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interview: guillermo gonzalez calderoni


photo of guillermo gonzalez calderoni

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 before 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

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. . . .

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