Obviously pretty old but I aint seen it before and its got some interesting stuff. Certainly IMO kinda partially confirms that those times where it SEEMS like the cops captured a capo but then let him buy his freedom, that is what actually happened in most cases.
Calderoni was a super interesting character. Any ideas who snuffed him?
Jesse I know you don't copy many articles on here but this 1 is excellent reading so I copied it in text like Mainboard.If we can do this rather than just a link but with both that would be super.Tthis article answers a lot of questions we all had on Mexican operations.Thanks......Canadiana
For nearly a decade, Calderoni was one of the highest ranking commanders in the Mexican Federal Police and was its top narcotics officer during the Carlos Salinas administration. He orchestrated the arrest of drug lord Felix Gallardo. He later told U.S. law enforcement authorities that Salinas and his family were corrupt, and were involved in various crimes related to narcotrafficking. He fled to the U.S. after a warrant for his arrest was issued in Mexico. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
[UPDATE: Calderoni was killed on Feb. 5, 2003, in McAllen, Texas, where he had settled after leaving Mexico. An unidentified gunman shot and killed him as he sat in his car outside the offices of a prominent Texas defense attorney.]
What is the story of drug trafficker Miguel Felix Gallardo?
I was planning on retiring. It was at the beginning of 1989. I had been in the force from 1983 to 1989 and I wanted to retire. They called me so that I would do the Miguel Félix Gallardo job. Of course I knew who he was. The number one. The número uno is the boss of bosses. He is the one who gives the orders in all the country in matters of narcotrafficking. Like Pablo Escobar in Colombia, perhaps. Number one.
[Mexican Deputy Attorney General] Cuevo wanted the Miguel Félix Gallardo job to be done. He asked me to go to Mexico. I went there and talked to him, and I said, "You really want to catch him, or do you want to pretend like you're catching him?" So he explained, "No, the president is very interested in having us catch Miguel Félix Gallardo." Why now? Why not three years ago? Salinas was just coming in.
So, certification came up. If certification occurred, then part of the debt would be forgiven. Mexico wants to have some leverage. With the capture of Miguel Félix Gallardo . . . Mexico will have leverage. . . . They told me, "No, not six months. We'll give you three months to catch him." He was already in hiding. He is a very, very intelligent man. He didn't have too many people guarding him, despite what people said--that he had an army. In reality, he was always alone. Later I personally told Cuevo that three months was not enough to look for a man like him who was already in hiding, that I felt a very heavy load on my back, as if Mexico's future depended on me. If I caught Félix Gallardo, then Mexico would be certified and if certification happens, then they forgive the debt. And if I don't catch him? The certification won't happen, nor will the debt be forgiven. So it was a very heavy load and I didn't want to carry it by myself.
So I told him I thought it would be good to do this job with the DEA. He asked why with DEA? I told him that, if for some reason we didn't catch him in three months, the DEA will be witness to the fact that we are looking for him, and that could be reason enough for the certification to happen.
It wasn't enough to catch him. They wanted him alive. They didn't want him to die during the arrest. President Salinas wanted him alive. So that made the operation two or three times more difficult, because you had to surprise him in such a way that he didn't have time to put up a fight or kill himself.
They killed comandantes of the federal judicial police right in front of their offices. And nobody is investigating who killed them. We started to work on this with the DEA. We had tapped the phones of his people. He was identified as the número uno. We found out with the phone company where the phone calls had originated. They had been made in Guadalajara, and we wanted to know where in Sinaloa they were made to. After two and a half months, we found the place where the phone calls were being made from. He had said in some of the phone calls, that even if they found the telephone he was calling from, that didn't mean that he was in the house that phone was assigned to, because he was using a cell phone. So for us, it was very important to find his house . . . .We set up surveillance.
After many problems, we rented an apartment across the street from his house, and one day in which they brought in an icebox with shrimp and [other food], when his guards came out. I had the operation all planned. Fourteen of us went in. We apprehended him alive inside of his house. The two guards fled. They were always in the range of a sniper. They wouldn't have been able to help him even if they had wanted to. We apprehended him, took him to a safe house and later we took him to Mexico. It was a difficult job. We were under a lot of pressure because of the time frame. After that came certification, and after that, the debt was forgiven. , , ,
What was it like when you went into that house to arrest him?
We fought a little to get in, because he had a bottle of serum that he was attaching to himself and he was in pajamas walking around his kitchen. We had information that he always carried a grenade with him. So we kept on saying to him to lower his hand, thinking that he was holding a grenade, because we couldn't see well through the windows. And he didn't put his hand down because he was injecting himself with a saline solution. So we were having a hard time trying to communicate with him, until we were able to break the door down. We came in. We realized that he had a saline solution going into his arm. We disconnected the solution, and we made him lie face down. His family was upstairs, a little scared. We went in. I talked with his wife, asked her to send clothes so that he could get dressed immediately. One of the agents went upstairs to get the clothes that Miguel Félix's wife gave him. He was face down. I made him turn over. I put the AK-47 in his mouth and made him stand up slowly.
When I took the gun away, he offered me--I can't remember whether it was $5 or $6 million--in exchange for his release. I told him that his arrest was not negotiable, that he was going to be turned over to the authorities in Mexico. He threatened me. He said, "You know that if you turn me in, you are a dead man, you are going to die very soon." I said, "Look, Miguel, I think that if I turn over to your people the tapes that I have, you are the one who will die soon," because he had his own people killed when they became a danger to him. And I had that on tape. "You ordered so-and-so's death, you ordered Joe Blow's death. You ordered the death of the son of your deputy and your people don't know that, but I do. If I turn over the tapes to them, you will die bjesseeefore me. So let's just lay off each other. But you are going to prison."
We took him out, dressed. We respected the family. We didn't search the house. My only goal was to apprehend Miguel Félix Gallardo alive. And we did.
You could arrest Felix Gallardo because the government told you to arrest him. Couldn't the government simply arrest all the drug traffickers in Mexico if they wanted to?
Well, if they had someone to go do it, yes. If they don't, then no. The political will may exist, but you have to have someone to do the job. I think what is missing now is someone to do the job. The political will is probably there. But nobody wants to do the job, because there is no budget. They don't give them money to carry out the operation. You make them go through lie-detector tests. . . . So police officers have a series of problems, and they are not going to risk the rest of their lives and their careers for just anything.
Mexico has a very serious problem right now. It has nobody to do the jobs. It does not have people who are sufficiently trained, or chiefs to give them the support that a person needs to do a job. They have seen what has happened to the people who have done the big jobs, how they have been persecuted, punished, killed, that nobody has defended them. How is it possible that they murder a first commander right outside the offices of the federal judicial police and nobody does anything? And nobody investigates his death. So who do you want to risk their life and the life of his family for nothing? Did you check the budget that the US has to fight narcotrafficking? And did you check Colombia's budget? Compare the three. Maybe you will find that the country that has the least money is the one that achieves the least results. . . .
How do police commissioners make money in the Mexican system?
They don't only pay to get appointed. They also pay to get a job, or to get a certain geographical territory. People will pay a lot of money to get appointed to the border. If they don't have the money to pay for the appointment, then they will have to borrow it. But they are counting on making it back through their appointment. And they most likely will have to work with the narcotraffickers in order to make back the money they had to pay to get there, and also to cover their monthly expenses. . . .
Why are so many Mexican police commanders corrupt?
What did you do to turn them into real police officers? Did you give them the budget? Did you give them gas for the trucks? Did you give them better weapons, trucks, vehicles, intelligence, information, technology, than the traffickers had? If you didn't give them any of this, really, what did you give them? You sent them off to become what they became--to take money from drug traffickers in order to fight them. Maybe they take the money from some of the traffickers to fight the other traffickers.
I would like you to understand that I am Mexican, and I love the police very much, despite these defects. I understand them--I don't justify them, but I understand them. The largest percentage that you can imagine--say, ninety percent of the police--have to use that money to survive. If they don't have this money, they can't live. They don't make enough. . . .
Is it dangerous to be a police commander--a comandante--in Mexico?
. . . Even though a comandante is part of the government, in Mexico that doesn't mean that the government is backing him up and that this comandante is going to enjoy a lot of support, because they get killed and nothing happens. They killed comandantes of the federal judicial police right in front of the offices of the federal judicial police, and nobody is investigating who killed them.
So when a person who doesn't have much of a reputation to back him up takes over a dangerous position, that is a message: money or bullets. "You either accept the money or we'll kill you. Which do you choose? Or you can leave." Because traffickers can have so much power in Mexico and in the regions, they can have you transferred or fired. If they don't want you to be in a position, they pay $1 million to a boss, and you will most likely be removed for $1 million.
Ninety percent of the criminal organizations are from Sinaloa. Sinaloa is the cradle of the biggest traffickers Mexico has ever known. That is where they are being made everyday. A 15, 16-year-old boy in Sinaloa is already a bully, a gunman, a man. That is why when they kill a child of 15. For them, it is a crime against a man. It's the culture. . . .
What happened when you tried to convince the known drug trafficker, Juan Garcia Abrego, to turn himself in?
I was ordered to talk with him so that he would turn himself in. Cuevo Trejo, the Mexican prosecutor, called me and told me that he wanted Juan to turn himself in, and asked me whether I could talk with Juan so that he would turn himself in. I went over to Juan and asked him to turn himself in, and that was when he confessed to me some things related to Salinas, which I told Cuevo. . . . The first time I went to meet Juan to talk him into turning himself in, which is what I had been asked to do, Juan told me. He told me about the relationship that had existed between him and the Salinas family, specifically Carlos.
I went to see Juan so that Juan would turn himself in because the Americans were putting a lot of pressure on Mexico, and Salinas wanted him to turn himself in. At least that's what Cuevo told me. If any of them lied to me, I am only repeating what they said to me. So Juan said, "Why are they chasing me if I served Salinas? It's not right for him to chase me." I told him, "I don't know what you're talking about. How did you serve him?" He said, "Tell him I did this for him." I said, "Are you sure that you want me to tell him that?" "Yes," he said, "Okay."
He wasn't going to lie to me. In addition, I later was able to prove it, in the sense that I asked another of the participants--who told me that that had in fact happened. And another one told me the same. So I concluded that it had happened. He told me that he was asked to kill [two people who were campaign managers for Salinas' opposition in the last election.] And he said that he had done it, that he had killed them for Carlos Salinas. He sent the people who killed them. . . .
How did your perspective change once you found out that Carlos Salinas was involved with the narcotraffickers?
Calderoni with Salinas
I became very worried. I worried about Mexico, not about Carlos or Raul. I worried about Mexico, because I know the price that Mexico pays for every mistake it commits in the war on drugs. And I know how it pays and I know where it hurts. This hurt me, and it continues to hurt, because I know that Mexico pays a price for the mistakes it makes in narcotrafficking. . . .
And that is the photo. Back then, I thought it was an honor to be next to the president. Now I think it was a disgrace for me. I feel embarrassed, disgusted to be next to a man like Carlos Salinas.
Why did you have to leave Mexico?
Because the FBI, as far as I know, made it known to Carlos Salinas de Gortari what I was saying about him. That made it so I had to leave. . . .
How did the DEA react when you told them about Salinas?
Nobody has wanted to believe it completely, or maybe politics has told them that they shouldn't believe it. Or maybe the CIA says I am not a trustworthy source, and that I shouldn't be taken into account. But the reaction . . . Nothing has happened. They continue their daily tasks, and maybe I remain a liar in their eyes. They don't want to listen to me. , , ,
How did you survive in a country where, you say, ninety percent of the police commanders have to work with criminals to earn a living?
I didn't become an officer to make money, because I already had money. Before I became a police officer, I already owned a 5,000-acre ranch. I had more than 1,000 cattle, a currency exchange in the US, and a house in the US worth $300,000 or something close to that, before I entered the federal judicial police. . . . I liked the challenges, challenges, challenges, more and more seizures, more and more drugs, to do bigger and better things. I got very involved. I learned so much about narcotrafficking in Mexico that for me it was very easy to seize four, five, ten tons of drugs. I even reached the point where drug seizures didn't produce much satisfaction because they happened so often. . . .
In 1984, all of a sudden you came across 300 kilos of cocaine. Was that the beginning of the big cocaine traffic?
Yes. Then it was 300 kilos of cocaine in Nuevo Laredo, and in 1984, that set a record in Mexico. Never before had such a large shipment been seized. And I believe this shipment and other things that had occurred previously in Monterrey made me more interested in investigation and in learning more about these organizations. That was when I discovered that the Colombian traffickers, because of the fact that the US had closed off Florida so that drugs couldn't directly travel from Colombia to Florida, were utilizing criminals or dealers--I called them "marijuaneros" or marijuana traffickers--to move cocaine. The traffickers that we caught then had been marijuana traffickers. So now the Colombians needed the Mexican marijuana traffickers to move their drugs into the US. So that was the beginning of what we still have going on today. The cocaine trafficking has grown and we have increasingly been trying to battle it.
How did this new movement of cocaine through Mexico change your job?
We originally were focused on looking for people who moved marijuana. We didn't see any coca in Mexico. From that moment on, everyone--or at least I did--we started to look for the large cocaine shipments. If we were going to put in one, two or three months of work, we preferred to invest that time in something big. Not that we were letting the marijuana traffickers off the hook, it's just that if someone was moving much larger amounts of cocaine, that interested us more than the marijuana. So we investigated marijuaneros, but we emphasized cocaine. It made us learn more about airstrips, fuels, phone tapping. It made us do many things that we hadn't needed to do with marijuana. The power of corruption definitely increased. The power of the organizations increased a lot. They became much richer, much more powerful, with much more control. Now it wasn't $1 million, $2 million. It was $15, $20, $30 million or $40 million that they could make off of a single shipment. That gives them a large buying power.
What did the Mexican army do to your people in November, 1991?
They killed off all our federales, a good team that was perfectly well trained to do this job. We had trained them during many years. And they shot them all at short range. And there is proof, there are videos. The DEA has videos of that. Nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wanted to talk about it. The army was still somewhat untouchable. I think the general did not even go to prison. A lower-ranked official went to prison, or maybe I'm wrong.
I had to come from San Antonio to calm the federal judicial police, because independently from the fact that they killed them, they were saying that they killed them because they were traffickers. How could that be if there were DEA and Customs people too, and they were following a traffickers' plane? So the DEA and US Customs were also involved in the trafficking? It was a very serious problem. And the dead? And the widows? And so many years training these kids for them to be shot at close range? How can you have people now do important jobs, if when you had those people you killed them, or let them get killed and you did nothing? Why are you putting them in jail if you corrupted them?
What do you think about the US promoting the role of the Mexican army in the drug war?
I really think that the US government thought that could be a solution, when it tried to involve the army in the anti-drug fight. But it must have been a decision made by very ignorant people. Because if the American government makes decisions that are made from an American desk, without knowing the Mexican terrain, forgive me, but those are bad decisions. To involve the Mexican army in the investigation of narcotics in Mexico is one of the biggest mistakes that have been made in Mexico, and perhaps the US is also to blame. And the cost of this mistake has not been paid yet. We will pay over time.
Why are the Arellanos able to survive and prosper in Mexico?
Because [the Arellanos] probably have protection. Without protection, no organization as strong as that one can survive. This is very simple. To say that nobody can find them is very different than saying that nobody wants to catch them, or nobody wants to find them. To be able to is very different than to want to. Maybe nobody wants to find them. If somebody wants to find them, I think they would be able to.
Mexico is a country that is far, far behind, relative to the United States. The culture and the way that the Mexican narcotraffickers act are very different to the way that they act in the United States. In the US, the traffickers know that if they kill an officer of the law or someone from the government, they are perhaps digging their grave. In Mexico that doesn't happen yet, because there is nobody to go after them. To the contrary, when a police officer dies, they say he was involved with narcotraffickers before they have investigated. That doesn't happen in the US. . . .
It is my understanding that the police, at least in Tamaulipas, were not working under CDG as it is now, when Calderoni was in his heydays, but rather demanded payments from the narcos in order for them to operate. The police/state was sort of their own criminal organization called the Palma Group, later Tiburon. Calderoni was the capo, which was battling CDG/Zetas under Osiel Cardenas, but which lost and it might have been them that took out Calderoni in 2003.
There is a rumor that Alfonso Lam Liu AKA El Gordo Lam and Tango 95 Cesar Eduardo Garcia Martinez AKA El Pollo (protected Witness "Oscar") ordered the hit.
CDG/Zetas took out a lot of members at that time, among them Rene Izaguirre Rodriguez, brother-in-law of Calderoni, in 2005.
Cabeza de Vaca was allegedly a member of the Palma Group, and critics say he is trying to implement the same strategies as Calderoni, and he is surely closely linked to the man and his group. Armando Arteaga Chavez, comandante in Policia Judicial Federal under Calderoni, and now security advisor for Cabeza de Vaca is perhaps the most prominent example.
And here is a picture of Cabeza de Vaca celebrating together with "Memito" Gonzalez, son of Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni
That is an interesting picture, I wonder what the date on it is? Neat post.
Before going any further I do want to clarify that I do not think any politician of any consequence in Mexico can rise to any significant level without participating in a significant amount of corruption, either tacitly or overtly.
In terms of Francisco Cabeza de Vaca being associated with the "Grupo Palma/Tiburon" and Calderoni (father), I would find that very hard to believe due to the time period and ages. During the late 80's and early 90's Francisco was at Houston Baptist Univ. where he graduated if I am not mistaken. He returned to Reynosa circa 1992 and opened a business packaging and selling "chaymoy" of some sort. By that time Calderoni was on the outs with a bullet, no pun intended, by his name. He was no a big time name until way later in the 90's after all the dissatisfaction with the PRI.
I don't doubt that the Cabeza de Vaca family and the Calderoni family knew each other as they were semi prominent Reynosa families, but they were not in the way upper echelon of the moneyed oligarchs in Reynosa. I grew up with and am friends with Francisco. When we all were in school we went to school with lots of Fed's kids, DEA, Customs Patrol, Customs, FBI and such. Francisco was never on the spoken in hushed terms, but observed, "do not associate with" list from the Fed parents. But there were others that were at that time as kids all went to school together. Francisco was deemed OK as were his brothers and related family. And he did not associate with known kids from the dirty families.
Francisco got a start in politics by joining up with and being a part of the PAN movement in Tamaulipas. That movement was always against the "god children" of the Salinas PRI supporting bunch, and there were many. That movement had Oscar Lubbert and that last PRI governor, forget his name, that was indicted as it's representative who was knighted by Thomas Yarrington via Cavazos Lerma, the latter might have been the crookedest governor that ever served in Tamaulipas and whose reign sowed the seeds for the overt and power grabbing period of the CDG.
Calderoni was well known to be a US asset, at various levels and he was killed outside Bobby Yzaguirres office, the attorney for Juan Garcia Abrego and all the big time CDG people. There are some very stout underlying connections there. Calderoni was an enforcer, contrary to what he said in interviews, for the Salinas clan. Yzaguirre recently died. I am sure that in order to ascend Francisco has had to agree to and or participate in some things that are probably less than kosher, but so does everyone that holds office in Mexico.
The one big thing about Francisco is that he is a born US Citizen, his parents did that for a reason (which has and will hurt his political career), and he and his family have long standing interests in Texas. There has never been a governor in Mexico that had deeper tentacles of US law enforcement into him than Francisco. Thus, in the macabre world of the Mexican Narco Politicians it is probably likely that Francisco is having to walk a tightrope with the US connection side probably getting the lean for loyalty. Who knows if he will make any difference, but I don't think the level of corruption will be near as high under his office as it has been, but I could be wrong.
Mexico is so jacked up, and the US Feds tacitly agree on so much down there their influence via protection is huge, that I do not think any one person or even entity could solve this big money Narco influence.
Lord of the Drug Ring By Charles Bowden
September 10, 2014
Guillermo Calderoni was a Mexican cop, a killer, a narc, a drug boss, a billionaire. He rose to power by knowing how to forget and, of course, by knowing when to remember. When he was murdered last February, the question was not who killed him but what happened to his secrets?
Listen to the silence. Bougainvilleas drip red in the parking area just off 10th Street in McAllen, Texas. The day will be warm, with little wind. At 10:53 A.M., it is almost sixty-five degrees. Comandante Guillermo González Calderoni has been in the office of his lawyer, Roberto Yzaguirre, for almost an hour, talking. He desperately wants to buy a ranch and has, against all custom, come in early—he never stirs much before noon—with his sidekick, Chato. Yzaguirre calms him down, tells him no, we cannot look at the property today, but we can go out Saturday if you wish. Calderoni reluctantly agrees to wait. He is anxious for this ranch. He had many ranches in Mexico before he fled ten years ago and the government seized them.
This very morning, he has driven from the gated community where he lives, has left his beautiful young wife and has come here about this passion for a ranch. And now, the meeting over, he is standing in the lobby of Yzaguirre’s office, with its stone wall and green leather mahogany furniture, saying good-bye to his gravelly voiced lawyer and flirting with the receptionist. Calderoni is a peacock of a man, dressed nattily in fine fabrics and handmade boots, quick eyed and fluent in English, Spanish and French. He has a keen eye for women—his second wife was a beauty queen—and is a legendary shot with a .45, the weapon he is said to keep in his boot. He has lived for the past decade in McAllen, a few minutes from Mexico, a country that claims he is a major criminal and has sought his extradition. This hardly seems to concern him. No, at the moment he is all about this ranch he must have.
He has sixty seconds or so left as he steps outside and walks to his parked Mercedes. Calderoni slides behind the wheel; Chato sits beside him. There is the slam of brakes as a car pins the Mercedes into its slot; then a man leaps from the passenger side, takes two or three steps and fires one shot into the Comandante’s neck. The car roars away, and the Comandante’s head rolls back. He will be declared dead at a hospital in just over an hour.
Only Chato witnesses the murder. He is sitting beside Calderoni in the car, yet no one harms him. At first he gives the police a description: two men with dark skin, a Chrysler with Louisiana plates. Later the police cast doubt upon his story, saying he is too upset to recall what he has seen. The next day, they find the Chrysler about a mile away. The plates turn out to be stolen. On the window is a decal for the Mexican Red Cross. At that, the trail goes dead.
There is a brief flurry of notice, and then the fantasies begin. Within days the Mexican press announces that the FBI beat local cops to the murder scene. A rumor hits the U.S. press that a Mexican drug leader paid $3 million for the hit. A magazine claims the Comandante was getting ready to return to Mexico and tell all. An old colleague of his says it was a contract killing from the ruling class of Mexico.
And then the footprints of Calderoni’s life begin to blow away as the ground shifts in the secret world where he thrived. Just five days after his death, he is already well on his way to being a figure known by a few old cops, a story told in murderous cantinas, a memory to some beautiful women as they rest their heads against their fine pillows in those special moments just before sleep comes. He was the man who knew everything, and his death means that now things will never be known. That is the way of the world that produced him—a world that was not really Mexico or the border or the drug wars, but the world of spies, secrets, agents, networks—the basic elements governments have found so necessary as events overwhelmed simple customs and laws. Ask around and it’s unlikely you’ll find a man who even knows his name, unless he has entered certain rooms under certain conditions and tasted certain pains.
I can taste things sometimes.
In November 2001, I was in a border city where eight girls had been buried in a ditch splattered with sunflowers in bloom. I left the grave site and went to a country club in a gated community where the Mexican rich huddled. I entered the bar, which overlooked the golf course, ordered a drink and began taking notes on what I’d seen. A couple of hundred yards away was the home of the head of a major drug cartel. This bar and this country club were his playground. I remember the anger rising in me over the dead girls, over the rich ignoring the poor, over the protection granted the drug merchant who lived a football field from where I sat. Calderoni had once been the boss of this town.
Sometimes when I’m in the mood in strange cities, I go to suicide bars—the kind of places where, by the second beer, someone is going to call you out. I do this because I am angry and looking for trouble. I felt the same way in this country club. As I sipped my drink and took notes, the waiters stared at me. Then I could hear them on the phone. I was with a Mexican, and as time passed he became very worried.
We got up and left. As we walked down the palatial steps fronting the clubhouse, an unmarked state-police car wheeled up, the two men in it staring at us with eyes. Someone had called them; the Mexican and I knew this in our bones. We walked past. Had we stayed five more minutes in the bar, things could have turned out differently.
I think of my drinks and note-making in the country-club bar as a kind of Calderoni moment. He lived in that zone where violence floods the air like lilacs in springtime, and he was at the beck and call of those who needed someone murdered or vanished pronto. Sometimes he answered the call and took care of business. On that warm Wednesday morning last February in McAllen, someone else got the call, and then someone took care of him.
That is how things happen in this world beneath our smug notice and official pieties. Americans, and I count myself among them, are fools, oblivious of the screams shredding the air. Mexicans drink darker truths.
The small metal statue of the steer and mounted cowboy sleeps on the huge wooden conference table in the dead man’s office. It has been just five days since the Comandante’s ecution. The son’s voice purls out soft words as he sits at his father’s oak desk in the trading company near the border. He wears slacks, loafers and a plaid cotton shirt and has all the élan of a bookkeeper. He is explaining that his father lived an honorable life and died an honorable death. One bullet to the neck and he was gone. The son sweeps his arms as if holding a machine gun, goes ack! ack! ack! as he demonstrates the gory alternatives and says he is grateful that his father was not disfigured by death, which, he notes once again, came swiftly, almost tranquilly. The office has the feeling of a place where decisions are made but papers seldom shuffied. The conference table squats, with no chairs. A desk gleams clean of paper. The phone rings only once during the hour we talk, and that with a call from the son’s mother, Calderoni’s first wife.
I’m here because I’ve just come off seven years in the drug world, writing a book, and during those years Calderoni has stalked my thoughts, a thread running through everything and yet refusing to explain anything. I talked to men who had been on raids with him, talked to a man who had been one of his pistoleros, saw the fear his name evoked wash across the faces of many along the border. For almost twenty years, nothing of consequence happened in Mexico’s drug world without Calderoni’s hand being present. But I never met or talked to the Comandante, who by nature did not answer questions but asked them. He had become a fantasy in my mind, living in his mansion in McAllen with his millions and his pack of blooded Rottweilers. His death offered the last open window into his life I was ever likely to see. So I flew to Texas, rented a car and came down to the border before the body grew too cool.
The son explains that his father and he lived separate lives, that his father’s business was his father’s business, that he has followed a different path. He has spoken to no one in the press since his father’s death, he rolls on, because he wants his father to rest in peace. But then, I know, everyone wants his father to rest in peace—and especially to stay silent. Epoca, a Mexican magazine, runs a simple graphic to announce the murder: Calderoni’s face with a gun to his head and, imprinted on the mouth, the universal symbol of a circle with a slash across it. The New York Times dismisses the killing with seventy-odd words and then, twelve days later, runs an article explaining that Comandante Calderoni was a creature from the past, a footnote to an era that is now "as remote and romantic as cowboys and Indians." The world, the paper asserts, has moved on to an age of terror, a fact that makes the high jinks of a Calderoni both quaint and irrelevant.
The son, in his utter calm, seems to agree. Ah, he explains, he knows nothing of his father’s activities; he simply runs the family business, this trading company where the phones hardly ever ring, this large building full of offices with nothing going on in them.
Just what does the firm export? An oil, yes, an oil, the son explains, a special oil, though he cannot quite remember what it is at the moment. And drinks, yes, wine and vodka, things like that also. There is no evidence of any samples in the silent building, nothing to indicate activity except numerous paper-shredding machines.
His father was shot on Wednesday, February 5, 2003, at 10:54 A.M. The funeral was Friday, followed quickly by a cremation because, the son continues, his father had always expressed a wish to be free of the grave, to be part of the wind and the world. So as we sit on Monday in the late afternoon, everything is over; the era of cowboys and Indians has ended. There is only the desire for quiet, a desire shared by people in many places: in the FBI, in DEA, in the highest reaches of the Mexican government, in the largest drug organizations on earth, in the vaults of American secrets where clerks quietly bury unseemly sections of the history of the United States.
I nod at the son, say that I understand. And I do.
I learned about Comandante Calderoni the normal way you learn about things on the border—voices whispering with fear, heads bending low over cups of coffee in cheap cafés, people looking over their shoulders and softly saying his name. I’ll get to the little facts on which we build our lies in a moment. But first I want to revisit the place where the real facts kill you dead.
Years ago I lived in a small town along the base of the Sierra Madre where most of the population survived by producing or shipping drugs. I met a widow there whose husband had been the Mexican equivalent of a county attorney. One day he and his wife had gone down to the plaza to buy ice cream cones. The air was full of laughter, the sidewalks packed with families and lovers promenading, the air sagging with the scent of flowers. Two men walked up, shot him dead, strolled down the block and climbed into a taxi. No one got a good look at them. The taxi driver had no memory of where he took them. The widow eventually got a job with the Mexican federal police, or federales. Soon she owned nice houses in the capital, on the beach. I would see her at parties laughing, her lips red, her body wrapped in fine garments.
I told myself I did not understand. Now I do. There is a reason to forget.
I’ll tell you irrelevant details. If you work in a border factory in Mexico, one most likely owned by an American corporation, you will work four hours and fifty minutes to buy one pound of beef. You will work three hours and nine minutes to buy a half gallon of milk. You will work fifty-five minutes for a bar of soap. You will work over eleven hours to buy your kid a new pair of pants. I’ve taught myself to say it is not my problem, to say it does not justify the drug trade, to say it will all work out in the end, just give it a spell. Most days I’m a fair hand at saying these things.
You will learn to forget things, too. You will learn things you will always remember. And after the blood dries, you will dance and want and try to get pretty things. And you will know in every cell of your being that nothing that happens to you will ever be known to North Americans sitting in their safe houses with their perfect toilets and their freeze-dried women.
Calderoni came up in a well-off family, his father a success in the state-owned oil business. He mastered several languages, learned to be a good shot and by the early 1980s was a federale on the border. Soon he was a comandante. He took a million-dollar contract from one drug lord to kill another. (The FBI unknowingly helped him with this murder.) He hobnobbed with DEA agents, helped them out when he needed to and was flown to Washington for a personal tour of the inner sanctum of DEA intelligence. In the 1988 presidential election, he allegedly arranged the murders of key leaders of the opposition party and rigged the computers so that the ruling party’s candidate, a man who almost certainly lost the popular vote, won the official vote. In 1992 he got in trouble and fled to the United States, across the Rio Grande. His official wealth was listed at about $7 million. While DEA protected him, it also knew he had more than a billion dollars in stashed assets. He had made his money by killing people. He had made his money by charging a toll to drug traffickers. He had made his money by doing the little dirty tasks commanded by the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas. He had made his money by knowing how to forget and, of course, when to remember.
Calderoni had thrived while working for the federales, a law team that combines all the virtues of the FBI and the Mafia. I once attended a wedding where drug dealers and federales drank, did drugs, fucked and celebrated together for five days. During the party, one federale major and a colleague left for a few hours, murdered two peasants who were smuggling drugs without paying them off, took the load of dope and sold it.
A week later, that federale major was dead. When I asked what had happened to him, I was told "his heart stopped." It is, of course, not polite to pry. Just as when I drove by the state-police office each day and admired the towering marijuana plants that constituted the front lawn, I did not pry. Just as when I was run off the road by federales and had an AK-47 poked in my guts, I did not lose my civility.
But now, I think, I’ll lose it.
You are holding this magazine, and you think, if you are a sane American, what does this obscure, dead comandante, Guillermo Calderoni, have to do with me? I’ll tell you. He was a captain in an industry—the global dope business—that earns close to half a trillion dollars a year. He was an enforcer that made Mexico safe for your vacations and for your investments in factories where people work for next to nothing. Even if you don’t have shares in some U.S. company with factories down in Mexico, you still get your slice of the pie every time you pick up some deal on a television or a VCR or thousands of other items made by people living in cardboard shacks all along the line.
I once was talking to a Mexican woman in her twenties whose sister had been kidnapped, raped and murdered on the border. I asked, "Just what did your sister do?"
She looked at me with cold eyes and said, "She made things for you."
I keep going to Mexico, God knows why. Partly, I like the people. But mainly, things exist south of that river, on the other side of that fence. Big things, bloody things. Oh God, I love the ladies and the scent coming off their skin, the way they move in stiletto heels, nimble as goats. The beer’s good, too, and I can’t say enough about the beaches.
This other business, well, best not to talk about it. I’m sure that’s what the Comandante would advise me if he were still around.
By the mid-’80S, a legend had begun to trail Calderoni, one that struck awe in American FBI and DEA agents and terror in Mexican citizens. Rumors had spread that he interrogated with a bolt cutter or with pliers on the teeth. He became the guy who was sent in to clean up the various Dodge Citys of Mexico. When a drug leader in Juárez roughed up an American newspaper photographer in 1986 and the U.S. press demanded justice, Calderoni was the one who made it right. He did several things. He told the previous comandante in Juárez that he had twenty-four hours to get out of town. Then he went to the mansion of the offending drug leader—getting past his pet tiger, alligators and boa constrictors—and hauled the guy and his pistoleros off to prison. Then, as a separate venture, he flew through U.S. territory—escorted by FBI agents in American helicopters—to a small Mexican town near Ojinaga, Chihuahua, and killed Pablo Acosta, at that moment the major conduit of Colombian cocaine through Mexico into the United States. (The FBI was unaware that this was actually a contract killing for which Calderoni was paid $1 million.) Acosta’s mistake was being featured in the press; he’d given a front-page interview to an El Paso daily detailing his bribe payments to the Mexican government. This fame made him expendable. The FBI was so hungry for a headline blow against a major drug dealer that it kept its scheme with Calderoni a secret from DEA.
But to its consternation, the FBI also kept hearing of a different Calderoni from its snitches, information that the bureau buried in its files—in part because Calderoni was the kind of connection who could make a narc’s career, a man who could hand over the big case all wrapped up in a ribbon with a bow, and in part because the FBI could not believe the truth, because it meant its Mexico was not the real Mexico, just as successive American administrations have ignored reports linking the Mexican president and the country’s ruling class to the drug business. Just as the brother of one president of Mexico funneled roughly $100 million in drug money through one U.S. bank without anyone saying a word in the regulatory agencies. The U.S. government knows very little about Mexicans. Except, of course, that they continue to flee the country the U.S. government helps to sustain.
In 1996, Calderoni mysteriously erupted in a huge story in The New York Times, complete with a photo of him and President Carlos Salinas. The story explained that Calderoni’s earlier warnings to the American government of links between Mexico’s $30-billion-a-year drug world and the Salinas administration had been ignored lest they upset international relationships and trade deals. The Comandante, in this singular newspaper appearance, made his point: I know, and if I’m bothered, I will remember what I know.
Then the Comandante vanished from public notice and became a man left to his golf game in Texas. For years I heard rumors that he had not truly retired, that he retained his network in Mexico, that he continued to help in contract killings and other housekeeping matters. When I would mention these rumors to people in DEA, I’d receive a shrug and silence.
The agency wanted to forget what it really knew about Calderoni—about how, back in the ’80s, when shipments of cocaine began to flood Mexico, the Comandante had prospered, and as he rose, so did his share of the action. During the Salinas years, an effort by U.S. operatives to pin down the Comandante’s assets stalled when they reached $1 billion. And here the unreality returns as it always does in Mexico: a billion dollars flowing into the hands of a man who lived and died largely unknown to the American press and government. The Comandante prospered in this world of ignorance. He would work with DEA, seize loads left and right and do this because a part of him wanted to be a supercop. And then the Comandante would blame the seizures on DEA, even when the agency had nothing to do with them. DEA made busts, got headlines and had a valiant antidrug Comandante to celebrate. The billion dollars stashed away? A detail.
"DEA never looked for Calderoni’s money," a retired U.S. government agent told me. "DEA was in love with him."
Retired to his mansion in McAllen, Calderoni continued to do what he had always done. He sold intelligence. He consulted with traffickers on how to bring drugs into the United States. He blackmailed leading Mexican politicians with his tapes. He flourished as if the flight from his police post and nation had never occurred.
The church is modern, sterile, and reeks of a germproof United States, a fortress built to block the aromas drifting across the border. People come from Mexico for the Comandante’s funeral, and St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen is packed. Retired DEA agents show up, along with many other people who do not advertise who or what they are. In death, it seems, the Comandante is finally safe to visit. One former DEA agent tells the press that the Comandante never took dirty money or played both sides against the other. Or did murder for hire. Which is only more evidence of the fantasy history peculiar to the war on drugs.
I like to imagine the world of Comandante Calderoni: doing deep deals with the FBI and DEA and most likely the CIA; arresting, killing and charging multibillion-dollar drug cartels; carrying out the crimes and desires of the leaders of Mexico; and betraying all of them to each other and somehow keeping his footing, never spinning out of control, never flinching as one thing led to another. Living in McAllen, playing golf right there on the banks of the Rio Grande, where he faced a nation of harsh and corrupt power that wanted to jail him, as well as large organizations of cutthroats whom he had beaten, tortured, arrested and of course charged generously for the experience.
Now he becomes ash and dust, becomes a footnote in a few American newspapers, becomes a file sealed in various agencies. His tracks across Mexican history and our own history are at this very moment blowing away in the wind.
Time to open a cold beer, maybe head down to the playas. Mexico can be really colorful. Hell, you can’t believe the parties—they go on for days. The water can be risky, some say, but you can bank on the beer and the women.
It is always delightful to hear your stories as you are so close with Mr Cabeza. Remember, I do not have a hard stand against him, although it might seem so to you as a close friend. I am only referring what I read, although, I agree with you, that in order to gain power in Mexico, you would have to be corrupt to some level. If it is not him, it would be somebody else. However, my personal opinion is that if a person has a moral compass, he could always refrain from exposing himself to that kind of position.
My high interest in Cabeza de Vaca, is solely that he seems to want to implement a new order in the narco business. If successful, he could write a new chapter in the history of Tamaulipas, and that is significant. I am sure there are many old powerful families and government figures that wants to get the drug business under control, but without loosing revenue.
He wasn't part of the hunt for Palma or anything, as he is too young, but from what I understand, and as you say, Calderoni developed into an enforcerer, and his team came to be known as Grupo Palma, long after the Héctor Luis Palma Salazar taskforce dissolved, and they recruited from law enforcement like any other criminal organization. From what I have read, their center of operation was Reynosa, and naturally they had to butt heads with the Cardenas type of Gulf Cartel at some point.
Calderoni was the go-to-man for Salinas, but they had a fallout at some point, and Calderoni is the man that brought him down.
I am pretty sure Cabeza de Vaca had some kind of position within the police force in Reynosa in 2005, maybe head of security, when Calderoni's brother-in-law got assassinated by CDG sicarios.
To me the circumstantial evidence here is that he is surrounding himself with people from Grupo Palma or associates, and it certainly backs up the theory of creating a new "Grupo Palma" or "Los Tangos", as some have called them. Time will tell if the speculations are true or not.
Thanks for very valuable description on how families in Reynosa intermixed. I wish you could just spill all you know, I just don't know how to ask the right question. Perhaps if I report more on Cabeza de Vaca...
Another really excellent story!Caleroni doesn't look like he has a care in the world in that arrest photo!He's actually smiling!
The stories all seem to verify the same thing:the more money people make it closes their eyes to other things like if you f$$k over enough people be it robbery,murder,simple betrayal,well what comes around eventually goes around full circle and comes back to you!iIt seems you can only have that kind of power for so long.Everything has an expiry date!