Drug-war virus spreading like the Swine flu

Narco-corruption has infected both sides of the border

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has deployed some 40,000 military troops to battle the drug “cartels” in order to stem the flow of drugs north into the United States.

It’s not working; the drugs keep coming.

The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars over the past four decades trying to stop the flow of drugs from coming north and more recently has ramped up border security in an effort to stop guns from flowing south and into the hands of narco-traffickers.

It’s not working, the drugs and guns keep spreading.

This failed strategy is premised on the notion that drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are tightly structured hierarchical organizations that can be neutralized by force along a front line — the border.

But, of course, it doesn’t work that way.

Like the Swine flu, the real enemy in the drug war is a virus spread by human contact, and its infection rate is not inhibited by the border or nationality.

Since the early 1970s, when President Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” unleashing this virus, it has spread all across the Americas, often by the very instruments meant to impede it.

No one, regardless of their country of origin or status in society [from indigent street person to U.S. Senator] is immune to this virus (commonly called corruption) — which is spread by the tools of addiction, violence and greed (drugs, guns and money).

Tracking the Virus

As with most diseases deemed deadly, myths typically creep up (propagated by word of mouth and the mainstream-media hype machine) that result in mass disinformation being accepted as fact about the modes of transmission of the illness.

In the case of the drug-war virus, the most recent transmission myth foist upon the public is focused on weapons. The myth is that the virus is now being spread, in large part, by guns and munitions being shipped south by criminal actors in the U.S. to the “cartels” in Mexico. Again, the fallacy of this myth is that it presumes the virus respects borders.

The truth is that the guns being used by the DTOs are coming from multiple sources — including the U.S., Central America and other nations on other continents; and from within Mexico itself, via players in law enforcement and the military who have been afflicted with this drug-war virus.

In November of last year, Mexican law enforcers seized a huge cache of weapons in Reynosa, Mexico, that was linked to the Zetas — a group of DTO mercenary enforcers formed by highly trained special-operations soldiers who defected from the Mexican military. The weapons stash include hundreds of assault rifles as well as grenade launchers, hand grenades and half a million rounds of ammunition — among which was a collection of U.S. military-issued 40 mm artillery shells.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), after a five-month delay — caused, in part, by the reluctance of the Mexican government to allow ATF timely access the serial numbers of the seized weapons — finally reported through the media in late March of this year that they were able to t race the serial numbers of 383 of the 540 rifles found in the Reynosa arms cache. Most of those guns traced back to U.S. firearms dealers, according to the ATF.

But clearly a not insignificant number of those weapons — including nearly 160 rifles as well as the grenade launchers, hand grenades and artillery shells — were not traced by ATF, assuming the media reports are accurate, and their source remains a mystery. Ironically, according to the State Department, the U.S. approved for export to Mexico via private companies more than $1 billion worth of defense hardware between fiscal years 2004 and 2007 alone — including assault rifles, grenades and grenade launchers.

A couple of weeks back, during an interview on a Fox News show, Thomas Mangan, a special agent with ATF, said that Mexican authorities are recovering from DTOs an increasing number of “true machine guns,” which Mangan said are not being purchased in the U.S.

Mangan said ATF suspects these machine guns, such as the U.S.-made M60, are being acquired by DTOs through Central American sources. Ironically, the M60 is also a machine gun used by the Mexican Army.

A story in the April 27 issue of the Brownsville Herald, which was not picked up by the national media, reported that the Mexican Army discovered an abandoned car in Matamoras, Mexico, packed with “four assault rifles, two submachine guns, more than 2,000 rounds of ammunitions and 24 cartridges.”

Also in the car were “three radio systems with chargers, as well as two army type uniforms, and a tactical [bullet-proof] vest,” the Herald reported. The evidence, according to the Herald report, was turned over to the Mexican federal police to investigate.

Two days later, also in Matamoras, the Associated Press reported that Mexican law enforcement had arrested a major Zeta ringleader, Gregorio Sauceda Gamboa — and in the process seized an arms cache that included five rifles and a clutch of ammunition.

Could that be a coincidence? Likely not.

And if not, we again have military-issued hardware (submachine guns) linked to the Zetas — who defected from the Mexican military, along with more than 100,000 of their fellow soldiers since 2001.

So what are we to make of all this? Is the United States really the nearly exclusive supplier of weapons to Mexico’s DTOs?

Or is the situation more complicated, the virus more widespread?

Narco News put that question to Bill Newell, special agent in charge of the ATF in Arizona and New Mexico.

Newell concedes that the ATF’s efforts to impede the illegal flow of U.S. guns south into Mexico likely will not solve the problem. He says stopping the gun flow from the U.S. will only lead the DTOs to step up their acquisition of weapons from other non-U.S. sources, because they "are not stupid."

Newell says, for example, a lot of weapons are now coming up from El Salvador and Guatemala — citing the fact that the Zetas are “getting their grenades” from Central America.

"We're a victim of our own success" in cracking down on the U.S. flow of arms, he adds.

Newell also did not disupute that the Mexican government is very selective in the guns it turns over to ATF to trace. Newell stresses that he has no direct evidence of Mexican military corruption playing a role in the arming of the DTOs, but he also agrees that ATF is not getting all of the evidence. He adds that an ATF badge and gun in Mexico is essentially a "paperweight."

And on that front, a U.S. Senator has already weighed in with his concern.

Last month, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a hearing in the field — in El Paso, Texas, located along the U.S. border with Mexico. In his opening statement for that hearing, Kerry revealed the following:

Only about one out of every four weapons seized by Mexican authorities last year was submitted to the ATF so they could be traced back to purchasers and sellers in the United States. The Mexican government should provide the ATF with fuller access to these weapons.

Spreading North

Tosh Plumlee is a former CIA asset and contract pilot who flew numerous missions delivering arms to Latin America and returning drugs to the United States as part of the covert Iran/Contra operations in the 1980s, according to public records.

Plumlee still has deep contacts in the spook world, including with in the Mexican intelligence world. Plumlee claims that behind the scenes the Obama administration, with the help of a special joint task force involving U.S. and Mexican agents, is attempting to get a handle on the spread of the drug-war virus, but are finding themselves up against a major contagion that does not yield easily and is very capable of evolving into a more virulent strain.

Here’s Plumlee’s take, which he sent to Narco News via e-mail:

Relations with Mexico over this "Border War" and the escalations thereof, coupled with the drug policies of old, have caused a difference of opinions within the two-party system of the United States, as well as between various factions within Mexico.... The Drug Cartels have embedded themselves so deep within the political atmosphere of Mexico that they can manipulate policy as well as Mexico's reality. These cartels have gained control of a majority of the media outlets as well as the party system of Mexico and to some degree infiltrated our [the U.S.] political structure as well as our financial institutions.

We have some politicians in this country who do not want in-depth investigations into the Cartels of Mexico or the cut-out companies used in these illegal operations, or the personal used in those various operations. Our secret, newly formed joint Task Force, working a delicate matter with the Mexican Army, has uncovered direct associations with some officials on this side of the border as well as inside Mexico.

So the drug-war virus, according to Plumlee, has infected the U.S. side of the border as well — since the virus spreads easily across borders.

Plumlee points to a small U.S. border community of some 2,000 people where this infection can be seen running its course. Columbus, N.M., is located in southern Luna County, about 70 miles west of El Paso, Texas; some 32 miles south of Deming, N.M.; and just across the border from Palomas, Mexico.

And, according to Plumlee — and a recent report by the Associated Press — this high-desert border town has become a haven for narco-traffickers.

Recently, Plumlee says he spent some time in Columbus, on a hill overlooking the small town with a group of Border Patrol agents who had set up surveillance cameras from afar to keep an eye on two adjoining houses in the community.

Plumlee claims the homes were purchased by narco-traffickers, who paid cash. He adds that as he looked on with the Border Patrol, a group of men at the homes were unloading cargo from two trucks parked near the abodes.

Plumlee says the Border Patrol agents said the cargo was a shipment of weapons.

“How do you know,” Plumlee says he asked the Border Patrol agents.

“Because we have it on tape,” one of the Border Patrol agents responded, according to Plumlee.

Plumlee says the Border Patrol agents have reported the incident to ATF. Unfortunately, he adds, Columbus’ local law enforcement doesn’t have the manpower, firepower or willpower to confront the extent of the problem that now exists in the community.

The recent AP story backs up Plumlee’s analysis.

According to that news report, the narco-traffickers have fled across the border into Columbus from Palomas to avoid the pressure of the Mexican Army. Columbus must seem like a safe haven by comparison, given it’s four-man cop shop “has turned over seven times in three years because of scandal or apathy,” according to the AP report.

However, the problems in Luna County (where Columbus is located) are not limited to the blowback from narco-corruption in Mexico.

In 2007, Narco News reported that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supervisor in New Mexico was alleging that a federally-funded drug task force based in Deming (composed of ICE agents as well as local and state law enforcers) was linked to a disturbing trail of bookkeeping irregularities, multiple mysterious bank accounts and even claims of U.S. law enforcement corruption.

In fact, the ICE supervisor alleged specifically that some $300,000 in federal funds under the control of the Deming task force had mysteriously disappeared.

A subsequent investigation conducted by ICE into the supervisor’s charges did not directly address the missing $300,000. Instead, the report simply states that no evidence was found to support the allegation that the federal funds were “reprogrammed to disguise actual use.”

But it is difficult to dismiss the ICE supervisor’s allegations concerning the $300,000, particularly when considering that the ICE report also confirms that task-force financial records were in disarray, missing or “erased” and that expenditures were not properly documented. Added to that is the fact that the task force’s Deming office was burglarized shortly after the ICE supervisor reported the $300,000 in missing funds.

The ICE investigation also revealed the following:

• The Deming Chief of Police no longer shares information with the task force because the current “task force commander” compromised a source of narcotics-related information and also because the task force does not share information with his office.

• The task force opened five bank accounts for its discretionary funds using the City of Deming tax identification (ID) number without the City’s knowledge or authorization. The accounts were re-designated with the Grand County tax ID when the City of Deming demanded that its number be no longer used.

• The City of Deming withdrew its participation from the Deming task force due to “integrity [alleged corruption] concerns relating to former and current task force commanders. …”

Several New Mexico law enforcement officials linked to the Deming task force have been the targets of past federal corruption investigations, Narco News sources claim. One of those investigations centered on a deputy who allegedly turned up in a wiretap making calls to a Mexican narco-trafficking organization. However, no charges were brought against the targeted law enforcers as a result of the investigations, the sources add.

To date, law enforcement sources tell Narco News, no known criminal investigation has been launched into the activities of the Deming task force as a result of the ICE report findings. In fact, those sources claim the ICE report is now buried away in some drawer at ICE headquarters gathering dust.

[Full coverage of the task-force scandal, as well as a link to the ICE report, can be found at this link.]


Luna County, New Mexico, and the dusty border town of Columbus are far from alone in geography or time in being victims of the drug-war virus.

How else can we explain the fact that former Starr County, Texas, Sheriff Rey Guerra recently pled guilty to a drug-trafficking conspiracy charge?

Guerra was accused of passing information to a narco-trafficking group in exchange for cash payments and other gifts. Seems the good sheriff had a weak spot for steak and shrimp dinners.

And then there’s the long-running, and still unaddressed, House of Death scandal, in which U.S. law enforcers and federal prosecutors allowed one of their informants to participate in a series of brutal murders in 2003 and early 2004 in Juarez, Mexico, in the effort to make a career-boosting drug case.

Plus, there is the reality that U.S. border agents come into contact with the drug-war virus daily, which raises the risk that they will contract the disease. That might explain why, according to a New York Times report, as of last May there were “about 200 open cases pending against law enforcement employees who work the border.” (And those are only the cases that are known or were not ignored due to political calculations.)

The House of Death informant, a former Mexican cop, in a letter he penned from prison (where he now sits fighting the U.S. government’s efforts to deport him to Mexico, back to a certain death at the hands of the drug lords he double crossed) described how those corrupt arrangements work — at least in the case of the compromised U.S. law enforcer who worked for the narco-trafficking cell that employed the informant.

From the informant’s prison missive:

Upon his arrival at work, the [U.S. Customs] inspector would receive his schedule where he would see when he would be at the different stands [at one of the border bridges at Juarez/El Paso] where the cars came through…. And since they switch off every thirty minutes, he could use one of the beepers that were already programmed to type in and send the messages without needing to use an operator or telephone line.

He [the corrupt inspector] sent the schedule to the nephew [a drug smuggler] specifying at what time and on what line he would be working. In that way, he was the first contingency and would send us the schedule, or as we called it “invitation,” since we were the guests.

But none of this is really new, despite the recent escalated attention being paid to the drug war by the mainstream media — at least prior to its efforts in helping to spread fear and loathing over the Swine flu virus.

An internal U.S. Customs memo dated Jan. 29, 1990, helps to elucidate the history of this drug-war virus. The memo, written by John Juhasz, the leader of a border-corruption task force in Arizona at the time (dubbed Firestorm) was obtained by Narco News and published in 2004 as part of its Borderline Security series.

From the memo:

At the present time, it is an accepted fact among federal law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Office [Tucson] that law enforcement corruption in the border communities of Arizona has reached a crisis state.

Current investigative information in this office indicates heavy involvement in the corruption of two Customs employees by an organization in Cochise County (Arizona), which is believed to include law enforcement and court officials. There are strong indications of the same type of activity in Santa Cruz County, which, like Cochise County, is adjacent to the Mexican border.

Other Federal agencies in Arizona implicate the same organizations as being part of the drug smuggling problem.

However, just as in the case of the case of the more recent alleged New Mexico law-enforcement corruption, the Firestorm task force’s investigation was ultimately deep-sixed by higher powers.

The Arizona task force, which was composed of agents from several federal agencies, was shut down abruptly in late 1990.

In early 2002, former U.S. Customs agent and Firestorm task force member Steven Shelly — as well as other sources — advanced information alleging that a former U.S. Senator was a target of the task force.

“The ‘Firestorm’ task force that was shut down overnight, was shut down as a result of one phone call, because the list of suspects included a former United States Senator…,” Shelly alleges. He makes that claim in a letter sent in March 2002 to several U.S. senators and a congressman.

Several other sources familiar with Firestorm’s operations also confirm that the former senator was in the task force’s investigative sights.

The former senator says he knew of the task force, but stresses he was not aware that he was being targeted for investigation. He adds that any such probe would have been politically motivated, not based on any credible evidence.

Shelly says Firestorm’s “target” was former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz.— who, at the time of the task force, was still serving in the Senate.

But that is the problem with viruses, after all. You never really know for sure the full extent of who’s been infected or not — or where it might spread next.

Mike Levine, a retired DEA agent and now host of a popular Pacifica Radio program, wrote a best selling book called “Deep Cover” about his experiences with the drug-war virus. In that book, Levine reveals how Edwin Meese, the U.S. Attorney General under President Reagan, blew the cover of a DEA sting operation that had identified corrupt elements of the Mexican military who had agreed to take bribes in order to assure protection for the transport of 15 tons of cocaine through Mexico.

Levine shared his insight into that experience in an e-mail he sent to Narco News:

Back in 1987 (Deep Cover), we "rented" the friggin' Mexican Army with all their US-supplied weapons, to help us smuggle tons of cocaine into the US. We got it on video, sent undercovers to Mexico to watch the Mexican Army clearing our landing fields, gave it all to the Attorney General of the U.S. [Meese] — then he blew our cover, all of this is in a NYTimes best-seller. And what happened?

Right —Nada. Basically you had the Mexican army acting like drug dealers, so now you have drug dealers acting like the Mexican Army.

So I'm trying to understand. What has really changed?

Watch out for that Swine flu, and stay tuned ….


User login


About Bill Conroy