Shortly after September 11, Robert Garcia was in the doctor’s office getting another round of steroid injections. His full head of black hair survived military service, the threat of a dishonorable discharge, early fatherhood, the struggles of marriage, and the stresses of a street cop. Now, at 33, the thick hair was coming out in quarter-size patches.
It was pretty clear that drugs were to blame.
When Robert joined DEA as a task force officer, he started traveling up I-35 to “the checkpoint”—a kind of second border crossing 29 miles north of Laredo where Border Patrol agents applied random levels of scrutiny to vehicles, more so to cars and trucks driven by Hispanics. Connecting with the entire system of U.S. interstates, I-35 ran up through San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Des Moines, and Minneapolis. But it all started at the checkpoint, where the largest busts were made. Sometimes tons of narcotics were seized. As a street cop Robert made small drug busts within the city. His first months at DEA gave him a wider lens. Where, he wondered, is all this stuff coming from?
By 2000, six years after NAFTA was implemented, trade between Mexico and the United States had tripled, to $247 billion, and the four bridges that connected Nuevo Laredo to Laredo saw 60,000 trucks go north per week. Because every truck stopped for a search was a drag on global commerce, NAFTA eased friction for smugglers, too. Blizzards of white powder now came packaged in bounties of fresh citrus; boxes of plastic bananas, $5 sunglasses, and spice jars; as well as countless other goods. Some traffickers hired trade consultants to determine what merchandise moved across the border most swiftly under the new regime. Did a perishable get through quicker than a load of steel?
In the basic drug-interdiction formula, the DEA busted a smuggler coming across and offered to reduce his charges in exchange for his help busting the northern buyer—in places such as Detroit, Brooklyn, and Boston. To account for the time lost during interdiction and to ensure that the deal seemed genuine to the northern buyer, the truck was then flown north on a DEA jet. Or, if there was enough time, an undercover agent, like Robert, would drive the drugs to the point of sale. The DEA called these busts “controlled deliveries.”
Young, and often mistaken as Middle Eastern due to his dark coloring, Robert had a flexible appearance that made him a top choice for undercover jobs. With DEA, he worked and traveled constantly. He went undercover with smugglers from Mexico and Jamaica. He grew his hair long and wore Jesse’s Marlboro jacket. A typical two-year DEA employee in Laredo—“a target-rich environment”—saw as much action as an eight-year agent in New York.
Some DEA task force officers like Robert—those who’d been “loaned out” from a local agency and weren’t full federal agents—complained about the difference in pay. But the pay differential never bothered Robert. He was a cop from Mexico who was now working with U.S. federal agents, going undercover in New York City, and getting training that he would bring back to Laredo PD. If you were only in it for the money, he thought, then, yeah, you’d always be pissed off about the job. But what did he have to complain about?
Between jobs Robert squeezed in tourist activities, and sent photos to his mother. The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. The Hard Rock Cafe. He made many big busts, and posed with agents for trophy shots.
Two million in cash! A ton of cocaine! At first the busts were exciting. But time passed, and Robert became jaded by the lack of impact his busts, or any busts, had on overall drug traffic. Even if he did one controlled delivery per week, the effect on the drug supply would be meaningless. Even drug war optimists conceded that, at most, interdiction halted 10 percent of drug traffic. Robert guessed the interdiction rate was closer to 5 percent or 2 percent. Either way, there was no such thing as a good year. Only in isolation, divorced from any context, could a bust shown on the nightly news appear important. Where there was demand, he discovered, supply found its way. Prohibition? It was a legal fiction.
He couldn’t square the government’s outlay with his new knowledge about the results of interdiction—until he realized where the money to fight the war on drugs came from. After 9/11, the Laredo DEA office transitioned from a “resident-agent office” that drew on local hires to a “district office” that recruited agents from all over the country. Eight agents became 40. DEA wasn’t the only drug squad in town, just the main one. Laredo PD, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the sheriff’s office, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), FBI, and Department of Homeland Security: They all pursued the same targets, and all ran on drug money. Seizures of cash and equipment could finance half an agency’s budget, sometimes more. The yin and the yang.
Drug traffic spiked, in spite of enhanced enforcement, but it was hard to argue with the war’s economic agenda. A trafficker could serve time in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agents who drove a forfeiture-financed car and earned forfeiture-financed overtime in a forfeiture-funded sting. Who in Washington would get too worked up by a self-financing war? There was little downside to supporting the war. No wonder that, among politicians, out-toughing one another on drugs was a bipartisan practice.
When agencies weren’t fighting with each other over cases and money, they were fighting over credit for busts and prosecutions. Mostly, agencies cared about being first to report a bust to Washington. Even within DEA, agents and task force officers backstabbed one another, poached informants, and refused to share information that would enhance the overall effectiveness of interdiction. The office had an open floor plan, yet rarely did an agent know what the agent sitting next to him was working on. To an efficiency-minded engineer, the futility of the larger war on drugs was impossible to ignore, and everything Robert had spent the past decade doing struck him as futile.
Robert’s time in DEA was supposed to be four years. It dragged on, and the work drained him. He and Ronnie moved the boys to a three-bedroom house in a new subdivision of Laredo called Los Presidentes, and Robert’s hair began to come out in patches. Where he’d once taken pride in soldiering for a cause, he now understood that border policing was not so much about achieving policy—No drugs! No immigrants!—as it was a symbol of state authority. The border was a theater, a stage on which many stories could be told. Busts—visible though misleading indicators of progress—won votes for incumbent politicians, fed a hungry press, and neutralized political challengers who tried to portray the border as out of control. September 11 opened the federal wallet, adding a new and lucrative plotline to the border narrative: smuggled terrorists.
“Middle East terrorists could arrive at any moment!” the sheriff of Webb County, home of Laredo, yelled to anyone who’d listen. Robert watched, fuming, as the sheriff, a guy who never put cuffs on anyone, held press conferences at the river as if he were the last line of defense against Armageddon. The sheriff waved a piece of fabric, which he said was an “Iraqi military patch” found in the brush by a local rancher.
Four years into his DEA stint, Robert was at the doctor, getting steroid injections for his hair, when he said it aloud for the first time: “The war on drugs is a big fucking lie.”
The war had been a lie for 200 years. America’s earliest attempts to regulate vice regulated price only: economics by other means. In 1802, Little Turtle, the chief of the Miami Indians, made a speech to Thomas Jefferson about the effect that alcohol had in Native American communities: “Father, the introduction of this poison has been prohibited in our camps, but not in our towns, where many of our hunters, for this poison, dispose not only of their furs, but frequently of their guns and blankets, and return to their families destitute.”
Legislators passed laws to stem the flow of alcohol into Indian lands. But the Indian demand for whiskey remained; and the pelts that Indians offered in exchange for whiskey could be sold dearly back east. Laws that prohibited the sale of whiskey to Indians merely inflated alcohol prices in Indian territory, such that a 25-cent gallon of whiskey in St. Louis could be sold by a fur trader a few hundred miles away, in what is now Iowa, for $64. The fur traders—such as America’s richest man, John Jacob Astor, whose American Fur Company controlled 75 percent of the fur trade—benefited the most from early prohibition.
Astor’s company lobbied for exceptions to Indian prohibition, insisting that the company’s boatmen, the ones who traveled up the Missouri River to purchase pelts, required whiskey for personal use on their long journeys. So exceptions to the law were legislated, and boatman permits were issued—in effect, permits to smuggle. In 1831, only one in every hundred gallons of whiskey brought into Indian country was covered by a permit.
A decade later, the Indian Office reported that more than a hundred Indians died in drunken brawls in Sioux country during one year; and that entire Indian villages would starve if the whiskey trade continued. The Indian Office appointed a roving agent to interdict illicit liquor on the Missouri. Even though the agent didn’t find much liquor during his year in the field, his presence slowed the flow of alcohol up the Missouri, prompting Indians, finally, to raise their prices on pelts, and fur traders to complain to the government.
The lesson of early prohibition was clear: Where there was demand, supply found its way. In future attempts to regulate vice, the only question would be which community bore the black-market burden—as consumers of the vice, suppliers of the market, or both. Who would the Indians be?
Robert’s stress-related bald patches disappeared after a round of steroid injections, then returned. He got more steroid injections and his hair grew back. He latched on to a drug load that took him from New Jersey to Chicago to San Diego, a big case he worked obsessively. The whiteboard above his desk at DEA—a mess of pictures and strings and note cards—grew like a graduate-level math proof that could be worked forever but never solved. He assembled binders on not just the “dopers” he tracked but their relatives, and memorized every address.
As Robert’s DEA career stretched to six years, he became leery of who the boys brought home from school. All families of the boys’ friends had to be vetted to see if Robert had arrested a father or an uncle. He also ran every neighbor through the system, knew the criminal history of every family that lived within a mile. It turned out that the next-door neighbors, whose twin boys Eric and Trey played with, did business with drug suppliers across the border.
While Robert was away, as often as two weeks per month, Ronnie raised the boys. In most Mexican households, men did the outdoor work and women kept the home. Ronnie took what she liked from her husband’s culture but left that tradition behind. The boys learned to cook, clean, and do laundry. Everyone contributed.
She, Eric, and Trey talked and laughed. But the moment Robert returned home, the dynamic changed. His mood was shitty. If anyone made a noise, he reprimanded them. Trey, the blood son, obeyed. Eric, the stepson, had less reverence. Eric snuck around behind Robert and mocked him.
Be quiet! Drop and give me 20! Robert and Ronnie programmed Eric and Trey not to tell people what dad did for a living. Since Robert often unwound by doing projects around the house, the Garcias told neighbors that Robert was in construction. But one day, while giving a class presentation on his family, Eric slipped and said, “My dad does drugs.” The teacher called Ronnie: “Ma’am, I’m a little concerned.”
Dan Slater is the author of Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 13, 2016).