The Lesser of Three Evils

Mexico and U.S. authorities finally captured Arizona's leading drug kingpin. Good work, guys. Now let him go.

I've asked the promotions staff to hurry up with my tee shirt idea.

The shirt will show a convict getting barbecued in the electric chair. The convict's sassy brunette hair will be aflame as gobs of milky eyeball juice squirt through the leather shroud. A banner above the human fireworks will read: "Fry Winona!"

I don't loathe Winona Ryder, per se. I just want all these two-bit celebrity grifters executed at dawn so we can begin discussing arrests that matter.

For example, while Six-Finger Winona was shoplifting, or not, the most important arrest in recent Arizona history went unnoticed. In late December, Mexican and U.S. authorities popped Miguel Caro Quintero, the leader of the drug cartel that controls Sonora and Arizona, as he drove down a city street in Los Mochis, Sinaloa.

Caro Quintero's organization is considered one of the most powerful cartels in North America. The feds want him extradited to the United States on four drug and money-laundering indictments in Arizona and Colorado. The Mexicans probably will turn him over once our hangin' president gives proof he won't execute him like he did most of Texas.

I've got the promotions folks working on another tee shirt idea:

"Free Miguel!"

But I'm dead serious on this one. His release could save the lives of countless people from Phoenix to Nogales, including the lives of Arizona law enforcement agents.

The U.S.-Mexican border is basically controlled by three major cartels: the Juárez Cartel to our east, the Arellano Felix Cartel to our west and, finally, our cartel, the Caro Quintero organization.

By far, we are blessed with the most stable, most professional, least violent cartel of the three.

To our west, the California border region averages about one drug murder every two days. Tijuana is known as the Frontera Roja, the Red Frontier, for all the blood spilled by the Arellano Felix brothers controlling their turf.

The brothers, Benjamin, Javier and their enforcer, Ramon, keep power through inspired intimidation. In one case, they are accused of hiring a Julio Iglesias-looking Venezuelan to seduce the wife of a rival. The man lured the guy's wife to San Francisco, talked her into withdrawing $7 million from a bank, took the money and killed her.

Then came the Arellano Felix flare. The man chopped off the woman's head, sent the head in a box to the rival and then threw the rival's children off a bridge.

In recent weeks, a DEA agent told me, drug shipments with ties to the Arellano Felix organization have been intercepted in Arizona.

"We're not sure yet what this means," he says. "But it isn't good."

What it probably means is that the arrest of Miguel Caro Quintero has created a power vacuum in the Arizona-Sonora corridor. When there is a power vacuum, there often is widespread slaughter.

Take Juárez, for example. That region was thrown into chaos after the 1997 murder of Juárez Cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes.

Carrillo Fuentes was just as violent but much less showy than his California rivals. He adapted the more Central American habit of "disappearing" folks. Guys dressed as police would show up, pluck you off the Avenue of the Americas and take you for a ride south of town. Sometimes your bones were found, sometimes they weren't.

Apparently, some plastic surgeons were paid off to kill Carrillo Fuentes while he was getting a new face.

Soon after, all the surgeons, technicians and anyone remotely associated with those folks were found executed.

Violence escalated as his lieutenants fought for control. It's estimated that 60 people were murdered around Juárez in the power struggle in the year following his death. In late 1999, several mass graves were found on two ranches tied to the cartel just outside Juárez. Many Americans were among the dead.

Some were rivals, some were informers, some were just people who did jobs that cartel leaders felt might threaten their business. For example, a group of telecommunication workers were murdered as they installed equipment cartel leaders feared would improve police surveillance.

There are signs that the Juárez Cartel also is moving into the vacuum left in Arizona by the arrest of Miguel Caro Quintero.

While Caro Quintero has been linked to several murders, it would appear execution is viewed by his organization as a last resort, not the first one. A federal drug agent described the Caro Quintero organization as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in the pantheon of international drug cartels.

Actually, it's more like the Microsoft of cartels.

Caro Quintero brought warring factions together by explaining that, if they all worked together, everybody would get rich and everybody would stay alive. As a streamlined, unified front, they could move more product with less spoilage and fewer defaults on accounts.

Caro Quintero basically became the region's drug brokerage firm.

Then everyone was armed with the world's best communications equipment. Tunnels were built, officials were paid off. Soon the cartel was arguably the most efficient in the world.

"Their transportation, telemetry and communications are second to none," says Raul Rodriguez, commander of the drug task force in Nogales.

For American drug enforcement officials, it's Caro Quintero's efficiency, not his violence, that made him a top public enemy.

Unprecedented amounts of drugs were moving through Arizona because of him.

But an unprecedented lack of violence also moved through.

"It is much, much less violent here than in Tijuana and Juárez regions," Rodriguez says.

Robert Almonte, a deputy police chief in El Paso, which borders Juárez, agrees.

"This cartel is incredibly violent," Almonte says. "You definitely don't want these guys."

But we may get them. The Caro Quintero organization is hurting. And September 11 made it even worse.

The border was locked down just as the marijuana harvest began in Mexico. As the months passed, drug runners became desperate as tons of pot began to rot in Mexico (they don't have huge freezers, apparently). In desperation, drug runners are making mistakes.

DEA seized a near-record 10,000 pounds in Tucson in December. El Paso police had their best quarter ever, Almonte says.

Even if the shipments get through, heightened security has made it much more difficult to get money back to Mexico.

"It has become a very bad year for the cartels," says Jim Molesa, a DEA special agent based in Phoenix.

(If you're a pot smoker, you may soon have to do your patriotic duty and Buy American.)

Drug agents aren't sure what will happen with the Caro Quintero organization. Rodriguez is guessing a lieutenant will take the post peacefully; others believe a fight is already beginning.

My fear is that all this good work by U.S. and Mexican drug agents will cause terrible ramifications down the road. Hemorrhaging money and without a leader, either the unified factions within the Caro Quintero organization will begin warring or the Juárez or Tijuana cartels will move in. And no doubt the mayhem will be reflected in the Phoenix murder rate.

After years of trying, we may finally become America's deadliest city.

I believe the U.S. and Mexico should change their mindset toward drug cartels.

Until demand for drugs is abated, which history suggests will never happen, the existence of drug cartels will be inevitable.

The formation of cartels for a population has proven as inevitable as the formation of governments for a population.

So, perhaps drug cartels should be treated as rogue governments, not as crime organizations. The policy should not be to destroy the cartels, but to steer them toward stability and the behavior least damaging to American interests.

Imagine Arizona-Sonora as Afghanistan. Miguel Caro Quintero is Hamid Karzai, the alternative is Muhammad Omar or Osama bin Laden.

So, free Miguel! Lose some paperwork. Take a bribe. Send him a hacksaw in his birthday cake. Whatever.

In its present form, the enforcement arm of America's War on Drugs is a limited police action, an ambiguous Vietnam of partial containment. For every drug runner arrested, another appears in his or her place.

As such, I'm still astonished by the courage of those who risk their lives enforcing this policy. It's tougher to risk death for containment than for victory.

If we're going to force border agents and police to play this game of cat and mouse, then at least let them play with a sane, civilized mouse.

That way, we won't have our cats' heads sent home in boxes.

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