David Ramirez grew up on the gritty south side of El Paso, where an evening on the front porch could mean listening to oldies on the radio station or witnessing a Border Patrol chase or a street fight between rival gangs.
Years later, Ramirez would join the ranks of the U.S Border Patrol and eventually patrol the banks of the Rio Grande in Presidio, Texas. He eventually impressed enough people to earn an assignment as an assistant special agent in charge at the Department of Homeland Security.
The recently retired Ramirez sat down with the Tribune to talk about his book, Beneath the Same Sky; what is different about the patrolling the border today versus 30 years ago; the truth about corruption within the ranks of Mexican law enforcement; whether the U.S. needs to do more to acknowledge its role in the carnage in Mexico; and what it was like to arrest Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the ruthless former leader of the Juárez Cartel, only to have to let him go.
TT: You write in vignettes about your work life then follow them with stories about your personal life. What prompted you to write the book the way you did?
DR: First of all, it was never my intent to write a book. This is a result of what I call personal jottings, personal stories that I did for my benefit. And it eventually became a book. But I don’t want to say now: “I want to tell my story about how it should be or how it was.” I think readers can take from it what they want.
TT: The “cantaloupe” vignette [about allowing Mexicans to cross illegally to help U.S. farmers pick crops on the condition that 20 would later “surrender” to INS authorities] talks about bargaining. The department gets its funding, the workers get their money and the farmers get the crops picked. Was it really that simple back in the day?
DR: It was and I still think it is that simple. That’s just the reality of things, and that is another reason I was encouraged to publish this — a lot of Americans don’t get that view of the border, and in reality that is the way it was. The workers needed the jobs, the farmers needed to get the job done and the Border Patrol agents needed the stats for Congress. So in that story, in that reality, we all got what we needed. And the deal was made harmoniously.
TT: What has changed since that incident to now as far as why it’s not that simple today?
DR: I did that and it wasn’t necessarily agreed upon on, and I think that is one of the points that I am trying to make. One thing is to sit up in California, D.C., Seattle, wherever, and make judgments. And the other one is to be right there on the river and make decisions. So it wasn’t encouraged, but at the time, I was there on the ground and that’s the way it worked out. But it was not approved or encouraged or authorized.
TT: You also said that back in the day you’d get a load and the smugglers would run back to Mexico, but now they are shooting at you. Is it more dangerous now than when you were an agent?
DR: Definitely. And the world is changing, obviously. Before most of them were economic migrants. Even the ones that were smuggling, what we called “mules,” we would go up to them and they would scatter or run back and leave the contraband. Now they shoot back and they have armed guards and it’s escalated.
TT: One side says most of the people coming over are just here to do hard work, and the other side says most of the people coming over are doing so to commit crimes, do us harm and run drugs. Where do you fall in that spectrum?
DR: I am sure most adults realize that it’s not 100 percent either way. Not everybody comes over here to work, but not everybody comes over here to commit a crime. I think most of them are economic migrants, and like in anything in any nationality and any business, there is that percentage that wants to take advantage of the system.
TT: You had at one point, the future leader of the Juárez Cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, in your grasp [when you pulled him over and found an AR-15 and three boxes of ammunition]. How did you feel having to let him go and then realizing who he was and what he became later?
DR: I just thought it was interesting. It was part of the job; it was somebody I encountered doing my job. He was a charismatic guy. We did our efforts to get him prosecuted and the agencies for whatever reason didn’t want to pursue him. It was business, we encountered him, no one wanted to prosecute him, we wished him a good day and later he became what he became.
TT: You wrote that he laid out the rules of the game: no innocent people, leave the press alone and so on. What happened to create this shift in Mexico where it is no holds barred and cartels are violating these rules now and being outwardly ruthless?
DR: I really couldn’t answer that. I can only tell you that it is the supply and demand, the magnet is so strong. The arrangements with political parties in Latin America or sometimes even the U.S., it changes. And I don’t think he actually wrote those rules but he followed them.
TT: Is Mexican law enforcement as difficult to work with as many U.S. officials say? Is there an element you can’t trust? Are most on the take? Or are they trying to do better things for their country?
DR: I have a lot of respect for Mexican law enforcement at the higher levels. At the lower levels I respect them as well because they are trying to do an impossible job with no training and no real financial support, which one could say leads to the corruption. But in my six years in Mexico City, the higher-level officers that I dealt with, I saw they wanted to do the right thing, they are honorable gentlemen. But it’s time to acknowledge that we are the ones that have the demand for what we expect them to take care of. There is the idea of saying that we want all these drugs and we are willing to pay whatever price, but Mexico and Latin America needs to take care of its problems.
TT: So you think the United States needs to take more responsibility?
DR: Definitely, in one way or another. I am not for legalization, but you either legalize it or build more prisons or start chopping off hands. But what we’re doing now is not working.
TT: Why do you think the United States has been so reluctant to acknowledge its responsibility?
DR: I think that maybe it’s because it doesn’t affect the general American public as much as it does people on the border. What affects them is the price of the drug they do. They don’t see the crime, they don’t see the murders, they see that the price shifts.
TT: Do you anticipate any radical change immediately after next month’s Mexican election?
DR: I say no, but I am not an expert, and the book is not about politics. I think that the change that needs to happen has to happen with both countries. It can’t be one and not the other. It has to be both working together.
TT: Is the Southwest border attractive or vulnerable to Middle Eastern extremists or terrorists?
DR: I don’t want to narrow it down to Middle Eastern terrorists. The objective, I would say, for people who want to do harm to the U.S. would be to get in to the U.S. One of the ways they get to the U.S. is the southwest border. Now, in the book I wrote about Middle Eastern smugglers who smuggled hundreds of males into the United States. We prosecuted seven or eight of them and they each admitted to smuggling hundreds. The 9/11 commission alleged there were ties to terrorism, so the potential is definitely there. Whether it is U.S. law enforcement or Mexican law enforcement, if they take money, they are on the take for aliens, for dope or terrorists. They are on the take for everything so there is corruption on both sides.
TT: A lot of people are quick to say that Mexican law enforcement officers are corrupt, but you highlight several U.S. agents who are on the take. How infiltrated is U.S. law enforcement?
DR: I don’t know how infiltrated. I can only tell you my experiences and what I saw. It was the lure of the money, and as I write in the book, they offer this inspector $50,000 for what I call a “wave” — a loaded vehicle to come through the port. And they guaranteed them five vehicles a week so you are talking that kind of money, which is tempting. You have to be a man or a woman who knows their moral ground so say, “No. I am not doing it.”
TT: It sounds like you are saying that for any law enforcement agent in whatever country, if the price is right, then the potential is there.
DR: Definitely. That is a good statement.
TT: If you could wave a magic wand and have every reader come away with one uniform perception, what would it be?
DR: Enjoy the moments of your life and take the time to view them; don’t just run through them. View the moments and enjoy them and take the good with the bad and the bad with the good.