I wrote this piece for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on Dec. 2, 1999.
American authorities knew in 1993 of the mass graves now being uncovered here but didn’t act because Mexican police and drug traffickers were thought to control the secret cemeteries, former U.S. agents said Wednesday. “We knew the locations of the ranches, but we couldn’t do anything about it,” said Phil Jordan, former head of the El Paso Intelligence Center. “You can’t turn to Mexico’s federal police because they are the ones who buried some of the people.”
Mexican authorities had no immediate comment. Attorney General Jorge Madrazo has long acknowledged that drug corruption is a serious problem, but he has said the Mexican government has made great strides in cleaning up its law enforcement agencies. U.S. officials did not return calls Wednesday.
U.S. and Mexican agents began digging late Monday for as many as 100 bodies thought to be buried at ranches outside Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling border town and one of the main gateways for illicit drugs bound for the United States.
The unprecedented binational effort – involving more than 600 Mexican agents and soldiers and 65 of the FBI’s top forensic experts – marked one of the biggest U.S.-Mexico investigations ever undertaken on Mexican soil.
FBI and Mexican agents on Wednesday journeyed to two ranches – one called La Campana, or The Bell, and the other La Esperanza, or Hope.
Agents were also investigating two other undisclosed Ciudad Juarez locations, where some victims were tortured and murdered before being buried on the ranches, said a law enforcement source who requested anonymity.
Five bodies had been recovered as of Wednesday evening, authorities said.
Mr. Jordan, a former Drug Enforcement Administration special agent, said at least some graves near Ciudad Juarez were first dug under the supervision of Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, former head of Mexico’s Federal Security Directorate, or DFS, by its Spanish initials.
The DFS, now disbanded, was linked to the 1985 torture and murder of DEA special agent Enrique Camarena.
While at the DFS, Mr. Aguilar protected drug traffickers, DEA agents say. He was gunned down in Cancun in 1993 over differences with his boss, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, then head of the powerful Juarez cartel, a February 1994 DEA intelligence document said.
The growth of the Mexican cartels is a direct product of the rise of cocaine smuggling and the marriage of Colombian drug lords and Mexican smugglers in the early 1980s.
Initially, Colombian cocaine cartels contracted with Mexican organizations for use of their smuggling networks, paying fees ranging from $1,500 to $2,000 for each kilogram of cocaine they smuggled into the United States.
By the end of the decade, Mexican organizations had grown powerful enough to dictate new terms to the Colombians. They demanded a larger share of the proceeds, eventually working out an arrangement in which Mexican traffickers received as much as 50 percent of the cocaine as payment.
Mr. Carrillo, nicknamed “Lord of the Skies” for his pioneering use of old commercial aircraft in drug smuggling, died in July 1997 after plastic surgery.
Exactly who heads the Juarez cartel now is not entirely clear. Prominent players include Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Amado’s brother, and Juan Jose Esparragosa Moreno, also known as El Azul .
Mexican authorities said the Juarez cartel was probably responsible for the mass graves now being uncovered.
Some victims could be low-level workers from the rival Arellano-Felix gang on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Others are probably informants, witnesses and drug mules. As one former U.S. agent put it, “It’s a variety package of victims.”
Ciudad Juarez police almost certainly were involved in some of the murders, said Hector Berrellez, a former DEA special agent who investigated Mexico’s drug mafia. “They probably killed the people.”
His claim is supported by a Juarez group for relatives of the nearly 200 people – including as many as 22 Americans – reported missing in the border town in recent years.
“We believe that the Mexican police have always had knowledge of where our loved ones are,” said Jaime Hervella, head of the Association for Relatives and Friends of Missing Persons.
In virtually all the missing persons cases his group has documented, “the victims were picked up by people in military, attorney general or municipal police uniforms,” he said.
Leandra Pfeiffer said her son, Ricardo, a real estate agent, was abducted from his home in Ciudad Juarez in August 1996. The kidnappers asked for $250,000.
A municipal police officer arrived to pick up the money, and her husband tackled him. The suspect and an accomplice were arrested and jailed.
The captured officer told Mexican authorities where the victim was being held – as it turns out, at a spot a few yards from the one of the mass grave sites near Ciudad Juarez, Mrs. Pfeiffer said. But authorities didn’t act, and the victim was never found and is believed dead.
“My son was a victim not of the drug cartels, but of the Mexican police themselves,” said Mrs. Pfeiffer, who drove from her Albuquerque home to watch the search operation.
Indeed, death can come quickly and quite unexpectedly in the violent world of the Mexican mafia. Steal, cheat, lie. Lose a drug load. Land in jail. It can all get you killed.
“It doesn’t take much. The worst thing you could do is look at one of the drug capo’s girlfriends,” Mr. Jordan said. “All you need is a rumor that you’re talking to the authorities or double-crossing the traffickers and you’re dead. These people are trigger-happy, just like those in the movie Goodfellas .’ ”
Victims are often close to the drug organization, one DEA agent said.
“These are usually people who informed on their superiors, ripped them off or stole from them,” he said.
Once it comes down to killing, enforcers for the Mexican cartels are often very nonchalant, former U.S. agents said. One DEA intelligence report describes a hitman who always headed to his favorite restaurant after shooting someone because he said killing made him hungry.
Juan Garcia Abrego, a former drug kingpin now in prison in the United States, was said to have a penchant for killing people on the 17th of every month – so people stayed out of his way that day.
“As the legend goes, he had a quota. He had to kill someone every month,” said Cesar Romero, who writes about the drug trade for Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper. “It’s probably not true, but it’s a good story.”
Traffickers often torture their victims before killing them to find out what they know.
“You’re not talking about a lot of sophistication,” Mr. Jordan said. “They like to use cattle prods on the most sensitive parts of your body. They pour carbonated water up your nose, burn you with cigarettes. Typical torture to make people talk.”
His death more than two years ago triggered an intense power struggle in Ciudad Juarez and a flurry of killings, including brazen daylight machine-gun murders. But by then, at least some of the graves now being examined may not have been in use.
So other killing fields are likely to be out there, former U.S. agents said.
“Every trafficking organization has their favorite grave sites, and they are often protected by the police,” Mr. Jordan said. “This is not a new thing.”
Staff writers Alfredo Corchado and Nancy San Martin in El Paso and David McLemore in San Antonio contributed to this report .