colombia. Drugs flow north; cash, arms, and violence flow south. But it is also an exchange of ideas. Politicians, law enforcement officials, and narcos alike use the drug wars as a pretext to manipulate politics—and entrench their own positions. For its part, the media likes to tell an exciting narrative, with clear heroes and villains, occluding the more complex, systemic issues that prolong bloodshed. El Chapo may be in jail, but he remains the face of a curiosity we cannot escape. Meanwhile, the corruption and impunity that created him is still firmly ingrained on both sides of the border.

It wasn’t always like this. The War on Drugs began in earnest in 1971, when Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.” Yet when he formed the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, its budget was just $75 million, or about $460 million adjusted for inflation. (By 2019 it had grown to $3.1 billion.) If anything, the United States was doing more at that time to aid than combat the drug trade—above all, by supporting traffickers who were fighting left-wing groups. In Mexico, the CIA worked with the Federal Security Directorate, or DFS, a secret police force, to keep track of leftists and ferry arms to right-wing groups in Nicaragua. In the 1980s, the DFS and CIA likely colluded with Mexico’s first united drug organization, the Guadalajara Cartel, to transport weapons to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. As Hurowitz details, when other American agencies such as the DEA began to sniff around, the CIA would protect DFS members from scrutiny.

What changed? In part, it was the creation of a martyr: Kiki Camarena, a DEA agent who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in 1985 by the Guadalajara Cartel. He was the first DEA agent murdered abroad, and the organization launched its biggest-ever homicide investigation, which it portentously named Operation Leyenda. The Reagan administration took unprecedented steps, including almost entirely shutting down the U.S.–Mexico border. The manhunt for Camarena’s captors was covered widely, with every major U.S. news agency sending someone to Guadalajara. Nearly thirty days later, his body was found dumped by a roadside in the state of Michoacán.

Camarena became a national symbol. In 1985, an annual anti-drug awareness event, Red Ribbon Week, was created in his honor, and later championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan. In 1988, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, with the headline “Death of a Narc.” In 1990, he was the subject of an NBC miniseries, Drug Wars: the Camarena Story, starring actor Steven Bauer, who had played a Cuban drug lord in Scarface.

Hurowitz describes Camarena’s death as “part of the agency’s foundational mythology.” More than any other event, it brought the DEA legitimacy and substantial funding, allowing it to emerge from the shadow of the CIA. In an article on its own website, the agency places Camarena’s murder right before Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which authorized $6 billion in spending over three years for interdiction and enforcement measures. Perhaps more importantly, the act strong-armed foreign countries into cooperating with U.S. drug law enforcement agencies, with aid on the line. In 1985, the DEA’s budget was $362 million, a figure that more than doubled by 1987. That year, it spearheaded one of its largest counter-narcotics operations to date, Operation Snowcap, which was coordinated across twelve Latin American countries.

Later, evidence emerged that the CIA was possibly complicit in Camarena’s murder. In their 2015 book, Eclipse of the Assassins, historians Russell H. Bartley and Sylvia Erickson Bartley claim that he was killed after stumbling on the agency’s plans to support the Contras in Nicaragua. The Mexican newspaper Proceso published a story in 2013 that alleged the same, based on interviews with two former DEA agents. Regardless, Camarena had been elevated to a martyr, and at just the right time. In the wake of the Cold War, as the specter of foreign communist threats resided, drugs became the new excuse for the military to “rattle their alms cup at Congress year after year,” Horowitz writes. “With peace breaking out all over the place, it gives us something to do” he quotes a two-star general as saying. Law enforcement needed a villain to sell to the public, as well as to their funders. Cartels fit the bill. 

The journalist and the murderer | Wikimedia Commons

That the DEA’s Manichean framing of the drug wars was thoroughly normalized over subsequent decades, making its way into popular culture, is evident from the popularity of television series like Narcos. The Netflix show’s first two seasons dealt with Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel; the third focused on the Cali Cartel, which filled the power vacuum created by the former’s death. It is told from the perspective of agents who take down cartels, betraying an undeniably pro-DEA slant. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the show is based on the testimony of two of the organization’s agents (and the inspiration for its protagonists), who served as consultants. They went on to write a memoir in 2019. As Steven Cohen argued in NACLA: “A major problem for inspired-by-true-events fiction is that any alteration, whether born of necessity or expedience, can have pronounced effects on the popular understanding of things that actually happened. For Narcos, this isn’t so much a creative dilemma as a statement of narrative purpose.”

This became particularly glaring in Narcos: Mexico, when the show adopted a serial format and shifted to Mexico, where it chronicles the formation of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo’s Guadalajara Cartel. Again, a DEA agent—Kiki Camarena’s boss in Mexico—was brought on as a consultant. He was also included as a main character in the show. “I was especially anxious that they portray the DEA agents in a respectful manner,” he later told The Hollywood Reporter. “And they did.”

Gallardo, played by a perpetually stressed Diego Luna, is ostensibly the show’s protagonist. But the story is centered around Camarena (Michael Peña). He and his colleagues in the DEA are portrayed as righteous underdogs, underfunded by the United States and outmatched by Mexico’s rampant corruption. By the end of the first season, after we’ve spent hours with his wife and newborn son, Camarena is taken hostage and murdered. This jolts the U.S. government into action, sending the big boys down to Mexico. In the final episode’s last minutes, it is revealed that the faceless southern-twanged narrator is actually a DEA agent tasked with forming an Avengers-esque team in the wake of Camarena’s death. The first season is a kind of origin story for the modern Drug Enforcement Agency.    

Narcos: Mexico admits that American agencies such as the CIA fueled the rise of many drug organizations, and that the cartels are inseparable from the state. These valuable lessons are lost amid a torrent of simplistic storytelling, however. Narcos portrays the War on Drugs as a battle between good (the DEA) and evil (narco kingpins). A young El Chapo even makes an appearance, winkingly introduced as a driver for Gallardo. Even the CIA’s collusion with the DFS and Guadalajara Cartel seems only to serve as a foil for the DEA’s integrity. In Narcos, the War on Drugs becomes a kind of new Western: a tale of brave law enforcement officials countering bandits in the anarchic frontier.

By the early 2000s, Gallardo was in prison and the Guadalajara Cartel had splintered. El Chapo had managed to erect his own organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, which was battling for control of Nuevo Laredo with two rival groups, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. Over the previous decade, the Mexican government had steadily lost a grip over its monopoly on power, as it sold off state assets and accepted ever larger amounts of bribes from traffickers. Sensing the growing vacuum, cartel heads put an end to their older clandestine methods and took to spectacles of violence. Like the DEA back in 1985, they needed legitimacy, which brought negotiation power. “The brutality and public nature of violence that followed was unlike any that Mexico had seen before,” writes Hurowitz. “Even if the numbers didn’t rise overall, the impact of these public displays was felt more broadly, more viscerally, and contributed to a feeling among many Mexicans that the situation was quickly spinning out of control.” By now, images of mutilated bodies hung from overpasses and blanketed by narcomantas—messages scrawled on massive banners—are commonplace.

In response to cartel violence, there was a massive government crackdown, supported by the United States to the tune of $3 billion, under the Mérida initiative. It began with the 2006 election of president Felipe Calderón. When he took office, Mexico was actually witnessing a decline in violence that had begun in 1993. Still, Calderón mobilized troops in areas like Ciudad Juárez, causing murder rates to skyrocket. The arms race gathered steam, with the state trying to portray dominance with military bravado, and drug traffickers vying for control. Actors on both sides of the war began producing content, which was then packaged into alarmist coverage by media outlets. A grisly example of this was the narcovideos, essentially snuff films produced by drug traffickers as a warning to rival outfits. Not to be outdone, the police released their own depictions of torture training exercises, taught by English-language tutors claiming to be “private security contractors.” In 2009, when Mexican marines finally killed one elusive kingpin, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, they affixed peso notes to his blood-covered body and leaked photos to the press. Oftentimes, the two sides were one and the same. During El Chapo’s 2018 trial, one of the witnesses revealed that Calderón’s secretary of public security—the architect for his war against the cartels—was in bed with the Sinaloa Cartel.

The sudden increase in violence brought Mexico’s woes into U.S. headlines. Along with news coverage, the proliferation of narco-themed TV shows, movies, and books that followed was only natural. “When awful things happen on the scale of the horror that overtook Juárez,” Hurowitz writes, “we crave explanations, we crave answers, in order to know why it happened.” It was against this backdrop that El Chapo rose to become the kingpin with the best name recognition since Escobar. He seemed to love the attention and even wanted to make a narcopelícula, a low-budget, direct-to-DVD action film about his exploits. He went so far as to fly out a Colombian producer to his mountain hideout in Sinaloa, but the film didn’t work out. Convinced that the producer was an informant, El Chapo later tried to have him killed.

Given El Chapo’s popularity in the media, Hurowitz is left with an unenviable task. There is one genre of narco coverage that just parrots the press releases of law enforcement, and another that glorifies the cartel wars, at times treating drug organizations like sports teams that can be cheered on from the sidelines. Hurowitz does not glamorize El Chapo or the police that took him down, but he does engage in the production of culture that led to his rise in the form of a 448-page book. Hurowitz’s account can get bogged down in the details, but it is bookended by two introspective sections that justify the project. At the beginning, he recounts a botched interview with a family member of El Chapo at a half-empty coffee shop in Sinaloa. “I have a question for you,” the man asks Hurowitz. “Why do gringo journalists always want to come here to Sinaloa to ask about drugs?” Hurowitz admits that he did not have a ready answer. At the end, after all the cards have been laid on the table, Hurowitz returns to the question, revealing his motivation for telling his version— that nearly every other story about El Chapo or cartels or the War on Drugs is an intentional manipulation. That’s the whole point.

Hurowitz argues that the question to ask about the War on Drugs is: “Who benefits?” The specter of “cartels” is used by Mexican security forces to cover up their own atrocities, from the disappeared students in Ayotzinapa to the terroristic behavior of marines along the border. Meanwhile, the United States uses drugs as an excuse to fund its own projects, from maquiladoras to border security. Yet “who benefits” is only half the story, leaving out “who is harmed.” Hurowitz details the carnage left in the wake of the War on Drugs: hundreds of thousands of civilians, journalists, and young men swallowed into the snare of trafficking. As viewers and consumers of content, it is hard to see ourselves as complicit. But Netflix programs and clickbait headlines do play a small role in keeping drug cartels in power. Fundamental to escaping this cycle of bloodshed is dismantling the myths that propagate the War on Drugs—seeking justice as well as change.