While in Washington, DC, negotiations over a border wall remain at an impasse, a case is unfolding in a federal district courtroom in Brooklyn that casts President Trump’s ambition in a new light. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman stands accused of running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the United States. A veteran of two previous prison escapes, Chapo – the nickname means ‘shorty’ – was arrested in Sinaloa in 2016 and extradited to the US a year later. The trial has been both a master class in the logistics of running an illegal international organisation – in addition to its operations in the Americas, Sinaloa has a presence in more than a dozen countries in Africa and throughout Europe – and a detailed look at the way the US-Mexico border structures one of the world’s most lucrative businesses.
In the 1980s, Chapo commissioned a 200-foot underground tunnel that connected his lawyer’s home in the Mexican town of Agua Prieta to a cartel warehouse in Douglas, Arizona. Three decades later, he escaped from a maximum security prison through a tunnel that led straight to his cell. In 2011, only a few days after a sophisticated fence was completed along part of the Mexico-Arizona border, Sinaloa operatives showed up with a catapult to lob bales of marijuana into the US. When the US Coast Guard began seizing the go-fast boats that the cartel had been using, it shifted to tuna boats, which could travel farther into international waters to avoid detection. In 2008, a Sinaloa submarine was captured off the coast of Guatemala carrying 5896 kilos of cocaine.
Yet over 80 per cent of the drugs that cross the border, according to US government estimates, do so through legal checkpoints. Earlier this month, Vincente Zambada, the son of another cartel boss, Mayo Zambada, spent two days on the witness stand describing how the cartel would buy up to fifteen cars and build special compartments in them that could hold up to thirty kilos of cocaine. (This has been a preferred tactic for traffickers for over a century – during Prohibition, border patrol agents would rock cars back and forth to listen for sloshing liquor.) Sinaloa would hire people who lived on one side of the border and worked legally on the other, and have them use the cars to make multiple cross-border trips a day. Once in the US, shipments would be held in safehouses until new drivers came to pick them up. (One of Sinaloa’s US couriers, an 87-year-old professional flower hybridiser arrested in 2011, is the subject of Clint Eastwood’s most recent movie.) The drugs would be taken on by truck, often stashed between pallets of beef, vegetables or chicken. Money was moved back across the border using the same vehicles.
Edgar Ivan Galván, a US citizen and hapless low-level narco who testified after Zambada, said he met ‘El Jaguar’, a notoriously violent hitman, in a nightclub in Mexico. Jaguar convinced Galván to act as a testaferro, a frontman who could use his status as a US citizen to rent safehouses for the cartel in El Paso. According to Galván, Jaguar also bribed Mexican customs officials so he could smuggle guns into Mexico. A report last year found that as many as 70 per cent of the guns in Mexico came from the US.
After a back-and-forth between the defence and prosecution, the judge ruled that Chapo’s lawyers would not be allowed to discuss the scandal surrounding Operation Fast and Furious, a US government initiative in which officials allowed stores in Arizona to sell firearms to suspected smugglers in the hope they could follow their trail to cartel leaders. Of the more than 2000 guns sold under the programme between 2006 and 2011, fewer than half have been recovered, and more than 150 deaths have been linked to Fast and Furious weapons, some involving Sinaloa members.
For Sinaloa, free movement across the border relies on a variety of factors, including widespread corruption (Zambada testified that the organisation had a budget of $1 million a month to pay off police and government workers, not including bonuses and payments to high-ranking officials) and an elaborate network of contacts in the US. Much of the system dates back to the 1980s, when leaders of Tijuana’s Arellano Félix cartel ‘created a mystique around trafficking that lured the children of Tijuana’s wealthy elite into their employ as “narco-juniors”,’ as Nathan P. Jones writes in Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction. ‘They recruited attractive, affluent youths with dual citizenship because they could cross the border with minimal inspection.’
The public image of the narco as a sexy renegade with a bottomless bank account persists, and is perpetuated by pop culture and narcocorridos – pro-narco folk songs – that glorify their escapades. Despite a crackdown on both sides of the border over the past decade and a half, there’s little evidence that either supply or demand has been hampered. In 2012, after six years of President Felipe Calderon’s all-out war on the cartels, a UN study found that the street price of a gram of cocaine in the United States was the same as it had been in 2002.
Cartels continue to find avenues across the border because there is a robust American market for drugs, and money always finds a way. It’s also worth bearing in mind that much of the crime that Trump blames on Latin American migrants – drug trafficking, gang violence – has its origins in the US. The Mara Salvatrucha gang formed in Los Angeles; mass opium cultivation began in California before moving down to Mexico. As for the idea that criminals are clamouring to enter, most cartel leaders want to stay as far away from the border as possible. As Pablo Escobar once remarked, a grave in Colombia will always be preferable to a prison cell in the US.