By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
And so that is what he does.
For six months he handles the logistics of large amounts of cocaine being shipped from Colombia to Mexico by members of the Medellín Cartel. For years, the Colombians have controlled most of the cocaine that enters the United States from Mexico. But things are changing. Pablo Escobar is dead, and already, the cartels in Mexico have consolidated their power. The heads of the most powerful cartels -- in Juárez and Tijuana and on the Gulf -- have agreed to work together as part of what becomes known as the Federation.
They are like the mob bosses of American movies, and they eclipse the Medellín Cartel. They live in gated mansions with marble floors and have swimming pools and airplanes, and they keep tigers in cages and money in Swiss accounts. They own the police, they own judges. They are no longer the mules who simply get the cocaine across the border. Now they have the money, they are the ones who are feared, and they don't have to cede control of the cocaine to anyone. Now they ship it themselves, through Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo and Juárez, up to Los Angeles and Houston and Dallas. These American cities are the key staging areas, and in each one the cartels have contacts, little cells that control the distribution of drugs in their respective cities.
In 1997, the head of the cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, dies in a botched plastic surgery. His brother Vicente takes over. A year later, Lalo is contacted by a member of the cartel named Heriberto Santillan-Tabares. He suggests that he and Lalo work together, maybe smuggle some dope across the border.
As Lalo works his way up the organization, he begins hearing about executions. There is the fat man, El Gordo, who was decapitated and thrown in a ditch, and the two municipal police officers who were executed by another cop, and the drug runner who drove a black Jeep Cherokee with plates from some Midwestern state. One of the main executioners is a man named Loya (no relation to attorney Raul Loya), the night watch commander for the Chihuahua state police. He is Santillan's nephew and the ringleader of La Línea, or the Gatekeepers. They are the cartel's henchmen.
In 2000, Lalo comes in contact with U.S. government officials. How this happens is uncertain, but according to Lalo's own account (which several sources label as dubious), he reads in the paper that U.S. officials are looking for informants. So he goes to the Bridge of the Americas, which runs between El Paso and Juárez, and tells an inspector he wants to meet with someone from DEA. Instead, they send a U.S. Customs agent named Raul Bencomo, who will become his handler off and on for the next three years. Lalo will later say that their contact is regular -- three to four times a day -- and that occasionally he briefs other agencies, including the DEA, the FBI and the ATF.
Some of these agents, he says, have links to the cartel.
He considers it a noble thing, working as an informant. Lalo is 29 years old. He has a common-law wife and two children, and maybe in his heart he still wishes he was a policeman. He doesn't like the traffickers, the way they operate, and he respects what this government, the U.S. government, is trying to do in Mexico. And he feels good about his part in this game, this thing they call the War on Drugs.
Across the border, a man named Sandy Gonzalez is put in charge of the El Paso DEA office in April 2001. He has a beard and wears glasses and is soft around the middle. He came up as a street cop in Los Angeles, but now he wears a white shirt and a tie and spends most of his time in the office. Behind computers, going to meetings, being an administrator. But he has never forgotten what it is like to be on the streets. He is an agent's agent, they say.
He is at the tail end of his career. He is Senior Executive Service, the highest pay grade for a federal employee. He has served in Costa Rica and Panama and Miami, and soon he will retire.
He is here as punishment. They say El Paso is a dumping ground for federal employees in trouble, and maybe that's true. In Miami he accused his fellow agents, their supervisors and high-level federal prosecutors of covering up the disappearance of ten kilos of cocaine from a 1998 drug bust. Internal documents suggested no wrongdoing, but Gonzalez didn't see it that way, and that is why he is here.
In Miami, he supervised 300 agents. Now he is over 150. Still, he's busting his ass, trying to make things happen. He wants to get back to Washington.
He has no idea who Lalo is. He doesn't deal with informants, and even if he did, the name Lalo would mean nothing to him. Like every other informant, he is simply a number on a piece of paper. Insignificant. A small cog in the War on Drugs.