Publisher: Demand Publications
Cover: Photo by Terrence Poppa
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.