Blood of Their Brothers: The Border Trilogy, Part I
When two factions of the Arellano-Felix cartel went to war in 2008, Tijuana’s murder rate shot through the roof. That violence coincided with a bloody turn in the country’s organized-crime world and followed a 2006 three-cop slaying in the small town of Rosarito, Baja California. The town’s illusion of invulnerability was shattered that day, and a weary populace awoke startled into Mexico’s living nightmare of violence, graft and rampant exploitation of the first human flaw.
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That same year, I interviewed then–Police Chief Carlos Bowser-Miret. When I asked him about Alberto’s fear for his life, he shrugged it off, saying many people were scared in Rosarito. We talked about human smuggling, and I told him one of my sources had said that he, Bowser-Miret, was connected to the cartel. He laughed that off but agreed to meet again. If I was looking for organized crime, he said, I should check the background of Juan Esquivel-Fiero.
When Bowser-Miret was assassinated, months later, Alberto—one of his immediate subordinates—was named as a suspect; Bowser-Miret had recently quarreled publicly with Alberto’s brother Juan. Alberto was later cleared, but he left the police department. Juan maintained his post until PAN was voted out in 2007. All of which, by mere association, has darkened Montijo-Pompa’s reputation—a case that illuminates the great challenge of contemporary Mexican cops. With so many corrupt brothers-in-arms, and when la mordita (“the bite,” or bribe) has become a way of life for so many, who can be trusted?
“I can go with you to the church and show you,” the former chief says. “See, on my hands—nothing. Not a penny. Never. The problem is, when you start biting the money, when you make the first bite, that’s when you are through—with everything. You are through with yourself, your career, your name, your family—everything. Because once you take the bite, they own you.”
At the same time, he says, there’s little wonder so many cops go bad. It’s not as if they have to kill people or even carry drugs. Often, it’s as easy as turning one’s head at a certain time or offering obscure information when needed, trivial obligations that earned serious money for Rosarito cops who were taking home $900 a month in 2006 —and who, in many cases, had gone into debt during six months of unpaid academy training. (Police in Mexico have no benefits, health insurance or pensions.)
“This guy comes out of the academy hungry and broke,” Montijo-Pompa says, “with a wife and kid depending on him; with a mortgage, furniture rental and the loan he took from his brother. And the first car he stops, a guy offers him $40 instead of taking a ticket. It doesn’t take long to realize that if he wants to make $200 a day or even $500, it’s possible—it’s only a matter of how much he wants to play the game.
“And what happens if today is my last day?” he asks. “Once I finish, I go and take back my gun and my uniform. I don’t have any kind of retirement package or medical service, no farewell, no goodbye . . . nothing. Go and take care of yourself. Can you fulfill that obligation? Can you live with 100 or 1,000 enemies in the streets, waiting for you? How far can you go? If I’ve got the money, I have to move from here tomorrow. What am I going to do, sell my house every day for the rest of my life?”
MOST OF MEXICO’S COPS, like Montijo-Pompa and Montero, are policia preventiva—they can stop a crime in progress. But if it happens before they arrive on the scene, it’s out of their hands. At that point, it moves on to the state-level PGJE (Procuraduría General de Justicia del Estado). According to the Mexican constitution, only state- and federal-level authorities—25 percent of the country’s police force—have powers of investigation.
It didn't take the bad guys long to figure out that that if an investigation could be stalled on a PGJE investigator’s desk, it was as good as closed—which has left the country’s investigators facing the Mexican choice of plata o plomo (silver or lead) for decades. As a result, loyalties at the PGJE and the PGR are among the most mercurial in Mexico. And the violence has metastasized in the past 20 years—now even municipal cops live in fear.
Montijo-Pompa says he was 99 percent sure he would be killed during his tenure as chief—and I was, too. In Mexico, death has become as capricious—and as meaningless—as those dancing particles of Sonoran dust. After five years in the front row, watching the country’s civil war (a conflict fomented by and underwritten with U.S. drug demand) and the steadily climbing body count, I’ve come to see the slayings of June 20 and events like them—the multi-ton drug busts, assassinations and three-hour shootouts—as small acts in an expansive, though largely accidental, ruse. Bit parts in a giant sleight-of-hand that’s been used to distract two willfully misled republics from the real story: the steady and uninterrupted flow of banned substances (cocaine chief among them) and undocumented immigrants.
The first human flaw—one as old as the Garden and as deep as the collective unconscious—wasn’t knowledge, after all, but the greed to have that knowledge at whatever cost. And with hundreds of billions of narco- and narco-defense dollars at stake in this, the age of über-capitalism and exaltation of the greed factor—where the demoralizing effects of terror have emasculated binational journalism—hard truths have taken a back seat to self-interest and expediency. And special interests on both sides of the border—American big business and upper-level Mexican organized crime—are reaping huge profits off the chaos. The honest and valiant of Mexico, meanwhile, are being sacrificed en masse to the machinations of artifice and the inexorable demands of the market.
Part II of The Border Trilogy, “All the Dead Heroes,” examines the lives—and despair—of a pair of honest Mexican cops. The country’s mutating mafia structure and a perfect storm of conflicting factors have led to an unprecedented spike in bloodshed and prompted serious comparison with 1990s Colombia, all of which reached a crisis pitch in Rosarito on June 20, 2006.