August 11, 2013

Pablo Acosta

Pablo Acosta

Dear Gato,

When Felipe Calderón took office as the president of Mexico in 2006, he pledged to turn up the heat on the War on Drugs. He delivered on his promise. By 2012, over 70,000 people had been murdered in the war against narco-trafficking.

Costing more casualties than any war since Vietnam, this war against the cartels appears more endless now than it did when Richard Nixon coined the phrase “€œWar on Drugs”€ in 1971, telling the Associated Press that his action against the narcos would “€œtighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers and thereby loosen the noose around the necks of drug users.”€

Nixon’s rhetorical violence was prophetic. Forty-two years later, the global market for illegal drugs is a dynamic kind of Great Game played between nations, cartels, and hugely powerful individuals. Its economic output is estimated at $500 billion yearly.

The near-worldwide prohibition of narcotics has protected the drug trade, causing it to become one of the world’s most profitable business sectors. It has also made some areas of Mexico the most dangerous spots in the world.

This violence can be traced back to one man. His name is Pablo Acosta.

Picture a man, unusually tall for a Mexican. He is about forty years old, walking along a river”€”the Rio Grande, the border between Chihuahua state and the USA. It is April of 1987 and this border will in time become a fortified, drone-patrolled, high-security zone.

On the evening they went in to kill Pablo Acosta, he was spotted walking along the deep, fast-flowing river, whose banks were always quiet in those days. Across the muddy waters rises a bluff towering hundreds of feet high, its shadows casting long imprints as the dusk gathers.

The skin on Acosta’s face had the toughness of hide. His forehead and cheeks were scarred in places. One of his eyebrows was nicked. A full mustache curved below the sides of his cheek, following the crease of a million vanished smiles. From his stride we can tell he is a man of purpose and power.

The most wanted man in Mexico and the United States at that time, he took a stroll that evening knowing that a hundred gun sights were likely on him. A stray dog followed his progress toward the hamlet of Ojinaga, which is a couple hundred yards from the riverside. The mongrel was the man’s only companion.

Two hours later Acosta would be dead.

“€œThe global market for illegal drugs is a dynamic kind of Great Game played between nations, cartels, and hugely powerful individuals.”€

Beyond the hamlet lie empty mesas. The houses are adobe. It doesn”€™t get poorer than this. He reaches a street, pauses, and then turns down a dirt track, the echo of his stride slowing. There’s an inevitability to his footsteps.

The man that started it all. Like a king going to his grave.

No consensus was reached as to whether he shot himself. Nobody knows how he died. Autopsy reports performed in Juarez showed later that the angle of entry and the gunpowder burns didn”€™t rule out suicide but made it unlikely. The lack of an exit wound in the back of the mouth was a puzzle never fully resolved.

Pablo Acosta Villareal’s funeral saw a procession of hundreds of cars and trucks moving slowly south along the Chihuahua highway. Many vehicles carried Texas plates; others carried New Mexico, California, and even Nebraska plates in addition to the hundreds of Mexican plates.

Until his death, Acosta was the top padrino of Mexico’s narco-trafficking trade. He was the mentor and business partner of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the first narco to become a tabloid sensation. The so-called Lord of the Skies”€”named so because of his strategy of buying a fleet of 747 airplanes to import cocaine to the USA”€”Amado took over the business after Acosta’s death and commanded power until 1997, when he died while undergoing his fourth round of cosmetic surgery to disguise his face from the world.

Pablo Acosta could have been a farmer but as a teen, he began smuggling contraband across the river to America. It was an activity performed by long lines of generations from Chihuahua, situated as it is across from Big Bend National Park, a spectacular canyon wilderness which even today is hard to police. Fifteen years before his death he had already established himself as the area’s preeminent comptroller following a vicious feud with his only rivals, a local smuggling family named Arevalo. A final shootout between Pablo’s men and the Arevalos settled the dispute over who controlled the “€œPlaza,”€ as the area of northern Mexico across from Texas is called to this day.

Whoever controlled the Plaza controlled the drug trade in those days. Pablo survived the shootout because of his fearlessness as much as luck. He killed every last male in the Arevalo family as payback for wounding his younger brother. He was saved from their machine-gun fire by his belt’s gold plate, which deflected a lethal bullet and gained him a respect in the region based partly upon a myth of his invincibility.

In the mid-70s, FBI agents would spot a slimmer Acosta at rodeos, surrounded always by a clique of loyal relatives casually carrying M1 Carbine machine guns in a public display of firepower. He strutted through town in fine ostrich-skin cowboy boots and plaid shirts. Men feared him, women looked to him for protection, and little boys worshiped his machismo.

In business, he was ingenious. He pioneered new smuggling techniques. One involved trucks with two gas tanks”€”one tank inside the other. The inner tank would contain the drug haul, while the outer one was the operational tank. When the US border guards opened a valve, they would smell propane. If they checked the gauges, the gas would register full. The fuel meter’s wires could be reversed so that when a gauge read “€œpropane,”€ the truck would be running on gasoline; when it read “€œgasoline,”€ it would be running on propane.

As demand in the US expanded and Colombian entrepreneurs ramped up drug production, Pablo’s distribution enterprise expanded. Following a franchise business model and “€œowning”€ the Plaza outright, he laid the foundations for today’s corporatized global distribution business, with Mexico retaining its position as the world’s number-one drug transshipment hub, the Plaza.

By the late 1970s, turboprop planes from Colombia would land day and night on the town’s airstrip in full view of Ojinaga’s citizens and uniformed Mexican soldiers providing operational security. Pablo would command the flow in person, working four or five days in a row uninterrupted while his lesser, mortal “€œlieutenants”€ pulled shifts to keep up with the boss. Fueled by an endless supply of Marlboro Reds, with half the tobacco of each cigarette scooped out of the stem and filled with freshly cut rock cocaine, sleep was not a requirement. If Pablo needed to unwind, he would go into town to drink after his men had emptied a bar for him, peacefully herding the clientele out with their machine guns. A terrified barman would be permitted to linger so as to pour el jefe‘s favorite El Presidente brandy in amounts large enough to keep up with the crack cigarettes prepared continuously by his otherwise useless cousin, Pedro.

Important meetings might be held in the telegraph office. Negotiating with Acosta, whose high Indian cheekbones accentuated the permanent fatigue on his face, making the skull visible beneath the skin in the harsh electric light, was a one-way street. A death mask seemed slowly to be emerging from a living face as the years of working and playing hard went by, as the drug lord chain-smoked the endless crack cigarettes.

By the time of his death he was maintaining a habit of twenty to twenty-five grams of cocaine per day. Aside from his habit, Pablo disdained the luxury and shiny ostentation of his Cuban peers running drugs through Miami. To them, Pablo would seem no more than a well-built, rugged peasant, an idiot who sweated into felt cowpoke shirts in 100-degree summer heat. Aside from donations to the poorest, neediest, or unluckiest of his community out there in the desert”€”and aside from the many backhanders to the police and army, plus his numerous lieutenants”€™ pay”€”Acosta’s outgoings were minimal to nonexistent. To look at him, you would never imagine this man was a business tycoon, an entrepreneur on a scale to compete with the wealthiest Texas oil barons. A pioneer who created the Plaza out of barren land, Acosta singlehandedly invented the drug-trafficking industry on an industrial scale. He created a centralized, multilateral distribution model that would evolve into a mezzanine capital market. Acosta held the reins of this modern-day empire like a duke in a feudal continent.

Acosta was the first, the original narco. And to this day, what was his duchy remains one of the world’s busiest economic zones and the world’s largest single black market.


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