Thursday, August 19, 2010

Drug Wars and Lords, Then and Now

A True Story -- Drug Lord:
The Life & Death of a Mexican Kingpin (3rd ed.)

Terrence E. Poppa
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010

If you were watching life and death in Ojinaga -- back in the sixties, seventies, or eighties – you wouldn’t have been surprised. What’s happening now along other parts of the border and increasingly in Mexico’s interior was happening then in Ojinaga.

Burnt and tortured bodies on the banks of the Rio Grande, lavish displays of new wealth in a town of dilapidated adobes, and fear that emptied the quaint town plaza after dark.  I wasn’t watching then. Few were.  We are fortunate that Terrence Poppa, a journalist in the 1980s for the now-defunct El Paso-Herald Post, was watching and writing.

Ojinaga lies at the end of a 60-mile, two-lane blacktop extends south from Marfa, county seat of Presidio County. It drives through a vast nothingness of high mountains, rugged canyons, and seemingly endless desert. Along the way, the only town is Shafter, a ghost town whose cemetery is occupied by scores of nameless graves marked by a silent crowd of white crosses – the Mexicans who labored and died in the silver mine that gave rise to Shafter in the 1880s.  

The relentlessly arid highlands drop away as the road winds down to the river and the border twins of Presidio and Ojinaga. Until last year I had never ventured into this remote stretch of the Big Bend borderlands.  There was nothing here, nothing apparently to write about.

The maquila boom of assembly plants that had turned Juárez and Ciudad Chihuahua in the last few decades into outsourcing points of the global economy never disturbed the agricultural and ranching-based economy of this Chihuahuan border town.

Although Ojinaga is easily reached from the state’s capital about 160 miles to the southwest, this border town has never been a major crossing point for illegal immigrants because of the harsh topography to the north and the daunting distances to major population centers. So remote is Ojinaga that earlier this year the Border Patrol instituted a program that transported immigrants it had arrested in Arizona and then dropped them off at the mid-point of the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, confident that they would not try crossing back north into this forbidding country.

The isolation also explains the lack of a fence along the border here as well as the relative absence of the green-and-white Border Patrol vehicles that are ubiquitous elsewhere along the border. At such a distance from U.S. communities, there is no tourist district. In the early 1940s, when two army bases were located outside Marfa during the war, Ojinaga did briefly host a small red-light, zona de tolerancia district.  But like the now barren army air strips, this part of Ojinaga is long since gone.

From the bridge you enter Ojinaga along the Libre Comercio boulevard. Ojinaga does serve as a port of entry for U.S. grain and cattle exports, but otherwise free and legal trade is mostly an abandoned hope in this city of 20,000. For at least a hundred years, though, smuggling goods – mainly heroin and marijuana -- to the north has tied Ojinaga’s economy with the United States. Presidio, with 4,000 residents and a 43% poverty rate, is the poorer twin, making Ojinaga seem a thriving metropolis by comparison.

I hadn’t read Drug Lord when I visited Ojinaga and interviewed the town’s mayor and the customs officers at the border. But when the conversation turned to drug trafficking, they mentioned Poppa’s outstanding account of the life and death of Pablo Acosta, the drug lord who assumed control of the Ojinaga drug plaza in 1981 and maintained his grip until he was killed in 1987 in a firefight with the Mexican army in the downriver village of Santa Elena.

Having just read the new edition of Drug Lord, which comes with a new epilogue by the author and an introduction by famed border journalist Charles Bowden, I realized what I – and all those who haven’t read Drug Lord – have been missing.

Next time that I travel to Ojinaga or anywhere along the border, I will come with a more finely tuned and historically rooted understanding of crossborder drug trafficking, thanks to this insightful and deeply detailed chronicle of the times of Pablo Acosta.

As Bowden writes, “The business goes on, the slaughtered dead pile up, the U.S. agencies continue to ratchet up their budgets, the prisons grown larger, and all the real rules of the game are in this book – some kind of masterpiece.”

When Poppa wrote Drug Lord, first published in 1990, he described a Mexico where drug trafficking wasn’t only enabled by government corruption but was part of the corporatist state controlled by the PRI ruling party.

“This dark face of Mexico involved not just collusion with organized crime,” writes Poppa, “but actually encouraging and regulating it. It was a system of command and control that ran through the country like the arteries and veins of a body, with its heart in Mexico City.”

Today, Poppa says that organized crime has been “decoupled from the top levels of government,” largely as the result of Mexico’s democratic transformation and the ouster of the PRI party in 2000.  But he warns:  “Organized crime has become even stronger than ever before, fueled by the vast and incessant flow of drug money from the United States. It has learned the power of terror, and the day may come when it can undermine the precious accomplishment of the Mexican people – their democracy.”

In the new epilogue, Poppa takes the opportunity to advocate as well as to warn.  “To end the current state of chaos and prevent even worse ills looming in the near future, the ability of violent people to profit from the sale of drugs must end.” This isn’t a call for more U.S. aid or more military, but what the author describes as a “national security argument for bringing the end of drug prohibition.” 

According to Poppa, “National security and the preservation of the democratic gains of the Mexican people are perhaps the most powerful” arguments for overhauling drug prohibition policy.

Drug Lord is a history of crossborder drug trafficking seen from the most isolated stretches of the border.  When few others were watching, Poppa went beyond reporting of the outbreaks of violence in Ojinaga to tell the fascinating story of how organized crime can take control of a town.

At the same time, it is an illuminating chronicle of a poor man, equally at home on both sides of the border, who, like so many others, is drawn to the wealth of the illegal drug trade. It is also a tragedy – a migrant turned criminal turned trafficker who becomes chained to the latest product of the crossborder drug trade – the cocaine that began to flow through Mexico from Colombia for the first time in the 1980s.

Drug Lord also provides an inside look, through interviews with participants and law enforcement officials, of the violence employed to gain and hold the plaza – the base for drug smuggling operations across the border. 

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the tale is the understanding one gains of the fundamentally crossborder character of Acosta’s life and death.

Acosta’s grandfather, who was born in the West Texas town of Ft. Stockdon, smuggled moonshine into the United States during the Prohibition years, and his father, like him, worked many years as a migrant worker in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas, in places like Odessa, Hobbes, Lovington, and Terlingua. Drug lord Acosta was in and out of U.S. prisons before he, a U.S. citizen, entered the drug trade in Ojinaga – offering a relevant perspective about the alarm about “spill-over violence” and “crossborder crime” that shapes the current border security debate.

Drug Lord is titled “A True Story,” and Poppa closes this new edition by quoting Acosta from a personal interview, in which he justified his role in the brutal drug trade by saying that he would continue selling drugs as long as there was a market. “I am only giving them what they want,” said Acosta.

You can read Drug Lord as a vivid history of organized crime in a little-known part of the U.S.-Mexican border. But it is a history of the present foretold, a history that is ever repeating itself along the border and with each repetition becomes more violent and socially destructive.