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Drug Lord: A True Story – Review

by: Poppa, Terrence E.

Publisher: Demand Publications

Copyright: 1998

Cover: Photo by Terrence Poppa

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 10/28/2003

Summary: Highly recommended. Chewing gum and the start of America’s war on drugs.


There is a website, DRUG LORD, which promotes this book and provides the latest information on the drug trafficking situation in Mexico. The book itself is worth the hype.

A book is worth reading if, in the process, you pick up new information or a new thought is born. Drug Lord allows both.

The candelilla plant, native to southwest Texas and Mexico, is an ingredient in chewing gum, cosmetics and shoe polish. In the 1930s and 40s, it was illegal to smuggle the plant or its base product out of Mexico. It is not illegal to smuggle it into the United States. The author briefly examines the candelilla plant smuggling operation engaged in by Pablo Acosta’s grandfather and father. By doing so, he lays the historical backdrop for what Pablo Acosta became in 1973. More than that, the author introduces us to the Mexican government, the labor unions, and of course, the Mexican law enforcement authorities. It is neither coincidence nor happenstance that Poppa points out that the wax industry “was tightly controlled by a union in Coahuila”. The poor had to get a permit and join the government-controlled Candelilla Workers Union to work the candelilla plant. Smuggling was a way around fees, rules and regulations which could easily be termed exploitation-the profit incentive option. This tidbit on candelilla smuggling serves to remind us that law-breakers are defined by law-makers, both of whom may have their eyes on the proverbial bottom-line.

For those of us who grew up during the waning days of agrarian society in rural America, “family” as the foundation for interacting with the larger world is an understandable concept. Today, in much of the world, it is “family” that forms the basis of social and economic decisions. Not to understand “family” is not to understand why the people of Palestine continue to support leaders whose actions keep them disenfranchised and nationless; not to understand “family” is not to understand why some segments of Iraqi society would prefer driving a car-bomb to a voting booth instead of walking in and casting a vote. In the drug trafficking business, especially in the pre-cartels period, “family” was a recurring theme. Whether the endeavor is legal or illegal business, “family, or “us and them” is a very narrow highway of thought that allows for a panorama of rationalizations to justify just about anything.

Pablo Acosta built a drug trafficking business centered in Ojinaga, Mexico (north central Mexico) using family and associates as the glue. By 1985, the Ojinaga plaza (a plaza being a drug trafficking area sanctioned by Mexican authorities) had replaced Miami as the epicenter of illicit drugs entering the United States. Acosta had fled to Mexico in 1976. You get the impression-stress, impression-from reading this book that Acosta drifted back to his roots. In other words, with the equivalent of a fourth-grade education, married, living in Odessa, Texas and floating between fieldwork and construction work, Acosta’s increasing brushes with the law and eventual heroin smuggling arrest in 1968 were mere incidental blurbs on a life that had no way to go but into lawlessness and then death. An impression only. The fact of course is that Acosta decided to take the illegal way of making a living by smuggling marijuana and then heroin at a time (circa 1964) when illicit drugs were not the multi-billion dollar a year industry it became later. Equally important is that the real story here is not the life and death of Pablo Acosta, but of the government of Mexico and its national institutions.

Around the beginning of the 20th Century when Marxism was accepted as a legitimate philosophy, in the study of history divided into ideological camps: those who believed the individual continued to be the driving force behind history and those who believed that history was a process of economics and cultural beliefs. This reviewer has always believed that it is the individual who drives history, who sets in motion new ways of thinking and living. However, after reading books about the illicit drug trade, doubt creeps in. In the infinitely tiny universe of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, while Pablo Acosta sat on the throne of First Individual among drug traffickers, there were “forces” at work to the south that would role over Acosta and his throne, not reducing what he did, but absorbing and expanding it. At one point, the author states that Acosta was looking for a way out of the trafficking business. By this time, the Colombians-in the form of Jaime Herrera and others-were already doing business in northern Mexico. The law enforcement heat in Miami induced Colombian expansion into established Mexican trafficking routes. Was Pablo Acosta making pro-active decisions at this point?

Poppa says that Acosta wanted to drive the Colombians out of his slice of Mexico and get American law enforcement off his back. To achieve both ends, he entered into an informant relationship with a U. S. Customs agent, David Regela. Acosta ratted on competing traffickers and agent Regela added to his arrest statistics. This is an entire subject area unto itself. The bottom line of course is that neither party got what they wanted. Acosta was already a dead man, or at least his efforts were those of a dying man. Addicted to the heroin he warehoused and shoved across the American border, his day in the sun as First Individual was clouded by the tons of cocaine Colombians and his fellow Mexican traffickers were just as audaciously smuggling into California, Texas and New Mexico. His attempt to save his empire was an act of futility. After an article about the drug lord appeared in the Washington Post in 1986, even Mexican law enforcement was ready to cut Acosta loose.

DRUG LORD is not a book with earthshaking revelations, such as the more scholarly COCAINE by Dominic Streatfield or the biographical Blow by Bruce Porter. It is the mundane continuum of events in Drug Lord that gives the book its significance. You are allowed to observe the mediocrity of the traffickers’ life with its selfishness, greed and brutality. Acosta was killed in a combined American-Mexican law enforcement operation. But you realized nothing much was accomplished. Acosta was simply replaced by another drug lord and the mediocrity continued.




How The Irish Saved Civilization – Review

by: Cahill, Thomas

Publisher: Doubleday

Copyright: 1995

Cover: Marysarah Quinn, Martie Holmer

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 10/9/2003

Summary: Highly Recommended.  Three men who helped shape western social thought and institutions.

To truly celebrate the achievements of a culture and its people, all one must do is place them in a historical context. The goal is easier said than done of course. Thomas Cahill, in his HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION, achieves the goal with remarkable clarity.

Cahill squarely places the fundamental issue on the table very early in the book (on page 5) when he says that “the history we read in school and refer to in later life, was largely written by Protestant Englishmen and Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans.” One result of this monopoly in the writing of history is that the context of cultures and peoples is skewed or left un-examined altogether. Toward the end of the book he turns the fundamental issue up-side-down and provides one of those rare insights which both clarifies and simplifies the mechanics of history. In discussing the difference between the historians and philosophers living in the last days of the Roman Empire and those toiling away at translating the ancient works of those historians and philosophers in the Dark Ages, he points out that the Dark Ages was “a world not of thoughts, but of images.”

It is the type of line that forces you to pause and think. You can’t help but reflect back to the last PowerPoint presentation you had to sit through. But the significance of a world of thoughts as opposed to a world of images is more than superficiality.

The lives of three men are discussed at some length in Cahill’s work on his way to explaining the contributions of the Irish to western civilization. First, there is Ausonius the poet. He is of the “static world” of Christian Rome just after the conversion. A professor of Latin, he grew to maturity in Bordeaux in the province of Gaul about a hundred years before the German migration over the Rhine. Then there is Augustine of Hippo, whom Cahill calls “almost the last great classical man”. Augustine was a Romanized African who adopted Roman Christianity and became bishop of Hippo, though his thought was shaped by Socrates and Plato. He was the first in western literature to use the term “I”. According to Cahill, “he is the father not only of autobiography but of the modern novel.” And then there is the slave, Patricius, later to become known as Saint Patrick.

Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Celts began their migration across Europe, invading the City of Rome in 390 B.C. for the last time. By 350 B.C., Celtic tribes had reached Ireland. Cahill maintains that these Gaels of Ireland were offshoots of the Iberian Celts who settled the Iberian peninsula and became great sea traders. He makes this distinction based on language differences between the Celts who settled Britain and those who settled Ireland. In any event, Ireland was and is the only Celtic nation-state to survive the Germanic migrations across Europe that became a torrent after 406 A.D.. But within the flux of peoples and cultures, the young Briton, a Christian of Rome, named Patricius was captured and became a slave in Ireland. It was a condition he endured for six years before escaping back to Roman Britain.

Cahill achieves two points in the examination of Saint Patrick’s life. Patricius, in becoming the holy man later to be revered as Saint Patrick, practiced a form of Christianity that was radically different than the Christianity which spread throughout the Roman empire before its fall. That Saint Patrick was able to convert the Celtic barbarians of Ireland within his lifetime was a significant achievement. He reformed the Irish to the extent that, as Cahill says, “the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.” Even more of an achievement however was the spread of this Irish Catholicism to the barely tamed frontiers of mainland Europe. Ireland became the learning center of Europe.

The three men Cahill uses as icons of Western Civilization-Ausonius, Augustine of Hippos, and Saint Patrick (and later, following Saint Patrick, Columcille [Crimthann])-represent the trichotomous engine of Western development. Ausonius representing the qualities of obedience and observance, Augustine of Hippo representing the supremacy of thought and logic, and Saint Patrick, representing the emotive balance between the other two. Without Saint Patrick and the monasteries propagating influence of his brand of Christianity, there would have been no Martin Luther Reformation, no Adam Smith capitalism, no Thomas Paine Rights of Man grounded in gnostic mysticism. There would have been no need.




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