Drug cartels

  • Mexico in Crisis: Q&A with John MacCormack


    Known as “Johnny Mac” in the newsroom, John MacCormack is a talented, colorful reporter. He likes telling a good yarn, both in person and on the front pages of the San Antonio Express-News. One time I heard him on the phone telling a source: “What are you going to give me so I don’t write the usual blather?”

    His trademark wit was on display when he gave this speech explaining how he figured out that missing atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not dining on bonbons in New Zealand, as police theorized, but had actually been brutally murdered.

    Last year, MacCormack and Express-News Photographer Jerry Lara spent months documenting the toll of violence from the Mexican drug war, and how life on the Texas border has dramatically changed for the worse. The result was a compelling series of articles and photos called Mexico in Crisis. MacCormack won an award for his work this month from the Inter American Press Association.

    Given MacCormack’s gift of gab and skill at reporting, I thought it’d be entertaining and educational to do a Q&A with him, and learn how he and Jerry worked on the stories.

    I was right.

  • Mexican authorities arrest “La Barbie”

    la barbieIn January, Express-News Reporter Jason Buch profiled Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a U.S. citizen from Laredo who had risen through the ranks of a Mexican drug cartel. In high school, Valdez Villarreal was a jock who got the nickname “Barbie” for his light-colored eyes and hair. Years later in Mexico, he was poised to become a ruthless drug boss.

    This week, Valdez Villarreal was arrested in Mexico and NPR featured an interesting interview with Jason yesterday about Villarreal. You can hear a Mexican ballad that extols the virtues of the drug lord, and how he’s such an intelligent businessman. Great stuff.

  • Exposing the gun buyers for Mexican drug cartels

    gunnrunning3Day 2 of “Texas’ Deadliest Export” is out. The series shows how easy it is for Mexican drug cartels to buy guns in Texas. Sunday’s story by Reporter Guillermo Contreras focuses on the straw buyers — the people with clean criminal histories who buy guns that wind up being used in cop killings and gun battles in Mexico:

    “Anyone who can legally buy a gun can get caught up in the scheme,” said Mark Siebert, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in San Antonio. “It’s college students, girls, guys, grandmothers. It’s anybody.”

    In Houston, ATF agents uncovered one network of more than 30 straw buyers who spent more than $400,000 on guns, said J. Dewey Webb, agent in charge of the office there, which oversees San Antonio and much of south Texas.

    “A lot of straw purchasers say, ‘Hey I’m not hurting anybody. I’m just making a few dollars,” Webb said. “But that AK killed someone in Mexico. It’s all connected and it’s all relevant.”

    The value of this series of watchdog stories is how they help people understand a complicated problem. We’ve all heard the violence in Mexico. It seems like a vague, distant problem with no connection to us. But the Express-News stories are answering some fundamental questions, such as, where do the guns come from? And who actually supplies them?

    Guillermo names names and shows readers how Texas is connected to the drug violence. He give readers some surprising answers, which is what a good investigative news story is supposed to do.

  • Gunrunners’ land of plenty

    Express-News Reporter Todd Bensman wrote an outstanding article in Sunday’s paper about Mexican drug cartels buying assault weapons in Texas to battle rivals and Mexican police.

    Bensman’s story showed how cartels hire people with clean criminal histories to buy firearms at Texas gun shows and gun shops.

    Bensman traced the path of several guns found at the scene of a police killing in Mexico. The guns were bought in Laredo, Texas, and Bensman found the purchaser, Raúl Alvarez Jr.

    Alvarez denied having anything to do with the cartels but he bought a new house shortly after he sold the guns. He also hired a cartel lawyer when federal investigators began looking into the purchase.

    Bensman’s story included interesting details about Alvarez:

    The Nuevo Laredo brothel owned by the mother of Raúl Alvarez Jr. seems out of place amid the rows of broken-down bordellos that crowd the city’s pink-walled “Zone of Tolerance,” or Boys’ Town. Prostitutes amble up and down the uneven gravel streets strewn with garbage picked over by skeletal dogs.

    The Danash Mens Club is newly built in the garish likeness of a medieval castle. It’s all bright lights outside and shiny gold dance poles inside on a main floor covered over by plush, red cushioned seats.

    In a recent interview, Alvarez explained that drug syndicate operatives prefer the Danash to the other zone brothels for what are to him obvious reasons.

    “We have the best girls,” said Alvarez, whose rail-thin body and boyish features make him look far younger than 29.

    But even though the narcos often take the girls away for days at a time without paying, they otherwise let him and his mother operate the family business without too much meddling.

    Knowing what Alvarez did with the guns would help the ATF move one step closer to the smugglers. It would be illegal but tough to prove if Alvarez had fronted for a cartel contact from the club. Alvarez must have sensed trouble for himself when an ATF agent called, especially when the agent told him during an initial phone call “there was a mess down in Mexico” involving some guns Alvarez bought.

    He hired a Laredo lawyer known to defend drug-trafficking suspects and then refused to talk further to the ATF.

    Check out the whole story here.