Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juaarez

By Howard Campbell | Go to book overview
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Undercover Agent on the Border:
Cultural Disguises

The war on drugs employs law-enforcement officers in numerous capacities, one of the most dangerous being as undercover agents, aka narcs. Narcs, by necessity, live double lives. The rugged U.S.-Mexico border landscape and the transnational culture within which one can quickly and easily move from one country to the other facilitate the narcs’ (and drug traffickers’) work of passing, concealment, and treachery. U.S. undercover agents seeking to undermine drug cartels are the ultimate anthropologists; as students and researchers of the underworld drug culture, they not only must understand it, but also be able to successfully blend into it. The work requires cleverness, flexibility, strong nerves, and excellent mimetic skills, since a bad acting performance may result in death for the agent.

The account that follows illustrates some of the tricks of the narc’s trade: the use of informants, who must be treated with as much respect and care as a mechanic’s tool; subtle linguistic maneuvers; the manipulation of clothing styles; the invocation of local knowledge; and playing the role of an eager drug buyer. This is a dangerous game, since informants may be violent and duplicitous criminals, as in the notorious case of “Lalo.” Lalo was part of the Juárez cartel cell that tortured, killed, and buried twelve people at the so-called “House of Death” in 2003 and 2004, and he continued to engage in drug deals and dubious transactions that resulted in the death of at least one person in El Paso while he was an ICE informant (for details see http://www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2006/dec/03/usa.davidrose).

Perhaps not surprisingly, successful undercover agents, such as the one whose story is presented here, often come from the same socioeconomic background as that of the traffickers they pursue. On the border,

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