Award winning investigative journalist Anabel Hernández explains that you can’t say that there’s a “war on drugs” in Mexico, since the government is part of the drug cartels. The cartels control many areas of the government, and many areas of the country, and the government just pretends to fight them.
As Drug Cartels Threaten Her Life, Mexico’s Most Dangerous Journalist Uncovers More Dark Truths
Substance: May 12, 2014
The Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández is recognized worldwide as one of the most important reporters on the War on Drugs. Over two decades, she has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. And just over a week ago, Reporters Without Borders placed Hernández on its list of “100 Information Heroes,” created to pay tribute to “the courage of the journalists and bloggers who constantly sacrifice their safety and sometimes their lives to their vocation.”
Hernández’s life has been at risk since she published Los Señores del Narco in 2010. The book—released in English last fall as Narcoland—breaks with conventional narratives of the “drug war,” which pit the Mexican government against drug traffickers. With unprecedented access to sources and tireless study of documents, Hernández instead makes the ironclad case that the war is a sham, its aims “limited to protecting the Sinaloa cartel.” The book exposes the intricate ties between Mexico’s leading drug traffickers and the leadership of the Mexican state. Published in 2010 to explosive effect, Narcoland remains one of the most widely read books in Mexico.
Since 2011, Hernández and her family have been the target of an escalating series of violent assaults. She has found decapitated animals on her doorstep. Gunmen attacked a family gathering. Last December about a dozen unidentified men armed with AK-47s invaded her house in Mexico City, terrorizing neighbors and injuring one of her bodyguards. She was lucky not to be home then, but the threats against Mexican journalists are deadly serious: Scores have been killed with impunity since 2000. Hernández’s courage, and her deep understanding—the product of years of relentless reporting—of the “drug war,” make hers an essential voice, one we ignore at our peril.
Nick Alexandrov: How did you begin covering the drug cartels?
Anabel Hernández: I’ve been a journalist since 1993, when the newspaper Reforma was founded in Mexico. Back then, Reforma didn’t hire experienced journalists, but journalism students, who were trained to become the kind of reporters Reforma needed. In 2000, when my father was kidnapped and killed [and the police refused to investigate unless the family paid them], my views on everything changed, and I started to investigate corruption in Mexico. The first case I discovered is known as “towelgate” [involving illegal use of funds for redecorating Fox’s houses], which occurred when Vicente Fox was president. Investigating that kind of common corruption eventually led me to the drug cartels.
For example, in 2005, a woman who’d worked for UNICEF told me that in an area called the “Golden Triangle,” between Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango, children were being forced to work in marijuana and poppy fields. So I went there. I was in Guadalupe y Calvo—a little town in the middle of the “Golden Triangle”—and that was the moment when I started to investigate drug trafficking. When I saw the fields, and how these people live—this little part of the biggest chain—I wanted to find out, What is happening here?
In 2000, when my father was kidnapped and killed [and the police refused to investigate unless the family paid them], my views on everything changed, and I started to investigate common corruption in Mexico. That led me to the drug cartels.
The conflict is often described as a battle between the Mexican government and the drug cartels. How do you understand that relationship? Is there a “drug war” in Mexico?
There is no “drug war.” I have been investigating the drug cartels for almost 10 years. I have access to a great deal of information—documents, court files, testimonies of members of the Mexican and US governments—and I can tell you that in Mexico there has never, never been a “war on drugs.” The government, from the mid-1970s until today, has been involved with the drug cartels.
First, the federal government tried to control the drug business, and was successful in doing so for several years. In Mexico, the early drug gangs were small, and given the freedom to operate. For many farmers, that was their job for generations. The gangs had to pay government officials, who would grant the smugglers permission to continue operating. And the federal police protected these gangs, and even helped them traffic drugs, to be sure the drugs would get to the US and not stay in Mexico. Meanwhile, the government tried to impose conditions on the traffickers, insisting that they not resort to violence.
But what I found after reviewing US congressional documents is that, starting in the late 1970s—and particularly by the time of the Iran-Contra scandal—the CIA helped connect Mexico’s small gangs with the big Colombian cartels. Mexico started to be a huge hub for trafficking between Colombia and the US. The Colombians arrived in Mexico, and used the Mexican gangs’ routes, which had previously been used for marijuana and poppies, to traffic cocaine.
When these Mexican gangs started trafficking cocaine, they became powerful, and their relationship with the Mexican government started to change. That was when the drug cartels formed, and these cartels were soon bribing mayors of little cities, governors, members of Congress.
So you can’t say that there’s a “war on drugs” in Mexico, since the government is part of the drug cartels. The cartels control many areas of the government, and many areas of the country, and the government just pretends to fight them.
Consider the case of El Chapo Guzmán [the head of the Sinaloa Cartel who was reportedly captured in the city of Mazatlán by Mexican marines in February]. I have documents showing that the authorities always knew where he was, all his different addresses, and they protected him—always! So it’s impossible for me to believe the official version of how El Chapo was captured. The government claimed, “Oh, Chapo was hiding at such-and-such an address,” but really the authorities, since 2007, had information about his properties.
There has never, never been a “war on drugs” in Mexico. The cartels control many areas of the government, and many areas of the country, and the government just pretends to fight them.
In Narcoland, you explain how a number of prominent drug traffickers in the past seem to have faked their own death in order to retire from organized crime. You also write that El Chapo “will quit when he feels like it, not when the authorities choose.” What’s your understanding of El Chapo’s alleged capture?
I’ve read many of the articles about that event, and mainly they give the official version, based on information provided by the Mexican and US governments–the DEA, for example. Meanwhile, in Chicago there are documents that prove connections between the Sinaloa Cartel and the DEA. So for me, it’s difficult to believe the official story, since I’ve been investigating these issues for years.
For example, on February 22, 2013, Mexican TV news networks, as well as the Guatemalan government, claimed that El Chapo had been killed in Guatemala. I immediately thought, “It cannot be possible!” But I decided to call one of my sources to check. When I asked him what he thought, he just started laughing, and asked me if I thought the cartel boss could be in Mexico and Guatemala at the same time.
It’s also impossible to believe that El Chapo was alone in Mazatlán. He could not even have been in Mazatlán, because Mazatlán is not a territory of the Sinaloa Cartel. It is a territory of the enemies of El Chapo Guzmán.
I also know that he was supposed to have three circles of security guards—circles of security guards. So there’s just one way in which the official story could be true, and that’s if El Chapo were betrayed by El Mayo Zambada [a fellow Sinaloa leader]. That would mean there’s a war going on within the Sinaloa Cartel—but right now there isn’t such a war. El Chapo wasn’t an insect. He was a really, really powerful man. Sinaloa is still the most important cartel. But even if El Chapo Guzmán has been captured and put in jail in the way the official version claims, it doesn’t mean anything, because the ties between the government and the Sinaloa Cartel are still there.
It’s impossible to believe that El Chapo was alone in Mazatlán. He could not even have been in Mazatlán, because Mazatlán is not a territory of the Sinaloa Cartel. It is a territory of the enemies of El Chapo Guzmán.
What is the situation like for reporters in Mexico? And what has your life been like since you started covering the cartels?
What’s happening to journalists in Mexico is terrible. More than 80 journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years. And no one is in jail for that—no one. The impunity is the main reason why journalists are still being killed. At the end of the day the government is essentially granting criminals permission to kill the journalists, which leaves us in a very insecure situation.
Since Vicente Fox was president, the federal government has started to create institutions that pretend—pretend—to take care of journalists. But these institutions don’t work. They have money, they have people, but they don’t work because the government doesn’t want them to work.
The president wouldn’t care if 100 journalists were killed tomorrow. Mexico is often thought of as a democracy, but really the government is very authoritarian. It doesn’t want transparency, it doesn’t want to be held accountable, and it doesn’t like uncomfortable questions. And that’s why the government wants to let these murders continue. And many things the government is saying to the international community—that it’s working to protect journalists and so on—are not true.
But the biggest problem isn’t that journalists are being attacked. The biggest problem is that people cannot get information. So right now you see many areas in Mexico where the media doesn’t want to inform people what is happening, and where the public doesn’t have the information necessary to make important decisions—like which politicians are corrupt and involved with the drug cartels, and which congressman or candidate is not. Without information, the public cannot make decisions. And now, in Mexico, we have black times.
President Vicente Fox wouldn’t care if 100 journalists were killed tomorrow. The Mexican government doesn’t want transparency, it doesn’t want to be held accountable, and it doesn’t like uncomfortable questions.
(Read the full interview at Substance)
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