I've been reading your book Narcoland, and your vision of Mexico's drug war caught my attention -- it's very different from what we're accustomed to reading in the U.S. press. What are the biggest misconceptions that you see in the media about the drug war?
When I started to work on that book about Chapo Guzmán back in 2005, I had the same misconceptions that most of the media and journalists had in Mexico, the U.S. and the rest of the world. I had swallowed the story that Chapo Guzmán was just a brilliant criminal -- a man so intelligent that he was capable of subjecting the governments of Mexico and the United States to his will. The Mexican government constantly said they couldn't catch him because he lived in a cave in a mountain in the Sierra Sinaloa surrounded by people who protected him.
And those of us in the media had only concentrated on the legend of Chapo Guzmán, based on his violence, on the tons of drugs he trafficked, without asking ourselves, "How does he do it? How can this man be so powerful?" And the only way of explaining how the Sinaloa cartel and Chapo Guzmán became so powerful is with the complicity of the government.
It was that way, reporting on the story of Chapo Guzmán and the power he was accumulating during the Felipe Calderón administration, that I found that this so-called drug war was completely false. When I started investigating, I began receiving information in documents and testimony in the U.S. courts and interviews I did with drug traffickers that the Sinaloa cartel enjoyed government protection since the Vicente Fox administration, and that protection continued through the government of Felipe Calderón. [editor's note: Former Mexican President Vicente Fox was in office from 2000 to 2006. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón served from 2006 to 2012.]
I starting doing public information requests in Mexico to see if these things being said in [the U.S.] courts were true. What I found was that during Felipe Calderón's so-called drug war, the cartel that was attacked the least, that had the fewest arrests, was the Sinaloa cartel. And in government statistics, throughout the Felipe Calderón administration's six years, there were increases in marijuana production, increases in opium production, increases in amphetamine production, increases in drug consumption in Mexico. What kind of drug war is this where a cartel gets stronger, becomes the most powerful cartel in the world, and on the other hand, drug production reaches historic levels in Mexico?
How has all this changed during the transition from the Felipe Calderón government to that of [current Mexican President] Enrique Peña Nieto?
When Enrique Peña Nieto took office, he really took over a country that had been destroyed. Instead of recognizing that and developing a serious plan to confront it, Peña Nieto tried to sell the image to outsiders that "no, Mexico is doing really well -- we're passing political reforms, social reforms, economic reforms, and everything is going very smoothly." The international press believed it.
He tried to silence the violence. If you follow official figures for disappearances, for kidnappings, for homicide, you know that deaths remain at very, very high levels in Mexico. They haven't really dropped. The only thing that has changed is that the press doesn't talk so much about the numbers. But the cartel violence is still there.
The U.S. offers the Mexican government quite a bit of money to fight the cartels. What's the United States' role in all of this? What's the effect of the support the U.S. government offers to Mexico?
For me, one of the truly pressing questions is: What does the government of the United States want? What is really its objective? To end drug production in Mexico? To destroy the drug cartels? Or to control them and administer the business? I've found, for example, that in the case of the Sinaloa cartel, there have been agreements between the DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency] and the Sinaloa cartel where they gave the cartel immunity -- You guys traffic what you want, and in exchange, give me the names of the leaders of your enemy cartels. And that was how the DEA and the Mexican government went about capturing many of Chapo Guzmán's enemies during the Felipe Calderón administration.
That's one issue. On the other hand, I don't understand what the objective is behind the Merida Initiative [a U.S. drug war military assistance plan launched in 2007]. The U.S. government gave about $1 billion to the Felipe Calderón government and continues to give money to the Enrique Peña Nieto government, along with arms and technology to equip and train the Mexican navy, the army, the federal police, as well as municipal and state police. But the army, the navy, the federal police and the local and state police have been infiltrated by the cartels. What the U.S. government did indirectly was to make the cartels more powerful.