Autumn of the Capo: The Diary of a Drug Lord

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Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo

Prison bars have long inspired infamous inmates, from revolutionaries to mass murderers, to record their tales and thoughts on rusty typewriters or hidden scraps of paper. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the first published writings of a major Mexican drug trafficker have emerged from one of the nation's top penitentiaries. Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, arrested in 1989 and convicted of being the most powerful Mexican narcotics trafficker of his time, has written 36 pages that mix memories, ideas and reactions to current events from his cell in Mexico's Altiplano prison. After being passed from Félix Gallardo's son into the hands of investigative journalist Diego Osorno, chunks of the text were published this month in the magazine Gatopardo under the headline, "Diaries of the Boss of Bosses."

Scrawled on whatever material he could find, the memoirs offer valuable insight into the history and thinking of kingpins even as Mexico suffers unprecedented levels of drug-related bloodshed. Félix Gallardo, now 63 and in poor health, does not deny that he trafficked cocaine and heroin into the United States. Indeed, in one passage, he nostalgically referred to himself as one of the "old capos." However, he also pointed a finger at Mexican politicians for failing to provide for the poor, making them turn to crime. He also reiterated the point — already conceded by the Mexican government — that large numbers of police and officials have worked with the drug cartels, debilitating attempts to rein in the narcotraficantes. (See pictures from Sinaloa, the front line of Mexico's drug war.)

After himself joining the police at 17 in his native state of Sinaloa, Félix Gallardo began his run from the law in 1971 when he was first indicted for drug-smuggling. Over the next 18 years he built what federal officials described as Mexico's biggest drug-trafficking empire, one that dealt directly with Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar to move cocaine. Félix Gallardo also began to grow marijuana and opium — the raw ingredient for heroin — on Mexican soil. There were 15 arrest warrants with his name on them in Mexico and others in the United States before Mexican federal agents finally nabbed the capo without firing a shot in 1989. "Félix Gallardo had become the most wanted drug trafficker both at national and international level," the federal attorney general's office wrote after the arrest. "This shows the willingness of [then President] Carlos Salinas to fight this social cancer to whatever end." (Read a story about Culiacán, Mexico's drug capital.)

Félix Gallardo dedicates a large chunk of his writings to describing this detention in minute detail. He unleashes particular scorn on his arresting officer Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni, a "supercop" who shot down or nabbed several top drug lords in the 1980s. Félix Gallardo claimed that he had been a friend of Gonzalez Calderoni who, he said, once gave him a present of macaws, endangered birds. But, Félix Gallardo recalled, when he went to meet the policeman in a Guadalajara restaurant, some of his officers jumped him. "Three of them came at me and knocked me to the ground with rifle butts. They were people I had known since 1971 in Culiacán [in Sinaloa]," Félix Gallardo wrote. "I was held down on the ground when Calderoni arrived. I asked him, 'What is going on, Memo [the policeman's nickname]?' He answered, "I don't know you."

Allegations that Gonzalez Calderoni was compromised are not new. Federal officials themselves eventually accused the formerly coveted officer of corruption and murder. Gonzalez Calderoni fled to the United States, where he denied the charges and in turn accused the Mexican government of framing him because he had information about higher-level corruption. He was gunned down in Texas in 2003, in an as yet unsolved killing.

Félix Gallardo went on to describe being questioned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which asked him about the 1985 murder of its agent Enrique Camarena. The drug kingpin denied that he had any involvement in that slaying, which had created a furor in Washington and led to pressure to round up top traffickers. "I was taken to the DEA," recalled the capo. "I greeted them and they wanted to talk. I only answered that I had no involvement in the Camarena case and I said, 'You said a madman would do it and I am not mad. I am deeply sorry for the loss of your agent.'"

Following Félix Gallardo's arrest, some observers and journalists expressed hopes that Mexican drug gangs would be obliterated. But in the two decades of his incarceration, bigger and bloodier cartels have emerged, unleashing decapitations, massacres and pitched battles in town centers. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, there have been more than 10,000 drug-related slayings. In his prison scrawlings, Félix Gallardo argued that fighting poverty would be the best way to stop young people from joining the ranks of cartel foot soldiers. "Today, the violence in the cities needs a program of national reconciliation. There needs to be a reconstruction of villages and ranches to make them self-sufficient. There needs to be assembly plants and credit at low interest, incentives for cattle and schools," he wrote. "Violence can be fought with jobs ... We must remember that in the mountains of Mexico, the people are forgotten ... There are no medical clinics, roads or security. Only repression." (Read about the drug war on the U.S.-Mexican frontier.)

Gatopardo claims that it deliberated seriously over publishing the writings of a convicted narcotics trafficker, particularly at a time when the Mexican and U.S. governments are warning that the cartels are one of the gravest security threats on both sides of the border. Gatopardo editor Guillermo Osorno wrote that the magazine did not wish to be an apologist for the convict. But he said that after seeking advice in both Colombia and Mexico, he decided that the public interest outweighed any damage it could do. "The magazine will open up its pages if anyone has an alternative version," he wrote. "With all this, the readers can make up their own mind about what is published."

See pictures from Ciudad Juárez.

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