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Happy Two Years In Hell, Jefe de Jefe

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Drug Lord's Demise Has Only Led to More Havoc in Mexico...Yet Marijuana Prohibition Stubbornly Rages On

It's hard to believe that it has already been two years since the dramatic killing of drug kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva, as it seemed like only yesterday when the ruthless Jefe de Jefe (or boss of bosses) was gunned down by marines in Cuernavaca, Morelos -- some 50 miles south of Mexico City. Being a former special agent with the U.S. government who worked drug investigations along the Mexican border during a slice of Arturo's prime, I found myself reminiscing some over the capo's last stand recently -- as the two year anniversary of his death passed on December 16, 2011.

I'm curious what Arturo Beltran might think today, if he had the chance to look up from hell and catch a glimpse of the escalated narco war. Who knows for certain, but there's no doubt that he'd be furious to see former friend turned fiercest foe -- Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman -- still roaming free and insulated from President Calderon's reach. (Officials in Mexico have made miniscule efforts at nabbing the renowned overlord of the Sinaloa conglomerate since he escaped from prison back in 2001 -- yet the days of ignoring Joaquin Guzman might be short lived, considering El Chapo's notoriety and phenomenon are seemingly growing by the minute).

Not only would Arturo Beltran be bitter over his rival's unchanged "untouchable" status, he'd also be disgusted to learn the fate of his own drug trafficking empire, as the once powerful Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) that he molded has been crippled into nothing more than a fragmented band of brothers, with no realistic chance of survival (as a legit and competitive drug trafficking entity) if it weren't for a forged alliance with Los Zetas. This has especially been the case since the captures of key BLO lieutenants, Sergio Villarreal Barragan and Edgar Valdez Villarreal (or El Grande and La Barbie per their corny cartel monikers). In reality though, these equally ambitious inner-operatives parted ways instantly upon their boss's death. Believing Barbie to have been Arturo's betrayer, Grande swiftly aligned himself with younger brother Hector Beltran Leyva -- who is the leader of today's splintered BLO (now known mostly as Cartel del Pacifico Sur or Los Mazatlecos).

Getting back to the dead capo's short lived resurrection; after taking in the increased death toll from the past couple of years, Arturo would probably just curse his betrayers and then return to the flames -- knowing full well that the place he's in isn't much worse than the one he left two years ago. The drug lord's killing is significant to me for an array of reasons, but mainly because it's the most vivid event that opened my eyes to the federal government's failed and wasted war on drugs, especially pertaining to the stagnated and archaic prohibition of marijuana -- and it wasn't necessarily his death that triggered it for me, but rather the ironic timing of it.

December 2009 was a whirlwind month, I had literally just returned to Washington D.C., after having worked on the border for several months. I'd been a criminal investigator with Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who volunteered for a temporary duty assignment in the southwest -- ultimately landing on the Border Enforcement Security Taskforce in Laredo, Texas. Most of the taskforce's investigations were focused on preventing money and guns from being smuggled south of the border into the hands of Mexican cartels (excluding the firearms from Fast and Furious type operations, obviously). Looking back now, I can't recall how many millions of dollars were seized from narco traffickers while I was there, but much of it was destined for awaiting Beltran Leyva leadership below the Rio Grande -- and probably 70 percent of that was cash money being sent back as payment for marijuana loads that had already been trucked up north into the United States via Interstate 35.

It's well known that Los Zetas (under the leadership of Miguel Trevino Morales, or Z40), are the primary gatekeepers of the corridors that bridge Laredo, Texas with her sister city Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, Mexico -- but Arturo Beltran was a close ally at the time and his presence in the region was profound. He initially partnered with the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas at the beginning of 2008, after exiling from Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel. The divorce between Beltran Leyva and Guzman was apparently triggered after Chapo instigated the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva -- a cockier younger brother of Arturo who was becoming overtly unruly and ambitious. Guzman's decision to drop a dime on Alfredo was most likely an attempt to reign in the wandering influence of the Beltran Leyva family, but with the spider web of deceit that is the narco underworld, the betrayal could've also been a simple offering that maximized even more protection and immunity for Chapo himself. Either way, Alfredo's arrest on January 20, 2008, sparked a full blown civil war between opposing loyalists in Sinaloa -- which is Mexico's most notorious drug trafficking state. The fallout violence soon peaked in northwestern Mexico as a result of the inner Sinaloa clash, most notably after a group of Arturo's gunmen carried out the bazooka wielding assassination of Chapo Guzman's 22-year-old son, Edgar Guzman Lopez, in the parking lot of a Culiacan supermarket on May 8, 2008.

It is easy to sidetrack and drift astray when it comes to the intricacies and minutia of the ever-evolving drug war, but for all of the aforementioned reasons my mind stayed finely tuned on Mexico's plight -- even after I completed my tour on the southwest border and returned home to Alexandria, Virginia. Needless to say, I was initially floored to learn the fate of Arturo Beltran when I first turned on the news on December 17, 2009, and it was almost surreal to witness the amount of mainstream coverage that was being devoted to the relatively obscure capo. The grizzly realities that are common place in Mexico are often excluded from national news outlets here in the U.S., though to this day I can't quite wrap my head around why -- considering that this chaos is taking place in our own backyard. In any regard, being a halfway seasoned criminal investigator and all -- it didn't take long to see past the facade and understand why this particular story was getting so much attention from the media. Arturo Beltran was the highest ranking narco to be "immobilized" since President Calderon declared an all-out war against drug traffickers in December 2006, and with the violence continuing to mount in late 2009, both the Mexican government and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were jonesing at the bit for positive scraps to feed to the press.

For anyone unfamiliar with the blaze of glory that transpired on December 16, 2009, Arturo Beltran was hiding out with a handful of trusted bodyguards in an apartment in the trendy city of Cuernavaca -- which again is about an hour's drive south of the Federal District (Mexico City). He'd been speeding on cocaine and on the lam for the past week, ever since having eluded marines from Mexico's Navy (SEMAR) on December 11th. Arturo escaped the first raid thanks mostly to luck and loyalty, as his freedom came at the expense of three bodyguards who were gunned down during the operation -- meanwhile 11 more were apprehended which freed up enough time for the capo to slip through the cracks. The subsequent manhunt consisted of approximately 200 special ops marines from SEMAR, and their tool belt now included air and artillery support. Obviously no amount of luck or loyalty could've saved Beltran from the jam he was barricaded in this second go-round. Perhaps he could've turned himself in, assuming surrendering was even an option to begin with, but the Jefe de Jefe was old-school and probably dreamt of going out with this sort of legacy.

The marines from SEMAR are elite naval commandos, and they're regarded and respected similarly to that of Special Forces outfits here in the United States. Due to their prominence, the amphibious unit is one of the most incorruptible military forces in Mexico, which is why they're so highly prized when it comes to hunting down infamous kingpins (many of whom with eyes and ears "bought" at the highest levels of government to ensure their protection). Coincidentally, Arturo Beltran will probably go down as one of Mexico's most influential puppet masters when it comes to his skill of persuasion. One of his biggest catches was Noe Ramirez Mandujano, the former head of SIEDO, which is the primary investigative division within Mexico's Office of the Attorney General. At one point Ramirez was bribed to the tune of $450,000 a month for providing the Beltran Leyva clan with information related to the government's movements against drug trafficking groups.

Getting back to the operation from December 16, 2009 (and to make a long story short), acting on intelligence from the U.S. government, SEMAR forces made their move against Arturo Beltran with stealth -- taking no chance of another embarrassing miss. Approximately 100 troops secured the perimeter from the ground, while dozens more repelled to the apartment rooftops from helicopters. Witnesses stated that gunfire droned the upscale community for 90 minutes or so, as the military systematically gunned down Arturo's remaining patriots (one of which was rumored to have been shot in the back mid-air after desperately throwing himself from a top window). Arturo Beltran then sealed his own legacy as he absorbed multiple fatal rounds while collapsing to his knees (apparently with a machine gun in one hand and a grenade pin in the other). When the dust finally cleared, the lifeless bodies of Arturo and six body guards littered the complex grounds. Meanwhile the military suffered one casualty of their own, after a marine succumbed to wounds from a grenade blast.

After the assault was over, some of the troops made a costly mistake by taking trophy photos of Beltran's mangled body covered in bloody pesos and dollar bills. Posing for pics with their catch might have provided some temporary amusement, but their arrogance only fueled the flames more -- as it rubbed the "Don's" death into the faces of his many payroll loyalists. Another senseless and consequential decision made by the authorities was to release the name of the marine who was killed to the press. Melquisedet Angulo Cordova had been a third petty officer with the Navy Special Forces when he died from grenade fragments during the operation. His funeral was held five days later and he was buried with the highest of military honors in his home state of Tabasco. During the ceremony, his mother was presented with a folded flag from the Secretary of the Navy, Mariano Francisco Saynez Mendoza.

Later on that evening, at just a little past midnight and only hours after the funeral, a caravan of gunmen stormed inside the Cordova residence and fired nearly three dozen rounds into the sleeping occupants (killing everyone inside). Sadly this included Angulo's brother, sister, aunt, and most tragic of all -- his mother, Irma Palma Cordova. In a statement to a reporter the previous day, Irma had said: "Thinking as a mother, I used to feel very sad and hurt for the families of soldiers and police who had been killed. It would make me cry," she said. "And now, now it is my turn."

-- rest in peace Miss Irma, and thankfully you didn't have to cry for too long.

This tragedy resonated with me for some reason, and it's actually hard to pinpoint and put into words. Whenever I think about the ill-begotten drug war today, I can't keep this horrific scenario from entering my mind. And even though I've seen hundreds of images with mutilated corpses (literally stacked limb upon limb most of the times), it will always be the Cordova story that gives me the biggest kick in the ass to advocate against drug prohibition. It was primarily this event -- rather than the death of Arturo Beltran -- that fully opened my eyes to the atrocity that is cloaked as "the war on drugs". These are the types of demonic happenings that occur routinely in Mexico as a result of the U.S.'s murderous drug policies, yet coincidentally these stories aren't blasted across every major news outlet like the fall of a prominent drug lord (i.e. Arturo Beltran Leyva, Ignacio Coronel, Antonio Cardenas Guillen, etc.). The Cordova's died in vain, as have tens of thousands of innocents who've suffered the same fate as a result of prohibition's deadly futility. How many of these lives could have been saved if marijuana alone had been previously legalized in the United States? Who knows for sure, but a calculated guess could be made from the fact that at least 50 percent of cartels' profits are derived from planting, harvesting, and smuggling cannabis northbound to consumers in the United States.

By the way, the capo's funeral wasn't much different than the decorated marine's, except Arturo's occurred a day earlier and it was held at the Humaya Gardens Cemetery in Culician, Sinaloa. This cemetery is where Sinaloa's most elite Dons are laid to rest. Many of the mausoleums within this narco paradise are multi-storied, and made out of gold and marble to honor the idolized crime barons. Arturo Beltran's family crypt was awaiting him ahead of time, and his funeral was actually smaller and less gaudy than expected. While there were several female relatives and admirers there for his support, most of the males in his court stayed at home and paid their respects privately -- versus confronting the barrage of media and military who filled the magnified cemetery.

To put Arturo Beltran's killing into perspective, the DEA practically hailed his death to be greater than anything since sliced bread (though that wasn't their exact choice of words). Just a short while after the operation, the DEA's intelligence chief -- Anthony Placido stated: "Nobody left out there has the extensive contacts that Arturo had. He moved thousands of metric tons of drugs into the United States, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin," Placido said. "In addition to that ... he is responsible for much of the violence in Mexico. Arturo Beltran Leyva wasn't a big fish. He was a whale."

Though frustrating, I can't help but brush off some of those comments. For starters, I'm in awe that he actually said there wasn't anyone left out there with the extensive contacts that Arturo Beltran had. Secondly, I'm bewildered by the fact that marijuana is completely left out of the equation. Revenues from marijuana smuggling produce the majority of capital for Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and in the case of the Beltran Leyva Organization, I witnessed it firsthand. Yes, Arturo had plenty of contacts in the South American Andes, and for sure cocaine earned his organization boat loads of cash -- but the coca plant played second fiddle to cannabis sativa as it nearly always does with the cartels in Mexico. Yet this DEA executive is reluctant to utter the "M" word, perhaps out of fear that mainstream America might soon wake up to the role that marijuana prohibition is having in the killing games being played out below the Rio Grande.

The point of this article is to ask where we are now after eliminating a handful of key players south of the border: Do these anomaly killings do any real good in the long run? Of course not, and if anything these actions just make things worse as younger generations begin cannibalizing one another for the top spot. In the long-run, cutting the head off the snake proves deadlier in the end, and creates an environment that is even less stable. This point is perfectly illustrated in the fine points of a recently leaked memo from Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The memo consisted of a CBP analysis that measured the variances of narcotics seizures along the border in relation to the arrests or killings of significant cartel figureheads. The findings were crystal clear, and they revealed that removing high level narcos has absolutely no bearing on drug seizure rates. This begs the question then, if removing critical targets proves to accomplish nothing when it comes to interrupting the flow of narcotics -- then what will it take for the violence to subside? Drug consumption in the United States won't ever be eliminated, especially when it comes to marijuana -- as studies consistently show an increase in the number of Americans using cannabis. Also, the birth rates in Mexico aren't dropping any time soon, and neither are the country's economic hardships. This can only mean that there will be even longer lines of ambitious killers waiting to fill the opportunistic voids that come with dismantling cartels from the top down. This is a terrifying phenomenon considering the morbid grotesqueness of Mexico's narco violence seems to sink to new lows with each replenished generation -- also the gender barriers of old that once segregated females from having active roles in the tortures and killings have diminished today as well.

Going back to the economic hardships for a second, it is plainly evident that poverty is not what is causing the root problem in Mexico, as there are numerous poor and rural communities living in relative harmony there (and across the rest of the world for that matter). Rather, the problem stems from a lethally competitive -- multi-billion dollar illicit industry that is constantly tempting and staring into the faces of millions of disillusioned youths. I'm far from being any type of sociologist, but it seems that the profitability of the drug trade, mixed with a sickening obsession of the narco culture in general, is what's mostly responsible for Mexico's present insecurity. And again being someone who has worked on the permeable border, I know firsthand that any hardships facing Mexico aren't solely restricted to that country. The wisest and really only solution left at this point is to eliminate any and all opportunities to prosper from an industry as evil as the illegal drug trade. It is pure common sense to many of us I know, but there are still several opponents who think that legalizing drugs won't change anything as far as the violence goes -- as there will still be human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, oil theft, auto theft, piracy, and counterfeiting for the cartels to fall back on. However I'd place a decent wager on the fact that authorities in Mexico would be much more proficient at ridding their nation of these types of scoundrels if all of their drug interdiction time was freed up. Even still, I'd place a heftier bet on the fact that opportunities from drug trafficking (again mostly marijuana) led the majority of these same scoundrels into criminal enterprising in the first place. But maybe that's just my take.

Jamie Haase, a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, served as a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.