El Paso Vice When Drug Cops Become Criminals

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.

Bending the Rules

In one of his first assignments, which he carried out together with the Mexican police, he was there when a commandant arrested a dealer. The police led the prisoner to a house on the edge of town. The officer hauled the prisoner to the bathroom, put his head in the toilet and flushed three times, says Martinez. The prisoner remained silent. The officer put a plastic bag over the prisoner's head. "Who paid you? Who paid you, cabrón?" he demanded. Then, to Martinez, he said: "Have you seen enough?"

When he got into his car to leave, Martinez watched in the rearview mirror as a Mexican police officer took a small rod out of his car trunk. Martinez had seen a rod like that before; it was an electric cattle prod.

That look in the rearview mirror was the moment he began to consider what had become of his goal to do good. He told himself that every day he won his battles and that the country could be proud of him. But when would the war finally be won?

When he came home, he kissed his wife Susie, a teacher, and said, "Hey honey, it was a good day, nothing particular to report from me today."

He thought he had drawn a line between work and private life, between Martinez the cop and Martinez the human. But the criminal energy that he fought each day infiltrated his thoughts.

It started when he searched houses without a warrant. If he found drugs, he picked up the search warrant afterwards. He arrested a Mexican that he knew was working in the middle management of a cartel. He had no proof; he just knew it. After three weeks on trial, the court had to let the manager go free. So Martinez told the Mexican commandant what that man looked like and when he would be freed. After he crossed the border, a black minibus on the Mexican side stopped beside him and took him away.

"Alright," says Martinez, taking a deep breath. So far he has laughed a lot on his journey through the memories. But he tells the next chapter without looking up, describing operations that weren't recorded in any files.

"A lot of people disappear in Mexico," he says. "They are buried where no one will find them. Some are eaten by tigers and some by sharks. There are also big tanks with acid in them." He pauses for a long time between the sentences.

"We didn't manage to catch all the bad guys. In those cases, we gave the Mexicans their names and said, 'Do what you need to do.' The Mexicans made those people disappear."

Martinez sits in his car, holding the steering wheel firmly with both hands. He looks frightened by the memories of his own life. "Come on, let's go to the cemetery," he says.

The Drug War Gets Personal

His cousin Bruno is in this cemetery. He was 27 years old when he was shot and killed on Martinez's wedding anniversary. He was struck in the torso by two bullets while crossing a shopping center parking lot. Police caught the shooter that same evening -- a 13-year-old boy from Juárez who named no motive.

"Please Sal, go get him," a cousin told him at the funeral. Martinez visited the killer's mother in the slums of Juárez to find out why the shooting had occurred, but she was silent.

Three years after Bruno's death, the phone rang in Martinez's office. He was with an informant, a police officer from Mexico, Jaime Jañez, who sold him information about cartels. It was Susie, who said that the killer had been released and was back in Juárez.

Martinez hung up the phone and said nothing. Jañez said he knew a few people in Juárez who owed him a favor. Martinez and Jañez met up a few more times, and Martinez paid him a total of $10,000 of the DEA's money intended for information. One day Jañez asked whether Martinez wanted the boy killed, and he said yes.

A few weeks later, Martinez was sitting with two FBI agents in a room during a training session. He thought the men were going to tell him something about the cooperation between the DEA and the FBI. Instead, they read him his Miranda rights.

They asked Martinez if he wanted to tell his story. He replied that he wanted to speak with his lawyer.

He doesn't know why Jañez gave him up. Perhaps because he was a law-abiding citizen, or perhaps the FBI paid handsomely for such information. Jañez was wearing a wire during their meetings, and the FBI had them on tape and video. Martinez pled guilty and the court sentenced him to 87 months in prison for attempted murder.

Martinez had become a police officer to put away evil people, but in the end, it came down to one criminal chasing another, the difference being that one had cocaine in his pocket and the other an American police I.D.

'Legalization Feels Wrong'

In prison, Martinez learned that there were a few prisoners who were in even more danger than child molesters -- police officers.

Martinez told no one who he was or that he had worked for the DEA. If someone asked him why he was there, he said money laundering. If someone asked him his profession, he said he was a teacher. If someone asked anything more, he said: "You've already asked your two questions for the month."

He didn't have a single friend during his seven years in prison. He was alone with himself and his thoughts. He wondered whether people would be happier if the American drug police stopped hunting smugglers with Black Hawk helicopters. Or whether, if drugs were legal and accepted, there would be no cartels or drug police, making it possible to go drink tequila in Juárez in the evening. Then he wouldn't have told the Mexican commandant to make criminals disappear. And he wouldn't have met Jaime Jañez, and maybe Bruno would still be alive and Martinez would be free and able to hold his wife in his arms.

"Legalization just feels wrong," he says today. "We must protect America from drugs."

In 2006, when Martinez was behind bars, the then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón said: "I know that restoring security won't be easy, and will cost a lot of money and, unfortunately, human life. But rest assured that in this fight, I will be standing on the front lines." Martinez read about it in the newspaper and thought it was a good idea. In cooperation with the US, Calderón deployed soldiers in his own country to fight drug traffickers. Since then, the cartels and the army have been fighting each other in Ciudad Juárez with rocket-propelled grenades.

In prison, Martinez developed his own opinion of his actions. Today, he says that he was innocent. What he did wasn't right, but it also wasn't wrong, he says. He was simply applying the methods he had learned.

On Independence Day, Martinez laid his head against the concrete so he could look outside through a slit under a window. He saw a firework in the distance, and an American flag flying on the prison watchtower. Martinez often tells of such scenes, which seem like they could have been thought up by a screenplay writer. If he could make a film about his own life, it would include a lot of violins.

No Solutions for a Losing Battle

Martinez takes a plane from El Paso back to San Antonio, where he drives for another half hour to reach his home, a small house with a swing and a pecan tree in front. While imprisoned, Martinez found the man who had been lost through his years with the police, a caring man who cuddles his son and phones his wife 11 times a day. He has put all the paperwork that documents his past in a box. There are photos that show him standing in front packets of cocaine, certificates from the DEA for particular achievements and newspaper articles describing his big successes. Martinez has closed the box and placed it high on a shelf.

His probation officer suggested that he work at a car wash, but Martinez prayed to find the right path and became a bail bondsman and bounty hunter. Today he bails people out of jail, a job that only exists in the US, where people have the right to be released for a payment while they await trial. Martinez provides them with the bail money, for which he collects a fee, and if they fail to appear in court, he hunts them down and brings them before the judge. He says that he was a bit rusty at first, but is doing well again now. If the opportunity presented itself, he would like to raid a house again.

In spring 2012, when Martinez was a free man again, a number of Latin American heads of state suggested legalizing drugs. US President Barack Obama replied: "I don't think legalization of drugs is going to be the answer." Martinez heard nothing about this. He no longer reads the news. The DEA now has a budget of some $3 billion and over 10,000 employees. In the last six years, around 60,000 people have died in the Mexican drug war.

Under the night skies of Texas, Martinez says that he no longer feels angry. He knows the drug war is failing, but not how it can be won. He understands why the DEA dismissed him. He believes that Bruno's killer will eventually meet his punishment. Jaime Jañez, the man who betrayed him, is dead. He was shot with an automatic weapon. The killer was never found, Martinez says.

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