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Nabbing ‘El Chapo’: A Mendo Connection

Mexican authorities' nabbing of Sinaloa Cartel CEO Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán — who made the Forbes 500 list four years running, even as the US pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and equipment into its south-of-the-Rio Grande NAFTA trading partner — means the Drug War is once again dominating the news.

And, of course, if a story involves drugs, linking it to Mendocino County in some form is a cinch.

In this case, the link is actually a far less-publicized roll-up on a Mexican drug kingpin. In February 2015, Mexican federal officers captured Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, founding member and former leader of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel and its splinter organization, Los Zetas — one of the narco country's seven largest organized crime groups.

An elaborate network of familial and social ties binds inland Mendocino County to that particular drug gang's center of operations: Michoacan, a largely rural state on Mexico's central coast. Across the past quarter-century or so, the 2,000-mile Michoacan-to-Mendo pipeline has doubtless brought hundreds of new residents and workers to the area.

This mass migration has occurred in the context of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which forced millions of Mexican people into the migrant stream. The elimination of tariffs on heavily subsidized US corn dispossessed and displaced hundreds of thousands of Mexican corn farmers.

One of the likely reasons Mendo is an appealing place for Michoacan migrants is its formal economic base of vineyards and orchards, the timber industry, and what remains of the fishing industry. Michoacan's economic make-up, not to mention its terrain, is roughly the same.

But there are other probable reasons for some of the influx of Michoacan residents to Ukiah. In the last eight years alone, some 100,000 Mexicans have been killed and at least 20,000 have been disappeared (Amnesty International believes the number is higher) by the Mexican drug war (a war that drugs are winning). It has created an untold number or refugees. Undoubtedly, many of those who have been dispossessed and driven off their homelands by drug violence are in our midst.

In 2012, I wrote about one of them: Ramiro Hernandez Farias, a native of the small town of Tumbiscatio, Michoacan, who was living at the time near South State St. in Ukiah. When I met him, Ramiro was sitting behind a glass partition in the Yuba County Jail's basement visiting room. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE, formerly INS) agents had arrested Ramiro while he was enjoying a leisurely Saturday in the company of his sister on the chaparral-covered slopes of Cow Mountain Recreation Area: the sprawling recreational expanse that stretches out high above Ukiah to the west and Clear Lake to the east. After that, he was confined in a prison cage for more than six months before at last seeing a judge.

Cow Mountain resides on a large tract of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, which made it a heavily-patrolled area during “Operation Full Court Press”: a much-ballyhooed (at the time) multi-agency law enforcement siege on large-scale marijuana cultivation on public lands, the main target ostensibly being Mexican drug cartels who had set up shop deep in the backwoods. Ramiro had been caught in the Drug War dragnet, Mendocino County branch.

It seems that many of the federal agents involved were not on the hunt for pot grows per se, however, but rather for virtually anyone they could find with brown skin. While Ramiro and his family were enjoying their hike on that fateful September day in 2011, a BLM agent was closely studying who was traversing the roads leading to the facility, his attentive gaze matched by that of an ICE agent riding shotgun.

Ramiro, who was then 28, had no discernible connection to the local drug trade. He was working as a landscaper and laborer for Saul's Vineyard Contracting of Ukiah, as well as for Rosewood Vineyards in Redwood Valley — as the patrons of these businesses attested in letters to immigration authorities.

Farias Family
Farias Family

The fact that Farias was arrested during a federal drug sting is a cruel irony. In living fact, Farias had fled the Mexican drug war after La Familia Michoacan paramilitaries killed his uncle and his wife's father, terrorizing the survivors of their family into fleeing. Nevertheless, a federal judge ruled that Farias was here unlawfully and had him deported.

Ramiro had attempted to receive political asylum based on his claim of being a humanitarian refugee. In a San Francisco immigration court, the federal prosecutor used my Feb. 8, 2012 Anderson Valley Advertiser story as evidence that Farias must not have feared for his life as much as he claimed, given that he spoke to me so openly about his past encounters with narco terrorism.

By speaking to me, Farias was acting as a sort of whistleblower regarding the nexus between drugs, deportations, and the criminalization of undocumented people — which has, of course, found its fullest expression lately during Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the US Department of Justice, I received a list of every individual arrested as part of Operation Full Court Press. Of the more than 100 indivudals on the list, all of them had a Latino surname. Only about half of those were arrested in connection with drug activities. Many of the rest, like Ramiro, had been racially-profiled while enjoying family-based recreation.

What do official sources have to say about the Michoacan connection to Northern California? Here's what the California Department of Justice offered in its 2010 “Organized Crime in California” report to the State Legislature: “In one estimate, up to 65,000 farmers in Michoacán are involved in marijuana production, many of which work for the [La Familia Michoacan]. The [La Familia Michoacan] is very active in California, and its associates maintain a strong presence in marijuana cultivation sites in northern California.”

What is the Cal DoJ's basis for this claim? They don't offer one.

No doubt, it's true that Mexican drug organizations have significant ties to Mendo. Then again, just about every Gringo in Gringolandia who's somewhat involved in the marijuana trade has some sort of business affiliations with the ganja farmers of this region, even if the affiliations derive from a separation by one or two degrees of cultivating the crop itself.

After all, the medical marijuana crop in the state of California alone was worth an estimated $17 billion in 2008; the value of California’s entire field crop yield in 2008 was $4.19 billion (that doesn't account for value-added agricultural products such as wine, which was even more lucrative than marijuana). The marijuana industry's size and scope, and its associated violence, aren't chiefly Mexican exports. They are indigenous to California (a contradiction in terms?).

As for the implications of the Mexican government's nabbing of drug kingpins like “El Chapo” and “La Tuta,” they probably won't do much to curb the narco-induced humanitarian crisis that has immiserated people like Ramiro Hernandez Farias, formerly of Ukiah. If the problem is turning around at all, it's mostly because of the Mexican social movements that have galvanized since 2014, when an organized drug gang masquerading as a local police force butchered 43 college students after they rallied protests against drug violence.

In general, drug policy is calibrated for de facto regulation of the drug market, rather than its elimination. Drug money, after all, is one of the only sturdy lynchpins global capitalism has going for itself any more.

For example, after speculative markets imploded in 2008 (five of the ten biggest real estate lenders that were busted were based here in California), drug money saved the major global banks from teetering over the edge and probably even saved capitalism from a devastating internal crisis. As Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, has stated: organized crime money was “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse.

One Comment

  1. Aaron S. January 17, 2016

    Servando “La Tuta” Gomez was a leader of the Caballeros Templarios cartel which splintered from La Familia Michoacana. Los Zetas were the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel or Cartel del Golfo(CDG), based in Northeastern Mexico, before they broke off to form their own cartel. is a great resource for all things related to Mexican drug cartels. Thanks for the article

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