Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Ricardo Ainslie
Published: April 10, 2013
What about the U.S.? How has our policy guided what's happening on the ground in Juárez?
Well, it's obvious but it needs to be said: American drug consumption runs this whole game. Without that scenario, there is no Mexican organized crime functioning at this level. And there aren't these profits.
I'd say the second most important issue is American assault weapons. When the assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004. That's when the drug cartels almost overnight began arming themselves in ways that no local police force, even state police forces, could match.
You mention in the book Mexican officials that tell you that in no uncertain terms.
That was Eduardo Medina-Mora (Mexico's then-ambassador to Great Britain). So that's another role the U.S. plays.
And I'd say the third is American security policy along the border because, you know, I'm not saying the United States doesn't have a right to secure borders. It does and I understand that. But I'm just saying there are consequences to the way in which we've chosen to do that.
One of the things that people don't really understand about what's happened in Juárez and what's happened in other places is the quick descriptions is, there's a war between the cartels, but there's really something else happening. In the 1990s the U.S. starts sealing its borders and it becomes harder for the cartels to move its product across the river, across the border. So they started paying their lieutenants with product. If you were a Juárez cartel operative and you were used to making – these aren't actual figures, I'm just making guesses – $50,000 a month, suddenly you're being paid $25,000 a month and $25,000 worth of cocaine. And you have to turn that cocaine into cash.
So what started happening in the mid ’90s is there was an explosion of domestic drug use in Mexico. And Juárez, for example, became one of the cities with the highest number of addicts. And all of that retail market business was controlled by local gangs who were in turn controlled by the cartel. So when we think about the 11,000 people who have been killed, it's all cartel-related, but we usually think of the cartels in terms of international transactions and movements of drugs. But once they started getting into the domestic drug markets, they had two simultaneous businesses, if you will. And the local drug markets were controlled by local street gangs. And a lot of the violence when Sinaloa comes into Juárez is they not only try to kill off the people that are key Juárez cartel people, they also try to push out these hardcore street gangs that are running the business for the Juárez cartel at the local level. So Sinaloa sort of recruited their own gangs in Juárez.
How did you pick some of the characters you follow throughout your book?
All four of these characters were living a different facet of that reality and that's something that sort of gradually emerged over the 18 months that I went to Juárez on a regular basis. I made 12 visits and stayed for several days at time each time.
Jose Reyes Ferriz (then-mayor of Juárez) was the obvious character, because he was in a position that no one else in Juárez that I knew occupied. Mainly he was dealing with the local, the state, and the national political implications of what was going on. And so he obviously had a birds-eye view for a lot of this. He was initially kind of sealed off from the inside conversation, because historically in Mexico only the governors dealt with the federal people. But he became increasingly important, I think, as the federal government became increasingly disenchanted with the governor of Chihuahua.
So Reyes Ferriz was very interesting to me. The first time I saw him I thought, this guy is really beleaguered. He has people all over him. I was already aware of the fact that he had death threats against him. And if you meet Jose Reyes Ferriz, he does not exude the kind of macho bravado aura that you'd expect with somebody who's sort of in that brute, cold situation and managing it. So I thought that he was fascinating in that regard. It took me quite a while to really get him to start talking to me. I saw him at several official public events over a couple months. Then I got an interview with him and gradually, I think, he started, for whatever reason, to trust me and opened up more and eventually he even took me to his home in Juárez. That was interesting, because there had been a lot of press accusing him of living in El Paso and traveling over every day. So he was interesting to me for a number of reasons. Both as a character and the psychology of the man. And I felt like he could narrate some of the inside story of what was going on in Juárez that I wasn't going to get anywhere else and that wasn't in the papers. I mean, where else was I gonna get it?
I think the counterpoint to him is Gustavo de la Rosa (a former human rights worker in Juárez), because here's a guy who has a similar history with the community, he's been there all his life, too. But he's not into the establishment. He doesn't tolerate lapses in the ethics of law enforcement or the military people, and he calls them out on it and it gets him in trouble. And that's a big part to this story, because some of that stuff is really going on, you know. So I felt that he was a counterpoint to Reyes Ferriz. He can sort of speak of the dark underbelly, the way the establishment works in this context. So I was really interested in him the more I got to know him.
And then Elena (a pseudonym for a woman living with a cartel member) and Raymundo Ruiz (a Mexican newspaper photographer), they're counterpoints in a very different way. They both, unlike de la Rosa and Reyes Ferriz, they do not come from privilege. These are people without educations, without even elementary school educations.
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