If you try to picture a drug trafficker, you will never think of someone like Juan Carlos González.
He is tall but dumpy. He is 31 years old but his face is so smooth I find myself wondering whether he ever has had to shave. He can puff up and put on a street voice but comes off like a school kid who has been bullied.
González agreed to meet me in El Paso, Texas, at his lawyer’s office, less than a mile from the Mexican border. González, by the way, is not his real name. He spoke on condition we not use it.
He said he had lived in the El Paso area since age 3, when his mother moved the family from Odessa, his father’s hometown, four hours west. “My dad was never around,” he said. His mom, who was a nurse then a gym teacher, raised him.
His route into the drug trade is well-traveled. He dropped out of school in 11th grade and started smoking marijuana, he said. Stuck in a fast-food job at a mall, González gravitated toward a certain co-worker.
“I used to smoke with him and I used to always see him in fancy cars — a BMW, a big old truck, lifted up,” he said. It was obvious his friend was working in narcotics. “Get a car at that age? I wanted into that life,” González told me.
He turned to his uncle, a marijuana dealer, who helped him into the business. “I would bag it up and sell it to my friends,” González said.
Over time, the amounts got bigger and the drugs got harder. As González kept getting in deeper, he knew he was betraying his mother. “She’s been there for me through all my troubles,” he said.
Here is where his story becomes less familiar to anyone who did not grow up along the border. El Paso has four bridges to Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city where kids such as González would go to party. “You would be able to drink until 7 or 8 the next morning,” he said.
He found out it was much cheaper in Juárez to buy the drugs he was dealing. And it wasn’t hard to cross back into the United States with the products. “Coke and all that, with a girl or anybody, and just stash it in your pocket or anything, like you were drunk, and get it over,” he said. “Every time, every weekend, that’s what we would do.”
The Mexican city was also a great place to network. “Say you and I are partying in Juárez at a club and we’re cool and we see each other every time,” González said. “And then we start talking and, if we end up smoking, then it comes out that you have a cousin up in Atlanta, Dallas or Chicago.”
González was on his way to building a freight network that fed Chicago a range of drugs, including heroin.
MOST OF CHICAGO’S HEROIN comes from Mexico, according to narcotics authorities, and the crucial entry point is El Paso.
“The reason I’m telling you that is our cases still go back and forth” between Chicago and El Paso, said Jack Riley, special agent in charge of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration division that covers most of Illinois and four other Midwest states. “That’s how we know.”
When I visited El Paso and Ciudad Juárez myself, I kept hearing a similar line but from the supplier perspective: If you want to sell drugs throughout the Midwest, you need Chicago.
I also saw that the drug demand up north had brought a flood of cheap heroin to Juárez, the last Mexican city along Chicago’s supply chain. Signs of the heroin trade were all around Juárez’s central area.
In a busy market district, I saw a dozen addicts pacing near a dark shop, waiting for a heroin retailer to come out with their midday fix. When she finally emerged, the addicts converged on her like zombies.
Within a couple miles were several shooting galleries — what Mexicans call picaderos. I visited one, a dusty outdoor space between two cinder-block homes. There was no ceiling except for a few wood planks and old blankets. There was no place to sit except for a filthy cushion and an old couch covered by a dirty blanket.
The gallery did have two “doctors,” themselves heroin addicts. They lacked medical training but worked around-the-clock to help customers with injections. (A jones can bring trembling that makes it hard to shoot up.)
Within 10 minutes of my arrival, a 24-year-old woman in an orange baseball cap entered the gallery and handed one of the doctors her dose, roughly a quarter gram wrapped in foil. The heroin was dark and gummy, the size of a pea. The doctor mixed it with water over a match flame to melt it down. Then he filled a syringe — a clean one provided by a local health promoter.
The customer directed the doctor to a vein on the back of her hand. First he drew blood into the syringe, confirming the needle had hit the target. Then he pressed the syringe’s plunger, sending the heroin on its way.
The doctors helped three customers in a half hour. They charged each 10 pesos (about $0.75) or the equivalent in heroin. They told me a standard dose cost 50 pesos (less than $4) from any of several retailers within a couple blocks.
A street gang supplied by a drug cartel controls the sales in that part of Juárez. The gang also earns money by smuggling drugs to El Paso for distribution elsewhere in the United States.
I tracked down a mid-level member of the gang. We met in his kitchen. As I fumbled with my equipment, he stood still and silent in the corner. At least, I assumed that was him. He was wearing a hood and cloth mask.
I showed him I was just recording sound — no pictures or names. He agreed to sit down and take the mask off. He told me he was 34 and that he quit school in 4th grade.
“My father was the one who started selling drugs,” he said, adding that the man was killed as cartels swept away independent operators in Juárez.
The young man’s gang aligned with one of the cartels. Now, he said, he spends a lot of time around a safe house “packing drugs in backpacks and hiding them in cars.”
Once in a while, he said, he had served as a mule himself. He said he had carried backpacks loaded with heroin to an El Paso stash house.
THAT JOB IS NOT AS HARD as you may think. Heroin is not bulky like marijuana. By weight, it sells for more than twice the price of cocaine. An amount worth thousands of dollars fits in a pocket, shoe or bra. Multimillion-dollar loads turn up in suitcases, dashboards, bumpers, even drive shafts.
“There is some sneaky stuff,” said González, back in his attorney’s office in El Paso, describing cars and trucks rigged with hidden compartments that open using magnets and secret levers. “There is some Inspector Gadget stuff there.”
With millions of pedestrian and vehicle crossings from Juárez every year, U.S. authorities find just a small fraction of the drugs.
González found opportunities. “You meet truckers, party, drink and you just ask them right there: ‘Hey, you know what? Would you like to take a load? I’ll pay you this much money.’ ”
He worked up to bigger loads. That brought him closer to the leaders of a cartel. He says he worked mainly in cocaine and marijuana.
González moved other products too: “They would call me and tell me, ‘Hey, I have 10 keys of heroin going to Chicago. Can you get them for me?’ I would be like, ‘Yes.’ ”
The retail price for that much smack, if pure, could exceed $4 million, according to data from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
González’s truckers would carry legal cargo as well, so sometimes could not bring the heroin all the way to where the cartel bosses had ordered it. “Say they wanted it in Maywood, but the trucker’s route went to Kankakee,” he said.
González would have to line up more personnel. “You got to worry about who is going to hold it for you and who is going transport it for you,” he said.
González directed one busy driver to acquire an 18-wheeler with a phony load so it would be ready to roll anywhere. “I told him, ‘Buy your own truck and buy your own trailer and buy yourself a whole trailer of some bullshit-ass fenders,’ ” he said.
González’s business flourished, but there was no way to eliminate risks. “You got to know who you are dealing with,” he said. “If the person gets caught, he can rat you out.”
For truckers who got arrested, González said he would arrange the defense lawyer and pay the tab if he “liked the person and he was really going to keep his mouth shut.”
Snitches were not the biggest hazards. If a load went missing and González could not convince the cartel that cops had seized it, he would have to pay for it himself, he said. And if he did not have the money, he said, “I would get killed.”
THE SUPPLY CHAIN WAS NOT always so dangerous. “The chain dates back to the 1920s at least,” University of Texas at El Paso anthropologist Howard Campbell pointed out.
For decades, the main product was heroin. Family-run businesses cultivated and processed the opium poppy a few hundred miles south in a mountainous region spanning the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa.
Many heroin loads converged on Torreón, a city on the main highway north. From there, Campbell said, “the drugs would be trucked up, or driven up in a car, to Ciudad Juárez.”
Until the mid-1970s, the Juárez heroin trade was controlled by one person — a woman named Ignacia Jasso la Viuda de González, better known as La Nacha.
“She would obtain supplies of opium and heroin and sell them locally in Juárez and to American and other traffickers that would bring them into the United States — to Albuquerque, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago,” Campbell said. “She ran this business for almost 50 years with very little violence.”
Things have changed. “The supplies have increased over time as the number of heroin addicts has increased,” Campbell pointed out. The product line, meanwhile, has expanded to include drugs from South America and Asia.
“These businesses that were formerly run by families or individuals are now run by quasi-corporate entities called drug cartels,” Campbell said. “The violence in Mexico has skyrocketed in the last 10-12 years as the businesses have become more competitive and new cartels have emerged.”
The most powerful cartel in Juárez these days is Sinaloa, whose name comes from one of those heroin-producing states. U.S. authorities say the Sinaloa Cartel supplies most of the heroin consumed in Chicago.
The people in charge of hauling the product — folks like González — don’t typically have to line up the buyers on the Chicago end. That is the cartel’s job.
And if you think the big buyers are street gangs, think again. An El Paso man who helped manage U.S. logistics for the Sinaloa Cartel told me the top Chicago wholesalers are middle-class business people.
He recalled signing some on: “My cartel associate told me that he needed to meet them in person before we sent the dope up to Chicago. So they flew over, stayed at a hotel. After they were there a few hours in El Paso, I drove them to Juárez, to a nice restaurant to talk to my cartel associate. I translated for them — how many pounds of this or pounds of that they can move.”
The former logistics manager said the meeting went without a hitch. “My cartel associate liked these guys from Chicago and he had a friend that owned a strip club,” he said. “So they took them out to the club, and got them four girls and they went to hotels and everybody got laid there.”
There were benefits, yes, and there were commissions. González said he rarely managed more than three loads a month and still earned as much as $360,000 a year. “I thought I was bad-ass,” he said.
THEN GONZALEZ GOT BUSTED and all the money seemed trivial, he said. I agreed not to report specifics about his legal situation except that he served most of a three-year sentence in a federal prison more than a thousand miles from El Paso.
González told his mother — the gym teacher who always stood by him — that she could not visit. He said he did not want her hard-earned money spent on the airfare.
Once he got out, though, he had to face her. “When I saw her from the time I was in, she had aged,” he said, burying his face in his jacket and weeping. “I felt bad. That’s what did it.”
If he went to prison again, he said, “she would lose it.”
González told me he is starting a trucking company that is above-board. But it could be almost impossible for him to stay at the border and work in the freight business legally.
He has the logistics experience but also the felony-narcotics record. And his cartel contacts will not forget about him anytime soon. He may have no way out of the drug-supply chain.