From the coca fields of Colombia, to the rural farmlands of Sinaloa, to the border towns of Northern Mexico, to the southern U.S. states in law enforcement, to the dimly lit back rooms of Sydney night clubs I have had the opportunity to be at every critical juncture of the flow of drugs, from their points of origin to parts unknown. People are the thread that winds through the entire cloth. Wherever I turned it was a person that stood across from me, friend, enemy, passerby, farmer, cop, smuggler, or politician. I always felt that paying attention to these people was the key to understanding the fundamentals of what has become one of the biggest social issues in western society.

The puritan impulse to control what another human does with his or her body is as old as I can remember, somehow the American colonies became a receptacle for these types. Ironically the U.S. has become the premier market for drugs, and one of the places hardest hit by the effects of drugs, from gang violence to the opioid crisis. I am in no position at this point in my life to provide much analysis as to the why of it all, but I am in a good place to talk about the ‘how’ and the ‘what’.

Funding a Guerrilla War and Making Peace

Cresting the hill in rural western Colombia our guide pointed to the Coca fields adjacent to the dirt road on either side. Edison was a FARC captain who looked like he could be a senior in high school. He had a smooth, emotionless face, the camera crew remarked on this and his stoic personality as if it were a personality trait. I knew it was because Edison had done the dirty work in one of the longest running guerilla wars on earth.

Our guide, Edison, in the UN Camp for FARC.

FARC like any guerilla group was strapped for cash, dire times require unique means of sourcing funding. FARC had many methods for sourcing this revenue, but for our purposes their farming of coca plant will occupy us here. FARC’s cadre was drawn from rural areas and its ethnic make up was overwhelmingly indigenous and Afro-Colombian. To say they didn’t care much about the drug laws in the north would be an enormous understatement. Colombian society was structured like most South American societies, Spanish-European elites on top and indigenous and Africans underneath. This is the inevitable colonial structure, replayed all over the globe, and on full display in Colombia. Is it any wonder that these people would reject the morality of people who resembled their colonizers and oppressors?

The focus of the clients was not the drug war, but the FARC itself, it’s people, particularly its indigenous members, and the peace process that was nearly complete at this point in 2017. This was a complicated time for Colombia. The peaceful resolution of long running pitched internecine conflict usually gets popular support, but only barely. This was no exception, there were reservations on both sides. People hold on to their grudges, their losses, their pain. Dislodging this is hard, especially after a multi-decade propaganda campaign to demonize what are now one’s only partners for peace, the enemy.

Opium, Murder, Hollywood

Sinaloa was another story; the region was known as Mexico’s ‘Golden Triangle’. The original Golden Triangle sits at the junction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. A center of opium growing and refining, it was named the Golden Triangle by the CIA. Here in Sinaloa near the border with Chihuahua state, farming Opium was a way of life. Hollywood has driven a narrative of the drug trade as dark, nefarious, and murderous. No doubt it is murderous, Mexico has over 30,000 murders per year, but at the agricultural level, these were simply farmers, poor rural Mexicans out to make a buck. They farmed everything, from staple crops to opium and marijuana. Their choice of work was driven by American consumption more than by a commitment to the criminal life.

Opium Poppy, Sinaloa, Mexico

They looked and acted like your average farmer, of course they were protected in this role by a massive organization which included armed gangs of Sicarios who guarded the routes of ingress to this region. The Mexican military conducted routine overflights, and no doubt they had a good idea what was going on and where, but Mexican policing operations rarely rise to meet the threat of what amounts to an armed insurgency. Perhaps management was the goal and not eradication. The drug war is primarily a Gringo issue, the Mexican government dances to the tune as best it can.

In Mexican lore, the Narco has a prominent place, viewed and often revered as a rebel Robin Hood like character. El-Chapo, the focus of this project, was immortalized in folk music performed by Norteno bands around Mexico. These folk songs were ostensibly illegal, but at an upstairs bar in Mexico City we found a band willing to play… on camera. A quick poll of the patrons showed that roughly half thought El-Chapo was a “good guy” and “good for Mexico”. As shocking as this seems, not everyone in Central America is as enthusiastically anti-narcotic as American politicians.

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Alex Trafton with the largest drug shipment ever filmed.

Sicario was Wrong, Sort of

The border towns of Northern Mexico remain some of the most dangerous in Mexico, with murder rates that dwarf the worst parts of the United States. Just before I arrived in Ciudad Juarez the city saw 3,500 murders per year, in a population of only one million. The year John Lennon was murdered New York City saw 3,200 murders and sported a population at the time seven times larger than Juarez today.

Situated across the border from El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juarez was the scene of a bloody turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa Cartels. After much blood shed the Sinaloa Cartel had prevailed. The war saw the murder of civilians, narcos, police, and government officials. It was widely held that many of the murders were carried out by corrupt police on the pay roll of one or the other cartel.

Migrants in a tunnel, Northern Mexico

The border towns of Northern Mexico are where people and drugs cross the border into the land of opportunity. With such illicit activities the criminal element was never far behind. The people and drug smuggling operations are closely linked, and many times overlap. During 2016 the Mexican federal government was in the process of devolving control of the Tijuana River to the Tijuana Municipality. This proved to be a tumultuous time.

Under the Obama administration deportations skyrocketed. Derided by conservatives for his “weakness” Obama was truly tough on immigrants, sparing them the drone strikes he used to assassinate an American citizen in Yemen. Many of these migrants had been in the U.S. since childhood and had no Mexican documentation when they were deported. Many of these deportees wound up homeless, living in the Tijuana river and its connected tunnel system. With these deportees came, crime, drugs, and of course the narcos. The narcos closely monitored all goings on near the border, they had a significant operation to protect. With these overlapping groups and interests, violence soon followed.

The Tijuana police were tasked with clearing the river of these unwanted persons. This campaign led to the death of countless homeless migrants. I say countless because no one was actually counting, not the police, not the hospitals, and not the narcos. I saw migrants who been beaten so bad they were paralyzed, I witnessed people hit and killed by vehicles, and saw a generally inhuman situations go from bad to worse.

On one evening I was directly confronted by the local narco lieutenant. He informed me in no uncertain terms that our presence was now unwanted (we had previously had his blessing, and he even gave a masked interview). He told me, stern faced, that he would kill me. I have been around enough people who make violence their business to know a serious face from one who is posturing, I did not take this to be posturing. The following decisions probably save my life.

Narco Product Meets Gringo Enforcement

One of the most frustrating elements of police work has to be drug enforcement. It is a sad sight to see the effects of drugs on what are mostly economically disadvantaged persons. On the other hand, it remains one of the most dangerous portions of police work. As drugs make their way north, the legal structure becomes more rigid, once inside the United States there is no longer a network of corrupt police and bribes are unlikely to be a successful method of dealing with investigative scrutiny. As risk increases, so does price, as more money is involved violence is a common tool to achieve the desired outcome of the trafficker.

In the southern U.S. border states, drug interdiction is a multi-agency alphabet soup. Federal, state, and municipal agencies struggle to enforce the laws, and struggle further to take credit for successful interdiction. What is true for all of them is that this is a high stakes game. With harsh sentences and loss of significant income on the line, traffickers routinely turn to violence to escape capture and protect their product.

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Alex Trafton during mission briefing

The one time run-and-gun enforcement strategy had fallen away. Law enforcement agencies have realized that the drug war is about management and not victory. Tactics and procedures soon followed. Once upon a time tactical teams would storm houses to catch traffickers with drugs and get that “dope on the table” photo op. This has largely been consigned to the dust bin, with more sober and practical tactics prevailing. Agency leadership routinely decided not to endanger officer safety to grab small and mid-level shipments. Door kicking gave way to encirclement, call outs, and a great deal of patience.

Most arrests I saw involved drugs in one way or another. Whether the person was wanted for a specific drug offense, had committed a profit crime to sustain a drug habit, or was in illegal possession of a firearm to increase his power in the narcotics game, the common factor was usually drugs. It is a curious thing to see a central nexus to so much of the crime prevalent in these regions. And in the end, law enforcement was only making a dent. While officers struggled to get control of a vast network of extremely dangerous narco-traffickers the opioid crisis was spiking. Driven by the pharmaceutical industries obsession with profits, we had created a crisis all on our own. The enemy within was empowering the enemy across the border. One Sinaloan opium farmer lamented a 66% drop in crop prices, when we asked why he had one word for us “Fentanyl”.

Winners and Losers… Wealth and Exploitation

Looking out on this cycle of destruction can be depressing, more so when you see the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society bearing the brunt of the costs. At the upper echelon of society enforcement was non-existent. Designer drug and expensive illicit narcotics are both common in social circles in any major city. Wealthy bankers and models sneaking off to the toilets to do another line, less door kicking at upscale Sydney night clubs.

The political level shows us the hypocrisy of the whole endeavor. I have long been convinced that drug laws in the United States are largely a way of enforcing a punitive form of class warfare. Criminalizing street drugs, enforcing absurd sentences, and using post-release legal tools to render ex-convicts incapable of re-entering society ensures a benighted and immobile underclass. In the end, no matter where you stop on the chain, the poorer elements of society suffer, from being targeted for enforcement, or by being recruited as front line police officers, the violence effects them the most. I suspect this is the reason men like El Chapo and Pablo Escobar rise to such heights of fame and respect. They entered the game opposite the powerful and won. They played the game, rose from poverty, eschewed social norms designed to keep them poor and became what they were always told they would never be, empowered, consequential, free.

Dispatches from the Drug War (Abridged)

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