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Excerpt: Ioan Grillo's El Narco

Zeta and El Narco (Part 2)


After Salinas left, his economic miracle collapsed like a paper tiger. In 1995, months into the new government of President Ernesto Zedillo, money poured out of the economy and the peso fell like a dead weight, triggering double-digit inflation. Overnight, the number of Mexican billionaires was halved from twenty-four to twelve. Down below, the middle class had their life savings wiped out, while many companies went out of business, costing millions of jobs. Bill Clinton, who had worked closely with Salinas, rushed faithfully to the rescue with a $50 billion bailout package to save Mexico from collapse.

This crisis sparked a surge in crime. Despite the steady rise of drug trafficking, modern Mexico had not been a dangerous country until then. Even in the eighties, mugging and robbery were relatively low, and Mexicans strolled the streets of big cities at all hours. But those good old days came to a rude end. Mugging, carjacking, and the heinous crime of kidnapping shot up, especially in the capital. Suddenly, everyone in Mexico City had a story about a family member getting a gun stuck to his head and turning out his pockets. Police failed to respond to this crime wave, creating an atmosphere of impunity that paved the way for the current criminal insurgency.

One Mexican industry wasn't affected by the peso crisis. Drug trafficking kept bringing in the billions, and as it got paid in dollars, the devaluation of the peso just gave El Narco more power. With an army of unemployed, the cartels could recruit foot soldiers more cheaply than before. El Narco became more deeply entrenched in slums across the country.

Another crucial transformation happened in this time: Mexicans in meaningful numbers started taking hard drugs. Mexicans had long seen cocaine and heroin as a gringo vice. "The Columbians make it, the Mexicans traffic it, and the Americans snort it," observers joked. But by the late nineties, Mexico had to concede it had its own army of heroin junkies and crackheads.

The spread of these drugs was directly linked to traffic. To maximize profits, Mexican capos started paying their lieutenants with bricks of cocaine and bags of heroin as well as cash. Many of these midranking hoods unloaded their products on Mexico's own streets to make a quick peso.

Tijuana developed the highest level of drug use in the country, with Arellano Félix affiliates setting up hundreds of tienditas, or little drug shops, especially in the center and eastside slums, The cartel's mob of hit men protected these drug retailers, adding an extra dimension to Mexican drug violence. Now it wasn't just about moving tons over the border; it was also about slinging crack to addicts.

Fighting over street corners drove violence to new highs with some three hundred homicides a year in Tijuana, and the same number in Juárez towards the end of the nineties. These were rates comparable to those of gang-infested U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. The American media began to pick up on the bloodshed and, for the first time, talk about the danger of "Colombianization," or the prospect of a full-blown narco war exploding on the United States' doorstep. Most dismissed such naysayers as alarmist nut jobs. As it turns out, the alarmist nut jobs were right.


American media also picked up on the bubbly characters of the Arellano Félix brothers and their cocaine binges, disco dancing, and dissolving of victims in acid. Time magazine published a story on them, and the movie Traffic even had character based on them making cocaine deals with Catherine Zeta-Jones. Accompanying the media attention were a series of indictments and rewards in the United States. And anytime that anyone mentioned the Arellano Félix brothers, the name of journalist Blancornelas flashed up. He really pissed them off.

Blancornelas thinks the last straw for Ramón Arellano Félix wasn't even a story he wrote but a letter he printed. One day, a distraught woman came into the Zeta office and asked to publish an ad. When she was told how much it wold cost, she said softly that she didn't have enough money. The curious Zeta worker asked to see what she wanted on display, and when he saw it, he immediately called Blancornelas. The journalist read the letter and was so moved he agreed to run it for free.

The woman had written a letter addressed directly to Ramón Arellano Félix, who'd ordered the murder of her two sons. The young men had been caught up in some street beef with one of Ramón's lieutenants. The mother wrote fearlessly out of love for her lost children:

"My beloved sons were the victims of the envy and cowardice of you, the Arellanos...You don't deserve to die yet. Death should not be your price or your punishment. I hope you live for many years and know the pain of losing children."

The woman disappeared from Tijuana after publishing the letter. Blancornelas believe she ran before the mafia could execute her. The frustrated Ramón Arellano Félix thus turned his wrath on the journalist.

Ten hit men ambushed Blancornelas as he drove with his bodyguard Luis Valero. They sprayed their car with bullets, killing Valero instantly. But Blancornelas was still alive with four caps in him. the chief hit man then strolled up to the car to take the final shot. But as the assassin walked forward, he fired a bullet that ricocheted off the concrete and into his own eye, killing him instantly. The rest of the gang abandoned their chief in a pool of blood. Blancornelas was saved by a miracle.

"Ramón ordered me dead. God didn't want it...but disgracefully they killed my companion and protector Luis Valero."


Images of original Zeta co-directors Jesus Blancornelas and Héctor "Gato" Félix keep their legacies alive at the Zeta offices.

The chief hit man was identified as David Barron, a Chicano gang-banger from San Diego known to work with the Arellano Félixes. Barron had tattoos of fourteen skulls on his midriff and shoulders, reputedly one for each man he had killed. Zeta reporters identified six more of the attackers as fellow thugs of Barron's from the San Diego barrio of Logan Heights. But despite the fact that Zeta handed piles of evidence to Mexican police, the thugs were never indicted and they were seen moving freely in San Diego. Some are still there.


The three border tycoons of the nineties all went down eventually. Juan Garcia Ábrego of the Gulf Cartel was arrested in 1996. He gave himself up without a shot, nabbed in a ranch near Monterrey. As an old-school capo, he was ultimately respectful of the Mexican system, in which the government called the shots. A year later, Amado Carrillo Fuentes died of plastic-surgery complications in a Mexico City hospital. Or did he? A gangster of mythological proportions in life, he went out in his own puff of smoke. It was all a trick, people whisper on the Juárez streets; Amado is really kicking it in the Caribbean sipping margaritas. Or maybe he is working in a gas station in Texas alongside Elvis Presley.

The Arellano Félix brothers survived the longest. Ramón Arellano Félix, the baby-faced psycho who pioneered narco terror in Mexico, lived on until the twenty-first century. Then in 2002, he was shot dead in a traffic stop by a local policeman in the seaside resort of Mazatlán. It was quite an undramatic death for a legendary outlaw. Something had gone seriously wrong with his network of police protection. Blancornelas penned the story about the killing of the man who tried to kill him, noting, "If some of his many victims could speak from the grave, maybe they would say to Ramón, 'As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you shall be.'"

A month later army special forces nabbed Benjamin Arellano Félix in a home where he kept his wife and children. The bosses' chief aides apparently failed to smell the trap. The capo is currently in Mexico's top-security prison, fighting extradition to the United States. Robbed of its two leaders, the Arellano Félix clan struggled on with the other brothers and sisters, but was severely weakened.


Blancornelas wasn't long celebrating the demise of his nemesis. In 2004, assassins shot dead Francisco Ortiz, the third founder of Zeta magazine. Ortiz was leaving a downtown clinic with his young son and daughter when gunmen fired four bullets into his neck and head. His two children shouted, "Papi! Papi!" as he died beside them, a witness said. This time, Zeta magazine was not even sure who was behind the hit.

Blancornelas despaired. While his reporting may have helped bring down one set of bad guys, cartels had only got more powerful and more violent. He was one of the few that saw the writing on the wall. As he said in an interview shortly before he died:

"El Narco used to be in certain states. But now it has grown across the whole of the Mexican republic. Soon El Narco will knock on the door of the presidential palace. It will knock on the door of the attorney general's office. And this will present a great danger."

From El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo, © 2011 by Ioan Grillo. Reprinted with permission from the author and Bloomsbury Press. "