The making of... Secrets of Mexico's Drug War
By Director Elena Cosentino
In November 2014, at the Drug Enforcement Administration HQ in Arlington Virginia, DEA Chief of operations Jack Riley leaned slightly forward in his chair, as if he were about to share a secret with me.
“An old time cop told me years ago” he said after a sigh.
“You don’t send a swan down a sewer to catch a rat”
“You send a bigger rat”.
The War on Drugs is a dirty business, is what I think he meant.
Public Enemy Number One
Nine months earlier, in February 2014, the news broke that Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most wanted drug lord, had finally been captured in a joint US-Mexican operation. I found myself punching a fist in the air.
Five years ago, filming a previous This World with Katya Adler, I’d witnessed first hand the unspeakable horror, death and devastation that Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel had brought to the Mexican border cities. His war of conquest of key drug smuggling routes into America cost tens of thousands of lives.
Since then, Guzman had taken the mantle once worn by Al Capone earning himself the title of Public Enemy Number One in Chicago, for causing a dramatic resurgence of heroin abuse and drug related gang violence.
Chapo’s demise was ostensibly a huge success story in America’s own War on Drugs.
While Guzman was officially captured by Mexican Marines - several US Federal Agencies are known to have played a crucial role in it – it was a bizarrelly low-key bust – no shots were fired and the world’s most wanted druglord reportedly had only one bodyguard to protect him.
But as we began to delve deeper – the story of the long rise and ultimate fall of the world’s most powerful drug trafficker raised many more questions than it answered.
The Unarmed Truth
The film was based on months of sifting through thousands and thousands of pages of US court files and Congress Investigation’s reports, as well as information from confidential sources.
But a crucial focus for our early research came from a book by John Dodson.
In the “The Unarmed Truth”, John Dodson, an active US law enforcement officer for the bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, made the astonishing claim that, in 2010, at the peak of Mexico’s brutal drug war, his job had effectively changed from stopping arms trafficking to facilitating it.
Dodson tells the story of how he and his colleagues had been involved in Fast and Furious, the codename for a secret gun tracing operation that was meant to dismantle Mexican gun trafficking rings.
Instead, they found themselves receiving orders to simply watch as thousands of weapons were being trafficked across the border and into the hands of Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel.
Among them AK47s assault rifles, AR-15s and a significant number of 50 caliber rifles, firearms capable of piercing through the wall of a house.
Dodson stopped believing the operation was truly aimed at bringing down a criminal organisation and suspected it was rather aimed at arming it.
I asked my colleague Freddie Martin, who was helping me develop the story, to drop everything else and focus on one thing. Proving to me that John Dodson was wrong.
Surely, there had to be another explanation.
One that didn’t blur irredeemably the line between the good and the bad guys.
Divide and Conquer
That a Government could help one criminal organisation to win against the others in order to restore a semblance of order in the country, is an accusation that’s been levelled many times before at the Mexican authorities. They have always denied it.
But what about the US government?
They strenuously deny it as well.
But there are so many unanswered questions - why was the DEA secretly meeting with wanted criminals from the Sinaloa cartel? And why was the FBI paying Sinaloa informants who were buying deadly weapons?
The full extent of any relationship between the US government and the Sinaloa Cartel may never be known, the heavy cloak of secrecy that is National Security has been invoked to prevent the release of crucial information.
“If they have made a mistake, they need to fix it”
The border city of Ciudad Juarez is now relatively peaceful. Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa cartel eventually won the war. But the violence, fuelled by thousands of US weapons, had wrecked the existence of countless families.
Villas de Salvarcar is a poor, blue collar neighbourhood of Ciudad Juarez. On Villa del Portal street every family has lost children. In 2010 a group of innocent teenagers were mowed down at a birthday party by cartel gangsters who mistook them for a rival gang.
A leaked official document appears to indicate that at least three of the weapons used in the massacre were part of a US so called gun tracing operation.
For one of the massacre’s few survivors, twenty year old Edwin Garay, the revelation that the weapons that killed all of his friends could have been intentionally sent from America is baffling. “Their plan was to send weapons to the cartels so they would kill each other. But what about the civilians that have nothing to do with it? We feel helpless because we can’t do anything against such a powerful country. But if they know they have made a big mistake they need to fix it”.
The Good Guys
Chapo Guzman’s capture should have put to bed all suggestions that he was protected, whether by the Mexican or the US government. But the questions linger.
Many seasoned observers believe his arrest was merely a negotiated handover by the Sinaloa cartel, now more powerful than ever before.
I went to meet ATF Special Agent John Dodson at his home in Arizona.
“Ultimately, it boils down to cops and robbers, the good guys getting the bad guys” He said.
That America’s War on Drugs may not be the honourable mission John Dodson had signed up for in the first place is a conclusion that he is still struggling to come to terms with.
“I thought we were the good guys”.
Blowing the whistle very nearly cost John Dodson his career and his livelihood. Now, I am told he may be offered a new position, as a Polygraph examiner. Clearly someone in the ATF must have finally realised he is a man who knows a lie when he hears it.