Symposium and Lecture Reveal Complexities of Drug Policy

By Rachel Anna Neff

UTEP News Service

Two events on campus the week of Nov. 11 revealed the complexities behind drug policy and featured one of Mexico’s leading investigative journalists, Anabel Hernández.

A symposium on Monday, Nov. 11 brought together five speakers, including Hernández, to provide expertise on drug policy on the border and beyond.Panelists, from left, Anabel Hernández; Andrew Kennis, Ph.D., professor of journalism; Howard Campbell, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and sociology; and Gilberto Gonzalez, ex-DEA agent, look on while Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks during the Nov. 11 symposium. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServicePanelists, from left, Anabel Hernández; Andrew Kennis, Ph.D., professor of journalism; Howard Campbell, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and sociology; and Gilberto Gonzalez, ex-DEA agent, look on while Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks during the Nov. 11 symposium. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Howard Campbell, Ph.D., UTEP professor of anthropology and sociology, started off the symposium calling for a bi-national effort between Mexico and the United States to examine the effects of U.S. drug policy on Mexico’s society and economy. He said the lack of scrutiny of the war on drugs was due to “40 years of inertia with billions of dollars behind it.”

Gilberto Gonzalez, a UTEP alumnus who wore an orange tie and orange socks to the event to show off his Miner pride, spoke about his 25 years as a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officer. He said his tenure at the DEA taught him that life is fragile.

“Drug trafficking leads to corruption and violence, and drug use leads to suffering,” he said.

Andrew Kennis, Ph.D., UTEP professor of journalism, talked about the DEA’s money laundering program and the trial of Vicente Zambada, a high-ranking Mexican drug lord within the Sinaloa cartel, who alleges he was a DEA informant.

Investigative journalist Hernández spoke about her research into corruption in Mexico and drug trafficking.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke criticized the drug war and explained how drug policy needs community-based solutions. He also explained how solutions needed to come from the local and state level, and how the United States needed to have an “appropriate policy sooner than later.”

The question-and-answer session following the presentations provided the audience a chance to seek more information, and each panelist answered in turn.

UTEP students like José Colín, a senior psychology major, listened attentively.

“I learned that drug policy was a more complex issue than we see in mass media in terms of economics and morality,” Colín said after the symposium.

Karen De Anda, a sophomore anthropology major, said “A lot of people do not take into consideration the politics of policy and the whole spectrum of issues that comes along with it.”

In Hernández’s talk on Tuesday, Nov. 12, she delved deeper into the topics she was only able to briefly mention during the symposium. She said she wanted to “open the audience’s eyes and make them see” how drug money brings corruption and violence. She explained how the corruption brought by drug money has made the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera (known as “El Chapo Guzmán”), the most wanted man who is not being searched for at all.

She spoke about her personal journey into investigative journalism. Her father was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, and without a bribe, the police refused to investigate the crime. Hernández still doesn’t know who killed her father, but she believes cartels and their drug money are behind the kidnapping rings.

Detailing her work on her 2010 bestselling book ‪Los Señores del Narco, which was recently translated into English as Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, Hernández revealed she received documents and videotapes clearly showing how El Chapo Guzmán walked out of prison when the federal police opened the door to the prison’s hospital waiting room, rather than the official story of his escape in a laundry cart.

The evidence Hernández gathered led her to conclude that at the end of the PRI party rule in Mexico, the government changed its policy of allowing multiple cartels to operate with impunity to favoring just one: the Sinaloa cartel.

“By protecting a single cartel, violence erupted,” Hernández said. “It was not like these cartels went crazy all of a sudden. The rules changed on them, so they fought to keep their piece of the pie. That pie was Mexico.”

Fighting corruption and exposing complicit statesmen has brought Hernández acclaim and death threats. She survived one threat against her life because a brave policeman was in the meeting where a government official attempted to bribe the police into killing her and making it look like she had an accident, she said. The police officer admired Hernández’s work, and warned her. She lives in fear, but says, “I am a woman of faith. There is something bigger than me out there, driving me to do this.”

She concluded by saying that the most dangerous drug lords are not the ones whose faces are on FBI posters.

“Those invisible drug lords — the people who benefit from the drug trade and turn a blind eye — are the most dangerous, because they allow corruption to take root.”

Hernández received a standing ovation from the audience.

“It was eye-opening to know how many people are involved,” said Veronica De Leon, a senior in communications with a minor in criminal justice. “It’s a war against corruption.”

“I’m definitely getting her books,” commented Roberto Antonio García, a junior Spanish literature major. “It was a lot of information I didn’t know before; I didn’t realize the extent of the government’s corruption [in Mexico].”

Kennis, who helped organize the two events, said he hoped they would bring awareness to the drug war.

“We brought together different people from different walks of life, different professions who normally don’t talk with each other,” he said. “It’s also a perfect time to feature Anabel Hernández’s work and broadcast it to UTEP because she has been recently translated into English. Now she is more accessible to people on both sides of the border.”