Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Book Review: El Cartel de Juarez by Franciso Cruz


Review of El cártel de Juárez.

Francisco Cruz. 2008.

México, D.F.: Planeta.

318 Pages (Spanish)

James Creechan (Ph.D.)

Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico was declared the overall winner of the 2007/8 “North American Large Cities of the Future” competition by Global Direct Investment solutons. ( It’s the site of more than 300 maquiladoras, and border crossings back and forth to El Paso, Texas total more than 50,000 people daily.

Originally an outpost known as Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Manso del Paso del Rio del Norte, and later named “El Paso del Norte”, it’s a sister to El Paso, Texas and only the international boundary created by the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande keeps them from being one. It’s still a distant and remote outpost of Mexico, and its remoteness allowed it to serve as the host of 2 different governments in exile. Many political visionaries found refuge and a foothold in Juárez— mostly democratic and principled men whose ideas and actions represented a threat to the traditional authoritarian oligarchies in control of central Mexico. The two governments in exile: first, that of Benito Juárez whose democratic constitution of 1857 was spurned in a conservative and Catholic coup d’état making Maximilian emperor, and 6 decades later by the über idealist government of Francisco Madero who had goaded Porifio Diaz into an election and subsequently forced into exile by the old dicatator. Juárez was site of the famous victory by Pancho Villa, El Centauro del Norte, who drove out federalist forces and allowed Madero to establish his foothold for a provisional democracy that unleashed the Mexican revolution.

Like most modern Mexican cities, Juarenses are sophisticated and literate. Ninety-seven percent of them can read and write, and 5 universities serve a population of 1.5 million.

But Ciudad Juárez has a darker side, and its image has long been framed by negative visions of its wild side. During the 1920’s and 30’s it provide a haven and escape from restrictive Prohibition laws in force on the American side of the river. Bars, strip clubs, cantinas, bullrings and prostitution served American visitors looking for thrills. The 1940’s and 50’s saw even the seediest of those dens of iniquity transform themselves into places with a genteel respectability that still managed to offer exotic experiences not available within a conservative Eisenhower milieu. By the 1960’s, Juárez had become the divorce mecca for Americans who realized that their home-castle dreams populated by knights in shining armour and golden princesses represented improbable visions of reality. The rich, the famous and also the ordinary flocked to Juarez for a few days of residency, low cost fees, and the opportunity to leave clutching a legal decree dissolving their marriages.

In spite of the economic prosperity that came with the globalization of trade, dark perceptions of Juárez continue to frame its master status. It remains identified as an entry point for heroin, black-tar, brown opium and sensimilla, and the place where women are routinely murdered, butchered and tossed aside— and home to one of the most powerful drug cartels known in the Americas.

I picked up a Franciso Cruz’s Spanish language book “El Cartel de Juárez” hoping to learn about the origins and structure of tha infamous drug trafficking organization established by Amado Carrillo Fuentes — El Señor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies). The book’s title seemed to promise an analysis of the Juárez cartel that came into prominence after the demise of the3 infamous capos heading the Guadalajara cartel — Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Rafael Caro Quintero and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Furthermore, the author, Francisco Cruz is a reputable journalist who contributed to the most respected news sources in Mexico — including Reforma, El Universal and Diario Monitor. During his formative years, he had also worked for the weekly Ahora de Ciudad Juárez and had continued to monitor events in that city for many years afterwards.

The title created expectations that it would include a detailed analysis of the Mexican cartel in the middle of a current bloody wave of unspeakable violence that plagues Juárez and Chihuahua— 1730 executions in 2008. The book jacket cover promised this both by its title and a grayscale image of Amado Carrillo Fuentes staring from behind a silhouette of a marijuana plant and crossed outlines of cuernos de chivo (AK-47’s). And to emphasize the drug trafficking connection, the Señor de los Cielos is in front of a mirrored dual image of Jesús Malverde, the folk saint of narcotraffickers whose chapel is in the Carrillo Fuentes home state of Sinaloa.

It won’t take reader long to realize that Cruz’s book won’t be a simple historical account of the notorious drug organization. In fact, a full description of the Carrillo Fuentes family doesn’t appear until page 265 of the 318 page book. What precedes those 31 pages describing the drug trafficking organization near the end of the book? Cruz tells what is to come on the dedication page found just before chapter 1. ‘This is not the history of a city, it’s merely the story of some of its personalities. It’s not the history of everyone, but only some— those that made Juarez what it is’.

The back jacket also informs us that ‘this is an exercise sitting somewhere between sensationalist journalism, factual reporting, fiction and a monograph by telling stories from a roster of personalities whose notoriety is no longer remembered, or have not been recently told’.

When Cruz finally gets around to telling the story of El Cartel de Juarez, he does provide details about the Amado Carrillo Fuentes apprenticeship with his uncle Pablo Acosta Villareal, his rise to power, and ultimately his coldblooded betrayal of his mentor “El Zorro de desierto de Ojinaga”. The report provided by Cruz is concise, informative and interesting, and elaborated with several narratives that add substantive detail to the personalities involved.

But overall, the description of the Juarez cartel is merely the culmination of many narratives and vignettes about a city and region offered by Cruz. His book describes a remote outpost on the Mexican frontier whose identity was shaped both by a powerful neighbour to the north and the deliberate neglect of its own federal government. Cruz writes that the stories he will tell represent the “unpaid debts left from the Revolution” —meaning that almost all of the unresolved tensions of modern Mexico will inevitably surface in Juarez and dominate its existence: the ambiguities of a neo-colonial relationship driven more by US entrepreneurial goals, a seething endpoint for migrants who have walked in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands who went before, the wild frontier neglected and relegated to unimportance by a distant central government, a native population of neo-liberal elites who would rather invest with US con men than take a chance on doing the same in their own country, a lawless frontier where the drug and corruption plaza was controlled and organized by men who had bribed their way into administrative positions, and a cultural climate where everyone knows what is happening but is more afraid of the danger of pointing it out.

The book can be frustrating at times, because the vignettes are not connected by a strong central theme. And the one selected to move the tale will make little sense to readers who know little about Chihuahua. And to complicate things, Cruz’s narratives frequently jump back and forth from past to present and back to another event. One of the most complicated links is the central story of former Miss Chihuahua, Maria Dolores Camarena Gonzalez. Cruz is determined to tell about her experiences in the 1980 Miss Mexico competition, her trial in El Paso on 58 counts of money laundering (, a vague connection to another beauty queen with a tragic story, Sacnité Rebecca Maldonado, and many descriptions of her genteel and wealthy life in Juarez.

It appears to me that Dolores’s story is one that he must have covered as young reporter, and which he is using as a literary tool and a metaphor for routine events with Juárez culture, including a) deeply interconnected links between narcotraffic and normal routines of every day life in Juárez b) ways in which dirty money from Mexico was laundered in the twin sister city on the American side c) how the nasty business of drugs and crime is a source of profit for the wealth elite (specifically 12 families in a new Chihuahua oligarchy) d) a critique of the “war against narcotrafficking” focus for its attacks on minor and low-level and sympathetic players, and e) the diminished status of women who are presented with few opportunities for success beyond a cult of beauty . He writes

Vista de cerca, Dolores era como la frontera en la que nació, creció y vivió.: extraña, ideal, fría, humilde, agobiante, hermética, caprichosa, práctica, liberal, arrogante, incomprehensible, engañoso y utópica, pero real. Una ciudad llena de agravios donde la elite politica se entrelaza para mantener sus privilegios o, de ser possible, acrecenterlos” (18)

But the fact is, many interesting stories and details will emerge in this book. Cruz describes how opium came to El Paso del Norte after the San Francisco earthquake resulted in an influx of Chinese immigrants. The first known drug lord was Sam Hing who knew that it was necessary to bribe and involve local authorities, and he was successful at this even during the chaos of revolutionary uprisings in the north. Cruz put it this way:

En la confusion de las campañas norteñas y gracias a la mano firme, la initiativa y la astuscia de Hing, los asiáticos crearon en la frontera una nueva secta, una sociedad secreta, una liga mexicana clandestine y lucrative que pagó puntualmente sus tributos de corrupción y cuyo dominio se prolongó por una década para explotar el ávido y rico Mercado que florecía cruzando el rio.” (89)

A wave of anti-Chinese xenophobia made impossible for the Chinese secret societies to continue in business, and they were ultimately driven out of Juárez by one of the most amazing figures to emerge on the Chihuahua frontier. A young women named Ignacia Jasso, la Doña Nacha— orchestrated the south west equivalent of Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s day massacre when she ordered her hitmen to execute 11 Chinese opium dealers. She, and her lugarteniente-husband Pablote built a network of drug shipments with direct routes to Culiacán, Sinaloa. After her husband died in a bar fight, she bequeathed a fully functional organization to her children Manuel, Natividad, Ignacia and Pabla, and it was eventually inherited by Pabla’s son Héctor Ruiz.

Through a steady symbiotic relationship with the social forces inherent in this outpost on the frontier, the organization initially created by Sam Hing and later unified by La Doña Nacha resulted in a modernized drug trafficking organization controlled by “El zorro del desierto de Ojinaga” — Pablo Acosta Villareal. Chains of luxurious restaurants and hotels laundered his drug money. The burgeoning cartel also established contacts with Colombians who wanted to move cocaine into the United States using the same routes Acosta Villareal used to ship marijuana and opiates. Pablo Acosta Villareal became the “go-to-guy” and central cog in a what’s often recognized as the first generation of modern narcotrafficers that included Ernesto ‘Don Neto’ Fonseca Carrillo, Rafael Caro Quintero, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, Raul Miguel “las Greñas” Muñoz Talavera, Guillermo González Calderoni, Rubén Jaramillo, and the brothers Gilberto, César and José Ontiveros Lucero.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes inherited Acosta Villareal’s organization, mostly by plotting and Machiavellian maneuvres carried out with the cooperation of Gonzalez Calderoni. Many of these events are described in Cruz’s book in a circuitous manner, unfortunately in a style that may lead the reader to scratch their head and try to sort out the exact sequence of events.

The book presents other interesting tales and raises issues and connections rarely considered in other analyses of drug cartel operations. For instance, a mysterious figure with many names and ambiguous citizenship was actually a master counterfeiter who printed millions of fake dollars virtually indistinguishable from the real. When captured, and he was using the name Newton Peter van Drunen, and was living a rather daily existence in one of the exclusive enclaves of Ciudad Juárez. His counterfeit bills provided another source of income that financed drug operations, but also led to complex schemes for money laundering. And the book also describes how massive corruption in government, especially in the Procuraduria de Justicia and within the national oil monopoly PEMEX was directly responsible for emerge of powerful drug organizations in Juarez.

To conclude, in spite of its title, this book does not offer a fast and easy summary of the Juárez drug cartel. It does describe the migration of the Carrillo Fuentes family from Sinaloa to Chihuahua, but only in general terms. The book does offer a complex and thorough overview of the culture of Ciudad Juárez, and leaves the reader with a deeper appreciation of the forces in this city that have led to one of the bloodiest waves of violence imaginable. It’s not a book that beginners will find easy to read, but is a treasure that will be appreciated by long time followers of the narcotics trade in Mexico. It might have been more honest to name this book “The City where the Carrillo Fuentes found a home” — but then, this wouldn’t do much to help sales.

For more information about the Juárez Cartel and Amado Carrillo Fuentes see the following YouTube videos (Spanish) Amado Part 1 Amado Part 2 Amado Part 3 Amado Part 4 Amado Part 5


Anonymous said...

Que interesante esta tu blog. Yo también soy académico con tema afín (narcocorridologo). Llegue aquí buscando información sobre El Pablote (el original)


Juan Carlos

Unknown said...

I am very satisfied with's service. It have very fast moving servers..It doen't take much much time to upgrade my ads into it.

Anonymous said...
Visiten este blog