Death on the Cheap: The Suitcase Ritual

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in Chief

This is the third installment of an investigation into the 1982 murder of Thunderbird professor Nicholas Schrock. Part One can be found here, and Part Two here. The series will be concluded next week.

Jesus

When the relatives of Jesus Valenzuela, a San Ignacio bricklayer who died at 64 of natural causes on 2/4/82, walked past the cemetery where they had buried him, they noticed something strange: the white cross on which they had inked his name was gone, and the ground appeared to have been tampered with. The next week, the news made it back to San Ignacio that the body exhumed and sent to Denver for autopsy did not belong to the missing American professor. They picked up a bad vibe, grabbed shovels, and returned to the graveyard to investigate.

frankenstein_grave_robery1After digging past the point where they had left Jesus’s remains five months earlier, they came to a gruesome conclusion: the body of their brother, father, uncle, and grandfather had been taken away. For a family as deeply Catholic as the Valenzuelas, this was beyond outrage: it was blasphemy. The Valenzuelas were not a rich family, and when Jesus had died, they had been unable to afford a coffin. They put a long-sleeved button-up on over the tee shirt he’d been wearing at the time of his passing, wrapped him in a white sheet, dug a hole in the cemetery ground, and left the body marked with a wooden cross bearing his name until such time as they could afford a proper headstone. With the corpse exposed to the vagaries of the elements, it decayed at a much faster rate than if it had been embalmed and submitted to other such mortuary procedures.

When the Denver Coroner’s Office opened the coffin in which the supposed corpse of Nick Schrock was received, it was found dressed in these same items: long-sleeved button up over a tee, and wrapped in a white sheet, with the teeth in a Ziploc bag resting neatly on the chest. Dr. Alfonso Lafalda of San Ignacio saw the corpse of Jesus Valenzuela as it was exhumed and, based on pictures he’d seen of Schrock, “knew right away that the body couldn’t be his.” He further explains: “There was something about the facial characteristics that were different. The professor seemed to have a longer face than the one in the grave.” That he didn’t note the mustache calls into question Lafalda’s observational faculties, as spot-on as they may have been in this instance.

Dionisio Valenzuela, Jesus’s brother, brought photographs of his sibling to the state Attorney General’s office in Culiacan, offered testimony, and began jumping through the requisite hoops to have the body returned home and re-interred.  The A.G.’s office, however, had other plans.

Spooky & Kooky

52a6b48d2432f665ab260e56eb440474In all of my stacks of documents organized according to my own personal filing system (the refuge of the disorganized), I have one folder that’s called “Spooky & Kooky.” This is the Grade-A weirdo stuff. As a longtime student of the bizarre and conspiratorial, I know that the one sure way to elicit off-the-wall theories is to provide a lack of information. If they just told us what was going on at Area 51, for example, we wouldn’t have a subset of “tell-all” books collectively known as “Area 51 literature.” Though no information has been deliberately withheld in the Schrock case, it contains its fair share of unsolved mystery. As a result, every shape and size of ghastly plot is represented.

One such theory held that, since Schrock was driving a pickup from Boulder (the Bay Area of the Rockies) through the Sinaloa highlands, he had to have been involved in the drugs trade. Ruth shot that one down before it even had a chance to take flight, declaring that her husband did not use drugs and “spoke contemptuously of drug users.” Another was the one that officials in the State Department and Mexican government had their fingers crossed over: that Schrock had snapped, abandoned the Datsun, and run off to start a new life in Mexico. Considering that his eyeglasses, clothing, and orthopedic shoes had all been found, it would have had to have been stark-naked and blind that he had done so. Unlikely.

This “gone native” theory goes hand-in-hand, however, with the rash of what we can call “Schrock sightings” that took place over the next year, were reported on by at least one reputable journalist (Kit Miniclier of the Denver Post), and were even discussed and investigated by the State Department. According to a couple of articles written by Miniclier that aren’t dated but seem to be from mid-summer of 1983, a year after the disappearance, at least two American couples and up to a dozen locals had reported Nick to be alive, well, and living in the town of Manzanillo, about 475 miles south of Mazatlán.

dark passage in bed croppedThe brother of one of the locals had reported recognizing Schrock while hiking, confronting him, and being told, with a wink, “Everybody thinks I’m dead.” Coincidentally, this is the plot of Dark Passage, another Bogart and Bacall noir movie.  Gene and Terry Blaney, one of the American couples, ran a chiropractic clinic in Manzanillo and, while on a trip to Guadalajara, saw his image on a poster in front of the consulate and went in to say that he was a regular customer of theirs. He was, they say, always accompanied by two other Americans in a green pickup truck. When Terry Blaney was asked if she felt he was being held against his will, she said, “No, he felt comfortable with them. If a person were with someone else against his will he’d have a certain look in his eyes…fear or pleading.”

State Department cables show that there had been a debate over whether or not to inform Ruth of these “sightings:” she had apparently become something of a pain in the neck by that point and the unofficial instruction was to contact her on an “as needed” basis.  Hell, scrap “unofficial;” a State Dept. memo from December ’82 codifies the amount of contact she was to be allowed to have with representatives from that point onward: “twice a week by appointment.” Ruth wasn’t informed of the reported sightings until four months after Mexican authorities had contacted the consulate.

Afterward she told a stringer from Knight-Ridder: “The cable ended with a note asking, ‘Should we tell Mrs. Schrock?’…They certainly don’t know I’m much more inclined to be helpful when I’m told what’s going on.” Another choice quote, given to Miniclier: “I want to find out if it really is the U.S. government’s opinion that Nick voluntarily disappeared and it is up to us to find him.” Could it have been that these “sightings” were manufactured in order to bring the “voluntary disappearance” theory back into public consciousness and put a lid on the ordeal? Geeze, now I’m sounding like a kook, but not nearly as kooky as the next document I found.

snippetThis one gave me shivers, made me war-whoop, and jump around the room. It’s a six-page handwritten letter from an inmate at the maximum-security Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, home to one of the state’s few execution chambers and, resultantly, a high concentration of serial killers and other highly violent criminals. Its cover page features a brief note: “I’m checking into this. Got any ideas? Ruth.” I spent a few hours adjusting the contrast on my computer screen and transcribing a few pages of the manic, tightly-grouped, almost calligraphic cursive scrawl before realizing, My God, these are the ravings of a stark lunatic.

The story that this man tells involves murders carefully disguised as suicide or death by natural causes, the assumption of the identities of the murdered men, and the use of their identities in shady land-deal scams. The glue holding it all together is the allegation of a drug-smuggling ring running between Arkansas, Boulder, Culiacan, and the South American cartels. What caught my attention in particular was the inclusion of Arkansas, which, along with Florida, was one of the entry points for DEA asset and pilot Barry Seal’s smuggling route by which Medellín cartel cocaine was imported to the United States with the tacit approval of the C.I.A. in return for the cartel’s funneling money to the Contras and other Latin American anti-leftist death squads. When the whip came down on the operation, Seal walked away with immunity, but the Medellín guys soon caught up with him, shooting him down in Louisiana. A year later, the Iran-Contra scandal would break. We’ll come back to this.

barryseal3The question for the moment is: how could an economics professor who “spoke contemptuously of drug users” be tied up in all of this? The inmate’s letter to Ruth claims that our drug-smuggling, identity-stealing bad guys had some kind of dirt on Nick and had blackmailed him into faking his own death. But if we think about Occam and his razor, nine times out of ten the explanation that’s staring us right in the face is the one that’s probably closest to the truth. And, this time, I think it was Geer’s gut that called it.

Let’s return to his musings on the day Valenzuela’s corpse was shipped to Boulder: “If that number of police officers is involved, we have to ask ourselves if this is a first-time thing. How many other unidentified skeletons does that San Ignacio cemetery hold? I have a private suspicion they’re making a living at this, supplementing their income stream.” I believe firmly that it is this simple, but the next question to ask is just how high up the web of murder and corruption goes.

The Dissembler

The sentiment expressed by Geer came to be known among the press and investigators as the “mass grave” theory. Its basic premise goes something like this: under Mexican federal law at the time, there was no death penalty and a single murder conviction could earn the perpetrator between fifteen and forty years in prison. Multiple murder convictions, however, could result in multiple sentences that would not be served concurrently, effectively ensuring that the murderer would spend the rest of his or her life in prison. If the San Ignacio police force had been engaging in this practice for some time, then, “somewhere in that little town, there must be a mass grave.” The last thing that Chief Velarde Cruz and Inspector Velasquez Trevino, the ringleaders, would want, in that case, would be for that grave to be found. The best-case scenario for them would be if no corpse was ever found, hence a decoy: Jesus Valenzuela.

The line about the mass grave in the above paragraph comes from the title of a column by Tom Fitzpatrick, a writer for the Arizona Republic who took a personal interest in the Schrock case and published a number of articles about it, even visiting San Ignacio himself. The headline itself is a quote from an individual who appears frequently in Fitzpatrick’s pieces: Marvin Alisky, an ASU political science professor who had a focus on Latin American affairs and had cultivated a number of sources within the Mexican government. Alisky passed away in 2009. In this column, Alisky relates a conversation with an unnamed longtime friend who worked in the federal A.G.’s office who he had recently bumped into while grabbing coffee in Mexico City:

“’What are you doing here,’ Alisky asked?

‘Putting people in jail,’ the friend said.

‘Who?’

‘It’s the Schrock case,’ the man said. ‘The government wants desperately to clear this up. We have our own investigators up there, too, and we know we’ve got the right guys. You can’t imagine how much pressure there is on this case. The minister of tourism is upset. All kinds of top-level meetings have been held. The government wants to have a trial. They realize how serious this case can be…’

Alisky next asked the question that perplexes everyone who has been following the story.

‘But why, then, did they go to the wrong grave and pick out the wrong body to ship back to Schrock’s widow in Denver?’

Alisky remembers clearly what his old friend said. He knows he did not make a mistake in hearing.

‘Somewhere in that little town, there must be a mass grave,’ the man answered. ‘They buried Schrock’s body there with the earlier victims, possibly as many as six or seven. Now, they are afraid to show us all the bodies. There is no death penalty in Mexico. But if they are charged with only one murder they have a chance of getting out of prison someday. But if there is more than one murder, the sentences will be handed down consecutively, not concurrently. So, you see, if they show us the mass grave, they know they will rot in jail for the rest of their natural lives.’”

Alisky later told another reporter, Jeff M. Sellers of Arizona Magazine, that his friend told him that they had reason to suspect Inspector Velasquez Trevino not only of Schrock’s murder, but of those of “at least six” other Americans. So, with all of this pressure to wrap things up, did the Sinaloa state A.G.’s office go out of their way to protect the San Ignacio 7? In the last chapter, we briefly met Sinaloa Attorney General Jorge Chavez Castro, master dissembler, when he announced to the Mexican press and U.S. Consulate that dental records and bloodwork had led investigators to conclude definitively that the corpse of Jesus Valenzuela was that of Nicholas Schrock. We’ll now return to him.

The one photo of Chavez Castro I can find. He was murdered in 2003.

The one photo of Chavez Castro I can find. He was murdered in 2003.

His statements regarding the investigation deserve to be given a great deal of attention, for they constitute an incredible case study in wanton self-contradiction, evasion, and outright lies. It’s the classic Richard Nixon-Roger Stone playbook: “Admit nothing, deny everything, counterattack.” If Alisky’s source is to be believed, then Chavez Castro was under immense pressure to wrap this whole thing up. Something like the “mass grave” theory would be an impediment to his doing this, to say the least. When asked why the San Ignacio officers’ leading officials to the wrong body did not point to the likelihood of their knowing where others were buried, he replied, “There is no evidence founded in fact to prove that. The possibility that there are others killed by Velasquez Trevino in another grave is not being considered. There is no other grave.” Then why did officers lead them to this grave in the first place? “I don’t know,” he said.

Why didn’t U.S. consular officials in Mazatlán examine the body before it was shipped? According to one official: “We were told by [Chavez Castro] that the body was in such a state that no one who didn’t know him would be able to identify him, that they had a positive identification, and there was no need for us to examine the body.” Why did Chavez Castro announce that the corpse had been identified through dental records when it, in fact, had no teeth? “When the dental records arrived in Culiacan, the body was being prepared for the flight to Denver.” And what about the cross identifying the grave as holding Jesus Valenzuela? “The grave was not marked. There was no name, nor was there a cross.” In the battle between plot and “gross incompetence,” my gut tells me that plot is winning out.

doa-movie-title_zpsb8a0523dChavez Castro’s head was on the chopping block, and he needed to do what he could to clear the situation up, as quickly as possible. Ruth had originally stated that it was her intention to have the remains immediately cremated upon arrival in Denver, but was told that an autopsy would be required in order for Nick to be declared officially dead. I fully believe that Chavez Castro never intended for that coffin to be opened, that he found the easiest way to clean the situation up, and that he acted. There’s also this: on July 12, four “state officials central to the investigation” had jobs. On July 13, they didn’t. At a press conference held July 13, the AP newswire quoted Chavez Castro as saying, “four state officials were fired for mishandling the [Schrock] investigation.” He apparently had his knuckles slapped for that one, and soon backpedaled: “I did not say that. They resigned to pursue their personal law careers in Mexico City.”

The message was clear: Chavez Castro had dissembled more effectively than they had; he had found the most direct way to sweep everything under the rug. His head, for the time being, was off the chopping block. And when his plan didn’t play out like it was supposed to, when the coffin was opened and Valenzuela’s body discovered, he went back to work, making sure that the San Ignacio 7 would stand by their confessions. Within a week of the corpse debacle, the members of the S.I. 7 were complaining to the press of undergoing the same sort of brutal coerced confession that they themselves had used on Genaro Juarez. An article published in the Arizona Republic at the end of July quotes the lawyer for the 7 saying that his clients were undergoing “a violation of the most basic of human rights.” Ceferino Ojeda, Chief of the Culiacan police, was reached for comment:

“Ojeda defended the police and their methods Saturday, saying “strong” methods must be used to fight crime. Ojeda denied agents had applied electric shocks or raped the prisoners, as journalists had charged in their account in El Debate, but he pledged agents no longer would interrogate prisoners in a secluded spot on the bank of the river.”

All of this left Ruth disgusted and despondent:

“’First, the local police beat a confession out of a petty pilferer,’ she said. ‘Then the state police saw the corruption in the local police and beat confessions out of them. Are we going to find out now from the federal level that the state police are corrupt, and then what? Who’s going to beat the confession out of the federal police?’”

This is a question that requires a bit of a history lesson to answer. “Answer,” though, is perhaps not the correct term, for this is a question that thousands upon thousands of Mexican citizens deal with on a daily basis. One of my favorite professors in undergrad always said that the formula for extrapolating meaning from historical events and ephemera is text plus context. I’ve given you the text – the events surrounding the disappearance of Nicholas Schrock – and now it’s time to place it within its proper context. This is how we find meaning. It’s how we find truth.

Murder, Inc.

There is a war going on in Mexico. This is a reductive and wholly unnecessary statement to make, but I frequently find it beneficial to call a spade a spade, start with the basics, and abstract the problem from there. It’s a war that’s based on traditional concepts of territory and dominance, but also on ones that wouldn’t be out of place being studied from the perspectives of branding and corporate strategy. In fact, Tom Wainwright’s bestselling 2016 book Narconomics tackles the bloodshed from the following approach:

“How does a budding cartel boss succeed (and survive) in the $300 billion illegal drug business? By learning from the best, of course. From creating brand value to fine-tuning customer service, the folks running cartels have been attentive students of the strategy and tactics used by corporations such as Walmart, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola.”

Suspects are lined up as weapons are displayed to the media by the Mexican Navy in Mexico City

All in a day’s work for the Federales.

In his introduction to Anábel Hernandez’s 2013 Narcoland, a book which has earned its author countless death threats and 24/7 protection courtesy of Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, author Roberto Saviano (who has himself lived under police protection since the 2006 publication of Gomorrah, his exposé of the Neapolitan crime syndicate) describes modern Mexico as a “world in which political economy has become criminal economy.” A simple way to explain the difference would be that the latter uses the terminology of the former – hostile takeovers, headhunters – in a literal sense and measures market share in terms of lives taken. Rather than mergers and acquisitions, it’s murders and executions. As Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace (not that Mike Wallace, but a Pulitzer Prize winner nevertheless) write in 2015’s A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War:”

“Mass murder (in one instance producing three hundred corpses); grisly torture (one victim’s face was skinned and sewn onto a soccer ball); collusion between mayors, governors, and militarized drug traffickers; rampant kidnapping and extortion; police on the payrolls of cartels possessed of vast drug profits available for bribery; the wholesale arrest of police departments; a criminal justice system that all but guarantees criminals impunity from prosecution; the inefficiency or disinterest of higher political officials; and even the eruption of protests from civil society – all of these have been routine in the last dozen years…Since 2000, more than one hundred thousand have been killed. Mass graves? Tens of thousands have disappeared, many likely moldering in such pits. Horrific executions? Roughly two thousand of the hundred thousand suffered death by decapitation.”

Something has gone horribly wrong when these conditions have been allowed to become the norm in a country with the 15th largest GDP in the world. It is my assertion that this something is the endemic web of corruption and criminality exacerbated and perpetuated by dramatic economic inequality that permeates virtually every level of politics, business, and the judiciary. Nick Schrock’s disappearance happened at a major inflection point in this history; the point at which individual poppy and marijuana farmers started aggregating into unified groups and members of the Mexican government, police, and military started recognizing the profit potential there was in helping, rather than hindering, the flow of drugs north of the Rio Grande. And, at every step of the way, the United States of America could be found, playing the varied and conflicting roles of consumer, antagonist, and, at the times when ideological ends overrode the means to get there, benefactor and big brother.

Sinaloa

Mexico's "Golden Triangle" of drug production. San Ignacio is riiiiiight on the edge.

Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” of drug production. San Ignacio is riiiiiight on the edge.

The seeds of the Mexican Drug War – poppies to be exact – were planted in Sinaloa, not far from San Ignacio. Long before El Chapo and narcocorridos, before the term “cartel” even entered the popular lexicon, the first opium poppies were planted by a group you wouldn’t expect: indentured Chinese laborers brought to North America to build the railroads that facilitated the country’s western expansion. When their periods of servitude ended, some drifted south, seeking to escape the hostile racial climate engendered by such legislation as the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by Chester A. Arthur in 1882. The altitude and balmy sea-breeze of Sinaloa proved ideal for the cultivation of both opium poppies and marijuana, these crops maybe being the true Treasure of the Sierra Madres. This area would come to be known as the “Golden Triangle,” due to the unusual fertility of illicit crops grown within its boundaries. The “Golden Triangle” would come to have a notable overlap with the “Tortilla Triangle.”

Reefer Madness en espanol.

Reefer Madness en espanol.

These first generations of Chinese opium farmers learned Spanish and adopted Mexican names. Before Rafael Quintero and the Beltrán-Leyva Organization, the original Sinaloa drug pushers had names like Patricio Hong, Felipe Wong, and Luis Siam. The Spanish had brought marijuana to the region as early as the 16th century, finding the plant’s hemp fibers particularly suited to making rigging for their ships. Psychoactive drug use never really caught on among the local Mexican population, with marijuana especially being viewed as strictly déclassé. The influence of the Catholic church had also more or less put an end to the use of tribal and ceremonial drugs like peyote. During the Porfiriato – the 35-year reign of General Porfirio Díaz – drug use was strictly criminalized and alcohol banned; Díaz would even execute the occasional drunkard to drive his point home. During the Revolutionary and Constitutionalist periods of 1910-1929, however, marijuana, opium, and cocaine were being used as active ingredients in everything from cigarettes to patent medicines to Coca-Cola sold on both sides of the border, and could easily be purchased from herbalists, doctors, and corner shops.

In the U.S., moral panic led to the proscription of these drugs during the ‘20s, and the temperance movement resulted in the prohibition of alcohol from 1920-1933. As we know, very little can create market conditions as optimal as those resulting from scarcity, and the cross-border booze trade became a cash cow for bootleggers on both sides of the frontier, building enormous fortunes for those in control of the flow of liquor in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada; a sort of proto-NAFTA. Border towns like Tijuana and Nogales became fully-fledged vice empires, pulling in millions from booze, drugs, prostitution, gambling, and whatever else one might desire. Prohibition’s repeal and the Great Depression put an end to these “glory days,” but vice and the movies are two industries that have proven to be more or less “recession-proof.” With opium, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., more and more farmers started adding these crops to their rotations, finding them to be vastly more profitable than, say, beans.

In Mexico, 1929 marked the beginning of the era of the “one-party rule” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While the country was a nominal “democracy,” the Presidency was, in reality, determined by the party big-wigs, with the next leader notified by the legendary dedazo, or finger-tap. The 71-year reign of the PRI would remain intact until the victory of Vicente Fox in 2000. While there is no “smoking gun” evidence beyond the anecdotal, WWII marks the first instance of reported collusion between Mexican opium producers and the U.S. government.  Here are the facts as we know them:

  • Opium, the active ingredient in morphine, would not be synthesized until the mid-1950s
  • Synthetic opium has still never reached a level of cost competitiveness with the real thing
  • The U.S. required a massive increase in its morphine supply for soldiers fighting overseas
  • The geography of the European theater had resulted in German U-Boats cutting off supply lines from Turkey, the historical provider of the vast majority of opium used in morphine production
  •  Opium production in Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” region skyrocketed during the war

As noted, there is no single piece of evidence that any sort of official agreement was made, but following these facts to their logical conclusion tells us that the U.S. government may have played a role in expanding the capabilities of Sinaloan opium producers during the war. Heroin use also skyrocketed in postwar America, partially as a result of injured G.I.s having been exposed to morphine during combat, returning, and seeking a way to manage their pain, as portrayed in Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm. The same phenomenon would be seen among returning Vietnam vets in the 1960s and 1970s.

1982

1982

During the dramatic social revolutions in the decades following the war, the United States would see both incidence of drug use, as well as the proportion of these same drugs coming from Mexico, increase significantly. According to Bollousa and Wallace, Mexico would be supplying about 95% of all marijuana consumed in the U.S. by 1975, as well as 70-90% of the heroin in a market that had doubled in size between 1972 and 1975 alone. With the “Mexican Miracle” beginning to slow down by the end of the decade, this massive (and growing) source of “supplemental income,” as Marty Geer phrased it before the article I’m about to quote was even published, could represent the difference between being able to put food on the table at he end of the day or not. In “Mexican Corruption Takes Bite out of Weak Economy,” the Chicago Sun Times’ Patrick Oster writes, “This…receptivity to bribes seems to reach from the highest to the lowest levels of government. Mexico City’s chief of police, Arturo Durazo Moreno, told Proceso that he understands why police officers take bribes: they don’t make enough money…In fact, in a country where government salaries are astoundingly low, it seems that bribes are considered by officeholders to be a regular supplement to their income.”

You could live like this on $120/month!

Casa Portillo: You, too, could live like this on $120/month!

As to the question of how high the corruption goes, earlier in the article, Oster discloses President Lopez Portillo’s salary: 12,000 pesos per month, or about $120 in 1982 dollars. His pre-government career was as a university law professor. Yet, at the time of publication, Portillo was in the process of constructing a multi-mansion complex for his family and friends. It was fenced, gated, and patrolled by soldiers. The magazine Proceso estimated that the cost (taken from public funds) for the complex’s access roads, water and gas lines, and sewer access alone was USD $33 million. Earlier, it was noted that 1982 was the year of Mexico’s sovereign debt crisis, in which the government was no longer able to service its $21.8 billion loans to just nine U.S. lenders out of many, making the Reagan administration very nervous about default. A default may have triggered an economic “domino effect” of a different stripe than the one worried about years before by Kissinger and McNamara: a string of Latin American petro-state debt defaults potentially leading to global financial collapse.

By the end of the year, Portillo would be “tapped out” of office, making way for neoliberal reformer Miguel de la Madrid. Prior to Madrid’s taking office, Mexico would go into default, with the IMF stepping in to provide relief to its lenders. One can imagine that they were satisfied with this choice of successor, who was more than happy – eager, really – to implement the attendant structural adjustment policies.. But the question remained: if the country was broke, and Portillo was making less than minimum wage, where had the money for his mega-mansion complex coming from? The answer to this question was to be found in a worn and battered suitcase, traipsing its way around the country each month and dispensing ill-gotten-gains to all of the bad boys and girls like Santa’s crazed double.

The Suitcase Ritual

Anabel Hernandez: More guts than you've got in your little finger, kid.

Anabel Hernandez: More guts than you’ve got in your little finger, kid.

In Narcoland, Anábel Hernandez conducts an interview with a man she refers to only as The Informer who answers that very question for us. The Informer “was someone who had watched, from within the Mexican government, all the changing phases of the drug trade over the last thirty-five years.” In the interview, he describes the relationship between the Federal (Judicial), Regional, and Local police. As previously described, the chain of oversight operates in that order. In the mid-1970s, the operational structure looked something like this:

“There were 600 federal police officers for the whole country, each with fifteen to twenty assistants. These were the so-called madrinas, ‘godmothers,’ who never appeared on the official payroll of the federal Attorney General’s office (PGR), but whose illegal and uncontrolled activity was essential to its operations…Each regional coordinator supplied his own people with cars, weapons, radios, and offices. The only thing they didn’t supply was the badges. They raised money from cock fights, horse racing, and drug trafficking. That’s how things were. I’m not saying it was good or bad, that’s just how it worked.”

I believe that El Nene was one of these criminal madrinas, helping the regional Sinaloa and local San Ignacio police to raise money from cock fights, horse racing, drug trafficking…and highway robbery. Says Hernandez, “The Informer insists that the secretary of the interior and the secretary of defense, the attorney general, and even the president of the Republic, were all fully aware of these operations. In addition, the authorities in the United States knew from the beginning of the 1970s  that the DFS [sort of a combination of the F.B.I. and C.I.A.] was involved in drug trafficking, yet they continued to support and protect the agency.”

The Informer goes on to describe what he calls the “Suitcase Ritual,” in which a proverbial “suitcase made its journey around the whole of Mexico,” with its final destination being the desks of the A.G. (PGR) and the president:

“At regular intervals the suitcase made this trip, starting at the bottom, with those who directly collected the money, until reaching the attorney general’s desk. It was a long trip, but nobody would have dared to take any money out. There were wads and wads of bills, greenbacks. You can close your eyes and imagine even the smell of those bills every time the suitcase was opened. What happened to the suitcase later nobody knew. It was lost from sight as it passed from hand to hand towards the presidential palace of Los Pinos.

The taxes paid by the drug traffickers made fortunes overnight for government figures and businessmen in Mexico. Another part of the proceeds, as happens in the U.S., was spent on the struggle against subversive movements. These were considerable sums. At the time there was no National Human Rights Commission in Mexico, and no Public Oversight Office; government officials were exempt from scrutiny. All this was seen as a way of protecting national security. Drug trafficking was a matter of state. All that was asked of the traffickers was that they not carry weapons in public or draw attention to themselves, in order to protect the police and the army, but above all to protect the civilian population.

“The Suitcase Ritual,” continues Hernandez, “continued during the presidency of José López Portillo.”

This is where the money came from, and where what was taken from Nick Schrock went. After the San Ignacio 7 had picked through what they wanted, they kicked part of the take into the suitcase, and it continued its way around the country, eventually ending up on the desks of the President and Federal A.G., with a healthy portion doled out to fighting subversives. With this information, two questions, in my mind, remain: What would become of the San Ignacio 7, and where Nick’s remains were.

Check back next week for the final installment, and the answers to these questions.

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