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Terrence Poppa: The TT Interview

The author of Drug Lord on rumors of Mexican political corruption, how the drug war is like Prohibition, why drug traffickers aren't like Muslim extremists, whether the U.S. media really understands Mexico and why Hezbollah has set up shop across the border.

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"Tell Poppa they are going to kill him."

That was the message delivered to the editors of the El Paso Herald-Post in the late 1980s by a photographer who snapped pictures of a hotel in Ciudad Juárez that was being constructed by drug kingpin Gilberto “El Greñas” Ontiveros, a high-ranking member of the Juárez cartel. The pictures got the photographer beaten up and kidnapped, and he was later sent back to deliver the threat to reporter Terrence Poppa, who had written the story about the hotel.

The kidnapping eventually led to Drug Lord, Poppa’s 1990 book chronicling of the rise and fall of drug lord Pablo Acosta, who at the time of his death was one of the most wanted criminals in Mexico. In it, Poppa explains the ins and outs of traffickers' "plaza system": A local leader is selected to be in charge of a territory and buys protection from law enforcement through bribes; any other smuggler must pay the leader for permission to use the routes that run through his territory. Acosta was the leader in Ojinaga, a small outpost that sits across from the town Presidio, west of Big Bend. When he was gunned down in 1987, he was replaced by an up-and-coming drug lord named Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the older brother of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes — the current head of the Juárez cartel, whose three-year battle with the Sinaloa’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has led to the deaths of more than 6,500 people in Juárez.

Just before the release of the third edition of Drug Lord, Poppa spoke with the Tribune about the book's new epilogue, which details why Mexico continues to struggle with corruption — and why the U.S. government shares responsibility. U.S. policy, he says, enables the multibillion-dollar drug industry to flourish and guarantees that when a drug kingpin is arrested or gunned down, another will emerge. It also means that whatever gains Mexico has made toward becoming a true democracy will be eroded by this “corrosive” enterprise.

An edited transcript of the interview and full audio follows.

TT: Why did you feel the need to update the situation in Mexico 20 years later?

Poppa: The Mexico that I wrote about in the book describes the old order of things: Mexico under the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional]. In that sense, the book was out of date, because how drug trafficking operated under the PRI is completely different than how it works today in a new Mexico, under the democratically transformed Mexico. So the third edition essentially fast forwards into the present. The old story provides the context for understanding what’s happening today in Mexico because it has a history to it. It just didn’t all of a sudden happen. In the old order of things in Mexico, the governmental system was a functioning mafia, and it controlled and regulated drug trafficking for the benefit of people in power. They made huge amounts of profit. It gave a lot of space to organized crime to flourish, because there was so much money in it. That has largely changed, in that the new order of things is a real democratic system. There has been a decoupling of the highest levels of power from drug trafficking now. It’s important for people to understand that, so I had to bring the book up to date. 

TT: One of the strongest arguments that you make is the legalization argument. Some people would say it's too simple to argue that trafficking and violence would miraculously go away. Why do you think that's the best possible solution? 

Poppa: The profits from drug sales are so immense that they're fueling the growth of organized crime to the point where it can challenge state power in large areas of Mexico and create very chaotic and dangerous situations. Mexico’s authentic democratic government is attempting to take away the space that the old order gave to organized crime, but what are its chances of success when organized crime is continually being replenished by these vast amounts of money going from the United States into Mexico? They are arresting top-level capos and putting them in jail or killing them, but there are always people waiting in the wings who are equally ruthless and will pick up where the other people left off because there is so much money involved. It’s an endless struggle, and as it continues, it’s going to erode Mexico’s culture; it’s going to erode the political conquest of the Mexican people. And it could end up in a very chaotic situation, much more than we see today.

There is only one way to stop that, and that is to take the money out of drugs. We saw that with Prohibition in the United States for however many years it lasted. During the era of Prohibition, there was so much money to be made from selling alcohol that you had these crime organizations that grew very powerful and flourished, and it wasn’t possible to bring any end to that kind of crime until Prohibition ended. The same with drugs. Drugs are seen as a social crime, treated as a crime in [the U.S.] — the consumption of them, not just the selling of them — and it’s created in this country a huge incarceration rate. But people still use drugs. So that approach, that prohibitive approach, isn’t working. 

Audio Interview: Terrence Poppa

TT: Do you think that some of the Mexican citizens are so tired of the current state of affairs that they might blame the ruling party and go back to PRI rule in the next presidential election?

Poppa: The biggest fear, though, is that the PAN [Partido Acción Nacional], the current ruling party] could get corrupted. That would be an awful scenario. The amount of money going into Mexico is corrosive — who knows what damage it can do over time? As far as the people of Mexico wanting the PRI back, I don’t really buy that. It’s like in Russia: Who wants the Communists back? You still have a Communist Party, but it’s just a shadow of what it once was because it doesn’t have the ruthless power it used to have. So the venue for returning to an old-order style of things, where the people in power are the controllers of drug trafficking? I don’t know which direction it would come from — maybe the PRD [a third party, Partido de la Revolución Democrática].

TT: You have spoken a little bit about Islamic extremists. I asked the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, if he wanted to weigh in on that comparison between the Mexican cartels, who use car bombs and terror tactics, and Muslim extremists. He said the difference is the traffickers don't try to thrust a religious ideology upon non-believers — they don’t sacrifice themselves. Do you want to weigh in on that comparison?

Poppa: He’s correct that drug trafficking isn’t an ideology. It’s just a greed activity, period. You are not going to get a huge following, because no huge portion of any population is going to want to get involved in that kind of criminal activity. But terror is terror. When they set off a car bomb — like they did in Juárez and killed some people — it certainly stirs up a lot more fear than before, and these could be much more common and frequent incidences. Also, it could be used in an effort to [intimidate] the Mexican political system. Obviously these guys aren’t going to march on Los Pinos [the Mexican president’s residence in Mexico City] and take over at the point of a gun; it just isn’t going to work. But they could through terror and strategic planning attempt to get their way.

TT: Do you think the U.S. media is doing a good job reporting on the violence, or do we just regurgitate what the authorities give us?

Poppa: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to get close to the action anymore. There are some alternate websites that have popped up in Mexico that do some good reporting. It’s done anonymously. I would say the Mexicans are doing a good job, but I don’t think the United States media really understands the context. It should certainly do a better job on that. It’s really amazing [that] a lot of media still haven’t accepted the thesis that the old order of things, the PRI, was essentially a mafia system. They never really got into understanding that, and they still don’t. And that is so essential to understanding what is happening in Mexico today.

TT: There have been allegations that President Felipe Calderón is on one side of this fight — that he is supporting, in one way or another, the Sinaloa cartel and [its leader] Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. It sounds like you don’t believe the government has any interest in one side winning over another, that it is fighting organized crime as a whole.

Poppa: That’s my understanding; I’ve been hearing that same thing for a long time. It’s just one of those things that gets picked up and starts snowballing. Somebody did a statistical analysis and found out that proportionately there were fewer people of the Sinaloa cartel being taken down, but I don’t know if that proves anything. They just may be harder to find.

TT: How did you feel when you read that note that said, “Tell Poppa they are going to kill him”? Did you know what you were getting into?

Poppa: Well, frankly, no. I was warned by Juárez journalists when I first went down there and started working [that] there were several subjects to stay away from: police corruption, political corruption and drug trafficking. So I pretty much defied the convention by publishing that one story about the hotel, and we learned of the consequences. The death threat against me I had to take seriously. But everybody on both sides of the border in the media closed ranks behind my newspaper at that point and really publicized what had happened and it created pressure on Mexico City to do something about it. They sent in a special task force headed by Commander [Guillermo Gonzalez] Calderoni, who eventually went on to kill Pablo Acosta, the drug lord of the book. So it was a position of strength, because everybody was getting involved in that and reporting about that.

TT: How commonplace do you think it is today to bribe U.S. officials?

Poppa: I wouldn’t doubt it. I think the biggest problem has to do with the people who are on the international bridges. There have always been cases of customs agents or [Immigration and Naturalization Service] agents who have been bought off and were letting loads through the bridges. It’s hard to think that that’s not still occurring.

TT: How long, if you can put a time line on it, before things begin to mellow out?

Poppa: There is no way to estimate that. There are so many possibilities for the future, none of them particularly good, as long as there $30 billion or more in drug money is going into Mexico every year. You could end up with outside players coming in and trying to stir up the pot and making the situation worse. Anybody with a hatred for the United States could see Mexico as a primary target to contribute to its instabilities, to force the United States to have to secure its own border and divert vast resources. Hezbollah has set up operations in Mexico; there is no question about that. You can do a Google search for “Mexico and Hezbollah,”  and you can see a lot of things coming up — and if things are coming up on Google, you can sure imagine that off the radar there is a heck of a lot more going on. The chaos in Mexico could get a lot worse that what it is now.

The third edition of Drug Lord will be published in October by Cinco Puntos Press.

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