On the 19th of January, 2001, the head of Mexico's largest drug cartel escaped from his maximum security prison. According to Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloas cartel, was escorted through the prison dressed as a government official – accompanied by conspiring government officers – and out to a helicopter that flew him to freedom. The official government report claims that El Chapo escaped in a laundry bin, which – given he's only 5 foot 5 inches and looks like Super Mario – seems plausible and yet also slightly unlikely.
If what Hernandez found while researching Guzmán's escape is true, it's pretty much the pinnacle of the government corruption that has accommodated and aided Mexico's drug cartels throughout their long and bloody grip over the country.
Hernandez was looking into El Chapo's escape as part of the five-year-long research for her new book Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, which investigates the Mexican government and business elite's ties to the country's drug cartels. In the book, she claims that ex-president Vicente Fox started the war between Mexico's cartels, and that – since El Chapo's release – the government has continued to conspire with the Sinaloa cartel, allowing the web of corruption that keeps Mexico's cartels thriving to keep on growing.
We spoke to Anabel earlier this year after another discovery led to the Mexican chief of police allegedly instructing his men to make her disappear by any means necessary. Now that her book has had its English-language release, I thought I'd get in touch again to talk about the discoveries Anabel made while investigating the Mexican government's complicity in their country's drug trade.
Ex-Mexican president Vicente Fox. (Photo via)
VICE: Hi Anabel. How would you describe the Mexican government’s war on drugs?
Anabel Hernandez: Ever since the 1960s in Mexico, the war on drugs has been fake – it has never existed. In the 60s, the federal government provided protection to all the cartels, letting them grow and continue their business while they paid money to the government. It wasn’t a bribe, it was like a tax; the Mexican government used that money for government projects. So, in the 80s and 90s, these medium-sized drug cartels and criminal organisations started to grow with the money from the cocaine. Mexico started to increase the scale of the cocaine that came from Colombia, then the Mexican cartels moved that drug into the USA.
Okay, so then what happened?
[The cartels] said, "Well, we don’t want to make an arrangement with the government – we don’t like the government telling us what we can do and what we can't." So, instead, they paid bribes to members of the government and the government started to lose control over the cartels. The cartels started to buy judges and congressmen, started to buy governors, police chiefs and generals, and started to create their own world, on their terms.
Are there any events you came across in your research that really summarise the level of corruption in Mexico?
In January of 2001, something happened that changed the drug cartel game: the federal government helped El Chapo to get out of jail. So in that moment, the federal government started to protect just one cartel and fight against the others, which is when the war between the cartels started. Before that, Mexico was a relatively peaceful place. So it was [then-president] Vicente Fox who really started the cartel wars. His government wanted to take the Gulf Cartel's territory and let the Sinaloa Cartel keep it.
Is it fair to say that Fox knew about all of the corruption?
Yes. I can say that because the general prosecutor has all the testimonies. His government had the testimonies that said it was happening. He can’t say it was a surprise because his general prosecutor knew it. His government has a paper that proves it.
Do you think it'll ever be possible to rid the corruption when it’s so embedded within the political system?
Well, what I've learned in this investigation is that corruption in Mexico works from the top to the bottom, not from the bottom to the top. If the government really wants to clean the state, they have to put the top people in jail. We have the chief of police, and you have hundreds of police under him. If he is honest, these police will be honest. If he is corrupt, these police will be corrupt. The sad thing is that everyone [involved] wins with corruption, so no one really wants to clean the state.
The DEA's wanted poster for Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán
Historically, didn't the CIA allegedly help the Mexican cartels rise to power, too?
Nicaragua started to become a communist country at the end of the 70s, so the Reagan government decided they couldn’t let it grow. They had Cuba and they didn't want something else, so they asked Congress to give them money to fund a group of rebels, called the Contras, to fight against the communist Nicaraguan government. [After Congress support for this was removed], the CIA made a deal with drugs lords – the US government opened their doors to let the cocaine inside the country, but the condition was that [the cartels] had to use part of that money to support the Contras. There is something inside my head that asks me, 'If the US government did it once, how can we be sure that this is not happening now?'
When El Chapo escaped prison, what did people believe at the time – the "official" version about him escaping in a laundry cart?
When the president and his wife received the news [of the escape], some guys who work for him said, “Sir, that can’t be possible.” Because this prison was built really well. I mean, it wasn’t a joke – it really was maximum security. This prison has sensors even in the laundry carts – this prison has sensors everywhere – and automatic doors. It wasn’t possible. One guy said to the president, “Sir, I was involved in the construction of that prison and I know that this is not possible – someone is lying to you.” And the president said, “Be quiet.”
And the people of Mexico?
I think that society really believes that El Chapo escaped in a laundry cart. If you ask the Mexican people, of course they believe the official version. Also, many journalists in the world believe and repeat that official version, but that’s because they haven’t had access to the official documents that I have.
Your book describes the luxury that El Chapo enjoyed in prison. Tell me about that.
He received money at prison, so he could bribe the bottom level of staff. Then, eventually, he had the director of Puente Grande [the maximum security prison] in his pocket. In the official file about his escape that I have, I read that the director participated in parties that El Chapo organised inside the prison – Christmas parties that lasted five days. He invited his family in, like a luxury hotel. He asked for food from outside, he could put Christmas decorations all over the prison, he invited groups to perform music, he ordered his cell to be painted a different colour. He really was able to do whatever he wanted to in jail.
Wow. And the prostitutes?
He was a sick man – he has a sex addiction. The director let prostitutes into the prison to be with him almost all the time, but when he needed something urgent, he took the jail's female workers. He was able to do whatever he wanted.
Z-40, who led Los Zetas cartel before being captured recently.
Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales – AKA Z-40, the leader of Los Zetas – was captured recently. Will that change anything in the war?
The sad things is that it doesn’t matter. Los Zetas has a structure where, even if the leader is murdered, it doesn’t matter because there's always someone to take his place. When the Mexican government caught El Chapo and put him in jail, they never confiscated his money. They never do it – their properties, their money – never. So who cares if he’s still in jail if the money is still driving their cartel?
True. Other cartel leaders have "disappeared" or "died", suspected of quitting the drug game and retiring with their fortunes. Do you think El Chapo will do that soon?
Well, I think El Chapo is currently too important for the drugs market. He’s a symbol of establishment – he really controls the business. He’s important for the drug business because he [creates trust] for the people who are involved, for the Colombians who are producing the cocaine. He makes the business stable.
So I really don’t know what will happen there, but I’m sure nobody really wants to catch him. Neither the Mexican government or the US government want to catch him. His wife’s daughters were born in the USA, and people say he was there in California with them. Who really wants to catch him if he can really be where he wants to be?
And what about you? Will you continue reporting on Mexico's drugs war?
I really think it’s necessary. Right now in Mexico, there’s censorship – many journalists and media sources don’t want to say some things. The media receives too much advertising money from the government, but I think there are still many journalists in Mexico – not just me – who want to keep fighting for freedom of speech, because society needs information. If society doesn’t know the truth about what's happening, who will resolve this mess? I really think society has enough power to change all this, but first they have to know what's happening.
Thanks, Anabel. Good luck.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements
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