David Ramirez on the Mexican-Guatemalan Border in 2005
During his 27 years in federal law enforcement, David Ramirez posed as a high level drug smuggler, nearly suffocated in a car trunk on an undercover assignment as an undocumented immigrant, and was shot at several times. As a rookie Border Patrol agent, he arrested Amado Carrillo Fuentes—later released by federal prosecutors—before he became the infamous “Lord of the Skies” and kingpin of the Juarez Cartel.
Luckily, Ramirez survived to tell us about it. In his new book “Beneath the Same Sky,” the 53-year-old Ramirez offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of federal law enforcement, and the lives of the men and women on the frontline of the war on drugs. His book presents narrative vignettes from his decades in the field first as a young Border Patrol agent patrolling the vast Big Bend region in the early 1980s, and later as part of an elite group of covert agents in the now defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services. In his final years, before retiring in 2009, Ramirez served as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Attache assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
Growing up in El Paso in a government housing project in the ’70s with Juarez as his backyard, Ramirez witnessed the ebb and flow of people and illegal drugs across the Rio Grande. Rejecting the gangster life, he joined the U.S. Border Patrol in 1982. He became a covert agent with the INS who traveled the world busting international criminal organizations. After the 9/11 attacks, his agency, INS, was dissolved and repurposed into U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the massive new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His focus became the war on terror, and he dismantled Middle Eastern smuggling rings and money laundering operations.
Ramirez began writing “Beneath the Same Sky” while he was stationed in Mexico City. The longer he fought the war on drugs, the more cyclical and hypocritical it seemed. Ramirez was proud of his service, but he’d been around long enough to see that despite 40 years battling the illegal drug market, the United States hadn’t made any significant headway. “Whatever we’re doing in this war on drugs it’s not working,” he says. “And it doesn’t mean that we have to stop doing what we took an oath to do; but the reality is that supply and demand is the bottom line.”
His book is an important testimony to border life, and to the men and women enmeshed in the quixotic “war on drugs.” Ramirez’s book, he says, was an exercise to help him find peace. Intermingled with the grittier law enforcement sections are lyrical, narrative sections in which he describes vivid sunsets and exotic locales he visited as an agent. He did this, he says, because he wanted to focus on the more positive aspects of life, which were so often eclipsed by his work. Now out of the game, Ramirez advises agents still in the field to not sacrifice everything to a war that can never be won.
“Clean up, wash off the soquete (mud) and move on with your real life. If you don’t, you will find that the drug culture coupled with the border life is but a cruel illusion, the true purgatory. … There has always been and will always be crime, dope smuggling and the money and death that comes with it. …We no longer much care about the top-echelon of the cartels nor keep score on the war on drugs. …we experienced it and we were fortunate to survive it.”
Texas Observer: What made you write this book, because it’s so rare to read about federal agents’ experiences in the field and about this world from the inside and it’s one of the great things about your book.
David Ramirez: First of all, my intent was never to write a book or publish. When I had some down time and I was in Mexico City … not knowing the city or the people there, I started writing little vignettes, just jotting down my thoughts and it was never meant to be shared. It was more for my benefit. And then an incident would happen similar to what I had experienced years back, and journalists like yourself or authors would comment on that particular incident, I would share with them incidents from the past that were replicating themselves, and it’s a cycle. So they (other writers) encouraged me to pursue it, to get it published but it was never intended as a book.
TO: So you never thought you’d write a book, you just started writing because you wanted to figure things out on the page — life as you were living it?
DR: I just started writing, whether to track what I had done or to track what the agency as a whole had done or track things that kept replicating themselves. In other words we weren’t learning from our experiences so I think that had a lot to do with it. But it was for my benefit and I don’t know whether you’re going to believe it because you’ve read the book, but I’m a very private person. A lot of those notes were personal thoughts and feelings. It was never meant as a political statement of any sort; that’s the life that I lived these years along the border, and take from it what you want but that’s what I lived.
TO: Did you have to get any kind of clearance from the Department of Homeland Security to talk about your work, and when you mention other agents names, did you talk to them about it first?
DR: Most of the agents I mention are close friends and the ones that I talked to didn’t have an issue with me naming them. Another thing being that I’d say 80 percent or more of the actual cases are public record; in other words there are indictments … there’s not anything that was not public information. The other thing [is] the agency that I wrote about for the most part has been abolished. I’d say 90 percent of what I wrote about is Immigration and Naturalization Services and that agency no longer exists. It’s been abolished so there was no need to ask permission to write public information or my thoughts on a specific case. As you can see, some of the more sensitive cases, which was when we were addressing 9-11 and the action that we took after 9-11 in Latin America; most of my vignettes don’t mention names, they mention the general scenario and … [they] include newspaper articles that highlight what I was talking about.
TO: So you actually arrested Amado Carrillo Fuentes way back when he was just getting started with the Juarez Cartel, what was that like?
DR: It was…at the time, you’re on high alert and you detain this individual and you try to get him prosecuted. At the time you could tell he was not your typical smuggler that you arrested every day; you could sense it. As a person – he was a personable guy and not until later did I find out who he was but you could tell the guy carried some weight. I would travel across the border to Ojinaga (Mexico) and I would see him there with the (Mexican) customs director, the immigration director and the state and local cops. So you knew that he carried some weight. He wasn’t somebody that just showed up one day, he had connections.
TO: And were you the only one who ever arrested him?
DR: That I know of, yes. My partner was there as well, we were the only two that ever encountered him, that ever had any interaction with him, and [he] was arrested on U.S. soil.
TO: So you started with U.S. Border Patrol first in 1982, at the age of 23 and then moved on to the INS. President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs back in 1971 and your life and career has basically spanned that war on drugs. So what did you learn from your experience on the front line fighting that war?
DR: Once again, the book was never intended as a political statement. But whatever we’re doing in this war on drugs it’s not working. And I’m not saying legalize drugs or give life sentences or chop off hands — I definitely don’t have an answer on how to fix it, but whatever we’re doing is not working and we need to regroup. And it doesn’t mean that we have to stop doing what we took an oath to do; I’m still doing it, but the reality is that supply and demand is the bottom line. That’s my point of view.
TO: The drug violence has gotten worse since the turn of the century. Why do you think it’s gotten worse?
DR: I think it’s gotten worse because … first of all we’re working it the same way we have been for 40 years. We know it’s not working, or that we have limited success and we keep taking the wrong approach. And of course we know the demand is stronger here in the states. It kind of reminds me of immigration back in the ‘70s and ‘80s – nobody took it seriously when in reality it’s homeland security, it’s border security, it’s counterterrorism efforts on protecting our borders. And then 9-11 happened. Before 9-11 we took it (immigration) so lackadaisically and that’s the same way we’re viewing drugs now. Eventually, it’s just going to progress until it blows up. It’s just going to get worse if we keep addressing it the way we’ve been addressing it for 40 years. There’s got to be deterrence and it’s not out there – whether you’re squeezing the demand through education, therapy or the deterrence of life in prison.
TO: There’s a lot of great scenes of you growing up in El Paso, in the barrio and right near the Rio Grande and you would see people passing through from Juarez, bringing cigarettes or whatever to sell in El Paso. So you pretty much grew up with people crossing back and forth illegally, trying to make a living – did it give you more empathy for the people that you were detaining when you were an agent?
DR: Not necessarily empathy because we all live and die by our decisions. You make your own decisions, so those people decided to smuggle rather than find a normal job, that was their decision. So I had no empathy for them. I could sympathize why they were doing it but I mean that was a decision they made – so it’s live and die by their decisions. We all do. For example, to me the concept of their own crooks (in Mexico) taxing their territories was nothing new because I saw it when I was in my early teens – they (Mexicans) went through — I say our because I lived there — our territory and they got taxed. So I understood that concept, when I was assigned as a diplomat in Mexico City with the state department. But many of our people couldn’t understand the concept of the Mexican drug traffickers taxing un “cobro de piso” to the alien smugglers. That lesson I learned when I was 12 or 13.
TO: Corruption is also a real problem on both sides of the border, right, which you tackle in your book. The amount of profits that are made from trafficking are so huge that I think you mentioned a U.S. border agent you knew who was offered $50,000 just to wave a car through at an international port of entry.
DR: That person who was offered $50,000 per wave was my brother and he came to me and we went to the proper investigative agency within his agency at the time and they wanted him to wear a wire and of course he wouldn’t because I told him he wasn’t going to because those people, even though they [were] a childhood friend they knew our entire family. So that individual was, I don’t know where he’s at now, but he was offering my brother $50,000 a wave and they guaranteed him five vehicles or five waves a week, so you’re talking a quarter of a million dollars a week. And then you’re talking an U.S. Customs inspector, not a high level [position], who had the potential of making a quarter million dollars a week.
TO: So the temptation then is huge for people who are offered that kind of money.
DR: Correct, because they’re not bribing you with a bottle of liquor or even a car; you’re talking a quarter of a mil a week, so I mean it’s not like they’re trying to tempt you. It’s blatantly telling you, “This is what you can make.”
TO: Was that the Juarez Cartel that made the offer?
DR: At the time, it was the Juarez Cartel. The cartels – I don’t know who came up with the term “cartels” but at the time it was just known as Amado’s trafficking organization.
TO: When you talk about your undercover work, it’s pretty amazing – I mean, you’re locked in a trunk, or you’re posing as a smuggler to bust some Chinese organized crime syndicate. How do you pull that off, making them believe you’re that person you’re pretending to be?
DR: First of all, getting myself in the trunk, I don’t pride myself on that. I call that more stupidity than anything else. I attribute it to where I grew up and how I grew up. I was able to play a believable role when I was dealing with significant crooks. Another thing was that I knew enough to know when I was over my head or it was too risky and I would back off. Because the crooks are going to be there forever, and even though we take dumb, silly risks when we’re doing undercover, I had to kind of acknowledge it’s just a job. We pour our heart and soul into it, but at the end of the day it’s just a job. And we can’t let it consume us completely – but to answer your question I think it was where I grew up and how I grew up that helped me. Plus at the time the people that grew up with me would vouch for me as well and say, even though they knew I was law enforcement, “yeah that guy’s a crook.”
TO: It’s interesting in the book how you juxtapose the scenes from your work with the more lyrical narrative sections where you’re traveling the world. And you and your girlfriend are eating really great food and you make your job sound pretty fantastic, because you’re in these really wonderful places like Costa Rica or Italy. So why did you choose to add these sections to the book?
DR: Once again, it was not intended as a book, so what I wrote about was life. Our lives are so consumed by the negative that we have to step back and say there’s more to life than the negative, and appreciate the little things like the shoe shine boy [in Guatemala] … and I don’t want to romanticize it but it’s life and we have to enjoy it and we get so consumed by the negative and that’s not what we’re here for. What I wrote down was there’s a beauty to life and we’ve got to live life, and not just the negative.
TO: Did it take you a long time to come to that realization or have you always had that outlook?
DR: No, I think as you get older you realize life goes by quick and you lose people that are close to you and dear to you and we’re too quick to take life for granted. And another thing that made me open my eyes was Latin America – people who savor life and look at life differently than we do in America. Not that Americans don’t, we value family dearly, but for some reason the work –the 9 to 5 — are not as important [in Latin America] as enjoying life. And for me, growing up in El Paso, Mexico was Juarez. And I when I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, I realized what a beautiful country Mexico was and that Juarez was not Mexico.
TO: What do you think about the course of things in Mexico now – it’s gotten so violent. What do you think the future holds in store for Mexico?
DR: Again, I don’t want to get too political, but I think that what the future holds for Mexico, a lot of it has to do with what the future holds for us Americans. Because it’s not like Mexico hits a switch and it’s done. They’ve been trying. I’m not just talking about the drug situation, even if the drugs leave there’s going to be corruption in their country as well as in ours. I think they’re trying to find a solution and it’s not happening; I really couldn’t tell you what the future holds, but I can tell you whatever the future holds for them it holds for us as well.
TO: I think you talk about this a little in the book, do you think we’re so focused on the Middle East that we sometimes don’t focus on Mexico and the rest of Latin America which is right next door to us?
DR: Definitely, but I think that’s the politics of the matter and for whatever reason that’s where the politicians want to put the focus on. Most Americans I would say, do not have that insight that you as a journalist, or I who have lived and traveled the border [have] – since it’s not affecting them personally it’s not their priority and I think it’s the same for politicians, since it’s not affecting them it’s not really a priority. I see it much like immigration was in the 70s and 80s, we should’ve jumped on it back then and we didn’t pay attention to it and now this is where we’re at; and now it’s the problem with drugs – we downplayed it or worked it the same way for 40 years and eventually something’s going to give.