I don’t cover the narco war. I don’t even pretend to. I’m a science writer: I go to labs, talk to scientists and policymakers, and occasionally get on boats that take me out to see cool underwater critters. I live in Mexico City, which is about as safe as living in Washington, D.C. I occasionally walk home a little drunk without worrying about my safety any more than I would have in my old home in Berkeley, Calif. And I gotta be honest, I’m happy in my little bubble.
But working here, especially on occasional jaunts to northern Mexico, you can’t avoid the drug story. It’s infused in every interview, every stop at a checkpoint, every street corner, like that stink you can’t get out of the carpet.
Last year I reported a fishing story in Sonora that attempted to put a human face on the seafood industry and the collapse of many populations of key ocean creatures. The idea was that if consumers knew more, they might make more informed choices about what they eat, maybe selecting slightly less destructive options. I was in a relatively quiet part of Mexico in terms of violence but one that is nonetheless a crucial stopover for drugs going north. To states like California, where I’m from. My reporting partner—a photographer named Dominic Bracco who’s spent his share of time amid drug violence—and I always thought it was funny that people in the area seemed incredulous that we were actually reporting about fish. Oh right, sure, “fish.” We have a lot of “fish” here.
I remember one interview in particular in which a fisherman told us about his relative who occasionally ran drugs for the cartels in between seasons. In this area, it’s not blood in, blood out. Cartels have porous edges, where people drop in when they need the money and get out as fast as possible. And we are not talking about characters from Breaking Bad here—these are poor fishermen with no other choice. And mostly they hate it.
Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention. And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it. This particular guy had a long run up the coast. In moments of dark humor, I imagine the people I know back home who do coke being on that boat with him. Any of them would have considered it the trip of a lifetime, posted photos all over the Web, and come home to great applause with wonderful stories to tell. I imagine them carrying home a couple trinkets to remember their Steinbeck-like voyage.
This man did not. Maybe he endured storms and massive waves slamming his little panga while he clung for his life and prayed to get out alive. Maybe it was smooth going for a hundred miles, I don’t know. What I do know is that when he got to the end and he met the men who would take the cargo across the border, they put a bullet in his head and tossed him overboard to feed the fish he should have been catching. It’s cheaper to kill the mule than to pay him.
When people back home do a line of coke, they call it a “bump.” It’s a marvel of the English language that something so horrible, so corrosive can have such a cute little name. I wonder what that fisherman would have said to that innocuous little word. “Glad I could help brighten the party,” maybe?
Not that the fisherman here are wholly innocent—many of them do meth and coke to stay awake on the water, and some have become addicted. But we all know who drives the drug trade. It’s us. At our hip little parties, our New Year’s Eve celebrations, our secret back rooms, and on the counters of people from well-off families who are destined for rehab.
The economics of cocaine trafficking are simple. South Americans make it, people in between move it, rich Americans buy it, and U.S. gun stores sell weapons back down the line to enforce this system. Everyone knows this.