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Drug War horror story is only a seam in a complex fabric

Posted by Bill Conroy

In covering the drug war along the U.S./Mexican border over the past five years, I’ve discovered that there are two kinds of stories: the ones that only make sense on the surface and those that are layered with the complexity of reality.

The former, unfortunately, often serve as the whips wielded by interest groups seeking to cower politicians into promoting measures that further militarize the border. The latter, however, rarely get played beyond a single news cycle, if they make the news cycle at all.

But it is those complex stories, the ones that don’t make for easy talking points, that are always closer to the truth of the drug war — which like the border itself exists in a zone where the line between what is Mexico and what is the United States evaporates like a mirage as you move closer to it.

It has become clear to me that any solution to the violence and misery being spread by the drug war cannot be found unless it works for both Mexico and the United States, unless it addresses the reality of the inter-connectedness of this border zone — where the very fabric of society is intertwined like the strands of a tapestry stretching across history.

The border of this tapestry cannot be found in its center, but rather along its edges, both forward and backward in time. Law enforcement’s prosecution of the drug war is not exempt from this reality.

A recent story that made front-page headlines in a South Texas daily newspaper is illustrative of what happens when the mainstream media dances on top of this tapestry, seeking to present a seam in this complex weave as a tear in the fabric, when, in fact, it is just another strand of complexity.

The story was published recently in the San Antonio Express News, a Hearst paper. But it could have appeared in just about any mainstream publication that is content to report on the surface of the drug war.

The Express News story details a raid on a residence in Nuevo Laredo carried out by a paramilitary unit reportedly employed by Mexican narco-traffickers. At the time of the raid in the fall of last year, the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo was allegedly renting the house, which was owned by a U.S. citizen who now lives just across the border in the Texas city of Laredo, according to the news account.

The owner of the house contends, again, according to the news story, that he believed he was leasing the home to low-level employees of the U.S. Consulate, only to later discover that the residence was being used for a clandestine intelligence operation jointly run by the DEA and Mexican feds that was targeting narco-traffickers in Nuevo Laredo.

A host of secret files and computers were reportedly stolen from the house in the bold October raid carried out in broad daylight by the narco-paramilitary unit, ubiquitously dubbed the Zetas. In early December, Alan Gamboa, the U.S. citizen who owned the abode, was victimized yet again, according to the story. His brother, Ricardo, was kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo, allegedly by the same drug-trafficking organization responsible for raiding the house. In addition, Alan Gamboa’s business in Nuevo Laredo was burglarized and torched, according to the news report.

All this leads the newspaper to warn that Mexico’s drug-war violence is threatening to spill across the border into the United States.

From the story:

But the DEA and Mexican federal police may have a more pressing problem from the episode: cartel gunmen seized all of the computers and file cabinets related to the secret operation, raising the specter of an intelligence breach that may have put agents and informants at risk on both sides of the border.

The Express News story relies heavily on unnamed sources — not uncommon for drug-war stories. The reporter claims he was able to confirm that the U.S. Consulate did, in fact, rent Gamboa’s house in March of last year. As proof, the story cites an unnamed “Realtor” who claims he sent a rental contract to the U.S. Consulate “by courier” and that “it was signed and returned by a consulate courier with eight months advance rent.”

The Express News story also claims Gamboa provided a tour of the house to “several Americans driving armored vehicles bearing blue diplomatic consulate plates.”

However, nowhere in the story is a DEA official quoted about the incident. So Narco News made the effort to plug that gap, and discovered, not surprisingly, that the tapestry of the border once again eclipses the narrow seam of the mainstream news narrative.

Mike Sanders, coordinator for congressional and public affairs at DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., had this to say about the Express News story:

There were a lot of inaccuracies in the report. We work hand-in-hand with the Mexican government. But the US consulate did not pay rent for that house. …

We do have agents in Mexico. … We work with the Mexican government agents in Mexico with each side providing intelligence to the other. We work with one common goal, to disrupt and dismantle the cartels.

It’s not uncommon for us to work with Mexican government intelligence [units]. But there is no one special operation. Intelligence gathering occurs all over.

Does the Mexican government operate safehouses? They probably do. But the U.S. government, the U.S. Consulate, did not pay rent for that house [Gamboa’s house in Nuevo Laredo].

I don’t know for certain who paid the rent. If you have specific questions on that front, you should contact the Mexican government. I think the house owned by the U.S. citizen [Gamboa] was rented by the Mexican government for some purpose and things went bad.

The U.S. citizen [Gamboa] had nothing to do with DEA or the U.S. Consulate. I think Mr. Gamboa is trying to find a way to blame it on the U.S. government. It’s what he has to do in making it public, that he says something about the U.S. government. But the U.S. government is not in the business of paying rent for the Mexican government.

Now, before you assume Sanders is covering up for his employer, you should also consider the following logic, provided by a veteran DEA field agent and supervisor — who asked to remain anonymous.

If we were doing an undercover, we would not even mention the U.S. Consulate. And if Mexican feds were involved, why were they [DEA] even using a cover involving a U.S. citizen?

It's not outside the realm of possibility that DEA would rent a house [in Mexico] to do surveillance, if they had good relations with the cops in that area. What we wouldn't do is tell the landlord that it was associated with the U.S. government; because there's the chance he would blab that to everyone.

Also, we would not keep sensitive information about the operation onsite. We never kept files [or computers] onsite when we ran an undercover operation.

So something doesn't smell right here.

Still, even though the narrative of the Express News story may have been limited by its vision of the drug war, that doesn’t mean all the facts reported in the story are wrong.

So could there be another explanation for those “Americans” showing up in armored vehicles [not the type of folks you’d expect to be working maintenance jobs at the U.S. Consulate] to tour Gamboa’s Nuevo Laredo house, assuming that what Gamboa told the Express News reporter about that incident is true?

The DEA source puts one possibility on the table.

"DEA always gets blamed for crap the CIA does when they get caught," the source says.

If that thread leads anywhere, it’s a good bet it will only be further complicated by the recently launched $1.6 billion, three-year U.S. drug-war escalation effort dubbed the Mérida Initiative (or Plan Mexico) — the latest seam in the still unfinished tapestry of the border.

Narco News’ Kristin Bricker, who has followed closely the development of Plan Mexico, reported the following about the intelligence-related components of the initiative:

Plan Mexico also seeks to “enhance data management and analysis capabilities of the Mexican intelligence service (CISEN).” To achieve this aim, it will “equip [CISEN] interview rooms with monitoring technology, a telecommunications network, support forensic computer analysis.” CISEN is a domestic spy agency that is notorious for its actions against activists, including coordinating or participating in military operations in Zapatista territory. In February 2008, a CISEN agent was detained in Zapatista territory while he was posing as a reporter, a practice that puts real journalists’ lives at risk because armed groups may falsely accuse them of being government agents.

For the Gamboa family, the prospect of an intelligence agency connection to their plight may be of little comfort, since it likely means the root cause of the violence visited upon them will remain concealed by the national-security apparatuses of both Mexico and the United States.

Until the drug war itself is unraveled and replaced with a new thread of rational policy, the Gamboa family’s tragedy, and similar tragedies inflicted on countless other families on both sides of the border, will continue to be sewn into the same pattern of futility that has come to mark the tapestry of the border in this generation.

If there is to be positive change, voices must unite on both sides of the border to find common ground on a solution to this complex problem. We can no longer be content with the same surface-level media narratives, with the same failed policies premised on bullets, prisons and prohibition.

We need to reduce the harm, to explore the path of drug decriminalization, and even legalization; expand addiction control over penal codes; enact laws that place a higher value on human life than on the commodities of commerce. Continuing to limit the conversation to a choice between more fear or more guns [which is no choice at all] will only ensure that the tapestry of the border will increasingly be weaved into a funeral pall that serves no purpose other than to cover up more caskets.

Stay tuned …

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