Braving the wrath of drug traffickers and government officials alike, Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández has exposed the corruption at the heart of the drug war that has killed over 80,000 of her compatriots since 2006. On a US tour to promote her new book Narcoland, Hernández stopped by the Nation offices in September. The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed. —Betsy Reed
BR: How and why did you start to cover the drug war and the drug cartels?
AH: In December of 2000, my father was kidnapped and murdered in Mexico City. When we went to the police, they said that they would investigate only if we paid. My family decided not to pay, so we don’t know who killed my father. When that happened to me, I really learned that corruption hurts. That’s when I started to investigate the corruption, and I started to find all these pieces of the story about the drug cartels.
BR: Weren’t you also led to the story of the cartels by your work as a journalist covering other aspects of life in Mexico?
AH: Yes. UNICEF had told me that in one area in Mexico, the Golden Triangle, the kids were forced to work in the hills of marijuana and poppies. So I decided to go there. And I discovered that these kids wanted to work, for their families! The only dream they have is becoming like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel.
BR: So tell me about El Chapo Guzmán—you broke a major story about his escape from prison. Have you ever met him?
AH: I tried to interview him, but I couldn’t. I have spoken with many people who work for him. What I found is, this man was one of the kids who helped his father in the fields of marijuana and poppies. I wanted to understand how a kid who had left his school when he was 7 became this huge drug lord. The DEA says he is the most powerful drug lord in all the world. Who made him? Who created him?
BR: So what’s the answer to that question?
AH: When El Chapo Guzmán went to jail, in 1993, he was 36 years old, he worked for the Cártel de Juárez, but he was nobody. In jail, El Chapo Guzmán became a very violent man. And with the money of his relatives, he started to bribe some of the officials inside the jail. When I had in my hands all the files about his escape in January 2001, I discovered he was helped by the federal government to get out of jail.
BR: What other evidence did you find of the government’s involvement with the cartels?
AH: I have access to many official documents that prove that. I have hundreds of testimonies from people who work in different parts of the government, like the ex–chief of police. Also, I talked with members of each cartel in Mexico. Suddenly, in 2001, the violence in Mexico started to grow. I didn’t understand why. What happened? And they explained to me that the government used to protect all the cartels so they didn’t have to fight against each other. But when Vicente Fox became the president, in 2000, he changed the game. He started to protect the Sinaloa Cartel, and to use all the strength of the state against its enemies.
BR: Have you been threatened personally as a result of your reporting?
AH: After I published Los Señores del Narco in Spanish, now Narcoland in English, I received death threats. Last June, someone left decapitated animals in front of my house. It’s sad to say, but I didn’t receive the threats from the drug cartels. I received the threats from the federal government, from the most powerful chief of police in Mexico.
BR: How many investigative journalists have been killed in Mexico?
AH: Over eighty–nine journalists were murdered in the last twelve years; sixteen have been disappeared. Hundreds like me are under threat. Just this year, at least five journalists were murdered.
BR: So what keeps you going?
AH: First, I think that my job can help the people understand what is really happening. If the people really understand, then they can change things. The government will never change, because they are involved. But the society can force them to change.
Earlier this month, Ken Silverstein explored the Miami real estate market, where dirty money—including drug money—rules.