As millions of marijuana legalization advocates celebrated the renowned 4/20 holiday last month, it's likely that many of them didn't think twice about the violence and carnage that's intensifying south of the U.S. border. Instead, they were probably more focused on the federal government's recent crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries. While it's often hard to blame Americans for overlooking the bloodshed below the border (mainly because what's out of sight is usually out of mind), we can't continue to ignore the 50,000 plus lives that our neighbor to the south has lost in just five years as a result of our destructive drug laws.
As a representative for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), and a former special agent for the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Atlanta on April 20 to help spread the word about the dangers of marijuana prohibition. It was the city's fifth Capitol Cannabis Reform Jam, which is quickly becoming a flagship rally for many overlooked marijuana reformers in the southeast.
Coincidentally, it was during another trip through Atlanta when I was reminded of the dire situation below the border -- after crossing paths with a Latino individual at a gas station. He appeared to be a migrant worker, probably no more than seventeen at the most, and his muddy work boots indicated that he was most likely en route to a jobsite. There was nothing really out of the ordinary, but as I stood there in line behind him, I couldn't help but wonder where this kid's journey began. And more specifically, what nightmares he might've had to endure to get here. It took me a second to realize why I was analyzing this particular person the way I was, but then I recalled the disturbing testimony that I'd read the previous evening.
Jason Buch, a reporter from the San Antonio Express-News, has been writing a series of articles about an ongoing case from Laredo, Texas -- and his story from January 19 offered some of the grisliest realities to date concerning America's bloody backyard narco war. The article centered on testimony from confessed killer and former cartel assassin Wenceslao Tovar, and the atrocities that the defendant described in the Texas court revealed a whole new dimension of horror and savagery behind this unwinnable battle.
(Tovar's former stomping ground in Laredo is a place that I'm familiar with. I worked as a federal agent there in 2009, after the Obama administration finally responded to Mexico's crisis by deploying more resources from HSI to hotspots along the southern border.)
Prior to being confined to a wheelchair, U.S. citizen Tovar had been a smuggler and a hired hit-man for Los Zetas. This organization is undeniably Mexico's most brutal drug cartel, and their most prized and lucrative hub is the strategic border town of Nuevo Laredo (which is just a stone's throw across the river from Laredo, Texas). According to Tovar, his work intersected between these sister cities regularly -- in fact, one of the charges that he now faces stems from a murder that he committed on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. It was a typical hit, ordered against a Zeta turncoat who jumped ship and went to work for a rival trafficker in the United States.
But it wasn't Tovar's involvement in the killing of a rival that was most alarming about his testimony, since opposing narco cells are constantly waging war and chopping each other up. Rather, the shocker came in the defendant's jaw-dropping firsthand accounts of the secretive Zeta death camps that he'd been privy to. According to Tovar, the purpose of the veiled camps was to desensitize the new recruits, mainly in an effort to get the "fresh meat" accustomed to butchering for a living.
"They would show new recruits how to kill," testified Wenceslao Tovar, 26, an admitted Zetas sicario, or hit man. "They would give them a machete. If not, they'd give them a sledge hammer and they'd tell them to kill the people they had tied up."
"Those who successfully completed the training were treated to a party that included a raffle with winners getting watches, vehicles and cash," Tovar said.
Those who couldn't kill were made halcones, the Spanish word for "hawks," used to describe cartel lookouts, he said.
The bound-and-tied-up people that Tovar is referring to are not murderous thugs with blood on their hands; rather, they are mostly innocent migrants who'd been intercepted on their journey through northern Mexico (for no other reason than to be killed for demonic sport).
I actually recall hearing whispers from Laredo locals about random and motiveless killings taking place across the river in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, but I took most of those urban-legend-like accounts with a grain of salt back then (mainly because none of the monstrous burial grounds had shown up on the scene yet).
The first significant find that really captured headlines was the August 24, 2010, discovery of 72 bodies at a ranch near San Fernando, Tamaulipas -- which is only about an 85 mile hop, skip, and jump south of spring break haven South Padre Island. The victims in this case were migrants from South and Central America, and the killers apparently hadn't had enough time to bury the remains of the 58 men and 14 women yet. Instead, the battered corpses were found simply stacked and piled on top of one another. Mexican officials caught wind of this morbid and makeshift mortuary after an Ecuadorian migrant managed to escape and reach assistance -- after frantically running for his life with a bullet wound in his neck.
It was eight months later, in April 2011, when some of the bigger and record-setting cadaver discoveries began churning up, not only in bordering Tamaulipas, but further west in the mountainous state of Durango as well. The shallow pitted graves from Tamaulipas alone topped out at around 183 bodies, and authorities have indicated that blunt trauma to the head and incineration were the primary causes of death with these nameless victims. Sadly, this represents just a handful of the unknown remains that backhoes have rudimentarily unearthed since the drug war began in December 2006. According to Mexico City's Reforma newspaper, there have been a total of 737 bodies recovered from 157 clandestine graves in the past five years. This number is only as of April 2011, not taking into account many of the more recent excavations.
The coincidental discovery this past week of 49 mutilated bodies brings even fresher light to the collateral damage taking place in Mexico. Early speculation suggests that these individuals were also probable migrants, since there were no substantial reports of missing persons in the days prior. The headless corpses -- many with their hands and feet sawed off -- were found between Monterrey and the U.S. border. Los Zetas are suspected to be responsible for this "Mother's Day" massacre, as the cartel is in a fierce struggle against rival allied Gulf and Sinaloa organizations. This investigation is still in its preliminary stages with more updates to come.
What is happening to these helpless migrant bystanders (or the U.S.'s everyday landscaper, grass cutter, vegetable/fruit picker, construction worker, etc.) is wretched, wicked, and sickening to the stomach. The Greyhound style buses are cramped with hopefuls from Latin America, and the only thing that's on their minds is reaching American soil safely. Yet their existences are unfairly and unjustly halted on the drop of a dime, as the buses they're traveling aboard are diverted by dirty cops who are on the payroll of Los Zetas. It is impossible to grasp all of the nightmares that these individuals endure from this point on in their lives, but the passengers who are killed on the spot are assuredly the "luckier" ones. Most aren't so fortunate though, and instead are removed from the buses with the dreadful sense of unknowing.
As far as the culpability of the cops goes, it's likely that most of them involved had already been paid off for their allegiance and loyalty to the Zetas, no matter what future deeds that entails. And there's no turning back after selling your soul to the devil, unless of course you want to be the one who winds up on the chopping block. It's certainly not an excuse for the cops, but I would imagine that this predicament is unavoidable for many police officers in Mexico, being that the country has corruptly operated on the silver or lead system of "Plata o Ploma" for decades now (i.e. take the money or take a bullet).
Also, Tovar isn't the only person who has come forward with accounts of the Zeta slaughterhouse ranches either; another narco smuggler provided a similar description to Dane Schiller of the Houston Chronicle. This self-admitted Zeta referred to himself only as Juan, and his version of the events played out like this:
The elderly are killed. Women raped. And able-bodied men are given hammers, machetes and sticks and forced to fight to the death. "They cut guys to pieces," Juan said.
This information was provided in June 2011, and while this account varies somewhat from Tovar's depiction, the end result is pretty much the same. Juan's revelations are most likely referring to the fate of the bus passengers who were kidnapped just last year in San Fernando, whereas Tovar's references are from events that evidently took place in 2005. At this stage in the raging war, no one knows for sure about any of the exact details. Experts and historians haven't had a chance yet to meticulously analyze everything over and over again, but what we do know is that scores of migrant passengers are missing, hundreds of skeletons have been removed from the ground (with blunt trauma induced injuries), and two former cartel members have come forward and indicated that people are being slaughtered in this fashion. Did Zeta recruits kill these migrants, or were they forced to kill each other just in order to save their own lives? It's uncertain, but I'd venture to say that probably all of the above went down, including some more hell that none of us will ever know -- nor would ever want to know. Secrets that will remain indefinitely in the San Fernando soil.
The cause and effect relationship between marijuana and the doomsday-like bloodshed below us cannot be emphasized enough. And actually that's not a fair statement, because again it isn't a natural and organic plant that is causing the violence, rather it's the caustic prohibition of the substance that is responsible for the damage.
Of course this commodity isn't the sole driving force behind the violence, but it is single-handedly the number one cash crop for all of Mexico's cartels today (by a long shot). Yet, at the same time, more than 50 percent of Americans openly support the all-out legalization of marijuana, according to Gallup, while 80 percent believe it should be made legal for medical purposes. Meanwhile, the deaths in Mexico from marijuana prohibition and the futile DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries here at home keep simultaneously mounting in stride.
According to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), revenues generated from marijuana account for roughly 60 percent of the total income of the cartels, and I would argue that the figure is even higher when it comes to case of Los Zetas. Law enforcement officials in the United States have stated that no other cartel has the international cocaine distribution networks that the Sinaloa federation does, which is not only the largest cartel in Mexico today, but also the biggest opposition to the Zetas. This is a direct implication that Los Zetas are even more reliant on marijuana revenues than their competitors, and again they're by far the most ruthless and violent drug organization to date -- as well as the ones who are responsible for maiming so many innocents out of pure spite.
The fact that the prohibition of cannabis is fueling the majority of the sadism taking place below our border is repulsive to me; and what is arguably the most frustrating of all, is the fact that we have a sitting president here in the United States who won't seriously address the topic.
President Obama's YouTube and Google interview from January 30 is a perfect example of Washington's stubbornness when it comes to addressing the need to enact drug reform. After voters submitted their questions to the websites, 18 of the top 20 submissions were related to marijuana and the war on drugs, and the number one voted video question for President Obama was from LEAP Board member and former LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing:
Mr. President, my name is Stephen Downing, and I'm a retired deputy chief of police from the Los Angeles Police Department. From my 20 years of experience, I have come to see our country's drug policies as a failure and a complete waste of criminal justice resources.
According to the Gallup poll, the number of Americans who support legalizing and regulating marijuana now outnumbers those who support continuing prohibition. What do you say to this growing voter constituency that wants more changes to drug policy than you have delivered in your first term?
The question from the former law enforcement executive was ignored and disregarded by the president (and the websites), but the government can't continue to brush off people like Downing forever. Hopefully this war and its wasteful resources is on the decline and nearing an end soon. Realistically, who knows for sure how many tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost because of marijuana's illegality. And this doesn't even account for the people who've already rotted -- and are still rotting away in prison as a result of the substance's ban. Yet for now, politicians continue to either wear "earmuffs" whenever legalization is brought up, or they simply smirk off the subject of marijuana entirely (as if there's something funny and amusing about it). But it's no laughing matter, because the prohibition of marijuana is without a doubt one of America's greatest sins.
In conclusion, and to go back to the kid that I saw recently at the Atlanta gas station, I want to urge folks that the next time they see a "typical" undocumented worker at their local 7-Eleven or convenience store -- take a deeper look at them for a few seconds. You never know what travesties they might've endured to get here, and who knows how many loved ones they may have lost on that trail of tears. Yet, I would advise against staring too hard, because that same individual just might be one of those aforementioned Zetas who take such joy in killing -- as it's nearly impossible to differentiate between a ruthless narco killer and an innocent migrant worker (especially when they're wearing a construction outfit for a disguise).
Jamie Haase, a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, served as a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.