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All the Dead Heroes: The Border Trilogy, Part II

Rosarito’s day of death in 2006 — ending with the slayings of three cops in the small town south of Tijuana — hammered home the personal costs of the increasingly violent drug wars raging across Mexico


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BY THE TIME I MET HER, in September 2008, Negrita was two years into widowhood. Her boys, 2 and 8 years old, were thousands of miles away, with her parents, in central Mexico. Ismael had “fallen” on June 20, 2006, in a grisly three-cop killing at the hands of the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO). “I can’t bring myself to say he’s dead,” Negrita said. The brutal slaying shocked the pueblo of Rosarito into an apoplectic realization: Its small-town ethos wasn’t immune from the scourge of the latest cartel development sweeping the country. That devil-hen phenomenon, the Colombianization of Mexico, had come to roost in Baja.

A perfect storm of disparate factors has led to Mexico’s unprecedented crisis of violence, and foremost among them is 9/11. As America has become more earnest about walling off its southern neighbor (billions of dollars have been poured into the border and its protection since 2001), it’s become more difficult to cross contraband and people into the contiguous 48. Organized crime has reacted accordingly. The leaders of the cartel world may be ruthless and in some cases pathological, but they are, above all, businessmen. And the Mexican and U.S. governments have (ironically), by virtue of deeming commerce in their product illegal — thereby forcing them into black, unpoliced markets — kept them from government oversight, fair trade and antitrust demands.

The cartels are, strangely enough, capitalism’s poster children — econo-anthropological laboratories charting the evolution of a self-regulated (black) market system. But the black market is merely a reflection of the licit, and those renegade, often bloody captains of the narcotics industry — one of the new century’s highest-grossing — are beholden to the immutable laws of supply and demand. As it’s become more difficult to cross cocaine into the United States, crime syndicates in Mexico have followed the path of least resistance, backing off drug running and branching out into complementary markets — extortion, kidnapping and murder for hire. Given Mexico’s weak and beleaguered legal system and the fact crime syndicates were perfectly out fitted for the new rackets, the permutation has been so seamless that most of Mexican society didn’t see the noose tightening until violence spiked in 2005.

Simultaneously, the cartels have established a domestic market for hard drugs. The strategy (probably more accidental than formulated) has been so successful that up to half the cocaine traveling through Mexico now stays within its borders. Small towns like Rosarito — in many ways provincial and hermetic societies with auras of Catholic simplicity and innocence—have been blindsided. Their legal, social, rehabilitation and policing structures are unable to deal with the epidemic. It’s as if the 1980s crack boom that devastated parts of Washington, D.C. and South Central Los Angeles has been unleashed on Mayberry.

Today, Mexico is dealing not only with world-class organized crime in its top-tier cartel syndicates but with a ripe and burgeoning criminal farm league. Under those cartels, at the far end of the paradigm, are street-level, loosely banded networks that supply the country’s population of recreational drug users (and increasingly, junkies). Buttressed between the two extremes are three or four levels of middlemen — business-minded outlaws who become increasingly savvy, wealthy and dangerous as they move up the ladder of those living in the shadow of the law.

At the pinnacle of that food chain, cartel capos are putting politicians into office through lavish campaign financing and blatant manipulation of ballots. On the local level, they intimidate — and corrupt — police forces so completely that in many areas of the country they are effectively the law. Mid level networks, meanwhile, are responsible for much of the current bloodshed. Newspaper vendors, dealing cocaine on the side, are taking bullets in the head for selling on the wrong turf, and entire networks of low-level thugs are being murdered for breaches of loyalty (150 people were executed in Tijuana in October 2008, and many of the cadavers showed up in groups of 10 and even 20).

An anonymous source I call Buford Pusser says the police departments of Rosarito and Tijuana are eaten up with cartel influence, and the Mexican army doesn’t trust either of them. Pusser holds a position in Baja California’s judiciary and acts as a liaison to the military. He’s worked with police forces in Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada, and needs two hands to count friends who have been assassinated. He’s also survived several attempts on his own life.

I first met him on a trip to the PGR (Procuraduría General de la República) office in Tijuana — the federal police — where he told me that Rosarito, contrary to popular belief, has always been an important plaza for the AFO. Its coastline is used for bringing in drug shipments by both boat and plane. He also talked about the 1994 assassination of Police Chief Jose Federico-Benitez, a crusader widely hailed as the last honest cop in Tijuana. (For more on the Benitez assassination, go to sandiegomagazine.com/exclusives.)

After that brazen shooting, the state appointed a special prosecutor — a 35-year-old gung-ho lawyer named Hodín Gutierrez-Rico. He pushed hard and was able to bring two PGR agents to trial. One of them did a short stint in jail.

“These mafia guys seem to own the courts,” Buford says. “They never lose. Never. So Hodín was lucky to send one guy to jail. The rest, nobody touched them. The guy washing cars at the PGR, he was the one who went to jail. He stayed in for like two months. That was it.

“And then, one night, Hodín — with his wife and little boy, in front of his house — the mafia came and they shot him 145 times. Then they ran over him with the car and cut him to pieces. They were playing with him. When they moved the body, there was a hole in the ground. That was his payback.

“For me, Federico-Benitez is a hero. Gutierrez-Rico is a hero, too. But they are dead. It’s as simple as that. All the heroes in Mexico are dead. And nothing changes. We are talking about 1994, Hodín in ’95, and still the same shit. Worse and worse and worse and worse.”

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