Mexico’s drug war is no laughing matter.
But the methods drug smugglers use to get their illicit goods north of the border can be humorous.
He speaks to anchor Marco Werman about his report.
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Marco Werman: Mexico’s drug war is a deadly serious matter. Some 60,000 people have been killed there over the past six years. And the drugs keep flowing north by any means the cartels can think of. We definitely don’t want to make light of the violence and suffering the drug war causes, but some of the methods drug smugglers use to get their illicit goods north of the border can be kind of humorous.
The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe documents the most outlandish stories from the Mexican drug war in a new article. He joins me on the line from Washington.
You talk about the inherent looniness of the drug war in Mexico; give us a prime example of just how strange a story can get.
Patrick Radden Keefe: Well, some of it is just that you get this ‘Tom & Jerry’ type game between the smugglers and the authorities where the authorities will do something to stop the drugs from coming across the border, and the smugglers will kind of try anything once. So one example, and there’s a great image of this, is that they erected a border fence down in Arizona outside Yuma to try and stop smugglers from coming across, and what the smugglers did was they actually built ramps up one side of the fence and down the other, and tried to drive a Jeep right over, full of drugs. The problem is, the Jeep got stuck at the top. So they abandoned it; you had this kind of amazing image of a Jeep sitting on top of this border fence.
Werman: It starts to get surreal, some of this stuff. You document stories about drug cartels funding productions of religious films here in the US about the Knights Templar getting involved, about laundering money through race horses. Who comes up with this stuff?
Keefe: Well they’re really creative. I mean, we don’t know exactly the size of the drug trade between Mexico and the United States, but the low estimate is that it’s 6 to 7 billion dollars a year, and the high estimates are 39 or 40 billion dollars a year. So you can imagine there’s a lot of incentive for people to be creative. The ingenuity on the part of some of these smugglers is pretty astonishing.
Werman: Yeah, so there’s one story you tell about a parking spot in Nogales, Arizona.
Keefe: Yeah, I think of this as the most valuable parking spot in America. There was this one parking spot kind of close to the border, and what would happen is from time to time a van would come and pull into this space and there was actually a hole in the ground underneath that had been very cleverly camouflaged. And there was a concrete plug that was held in place by a hydraulic jack; so that would lower. There would be a hole in the bottom of the van, and it turns out that this was actually a tunnel that ran right underneath the border. And so in about 45 minutes, the smugglers could hand-over-hand just feed packages of marijuana into the van; it was about a million dollars worth they could do in about 45 minutes. And then the van would drive off, the plug would be put back in place, the next person would pull into the spot, and nobody was any the wiser.
Werman: It’s such an extraordinary story. How did that little plot get discovered?
Keefe: I don’t know, actually. There were a series ofâ€”I mean, Nogales is actually famous because the earth underneath that part of the border must be like Swiss cheese; there are tons and tons of holes and tunnels that have been dug through over the years. And so there have been ongoing investigations and they’re forever discovering tunnels. You actually get funny stories of occasionally drug smugglers tunneling through underneath the ground, and they’ll actually accidentally bump into another tunnel; you’ll actually get smugglers bumping into each other in these tunnels, criss-crossing. So I think probably what happened in that instance was that they found the tunnel first, and then found the hole.
Werman: As you point out, it’s not all funny little sidebars to the drug war. I mean, at the end of the piece you discuss the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State, and say that from the cartel’s point of view, this has to be the most outlandish story of 2012. Why do they see it that way?
Keefe: Well I think for the cartels it’s a dangerous development, because the reason that their industry is so successful is because of prohibition in the United States. So the long term prospects of the situation in which the US starts to relax its drug laws in a State by State way, is actually a very threatening one for the cartels. I also think, for the average Mexican, the fact that we would legalize marijuana must be troubling to observe in some ways, because if you think about it, in the last six or seven years, about 60,000 people have lost their lives in the drug war, and that’s in part because Mexico has really been cracking down on these cartels, and they’ve been doing that in part because the United States Government and Washington has been urging them to. Marijuana is one of the big products for the cartels; by some estimates it’s up to 40% of their revenue. So the notion that they would crack down and lose a lot of lives trying to stop the smuggling into the United States, and then we would say ‘You know what? We’re going to make it legal here after all.’ must make them scratch their heads.
Werman: Yeah, so what creative angles will the cartels be dreaming up next to counter this wave of legalization of marijuana?
Keefe: Well, you name it. I mean, one thing they’re doing is investing very heavily in methamphetamine, which many of them perceive to be the future. There have been some incredible stories about the business savvy of the cartels, but about ten years ago when they realized that meth was going to be a big drug in the US, what they would do is actually, some of the cartels would send shipments of marijuana to their clients in the Mid-West, and they would send free samples of methamphetamine.
Werman: First taste is free, as they say.
Keefe: And in this instance I think that was actually literally the business strategy.
Werman: Patrick Radden Keefe of the New Yorker; we’ll link to your story about the years most outlandish drug stories from the drug war in Mexico. That will be at theworld.org.
Thank you very much.
Keefe: Thank you.
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