The Wall and Flaco

Good reporting can be as fascinating and instructive about the real world as a great short story or a brilliant novel. If anyone doubts this, I implore them to read Ioan Grillo’s report “Mexican Drug Smugglers to Trump: Thanks!” which appeared in The New York Times on May 7 of this year. It recounts the history of Flaco, a Mexican smuggler who, since he was 15 years old and in high school, has spent his life smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants into the United States. Although he spent five years in prison, he doesn’t regret the trade that he practices; he regrets it even less now, he says, when his shady business is flourishing as never before.

When Flaco started trafficking marijuana, cocaine, and his fellow Mexicans or Central Americans who had crossed the Sonoran Desert and dreamed of entering the United States, smuggling was a profession for the so-called coyotes, who worked for themselves, and traditionally charged some fifty centavos for each immigrant. But as U.S. authorities have reinforced the border with fences, walls, customs and police, the price has risen – today, each illegal immigrant pays a minimum of $5,000 for the crossing. The drug cartels, above all those of Sinaloa, Juárez, el Golfo and the Zetas, have taken over the business and now often fight ferociously among themselves for control of the secret routes along the 3,000-kilometer-long border from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Illegals who cross on their own, not using the services of the cartels, are punished, sometimes killed, by them.

There is an infinite number of ways to sneak across the border. Flaco showed Ioan Grillo some good examples of the ingenuity and shrewdness of the smugglers: catapults or trampolines to fly over the wall; hiding places built into the interior of trains, trucks and cars; and tunnels, some of which have electric lights and air conditioning so the users can enjoy a pleasant crossing. How many tunnels are there? There must really be a lot, despite the fact that 224 were discovered between 1990 and 2016, since according to Flaco, business is thriving, not declining, with the increase in harassment and prohibition. According to him, there are so many tunnels operating that the Mexico-U.S. border looks like a “block of Swiss cheese.”

Does this mean that the famous wall, for which President Trump has obsessively been trying to raise the billions of dollars it would cost, doesn’t bother the cartels? “On the contrary,” Flaco affirms. “When there are more obstacles to crossing, business is even better.” Or in other words, the rule that “nobody knows who they’re working for” is in full force in this case. The Mexican cartels are delighted with the benefits that the new U.S. president’s anti-immigrant obsession will bring them. And it will, without a doubt, also be a strong incentive for the infrastructure of illegality to reach higher levels of technological development.

The city of Nogales, where Flaco was born, extends right up to the border. Many houses have underground passages that communicate with the other side, so crossing over and back is fast and very easy. Grillo even had a chance to see one of these tunnels, which starts in a tomb in the city’s cemetery. And they also showed him how, on the Arizona side, the large-diameter drainage pipes that the two countries share were converted by the mafia, through the bold application of technology, into routes for the transport of drugs and immigrants.

Business is so good that the mafia can pay better wages to drivers, customs officers, police, railway workers and other employees than government or private businesses can pay them. In this way, they have built an information system that counterbalances the legitimate system. They also have sufficient means to provide good lawyers for the defense of their collaborators in the courts and in administrative proceedings. As Grillo says in his reporting, it seems somewhat absurd that the United States is spending staggering amounts along the border to prevent illegal drug trafficking while in many U.S. states the use of marijuana and cocaine has been, or is going to be, legalized. And, I might add, where the demand for immigrants – illegal or not – stays very strong in the fields, especially at planting and harvest times, as well as in the cities, where for all practical purposes certain trades involving manual labor only get done thanks to Latin American immigrants. (Here in Chicago, I haven’t seen a restaurant, cafe or bar that wasn’t full of them.)

Grillo points out the billions of dollars the United States has spent since Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” and how, in spite of it, drug use has steadily increased. This has stimulated drug production and smuggling, and has in turn given rise to unspeakable corruption and violence. It suffices to focus on countries like Colombia and Mexico for a warning of how the drug trafficking mafia has brought about massive political and social disruption and the malignant growth of criminality, to the point that it becomes the raison d’être of a supposed revolutionary war that, in theory at least, seems to be achieving its goal.

A similar situation has arisen with respect to illegal immigration. In Europe as well as in the United States, paranoia has emerged about this matter in which – yet again in history – societies in crisis are seeking a scapegoat for their social and economic problems. Naturally, the immigrants – people of a different color, a different language, different gods and different customs – are the ones chosen for this, the ones who come to steal jobs, to rob, to rape, to bring terrorism and to clog up health, education and pension services. In this way, racism, which seemed to have disappeared (it was only marginalized and hidden), achieves a sort of legitimacy, even in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands, which, until recently, had been considered models of tolerance and coexistence.

The truth is that immigrants bring much more to the countries where they settle than the immigrants get from those same countries: all the studies and investigations confirm this. And the overwhelming majority of them are against terrorism, from which, as a matter of fact, they are always the most numerous victims. And finally, although they are humble and helpless people, immigrants are not stupid. They won’t go to societies that don’t need them, but rather to societies in which, precisely because of the level of development and prosperity they have achieved, the natives don’t want to take on certain trades, functions and tasks that are necessary for the functioning of the society and which get done because the immigrants do them. International agencies, foundations and think tanks continue to remind us: if the most developed nations want to maintain their high standard of living, they need to open their borders to immigration. Not to any and every kind of immigrant, of course. And they need to integrate them – not marginalize them in ghettos, which are breeding grounds for frustration and violence – giving them the opportunities that the United States, for example, gave them in the days before Trump’s nationalist and racist demagoguery.

In a nutshell, it is very simple: the only truly workable way to get rid of the problem of illegal immigration and trafficking by the cartels is to legalize drugs and open the borders.

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