El Paso Vice: When Drug Cops Become Criminals

By Takis Würger

The war on drugs has become so intense that the line between criminality and law-enforcement has blurred. Salvador Martinez, an undercover officer at the Mexican border, ended up in prison after he went too far.

Salvador Martinez began his career with 150 grams of heroin. He met the dealer in the Texan city of El Paso in a diner with large windows during the lunch rush. More witnesses reduce the risk of execution, Martinez calculated. Both of them drank iced tea, he recalls. Martinez wanted dark heroin, La Negra, as the Mexicans say.

"Where is the money?" the dealer asked.

"Around the corner," Martinez said.

He had learned to remain vague, never saying where the money was hidden or giving precise information about amounts and people.

"We will make the delivery at Tiffany's Bar," the dealer said.

Martinez carried a cloth sack containing $15,000 into the bar, wearing a Glock 9-millimeter pistol loaded with 17 bullets in his waistband, which the dealer saw gleaming through his shirt. In the drug business, it is wise to carry a gun, says Martinez, so the dealer knows you are serious. You could shoot also shoot him in the head if necessary, he adds.

The dealer pointed at the heroin in a sports bag. Martinez drew a red scarf from his pocket and dabbed the sweat from his forehead. That was the signal. The doors flew open. Men stormed into the bar with guns, shouting, "Freeze! DEA! Freeze!" Handcuffs clicked. Martinez threw himself to the ground.

It was his first undercover operation for the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, America's drug police. His heart pounding, he realized that this was his new life. He was an undercover agent. It felt big.

An All-Out Offensive

Eighteen years later, Salvador Martinez is standing on top of a hill in El Paso. He is 50 years old and has a round belly, but there are still traces of the strength that was once in his shoulders.

Martinez has flown to his old home and gone to the hill to take a look back at his past. El Paso lies at his feet, while a little further south the border fence separates the city, which is called Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican side. The city has become the symbol for a broken war. "All that you see was my territory," he says.

In 1973, when Martinez was a child playing in the streets of El Paso, the then-American President Richard Nixon said in a press conference: "America's public enemy number one is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive." Nixon founded the DEA and, among other things, gave it the task of intercepting drugs at the Mexican border. Ciudad Juárez was a quiet town on the other side of the river at that time. Martinez often went there in his youth to drink beer with lime juice and go to clubs.

His father was a bus driver and the family was poor, but Sal made it to college. He had a vision of what his life should look like, and for that he needed a degree in criminology, he says. "I wanted to be like the undercover agent in Miami Vice," he says. The characters in the TV drama from the 1980s sometimes ventured into criminal activity themselves, but at the end of every episode, they returned to legality.

In his interview with the DEA, Martinez said that he wanted to serve America. He wanted to do good, but he soon realized that this didn't fit the self-image of the drug police. Martinez found himself in a group where the atmosphere reminded him of a football team. Their favorite word was "fuck." It appeared to Martinez that the instead of doing good, the DEA wanted to destroy evil. He was the newest person there, so he took on the habit of chewing tobacco and saying "you fucking fuck." He let his black curls grow long, and wore pointed boots and silk shirts. At the police academy, he pierced his ear and wore a golden crucifix on it. He had no idea that something would happen to put him on the other side of the front.

America 's War Becomes Personal

The instructors gave him a police badge, the Glock pistol and an automatic pistol. They created an agent that moved, dressed and talked like a drug dealer. For some missions he took on the role of a criminal, but on other days he was a police officer, interrogating suspects, running patrols or storming houses. Martinez needed to be the ultimate weapon in the fight against organized crime, and for a time, the plan seemed to be working.

He began a life of weapons, money, adrenaline, fast cars, scotch on the rocks and arrests. It was something akin to El Paso Vice.

Martinez was actually afraid, he says today. He was scared when he raided houses, took on false identities and met with drug dealers. But fear is an un-American emotion, and his work was about America. "For God and country," he says. So he became another man.

Shortly before Martinez got out of the police academy in 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush held up a package of crack cocaine during a speech and said: "It's as innocent looking as candy, but it's turning our cities into battle zones and it's murdering our children." Martinez did not want any of his potential children to be killed, so he made America's war his personal war.

On the hill in El Paso, he gets into a car he rented at the airport. He doesn't stay long in one place on this journey through his life. Later, he parks in front of a one-story house in a quiet neighborhood. "I once carried 200 kilograms of cocaine in small packets from the attic to the garage there," says Martinez. That investigation began when Martinez arrested a small dealer. "Listen hombre, you're fucked," he told the suspect in his cell. "You're going down for a long time. But because I'm a good Christian, I'm going to give you a chance. You work for us now."

The people he interrogated often wept, he says. In fact, it was easy to "flip them," turning them into informants. He assumed that it had to do with his pleasant nature.

The informant arranged a meeting with an intermediary dealer who needed a warehouse, which Martinez had rented. He shook the dealer's hand in the manner that the people at the border use, clapping their hands together and tapping the other's right hand with their left. The handshake can mean the difference between life and death, Martinez says.

He went to various houses with the middleman to pick up cocaine, says Martinez. They piled up the goods in plastic drums, then went to Walmart and bought silicone to seal them so that police dogs couldn't smell it.

Outweighed by the Cartels

The cartels are like highly specialized logistics companies, he says. No one knifes open packages to test the quality by licking the blade like actors do in films -- that would only numb their tongue.

The drug industry managers move inconspicuously. The cartels' heads live like ghosts. Everyone fears them, but hardly anyone has seen one. The most powerful drug lord in the world, El Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel, dared to go out in public for the last time seven years ago, according to eyewitnesses. He walked into a restaurant in Nuevo Laredo with 15 bodyguards, barricaded the door from the inside, collected the mobile phones of the 30 other customers and said, "Hello, nice to meet you. How are you? I am Joaquín Guzmán Loera. It's an honor." He ate steak and shrimp, paid for the other guests' meals and then disappeared.

Martinez learned that smuggling drugs is similar to boxing. His problem was that the cartels fight in a much higher weight class than Americans. They have more money, more power, more experience, and no rules.

"You have to meet Psycho," says Martinez. "He has lived through it all with me."

Psycho's real name is David Cordoba, and he used to be Martinez's partner at the DEA. His friends call him Psycho because he once allegedly rode a horse into Tiffany's Bar to order a beer. The DEA dismissed him when he wrecked his car while drunk on duty. Martinez meets him in a bar 50 meters from the border fence. Psycho is now working as a bodyguard for business people who want to travel to Mexico. On this day, he is welcoming the afternoon with a few beers.

Martinez and Psycho hug, holding on to each other tightly for a long time. "Come on, we're going to Juárez," says Psycho. "I'll get us an armored car and we'll speed through the streets like we used to." Martinez looks right at Psycho for a few seconds, then refuses.

He always feared his work in Juárez and remembers the day when his boss phoned him and Psycho in the office and said, "Guys, there is a fire on the other side of the river and we need to put it out."

In 1995, the year when Martinez went to Juárez for the first time as an agent, the American president at the time, Bill Clinton, said that the country must do more to prevent drugs from coming in. Martinez saw it that way too.

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