April 17, 2009
Posted: 1509 GMT

The drug underworld does have a certain dangerous charm.

I’ve lived in Mexico then Colombia for more than 14 years and have drunk beer with cocaine traffickers and hung out in the slums with their hitmen.

I’ve met narcos’ wives, girlfriends and widows – surgically-inflated, divinely dressed shopaholics – and know accountants and businessmen who launder their ill-gotten gains.

Like most people, I have many professional, working friends who are self-described recreational drug users who enjoy cocaine, marijuana and an assortment of pills.

None of these characters likes to talk much about it in public. It’s an industry and a habit that thrives best in the shadows.

But my point is that millions of ordinary and not so ordinary people are connected in some way to the drug trade. Putting thousands of soldiers and police on Mexican streets, in the Colombian jungles or along the U.S. border is not going to solve that.

My month-long trip through Mexico took me first to Juarez – scene of a bloody turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa Cartels, through Reynosa, stronghold of “los Zetas” cartel hit squad and to Sinaloa state, cradle of Mexico’s marijuana and heroin plantations and birthplace of its most notorious capos.

When cartel hitmen chase you out of Mexican border towns at gunpoint and you see bodies dumped on a main street in broad daylight with their brains blown out, you’re under no illusions that the drug trade is an ugly, brutal business.

When you see a prominent lawyer lying slumped dead over the wheel of his Mercedes Benz at a busy intersection in downtown Juarez, you can begin to imagine the scale of human suffering the drug war is bringing.

But when you see a sparkling Hummer truck glide by, or glimpse the ornate and spacious homes (and equally extravagant tombs) and hear cowboy musicians singing the praises of drug kingpins and the heroics of their latest shootouts – you can see what I mean about the dangerous charm.

Now if you’re down on your luck – a teen tearaway living on a dead-end street, or a peasant farmer getting a pittance for beans and corn –you can maybe understand the lure of easy money.

That said, as I hung out on a dimly-lit street corner with young gang members in Juarez or chatted with a gravedigger in a Culiacan cemetery, it became apparent the money was not so easy.
“It’s easy money…until you die,” a gang member called “El Bolis” told me. Graveyards were full of the tombs of young men who met untimely deaths.

“It’s all about time. If you kill somebody, somebody will kill you. Somewhere, somehow, they will catch you,” said gravedigger Jesus Gaston.

But just as some of Latin America’s poor are hooked on the prospect of easy money, politicians seem hooked on cheap talk and easy targets.

The prime targets in Washington and Mexico’s much vaunted drug war are the young hitmen and their drug smuggling paymasters.

But I hear little talk in Mexico or from the Obama administration about taking the war to the doorsteps of the people who are putting the bullets in the barrels of the cartels’ guns.

That’s the industrialists who launder dirty money, the politicians who protect the capos, the bankers who transfer their cash from Europe and the U.S. back to Latin America and, of course, the drug users.

A bag of “blood cocaine” or “blood heroin” in Europe or the U.S. costs several dollars; bullets in Latin America cost just a few cents.
Africa gave the world blood diamonds. Latin America is giving the world blood cocaine, blood heroin and even blood marijuana.

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Filed under: Behind the scenes •Drug Wars

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Fawad Ali   April 17th, 2009 3:16 pm ET

Sending US troops to Mexico makes more sense than it did sending them to Iraq in 2003.

Fedor H. Bottse   April 18th, 2009 12:20 am ET

We have read a lot about the drugs wars in Mexico. And all that the Americans are doing. We also look at and listen to what is going in Afghanistan and countries in that region.
The newly appointed President of the USA has made one thing clear. More diplomacy and NO more troops.
We hope that he can and will realize this.

We have seen what several Presidents have achieved. A new approach, as indicated by this President, more diplomacy, is, in my personal opinion, the only way all parties will win.

Other solutions will drag us to a level where we do not want to be.

The stone age is behind us. Why not act as civilized human beings and negotiate a situation in which ALL PEOPLE, the American, the Afghan and all others, will be the winners.

Don Persons   April 18th, 2009 10:40 pm ET

bullets. money. drug abusers. Well...bullets are not illegal and the US has a vested interest in selling them. Money turns around and the banks take their fee. They don't care where the money is from or what it is being used for. How then is the money dirty? Finally, the drug abusers. It is illegal to use those drugs in America, yet American incomes going towards the cost of these drugs is huge. Add in Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Paris, Moscow, Kazak and Rome, that's huge. What then are you suggesting be done with bullets, money and abusers? Better policies or better implementations?

Don Persons   April 18th, 2009 10:41 pm ET

By the way, your article is provocative and interesting. Thanks. I ask in a spirit of dialogue.

Ana Taylor   October 14th, 2009 7:40 pm ET

A journalist who recently lived in Guatemala for years–which has been called the Columbia of a decade ago because of it's geographic (perfect) location for trafficking–
I have shared Mr Penhaul's experiences to an extent and applaud him for getting them to an audience during risky times. Godspeed, Karl. I hope he (and CNN chiefs) see this.

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