When I first arrived in Mexico in 2000, I worked in the shabby offices of the Mexico City News, an English-language daily run out of the capital's historic center. For a handsome salary of $600 a month, other hungry journalists and I hammered out stories for the declining readership on old, coffee-stained computers using telephone lines that beeped loudly every three seconds. It was the best job I had had in my life. I got to cover the Mexico City crime beat, which involved chasing a plump female crack dealer nicknamed Ma Barker and sitting through a weeklong court-martial of corrupt generals.
I soon found myself reading Blancornelas and called him for advice on stories. The veteran journalist was incredibly patient with a green British reporter asking dumb questions. He always took weekly calls, despite his harassing deadlines, and would clarify all issues I battled to understand. When I phoned to ask about a particular trafficker, he would answer with his usual sport metaphors. "Grillo, if that trafficker you are writing about were playing baseball, he would be in the minor leagues." "What about this guy Ismael Zambada?" I asked dimly. "Now Zambada," he replied, "would be playing for the New York Yankees."
Such metaphors were natural to Blancornelas, as he spent years covering sports before he wrote about gangsters. After graduating college, he became sports editor of a local rag in his native state of San Luis Potosi in central Mexico before moving more than a thousand miles to the budding town of Tijuana. People can reinvent themselves on the border, and Blancornelas was one of many who found a new life in the city that Californians call TJ. In 1980, at forty-four years old, Blancornelas partnered with two other journalists to found the first Mexican newsmagazine to specialize in coverage of El Narco. They baptized it Zeta— the Mexican spelling of the letter Z (and nothing to do with the Zetas gang).
The first blood was spilled at Zeta in 1988. It was about power, rather than drugs. Coeditor Héctor Félix wrote columns criticizing Tijuana entrepreneur Jorge Hank, son of one of Mexico's most powerful politicians. Jorge Hank owned a popular racetrack and Félix wrote that hank had fixed races and rigged bets. Hank's bodyguard and racetrack employees followed Félix from work on a rainy afternoon. One vehicle blocked Félix in and another pulled up beside him. Blancornelas wrote what happened next:
"From the Toyota pickup, Hank's bodyguard shot. Once, twice. Extremely accurate. Once near the neck, and once in the ribs…
"This is not a soap opera line: his heart was completely destroyed.
"His gray Members Only jacket was shredded, smelling of gunpowder, soaked in blood and flesh."
Blancornelas and his team uncovered the killers and got them arrested and jailed. but the journalist wanted Hank himself to go on trial. Prosecutors wouldn't touch the son of such a powerful politico, so Zeta printed a weekly letter on a black page demanding justice. "Jorge Hank. Why did your bodyguard kill me?" the letter starts, under Félix's name. Zeta still prints it today. Jorge Hank has since served a term as Tijuana mayor. He denies anything to do with the murder.
The year Félix was killed, Mexico elected a new president. As the big day approached it looked like the unthinkable could happen — leftist contender Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas could actually oust the PRI. Cárdenas wasn't really a revolutionary. His dad had been the iconic PRI president Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s, and he himself had been in the ruling party for many years. But feeling that the government had lost touch with the people, he had broken away and was now challenging the PRI in the first genuine two-horse race since 1929.
On election day, Mexicans couldn't believe their eyes; Cárdenas was ahead on the vote count. It seemed the election had not been rigged. It was too good to be true. Votes piled up in favor of Cárdenas. And then, crash. There was a sudden computer failure. It had really been too good to be true. A month later it was declared that the PRI candidate Carlos Salinas had won. Nothing had changed. Cárdenas told his supporters to stay off the streets. He didn't want bloodshed, and he didn't really want a revolution. There was bloodshed anyway, as gunmen killed dozens of leftist militants who supported Cárdenas. Within two years, they had murdered hundreds.
But despite a rigged election, PRI winner Salinas got good press in the United States. A short man with a trademark bald head, big ears, and straight-line mustache, President Salinas wooed American politicians with his perfect English and Ph.D. from Harvard. This was a new kind of PRI and a new Mexico. This PRI embraced free trade and modern capitalism even if it did carry out the odd electoral shenanigan to keep the communists out. Companies and assets long owned by the Mexican state were sold at bargain prices — telephone lines, railways, a TV network.
Suddenly, a new class of Mexican tycoons buzzed around in private jets. In 1987, when Forbes began its billionaire list, one Mexican was on it. In 1994, when Salinas left office, there were twenty-four Forbes billionaires. Where had this money come from? Salinas also negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with Bill Clinton, which produced some equally dramatic results. In 1989, cross-border trade between the United States and Mexico was at $49 billion; in 2000, it was at $247 billion! Mexicans flocked from country shacks to work in assembly plants along the border. Throughout the nineties, Tijuana and Juárez grew by a block a day, with new slums spreading over surrounding hills — slums that would later be the center of the drug war.
Salinas also went about reorganizing the narcotics trade. When he came into office, the undisputed godfather of Mexico was Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the Sinaloan who partnered with Matta Ballesteros to traffic cocaine. In 1989, under orders from Salinas, police commander Guillermo Gonz&aaute;lez Calderoni nabbed the forty-three-year-old kingpin Félix Gallardo sitting quietly in a Guadalajara restaurant. Not a shot was fired.
Félix Gallardo later wrote in his prison diary how he had met with the commander Calderoni five times leading up to the arrest, and the officer had even given him some rare guacamaya birds as a present. On the day of his detention, Félix Gallardo wrote, he actually went to the restaurant to meet Calderoni to talk business.
Whether or not the capo's account is true, that the Mexican government could take down the biggest gangster in the country without firing a shot was telling. In 1989, mobsters still relied on the police to operate, and these officers could take out narcos when they needed to. The detention of the head honcho reminded traffickers who was boss.
Following the arrest, Mexican capos held a gangster summit in the resort of Acapulco. It sounds like a scene from The Godfather. But the narco conferences really do happen. Journalist Blancornelas broke the news about the meeting, and it was later confirmed by a number of sources. Blancornelas said head honcho Félix Gallardo organized it from behind bars. However, Félix Gallardo wrote that police commander Calderoni set up the cozy get-together. Maybe it was both. Blancornelas describes the scene:
"They rented a chalet in Las Brisas. From it, you could see the beautiful Acapulco bay in cinemascope and bright colors, away from the relentless traffic of the seafront. No hawkers came up to the chalets, which were away from the annoyance of the blear of discos and the glare of the police. they managed to get the house sometimes used by the Shah if Iran. Who knows how they did that?"
During a week's summit, the holidaying capos discussed the future of the Mexican underworld. Almost all guests were from the old Sinaloan narco tribe, a sprawl of families intertwined by marriages, friendships, and drug deals. At the meeting were several players who would be crucial in shaping trafficking over the next two decades. Among them was the Sierra Madre villain Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán and his older friend Ismael "the Mayo" Zambada. Each capo was awarded a plaza where he could move his own drugs and tax any other smugglers on his turf.
It all sounded like a good idea. But the cozy arrangement didn't play out. Without the leadership of the imprisoned godfather, Félix Gallardo, the capos plotted and backstabbed to get a bigger piece of the pie. As Blancornelas wrote:
"Never in the history of Mexican drug trafficking could someone like Félix Gallardo operate again. He was a man of his word, of deals before shots, of convincing arguments before executions…
"If the capos had followed his instructions then the most powerful cartel in the world would exist now. But the absence of a leader and the presence of several bosses, all feeling more superior than the next, caused a disorganized mess."