The Laredo-San Antonio Heroin Wars

Drug rings in Texas say they're tougher than the Mafia and they kill to prove it.

A PORTUGUESE FREIGHTER BOWS through the Gulf of Mexico for the old Spanish mercantile port of Tampico, bearing in a camouflaged hold a cargo cultivated in Turkey, refined in Morocco, destined for market in the funky bowels of Detroit. A stevedore tickets the hold of fish for delivery in Ciudad Victoria, where an adroit businessman removes stamped cellophane packages from the visceral cavities of the fish. He adds a drop of caramel coloring to the crystals (brown heroin is presumably Mexican in origin, presumably cut fewer times, hence more profitable) transfers the packages to beef carcasses, and relinquishes the shipment northward toward Monterrey.

Or maybe the brown stuff that arrives in Monterrey is truly Mexican; straight from poppy fields near Morelia, laboratories in Guadalajara, middlemen in San Luis Potosí. Or maybe the crystals are cocaine, smuggled from Peru into the Pacific port of Manzanillo. Or if the entrepreneurs are willing to settle for a smaller margin of profit, perhaps the contraband is Mazatlán marijuana that survived the token torches and foreign-relations cameras of the federales, flown in bales by small craft over the Sierra Madre Occidental range to an airfield near Durango, transferred then to Volkswagen vans bound for Torreón, Monterrey, and a different breed of distributor. But regardless of their origin, the drugs in all likelihood move northward toward Nuevo Laredo, toward impatient American consumers.

For years some members of familial clans called the Gaytans and the Reyes-Prunedas have been competing in the Nuevo Laredo area for control of the narcotics traffic. The Gaytans are a shadowy bunch reputed to have cornered a healthy slice of the marijuana market; the Reyes-Prunedas operate from a ranch in the desolate country southwest of Nuevo Laredo, a ranch that in fact is an armed camp where one may exchange almost anything of value (guns preferred) for smack, coke, reds, anything. A U.S. Customs officer grows a beard, penetrates the compound with an American dealer, and comes back rather shaken. He tells stories of machine guns, battlefield mortars, and mustachioed, cartridge-belted bandoleros who look like a lost battalion of Zapatistas.

Drugs are big business in both the rich Estados Unidos and the developing Republic of Mexico. In 1970 the head of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police—by comparison, a sort of U.S. Attorney General and FBI director combined—jet-sets himself into financial disaster, turns to the most propitious means of making money, gets arrested in an American city holding 89 pounds of heroin, and slits his throat in a Texas jail. An American president responds to the drug influx by virtually strangling tourist traffic along the Texas border. The Mexican government responds to that emergency by assigning the apparently incorruptible Everado Perales Rios to command the federal police in the ungovernable northlands, but that is a perilous assignment.

At some point the competition between the Gaytans and the Reyes-Prunedas flares into open warfare. American tourists and horny youths continue to foray into a battle ground that over a three-year period claims the lives of perhaps 90 clan members, subordinates, cops and bystanders. Another shadowy figure enters the picture. Francisco Bernal Lopez circuits the globe in his leisure, a leisure supported in part by a Nuevo Laredo law practice specializing in the criminal defense of narcotics traffickers. The Mexican press contends he is more than an attorney; they call him “El Ahogado del Diablo” (the Devil’s Advocate) and “El Padrino” (the Godfather). Shortly after a Nuevo Laredo newspaper runs a story questioning Bernal’s role in the illicit industry, a machine-gunner sprays the newspaper’s pressroom with a short precautionary burst. Bernal finally breaks his silence and tells reporters on the streets of Nuevo Laredo that he is only interested in ensuring justice for his clients.

For a while the new appointee Perales plays havoc with the operations of the clans, particularly the Reyes-Prunedas. Their ranch is raided repeatedly; one raid is cancelled because the federales can’t come up with the $500 advance per station wagon demanded by Hertz Rent-A-Car. The traffickers stop shooting each other, directing their aim instead at the governmental irritants. Police Commandant Perales confides to his American counterparts that there is a price on his head, and on July 28, 1972, somebody collects: Perales is assassinated. A Mexican tabloid prints a photograph of Perales’ last facial expression, and the Nuevo Laredo traffickers brace themselves for the governmental counter attack.

The Mexican government responds to the outrage by sending 250 support troops into Nuevo Laredo, and another machine-gunner strafes a truck carrying a contingent of the soldiers. But in September, 1972 a busted Mexican dealer in Guadalajara starts talking about the assassination.

The dealer accuses members of all three corners of the Gaytan-Pruneda-Bernal triangle of conspiracy in the assassination. The Nuevo Laredo jail begins to fill up and for good measure the federales raid the Pruneda compound one last time. About 20 subordinates surrender, two young clansmen run like Robert Redford and Paul Newman into a hail of bullets, while the matriarch of the clan sits inside in stony defiance. Inside, the federales find a ton of marijuana and 179 sticks of dynamite, destined, some said, for the Nuevo Laredo jail. Bernal, the Devil’s Advocate, goes to Europe.

What is this, a movie? Could all this really happen? The Mexican press maintains it did, and their warier American counterparts tend to agree. If it did and still does, how do the drugs cross the Rio Grande? Any American youth with long hair and a work shirt can make a score on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, but chances are the Mexican dealer will alert his business partner in uniform, arrests will be made, everybody will get a cut, and the confiscated drugs will await sale to another American fool. Who moves the big shipments? Who are the American counterparts of the Prunedas? Where is the distribution point? What’s the connection, as it were? Why, clear Customs, bless your stars you’re back in Texas, and just follow the highway bluebonnets to San Antone.

On August 26, 1971, U. S. Customs officers stopped a car

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