TIME Mexico

U.S. Legalization of Marijuana Has Hit Mexican Cartels’ Cross-Border Trade

The cartels are still smuggling harder drugs but advocates point out the success of legalization in cutting illegal trade

In the midst of this seething mountain capital, Mexico’s security ministry houses a bizarre museum — a collection of what the army seizes from drug traffickers. The Museo de Enervantes, often referred to as the Narco Museum, has drug samples themselves (including the rare black cocaine), diamond-studded guns, gold-coated cell phones, rocket-propelled grenades and medals that cartels award their most productive smugglers. It also shows off the narcos’ ingenuity for getting their drugs into the United States, including “trap cars” with secret compartments, catapults to hurl packages over the border fence and even false buttocks, to hide drugs in.

Agents on the 2,000 mile-U.S. border have wrestled with these smuggling techniques for decades, seemingly unable to stop the northward flow of drugs and southward flow of dollars and guns. But the amount of one drug — marijuana — seems to have finally fallen. U.S. Border Patrol has been seizing steadily smaller quantities of the drug, from 2.5 million pounds in 2011 to 1.9 million pounds in 2014. Mexico’s army has noted an even steeper decline, confiscating 664 tons of cannabis in 2014, a drop of 32% compared to year before.

This fall appears to have little to do with law enforcement, however, and all to do with the wave of U.S. marijuana legalization. The votes by Colorado and Washington State to legalize marijuana in 2012, followed by Alaska, Oregon and D.C. last year have created a budding industry. U.S. growers produce gourmet products with exotic names such as White Widow, Golden Goat and Oaktown Crippler as opposed to the bog-standard Mexican “mota.” American dispensaries even label their drugs, showing how strong they are, measured in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient), and grade their mix of sativa, which gets people stoned in a psychedelic way and indica, which has a more knock-out effect.

Drug policy reformists tout this market shift from Mexican gangsters to American licensed growers as a reason to spread legalization. “It is no surprise to me that marijuana consumers choose to buy their product from a legal tax-paying business as opposed to a black market product that is not tested or regulated,” says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “When you go to a legal store, you know what you are getting, and that is not going to be contaminated.” A group called Marijuana Doctors elaborate the point in this comical online ad.

Analysts are still trying to work out the long-term effect this shift will have on Mexican cartel finances and violence. The legal marijuana industry could be the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy. It grew 74% in 2014 to $2.7 billion, according to the ArcView group, a cannabis investment and research firm. This includes revenue from both recreational drug stores and from medical marijuana, which has been legalized in 23 states. The group predicts the industry will top $4 billion by 2016.

This means less cash for Mexican cartels to buy guns, bribe police and pay assassins. Coinciding with legalization, violence has decreased in Mexico. Homicides hit a high in 2011, with Mexican police departments reporting almost 23,000 murders. Last year, they reported 15,649.

Other factors may have caused this fall in killings, says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former officer of Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. “Finances from marijuana could be having an impact on violence but you also have to look at other causes. Many of the most violent cartel commanders have been killed or arrested,” Hope says. These downed warlords include the head of the Zetas cartel Heriberto Lazcano, a former soldier who was known as the Executioner for the mass graves he dug. Mexican marines say they shot Lazcano dead in 2012, although his cohorts bust into the funeral home and stole his corpse.

Despite the drop in homicides, Mexico’s violence is still at painful levels. In September, cartel thugs working with corrupt police attacked a group of students, killing three and abducting 43. The atrocity caused hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protest corruption and bloodshed. On Monday, cartel gunmen ambushed police in Jalisco state, killing 15 in one of the worst attacks on security forces in recent years.

A key problem is that cartels have diversified to a portfolio of other crimes, from sex trafficking to stealing crude oil from Mexican pipelines. They also make billions smuggling hard drugs. Seizures of both heroin and crystal meth on the U.S.-Mexico border have gone up as those of marijuana have sunk, according to U.S. Homeland Security, with agents nabbing a record 34,840 pounds of meth in 2014.

In total, Americans spend about $100 billion on illegal drugs every year, according to a White House report. The estimate puts marijuana at about 40% of this, so the legal industry still only accounts for a fraction of the total. One restriction to growth is that U.S. federal law still prohibits cannabis, making banking difficult and scaring investors.

In the long term, drug policy reformers hope for a legal marijuana market in the entire region. This would throw up the possibility of Mexicans legally producing and exporting their drugs to the U.S., taking advantage of cheaper labor. “Cannabis is not unlike wine,” says Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at Washington’s Institute of Policy Studies. “I can buy a $200 bottle of wine, if that is what I am after. But many people will prefer the cheaper mass market product.” One advocate is former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has voiced support for an American entrepreneur who wants to import marijuana to the United States.

Any such cross-border market would require a change of U.N. treaties, which outlaw marijuana. These come up for discussion in a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016. “I feel optimistic there will be change. This movement has momentum,” Angell of Marijuana Majority says. “It is interesting that the United States was historically a driver of drug prohibition. Now parts of the U.S. are leading the change.”

Read next: The Business of Pot

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TIME Mexico

The Apparent Massacre of Dozens of Students Exposes the Corruption at the Heart of Mexico

Parents of the 43 missing students meet at the teachers rural college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2014.
Adriana Zehbrauskas—Polaris Parents of the 43 missing students meet at the teachers rural college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2014.

The disappearance and presumed killings of scores of students has led to protests against the Mexican government—and drug cartels

The young father’s corpse was left on the street of the southern Mexican town of Iguala with his eyes gouged out and flesh ripped off almost to the skull—a technique typical of the cartel murders that have become too common in this country. But unlike many victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, he was no gang member, police officer or journalist. The body belonged to a 19-year old trainee teacher who had been preparing to participate in a march to commemorate a notorious massacre of Mexican students by the military and police in 1968. Instead of making it to that demonstration, though, the young man found himself the victim of a what will be a new atrocity date on Mexico’s bloody calendar.

The murder, which occurred on the night of Sept. 26 or morning of Sept. 27, was part of a brutal attack on student teachers by corrupt police officers and drug cartel assassins that has provoked protests across the nation. During the violence, at least six students and passersby were killed and another 43 students disappeared, with many last seen being bundled into police cars. Soldiers and federal agents have taken over the city of Iguala and have arrested more than 30 officers and alleged gunmen from a cartel called the Guerreros Unidos or Warriors United. They have also discovered a series of mass graves: on Oct. 4, they found 28 charred bodies and on Thursday night they discovered another four pits where they are unearthing more corpses. Agents are conducting DNA tests to see if the bodies belong to the students.

The atrocities have triggered national outrage and presented the biggest security-related challenge yet for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Taking power in 2012, Pena Nieto promised to reduce the tens of thousands of cartel killings and modernize a sluggish economy. He has overseen the arrests of major drug lords like Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, nabbed in February and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “The Viceroy,” who was detained on Thursday. But while the total number of homicides declined by 15% in his first year in office, parts of Mexico—such as Guerrero state, where Iguala sits—still suffer some of the highest murder rates in the world. There were 2,087 murders last year in Guerrero, a state of 3.4 million people, giving it a rate of 61 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

On Oct. 6, Pena Nieto swore the students would receive justice and ordered a major federal operation in response. “This is infuriating, painful and unacceptable,” he said in a televised address to the nation. But human rights groups and family members accused him of being slow to respond to the tragedy, allowing some of the possible perpetrators to escape. Iguala mayor Jose Luis Arbaca fled town more than four days after the shootings and disappearances. It later emerged that Mexico’s intelligence service had a file linking him to the Warriors United cartel. The mayor’s brother-in-law was arrested this week for involvement in the killings. “Very slow, Pena Nieto, very slow,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “This issue could have been cleared if the federal government had immediately taken responsibility for these students.”

However, the atrocities are also devastating to the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. (Pena Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which dominated Mexican politics for most of the 20th century.) Arbaca was a PRD member, and the party’s leader went to the city on Oct. 7 to personally apologize to residents. The governor of Guerrero state is also in the PRD and there have been calls for his resignation. The governor has denied the killing was his fault and called for a referendum on whether he should stay in power. Furthermore, when PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas joined a protest over the killings in Mexico City on Oct. 8 he was booed and had bottles thrown at him.

The march into Mexico City’s central plaza was joined by tens of thousands of people and was headed by family members of the victims. “I won’t rest until I have my son back,” Mario Cesar Gonzalez, father of 21-year old disappeared student Cesar, told TIME. “This is a problem of corrupt police and politicians working with drug cartels. I am going to fight until we discover the truth of what happened. I don’t care if they kill me. Nothing matters to me except my son.” Most of the disappeared students were the children of poor farmers and workers and went to a university for rural school teachers near Iguala.

Protesters also demonstrated in dozens of other cities across Mexico. In jungle-covered Chiapas state, thousands of the Zapatista rebels who rose up for indigenous rights in 1994 marched in silence in solidarity with the teachers. “Your pain is our pain,” said one banner. In Guerrero state itself, thousands blockaded major highways and shouted outside government buildings.

The killings brought back to the surface another problem that Pena Nieto’s government has been grappling with: vigilante groups that have risen to fight cartels. A Guerrero vigilante militia that operates in villages where many of the students come from has gone to Iguala, promising justice for the students. A local guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Army of Insurgent People said it will form a brigade to attack the Warriors United cartel. ” [We will] confront the political military aspects of this new front of the Mexican narco state,” says a masked man on a video message posted online as he stands besides photos of revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

The actual motives behind the attack on the students remain murky. About 120 students went into Iguala and had absconded with three buses from the Iguala station, which they wanted to take to the march in Mexico City. Students across Mexico often commandeer buses for their marches, a practice that is largely tolerated by the authorities. It was also reported by Mexican media that the students had disturbed a public event, angering city officials linked to the cartels, while the gangs might have believed the students were invading their turf.

One student who survived the attack said he wasn’t sure why the cartel and police went after them. “It came as a complete shock and surprise. We were relaxed and heading out of town, when suddenly there were bullets being fired from all directions,” said Alejandro, 19, who asked his surname not be used in case of reprisals. “I feel lucky that I am alive. But I think all the time about my companions who were taken. I don’t know what they could been through or how much pain they could have suffered. This makes me very sad and very angry.” Pena Nieto—and the rest of Mexico’s power brokers—should beware of that anger.

TIME Newsmaker Interview

President of Honduras Expects Mass Deportations of Minors From U.S.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández
Ross McDonnell for TIME Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 17, 2014.

The problem of violence driving Central American migration has its roots in U.S. drug consumption, President Juan Orlando Hernández says in an exclusive interview with TIME

(TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras) — Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been warned by U.S. officials to expect a enormous wave of deportations from the United States, he told TIME in an interview at the presidential palace in the Honduran capital on July 17. “They have said they want to send them on a massive scale,” he said.

Before another planned visit to the United States beginning Thursday, Hernández said his country is preparing to receive the returnees but the United States needs to support him in building security in this Central American nation. He took power in January to confront what may be the biggest migration crisis in his country’s history, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children captured on the border in the United States.

Honduras has suffered with the world’s worst murder rate in any country outside a war zone, as street gangs known as maras have become increasingly linked to drug traffickers moving cocaine from the Andes region to the Unites States. Hernández said his government has worked hard to reduce this murder rate in his first months in office, but said violence is still a major problem driving the youth migration.

To combat the criminals, Hernández calls for a security plan with U.S. support, akin to Plan Colombia in which U.S. aid helped the South American nation battle drug traffickers and cocaine-funded guerrillas. The United States has a responsibility to help Honduras, Hernández says, because U.S. drug consumption is driving the violence.

The following exchange has been edited for brevity.

The wave of migration has generated a strong debate in the United States. How do explain this rapid rise in child migrants?

I believe there is a combination of factors. One is the lack of opportunities in Central America and we have to build opportunities here more quickly. Two is the issue of violence, because if you look, you will see that in the case of Honduras, the highest level of migration is in the places with the most conflict, particularly in the neighborhoods where the street gangs have become the armed wing of drug traffickers and kill each other for territorial control. . . . But the other factor, that we shouldn’t forget, is the lack of clarity of U.S. immigration policy. When the immigration debate goes on, disgracefully, the coyotes [the human smugglers] come and say, “Now is when you can bring your child from Central America.” . . . So my call to the United States is that it defines these rules with clarity.

The violence in Honduras is complex. What drives it more, drug cartels or street gangs?

What is happening in Honduras is that drug traffickers partnered with the street gangs so that the gangs did the violent work of extortion and kidnapping. What happened? When the huge packages of drugs arrived at the coast or landed in a plane, the drug traffickers said to Hondurans, “Move these drugs to Guatemala or Mexico, but I am going to pay you with drugs and you finance the operation.” So the street gangs carried out extortion and sold the drugs, contaminating society.

For this reason, I call for the principle of shared responsibility between those who produce [drugs] and those who consume them in the North. In the United States, many officials see the drug problem as basically one of health, as how much it costs to treat an addict and stop them getting involved. But for us it is life and death. That is the difference. . . .

I want to remind the North American people what happened before Mayor Giuliani in New York, how drugs, among other factors, combined to make a very difficult security situation. This happened in Los Angeles when the street gangs also moved drugs; it happened in Miami. But the fight against it was successful. [Americans] have suffered violence in their territory from drug trafficking. Well, now it is happening to us, but in much higher rates. Never in Central America, particularly in the northern triangle and in Honduras has there been so much loss of life as in this decade. Never. Never in history. And look, disgracefully, this is a not an issue that originates in Honduras.

If in the United States, there is a move to change the law to deport a minor without a court hearing would you oppose it?

I would like to ask congressmen and senators and those who make political decisions in the United States that they think first in the interest of the child, because the child as well being a human being, is more vulnerable than the adult. But also they [children] go with the very human, very natural desire to be with their parents. . . .

On the other side, if there is a child without a family member in the United States, and the law says they have to return, we are working with this. Like never before in Honduras, we are investing resources to warmly receive our countrymen, with psychologists, doctors, giving them different options that we have for job opportunities, or farming financing. We are also guiding them spiritually, because they are families that are destroyed inside. They sold everything before leaving, and they arrive frustrated. We have to reintegrate them. We are making this effort.

What has the U.S. government said to you about the issue of migration? Have they told you they are going to deport many more people?

Yes, they have said they want to send them on a massive scale. We told them that number one, we have to respect the principle of giving priority to the child. Two, in the case that a family has children that don’t have relatives in the United States, that they don’t deport them along with adults that have committed crimes there. We don’t want them to be mixed. They [U.S. officials] have understood that part, and we, knowing there are large quantities, more than usual, have had to prepare ourselves to receive our countrymen.

Are you optimistic this is the start of something better, or will it be a long, dark difficult time ahead?

It is a difficult situation. It is a humanitarian crisis that the world needs to see. How long will it last? Will it get more complicated? This depends on support from countries such as the United States and Mexico. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras we are working hard.

If they help us, because this is a problem they generate, I repeat, because of the connection between the drugs they consume in enormous quantities in the United States that are produced in the south and pass through Central America, generating violence, generating this migratory flow—if they help us I am sure we will be on the route to resolves this in a short time.

TIME central america

Honduran Children Deported From U.S. Back to World’s ‘Most Violent City’

A chartered flight of minors and mothers deported from the U.S. landed on Monday in San Pedro Sula, said to be the world's murder capital

Twenty-one Honduran children and 17 mothers deported from the U.S. landed in San Pedro Sula on Monday — reportedly the most murderous city in the world — to be greeted with balloons and smiles from Honduras’ First Lady.

“These are people coming home with a broken heart and a broken dream,” Ana García de Hernández told a throng of reporters and cameramen pushing at a barricade as the deportees were given food. “We have to give them the best welcome we can.”

Children have been deported before from the U.S. to Central America, although usually seated more discreetly on commercial flights. But the plane that landed on Monday from New Mexico was the first flight entirely made up of women and children deportees to be sent to this impoverished Central American country, Honduran officials said. García said it would be one of dozens of such flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the coming weeks, delivering deportees not only to Honduras but also El Salvador, Guatemala and parts of the region.

Tens of thousands of Central American minors have made the hazardous journey to the U.S. by themselves, in the hope of forming an immigration foothold for their families. Because U.S. border facilities are so overwhelmed, authorities often release children into the care of relatives already in the country. The largest number comes from Honduras, a mountainous land of sprawling banana plantations that has become the deadliest country in the world outside a war zone. In 2012, it suffered 90 killings per 100,000 people. While poverty has long been a driver of emigration, many children cite the violence as the reason they flee.

However, with these chartered flights the new attitude from Washington is clear: children should no longer come because they will not be allowed to stay.

“These deportation flights send a message to people and families in Central America, but also they send a message that the governments should listen to,” says Héctor Espinal, the Honduras spokesman for the UNICEF, which is overseeing the reception of deportees. “The message is that governments should do what they need to do to stop the violent conditions that are making these children leave.”

Exactly how to stop the violence in Honduras is a subject of much debate. Many murders are carried out by two major gangs, each with thousands of members — the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Surviving military crackdowns and anti-gang laws, they have grown into transnational criminal organizations capable of shaking down businesses large and small. Adding to the bloodshed, drug cartels from Mexico and Colombia use Honduras as a staging point to move cocaine north to the profitable U.S. market.

Speaking to TIME, First Lady García said Honduras needs its own U.S.-funded anticrime program, akin to Plan Colombia or Mexico’s Merida Initiative, to fight the gangs and cartels.

“We have been having a frank conversation with U.S. Congressmen, and we accept that a cause of much of this emigration is the violence. The 30 most violent municipalities in Honduras are also the municipalities with most unaccompanied minors leaving, and these are places that have been hit by drug trafficking,” García said. “Drug trafficking starts in South America, unfortunately passes through our country and continues to the United States. We have spoken about the need for integral support to solve this problem. My husband, the President, has spoken about the need to implement in Honduras what they implemented in Colombia and in Mexico.”

Any improvement however, will take time — and in the meantime, many are desperate. Coming out of the deportation-processing center after arriving on another flight, 20-year-old Wilson Hernandez said he was concerned about going back to his home in the Pradera del Sur neighborhood of San Pedro Sula.

“It is a brutal place. There are gang members with rifles and grenades. I am scared to go out of my house a lot of the time,” says Hernandez, who was caught crossing into Texas.

In April and May, eight minors were murdered in Pradera del Sur. Police say they were killed by gang members, possibly because they refused to be recruited.

“This kind of violence makes kids want to run away. They just want to survive,” Hernandez says. “They can fly people home, but if this carries on they will still head north. Things have to change here.”

TIME Mexico

How Gravity Director Alfonso Cuarón Stirred up Mexico’s Oil Politics

Alfonso Cuaron Attends to Possibility Sessions
Adan Gutierrez—STR/LatinContent/Getty Images Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron attends a press conference to talk with university students on April 30, 2014.

Alfonso Cuarón's call for a crackdown on corruption, environmental reforms and more transparency has shaken up Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's plans to give private companies a share of its oil wealth

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appeared to have outmaneuvered all opposition for his reforms to give private foreign companies a share of the nation’s oil wealth. Street protests in defense of oil nationalism attracted thousands instead of millions. Calls for an immediate referendum on energy laws were dismissed as unconstitutional. Key opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former presidential candidate, even suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack.

But he didn’t count on the power of Hollywood. At the eleventh hour, as lawmakers looked set to approve the new rules, the Oscar-winning Mexican director of Gravity stormed onto the scene, to call for a deeper debate on what will be the biggest change to Mexico’s energy politics since it nationalized the black gold in 1939.

In a newspaper ad on April 28, Alfonso Cuarón asked tough questions about uncomfortable issues such as taking on the oil-workers’ labor union (a traditional supporter of Peña Nieto’s party), stopping corruption in new energy contracts, and protecting the environment. Finally, on Monday, he published a new ad calling for three primetime TV debates on the energy laws.

“We should hold a plural and open debate about the reforms, a debate that the citizens deserve,” wrote Cuarón in the ad, also placed on the internet. “The quality of a democracy goes beyond the electoral process. And it goes beyond the discussions and votes of Congress. The quality of a democracy depends on a large part on its public debates.”

It is yet to be seen how much impact the first Mexican to win the Academy Award for best director will have on the final laws. But his words shook up the discussion of the energy reform in Mexico’s Congress and media. Senators for the former ruling National Action Party on Tuesday rallied in support of Cuarón’s proposal for TV debates. “It is a good idea to keep giving coverage of the issue of oil reform, because it is better if citizens know all the details,” Sen. Salvador Vega, head of the energy commission, told reporters. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party went even further, calling for Cuarón to personally come into the Senate to speak about the subject.

The momentum of Cuarón’s call could make it difficult for Peña Nieto to refuse the demand. When Cuarón won his Oscar in March, Peña Nieto tweeted on how the success was good for Mexico. When Cuarón released his first ad, Peña Nieto tweeted again, thanking him “for enriching the debate,” before his administration released a 13-page PDF document defending the reforms. However, prime time TV debates could add strain on Peña Nieto in rallying lawmakers to support the new oil laws, which they are expected to vote on in the following weeks. Constitutional changes to Mexico’s oil laws that would allow a greater role of foreign companies were already approved in December. But the new rules to be voted on will spell out the vital details of the historic energy reform.

The government document that responded to Cuarón reiterated many of the points that Peña Nieto has raised since he took office in 2012. It said that allowing more involvement of foreign companies could increase Mexico’s oil production, creating wealth that will boost the economy. It said the government will also support alternative green energy. And it said that new contracts and the union are open to public scrutiny.

The movie director’s stance has won both support and criticism in mainstream and social media in Mexico. Leftist newspaper La Jornada, long an opponent of oil reform, applauded Cuarón. However, Ana Paula Ordorica wrote in Excelsior newspaper that Cuarón was abusing his fame. “Cuaron should talk, ask and be active in everything to do with cinema and leave energy politics in the hands of those that know the issue and are available to discuss and debate it,” Ordorica wrote. The tag #Alfonsocuaron also went wild on Twitter. “I think the profession of good citizen has fallen on Alfonso Cuaron,” tweeted Christian Gutma. “He shows us that we have the right to demand, confront.”

Whatever happens to the oil reform itself, Cuarón’s position could set a new precedent in Mexican politics. Mexican actors and directors, many who won fame in the nation’s steamy telenovela soap operas, long stayed largely clear of government debate. Cuarón, who directed Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before shooting into Hollywood’s A-list with Gravity, has pushed into new frontiers. But while finding his fame abroad, Cuarón says he has deep roots and loyalty to his homeland. “I am living outside [of Mexico] for circumstances of life, but I have my cultural roots in Mexico,” Cuarón told a news conference in Mexico City, following the first ad. “I think like a Mexican.”

TIME Mexico

Mexico’s Craziest Drug Lord ‘Died’ Twice and Used to Dress as God

Military personnel and federal policemen guard an area where the dead body of Mexican drug lord Nazario 'El Chayo' Moreno Gonzalez remains, in Apatzingan, Mexico, March 9, 2014.
EPA Military personnel and federal policemen guard an area where the dead body of Mexican drug lord Nazario 'El Chayo' Moreno Gonzalez remains, in Apatzingan, Mexico, March 9, 2014.

Mexican authorities confirmed killing the leader of the Knights Templar cartel, Nazario Moreno, a mysterious drug lord who was part mobster, part evangelical cultist. He also claimed to espouse Christian values and wrought Old Testament justice on rivals

When drug lord Nazario Moreno was a child sharing a shack with his 11 brothers and sisters, alcoholic father and violent mother, he took refuge reading the cult Mexican comic book Kalimán. In the stories, the superhero Kalimán defeats his enemies using martial arts and telepathy while reciting one-liners of wisdom. Later, when Moreno became a millionaire meth trafficker, he authored his own book of “wise” phrases, which are strikingly similar to those of Kalimán. His life story also became as surreal as that of a comic book; he commanded a bloodthirsty cartel that he called the Knights Templar, dressed up in white robes (as did Kalimán), and faked his own death at the hands of federal police.

But the tale of Moreno, alias “The Maddest One,” reached the final chapter last weekend, when Mexican soldiers really did appear to shoot him dead as he celebrated his 44th birthday. The take-down of Moreno was another victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose government also oversaw the recent arrest of trafficker Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. “Today we are observing a Mexican state with better capabilities and strengths,” Pena Nieto said Monday following Moreno’s death. “Important criminals from different organizations have been arrested and been stopped.”

For thousands in Mexico’s western Michoacán state, the suffering under Moreno’s tyranny was no comic book adventure. Knights Templar gunmen kidnapped, extorted and raped, dumping severed heads in village squares and on disco dance floors. Confronted with this terror, Michoacán residents rose up in vigilante militias and drove the gangsters out of towns, pressuring the army to take action. Vigilantes and soldiers finally closed in on Moreno’s mountain hideouts last week, cornering him on a highland ranch. His death, confirmed with photos and fingerprints, was an embarrassment for former President Felipe Calderon, under whom federal police claimed to kill Moreno in 2010. On that occasion, police said Moreno’s gunmen escaped with his body.

As the vigilantes further ground away at the Knights Templar, bizarre details of Moreno’s cult-like leadership emerged. Moreno’s followers venerated the drug lord as a saint and kept statues of him in medieval armor decorated in gold and diamonds. Some had copies of his book of phrases, entitled Mis Pensamientos (“My Thoughts”) or of a memoir entitled Me Dicen el Más Loco; El Diario de Un Idealista (“They Call Me the Maddest One; Diary of an Idealist”), which TIME had access to.

In the autobiography, which was self-published and distributed exclusively inside the cartel, Moreno describes growing up so broke that refried beans were a luxury and he thought the rich drunk Coca-Cola instead of river water. The comic Kalimán was an inspiration to escape from this, he writes. “My brother and I dreamed of being great characters, helping the people and bringing justice to the poor.”

At the age of 16, Moreno describes leaving Michoacán to sneak into the United States, which he refers to as “gringo-landia.” He soon sold marijuana from San Jose to the Indian reservations of Humboldt County and guarded the safe-houses of more experienced traffickers. When African American and Chicano dealers threatened Moreno, he says he was quick to fight back with a knife or a gun, earning his “maddest one” nickname. This propensity to rumble eventually led him to being beaten repeatedly in the head, giving him permanent brain injuries, including hallucinations, making him even more loco.

Moreno also confesses to suffering alcohol problems like his father. He finally escaped his angry drunken ways, he says, when he discovered evangelical Christianity through Latino preachers in the United States and began to read and pray obsessively. But rather than leaving crime, he brought his religious beliefs into it. Returning to Michoacan, he built a meth-trafficking cartel that also claimed to espouse righteous Christian values and wrought Old Testament justice on rivals. They identified with the Knights Templar, a medieval crusader order of brave and holy warriors.

An agent for Mexico’s federal anti-organized crime division says the memoir is authentic and largely corresponds to facts police had already established about Moreno’s life. The agent, speaking to TIME on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give public statements, says that Moreno probably believed his own propaganda, but also saw the quasi-religious elements as a way to discipline his troops. Quizzed about Moreno’s alleged death in 2010, the agent says that federal police really believed they had killed him in a firefight. Moreno then took advantage of their claims, pretending to be dead while encouraging his followers to venerate him.

As the vigilante militias have reclaimed towns from the Knights Templar, they have recruited many of Moreno’s old henchmen over to their side. These former templarios also offer insights into the drug lord’s rule. In the town of Antunez, a man named Hilario confessed that he was a gunman for three years for the Knights Templar before joining the vigilantes in January. He describes going on a week-long course in which they studied Moreno’s writings. At the end, Moreno came to speak to them clad in white robes. “He was dressed as God. His balls went too far up into his head,” scoffs Hilario, who served time in a U.S. prison for cooking meth. Hilario also describes guarding a meeting with Moreno and one of his lieutenants: “He would suddenly flip. One second he was talking about religion and the next he was ordering a hit on somebody.”

Other vigilantes suffered the brutality of Moreno firsthand. A lime farmer in Antunez named Elias described how Knights Templar thugs kidnapped him for failing to pay extortion quotas and held him for three days in the mountains. After he was beaten on the lower back with a wooden board, he said that he saw Moreno coming into the room. “Every time I remember his face I remember my pain and my anger,” says Elias, while carrying a Kalashnikov and scouring the hills for Templar gunmen.

Despite the cruelty of his cartel, Moreno insisted in his writing he was a social fighter. As well as claiming to be Christian, he hails Latin American revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara. Moreno argues that drug trafficking is a result of Mexico’s unequal system that gives the poor no opportunities. “They say that each society has the government it deserves,” Moreno writes. “I would also say that each society and government have the criminals that they deserve.”

TIME Mexico

What The Arrest Of ‘El Chapo’ Means For Mexico

Cheers, tears and fears follow the arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman

Even as Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman had a $5 million reward on his head, his name could be heard in dozens of so-called drug ballads, played from Guatemala to the U.S. border, and especially in his home state of Sinaloa. Over a polka-like beat and earthy accordion melody, the verses celebrate how the short man from a ramshackle village in the mountains escaped a high security prison and beat back the Mexican army and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to make his billions smuggling cocaine and marijuana to Americans. “Many ask how it is possible that a Mexican, has made fun of the gringos, who are meant to be so clever,” it says in one song, written by Los Nuevos Rebeldes. However, Guzman’s 13 year run of outwitting authorities crashed to an end Saturday. Mexican authorities announced they had nabbed Guzman at the Sinaloan seaside resort of Mazatlan, before parading the haggard-looking gangster in front of reporters in Mexico City.

The detention was celebrated by Mexican and U.S. officials as a mighty blow against the drug cartels, whose infighting and wars with the army and police have left more than 70,000 dead in Mexico since 2006. “This is the most significant arrest of a drug trafficker in decades,” Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the DEA, told TIME. “Chapo Guzman was definitely the biggest trafficker in Latin America, and in my opinion in the world.”

However, on the streets of many Mexican cities that have been wracked by violence, people wondered what repercussions the arrest might bring. “It is like time has stood still,” journalist and author Javier Valdez said by phone from Sinaloan state capital Culiacan. “There is a feeling of uncertainty, a worry of what could come next.” Valdez, who has chronicled the lives of Sinaloa’s drug world in several books, said that some in the state see Guzman as the hero celebrated in their songs. “A lot of people here have no faith in politicians or the system that gives them nothing. Chapo is seen as a success story.”

Guzman’s strongest base of support is in the mountainous Sinaloan municipality of Badiraguato where he was born. The area is part of the so-called Golden Triangle and has been producing opium for Americans since Washington first restricted it in 1914. In villages hanging on the edge of the Sierra Madre, many residents call drug traffickers “valientes,” or brave ones, while they often refer to soldiers with disdain as “guachos,” or servants. Residents claim they have seen Guzman appear in villages, handing out wads of bills to needy mothers and loyal toughs.

[Read: Mexico’s New Mission]

But other Mexican communities have seen the trail of blood left by gunmen who fought in the name of Guzman. The druglord’s Sinaloa Cartel battled along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border for space to smuggle marijuana, heroin, cocaine and crystal meth to a U.S. drug market estimated by the United Nations to be worth about $60 billion a year, half of which is believed to go to Mexican gangsters. Squads of assassins used assault rifles and grenade launchers to protect Guzman’s empire. At one scene in Nuevo Laredo in 2012, 14 bodies were hung from meat hooks, along with a note signed, “Attentively, Chapo. Remember I am your real daddy.”

With the arrest of Guzman, there is concern that junior lieutenants could fight to take over the Sinaloa cartel empire. The cartel’s second most powerful figure Ismael “Mayo” Zambada is a veteran trafficker in his sixties, who is believed to have distanced himself from the cartel wars of recent years. “Zambada is trying to avoid arrest himself, so it will be hard for him to exert control,” Vigil said. Another fear is of rivals pushing into Chapo’s territory. The Zetas, whose territorial bloodshed has reportedly left mass graves with hundreds of bodies, have long fought the Sinaloa Cartel. Another Sinaloan trafficker Hector Beltran Leyva has waged war with Guzman, leaving piles of severed heads and bullet ridden bodies in Sinaloa. “People are scared about more violence breaking out, of what reaction the cartels will have,” Valdez said.

But the Guzman arrest boosts President Enrique Peña Nieto, who can claim to have acted where his predecessors failed. Guzman escaped from a Mexican high security prison in 2001 under then President Vicente Fox. Guzman then evaded capture throughout the rest of the Fox presidency and stayed on the run during six years of President Felipe Calderon, even as the government waged a military offensive against traffickers, sending thousands of police and soldiers to Sinaloa state.

Still, the leftist opposition Democratic Revolution Party insisted that unless the government goes after money laundering and builds up the justice system, arrests of kingpins will not stop the violence. “We demand that there is…the dismantling of financial networks and the combating of impunity, the cancer that has fed criminals,” the PRD said in a statement following Chapo’s arrest. Others feel drug policy itself needs to be reformed to stop the war. Legislators in the leftist-dominated Mexico City assembly recently proposed to soften marijuana laws to reduce cartel power.

Guzman’s immediate future is uncertain. While he still has to serve out his sentence in Mexico, several U.S. courts are seeking his extradition on racketeering and trafficking charges. By extraditing him, Mexico could avoid the security problems of holding Guzman in a Mexican jail, Vigil said. Mexico’s prisons have suffered from notorious escapes in recent years, including some with more than 100 inmates and others supported by helicopters. But Guzman’s lawyers will likely fight hard for him to stay in Mexico. “If Guzman is extradited to the United States,” Vigil said, “he will never see daylight again.”

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