Director and Producer, Blood on the Wall; Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and Du Pont Award winner
Independent Journalist; Former Chief Correspondent, Mexico/Central America, Thomson Reuters; CFR Member
Panelists discuss the ongoing migration crisis in Central America. From Academy Award–nominated director Sebastian Junger and Emmy-winning producer Nick Quested, Blood on the Wall explores the depths of corruption plaguing Mexico and Central America and the policies of the past that have prevented everyday people from finding justice.
SCHRANK: Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting on the film Blood on the Wall, documenting the migration crisis in Central America and the complex challenge of drug trafficking in Mexico. Our panelists today are Paul Joseph Angelo. Paul is the fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and has just today published a special report on Venezuela's security and justice challenges and what the international community can do if Maduro were to step down and I commend it highly to you. And we also have with us Nick Quested. Nick is director and producer of this film his documentary Blood on the Wall, producer of over 35 films, he has won two Emmys and a DuPont Award for his previous work, and if I'm giving him short shrift, you can read his bio, I think. I am Delphine Schrank. I am an independent journalist, author, and the former chief correspondent for Thomson Reuters covering Mexico and Central America, and I will be presiding over today's discussion.
I wonder if we can begin by talking a little bit first about the making of, Nick. The documentary does a great service I think in taking us inside the lives of Mexican drug traffickers as they cross the border, members of the Sinaloa Cartel as they oil their guns or manufacture their drugs in the hillside labs, but it also documents the travels and travails of Central Americans fleeing north through Mexico, in this case, in what was the biggest caravan of recent memory in the fall of 2018. At what—at one point including some 7,000 to 10,000, mainly Hondurans, who call themselves the Exodus. Nick, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. How did the idea come about to juxtapose those twin narratives in one documentary? And what were you hoping to achieve?
QUESTED: So we all, with the political rhetoric that was going on at the time, at the beginning of 2016 or towards the end of 2016, we felt we needed to humanize the issue of migration by actually seeing migrants and understanding who they were, what their circumstances were in the country they were leaving, why they chose to leave their homes, and how they were dealing with the very difficult circumstances on the caravan. I thought that was very revealing to their psychology because anyone is prepared to cross potentially one of the most dangerous countries in the world at the moment. Obviously, their home life has got to be seriously dangerous for them to want to leave their house. And then I don't think you can separate the push factors of migration from the politics of narcotics in the region over the last 20 years and the use of narcotics as a political tool, whether it's the interdiction and the closing of the cocaine routes through the Caribbean to Miami, and the movement of the drug trade towards Mexico, or it's the tacit consent of American—of the State Department, the CIA, and the use of Juan Matta-Ballesteros to actually transact the Iran-Contra.
So these are all, and then the support of narco-corrupt administrations in Central America, whether it be particularly Hernandez in Honduras, or Morales in Guatemala, or I don't know, Bukele has actually been linked to narco-trafficking, but he's certainly negotiating with narco-traffickers to maintain control over Western San Salvador. So, I don't think you can present the issue of migration without delving into the socioeconomic history of the region and narco-politics in general, because there's no way you can separate narco-politics from Mexican politics. The pre-administered system, it was a system of control and it was so deep and so complete that the dissent was—the PRI didn't censor people, they prevented the newspapers from buying newsprint in order to print then their dissenting opinions. So, it's that level of control it's way beyond—it was a way of life, and that was also supported by America. So how can you separate a dictatorship—the perfect dictatorship—in the words of a former Mexican president?
SCHRANK: How are you—this is a tradecraft question from a fellow journalist that I think it might be of interest to our members—how are you able to get so deeply inside the Sinaloa Cartel, inside criminal organizations? That's they're not always very open to showing themselves with their guns in their drug labs. Can you talk a little bit about your process and working with Mexican journalists?
QUESTED: So, I work with a colleague from a newspaper called Rio d'Orsay, Miguel Angel Vega. So we always discuss this, what we would sit in the mountains and discuss, when we were discussing access it was one thing, and they watched some of the films that we've made beforehand and saw that we were as objective as you can be, we feel. So, they wanted to present their lifestyle to us, they wanted to present the way that they do business and the code that they live by. They talk constantly about their code, and what they thought was right and wrong, and in the vacuum of power of the Sinaloa mountains, there is no rule of law, there's only the rule of authority, and you can probably extend that to the rest of Mexico, but what does the state do? It provides dispute resolution and it provides security for the people that live there, and that's what the Cartel de Sinaloa is doing from the south of Sinaloa to the border in Sonora. That is firmly their territory and when you're in their territory, we were their guests. So, we never felt—when we were in the mountains—we never even felt tense. It's not like Juarez, which is the border crossings that are so disputed, like Juarez, like Matamoros, like Reynosa, these are war zones, but Culiacan is not a war zone. It's very tranquil in comparison to lots of Mexico because people know the rules and they wanted to show their rules. And you sit there, and you think about what these guys do. These guys, there's no existential crisis for a narco. They live in the moment. They are trying to run as fast as they can to make as much money as they can, because they know they're going to die or go to jail, which is for them almost the same. So, they wanted, I think, to present a snapshot of who they were and why they do these things.
SCHRANK: Thanks, Nick. That leads nicely into a question I'd like to ask Paul, which is the documentary raises a lot of troubling questions about the security situation in Mexico, now, obviously, and in the past, and alludes to those in Central America pushing people out. Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took power in December 2018, promising a different approach from his predecessor, more conciliatory, "abrazos no balazos," "hugs not guns," a strategy premised on reducing poverty and rather than attacking the kingpins of the cartels and guns in the streets. And yet, 2019 saw the greatest number of homicides on record, and 2020 looks at to beat that, such that even during the COVID-19 freeze, violence in Mexico has been rising. And I've heard that anecdotally in Central America, too. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, why that is, perhaps more about the fragmentation of the cartels, and how you assess the situation in Mexico now.
ANGELO: Sure, thank you, Delphine. And before I begin my formal comments about the situation in Mexico, I'd just like to commend Nick on his bravery and congratulate him on this film, and presenting what I think is a harrowing yet necessary contribution to the larger public debate we are having or should be having in this country about migration and how we treat the people who have sacrificed so much, sometimes everything, to come to this country. The journey that Nick captured in the personal vignettes that he's chosen, profile, the desperation, fear, trauma, malaise, and even in some cases, just plain out boredom that lead people in Central America and in the southern part of Mexico to migrate to the United States. And what I was most glad to see was that you've captured or addressed the parody on both sides of the border, that this is not just a Mexico problem or a Northern Triangle problem, but rather the actors in the United States, be it a border patrol, drug traffickers, drug pushers, human traffickers, and even the U.S. gun lobby, are contributing to violence, insecurity south of the border, and by extension, the migrant crisis that we've been confronting for much of the past decade.
So, to address the question of Mexico and the most recent approach to dealing with the cartels and violence that is mentioned, Delphine, is spiraling out of control. I think it goes back to a point that was made in the film about the fragmentation of criminal violence in Mexico, which happened in parallel to the process of democratization. The fracturing of the PRI at the turn of the century basically left Mexico, at least political power in Mexico, as a free for all. And so, what was previously negotiated at the federal level between the PRI and various cartels to keep the country in a more peaceful state no longer had that kind of centralization. And so various political authorities at the municipal and state level had to renegotiate with organized crime and delinquency. The kinds of relationships that had previously been struck at the national level. That's when we really start to saw the fracturing among our groups in Mexico. And I think when states continue to spiral out of control through the end of the Fox administration, but when the Calderon administration came to power at the end of 2006, and basically declared a full-frontal war on the cartels, we saw additional fracturing. And Calderon is fond of saying that when he came to power they had identified, or the Mexican government identified, some 20 criminal organizations that sort of existed at the level of cartel. Well, that number today, depending on the estimate, sits somewhere between 200 and 400.
So, we've seen a complete proliferation of cartel organization across the national territory and what's more is we've seen, and this is again tracing back to how the United States contributes to the root causes of such insecurity. The lapse of the assault rifle ban in 2004 led to a significant increase in the exports of illegal firearms to Mexico, which per my conversations with police were on the border, say that it happens somewhere at a rate of about 2,000 illegally imported firearms a day. In that kind of scenario, the militarized responses that have been pursued by the Mexican government are going to continue to be ineffectual unless there's a turn towards helping address the local causes or social causes of violence in the country. And this is something that AMLO has been fairly sophisticated in pushing through his political rhetoric with the “abrazos no balazos” strategy, but, frankly, it's remained at the level of rhetoric. In fact, AMLO, who spent 15 years campaigning against the militarization of law enforcement in Mexico, has pursued a similarly militarized strategy for dealing with the cartels by standing up the National Guard. But, as I said, I don't think that the Mexican government will be able to out arm or out fight the cartels. In fact, AMLO has been having a very difficult time trying to find enough people to recruit for the National Guard and actually had to take the vast majority of (inaudible), the members of the National Guard, and take them from the Marine Corps or from the Army and re-uniform them as National Guardsmen. So that's really where we find ourselves in Mexico today and this is why the homicide rate for this year is projected to be likely the highest on record.
SCHRANK: And actually, that takes us back to the to the documentary. What I found so striking in it was in some ways, the commonality of those criminals that you document, Nick, we're caught in the drug business and the migrants who themselves are fleeing criminals many of them, many of the ones that you caught, and effectively they all spoke of the hopelessness, which sounds like a cliche, but it's very real and then that leads them to do what they do. It reminds me of a friend I've been tracking for two years in Honduras, an MS-13 sicario who had killed 17 people by age 19. I met him in prison, and since prison he's been hiding in his own country, desperately trying to lead an honest life, and to leave all that behind, but hiding from everyone around him. Recently he gave up and the COVID pandemic just accelerated everything. He tried to leave, he was pulled back in and he's basically back and doing criminal things, not because he wants to, but because he kind of has to do. And my sense is there's no redemption, I think this film captures that. So I wonder if you could each address that. Paul, can you talk a little bit about that cycle of violence, poverty, or however you see it in Central America? And maybe what previous administrations, the Obama administration, had tried to do with anti-violence, anti-corruption programs, and setbacks you might have seen to that in the last two, three years, pushing people out?
ANGELO: Yeah, I think what this really goes back to is sort of the history of civil war in Central America. I think starting in the early 1960s in Guatemala, and then to pinnacling during the 1980s, when you had Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador all in full-fledged civil conflicts, what we saw in Central America was basically a societal acceptance of violence as a dispute mechanism. Nonetheless, despite the fact that you've had millions of people fleeing violence throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, the U.S. government has a long history of treating refugees from Central America as economic migrants instead of asylum seekers because there's so much intersectionality for the motives for why people from Central America decide to pick up and move or migrate to the United States. In 1984, for instance, a mere 3% of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied for asylum in the United States at the U.S. border were granted that asylum. So I think that points to a sort of a larger issue that a lot of times the types of violence that we're seeing in Central America today are not given the same kind of attention from the U.S. immigration system that political asylum seekers from other countries or other contexts have been afforded historically.
Another circumstance that you have in Central America, and this is something that I think the film does a very good job of underscoring, is that the triad of law and order in Central America is broken. The police, the courts, the prisons, they're all corrupted at every level, and there's a chain of impunity. Mexico has an impunity rate for all crimes at 99%, has an impunity rate for homicides—it's around 93%, and that kind of level of corruption is among the institutions of law and order. Also, it sort of carries over into corruption perpetrated by political authorities, and so people in Central America and in Mexico tend not to trust political authorities. You know, as Nick mentioned, President Hernandez has been named a co-conspirator in his brother's drug crimes by the U.S. Department of Justice. President Hernandez was also accused of electoral fraud, having stolen his re-election after stacking the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of his changing the constitution to allow for his re-election to begin with. Living in that kind of environment, it takes out your—you lack the faith that you need in order for a democracy to work. And we just saw this morning that Bukele has now been embroiled in allegations of money laundering and a scheme involving PDVSA and Venezuela. And so, people do not trust their political authorities, which means that they're going to be taking the law into their own hands. And that's exactly the kind of environment that has allowed gangs and modas in Central America and cartels across the region to thrive.
SCHRANK: Can you speak a bit more about the programs that the U.S. government had funded?
ANGELO: So, during the latter years of the Obama administration, there was bipartisan support in U.S. Congress for a surging of resources to help the countries and governments of the Northern Triangle address crime and violence, in particular, but more broadly the root causes of migration. And, I think that the pinnacle or the most successful instance of that intervention was a program called playspace strategy, which was a community based strategy that layered the efforts of the U.S. State Department, U.S. development agencies, in target communities in Central America, and particularly in urban spaces, to reduce crime and violence. And in the communities where I worked in Honduras, for instance, we saw reductions of homicides in the span of two years by over 60%, in three communities of San Pedro School, which had been the homicide capitals of the country for the years preceding our intervention there.
But one thing that I sense that our support or assistance under the Obama administration, one space, where I think it may have missed the mark was that we focused excessively on the urban space and weren't really addressing the concerns or causes of migration from people in rural spaces, and among those is, frankly, climate change. Central Americans, and particularly Central Americans who live in this stretch of land called the dry corridor, have over the past decade confronted variable weather patterns and just a higher than average annual temperatures. And that's led to the failure of crops like coffee, plantains, of banana. It's led to an invasion by bark-eating beetles, which has affected the timber industry, which is a major industry in a country like Honduras. So, the path that we typically see is that once somebody cannot thrive in the countryside, that individual will likely be displaced to an urban space in Central America. So you'll leave the countryside and end up in San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City, where you'll stay with family, but having not the sort of professional qualifications to compete in an urban economy, it's at that point that a lot of those migrants tend to pick up and move northward. And so even during the best years of Central America strategy, which $750 million dollars of resources was flooded to the governments of the Northern Triangle to help address the root causes of migration, in El Salvador, only 1% of those funds went towards helping alleviate problems in the countryside. In Honduras and Guatemala, it's about 15%. So, I think that was a major deficiency. And then, unfortunately, when the Trump administration came to power, we saw that aid suspended for well over a year on the condition that the governments of the Northern Triangle were not seen to be cooperating with the Trump administration the way that President Trump sort of so desired, and it was a punitive action that I think set us back tremendously in terms of the kind of progress that we were making with the existing programs during our implementation.
SCHRANK: And Nick, on that question then of the lack of social programs, the lack of health, I wonder if you can take us a little bit deeper into the heads of the individuals you are documenting. You know, if I may, I pulled out a couple of quotes that you quote. You have Rafa in the Sinaloa Cartel saying here there are a few jobs, a few ways to survive, you got to do what you got to do. And then the lovely Ludy, 17, a migrant from Honduras, "I wasn't planning to go, I don't have family here, I have no job or a place to sleep. I was raped." I could go on and on, don't want to take from you. Can you just tell us a little bit more about how you sort of see how their social environments really gave them so few choices? I mean, there's almost a sort of sense of victimhood there but maybe it's not that. Can you discuss that and maybe where they are now?
QUESTED: So, let me address the—so Rafa from Culiacan. So, we went from Culiacan into the mountains and it’s, as the crow flies, maybe 80 miles, but it was a four-hour drive. Once you get past one checkpoint, the judiciales, and then you pass a—you hit the cartel checkpoints and after that it's pretty much dirt roads that look that are rain for, I can't imagine. We went in the dry season; I can't imagine what it's like in the wet season. But you know, we had a four-wheel drive and we were like throwing rocks into the road to be able to get up because it was so far out that we were just ripping out the bottom of the car. So, they are in a very inaccessible place very close to an urban area, and the mountains of the Sierra Madre are a perfect hideout for a gang because they're super inaccessible. The only way to control that territory would be to garrison it and the last time the Marines came up there was an open firefight between the villages of La Tuna and La Palma that resulted in—I don't know how many injuries there were but a guy we talk about, who was with us, he got shot three times and still has, he doesn't—he works on their farms because he has a bullet that's like stuck next to his heart.
So, they—you're talking an agrarian culture in a mountains that has no access to a market. They are perfectly situated to export large quantities of whatever it is into the United States, and then go back to their mountain hideout. Geographically, they are perfectly situated. The plains of Sonora and Chihuahua lie at the foot of the Sierra Madre, and the border and direct access to the urban areas of the Midwest, Chicago, straight up from the Chihuahua borders. So, their choice is close to subsistence farming in a mountainous and hot and dusty region, or it's what everyone else in the mountains is doing, which is exporting narcotics to the ravenous Americans. And they feel no shame in being part of this trade. There's no shame. They say if it's not me, it will be somebody else, so it might as well be me. But saying that, like how do you not look at someone who's only choice is joining organized crime. Do you look, where do you draw the line of responsibility? Do you draw it at the people who make decisions? Or do you say everyone in this business is forever an outlaw and will pay whatever the rule of law says? Because there is no rule of law, so where do you draw the line and how do you reintegrate these people back into society? If you're looking to do that at all. Or do you need an enemy that you can continue to fight?
There's no real unified effort to reduce the price or demand of drugs. And you can reduce the price and that reduces the you putting a supply side pressure, because there's not as much incentive to export narcotics if they're not as valuable. There's always going to be a business at a border, especially an artificial border that only was made after the Mexican-American War, which is still a very raw point to people in Mexico, and oblivious to people in America. You often hear in Mexico, the American war is the war that America never remembers and Mexico never forgets. So, where do you want to draw the line? If there's a line, there's going to be a delta between prices, there's going to be an incentive, how do you reduce these incentives? Because they don't feel they're doing anything wrong. And you have to look at this as economics, not politics.
SCHRANK: Fascinating. I would have liked to talk a little bit about migration, but now, actually, we get to turn it over to the members. At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversations with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.) We will take our first question from Diana Negroponte.
Q: Thank you very much and Nick I really look forward to seeing your movie. My question this morning is for Paul. Paul, you will recall that in past U.S. administrations, we focused on the judicial reforms in Mexico, seeing the necessity to correct a Spanish Napoleonic system into a more transparent Anglo-Saxon system. Where does that stand today?
ANGELO: Yeah, that's a that's a fantastic question, because I think it gets to the heart of why Mexico is still having so many problems with the rule of law. As you rightly mentioned, that the United States came to Mexico support starting in 2008 when President Calderon pushed through Mexican congress a judicial reform that was essentially a decade long effort to transition the country from a sort of a French inquisitorial style of administering justice to a justice system that is based on the U.S. accusatorial model in which the defendant is presumed innocent. Unfortunately, although formally all of the courts at the three levels of government have transitioned to this new model in Mexico, the extent of training that people have received across the national territory, as with anything in Mexico, very substantially. I was at a conference last year with prosecutors from the state of Guerrero, which is one of the most dangerous states in Mexico, and the prosecutors were telling me that most of their colleagues had not been trained in the new accusatorial justice system, and the same could be said about judges in some parts of the national territory. And so despite the fact that the United States government has participated in administering assistance by USAID mostly, to the Mexican government to help revamp the Criminal Code, and implement and design training courses for judicial professionals. The implementation post-2017 has left a lot to be desired.
SCHRANK: Teagan, if we're waiting for another question, I would just follow up on that Paul. Can you perhaps talk a little bit about the situation of judicial reforms, or rather the lack thereof, in Central America? Which is another reason that people are moving out because, again, the film did such a great job of showing that really it's the authorities that are as much to blame, from the point of view of the people that were documented.
ANGELO: So, Delphine, in Central America, I think that the experience of the two international judicial commissions over the past decade that were operating in Central America, the MACCIH, which is the Mission Against Impunity and Corruption in Honduras, which was sponsored by the OAS, and the CICIG, the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which is sponsored by the United Nations, laid bare the deficiencies in judicial administration in Central America and the vast levels of—the breaches of corruption, I should say—and the ties between oligarchs in the region and organized crime. And, the MACCIH to a lesser degree, but the CICIG was a very successful intervention in the sense that firstly, it took several people to task, including a president and a vice president. As the CICIG was getting closer to Morales, that was when the CICIG's mandate was revoked. You also had over the period of operation of the CICIG, which was introduced in 2006, especially as a way to reduce organized crime, violence, and homicide, we saw the halving of the homicide rate in Guatemala. Unfortunately, as the CICIG encroached on the prerogatives of people who are in power, we saw a decline in the amount of support for the CICIG among politicians, despite the fact that 72% of Guatemalans had a favorable opinion of the CICIG's operation in the country. And lamentably, the U.S. government did very little to protest the closure of the CICIG, even though the U.S. government starting during the Bush administration, and especially during the Obama administration, had underwritten a lot of the operation of the CICIG in Guatemala. The experience of the MACCIH was less robust from the outset, but again, the MACCIG was disbanded early this year, in January, largely because political oligarchs felt that their prerogatives were being encroached upon by a judicial body that wasn't being advised by international regional organizations. There was a claim that this was an impingement on the country's sovereignty and potentially a violation of the Constitution. And again, the Trump administration remains silent in the face of, really, this this judicial erosion.
SCHRANK: Thanks, Paul. Teagan, can we have another question, please?
STAFF: Certainly. We will take our next question from Shannon O'Neil.
Q: Hi, everyone. Thank you for all of those remarks. I wanted to ask both of you perhaps to reflect a little bit on what changing drug markets in the United States mean for what's happening in Mexico and these countries, and also Central America. So, you know, we have seen marijuana used to be sort of a workhorse for these cartels. 30, 40% of their revenues now with legalization expanding throughout states, that revenue has disappeared. We have seen the price of goma—opium—that's grown in Gurrero and other places just collapse with the rise of synthetic opioids here in the United States, and prescription drugs and that expansion. We've seen the rise of fentanyl, you know, many of the precursors coming in from China, but that becoming a much more prevalent drug and takes a lot less space and the like. So, it's a different kind of transportation and movement of illicit drugs. So I'd be interested in how you all, both, Nick, in your reporting and in doing the documentary, did you start seeing these changes on the ground with the cartels trying to switch revenue streams and ways of doing this or even the way that they transported across the border? How did it look on the ground for the people that you were with and that you saw? And then Paul, maybe you could talk a little bit about sort of the overall drug markets and what this means. And I'd be really interested in, you know, I love the documentary, but it was quite pessimistic. Given the shakeups in the drug market, is there any optimism? Is there any opportunity for governments like United States or Mexico or others to take advantage of these shifts and maybe guide these countries in a different path? Or does it just present even more insurmountable challenges? Thank you.
QUESTED: Alright, so as far as the effect of the changing drug markets, we were in the in the fields of Guerrero, like we were four hours outside of Acapulco, for when we met the farmers. They were, and you understand the way they're living is the Goma that they sell—the opium, compressed opium—that is the difference between meat on their table and a refrigerator and a little bit of gas for the car they share with three or four other people and clothes for the kids. They live in a hyper-rural—a long way from a town, and so the price of the depression and the price of opium is significantly affecting their lifestyle. When you move up to the processing, you're still looking at campesinos that the price to weight ratio of cannabis makes the growing of cannabis in Sinaloa and the exportation to the United States unfeasible. But you're starting to see the cartels taking over illegal growing operations. In California, there were seven migrants killed in a northern California quasi-legal cannabis setup where they have a permit to grow a certain amount and then they hide huge greenhouses in the valley behind and grow 20, 30 times what they're meant to grow.
There's an enormous business in black market cannabis at the moment because they're economists, they put the manufacturer closer to the market so the cost of transfer for their product is lower, and there's no issue with them crossing the border anymore. So you're going to see more and more of that, maybe that the guys from the mountains will have to go and run and become protection for these new grow operations that are in United States. So they're going to diversify and find other ways, and that's another reason when they go from being predatory in the United States to parasitic in their own communities, where you can see that in Acapulco, when the tourist market evaporated, there's no more tourists to sell drugs to, they still need—once you're the wrong side of the law, you're the wrong side of the law. So you're then, at that point, looking to your only source of revenue, which is the taxi drivers and the people in the territory you control, and the more territory you control, the more people you can tax. And we're talking very, very small amounts. You know, you're talking, in terms of Westerners, like what's the rent for a fishmonger at a fish stall in a market in the hills above Acapulco? $10? $5? But even then, they can't pay it and they pay with their life because everyone has to pay the rent. And that's from the shoeshine boy, to the Chief of Police. Everyone pays up. It's a pyramid. So, I think you still need to push downward pressure on the price of drugs and reduce the incentive to be in that business, it's just economics.
ANGELO: Thanks, Shannon, for the question. I would just say that we've seen some interesting trends over the past two or three years in terms of marijuana trafficking from the United States and Canada to Mexico, which sort of flips this whole equation on its head, but cartels in Mexico are cooperating or working with operatives in the United States because in Mexico there's a premium now on certain variants of marijuana that can only be grown in climate zones in the United States, for instance. So now, that's just an interesting trend that we've seen, and I think that it points to a broader trend among cartel behavior that cartels are extremely adaptable. You even saw after September 11, when there was a securitization along the U.S.-Mexico border and cartels found it more difficult to get their products to the U.S. market, they started creating local markets, which served only to proliferate the kinds of violence associated with drug sales in Mexican national territory.
We've seen the same thing in Central America. Cartels and delinquent organizations, they tend to create markets when they have an excess in supply, and a lot of the violence that we're seeing in the most vulnerable areas of Central America are problems of violence that stem from drug sales at the local level. So, I would just say that the cartels are adaptable and they're going to continue to find ways to make a profit one way or another. Even as we've seen an expansion of fentanyl use in the United States, for instance, that's not to say that the consumption of cocaine or marijuana has dropped off. In fact, the marijuana cocaine use in the United States have been, for the most part, stable over the past five to six years. So, I think this all just points to the adaptability of the cartel.
SCHRANK: Just as a quick follow up, I was expecting the movie to actually get to the point where the drug cartels and the migrants would kind of combine forces and that they would become traffickers of the migrants, which gets to there's a lot of highly charged rhetoric about almost a conflation of drug cartels and the trafficking of migrants from Central America. Can you both speak a bit to that in terms of the diversification of these drug cartels and their involvement in smuggling of migrants?
QUESTED: One of our last scenes was we were planning on filming the manual transportation of drugs over the border where the Sonoran Desert is that crosses into southern Arizona. It's a particularly brutal part of the border. It's at altitude, it's hyper dry, it has a prolific large-scale fauna of mountain lions and rattlesnakes and tarantulas. It's not a great place to cross. And it's super dry and hot and at altitude. But we didn't because we ran out of time and money to it. So, it's so difficult to stop. And also, the quantity. The estimation of the quantity from a friend in the DA said there was 350 metric tons of cocaine smuggled north through the—across the border from Mexico into America. That's 700,000 pounds. So that's a lot of lorries if they're full, like one a week, two a week. So, imagine when it's broken up into smaller 20-kilogram shipments. And the border is so porous. People literally drive north, like the level of scrutiny is maybe 1%, and we got pulled over because we're three very suspicious looking guys with cameras but like they just thought we were funny. There wasn't any real effort to search our car. They were like "Oh, go and stand over here. Oh, you've got a—there was a passport issue." We got back in the car and go. It's very cursory. And how do you control that many vehicles? How many vehicles cross from Mexico into the United States every day?
And they're very sophisticated in their techniques so it's very difficult to spot. They dip the screws that they use—they hide the drugs behind the lights or in the carpet—they put the screws in salt water so when they put the screw back into the thing it doesn't look like it's been screwed in by I think it's (inaudible). So, they have as much as they can, they perfected this art. There's still some variables, but there's the ability to corrupt the Border Patrol. There's the sheer volume of this and, you know, the volume is so big. It's not just migrants that are taking this across. But there is some that does cross with migrants, but it's through a tunnel. The volume is just too big. It's organized and it's effective and it's already been sold when it's already on its way up. It's a completely vertically integrated business, from the sea to the street. I mean, we followed that opium all the way to a motel in downtown Los Angeles. It happens with the world going on around you. Nothing's changing. When we drove out of there, there's a McDonald's and a 711 and hundreds of people on the street in their cars. And there's eight kilos of cocaine in this hotel room, and everyone keeps going on about his business. It exists in perfect synchronization.
SCHRANK: Paul, do you want to answer, or should we move on to another question? Let's move on. Let's get a member to ask a question.
STAFF: Certainly. We will take our next question from John Clark.
Q: Good afternoon. I'm John Clark, I was a military fellow at the Council in 2008, since retired from the Air Force, I'm now a vice president with Lockheed Martin. First of all, congratulations on this movie, I found it very interesting and beautifully done. The cinematography is very beautiful, even for such a difficult topic. So, congratulations on that. And my question has to do with the sense, for me, watching the movie, or the documentary, is that Mexico has an insurgency. It seems like you need classic counterinsurgency techniques to have any effect just on that one aspect of the multiple problems that you covered in this documentary, be it migration, drug cartels in Mexico, the overwhelming demand in the United States. So, there's lots of aspects to it, but just on the Mexican violence part alone, did either of you or both of you have a sense that essentially what they're facing is an insurgency?
ANGELO: I mean, the notion of a criminal insurgency in Mexico has been a part of some of the academic literature for much of the past decade, decade and a half. But I would just push back on that notion of it because when we talk about insurgency we assume that the cartels have a political ambition, and from what I know about cartels, for them, really, it's all about the bottom line, and they only seek to involve themselves in politics in a way that ensures that legislation is favorable to their meeting their bottom line. So, I would hesitate to advocate for a counterinsurgency type strategy for dealing with cartels in Mexico, and would rather push for the kinds of interventions that would lead to addressing the social and local dynamics that lead people to join these cartels to begin with. And as I said, starting with the Peña Nieto administration actually, there was a real effort to try to introduce prevention programming as a way of deterring recruitment in critical areas. To some extent in places like [inaudible] or Monterrey, those efforts proved to be temporarily successful. But they weren't continued, and they certainly weren't continued when there was a transfer of power. And, again, AMLO has signaled in this direction but where the rubber meets the road there's been very little done in that regard.
QUESTED: I would second that. I think that they've been fighting the cartels as if it was an insurgency since 2006. I think that in some ways fighting fire with fire just makes the fire worse, and that you need to address the social issues. And as far as the cartel’s political agenda in politics, it seems to be much more about controlling the city and state level politics through bribery and the cooption of elections especially. In Sonora, you saw a very classic case of the intersectionality between the cartels and local politics with a group called the Salazares who ended up killing a journalist. It was Miroslava Breach who was investigating the relationship between the Salazares and the governorship of Chihuahua. So, the intersectionalities, the political agenda is to further their business, not to become politicians themselves. Although some of the politicians are highly linked to cartels, whether it be in Guerrero or in Oaxaca, and Oaxaca City there was a rebellion on the streets against the governorship who was linked to the drug cartels use a different cartel to suppress the protesters on the streets. So, the politics is on a much lower level than the federal level. The federal level is almost a near colonial exploiter of the various states. They basically exist in a separate world.
Q: Thank you. I mean, just with my military background, I can't help but thinking when I'm watching a documentary on kidnapping, extortion, the violence, that I think, boy, it reminds me a lot of Iraq in recent history.
QUESTED: But what was the solution? In Petraeus's handbook on counterinsurgency, what did he do? He went and bought his way into all the local sheiks and changed allegiance from Al Qaeda in Iraq to the Americans, but that was a short lived and very expensive counterinsurgency technique. There was a surge, there was more policing, there was more roadblocks, but fundamentally, it was buying at the allegiance of the sheiks.
Q: So, the center of gravity still protecting the people. But thank you, thank you for your answer.
SCHRANK: Thanks, John. Teagan, do we have any more questions lined up right now? If not, I'll ask one.
STAFF: We do have one more question, actually, that just came through. So, we will take our next question from Diana Negroponte.
Q: Thank you for letting me ask a second question. Nick, this is addressed to you, and it is the persecution of journalists. We're very familiar on how the government, particularly the state authorities, oblige newspaper owners and journalists themselves to restrict what do they report, but how do the cartels work in ensuring the journalists cover what they want?
QUESTED: Well, I can speak to that from experience in Acapulco. So, we were very early to the murder of the fishmonger. We got there even before the police came. We're about to rush in and shoot in our bull in the China shop way that we do, and our two local journalists, Ruben and Carlos, held me back and said, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Police isn't here." And we were like, what does that mean? He said they're probably still here, the murderers who murdered the fishmonger who couldn't pay his rent are probably still here. So, we waited and then we filmed afterwards. But then we had our picture taken by just guys on the street, and then it was put on a Facebook page that had no narco-allegiances, and then we were followed. So, they put pressure on local journalists not to report the killings, because they, or whatever they don't want, because they feel that's their business industry and they don't want people to report on it. So, they do it by this level of intimidation.
When we talk to journalists, journalists would only talk about the history of somewhere, not the present day. There's an unwritten law under which journalists work on a local level throughout Mexico. And even then, even when you have this unwritten rule, it's a matter of honor and if anyone feels slighted, that's a big problem for the journalist. So, they walk this fine line of reporting what they can with not insulting the person that they're reporting on, and continue to do this on a day by day basis. That's very risky because they are still wherever they are, whereas my difference is, I come in, I come for two, I come for three months. I'm very careful of my movement, I don't repeat my movement, I move hotels, I do all these things that you're trained to do. But I get to leave, and they don't get to leave. And they have to go to that newspaper every day. And they have to go to their fonda at the end of their street, and they're very exposed. So that's how they control the message. It's more through fear than anything.
SCHRANK: Thanks, Nick. Teagan, have we any more questions?
STAFF: We do not have any other questions at this time and I notice we are coming to the end.
SCHRANK: We are coming to the end. So perhaps I could ask for closing thoughts from both of you. And perhaps from Nick, if you could maybe tell us where some of these characters are now if you've been able to stay in touch with them, what's the situation now? The migration situation has radically changed at the border under COVID and it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on where we are and where they are.
QUESTED: So Ludy is back in Honduras with her baby. She's living with her aunt in a village in the hills outside of San Pedro Sula. Jorge, her boyfriend, is in and out there. He tried to go back to America and turned back. Sara and Shadow are in New Jersey awaiting their asylum hearing. The immigration courts are massively behind. But the kids are doing well, the kids are in school remotely at the moment, but they're doing okay. The guys that we were with in Sinaloa, Rafa and his crew. Rafa is the only member of that crew that is now still alive. The capo was murdered and so was his nephews that were his bodyguard. They were murdered by the local police, the judiciales, who were working for a rival faction of the Sinaloa Cartel. So, the Sinaloa Cartel is breaking down into—is already broken down into family units, whether it be the Salazares or the El Mayos or the Chapitos, and there is a war now between the Chapitos and the guys of El Mayo. These guys got caught in the middle of it, they stole some cars, they were warned, they kept stealing cars, and the judiciales came for one of them. It's binary, the dispute resolution in this circumstance is binary, there's no "oh, you're going to jail," it's like "we have to kill you now." And you're either going to like die in a gunfight or with your hands behind your back in a drainage ditch on the way to the airport.
ANGELO: My closing remarks are no more encouraging, frankly. Something that we haven't talked about, but I'll leave everyone with this thought, is that the pandemic, for some time, reduced the amount of migration that we were seeing from Central America to the United States. However, it seems as though in place of unaccompanied minors from Central America or family units from Central America, those migrants have simply been replaced by single adults immigrating from Mexico. The pandemic has exposed many of the major economic and social fault lines in Central America and Southern Mexico. We've seen a huge drop in remittances, which is providing an economic stimulus for people to go out in search of work elsewhere, and the United States is the closest secure market in that regard. So I think that as pandemic restrictions relax we're going to see an incredible uptick in the flow of migrants from Mexico and from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, and then further beyond from there as migrants and asylum seekers from across the world use the Central American isthmus and the Mexico-U.S. border as a way of gaining access to the United States.
SCHRANK: Thank you so much. We're a couple of minutes over time, so thank you for joining today's virtual meeting and thank you to our panelists. I encourage you all to see this movie if you haven't yet, showing on National Geographic, September 30 I believe, and please note that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted on CFR's website.