Every day the news from Mexico is worse: beheadings, bombings, kidnappings. Today another Mexican mayor kidnapped and killed. Last week another reporter dead in Juarez.
How did we get here? Terrence Poppa’s newly reissued book Drug Lord, which will come out next month, is a guide book, if you will, through the carnage and chaos.
“If you wish to be as ignorant and dishonest as your public officials when they mouth the pieties of the War on Drugs, then avoid this book at all costs,” warns writer Charles Bowden in the preface. Bowden, author of Murder City about Juarez, is well versed in the border region’s darker side.
On the other hand, if you want to know how the drug business works, why it works and why it will keep on working, then read this book.
The amount of detail and access Poppa gets to the drug world in Chihuahua is amazing. Especially his accounts of Ojinaga, a dusty outpost just across the river from Presidio. Ojinaga was Pablo Acosta’s “plaza” where he smuggled marijuana and heroin with impunity and later Colombian cocaine.
What Poppa found out about the drug kingpin back in the 80s would have got him killed today. Poppa, who worked for the El Paso Herald-Post at the time, pieced together the web of government corruption, greed and American demand for drugs that made Ojinaga kingpin Acosta a millionaire and ultimately led to his murder.
The book Drug Lord is 20 years old now, but it lays out the foundations of drug smuggling and government corruption under the old ruling power in Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. It explains why the corruption is so endemic. It also makes clear that it’s impossible for Mexico to win its drug war until the vast sums of drug money can be taken out of the equation.
The PRI was finally replaced in 2000, decoupling the government from the cartels. In 2010, under a new political party, Mexico is now in uncharted territory — fighting a drug war — with dark waters ahead.
These days, Poppa is living in the Northwest. After living with death threats for six years while reporting and writing the book in El Paso, which was first released in 1990, he says he’s had enough of chronicling the drug trade. “You can’t imagine the stress,” he says. “It gave me PTSD.” It also helped crack up his marriage, he says.
“I learned everything the hard way,” he says. “The PRI was a mafia out to make vast amounts of money using their power. The whole system was filled with opportunists.”
What kept him going was the bravery of ordinary Mexicans fighting to clean up their country of corruption and organized crime
They fought for decades using strikes, sit ins and other peaceful forms of protest until they finally prevailed and kicked the PRI out in 2000, he says.
It pains him to see all of the democratic progress of 2000 put on hold because of the escalating drug war. “The U.S. is sending $1.3 billion in its Plan Merida Initiative to counter $30 billion in annual drug proceeds,” he says. “Guess who wins.”
In a new epilogue to the third edition, Poppa warns of the escalating political crisis in Mexico spurred on by the multi-billion dollar illicit drug market.
There’s no way Mexico can win this war without the U.S. addressing drug prohibition. “The only way to end it is by taking the money out of drugs,” he says. “I don’t think the U.S. is ready to address it, though, and I don’t know how long Mexico can hang on.”
Parts of northern Mexico have already become “narco fiefdoms,” he says. “The drug money is just like a tsunami.”
By the end of the book Drug Lord, Pablo Acosta, almost seems more of a victim of the systemic corruption in Mexico brought down by greedy politicos and his nagging addiction to crack cocaine. The saddest thing about reading Drug Lord, though, is that the drug business back in the 80s seems quaint compared to the barbarity of today. And you have to ask: how much worse can it get?