Miguel Félix Gallardo: The Dark Story
Yes, and the Pope doesn’t shit in the woods. Today, ladies and gentlemen we’re doing a deep dive into the story of Miguél Ángel Felix Gallardo. Those who know know - know. Those who don’t - this man was an absolute giant in the Mexican drug trade.
Few Mexican druglords have rivalled him in his connections and raw power. A thug, some would say a high-functioning sociopath, he was also a suave and savvy entrepreneur who mingled easily with the cream of Mexico’s political and economic elite. Now, as some of you will have noticed, this video is long. There will be a lot of information.
A lot of this information will be new to many. But by the end of it, you should have a comprehensive understanding of this man, his story, his networks, and the history of the Guadalajara cartel. Part 2 of this series, linked above, will try to unpeel what sort of a man Miguel really was, and of course, remains, with a deep dive into his personality. This part is biographical, but with emphasis on historical context. I’ll try to answer some of these questions. How did a crooked cop from the state of Sinaloa go on to become Mexico’s number one cocaine trafficker? Who were his precessors? And what do we about the Guadalajara cartel’s now irrefutable links to the CIA? Enjoy the show.
The Crooked Cop Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo entered the world in January 1946. He was one of nine children born to a Sinaloan couple, Ramón Félix and Justina Gallardo Gastelum, who eked out a modest living on a ranch in Bellavista, three miles from Sinaloa’s state capital, Culiacán. For a peasant child brought up in postwar Sinaloa, he received a decent education. Most of the top traffickers in Mexico’s first major cartels barely had an education beyond the primary level. Miguel, however not only graduated from high school; he even went on to study business administration at Culiacán’s Webster college. His parents separated at some stage during his childhood.
Money would have been tight. He might have helped his mother and siblings work the ranch. We know he worked as a travelling salesman, selling cloth, knitting materials and other knickknacks to regional towns on his bicycle; with some of the proceeds, he’d often buy cheese and poultry, then sell them on the local market.
At some point in his adolescence, he owned a small tire business. One source suggests he also odd-jobbed in road construction as a weed-killer. Irony doesn’t get much better than that.
But Miguel was keen to move up the social ladder. In 1966, we’re told he, as well as his brother, joined the local police force, just after he turned 20. Thanks to his wits and his polished language and manners, Miguel was soon assigned as bodyguard to the state governor of Sinaloa, Leopoldo Sánchez Celis. Now, this is where Miguel’s story thickens.
Sánchez is an important figure in any biography of Miguel as his contacts in the state were fundamental for Miguel’s rise to power. It’s well-known Sánchez was a corrupt PRI loyalist, Mexico’s dominant political party at the time. Naturally, he was embedded in the local Sinaloan drug trade - just like his predecessors, just like his successors. But often overlooked is who exactly some of these contacts were. Another man acting as personal bodyguard to the governor and his family was a certain Rodolfo Valdés. This particularly ruthless gangster was known as ‘The Gypsy’.
Valdés had carved out a criminal career in the 30s hiring himself out as a thug protecting the interests of large landowners, particularly poppy growers. At the time, the Mexican government, under left-wing president Lázaro Cárdenas, was overseeing sweeping land reform programmes. This was great for Mexico’s millions of peasants finally enjoying the fruits of the Revolution and winning back some the land. It was a pain, however, for the landowning elite, who saw their family-owned generations-old properties carved up.
Valdés was hired out to murder some of the more vocal and brazen peasants occupying the land they felt was owed. Valdes killed dozens of these, if not hundreds in cold blood. In 1944, he went to prison for murdering a Sinaloan governor who had allegedly double-crossed wealthy poppy growers by promising them protection, before ordering the destruction of their fields.
At some point in the mid-60s, Sánchez Célis, ironically a loud advocate for Cárdenas’s land reform, pulled some strings to have Valdés released from prison and took him on as his personal bodyguard. Then, we’re told Valdés brought a friend of his from his gangster days in the state of Veracruz to come and work with the governor as well. This friend was Hugo Izquierdo Hebrard. Like Valdés, Hugo had been part of a paramilitary death squad called the Black Hand Gang operating under President Miguel Alemán and his cronies back in the 30s and 40s. The team was responsible for an estimated 10,000 assassinations, many of whom peasants, and was crucial to Alemán’s rise to power. The gang disbanded in the 40s.
Hugo and his brother, Arturo, carried on as hitmen with their own business. They were convicted of murdering the senator of Tlaxcala in 1948. For the crime, they spent about a decade in jail. In ‘58 though, just after the release, they were re-arrested for robbing a cash-loaded truck, property of the Treasury Department. Six years later, Hugo was invited by Sánchez Celis to become part of his team of bodyguards slash thugs, tasked with running the governor’s drugs protection racket. Just like Valdés, Hugo was promptly released from jail and went on to serve Sánchez.
Arturo, released just several months after Hugo, went on into heroin trafficking, becoming a crucial leg of what’s called the French Connection in the 60s, a multinational heroin organisation connecting poppy growers in the developing East to major heroin dealers in the US via refineries in the French port city of Marseille. By the 70s, Arturo was a pivotal member of the DFS, Mexico’s chief intelligence agency, the Directorate of Federal Security, which since the late 1940s had been protection to Mexican traffickers. He was also a key ally to Sicilia Falcón, who in the early to mid 70s was the most successful cocaine trafficker in the Western hemisphere. The Izquierdo brothers even gave the Cuban drug lord use of their family ranch in the state of Veracruz as a storage centre and base of operations. Arturo in particular was so entrenched in drug trafficking as well as so high-ranking in Mexico’s chief party, the PRI, that he was considered a godfather of the Mexican mafia.
In the words of historian Jonathan Marshall, the Izquierdo brothers, and especially Arturo might help clear up “the mystery of how an obscure young policeman from Sinaloa rose to be the leader of Mexico’s first great drug cartel”. Not only this, the Izquierdos’ brother-in-law was this barrel of laughs right here: Arturo Durazo Moreno. (For those of you trying to keep up with names here, just bear with me - I’ll be recapping in a moment). Durazo Moreno was the first husband of the Izquierdo brothers’ sister, Graciela Izquierdo. He was also chief of Mexico’s judicial police from 1976 until 1982; though a more appropriate title perhaps would be chief of the country’s greatest protection racket, targeting not only the lucrative drug trade but even the police force itself. And guess who Durazo Moreno’s childhood friends and close aides were: the two presidents of Mexico between 1976 and 1982, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo.
Such were the levels of Durazo Moreno’s corruption and his sordid extortion tricks that his former palace in the state of Guerrero is now a museum dedicated to corruption. His years in power, before he went into hiding and was eventually arrested and imprisoned, were some of the most foundational years for Félix Gallardo in building his cocaine empire. We now know just how embedded the federal judicial police was in the drug trade, providing intel, protection, manpower, transportation and all sorts of resources to traffickers. One author noted that it was after 1982, the year Durazo went into hiding, that the Directorate of Federal Security replaced the federal police as the agency that offered the most protection to Mexican traffickers. Many police agents even left the force after 1982 to join the DFS. Part of the reason for this was the state was cracking down on the police, but not the DFS.
President Miguel de la Madrid had been elected on anti-corruption tickets, promising Mexico “a moral renewal” and needed to show a firm hand. The ranks and corrupting power of the DFS ballooned after this, and went unrestrained until 1985, when they were finally disbanded on the back of the Kiki Camarena scandal. Right, recap. All of the contacts mentioned earlier are linked through Leopoldo Sánchez Celis, the governor of Sinaloa from 63 to 68. For his family’s security and to enforce his protection racket across the state, he assembled a group of bodyguards/thugs.
He freed the hitman Rodolfo Valdés from prison and took him under his wing. Whether by invitation or recommendation, Valdés managed to get his old colleague, Hugo Izquierdo Hebrard, to work for the governor as well, and Sánchez Celis arranged for his early release. Hugo’s brother, Arturo was released a few months later, but went on to resume his work for the Directorate of Federal Security, and involving himself in the heroin trade. He became a close aid to cocaine trafficker Sicilia Falcón, arguably Miguel’s national predecessor. And to cap it all, the Izquierdos’ brother-in-law was chief of police Arturo Durazo Moreno, a key driver of Mexico’s mafia state. To state the obvious: this is a solid network for the high-functioning and ruthlessly ambitious Félix Gallardo, whose talents made him one of the governor’s favourite bodyguards.
He was loyal, sharp and he always got the job done. Having initially been assigned as the bodyguard to Sánchez’s children and wife, he proved just how valuable he was and became Sánchez’s personal bodyguard. The two became close friends. Sánchez was Miguel’s best man at his first wedding.
Both would act as godfathers to each other’s families - in Miguel’s case, to the governor’s son, Rodolfo. Now, this who’s who isn’t the definitive explanation of Gallardo’s entry into the Mexican mafiocracy. There’s no reliable way of knowing all the twists and turns of his criminal career, especially its beginnings.
What made Félix Gallardo unique was that he was a natural networker, with tremendous amounts of energy: he understood from a young age how much schmoozing and hob-nobbing paid off. He would have needed these skills to be assigned bodyguard to the governor in the first place, let alone the contacts he made through him. Bear in mind he also would also have made his own connections in Sinaloa’s corrupt police force as well as with other state officials linked to Sánchez, who are not named here.
But this network gives a solid sample, or a tip-of the-iceberg picture, of just some of his excellent connections from the get-go, people who would go on to become key players in Mexico’s mafiocracy, and aid Félix in his rise to power. Between Worlds At this point in his life, Gallardo was an unusual blend of cop, thug and entrepreneur, with a knack for social climbing. But he was also building ties to the cowboys and hillbillies of the Sinaloan drug trade. And though he wasn’t completely of the same stock, since his upbringing was more privileged, he did slip into that world relatively easily. Sánchez’s governorate ended in ‘68. We know Miguel and Sánchez remained close thereafter, but Miguel likely stopped working for him in an official capacity.
It’s believed the future padrino was a ‘madrina’, meaning godmother. But the name is misleading as it stems from ‘madrazo’, a Mexican slang word roughly translated as a beating or pummeling. Madrinas are police aides who aren’t officially enrolled in the police force; they’re often paid to do policemen’s dirty work, the sort that would cost them their jobs or freedom. But it’s also believed he started making inroads into the drug trade. His enforcement work under Sánchez had inevitably tied him to it, but it’s believed he started smuggling drugs himself as a lieutenant to Eduardo ‘Don Lalo’ Fernández, one of the major drug barons in the state of Sinaloa. Don Lalo had risen up the criminal ladder from a local heroin chemist to a capo overseeing a network of labs, mainly operating out of a dusty and neglected suburb north of the state capital of Culiacán.
Don Lalo was a classic godfather figure, resolving disputes between lab owners, funding social projects, attending baptisms and weddings. His grandfather was an important colonel in the Mexican Revolution, giving Lalo a Pancho Villa edge. His wife also did extensive philanthropy work, donating hospital beds and children’s schoolbooks, to name just a few. Once again, Don Lalo might might have been a contact of Sánchez Célis. US and Mexican intelligence suspected they were tied. Férnandez and Sánchez’s wife also grew up in the same small hamlet.
In the early 70s though, we’re told Miguel was also working with another Sinaloan druglord, far and away the biggest capo in the region. That was Pedro Avilés Pérez, alias the Mountain Lion. Many of you will have heard of him. Did Don Lalo and Pérez do business together? Most likely, yes. Perez’s operations had far more reach and scale though, with trafficking networks running from Sinaloa all the way up to Tijuana.
What made Pérez a huge player in the early trade, besides his ruthlessness and energy, was his bold innovation. What Pérez did was practically unprecedented. He pioneered a whole system of stash houses right next to the US border. His main base of operations was the sandy border town of San Luis Río Colorado, in the state of Sonora, a featureless and totally unsuspicious backwater.
Peddlers and trafficking families from the states of the Golden Triangle - especially from the state of Sinaloa - dumped their weed or heroin in huge storage units run by his organisation. Avilés then provided transportation of the contraband. He was ahead of his time in that he owned a fleet of about a dozen small aircraft, stolen from US airports. He had contacts in the police, in government, in border control. They helped him develop what initially looked like a farmer’s market into a trafficking conglomerate which dominated the Pacific coast. Leading trafficking families began realising that working together was far more lucrative than riddling each other with bullets.
United, they were also more powerful in the face of dirty cops and state officials who, after extorting them for drug money, could betray them at any moment. That said, Avilés didn’t create a cartel. There were no price regulations; it wasn’t tightly organised; state officials and intelligence service had limited involvement in the day-to-day business of the organisation. But he did create the conditions for some of the Golden Triangle’s most prominent trafficking families to cooperate: family clans like the Caros, the Payáns, the Quinteros, the Carrillos, the Fonsecas, families that for about two generations had operated fairly independently. And many individuals from these families, individuals who worked closely with Avilés as partners or apprentices - and who learned a great deal from the trade - went on to become key players in the Guadalajara-based organisation. Many of you will already recognise their names and faces - as well as their stories.
In ’78, Avilés would be killed in a shoot-out with federal police. His death is a great mystery in narco history. One school of thought suggests he was set up by one of his lieutenants.
Many pointed fingers at Don Neto, believed to have been the organisation’s treasurer; Miguel has also been suspected. Others have cited personal, perhaps more emotional reasons from the police commanders who arranged the roadblock, before murdering Avilés and a cohort of his companions in cold blood. Poor histories of the drug trade will say Miguel seized the mantle of the organisation. This is misleading.
Miguel might have taken over Pérez’s routes, but Perez’s organisation bore little resemblance to the organisation that would later develop. Neither in form, scope or breadth. That said, it did bring relative order and cooperation to a trade that was traditionally scattered and clannish - at least in the Golden Triangle, anyway - with ties between rural planters and individual families based on time-tested loyalty and blood. While it’s an oversimplification that Miguel took over the organisation following Pérez’s death, the fact we have so many who transferred from Pérez’s organisation to the later Guadalajara-based ring suggests that 1. As early as the 1960s, a group of seasoned traffickers from the states of the Golden Triangle had built ties of commerce and in many cases, of friendship and loyalty 2. The traffickers were given a taste of just how much more fruitful the trade was if they worked together, the 60s and 70s being weed and heroin bonanzas.
So, we see the conditions for what would later become known as the Guadalajara cartel. We also see Miguel’s incredible position as the go-between for all these groups and interests. Through Miguel, we now have the police, the DFS and elements within the state merged with the hillbilly trafficking clans from the Sierra Madre.
But there are just a few more missing pieces to the juggersaw (yes, that’s a word I just made up) that Felix Gallardo would become. And these were through one man: the one and only Alberto Sicilia Falcón. El Cubano Open up any book on the history of the Mexican drug trade, “flamboyant bisexual” is the usual description for Falcón. Uncannily resourceful and extremely high-functioning, however, usually go under- or unstated. During the first half of the 1970s, Falcón was likely the most successful drug lord in the Western hemisphere.
The DEA actually called his marijuana and cocaine organisation the largest in the world at the time. He was moving 3.6 million dollars out of the US every week - that’s over 20 million dollars adjusted for inflation. One Mexican newspaper asked the question: ‘how could a Cuban build such an empire in just two and a half years without the help of a large organisation?’ Well, let’s tackle that shall we. First, we need to understand the international drug scene, and Mexico’s place within it. Mexico was a pivotal point for an international trafficking system for heroin, called the French Connection, mentioned earlier.
French Corsicans based in the port city of Marseille connected East and West, as far as Indochina all the way to Canada. Most of the contraband was smuggled into the US via Mexico. During the late 60s and early 70s, an international police effort cracked down on the trafficking ring, with huge seizures and arrests in France and the US; Sicilians based out in South America now moved in to fill the void, shipping white heroin via Mexico to Italian contacts based in the major cities of the US. This was now the South American connection. International police agencies cottoned on to this fairly quickly too and made big busts in the early 1970s.
The Mexican leg of the connection was slightly severed, and the young, hustling Falcón moved in to bolster the sagging supply chains. And he started working, among many others, with Pérez, the Izquierdo Brothers, and the Izquierdos’ former brother-in-law, Arturo Durazo Moreno, trafficker cum police commander at the time. Falcón wasn’t just any trafficker though. The details of his life story are extremely murky and blur with fiction. Born in Cuba in 1945, he appears to have been an anti-Castro émigré who moved to the US aged 15 and wound up as a street hustler.
His early years in the US see him flitting between the military, work as a shop clerk and even training to become a priest. He also racked up a colourful criminal record with charges for sodomy and illegal migration. He later moved to Mexico City, where, according to Elaine Shannon, he caught the eye of a “queen of the demimonde” who took him under her wing, “dressed him up like a playboy and taught him class”. Her connections torpedoed him up into the elite circles of Mexico’s underworld, where he quickly put himself at the centre of a huge cross-continental trafficking ring based out of Tijuana. He lived in the outskirts of that city, in a fortified compound called the Roundhouse, with a shooting range in the basement, and furnishings so extravagant they could have accommodated a royal family. He had an enormous private army to do his sociopathic bidding and an organisation worth 5 billion dollars a year, including Corsican, Sicilian and Latino mafia bosses from Buenos Aires all the way to Chicago.
But his story deepens. By his own account, he was a CIA protégé who had been trained at Fort Jackson to become a partisan in the agency’s covert operations against Castro’s regime. Scattered evidence suggests this story could be true, including his recorded service in the US military, his years off the radar in the late 60s, and the fact he had a Cuban passport. He also told the police that he had trafficked arms for the CIA from the US to Central and South America. Once again, given the CIA’s track record, his testimony is entirely plausible. And it’s even more so when you take a closer look at some of his contacts.
A core aide to Sicilia Falcón was a man called José Egozi Béjar. This colourful figure was a veteran of the shambolic Bay of Bigs operation of 1961, the failed CIA-backed invasion of Castro’s Cuba. He would carry on working for the CIA on and off for many years after. Particularly, his financial talents made him a useful figure to the DFS as well as to Mexican drug lords like Falcón, with one author describing Béjar as being “at the cross-section of intelligence agencies, private armies and organised crime”.
Of note is a well-documented arms shipment arranged by both Falcón and Egozi. The weapons were worth about a quarter of a billion dollars. They were bound for Portugal, where they were to be used in a CIA-backed operation to overthrow the recently elected left-wing government. Whatever happened to that deal is unknown, but Falcón’s mark on it is indisputable. A second key contact of Falcón’s was this guy: Miguel Nazar Haro.
Nazar would become none other than head of the Directorate of Federal Security between 1977 and 1982. His track record is extremely sordid. First, he was, of course, deeply embedded in drug trafficking.
He was also the head of a particularly gruesome death squad called the White Brigade, responsible for the abductions, interrogations, forced disappearances and executions of hundreds of suspected Communists in Mexico. It’s well documented that the CIA helped establish the DFS in the 1940s, and would closely collaborate with it thereafter. The DFS even had CIA agents on their payroll. The American agency of course tacitly supported the dirty war against suspected left-wing subversives.
Other US agencies and departments meanwhile turned a blind eye to it since it served their interests during the Cold War. Third, Nazar was found to be a key figure in a trafficking ring of stolen luxury cars, smuggled from the US into Mexico. When US authorities tried to bring him to justice, the CIA quickly intervened to prevent his indictment. A CIA asset cabled the US Justice department warning that US intelligence services would be severely compromised if Nazar were forced to resign.
He stressed that Nazar was an “essential repeat essential contact for the CIA station in Mexico City”. The charges were later dropped, causing outrage within the Justice Department and Congress. Details of Nazar’s shady complicity with the CIA could fill a whole tome. But of most relevance to us here is the following.
Falcón was arrested in 1975, the reasons for which are unclear. Drug enforcement agents suspected Falcón simply became “too big for his breaches” and was put down by the agencies that aided his rise to power. And the CIA recruited him for their own designs until that point.
He was interned at the shady Lecumberri prison in Mexico City. His capture led to twice the amount of busts as the French Connection in the early 70s. Falcón, and three of his lieutenants and fellow inmates, including the aforementioned Egozi, escaped through a tunnel. The entire story is fascinating and beyond the scope of this video, but Falcón was re-arrested three days after his escape. Miguel Nazar personally intervened, preventing the police from interrogating and torturing him, at least any more than he had been already. After all, it was when he was arrested that he confessed to being a CIA asset, most likely under duress.
It goes without saying - if he was tortured any further, then the game would have been up for Nazar, for the DFS, the CIA, the sate-backed mafiocracy more generally. There was no mention of the arms deal to Portugal, or the names of his contacts within the CIA. Alberto Sicilia’s reign marks an important point in the history of the Mexican underworld. He was perhaps the first drug lord to become a major beneficiary as well as benefactor of the centralised mafia-state set in place by President Alemán in the late 1940s.
Never had a druglord based out in Mexico 1. acquired such high levels of official protection. He was even found with a badge confirming senior membership within Gobernación, a “superagency” one step up from the DFS, much more exclusive, and with combined powers of the FBI and the CIA. He couldn’t have obtained one without links to the highest possible levels of the Mexican government. He might in fact have been tied to the wife of President Echeverría, who was suspected to have ties to the European heroin trade. 2.
Never had a Mexico-based druglord become so entwined in international geopolitics 3. Never had a drug lord achieved the levels of success and wealth that he did, and so quickly. Besides his contacts and his own talents, part of the reason for this was that Falcón had picked up on the profitability of cocaine. It was the up-and-coming drug on the market, considered chic, clean and glamorous - the perfect stimulant for the age of disco.
It was also much more profitable than heroin or marijuana. Demand scaled up throughout the 70s until it completely soared during the 80s, trickling down from celebrities and wealthy disco-goers to the masses. It stands to reason that Miguel was Falcón’s successor in almost of these aspects.
In fact, upon almost immediately Falcón’s arrest, his main cocaine contact, the broker between Mexico and the burgeoning Colombian traffickers, began work Miguel. We’ll return to this figure later, but for now, we must turn to a huge turning point in the history of Mexico and the history of narcotics. It’s supposedly one of the greatest feats of US-Mexican collaboration in the war on drugs. But it was in fact, a colossal sham, and one which entrenched the drug problem to entirely new depths. Condor Around the same time as Sicilia Falcón’s capture in 1975, the US and the Mexican government were teaming up to crack down on the drug trade for good. Let’s backtrack by about six years though to the late 60s.
Richard Nixon had run on a campaign to end ‘permissiveness’ in US society. He decided it was about time the government did something about the tons of heroin and marijuana crossing the border. It started off in 1969, with Operation Intercept. President Nixon arranged for extensive narcotics searches at the US border. This wreaked complete havoc on the Mexican economy.
Scores of truck drivers saw their fresh produce rot away in the blistering heat from all the hours queuing, to name just one consequence of the border checks. The policy was, naturally, cause for uproar. So, the Mexican government had little choice but to import Nixon’s war on drugs, the first country to do so.
The fittingly named Operation Cooperation was promptly launched in late 1969, with a brand new strategy. Drugs would be destroyed from the source. Mexican troops, supervised by the US military began storming poppy and marijuana plantations in Mexico’s drug producing states, destroying the crops manually. But then this wasn’t enough.
By 1975, mass aerial defoliation was being pushed by the US to cripple the trade. Initially, Mexico feared a Vietnam-style ecocide, but the US assured them that the herbicide they would use was eco-friendly. So, the operation took off in earnest. It was the first major foreign operation by Nixon’s newly created Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA.
The agency provided human, financial and technical resources, including 76 spotter planes, and aid worth about 115 million dollars. By 1977, the eradication programme was ramped up. More Mexican states were targeted for aerial defoliation and with greater intensity. But, here’s where it also got very ugly. It was no longer just a defoliation campaign. Mexico’s drug producing areas, especially the Golden Triangle - which provided up to 70 per cent of the country’s heroin output - were subjected to a state of siege by the Mexican military.
This enormous escalation of the programme is now known as Operation Condor. At the time, and for decades after, the operation was lauded as a golden era in the history of US-Mexican cooperation in the war on drugs - that it crippled the uncontrollable drug trade and temporarily cut the flow of drugs pouring into the US. It’s true that the ‘official’ figures, at least, are impressive: 9,000 hectares of poppy fields destroyed in 1977 alone. The purity of heroin sold in the US streets also temporarily decreased, suggesting it was being cut due to squeezed supply. But then the campaign was also a momentous joke, and not a funny one.
First, we now know that there are many problems with the actual spraying of the fields. DEA agents complained that the same fields were repeatedly defoliated, despite already being destroyed. DEA also reported that Mexican officials refused to allow US planes to overfly the fields and check if they had been defoliated. The American enforcers later discovered that the pilots were either spraying the fields with water or dumping the defoliant in the desert.
Reports also abounded of local officials extorting plantation owners to spare them from defoliation. As late as 1985, DEA agents complained that until then, there had not been a single proper verification effort, making Mexican eradication statistics completely unreliable. Second, Operation Condor was in fact a human rights catastrophe, in which the Mexican military was given license to terrorise and pillage at will. It in fact used the anti-narcotics programme as a cover for anti-subversive repression. Mexican peasants, many of them not even involved in the drug trade, were conflated with communists. Torture, illegal detentions, rape, executions and forced disappearances were widespread.
Any left-wing momentum that the northwest of Mexico had gathered over the decades was crushed - from peasant movements and student protests to union action and communist groups. The military’s scorched earth tactics sewed terror and destruction, decimating local economies and forcing tens of thousands of peasants to flee their homes, abandoning their hamlets and properties, never to return again. Meanwhile, hundreds of small-scale poppy and marijuana growers were locked up. Trafficking families were put out of business from disruption to production and supply chains. But, most alarmingly of all, not a single high-ranking druglord was arrested.
Most of the powerful trafficking families weathered the storm, as did the major capos. So, how did this happen? In various popular histories of the Guadalajara cartel, Operation Condor provided the incentive for top Sinaloan traffickers to escape the heat and migrate to the state capital of Jalisco, Guadalajara. The story goes that some of the more innovative traffickers teamed up to form Mexico’s first cartel.
Needless to say for many of you, these were Félix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero. Fonseca, hereon referred to by his alias, Don Neto, was a drug veteran, in trafficking since the 1950s and an unusual blend of uncouth Sinaloan mobster mixed with chic businessman and godfather figure. Caro Quintero was a young and highly successful weed peddler whose families had been in trafficking for generations.
Along with his brother, he had converted the town of Caborca in Sonora into the capital of a significantly sized weed and heroin empire. The story goes that these bosses teamed up and centralized their operations in Guadalajara. Guadalajara was a sprawling metropolis with plenty of investment potential, well-connected roads, state buildings, and the trappings of a vibrant city with a growing middle class.
There is some truth to this narrative. As with many aspects of criminal history, the particulars are hazy, and so the narrative might be an oversimplified picture. It might not just have been a case of mountain clans descending from the hills - the cockroach effect, as it’s been called - escaping the heat and becoming modern traffickers in an urban setting. Now listen carefully. A trusted DEA informant testified that at some point in the mid-1970s, two DFS agents approached the leaders of several trafficking families in Sinaloa, families that were at war with one another. The agents apparently encouraged them to unite into an organisation, based in the city of Guadalajara.
From there, the informant tells us, the DFS organised the traffickers: they gave them bodyguards, chauffeurs, radio systems, and automatic weapons; they gave them a DFS badge which granted them protection as well as a license to interrogate, install surveillance systems, carry machine guns, and other shady privileges; they were also apparently encouraged them to coalesce around Félix Gallardo, who by then, was Mexico’s most successful cocaine lord. And the DFS, in exchange, took a quarter of all drug proceeds. The testimony begs a lot of questions, besides of course whether it is true.
Who sent the DFS agents and how high up did the orders go? Could the story explain why the young and unschooled Caro Quintero, connected to three of Sinaloa’s major trafficking families, has been suspected as the main founder of the Guadalajara cartel? And if the traffickers were told to coalesce around Miguel, was it because he was Falcón’s successor and the state network that had already been built around him? There have been other reasons cited for the mass migration to Jalisco. One is that under the heat of Operation Condor, Sinaloan druglord Pedro Avilés encouraged his traffickers to move operations elsewhere. Another argued reason is the capo’s own death in 1978, murdered in an operation led by the main commanders of Operation Condor, men with extremely dark pasts in the Mexican military.
It’s believed that might have led many traffickers, to migrate to Guadalajara, probably already a trafficking hub by then, upon realising not even the local top dog was safe. Whatever really happened, after Operation Condor, the main capos moved to Guadalajara, shared contacts and began building trafficking networks. DEA agents suspected the traffickers were introduced to many high-ranking state officials through Félix Gallardo.
Their operations in the Sierra Madre were likely immune to the defoliation programme, and their national competition was now severely dwindled. And it leaves us with several conclusions about Operation Condor, also reached by several historians and journalists: Operation Condor allowed the Mexican government to establish military and government control over the neglected and corrupt epicentres of drug production; They used the anti-drug operation as a pretext to crack down on leftist movements. In doing so, the PRI party strengthened its power base.
It also became not only a valuable asset to the US’s war on drugs - on paper at least - but also in the global fight against communism The PRI sought to centralise and streamline the drug trade. They provided immunity to the next wave of major traffickers and destroyed swathes of competition. The country’s drug epicentre shifted away from the agrarian northwest, and into the city of Guadalajara. There, the state could protect, modernise and simultaneously extort them. The drug trade was far too lucrative to simply destroy.
Billions of dollars gushed through the US-Mexican pipeline every year. And the state of the Mexican economy was at its worst in over 20 years. Under US pressure, the only option available was to crack down on the disposable parts of the drug trade, please Uncle Sam and the spin doctors involved in the war on drugs, and derive as many political advantages from the phoney crackdown as possible. An important question is how much this centralisation of the drug trade happened organically, and how much it was driven by planned, calculated policy. Ultimately though, the initially US-led operation hugely strengthened the PRI. It deepened state corruption in a manner that was totally counter-productive to the US’s initial objectives.
If we look at short-term factors for the creation of the Guadalajara cartel, Condor stands tall. So yes, it was a watershed, but it’s even more of a watershed than it’s usually given credit for. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of peasants suffered human rights violations, with no official recognition or pardon to date.
Tzar of Cocaine So it’s 1975, Sicilia Falcón is arrested. The defoliation campaign is just about to begin before it gets ramped up two years later. Felix Gallardo, w ith all his connections, by now is a heroin trafficker, mainly operating out of Sinaloa. Earlier, we talked about the drug that made Falcón: cocaine.
Pedro Avilés was ahead of his time - once again - by trafficking cocaine in the 1960s. But we’re talking by the kilo, not the ton. Bosses like Don Lalo experimented with it as well, but the main contraband was always either heroin or marijuana. It was Sicilia Falcón who took cocaine sales to an entirely new level, keeping up with steady American demand. That’s what made him so wealthy so quickly; the Medellín and Cali cartels in Colombia hadn’t even been created yet. Falcón dominated the supply chain, thanks to South American wholesalers, mainly in the Sicilian and Corsican mafias, who were quickly diversifying from opium to cocaine.
One of his main contacts was the man-spreading alpha you see right here: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros. This man, initially a cocaine chemist, was a colossus in the history of the Latin American drug trade, and its poisonous effects on national governments. His alias was ‘El Negro’. And to paraphrase journalist Anabel Hérnandez, everything about this man was dark: his skin, his hair, his frightening eyes, and his past.
His story in fact deserves an entire video. He went from murderous marijuana peddler in his native Honduras to international coke trafficker, worth at least 2 billion dollars. His power and wealth corrupted the Honduran military and bureaucracy. It’s widely believed he helped orchestrate the so-called ‘cocaine coup’ of 1978 in his home country, to strengthen his power base. As we’ll soon see though, his story gets even darker. Now, Matta wasn’t a wholesaler.
He was a transportation whiz - a highly well-connected broker who connected the underworlds of North and South America. He carved vital routes through Central America to smuggle all sorts of contraband, from emeralds, US weapons, and most profitably, cocaine. Throughout his early criminal career, he developed strong ties with Colombia; his wife was Colombian for one, and he appears to have met and done business with the Colombian peddlers who would go on to become kingpins in the Medellín Cartel. These traffickers imported cocaine paste from the coca-growing Andean countries of Peru and Bolivia; the paste was then processed in labs across the city, before the finished cocaine was smuggled into the US. Sicilia Falcón had been Matta’s main contact in Mexico. With his arrest, it’s widely believed Matta started doing business with a former policeman and heroin peddler who was looking beyond heroin, and his contacts in the so-called South American Connection, to branch out into cocaine.
By 1977, it’s believed Matta Ballesteros brokered introductions between Miguel and a high-ranking kingpin of the Medellín cartel - Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, alias ‘The Mexican’ due to his love of all things…Mexican. This gave Miguel direct access to what would quickly become the world’s biggest cocaine empire, and would make him astronomically wealthy. Initially, Miguel and his partners received around 1,500 dollars for each kilo of cocaine smuggled into the US.
This wasn’t Falcón-level wealth yet, but it was promising. By ‘78, Felix had also opened his own real estate company. One year later, was already on the board of directors of two Mexican banks in Jalisco and Chihuahua. He became a high-profile businessman, an entrepreneur with investments in bars, nightclubs, cattle and restaurants.
He mingled with the political and banking elite in Sinaloa and Jalisco. He often attended official ceremonies, weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms. He was a public figure who never minded having his photo taken. So on the one hand, he was this high-functioning, cultured businessman, a patron of the arts and learning who flaunted his impunity like it was going out of fashion. On the other, he was a ruthless kingpin with an army of sociopathic thugs to quash competition and ensure everybody paid up.
And he was only getting richer. By the 80s, US anti-drug agencies began seriously cracking down on Florida and the Caribbean, where most of the transcontinental smuggling routes were. Routes became virtually blocked off as the crackdown resulted in huge seizures by US authorities. The Medellin Cartel therefore became much more dependent on the relatively porous and enormous US-Mexican border.
It also allowed the Colombians to reach new markets in California, Arizona, Nevada and Texas. We’re told Miguel’s organisation initially charged about 20-30 per cent in commission. But as smuggling routes shifted westward and Miguel gained more bargaining power, he started demanding payment in kind, not in cash. So, his organisation carved out new routes for their new share of the contraband - about 30 to 50 per cent of all cocaine smuggled through Miguel’s networks. Because of all this, Miguel has often been seen as just another kingpin within the Medellín Cartel, but based out in Mexico.
He was said to be on excellent terms with Pablo Escobar and other Colombian kingpins, who valued his discretion, his entrepreneurial attributes and his massive web of contacts. With this power and wealth and connectivity, Mexican traffickers gravitated towards him, and he became know as el ‘El Jefe de Jefes’, Boss of Bosses. So let’s take a closer look at what’s now known as the Guadalajara cartel, and how it actually worked. La Federación It’s probably best to start off by saying what the Guadalajara cartel was not.
It wasn’t a vertically organised system. There were capos who were better connected, like Félix, some who had more operations, like Caro Quintero, some who wealthier than others, and therefore more powerful. But this didn’t make for a strict hierarchy in an organised sense, with a top-down decision-making system among traffickers.
Bosses didn’t take orders from each other. Nor did they meet like company shareholders every month to discuss things like pricing or competition - not likely anyway. Two, it didn’t act as a cohesive whole. Traffickers generally ran their own businesses.
Each had their own retinue, their own bodyguards; their own headquarters. Sometimes, they teamed up, like Rafa and Don Neto, who jointly invested in huge marijuana farms in the deserts of northern Mexico. But sometimes they worked separately.
When they did cooperate, they’d share routes, manpower, vehicles, storage facilities - things like this. Sometimes they paid taxes to use these; sometimes they didn’t need to. It was quite an informal system. It was only loosely bound together by quasi-familial and business ties.
Some have even questioned whether the cartel even existed because of how informal it was. The traffickers certainly didn’t refer to themselves as being part of a cartel - it was the Félix Gallardo organization and associates. It’s been argued that the Guadalajara Cartel is just a nifty umbrella term that caught on in the 80s and is now used to simplify a very complex and loosely connected web of traffickers active at the same time, with power flowing from Guadalajara.
Also, it’s a myth that Miguel and his associates were the only traffickers in Mexico at the time. They might have dominated the flow of drugs, but the DEA calculated 18 clans, and 75 dons controlling Mexico’s drug trade in the early 80s. Perhaps the main glue of Miguel and his associates was the state protection racket that Miguel allegedly helped disseminate. If anything, the DFS and the police were the real cartel agents as they were the ones trying to organise the drug trade so that they could cash in on the profits. Now it does appear that anti-narcotics agents were on the mark by singling out Miguel, Don Neto and Caro Quintero as the most successful traffickers in the ring. Co-founders? Who knows.
But it would be misleading to believe they jointly ran the Guadalajara cartel, and everybody else was their subordinates. There’s also widespread discrepancies about who was the top boss between the three. Their aliases really don’t help up solve the mystery: we’ve already seen Miguel’s; then there’s ‘Don Neto’ for Fonseca Carrillo, don being a prefix reserved for narco nobility and godfather figures; then ‘Narco of Narcos’ for Caro Quintero.
In terms of votes, Miguel has the highest score - disproportionately in fact - across narco literature. Don Neto has the second-most amount of votes, including by important figures like Héctor Berréllez, the now-famous DEA agent and whistleblower. Caro Quintero has the least votes, despite being called top boss by key insiders and informants from within the drug world. The number of votes doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on the truth. It sometimes just happens that some sources gain more traction than others, and then ‘facts’ from those popular sources are taken at face value and circulated exponentially.
The matter of who was the top boss might satisfy our insatiable need for simplification and order, but it’s probably a useless pursuit. Remember this was an informally run organisation, with each trafficker running their own business. The bosses didn’t take orders from each other, one informant stressed, which is completely plausible.
For business purposes, they would have treated each other as equals; treating another as a subordinate could break the peace. But then that’s not to say there wasn’t an unofficial, perhaps unspoken hierarchy between the three. One based on ability, character, experience and actual power and wealth. I have my own thoughts on the matter, BUT this video is already taxing your generous attention spans, and besides, we’re all far more interested in reading your thoughts. So do leave them in the comments below. As for how other criminals regarded them, I would conjecture this was in the eye of the beholder, based on their knowledge of the drug trade, their relationship to the kingpins, individually or as a whole, as well as their own role.
A peasant toiling Caro Quintero’s plantations will have a different perspective to a CIA operative working for Don Neto. Remember ladies and gentlemen that this is the mafia. Their history will always be filled with gaps. Traffickers don’t leave written records; they don’t talk if they’re captured; if they do, it’s either under duress, to rat and to save their skins, or to spin a positive light on themselves as Miguel later did with his memoirs. And those who do talk just for the sake of it get shot.
Pablo Acosta, gunned down in 1987 after accepting various interviews with US journalists, is a case in point. Instead, you have to construct the narrative with dodgy intel through law enforcement, one-sided and often speculative; as well as informants, which comes with memory issues and sometimes an agenda. Downfall In 1982, the DEA in Guadalajara initiated Operation Padrino, an intelligence-gathering operation focused on Miguel. By then, he was identified as the biggest cocaine trafficker in Mexico, his empire stretching from the Andes to the US Sunbelt. Besides his myriad investments in banking, real estate, cattle etc. he commanded his
own airforce and radio network, was building his own cocaine refineries and already expanding in Europe. The operation found Miguel was moving 200 million dollars every week through a single Bank of America account. Before long, Miguel cottoned on that the agents were on his back; they were tailed, threatened by hired thugs in the DFS or the police, and one DEA agent was very nearly assassinated. After the latter had packed his packs and returned to the US with his family, there were only three people left in the Guadalajara office, a joke considering what the agents were up against.
Miguel even sent them a message, via a former police commander: ‘stop following me. You’ll have better luck chasing Rafael Caro Quintero’. Whether they took his advice or not, this is exactly what they ended up doing. His message carried the seed of his downfall. Caro Quintero’s operations, in fact, were much easier for the DEA to investigate.
Miguel’s cocaine business, for one, required fairly little manpower. Just a small, well-protected cohort of bankers and traffickers made up his core team. Then, there were the heads involved in transportation, storage and distribution - hardly labour-intensive. Manufacturing and packaging were almost entirely done in South America until of course, Miguel started to erect cocaine refineries of his own. Also, the smuggling routes and warehouses often changed with each shipment. Compare that with Caro Quintero’s operations.
Weed, at least on the scale that he and his associates were producing it, required huge amounts of manpower, from engineers, agronomists and builders, to tens of thousands of peasants in cultivation, harvesting, storage, drying and packaging. Then, you have a product with lower profit margins. It’s bulkier, cheaper, and also higher risk for busts because of the smell. So all this required shipments in greater frequency and size; which came with substantially more risk to Caro Quintero’s operations. Because he was paying millions of dollars every month in bribes though, and his plantations were out in the middle of the desert, presumably there wasn’t any need to worry. He wasn’t counting on the efforts of a particularly venturesome and energetic DEA agent.
The story of Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena is now well-known. For time purposes, I’ll be fairly summary here, but if you’d like a detailed version of the narrative, I refer you to the biographical video on Caro Quintero in the link above. Kiki Camarena was a resourceful, no-nonsense bootstrapper who got his hands dirty building a highly effective team of informants. These informants provided crucial intel on the huge sinsemilla plantations that were being funded by Caro Quintero and Guadalajara-based associates.
Their intel paved the way for major busts between 1982 and 1984. In November 1984, the crown jewel of the marijuana operations, a 2,500-acre plantation known as Rancho Búfalo, with a yearly output worth an estimated 8 billion dollars, was destroyed by Mexican soldiers. It was hitherto perhaps the largest and most sophisticated marijuana operation ever known to mankind. Though Kiki wasn’t involved in this particular operation, never having even visited the ranch, cartel members, including Miguel, and affiliates in the state and secret services, of which the CIA, had singled him out as the agent who represented the greatest threat to their drug operations. They arranged for his abduction and interrogation.
There is plenty of evidence now to suggest that the classic narrative is misleading; that Kiki wasn’t simply abducted by a bunch of crack-addled traffickers and crooked politicians for having their plantations destroyed. Kiki was also abducted for the purposes of interrogation because he was suspected of knowing far too much about the cartel’s deep links to the state, as well as to the CIA. More on this later.
His abduction had in fact been in the works long before the raid on Rancho Búfalo. So, he was abducted on the 7th February 1985, brutally tortured for over thirty hours by dozens of high-ranking criminals, including traffickers, politicians, intelligence agents and senior state officials. One month later, Kiki’s body, and that of his pilot, Alfredo Zavala Avilar, were discovered in a shallow grave near a ranch in the state of Michoacán, showing signs of brutal torture.
Outraged, the DEA retaliated with a massive crackdown. Operation Leyenda was the most extensive murder investigation in DEA history, putting pressure on the lax Mexican authorities to bring down the culprits. The sweeping operation promptly led to the arrests of Caro Quintero and Don Neto. Furthermore, the protection of the traffickers by state officials exposed for the first time just how entrenched complicity in the drug trade was. Hundreds of officials were subsequently sacked or arrested during the onslaught. Many even fled the state.
The DFS was dissolved by the end of the year. Miguel, the third main suspect in the torture-murder came out unscathed. He carried on trafficking, even expanding his operations to Europe and building cocaine refineries in Mexico, with the view to deal directly with suppliers in Peru and Bolivia.
He travelled frequently between Guadalajara and his home in Mazatlán, right next door to the home of the local US consul. This was supposedly one of the most wanted men in the world, with 11 arrest warrants to his name, yet he remained a public figure, as he had always been. This couldn’t have been possible without protection from the absolute highest rungs of the Mexican government. In 1989, the new president, Carlos Salinas de Gortarí, clamped down on the drug trade. Under US pressure - and to improve his own reputation after electoral fraud - he ordered Miguel’s arrest. On the 8th April 1989, Miguel was arrested at a friend’s home in Guadalajara.
According to his memoirs, he was set up by his friend, Guillermo ‘Memo’ Calderoni, the fickle and double-dealing police commander with ties to the drug trade. Calderoni was also a favorite of the president, valued for his efficacy and grit. Miguel claimed he was interrogated and tortured before he was incarcerated in Mexico City’s Reclusorio Sur, in its maximum-security wing. This differs from the official account that he was arrested in a swift and tidy operation by a large task force.
Miguel also wrote that Calderoni told him his arrest was all political, that they had to bring him down due to forces “beyond their control”, that Miguel had his word he’d be released once the next president took office; this, despite being the word of a convicted drug lord, is completely plausible. After his arrest, it’s been said Miguel supervised the fate of the Guadalajara cartel from behind bars. He still intended to oversee operations, with his family receiving his earnings, but he needed to delegate responsibilities and distribute risk. Through clandestine phone calls, he allegedly orchestrated a summit meeting at Acapulco, which divided the Guadalajara cartel up among his close associates, creating the Tijuana, the Juarez, the Sonora, the Gulf, and the Sinaloa Cartels. Miguel himself denies this, attributing the cartel’s division to Calderoni saying: “he did it to show off in front of his bosses and then, he never captured anyone else anymore”. The cartels were instructed to cooperate and play nice.
The complete reverse happened: family feuds and turf disputes almost immediately boiled over into open conflict and vendettas. The division of the Guadalajara cartel is now generally seen as having paved the way to the modern cartel scene in Mexico, with its plethora of cartels, constantly splintering into smaller and increasingly violent factions. Miguel spent three years in the Reclusorio Sur. During this period, over a dozen of his colleagues, lawyers and family members were murdered, in a vendetta by high-ranking members of the Sinaloan plaza. Miguel was transferred to the maximum security prison of Altiplano in 1993, at which point his involvement in the trade came to an abrupt end.
Convicted of murder, racketeering, and drug charges, Miguel was sentenced to 40 years in prison, Mexico’s maximum permissible sentence. After two decades of appeals, he was retried for the murders of Kiki Camarena and his pilot Alfredo Zavala Avelar. The retrial didn’t conclude until 2017, when Miguel was convicted and re-sentenced to 37 years in prison. But due to his declining health, he was moved to a medium-security prison in Guadalajara. Now half deaf, blind in one eye and suffering from vertigo, the godfather of the Mexican drug trade remains behind bars.
Shadow of the Eagle The torture and murder of Kiki Camarena stands as one of the most important cases of the late 20th century. It was a complete game-changer in all sorts of ways. Operation Leyenda exposed the depths of the mafia state in Mexico. The DEA’s budget was massively scaled up. The case massively shaped awareness and public opinion of the Mexican cartels.
It also gave the war on drugs greater moral purpose, rallying Americans around the flag against a clear evil ‘other’. But over the decades, odd details about the case, and sordid events in its aftermath, have exposed the fingerprints of one agency in particular, an agency now well-known for its shady dealings with counter-subversive allies and organized crime: the CIA. During the late 90s, Hector Berrellez, DEA agent in charge of Operation Leyenda gathered intel on the Camarena case from various highly important informants. These included Jalisco state cops and former bodyguards for drug kingpins in Guadalajara, and a CIA operative who worked as a communications technician for Ernesto Fonseca. The cops gave incriminating details on those involved in the abduction and torture of the DEA agent.
Of note were the Secretary of Government, the Secretary of Defense, the head of Interpol in Mexico and the state governor of Jalisco, among other high-ranking state figures. They also testified that CIA operative Félix Rodriguez interrogated and tortured Kiki Camarena. The presence of a CIA agent helped explain odd details about the case, such as the use of a blindfold, the use of a tape recorder during the interrogation, but more generally the whole nature of the abduction - none of them typical stamps of Mexican traffickers.
It also explained why Kiki was interrogated about his knowledge