Mexico’s drug war ‘one big lie’

Anabel Hernandez, journalist and author, accuses the Mexican state of complicity with the cartels and says the ‘war on drugs’ is a sham. She has had headless animals left at her door and her family have been threatened by gunmen

By Ed Vulliamy  /  The Observer, LONDON

Thu, Sep 05, 2013 - Page 9

During January 2011, Anabel Hernandez’s extended family held a party at a favorite cafe in the north of Mexico City. The gathering was to celebrate the birthday of Anabel’s niece.

As one of Mexico’s leading journalists, who rarely allows herself time off, she was especially happy because “the entire family was there. There are so many of us that it’s extremely difficult to get everybody together in one place. It hardly ever happens.”

Hernandez had to leave early, as so often, “to finish an article,” and it was after she left that gunmen burst in.

“Pointing rifles at my family, walking round the room — and taking wallets from people, but this was no robbery; no one tried to use any of the credit cards — it was pure intimidation, aimed at my family, and at me,” she says.

It was more than a year before the Mexican authorities began looking for the assailants. And during that time the threats had continued: One afternoon in June last year, Hernandez opened her front door to find decapitated animals in a box on the doorstep.

Hernandez’s offense was to write a book about the drug cartels that have wrought carnage across Mexico, taking about 80,000 lives, leaving a further 20,000 unaccounted for — and forging a new form of 21st-century warfare. However, there have been other books about this bloodletting; what made Los Senores del Narco different was its relentless narrative linking the syndicate that has driven much of the violence — the Sinaloa cartel, the biggest criminal organization in the world — to the leadership of the Mexican state.

Her further sin against the establishment and cartels was that the book became, and remains, a bestseller: more than 100,000 copies sold in Mexico. The success is impossible to overstate, a staggering figure for a non-fiction book in a country with indices of income and literacy incomparable to the US-European book-buying market. The wildfire interest delivers a clear message, Hernandez says.

“So many Mexicans do not believe the official version of this war. They do not believe the government are good guys, fighting the cartels. They know the government is lying, they don’t carry their heads in the clouds,” she says.

Hernandez’s book will be published in English this month with the title Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, so that we in the English-speaking world that consumes so much of what the cartels deal, and which banks their proceeds, might learn the lie of “cops and robbers,” of “upright society versus the mafia” — the received wisdom that still contaminates coverage of drug wars and the “war on drugs.”

Two writers in particular have pioneered the struggle to counter this untruth: one is Hernandez, and the other is Roberto Saviano — author of Gomorrah, about the Camorra of Naples — who writes in a foreword to Hernandez’s English edition: “Narcoland shows how contemporary capitalism is in no position to renounce the mafia. Because it is not the mafia that has transformed itself into a modern capitalist enterprise, it is capitalism that has transformed itself into a mafia. The rules of drug trafficking that Hernandez describes are also the rules of capitalism.”

By the year 2000, Hernandez had made a name for herself in Mexican journalism, on the daily paper Reforma. However, in December of that year, she found herself personally caught up in the murky crossover between state and criminals when her father was kidnapped: a crime the family believes to have been unconnected to his daughter’s work.

The police in Mexico City said they would investigate only if they were paid; the family refused, figuring — as sometimes happens — that the police would take the money without taking any action. When her father was murdered, Hernandez’s resolve to nurture her craft — fearless of, and without illusions about, the establishment — was deepened by the outrage.

Within a year, Hernandez had broken a scandal about the extravagance with which the winning presidential candidate, former Mexican president Vicente Fox, had decorated his personal accommodation using public funds — while campaigning on a ticket of economic austerity. Two years later, she was honored by UNICEF for her work on slave labor and the exploitation of Mexican girls entrapped in agricultural work camps in southern California. Before long, Mexico’s drug war erupted, and Hernandez turned her attention to this most perilous of subjects, and the most powerful man involved: Joaquin “El Chapo’” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. In the depth of its depiction of the world’s richest and most influential criminal, Hernandez’s book leaves every other account far behind.

When Zulema Hernandez (no relation) entered Puente Grande prison, convicted of murder, she cannot have thought herself in for a happy time. However, she could never have imagined the consequences of attracting the attention of the jail’s most famous inmate, Guzman, and becoming one of his lovers. The attentions of El Chapo (“Shorty”) led Zulema Hernandez to have two abortions, to being prostituted around the warders like “a piece of meat” and — once released — to her corpse being found in the trunk of a car with the letter Z, epigram of Guzman’s main rivals, Los Zetas, carved into her buttocks, breasts and back.

If this appalling tale, past midway through Anabel Hernandez’s narrative, captures the squalidness of Mexico’s drug war, another passage illustrates the way Guzman ran the jail in which he was supposedly incarcerated, inviting his extended family in for a five-day Christmas party. Anabel Hernandez also recounts the mysterious murders of the one senior public official who tried to expose the corruption at the jail at government level and the only warder who testified to it. And, most important, the fact that Guzman did not “escape” from Puente Grande, as the lore has it, in a laundry truck — he walked free in police uniform, with a police escort, long after the chief of the prison service and the Mexican deputy minister for public security arrived in response to the “news” of his escape.

For this is a book about, to use one of Anabel Hernandez’s best words, the “mafiocracy,” rather than the mafia — about the mafia state. It is about how the old Guadalajara cartel of the 1980s was protected by the Mexican government just as its heir, Guzman’s Sinaloa syndicate, is now. It is about the rise of former Mexican secretary of public security Genaro Garcia Luna, whom Hernandez accuses of being El Chapo’s protector at the apex of government.

“At first, I thought it would be difficult,” she says. “I didn’t think people would be ready to believe that the government is lying. That this is all one big lie.”

A character appears throughout the book, called simply “The Informant” — one among many Anabel Hernandez found during her five-year odyssey through the criminal world, and those supposedly fighting it.

“And he told me when I started this in 2005: ‘Don’t do this. You’re a woman and it’s too dangerous.’ But I had to — because of what had happened in my life, and because only when people understand what is going on can they change it,” she says.

The threats began when Anabel Hernandez’s book was published in Mexico in 2010 — and their story is interwoven into the book she has since written, Mexico in Flames. By this time, she had become a mother of two children.

“I received initial warnings that Garcia Luna — who was minister for public security — wanted to sanction me,” she says. “Even that he wanted to have me killed. I didn’t want to believe it, but I was told this on good authority — ‘they want to kill you.’ I’d come to know Garcia Luna’s various cars well over the years, and one day when I was fetching my little child from school, there it was, one of them, an official one,” she said.

Whatever the motive of this menace, “I reported it immediately to the government’s human rights commission. They opened a file, and I was allocated 24-hour protection.”

Then, earlier this summer, a sinister move: The authorities announced their intention to remove the escort, forcing her to cancel a number of trips to afflicted areas of the country to promote the new book.

“I fought the decision, and they gave me back the escort — but beheaded animals continued to appear on my doorstep even after this, as recently as last June,” she says.

When Anabel Hernandez visits Britain this month, she will be drawing attention not only to the agony of her country, but to the intimidation she has suffered and the murder of scores of her colleagues. This pogrom against the press is no “sideshow” or media obsession with itself — it is strategically integral to Mexico’s drug war, and the taking of territory by the cartels.

One of Anabel Hernandez’s friends is the veteran reporter Mike O’Connor, who spent much of his childhood in Mexico, and has covered conflict since the US’ “dirty wars” in Central America during the 1980s and now works full-time on behalf of Mexico’s menaced reporters, based in Mexico City for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The silencing of the press and killing of journalists is integral to the reality, the big story, of what is happening here,” O’Connor says. “The cartels are taking territory. The government and authorities are ceding territory to the cartels and, for the cartels to take territory, three things have to happen. One is to control the institutions with guns — basically, the police. The second is to control political power. And, for the first two to be effective, you have to control the press.”

Furthermore, he says, underlining the theme of his friend’s book, “the inability of the government to really solve any of the crimes against journalists during the four years I’ve been here is a metaphor for its inability to solve crimes against common citizens. They simply cannot do it. And you wonder: If they can’t solve these crimes, why not? Is it because they don’t want to?”

What does Anabel Hernandez feel about her less prominent colleagues on local papers, often compromised and threatened by cartels?

It is a problem, she says, that “our reporters are not united in the face of these threats and murders,” and she intends to “form a federation of solidarity, to build a group, a community, to make us stronger against the cartels and authorities.”

“Many of these murders of my colleagues have been hidden away, surrounded by silence — they received a threat, and told no one; no one knew what was happening,” she says. “We have to make these threats public. We have to challenge the authorities to protect our press by making every threat public — so they have no excuse.”

The timing of this English edition of the book is fortuitous, feeding into the current news like a hand into a glove. The release last month of the cartel boss Caro Quintero by a Mexican federal court made headlines across the world: Quintero had been convicted of a part in the torture to death of US Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. It is a murder that, in Hernandez’s account, throws light on both Mexican government and CIA complicity in drug trafficking, a narrative that exposes a deep root of the present drug war.

The court released Quintero on a legal technicality, but Hernandez says now: “Mexico’s government did nothing to prevent his release. On the contrary, they contributed cover for the release. The one thing nobody wants is Quintero talking about the roles of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [returned to power, and in government during Camarena’s murder] and the CIA in the origins of Chapo Guzman’s cartel.”

Another major item of news was the capture in July of the Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, and the killing last year of the man he replaced, Heriberto Lazcano. These successes for the Mexican military speak to Hernandez’s theme: It has long been speculated that any Mexican government’s best chance for peace is to return to the so-called “pax mafiosa,” a conviviality with — a blind eye toward — the biggest cartel, Guzman’s, whereby the drugs keep flowing in exchange for a cessation of violence, while the official “war on drugs” is fought against his opponents. Of these, the Zetas are by far the most formidable.

“Sadly, I think this is what is happening,” Hernandez says. “Mexico is exhausted. People will pay anything to live in peace. And this is the strategy: a sponsorship of the Sinaloa cartel, which makes the so-called ‘war on drugs’ one big lie.”

Senores del Narco is not flattered by its English translation, which is sometimes colloquial to the point of inelegance (agent Camarena is described as “a goner,” and the mysterious killing of a compromised government official, Edgar Millan, is “a shocker”). That is a shame, given the importance of the book and the availability of excellent translators from Spanish. The English edition is, furthermore, regrettably tardy (though hats off to Verso for publishing it), illustrating the Anglophone world’s baffling detachment from the death toll of the drug-taking to which it feels entitled.

Anabel Hernandez is “very pleased my book is being published in English, so it can be read in London and New York where drugs are being sold and taken on every corner, and people can know where every gram of cocaine comes from — corruption and death. I want it published in Britain and America, where the profits are laundered. In your country [the UK], where HSBC took Chapo Guzman’s money to ‘look after it,’ and then said they didn’t know where it came from. I have studied the laundering networks in depth, and I cannot believe them.”