Reflections on dirtyness

Since writing my book and basically wrapping up my reporting on the drug war, I’ve been doing some reflecting on what I witnessed and have tried to understand.

“Democracy cannot endure if the roots of its system have rotted,” Alejandro Junco de la Vega, chairman and chief executive of Mexico’s Grupo Reforma, said at a summit on violence against journalists today.

Indeed. Over the past three years, I’ve encountered some of those rotten elements. Sometimes I’ve sympathized with those involved. After one visit to the prison in Culiacan and talking to low-level narcos, I found myself quite saddened by their plight. One inmate I had talked to was clearly intent on making a better life for himself once outside; but deep inside, he knew he wouldn’t have a hope in hell. You could tell by the look on his face, the anguish he expressed as he talked of going straight, of betraying his drug bosses, of the reality of his chances. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do the right thing; he had no real choice in the matter.

I witnessed a similar sentiment from a cop in Juarez. We were talking in a near whisper in the police station (which at the time was controlled by the army) and he mentioned how he had worked for the narcos. He would again once the army was gone, he said. He looked at me without expression. He had no choice, his fate was chosen. They know where my family lives and kids go to school, he whispered. He knew on which side he would end up, and he had just as little real choice as the narcos I had talked to in prison.

I’ve talked to dozens of Mexican officials in the past few years, and most of them accept the reality of the game they’re pawns in. Some are really good cops, whose stories I believe. Others are not, but they are controlled by powers far stronger than they. Most often, their choice is money or death. I can sympathize with their plight, even though I can’t condone it.

Then there are the officials who act in a blinding state of total hypocrisy. The Noe Ramirez’s of this world, who pledge to crack down on drug trafficking and then are found to have taken $450,000 from the narcos themselves. I simply don’t understand the level of hypocrisy in the brains of these sorts of people. I’m no saint or preacher myself, but these guys purport to be exactly that, crusaders for justice. And then they work with the narcos? It’s beyond wrong. It’s not the average guy breaking his own rules in a moment of weakness or temptation, it’s the powerful, respected crusader breaking everything he stands for.

And they exist everywhere, not just Mexico.

They range from the small – U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Michael Gilliland, for instance, knowingly waved cars full of illegal aliens through his border entry point – to the bigger – customs man Richard Padilla Cramer, who pleaded guilty on trafficking and corruption charges but later cut a deal for obstruction of justice – to the top dogs…

I recently had the opportunity to appear on CNN International in New York, and while getting prepared beforehand, found myself sitting next to Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York and attorney general famous for fighting organized crime. Oh, and he’s also the guy who solicited a prostitute from a ring and took her across state lines, breaking a law he had so fervently sought to enforce.

We had a quick chat about Mexico, and organized crime there. I listened to his opinions, because, well, he does know a lot about organized crime and he’s an extremely sharp guy. But throughout the chat I felt myself moving away from him, shifting uneasily. I couldn’t understand this man. He was a crusader, a good tough guy, and had a moment of weakness. I get that. We all have moments of weakness. But most of us don’t break every rule we stand for when having them. Most of us get drunk, or do something else that is wrong or stupid. People like Eliot Spitzer are not just “the average guy,” they’re supposed to be the man fighting against the bad things so that the weaknesses of “the guy” are not exploited in life.

Just my thoughts…it makes me wonder sometimes.