El Paso Vice: When Drug Cops Become Criminals

PHOTO: El Paso, Texas is seen facing Ciudad Juarez. Mexico in this undated photo.

The war on drugs has become so intense that the line between criminality and law-enforcement has blurred. Salvador Martinez, an undercover officer at the Mexican border, ended up in prison after he went too far.

Salvador Martinez began his career with 150 grams of heroin. He met the dealer in the Texan city of El Paso in a diner with large windows during the lunch rush. More witnesses reduce the risk of execution, Martinez calculated. Both of them drank iced tea, he recalls. Martinez wanted dark heroin, La Negra, as the Mexicans say.

"Where is the money?" the dealer asked.

"Around the corner," Martinez said.

He had learned to remain vague, never saying where the money was hidden or giving precise information about amounts and people.

"We will make the delivery at Tiffany's Bar," the dealer said.

Martinez carried a cloth sack containing $15,000 into the bar, wearing a Glock 9-millimeter pistol loaded with 17 bullets in his waistband, which the dealer saw gleaming through his shirt. In the drug business, it is wise to carry a gun, says Martinez, so the dealer knows you are serious. You could shoot also shoot him in the head if necessary, he adds.

The dealer pointed at the heroin in a sports bag. Martinez drew a red scarf from his pocket and dabbed the sweat from his forehead. That was the signal. The doors flew open. Men stormed into the bar with guns, shouting, "Freeze! DEA! Freeze!" Handcuffs clicked. Martinez threw himself to the ground.

It was his first undercover operation for the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, America's drug police. His heart pounding, he realized that this was his new life. He was an undercover agent. It felt big.

An All-Out Offensive

Eighteen years later, Salvador Martinez is standing on top of a hill in El Paso. He is 50 years old and has a round belly, but there are still traces of the strength that was once in his shoulders.

Martinez has flown to his old home and gone to the hill to take a look back at his past. El Paso lies at his feet, while a little further south the border fence separates the city, which is called Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican side. The city has become the symbol for a broken war. "All that you see was my territory," he says.

In 1973, when Martinez was a child playing in the streets of El Paso, the then-American President Richard Nixon said in a press conference: "America's public enemy number one is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive." Nixon founded the DEA and, among other things, gave it the task of intercepting drugs at the Mexican border. Ciudad Juárez was a quiet town on the other side of the river at that time. Martinez often went there in his youth to drink beer with lime juice and go to clubs.

His father was a bus driver and the family was poor, but Sal made it to college. He had a vision of what his life should look like, and for that he needed a degree in criminology, he says. "I wanted to be like the undercover agent in Miami Vice," he says. The characters in the TV drama from the 1980s sometimes ventured into criminal activity themselves, but at the end of every episode, they returned to legality.

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