For 20 years, Melissa Del Bosque has reported on the narcotraffickers along the US- Mexico border, risking her life by venturing into cartel country to expose institutionalised corruption, devastation and shocking levels of extreme violence
We speak to writer Melissa del Bosque about the dangers of reporting the illicit activities of the violent drug cartels along the US- Mexico border
Mexico has been a haven for the narcotraffickers for decades, ever since the power shifted from Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in the 1980s. Before 2006, an uneasy truce between the Juárez, Sinaloa and other cartel affiliates meant that, while corruption and violence still existed as a part of billion- dollar narcotics industries, most people knew where they stood. Then, Sinaloa declared war on Juárez and a kind of hell broke out in the Mexican borderlands that only someone who has lived through the worst civil wars could relate to. This wasn’t just criminals shooting it out in the streets like Prohibition gangsters. The power and wealth the cartels wielded meant the corruption ran deep, through local law enforcement, government and even the army. Policemen and politicians were assassinated, bodies hung by the dozen from bridges, people disappeared and mass graves were discovered as entire villages were emptied to clear the way for the cartels.
The Juárez Valley fell under martial law but as the Zetas, who were aligned with the Juárez cartel, were made up of former Mexican special forces operatives, they were able to corrupt the army. Drawing on their military contacts,
It’s a conflict that has a lot to do with organised crime and politics being one
and the same in Mexico
they approached commanders to secure large caches of military- grade weapons, rocket launchers and explosives. In return, the Zetas could be recruited by the army for dirty, extrajudicial jobs. This paramilitary force of black- masked, highly trained and experienced killers now distinguish themselves with their extreme brutality among the cartels already known for employing torture and murder as a part of their business model.
Melissa Del Bosque’s career as a reporter investigating crime along the border has followed the escalation in narcoterrorism, occasionally taking her into the cartel heartlands and ‘ the deadliest place in Mexico’.
Where does your interest in crime across the US- Mexico border come from?
I’ve been writing about the US- Mexico border for the last 20 years, and when the drug war started getting really bad… I mean it really started in 2006, especially on the cities just on the other side of the Texas- Mexico border – Juárez and Nuevo Laredo. You’d have heard a lot about Juárez but Nuevo Laredo is quite bad. That is due to these guys, the Zetas who I write about, because that’s their home turf.
I’m originally from San Diego [ in California], another border town, but I’ve been here in Texas for the last 20 years. So when the violence started spiking and getting really bad, as a border reporter I started having to cover it. And that’s how I started writing about the drug war and writing about crime in Mexico. It was just unavoidable at that point because there was so much fighting going on.
How much crime spillover is there from the Mexican border towns into the US? Does it feel like a frontier?
This is something that surprises people a lot, but there isn’t much spillover. The cities on the US side have very low crime, because one reason is there is a lot of law enforcement there. Another reason for the violence in Mexico is that it’s political. Political parties controlling territory, and politicians being in bed with organised crime. It’s like a mafia situation, like you’d see in Sicily or something. It’s a homegrown conflict that has a lot to do with organised crime and politics being one and the same in Mexico. Corruption’s a big reason for a lot of the problems there.
Right A gold and silver medallion seized from a Zetas member, emblazoned with the cartel logo, is on display at the Mexican Secretary of National Defense headquarters inMexico City above $ 10,000 or more in cash has to be declared at the US- Mexico border, so many multiple cash drops had to be made for the Zetas to get money into the US. The FBI was able to photograph some of these drops taking place