A CURIOUS DISCONNECT
Before the 2016 US Presidential Election, and for the fifth consecutive year, Texans reported immigration and security as their highest priorities (San Antonio Express). 2000 miles northwest of Texas, on the same international border, Californians ranked employment and the economy as their principal concerns (USC). Together, California and Texas make 20% of the US population (Census).
Many people might assume differences between state governments and cultural histories of California and Texas explain their wildly different perceptions of national issues related to Mexico and drugs. But you have to understand the difference in Mexico between those two border areas — California and Texas — and how that might influence different Americans perceptions of “the problem” of Mexico and or drugs. Breitbart Media brands Breitbart Texas and Cartel Chronicles did not emerge from a political vacuum. They emerged from the 21st Century’s hottest global drug war zone outside Afghanistan. In 2014, Reid Cherlin, on assignment for Rolling Stone, observed a Breitbart editorial meeting: “(now Special Advisor to President Trump, Steve Bannon) described what he claimed were 10 counties in the Rio Grande Valley under the full operational control the drug cartels, and exposed only by the diligence of Breitbart Texas: ‘It’ll blow your fucking mind. We’ll take you on shit in Laredo and these other places; you literally will think, ‘I can’t be in America’,”(Vice).
New data published by Mexican NGO Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice sheds light on a dark war (CCSPJP). Soldiers and police wore ski masks. Criminal paramilitaries stole police uniforms and badges. Forces unknown targeted and killed journalists. The data obtained from the Mexican Army (SEDENA) details dates, locations, and kill/capture data for 3,333 military operations from 2008–2014. The data captured more than 5000 casualties and 3000 detentions from the onset of the US-Mexico Merida Initiative.
Negotiated by Presidents Bush (US) and Calderon (MX), the US Congress first funded Merida in fiscal year 2008 to escalate the cartel war. According to the US State Department, the initiative signaled “historic cooperation…to counter drug-fueled violence threatening citizens on both sides of the border” (US State Department). The actual warfighters were less enthusiastic. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana quoted a high level SENEDA commander: “the military does not want to be involved in law enforcement any more than it has to, but it has no choice, regular police cannot compete with AK-47s and grenade launchers,” (GPO). Although the Mexican Navy increased its combat role since 2015, from 2008-April 2015 data showed the Mexican Army, SEDENA, went to the front first and most frequently (El Universal). In this era, “the front” was south Texas.
“WE’LL TAKE YOU ON SHIT IN LAREDO”
Zoomed out, SEDENA data shows a tale of two coasts. All quiet on the western Pacific coast. And a heavily militarized east Gulf Coast, directly across the river from south Texas. Measured by the number of records, Tamaulipas was the most militarized Mexican state. By an enormous margin. Tamaulipas represented 1346 contained records — 40% of the total. The three most militarized Mexican cities were all in Tamaulipas, clustered around the Rio Grande Valley bordering Texas: 1) Nuevo Laredo, 2) Reynosa, 3) Matamoros. Those three Mexican cities on the Texas border account for 1% of the Mexican population and 20% of the military operations in SEDENA’s data. The map below shows what the warzone looked like from space.
That distribution quantified and contextualized sensational reports such as Ginger Thompson’s from 2005, before Merida’s escalation, that Nuevo Laredo is “a war zone” (NYT) or Bannon’s from 2014 that Laredo would “blow your fucking mind”. The Mexican army wasn’t the only military force in the Rio Grande Valley, 2008–2014. The Obama Administration sent Pentagon reinforcements: 1200 National Guard troops, 12 Blackhawk helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft. Congress’ Government Accountability Office (GAO) worried about the “perception” of a militarized border (Texas Tribune). That worry was well-behind the military reality. And trend. In 2015, Nuevo Laredo gunmen hit a US Border Patrol helicopter; the Obama Administration sent two more armored Blackhawk helicopters to the Rio Grande Valley (IBI Times).
Outside of Afghanistan, most Americans encountered “the drug war” as something other than “war”. It’s many things. Rarely “war”. It’s an abstract policy to “fight drugs”. Or covert means to sustain Jim Crow. Or useful device to seize assets and finance US police. Or contributor to history’s most intensive incarceration. American soldiers assigned to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, and south Texans, share a unique perspective on “the drug war” as an actual international war involving militaries and paramilitaries. Mexicans referred to the “La Inseguridad”, The Insecurity, to describe a war with 100s of thousands dead or disappeared. A conflict with mass graves and industrial ovens to hide the bodies. Hypothetically, Texans’ unique, intimate view of The Insecurity contributed to Texans’ unique concern for insecurity.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
The San Diego-Tijuana border crossing is the busiest in the world. California’s southern frontier covers Tijuana to Baja California. The frontier crosses the Gulf of California to Sinaloa down to Guadalajara. Mexico’s West Coast created modern international narcotics trafficking. In the 1980s, the West Coast’s Guadalajara Cartel employed a future Forbes billionaire, Chapo Guzman. In the Eighties, Guadalajara usurped control of North American drug trafficking from Pablo Escobar and the Colombian cartels. It went to war with the US DEA when it killed DEA Agent Kiki Camarena in 1985. To survive, Guadalajara’s bosses strategically decentralized into today’s regional subsidiaries: Sinaloa, Tijuana, Juarez, and Gulf. Among those cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel, based in Sinaloa, emerged as the hegemonic power. Sinaloa engineers tunneled under the San Diego border and created the largest drug distribution organization in the world.
SEDENA’s operational records revealed very different territorial priorities. Records showed just 20 total operations on the Baja California peninsula from 2008–2014. On average, 2–3 per year. Comparatively, at its 2012 peak, Tamaulipas averaged 32 records per month. Among western states, Sinaloa ranked third by record count. US Californians were geographically distant. US Southern Californians were insulated from Pax Sinaloa by the Gulf of California, the Sonoran Desert, and more than 1000 miles. Despite residing in a border state, Northern Californians were in some ways further from the war than Chicagoans.
SEDENA’s sparse drug war records involving the Pacific Coast contrasted with US Treasury data from March 2017 of entities sanctioned for financial crimes. 44% of US Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals are in Mexico or Colombia — multiples more than “axis of evil” states Iran or North Korea. Pacific Coast Mexican cities Culiacan, Tijuana, and Guadalajara are prominent targets for financial sanction. Among the 10 most sanctioned cities by the US Treasury, 9 are connected to the North American drug war. The only exception is Tehran.
The juxtaposition of SEDENA’s military absence from Sinaloa with the US Treasury’s frequent financial sanctions support hypotheses of Pax Sinaloa. Pax Sinaloa refers to the decreased violence after 2014, after the war covered by the SEDENA data. Don Winslow, author of several cartel novels turned Hollywood movies, put it this way: “Basically I think the Mexican government chose a winner and said let’s go with the least worst of these people,” (Oregon Live).
Whatever the case, SEDENA wasn’t the only political authority that pulled punches when it came to the money. The US DOJ fined UK bank HSBC a record $3B for laundering Sinaloa Cartel cash — no one went to jail. Indeed, the chancellor of the UK Treasury intervened in the US DOJ case against HSCB, arguing that criminal prosecutions threatened the global financial system (The Guardian). Similarly, US Treasury squashed a CIA proposal to target and drain cartel bank accounts (Washington Post). Those stories sound less absurd next to the UN drug tsar’s estimate that cartel cash propped up failing global banks in 2008: “In many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital,” (The Guardian). Hypothetically, the Mexican drug war is among the best financed wars in the world.
THE EAST/WEST WALL
Latitude and longitude tell only part of story that separates the Gulf and Pacific Coasts, and shaped American political perspectives. The backbone of the continent also separated them by thousands of meters of vertical space. The American Cordillera made mile-high barriers through the western US and compressed sea-level corridors on both Mexican coasts. According to geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan, Mexico is so mountainous that if it were flattened it would be the size of Asia (Newsweek). As much as physical barriers (eg, walls, fences) governed north-south traffic across the Rio Grande River, the Cordillera channeled traffic into two distinct east-west zones within Mexico. And hence the United States. Texas’ ports of entry yield low, flat freeway access to the US Heartland and, crucially, Chicago.
Chicago handles an immense amount of North American truck, rail, air, even maritime freight traffic. Mixed in the legal business is the nexus of North America’s illegal economies. US Attorneys in Chicago wiretapped Chapo himself in blockbuster prosecutions of Sinaloa confederates. Mexican police recorded him refer to Chicago as Sinaloa’s “home port” (Bloomberg). Local Chicago media reported at length on “Why the Sinaloa Cartel Loves Selling Drugs in Chicago” (Chicago Reader); CNN explained “How ‘El Chapo’ Guzman has poisoned Chicago’s streets” (CNN). Chicago authorities twice named Sinaloa’s Chapo Guzman “Public Enemy #1”, the first designation since Al Capone controlled the Chicago liquor trade. In 2010, the Department of Justice ranked the Windy City among top 5 destinations for 4 major drugs in a 2010 DOJ report. DOJ also cited Chicago as a top 5 point of origin for heroin.
Chicago’s Westside and Southside neighborhoods, bisected by a “heroin hightway”, are themselves segregated zones for concentrated drug trade turf wars. President Barack Obama openly wept about the daily shooting in his hometown (Newsweek). President Trump invoked “carnage” and suggested “sending in the feds”. Yet, “the feds” were present in large numbers. Authorities at all levels — federal, state, city, neighborhood — openly and repeatedly linked Chicago’s killing to the drug war.
Four hours south, St Louis, Missouri contained the most murderous street in the United States (Guardian) and frequently appeared as the most murderous city per capita in the United States. St Louis neighbor Ferguson, Missouri showed the most significant demographic of “missing men” from chronic killing and incarceration (NYT). From Ferguson emerged Black Lives Matter and the “war on cops” counter narrative. In 2016, as Americans became aware of opioids’ escalating death toll, the New York Times quietly introduced another variable, “Crime Spike in St. Louis Traced to Cheap Heroin and Mexican Cartels” (NYT).
Drugs traded north, guns traded south, cash did both. The University of San Diego estimated 250,000 such guns were bought in the US and smuggled to Mexican battlefields from 2010–2012 (USD). ATF successfully traced about half the weapons Mexican police flagged for chain of custody traces. Of those, 60% originated with US sellers. Illinois appeared among top 10 sources. 41% went back to Texas (GAO). Texans thus experienced the last decade as the “last mile” of an international trade network circulating literally tons of guns, drugs, and physical cash. The map belows shows Dallas as the southernmost hub in the circulatory system (visualized by truck freight) linking northern population centers to an actual live-fire war zone. From which violence spilled over the international border. In 2013, for example, masked cartel gunmen assassinated the boss of the Gulf Cartel (and/or US federal government informant) at 7pm in suburban Dallas shopping center parking lot (Dallas Morning News).
CENTER OF THE KNOWN UNIVERSE
SEDENA’s data coded the military geography of a conflict where combatants are named from their geographic home. “Sinaloa”, “Juarez”, and “Gulf of Mexico” identify places on the North American map and gave names to cartel combatants: the Sinaloa Cartel. The Juarez Cartel. The Gulf Cartel. To name just three of many dozens of groups competing to control territory. Among organized fighting forces, only Los Zetas, a stateless paramilitary comprised of former Mexican and Guatemalan special forces soldiers, lack a territorial homebase in the last decades war for control of the border, especially Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
In 2007, before the military escalation coded in SEDENA’s data, Foreign Direct Investment magazine and the Financial Times newspaper identified Chicago and Juarez, a Mexican city on the Texas border, as “cities of the future” (FDI). Three years later, three years into the escalation, Juarez murder multiplied by an order of magnitude as Obama’s Chicago team took power. Juarez killings accelerated from 301 in 2007 to 3116 in 2010 (Insight Crime). Border reporter Charles Bowden subtitled his 2010 book on Juarez “The Global Economy’s New Killing Fields”. That slaughter wasn’t far from Texans’ daily life. It was a reality in the Juarez-El Paso “borderplex”, a contiguous urban area divided by a river, an international border, and “killing fields”. At the same time Juarez was the most violent city in the world, CQ Press used FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data to repeatedly rank El Paso, Texas as the safest city in the United States (Fox News).
In Murder City, Bowden’s report from Juarez, he observed “there is a curious disconnect between the Mexican press and the US press, one where the US press pretends that reporting in Mexico is pretty much the way it is in the North, where the Mexican press considers American reporters to be fools”. Steve Bannon and Breitbart filled that coverage gap to “blow your fucking mind” and, at least in part, capture the White House. Bannon and Breitbart Media launched Breitbart Texas in 2014. A former California State legislator, Chuck Devore, introduced the site as “an important, nay, the most important Breitbart outlet because it covers the center of the known universe”. The emphasis on “most” appears in the original. Devore signaled the new site would be an “antidote to California’s liberal contagion” and said it represented a fort in a war, a digital Alamo (Breitbart).
From that outpost, Breitbart developed a network of Mexican journalists and portal dedicated to the cartel war, a unique feature among an American media more focused on embeds and press briefings on Iraq, Syria, and other distant battlefields. Breitbart reporter Ildefonso Ortiz fatally undermined stories about El Paso’s supposed security by digging into security data. Ortiz documented numerous gaps between the FBI’s UCR data and reality. He noted that UCR data omits crimes such as drug trafficking, “home invasion”, and kidnapping, all critical signals of insecurity:
As previously reported by Breitbart Texas, Mexico’s Gulf cartel has in the past had kidnapping crews that operated in Texas rounding up people wanted by the cartel bosses in Mexico for debts or perceived betrayals. At least one of those multiple kidnappings resulted in a case of mistaken identity leading to an innocent person being kidnapped, tortured, smuggled into Mexico and then being executed under orders of the Gulf cartel.
Ortiz’s article “Why Claims of a ‘Safe Border’ are Wrong and Deceptive” (Breitbart) appeared less than a year after reporter Reid Cherlin heard Bannon describe a deeply corrupt Rio Grande Valley and mind-blowing Laredo. Cherlin’s 2017 recollection of his 2014 Breitbart embed, “The world is on fire”, captured the epistemological canyon between “mainstream media” and Breitbart. Of Bannon’s editorial agenda, Cherlin concluded it “mistook fantasy for fact” with “little of it grounded in accepted fact”. Perhaps. But accepted by who? On what basis? Cherlin himself deleted material from the 2014 Bannon/Breitbart story because it seemed so insignificant: “obviously, I missed the story… I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me,” (Vice).
The Mexican NGO that obtained this data from SEDENA used it investigate stories of extrajudicial executions by Mexican soldiers. Such allegations are common. There are countless stories still buried in this revelatory data. Though this sliver of SEDENA data ended in 2014, the war did not. It accelerated. According to the Pentagon, Mexican military spending on US weapons increased 100x in 2015 (NACLA). In 2016, US authorities and Mexican marines removed Sinaloa’s Chapo Guzman from the battlefield for a third and apparently final time. SEDENA commanders attributed escalating violence in Sinaloa in 2017 to a war within the Sinaloa to succeed Chapo. 140 of Sinaloan schools closed in February 2017 amidst ranging firefights between convoys of men armed with assault weapons (Animal Politico).
Already more dangerous for reporters than Afghanistan, several reporters were killed in targeted assassinations in Q1 2017. One survived multiple assassination attempts. Norte, a newspaper in Juarez, bordering El Paso, Texas, closed March 2017 due to the violence against media. Even if those events do not appear in your media headlines, they will dominate the subtext, shape a presidency, and describe a continent. Some of the biggest stories were and are those you read least about.