The men who came ashore from the Mexican Navy’s landing ship Papaloapan wore blue jerseys over their uniforms emblazoned with a single word in big white letters.
They were Mexican Marines, landing in Mississippi in September of 2005 to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They brought 250 tons of food, a pair of helicopters, eight all-terrain vehicles, and seven amphibious vehicles. They were joined by units of the Mexican Army, which traveled overland in a convoy of 35 vehicles carrying another 162 tons of food as well as a field kitchen that served 170,000 meals. The legislative assembly in Mexico City also did its bit, with each member kicking in a day’s pay for the storm’s victims.
One American who seems to have kicked in nothing at all was Donald Trump. The IRS filing by his foundation for that year shows contributions to numerous worthy causes, ranging from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press ($10,000) to The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation ($25,000) to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance ($25,000), but not a cent for Katrina victims.
That, even though Trump was in New Orleans four days before the storm to announce that his next project was the 70-story, $400 million Trump International Hotel & Tower New Orleans. A three story high banner in blue announced “Redefining Luxury in New Orleans” and proclaimed a single word in outsized white letters.
Then the hurricane hit. Trump was already preparing to abandon the project as the Marines in the MARINA jerseys continued to labor in the hot sun, delivering relief supplies and clearing wreckage.
After 20 days, the Mexican Marines returned to their home country and resumed their primary mission, which was and is to hunt down the bosses of the drug cartel. They were again wearing body armor, not jerseys stenciled with MARINA in big white letters.
In 2009, U.S. authorities tipped off the Mexican Army to the location of cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva. The army proved to be what is politely termed “risk averse,” and the U.S. turned to the Mexican Marines, who immediately sprang into action.
After a 90-minute firefight, Beltran escaped, but the Marines soon after tracked him down with a little more help from the U.S. The fighting resumed and Beltran was shot to death. A grenade blast killed one of the Marines, 30-year-old Ensign Melquisedet Angulo Córdova of Tabasco.
As was reported by The Daily Beast, Angulo was buried with full military honors, culminating in a graveside ritual similar to the one conducted after a U.S. service member is killed in action. Mexico’s secretary of the navy presented Angulo’s mother with the flag that had covered his coffin, solemnly thanking her for her sacrifice.
Her son, the secretary said, had “done his duty to the last moment of his life serving his country, his people, and honoring his family.”
The mother, Irma Córdova Palma, spoke to reporters afterward.
“Thinking as a mother, I used to feel very sad and hurt for the families of soldiers and police who had been killed. It would make me cry,” she said. “And now, now it is my turn.”
That night, more than a dozen gunmen armed with assault rifles burst through the front door of the Angulo home. They murdered the fallen Marine’s mother, and his sister, Yolidabey, as they slept. His brother, Benito, and aunt, Josefa Angulo Flores, died despite the efforts of paramedics to save them. A hand-lettered cartel sign, or narcomanta, went up outside a nursery school, threatening further reprisals and implicitly suggesting the victims could include even the youngest children of the Marines.
The atrocity and the threat made the Marines only more determined. They made numerous big busts and then the biggest, catching up with Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, known to the world as El Chapo, in February of 2014. He escaped from prison via a tunnel in July of 2015.
In January of 2016, the Marines caught up with El Chapo again. Five of his men were killed in the ensuing gunfight, but El Chapo survived.
El Chapo fought extradition all last year, but the Mexican authorities apparently decided they did not want to risk the embarrassment of having him escape again. They seem to have been seeking to strike a conciliatory note without simply caving in when they placed El Chapo aboard a plane that landed in New York at 9:30 p.m. on inauguration eve, during Barack Obama’s final hours as president. El Chapo appeared in Brooklyn federal court on Inauguration Day, two hours after Trump took the oath of office.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was slated to visit the new American president, but canceled after Trump ordered the building of the border wall that he had promised during the campaign.
Trump and Peña Nieto did speak on the telephone on the morning of Jan. 27. Such conversations between heads of state are routinely transcribed and the Associated Press obtained what it reported to be excerpts.
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump tells Peña Nieto in one excerpt. “You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
Some of the Mexican military is no doubt “risk averse,” but the courage of the Marinas in tracking down a succession of the biggest of the bad hombres should not be doubted in whatever tone, be it “light-hearted” as the White House insists, or threatening as some reports have suggested. The Mexican government maintains that the conversation was ”constructive,” though it reiterates its pledge that it will never pay for Trump’s wall.
El Chapo is scheduled to appear in court again on Friday. His people have demonstrated on many occasions that they can build tunnels under any wall. His undoing came as the result of a bridge; the close cooperation between U.S. authorities and the Marinas.