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Lessons From the Border

Gabrielle Giffords--and other D.C. politicians--need to learn that drug lords run the show in Mexico

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It's been a month of farce and fear on the Arizona border. But beyond the politicians' rantings, business goes on as usual.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords tried to interrupt that normalcy at a meeting in Douglas on May 30.

It didn't work.

She called for a binational border security summit in Douglas. The meeting made sense, at first: Under the cool working lights of the Douglas Visitors' Center, officials could discuss what happened in Cananea, Sonora, on May 16--the bloodiest day of the Mexican drug wars. Twenty-four dead.

An upbeat Giffords met with reporters before the meeting. "We're going to start having a dialogue in terms of what we can do to keep our communities safer and reduce the drug violence on both sides of the border," she said.

She moved the meeting right along, outlining her ambitions for a working immigration-reform plan, including border-security aspects.

"Does anyone have any other goals that they would like to see from the outcome of today's meeting?"

Silence.

Moving right along: "No. 3 on our agenda is a review of the recent incidents that happened in Cananea, and I'd like to defer to our officials in Mexico to talk about what happened--how we could be of help, and further details that have not been able to be brought to light," the congresswoman said.

Twenty more seconds of silence passed.

"Who wants to go first?" she asked, laughing. She called on Agua Prieta mayor Antonio Cuadras to start--but he wasn't even there. Another 50 seconds passed. Still nothing.

Juan Calderón, the Mexican consul in Tucson, glanced quickly from right to left to see who would speak up. Ernesto Ajiz, field commander for the Federal Preventative Police in Agua Prieta, stared down at the agenda before him. Naco, Sonora, Mayor Jose Lorenzo Villegas stirred in his seat.

Finally, he spoke, saying his city lies 40 minutes away from Cananea--but maybe the Cananea mayor might show up later?

PFP Commander Ajiz volunteered his position: "I find myself in the same position as the mayor of Naco. We found out about these violent incidences after they occurred. Maybe the state prosecutor's office can offer some detail about what happened."

Sonora state representatives watched from the back of the room. They said nothing.

In true Mexico fashion, the only two men who could say anything--Sonora Attorney General Abel Murrieta and Commander Marco Armando Islas of the Agua Prieta army garrison--never showed.

The Americans were of little consequence, rambling about safety and its effects on tourism. Meanwhile, the Border Patrol section chiefs talked about their relationships with the Mexicans as if they drink together every day.

Welcome to the border, congresswoman.

I think Giffords learned her lesson: You don't call a public meeting to discuss what happens along this border.

The congresswoman is no stranger to Mexico. She was a Fulbright scholar for a year in Chihuahua, has family in Mexico City and worked for a summer in Guaymas, Sonora.

But in Mexico, one must contend with the politics of organized crime. The joint operating agreement between the cartels that make up the Sinaloa Federation results in a $10 billion-a-year drug economy. They're certainly not going to speak up.

And on this border, it's the dead who tell the tales.

The whisperings come across my desk at all hours. Last week, an e-mail arrived about a blood sacrifice to Santa Muerte that was found in a home in Hermosillo. I called that source right away.

"Are you crazy? What in the world has gotten into you people?"

He laughed bitterly. "Hey man, don't blame us; it isn't Sonorans. That shit comes from outside." Then he hung up.

The week before that, a call came about a body tortured and shot, found in a car with a note: "You left me standing alone, you didn't help me, you left me to die Chapo de la Rocha, Manolo Barrios. I'll wait for you over on the other side. You're coming too."

The date was May 9. Barrios is second in command of the Sonora state police. I still don't know who de la Rocha was.

On May 14, José Nemesio Lugo, a top anti-narcotics official with the Mexican Federal Attorney General's Office, was shot dead in Mexico City. More whisperings: He was investigating two airplanes stolen from a hangar at the Hermosillo Airport. Federal cops had ripped them off from the Sinaloans.

Then there's Cananea.

I arrived in Cananea late in the afternoon. The hunt for the killers was already on. The media were kept off to the side of the road. Photos weren't allowed, let alone questions. I use the plural, "media," loosely--there were only three of us, a reporter and photographer from El Imparcial, and myself.

A gunman lay facedown on the desert floor, dead from a shot to the head. I never knew his name, not that it matters; he was just a gunman, someone hired for the kidnap job.

Army camouflage fatigues were scattered around a white Ford F250. The rear passenger window was shot out. Seven bullet impacts chiseled the hood.

A helicopter circled the mountains to the west, a rifleman hunting the killers, one by one.

The sun settles early in these mountains, 70 miles south of Cochise County. By dusk, a perimeter was set up; the killers would be finished off in the morning.

This is what the Sonoran government admits: The killers swept in quickly, a commando the size of a platoon, 40, maybe 50 men. Some were hiding in the city already; others came in from the western Sonoran desert. They charged through the town, kidnapping cops and civilians, including two teenage girls.

The gunmen, a cell of the Gulf Cartel, killed five of the cops and three civilians. They tried to escape, heading south into the mountains. They found a rancher, an old Sonoran horseman. At gunpoint, they made him take them into the mountains, trying to slip away along the Rio Sonora. Someone took a knife and sliced his ear off. More mayhem; the operation was falling apart.

An angry Sonoran government launched a counterstrike. The Sonoran government has a police force of serious capacity, with intelligence officers trained by the Israelis, and commando units enhanced with teachings from the Russians and the South Africans.

Sixteen gunmen were killed in the battle in the mountains. A narco-trafficker from Cananea, Francisco Hernandez Garcia, led the cell. Six of the gunmen were former soldiers, and another was a former state police officer. A city police officer from Hermosillo was arrested the next day. The gunmen sent text messages to his cell phone, telling him to come to Arizpe and extract them.

A silence rests over the other details--the shadowy political maneuverings that led to Garcia's exile from Cananea, his back-room deals with the Gulf Cartel, the dead cops showing up on the streets of Hermosillo, a police chief whacked in Agua Prieta.

The center is slipping in Mexico. The drug lords of the Gulf Coast are closing in. The Sinaloans and the Mexican government are ceding territory. Nuevo Laredo was the first to go. Then Monterrey. Now Sonora is in their sights.

Can the Americans hold the line?

An iron river of weaponry flows south from Arizona. It runs through Lukeville, then along lonely Highway 2 to Caborca, slipping through the only route with no Mexican checkpoints in Sonora.

Stash houses have been popping up in the Catalina Foothills--$500,000 homes serving as nothing more than storage units for Mexican brick schwag. It's safer here in Arizona; there are no arguments that deteriorate into gun battles. There are fewer officials to pay off.

Washington, D.C., grossly misunderstands what the humblest Cananea miner sees clearly: The drug lords are running the show.

The congresswoman should be commended for her efforts. Just getting a roomful of officials from both sides of the border together to talk is an achievement in itself. But the way to get legitimate information is to talk to the intelligence agencies and the politicos, quietly, and one by one.

It wasn't too long ago that our biggest problems in Arizona were the garbage left behind by the illegal border crossers, the occasional car chase through midtown Tucson, and the dead migrants scattered across the desert.

But we're entering a new time now in Mexico, and the old rules don't apply anymore.

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