3:30 PM EST Thank you for all your questions. We're going to exit now, but feel free to leave questions, and we may come back and answer some.

In between major Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and El Chapo, currently the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, there was the Arellano Felix Organization run by the Arellano brothers. In the early 1990s, the AFO and El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel were rivals, fighting to be the biggest and baddest drug traffickers in Mexico. The AFO, which invented “pozole,” dissolving bodies in lye or acid and pouring them down the drain as seen in Breaking Bad, was at one point was responsible for 40 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. One former lieutenant said that Benjamin Arellano, an AFO leader, was responsible for more killings than the 9/11 terrorists.

When the DEA started investigating the AFO in the early ‘90s, the agency thought it would last six months. It didn’t. It lasted 20 years.

Read that story here: https://www.propublica.org/article/devils-deals-and-the-dea

I am Jack Robertson, a former DEA agent who fought El Chapo’s primary rival — the AFO — for 20 years. (I also went on to help take down Lance Armstrong.)

I am ProPublica reporter David Epstein who wrote this this never-before-told chapter of the rise of El Chapo and the role the United States government played in it.

Ask us anything. My Proof: Jack: http://imgur.com/SpFMFcT David: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Epstein_(journalist)

Comments: 396 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

Neurocadence164 karma

After so many years, so much money, and lives lost (I'm thinking of Kiki Camarena and others), do you believe we should continue this "war on drugs", or should they be produced, legalized, regulated and taxed in the U.S. as a potential solution to the violence? It seems nothing has changed except the names. Should we shift money to treatment?

DavidEpstein1321 karma

I think this question is, obviously, for Jack. While he's answering others, I'll just add that during reporting there were agents--current and former in multiple agencies--who I heard discussing the same and related questions. There certainly was not uniformity of opinion among the law enforcement personnel I had long discussions with.

pottyglot59 karma

You didn't really answer the question. I understand if you don't want to be on record but ambiguity isn't a response.

Do you support the "war on drugs" - in the form of mass incarceration, interdiction, prohibition etc like we have now - or not?

Iwasborninafactory_8 karma

David Epstein presumably thinks drugs should be legalized. Here is a link to him meeting with a pro-legalization politician while in college in 1999. *edit: This link I posted is for the wrong David Epstein. My apologies to Mr. Epstein.

Get off your high horse. I don't want to presume to speak for David Epstein, but I think what he is getting at is that this would be a more interesting question for Jack Robertson to answer than for Mr. Epstein to say, "Yes."

edit 1: And, Mr. Roberston answered the question here and was promptly downvoted.

edit 2: Whoops, here's number 2 answer, also downvoted.

DavidEpstein136 karma

That David Epstein actually isn't me, but you're certainly right I think it's more interesting not just from Jack but...really, who cares what I think? I'm glad to be able to add information people might find useful in that discussion, and I don't even know all my own thoughts about it, honestly. When someone asks whether drugs should be legalized and taxed, it's also not always clear to me if they're talking about marijuana, or marijuana and some other stuff they've tried, or everything out there including heroin, meth and things availabe only with certain pretty restrictive prescriptions. In any case, I appreciate your thoughtful addition here!

Iwasborninafactory_3 karma

I'll edit my post to correct my error. Thanks for your time and all of the responses.

DavidEpstein131 karma

my pleasure, thank you

JabroniZamboni17 karma

He answered below

Against!! Strongly so, & have real life stories to back it up.

Slackroyd12 karma

So the DEA douche said he's strongly against decriminalization, yet the writer keeps repeating this idea:

You ought to read the story, it isn't about how wonderfully successful the agents think this is

So... this story is about how DEA agents think their drug war is a failure, but they're strongly against stopping it? Funny, that sounds just like DEA! What are the chances they'll also say they need more money and power and surveillance and cool paramilitary weapons and much less oversight and red tape and bureaucracy? Or maybe, if only those darn politicians would stop being so corrupt, or judges would do their jobs and punish people more, then they could win this war!

David Epstein, you fucked this up by playing along with this walking shitpile Robertson. You came around with him like we should think he's some kind of hero, instead of the evil scumbag he is. Shame.

DavidEpstein1343 karma

I came around with him? I guess that's what facilitating a completely public Q&A is, then. It may not be the case that everyone who doesn't share your opinions is evil. But I didn't bring anyone anywhere for you to think any particular thing about them, but I certainly support your right to form whatever opinion you want. You ought to give the story a read. The agents themselves aren't a monolith of opinion. Some want to forge ahead, some don't. Some think the costs are too high, and that's actually a courageous and difficult opinion when you're talking about your own work, with your name attached to it, without the approval of your employers, and not opining anonymously. This one just happened to be willing to open himself up to a few public questions, knowing it would include plenty of abuse. Others declined. I don't agree with him or any of the agents I spoke with and wrote about on everything. But, then, that doesn't really matter does it? In any case, the story might infringe on your catharsis.

myomentumisgreater52 karma

If drugs are legalized, what will the cartels turn to? Is there any reason to think it will be different from what happened after Prohibition, and what did happen then? (Or more directly, what changes could be made such that these people would seek and find an honest living? And how do you assimilate people back into honest society, in a way that protects it and them?)

DavidEpstein1335 karma

That's a great question, and not one I personally know how to answer. I will say, though, that I really do wonder about what the people who were selling drugs that become legalized do when that business is suddenly taken over by people who have experience as legal entrepreneurs. I hope someone is beginning to document it. Or perhaps I should.

aolsux000 karma

You know they do plenty more than just sell drugs, right? They extort, kidnap, traffic people, pimp, etc. they would still make a ton of money

juloxx6 karma

you know the drug trade is infinitely more lucrative than all of those right?

aolsux001 karma

Like I was telling someone else... It is, but it wouldn't destroy them. They also steal lots of oil and oil is used by everyone and they make a ton of money off of it. How do you think ISIS or whatever they are called makes a ton of money? OIL. Not as profitable, but makes a ton of money.

DavidEpstein132 karma

I don't have a ton to add here--you guys are having an interesting discussion. Just that some cartels--but certainly not all--make big business out of kidnapping. I hadn't realized that was a business unto itself, as opposed to just a means for other business.

danielepstein852 karma

For both of you: Did you ever find yourself getting desensitized to the violence? If so, were there any specific moments when you were shocked back into being sensitive to it? Were there any moments where you were scared for your own safety (either in the investigation or the reporting of the story)?

DavidEpstein134 karma

I guess, when I had my first journalism job as an overnight crime reporter, I was aghast at how some journalists were cheery while working on a story involving violence. But I realized pretty quickly that it's basically a coping mechanism or journalists can't always do our jobs.

danielepstein852 karma

How do you think cartel violence compares to Daesh/ISIL/ISIS violence? It seems like both made a name for themselves by making brutality their brand. How do the cartels use that brand of brutality to achieve their ends?

DavidEpstein131 karma

I'll be interested to hear Jack weigh in on that. But--in news to me--law enforcement agents told me during my reporting that they think there is some one-upsmanship in terms of public brutality between cartels and terrorists at times. And certainly many more people have been brutally killed by cartels.

boomfarmer1 karma

David, why is ProPublica publishing everything this week? Is it fortuitous circumstances, or ?

DavidEpstein131 karma

I think it's just coincidence. I actually think we tend not to have so much stuff at once, but we work with media partners so aren't totally in control of our schedule. Plus, we're a small shop, and--rule of small samples--we're going to tend to have some uneven "results," so to speak, with things not finishing not regularly spaced

greatbutnotgood1 karma

David- I just read the piece, congratulations an an excellent example of journalism. A particular line hit home- when Herrod said "just look at Chicago." It reminded me that its not just a border state problem, but a national, global, epidemic. Jack- It seems to me that if ever there were a linchpin to fix in the system of attempting to bring justice to cartel members, its the judicial system- I hate asking such an open ended and wide question, but what can be done?

DavidEpstein13-3 karma

That's a great point, and in some ways was news to me. At least, I did not realize that so much meth in the US was coming from Mexico--as opposed to the US itself--and didn't realize how elaborate the operations within the US were. I think Jack will be here in a second to answer the real question!

abedandtroy0 karma

At any time while reporting on this, david, did you or do you feel any danger? While the particular cartel you reported on isnt in operation, surely there are still former members employed in the drug business

DavidEpstein134 karma

Some. I don't want to go too much into it, but I will say that the experience left me feeling that Adela Navarro is a bonafide hero: http://globaljournalist.org/2014/06/qa-zeta-magazine-director-adela-navarro/

PerunThunderGod0 karma

Is it like Sons of Anarchy where to take down one cartel you guys work with with a rival cartel?

DavidEpstein130 karma

The Mexican cartels have much greater reach, and Sons of Anarchy actually worked in some practices that are actually from cartels to make the story more dramatic, an agent told me

Awotwe_Knows_Best0 karma

have any of you two gone undercover? If yes :

which organisation did you infiltrate? how dangerous was it? how long can an agent be undercover? I understand for a particular case it my take years but is it wise for an agent to be go undercover for multiple cases? Is it not more easy to be identified in such instances?

DavidEpstein13-1 karma

I have never gone undercover. My perception is that reporters in a number of other countries tend to do undercover work more regularly than US reporters. I'm not entirely sure if that's true, but I think it's pretty rare for reporters in the U.S. to go undercover, and I think it can open a tangle of ethical issues, so one has to be careful when doing it.

Notsharph-1 karma

How much money have you accepted so far?

DavidEpstein130 karma

I mean, I'm a journalist, we haven't figured out how to work that new technology

eric2733 karma

Are you fucking kidding me? Newscorp does it with whatever agenda they want to/are paid to push with all of their paper/web/tv publications.

DavidEpstein131 karma

I work for a nonprofit journalism organization, ProPublica, I don't even get paid by the Atlantic, where this was published, much less some outside influencer.

falcoa130-1 karma

Thanks so much for doing this. My question is how do these organizations coordinate with each other as well as establish connections with other criminal groups in the United States to distribute their products? Also in recent years MS-13 and the 18th street gang have become increasingly organized in Latin America, is it in the realm of possibility for them to eclipse the cartels in power as well as a threat to national security? Sorry for the long questions and thanks again!

DavidEpstein131 karma

I'll chime in while you wait for Jack. According to an agent I talked to about that, MS-13 and 18th street gang are less important than it may appear. They do ground level work--killing, trafficking--but not shotcalling. Partly because of, he said, proclivity to doing things out of turn, essentially. The agent told me that they are not organized in the way the Mexican drug trafficking agencies are. The agent said, "the Mexican trafficking organizations have nothing to worry about from them as competitors."