There exists the notion that if we resolve the corruption problem in México the drug war would simply vanish. When it comes to the drug problem, the U.S government and it citizens see it as someone else’s fault. Colombia and México have been at the forefront of the battles. The people of these countries have suffered and continue to suffer because of the U.S. drug consumption problem.
Recently, U.S. Secretary, Rex Tillerson, agreed that México suffers because of the U.S. drug consumers. It is the first time that the United States has publicly acknowledged that it is the cause of the mayhem in México. But it goes deeper than consumers. Just like there is corruption in México, there is also corruption in the United States that allows the drug dealers to operate with impunity. Contrary to popular belief, the corruption in the U.S. also rises to the highest levels.
In 1984, I was tasked with translating an English file into Spanish. The file was about a teenager who had been arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport for smuggling cocaine. Seventeen year-old Derek Oatis attempted to smuggle less than a pound of cocaine from Venezuela that day. We were interested in the Venezuela angle and the part another individual, also a U.S citizen, played on the scheme because he was known as a marihuana smuggler and not a cocaine smuggler.
The Derek Oatis case became well-known in the U.S. because it involved well-connected students at an elite high school, Choate Rosemary Hall on the east coast. The headlines read elite high school student embroiled on a $300,000 drug deal. But as I read the file it soon dawned on me why the drug problem was so pervasive and difficult to control. The news focused on a $300,000 drug deal for 350 grams of cocaine.
I kept thinking about the $300,000 figure. The file said that Oatis had paid $5,000 for the cocaine and yet the news media was blaring $300,000 as the value. Consider that the cocaine Oatis admitted to smuggling had already been cultivated, processed and delivered to the Venezuelan dealers. The drug had already traversed two-to-five middlemen, each taking a profit on the way to Venezuela. At $5,000, which is what Oatis paid, the return-on-investment (ROI) was outrageous if it sold for $300,000. It is well over 1,000% profit margin!
We do not know if Oatis would sell the drugs for $300,000, but nonetheless there was a huge margin for profits. But there was also a lesson for me in that file. It was that the drug war was all smoke and mirrors.
Writing headlines of $5,000 drug deals is not sexy enough as $300,000. More important is that many federal agencies, in many countries, depend on sensationalized amounts of $300,000 for their annual budgets. There is no doubt that there is a lot of money in the drug trade but there is also a reason why Chapo Guzmán is currently being represented by public defenders in his current case on drug charges in the United States.
It’s one thing to say there is lots of money and another to actually use the money.
For my part, once it became clear that the case did not involve Mexican interests, the file was set aside.
However, later I came across a news headline that caught my attention. It didn’t involve Oatis, or the other individual that brought the case to the attention of my superiors. It involved another player, a girlfriend.
I was regularly bombarded with the notion that México was a third-world country that exported danger to the United States. It wasn’t what I knew to be true, but the headlines blared a corrupt Mexican system was killing U.S kids. Things haven’t changed much since then. The U.S narrative about México remains one of a danger to the U.S. None of it is true but the propaganda is strong.
The loudest attack upon México is corruption.
But the files I read and the cases I was aware about proved otherwise.
One of them was that corruption was on both sides of the border.
It was now 1992 and as I read the Washington Post article many things crystalized before me. The Washington Post article cemented so many unanswered questions for me that I still have a copy of it in my files today. The article detailed the drug case of Catherine Nicole Cowan. Cowan was the girlfriend who accompanied Oatis to Venezuela to bring back the cocaine. Cowan, like Oatis, were both high school kids attending the same elite school.
Bill Clinton became president in 1993. He was on my radar in 1992 because of NAFTA. Clinton ran on the Democrat ticket, which was overwhelmingly opposed to NAFTA. Clinton, though, took the position that the maquiladora project was already NAFTA in miniature and if the U.S. did not agree to NAFTA it would limit Washington’s ability to control its destiny. Clinton finally signed NAFTA into law, but it was just as easy that the protectionists in his party would prevail, so México and I remained concerned.
What does the drug case of two teenagers have to do with NAFTA and the geopolitics of México and the United States? Simple, corruption.
Before Bill Clinton became president, he was the governor of Arkansas. As governor, Clinton was required to approve extradition orders for Arkansas residents to face charges in other states. Clinton, who as president is well-known for imposing the laws that led to the mass incarcerations of crack cocaine users, refused to sign the extradition order for Cowan to face charges in New York for her part in the Oatis case. His argument was that Cowan faced “unconscionable” harsh laws in New York for organizing and managing the drug smuggling.
Because of public pressure, Clinton finally signed the extradition request after prosecutors agreed to reduced charges. Although Cowan faced 15 years of prison without parole, the New York prosecutor and Clinton agreed that Cowan would face lesser charges that could result in a sentence of two to six years.
However, Cowan did no jail time for her role in the drug smuggling. Instead she pleaded guilty in Connecticut and was sentenced to three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
For his part, Dereck Oatis was sentenced to five years of probation and 5,000 hours of community service. Oatis is now an attorney.
Although the narrative is that Clinton was currying political favors, which is corrupt, the larger issue is the corruption at the higher levels of government. The same thing México is routinely accused of.
Cowan may have been a small time drug dealer but she exposed corruption that rises well above local government and reached into the presidency of the United States itself. Both sides of the United States political spectrum have been deeply involved and continue to be giving drug dealers the ability to continue their murder sprees of Mexican citizens. The Cowan case enlightened me to that fact.