Category: war on drugs

Tom Berry: “Ten Years of Waste, Immigrant Crackdowns and New Drug Wars”

If you want to know why America’s immigration policy is so badly broken, this article by Tom Berry is a great starting place.  “Continuing down the same course of border security buildups, drug wars and immigration crackdowns will do nothing to increase security or safety,” Berry says.  “It will only keep border policy on the edge – teetering without direction or strategy.”

This article, originally published in Truthout, is an edited excerpt of the policy report Berry produced for the Center for International Policy.   Berry appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2009 and the horrors he discussed with Terry Gross have only worsened in the ensuing three years.  AGB

Border Security After 9/11: Ten Years of Waste, Immigrant Crackdowns and New Drug Wars

Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the term “border security” was rarely used. Today, however, it is both a fundamental goal of US domestic security and the defining paradigm for border operations. Despite the federal government’s routine declarations of its commitment to securing the border, neither Congress

nor the executive branch has ever clearly defined the term “border security.”

Border security constitutes the single largest line item in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget. Nonetheless, DHS has failed to develop a border security strategy that complements US domestic and national security objectives. DHS has not even attempted to delineate benchmarks that would measure the security of the border or specify exactly how the massive border security buildup has increased homeland security.

In its strategic plan, DHS does promise: “We will reduce the likelihood that terrorists can enter the United States. We will strengthen our border security and gain effective control of our borders.” And DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano assured us last year that, as a result of new border security spending by the Obama administration, “the Southwest border is more secure than ever before.”

Since 2003, Homeland Security and the Justice Department have opened spigots of funding for an array of border security operations. These include commitments for 18-foot steel fencing, high-tech surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), increased prosecutions of illegal border crossers and new deployments of the Border Patrol and National Guard.

Yet the federal government’s continued expressions of its commitment to border security only serve to highlight the shortcomings of this commitment and to spark opposition to long- overdue immigration reform. “Secure the border” – a political demand echoed by immigration restrictionists, grassroots anti-immigrant activists and a chorus of politicians – now resounds as a battle cry against the federal government and liberal immigration reformers. These border security hawks charge that the federal government is failing to meet its responsibility to secure the border, pointing to continued illegal crossings by immigrants and drug traffickers. Border sheriffs, militant activists and state legislatures have even started taking border security into their own hands.

The post-9/11 imperative of securing “the homeland” set off a widely played game of one-upmanship that has had Washington, border politicians and sheriffs, political activists and vigilantes competing to be regarded as the most serious and hawkish on border security. The emotions and concerns unleashed by the 9/11 attacks exacerbated the long-running practice of using the border security issue to further an array of political agendas – immigration crackdowns, border pork-barrel projects, drug wars, states’ rights and even liberal immigration reform. Yet these new commitments to control the border have been largely expressions of public diplomacy rather than manifestations of new thinking about the border. (more…)

A Snitch’s Dilemma

By Alan Bean

A Snitch’s Dilemma” takes us inside the world of a typical Atlanta street hustler.  His name is Alex White.  It’ a long piece, but this isn’t the kind of story you can tell in 700 words.  White made his living as a drug dealer and a snitch.  Narcotics officers knew he was dealing but didn’t care; the men who supplied him with drugs may have known he was a snitch but looked the other way so long as he only set up “nobodys”. 

Then a gang of Atlanta narcotics cops killed an innocent old woman in a botched drug raid and Alex White’s neat world came apart.

Ted Conover wrote this piece for the NYT Magazine.  He doesn’t glamorize his subject or his life on the streets.  Instead, he gives us a portrait of a man trapped by the streets.  When federal authorities urge him to get out-of-town for his own safety, White is terrified by the thought of leaving his familiar streets.  He can’t survive anywhere else.

Alex White is smart.  Smart enough to have excelled in school had he been so inclined.  But, in the words of his on-again-off-again girlfriend, he was too “hoodish” for the straight life.  But did he choose to be that way or was there are a certain inevitability about it?

A Snitch’s dilemma takes us inside the world Alexandra Natapoff describes in “Snitch,” the best book I have seen on the subject of criminal informants.  But this isn’t really a story about a snitch; it’s about the neighborhood that shaped Alex White and the social and economic conditions that shaped that neighborhood. 

This is also a story about the futility of a drug war that perpetuates the evils it was ostensibly created to eliminate.  Highly recommended.

How a Mexican Cartel Makes its Millions

Introduction by Pierre R. Berastaín

The Mexican cartels are known for their sanguinary wars and inexhaustible supply of narcotics.  Yet, behind the bloodshed and multi-billion dollar industry exist a complex network of power, an innovative machinery for narcotic transport, and mechanisms of survival and protection that ensure the longevity of the cartel and drug production.  In this article, The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe pays a detailed look at the operations of one of the richest, deadliest, and most powerful organizations in the world—The Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico.  The Cartel’s operations reach not only the United States and Latin America, but also Europe and Asia, and its influence ranges everywhere from top national officials to city cab drivers.  As a Drug Enforcement Administration official indicates, “They have eyes and ears everywhere.”  This astonishing account of the cartel’s operations sheds light on underground tunnels, dynastic marriages, systems of bribery, and even insurance for seized drugs.

Cocaine Incorporated
By: Patrick Radden Keefe

One afternoon last August, at a hospital on the outskirts of Los Angeles, a former beauty queen named Emma Coronel gave birth to a pair of heiresses. The twins, who were delivered at 3:50 and 3:51, respectively, stand to inherit some share of a fortune that Forbes estimates is worth a billion dollars. Coronel’s husband, who was not present for the birth, is a legendary tycoon who overcame a penurious rural childhood to establish a wildly successful multinational business. If Coronel elected to leave the entry for “Father” on the birth certificates blank, it was not because of any dispute over patrimony. More likely, she was just skittish about the fact that her husband, Joaquín Guzmán, is the C.E.O. of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, a man the Treasury Department recently described as the world’s most powerful drug trafficker. Guzmán’s organization is responsible for as much as half of the illegal narcotics imported into the United States from Mexico each year; he may well be the most-wanted criminal in this post-Bin Laden world. But his bride is a U.S. citizen with no charges against her. So authorities could only watch as she bundled up her daughters and slipped back across the border to introduce them to their dad.

Known as El Chapo for his short, stocky frame, Guzmán is 55, which in narco-years is about 150. He is a quasi-mythical figure in Mexico, the subject of countless ballads, who has outlived enemies and accomplices alike, defying the implicit bargain of a life in the drug trade: that careers are glittering but brief and always terminate in prison or the grave. When Pablo Escobar was Chapo’s age, he had been dead for more than a decade. In fact, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chapo sells more drugs today than Escobar did at the height of his career. To some extent, this success is easily explained: as Hillary Clinton acknowledged several years ago, America’s “insatiable demand for illegal drugs” is what drives the clandestine industry. It’s no accident that the world’s biggest supplier of narcotics and the world’s biggest consumer of narcotics just happen to be neighbors. “Poor Mexico,” its former president Porfirio Díaz is said to have remarked. “So far from God and so close to the United States.”

The Sinaloa cartel can buy a kilo of cocaine in the highlands of Colombia or Peru for around $2,000, then watch it accrue value as it makes its way to market. In Mexico, that kilo fetches more than $10,000. Jump the border to the United States, and it could sell wholesale for $30,000. Break it down into grams to distribute retail, and that same kilo sells for upward of $100,000 — more than its weight in gold. And that’s just cocaine. Alone among the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa is both diversified and vertically integrated, producing and exporting marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine as well.

Estimating the precise scale of Chapo’s empire is tricky, however. Statistics on underground economies are inherently speculative: cartels don’t make annual disclosures, and no auditor examines their books. Instead, we’re left with back-of-the-envelope extrapolations based on conjectural data, much of it supplied by government agencies that may have bureaucratic incentives to overplay the problem.

So in a spirit of empirical humility, we shouldn’t accept as gospel the estimate, from the Justice Department, that Colombian and Mexican cartels reap $18 billion to $39 billion from drug sales in the United States each year. (That range alone should give you pause.) Still, even if you take the lowest available numbers, Sinaloa emerges as a titanic player in the global black market. In the sober reckoning of the RAND Corporation, for instance, the gross revenue that all Mexican cartels derive from exporting drugs to the United States amounts to only $6.6 billion. By most estimates, though, Sinaloa has achieved a market share of at least 40 percent and perhaps as much as 60 percent, which means that Chapo Guzmán’s organization would appear to enjoy annual revenues of some $3 billion — comparable in terms of earnings to Netflix or, for that matter, to Facebook.

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California bill would make simple possession a misdemeanor

A bill filed by California State Senator Mark Leno would shift the mere possession of small amounts of illegal drugs from felony to misdemeanor status.  This article in Capitol Weekly by Michelle Alexander and Alice Huffman summarize the argument against mass incarceration and explains why Senator Leno’s bill is a step in the right direction. AGB

Teeming Prisons Create a Permanent Underclass

It is no secret that our nation’s prison population has skyrocketed during the last forty years, thanks largely to the failed War on Drugs. The race to incarcerate has led to a quintupling of our prison population since 1980; more than two million people are behind bars today. What’s less well known, however, is that millions more are locked in invisible cages for which there is no key. These cages are not made of steel but of laws, policies, and practices that permanently relegate everyone labeled “felon” to an inferior second-class status. (more…)

Tulia story featured in Fort Worth Weekly article

Joe Moore feeds his cattle before being arrested in Tulia

This story in the Fort Worth Weekly uses my take on the tragedy of Tulia, Texas as a metaphor for a failed war on drugs.

Jim Crow Redux:
War on drugs or on minority communities

Matthew McGowan

Fort Worth Weekly

Alan Bean couldn’t miss the headline splashed across the top of his hometown paper one summer morning in 1999. It spoke of big news for the 5,000-person burg in West Texas: a big drug bust that landed a sizable portion of the town’s black community behind bars.

“Tulia streets cleared of garbage,” the banner headline read. Like many aspects of the American war on drugs, the wording smacked of insidious racism.

Bean recalled his reactions to that news story a few days ago, to a roomful of people at a Fort Worth hotel. The event, examining the 40-year-old war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on minority communities, was hosted by the Tarrant County Libertarian Party but drew speakers from several parts of the political spectrum.

At the podium, Bean acknowledged that he’d known nothing of the lopsided statistics when he picked up the paper that morning. The drug bust in his small town would change all that, though, and suddenly push him to the front lines of a war that locks up seven black men for every white man incarcerated in the United States, devastating minority neighborhoods while white enclaves, where drugs are every bit as prevalent, are left mostly unscathed. The more Bean read and researched, the clearer the drug war’s racism became to him. (more…)

The Law Falls Silent: The conviction of a Latino icon raises troubling questions

Irma and Ramsey Muniz

The government targeted Ramsey Muñiz on the uncorroborated word of a major narcotic importer. Then, by withholding this information, they made it impossible for the sharpest defense attorney in Texas to challenge their case until it was too late.

By Alan Bean,

Friends of Justice

“People want me to express remorse,” Ramsey Muñiz once told me. “How do you express remorse for something you didn’t do?”

In the eyes of the law, Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz is a convicted drug dealer who refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

In a federal trial in 1994, a Texas jury found Muñiz guilty of participating in a narcotics conspiracy. Because he had two prior convictions, federal law dictated a life sentence without possibility of parole.

A growing community of supporters is asking President Barack Obama to commute Ramsey’s sentence on humanitarian grounds. Ramsey Muñiz is approaching his seventieth birthday and, after a serious fall, he can no longer walk without the assistance of a cane. What good is accomplished, they ask, by keeping such a man in federal custody?

Muñiz during his La Raza Unida days

Others believe Muñiz was targeted as part of a political vendetta. Twice in the early 1970s, Ramsey was a gubernatorial candidate on the La Raza Unida ticket. Following a college football career with the Baylor Bears, Muñiz graduated from the university’s law school. Handsome, charismatic and tireless, Ramsey’s political campaigns galvanized the Latino community, especially in the Rio Grande Valley. According to some of his stalwart supporters, Ramsey’s Anglo opponents used the war on drugs to humiliate a Latino icon.

So, who is Ramsey Muñiz?

Is he the civil rights leader who shook up Texas politics? This is how Ramsey is remembered by his old friends from the halcyon days of La Raza Unida.

Is he the well-connected legal professional with a passion for defending young marijuana defendants? This is how his colleagues in the legal community remember him.

Is he a mystic-in-chains whose suffering has drawn him into deep communion with the crucified Christ? This is the Ramsey who greets a steady stream of visitors at the Beaumont Medium prison.

Or is Muñiz just an unprincipled opportunist who used his professional standing as a front for get-rich-quick drug deals? This is how Muñiz was portrayed in a federal courtroom in 1994, and it is how he is still regarded in the eyes of the law.

When a man is driving a car with 40 kilos of powdered cocaine in the trunk he certainly looks guilty. But who put the drugs in the car, and did Ramsey know the drugs were there?

This wasn’t the first time the hero of the Chicano movement was associated with the drug business. In 1976, Ramsey was accused of participating in a conspiracy to import marijuana into the United States. A young co-defendant negotiated a dramatic sentence reduction by agreeing to name every person who had been present when the importation of marijuana was discussed. Ramsey Muñiz was one of the names.

Like most Latinos in South Texas, Muñiz regarded marijuana as the moral equivalent of beer or wine; a common feature of social life that posed no moral problems when used in moderation. But when the Nixon administration associated the prolific plant with hippies, Mexicans and radical war protesters, the war on drugs was born.

Many former supporters were dismayed when Muñiz entered a guilty plea. He was a lawyer, not a drug dealer, so why was he going down without a fight?

Muñiz was uniquely vulnerable to federal narcotics conspiracy charges. Many of the leading marijuana importers in the Rio Grande Valley came from socially prominent families who had supported La Raza Unida in the early 1970s and regarded Ramsey Muñiz as a celebrity figure. According to federal law, a defendant can participate in a conspiracy without knowing all of his co-conspirators and with only scant information about the nature of the conspiracy. You don’t even have to profit personally. If you know illegal transactions are taking place and you fail to blow the whistle, you are part of the conspiracy.

Muñiz freely admits that he was privy to conversations related to marijuana importation. He thought he was protected from prosecution by attorney-client privilege. He was wrong.

Humiliated by his dramatic fall from grace, Muñiz wanted to disappear as quickly, quietly and completely as possible. Two virtually identical cases had been filed on the basis of the same conspiracy allegations, one in San Antonio, the other in Corpus Christi. After taking a plea offer to avoid the humiliation of trial, Ramsey was sentenced to two consecutive five-year terms and shipped off to McNeil Island, a prison on the Washington State coast commonly reserved for gang members.

After serving half his term, Ramsey Muñiz returned to the free world and, having forfeited his law license, began a new career as a paralegal. His specialty was helping Anglo attorneys communicate with Latino clients. To his great surprise, his time in prison had given him instant credibility with drug defendants and their families. They assumed that a man who had done time would understand the fear and confusion they were feeling.

They were right. Ramsey knew too much about the routine horror of prison life to be blasé about the consequences of a narcotics conviction. Wherever he went, Muñiz was surrounded by the relatives of drug defendants desperate for effective legal assistance. If his clients had money, Ramsey hooked them up with a good attorney. But he frequently went to bat for indigent defendants as well, even when the cases he sponsored were sure to lose money for the law firms he represented. Attorneys shook their heads in bewilderment, but often yielded to Ramsey’s zealous advocacy.

Muñiz was in Dallas visiting with the families of marijuana defendants when he was arrested in March of 1994. When he went to trial a few months later, the attorneys he once worked for painted a composite portrait of a morally driven crusader; a man determined to weave some justice out of his own suffering.

In the eighteen years since he was arrested in the parking lot of a La Quinta motel in Dallas, Ramsey’s spiritual education has continued. His first teacher was Diego Duran, a sixteenth-century Spanish missionary whose writings preserved much of what we know of traditional Mexican religion. Connecting with the religious roots of the Mexico’s indigenous people strengthened his commitment to the Roman Catholic piety of his childhood.

Dr. Salvador Alvarez

In 2009, Ramsey experienced the first of many vivid night visitations from significant people from his past. These visions lack the disconnected and logically bizarre quality of normal dream. The conversation is natural, Ramsey says, “just like you were sitting across from me and we were talking. I can reach out and touch my visitors, and they can touch me. In every respect, it is just like real life. Most nights I have normal dreams or no dreams at all; but in the hours before a visitation, I can feel the Spirit growing inside me, and I know that tonight will be one of those nights.”

The most frequent night visitor is Ramsey’s father-in-law, Dr. Salvador Alvarez. “We were very close while he was still alive,” Ramsey told me, “we were tight.”

Ramsey’s nocturnal encounters, especially with Alvarez, have been life-transforming. “Ramsey, do you love?” his father-in-law asked one night. Confused, Ramsey said, “Yes, I love. Why do you ask?”

“When you speak of love,” Alvarez replied, “it is always for your own people, la raza. Nuestra gente. Have you no love for the rest of the world?”

“I realized he was right,” Ramsey says. “It isn’t enough to love your own people, it is also necessary to love people who are not like you. That’s why I now sign all my letters, ‘Freedom, justice, and love for all the world.”

Muñiz would be an excellent candidate for a presidential commutation if he would express remorse for his crimes and many wonder why he is so adamant on this point when, at first glance, the government’s case against him seems airtight.

Consider the facts the government presented to the jury in the summer of 1994:

On the evening of March 10th, 1994, agents with Drug Enforcement Administration in Dallas saw Muñiz pick up an unidentified man at the Love Field airport in Dallas, Texas.

The following morning, Muñiz had breakfast with an associate named Juan Gonzales and the unidentified man he met at the airport. In the course of conversation, the unidentified man referenced a deal scheduled for ten o’clock.

After breakfast, Muñiz and Gonzales dropped off the unidentified man at Love Field and returned to the Ramada Inn.

Muñiz got behind the wheel of a white Mercury Topaz and followed Gonzales to a La Quinta motel one mile south on Interstate 35.

When agents from the Dallas office of the Drug Enforcement Administration questioned Muñiz moments after he exited the Topaz, he concealed the keys and denied any association with the car.

The trunk was opened, revealing 40 kilograms of powder cocaine with a street value of $800,000.

That’s all the government wanted the jury to know about Ramsey Muñiz. It was then up to Dick DeGuerin, Ramsey’s high profile defense attorney, to muddy the waters as much as he could. A string of attorneys who had employed Ramsey as a legal assistant talked about his passion for helping indigent defendants. Testimony showed that Ramsey was in Dallas in March of 1994 because several families were desperate for his assistance.

As civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander recently told Stephen Colbert, “During the 1990s, the period of the greatest escalation in the drug war, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests were for marijuana possession, saddling these young people with criminal records for life that will authorize legal discrimination against them in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.”

Ramsey Muñiz was in Dallas, testimony suggested, trying to minimize the impact of the government’s war on marijuana.

The jury also learned a little bit about the mystery man Muñiz picked up at the Dallas airport on Thursday night and deposited at the same airport Friday morning. Donacio Medina was a Mexican businessman who came to Texas seeking legal representation for two brothers, one in Texas, the other in California, who were awaiting trial on federal drug charges.

Testimony suggested that Donacio Medina was introduced to Ramsey Muñiz by Moises Andrade, a businessman who owned camera shops on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. When Medina mentioned his brothers’ legal troubles, Andrade directed him to Ramsey Muñiz.

Medina wanted his brothers sentenced to as little time as possible and then, after they were sentenced, he was hoping to have them transferred to prisons in Mexico—a little-known feature of the recently adopted NAFTA agreement made this kind of prisoner swap possible. Well-connected and fully bilingual, Muñiz was the ideal person to help Medina negotiate with a high-profile Texas attorney.

Finally, defense counsel used motel phone logs to prove that virtually every call Ramsey made while in Dallas was either to his wife or a long list of prospective clients. The implication was that Muñiz came to North Texas on a legitimate business trip; doing a drug deal with a virtual stranger wasn’t on the agenda.

The jury also learned that Muñiz drove from Houston to Dallas in a red Toyota Camry driven by Juan Gonzales, a laborer from the Rio Grande Valley who frequently served as Ramsey’s chauffeur. Muñiz explained that he got more work done when he paid someone else to do the driving. Due to a medical emergency, Gonzales made a hurried dash to his home in South Texas and, for most of his time in the Dallas area, Muñiz was picked up and dropped off by potential clients.

Finally, the jury was told that the white Topaz Muñiz was driving just prior to his arrest had been rented in Houston by Donacio Medina using Juan Gonzales’ Sears credit card. Gonzales told Medina that he couldn’t use his card because his account for $300 in arrears, so Medina paid off the balance with cash so Gonzales could rent the car. This happened short days before Muñiz and Gonzales drove to Dallas.

Dick DeGuerin did some sleuthing while the trial was underway and the results were stunning. Prior to trial, the prosecution had portrayed the Muñiz prosecution as an in-house job. DEA agents in Dallas got a call from suspicious employees of the Ramada Inn, put Muñiz and Gonzales under surveillance, and the rest is history.

But when DeGuerin ran the official scenario past motel personnel he sparked a chorus of denials. No one associated with the Ramada Inn thought their courteous and professionally-dressed guests were the least bit suspicious, and no one had called the DEA office in Dallas. The government’s story was a complete fabrication.

There was more. Phone records showed that on March 9th, Donacio Medina called Ramsey Muñiz from the Classic Inn, a low-end motel in Fort Worth. This meant that Medina had travelled to Fort Worth prior to March 9, 1994, returned to Houston on March 9th, and flew back to Dallas the following day. This meant that Medina was in Houston on parts of March 9th, 10th and 11th (the day Muñiz was arrested).

The weird revelations kept coming. On the last day of trial, DeGuerin got a DEA agent to admit that Danny Hernandez, a criminal informant working with the DEA, had booked into Fort Worth’s Classic Inn on March 6th and maintained a room at the motel during all of Medina’s shuttle diplomacy between Houston and Dallas. The DEA agent insisted that Hernandez was working a completely different case. The agent insisted that Hernandez had no association with Medina and that no records suggested that Medina had ever stayed at the Classic Inn.

But if that was true, why did Medina call Muñiz from the Classic Inn on March 9th, and why, as trial testimony suggests, did Medina pay Danny Gallardo, an off duty FedEx driver, to transport him to the Classic Inn shortly after arriving at Love Field the following day?

Furthermore, why did the mysterious Danny Hernandez book into the Fort Worth motel claiming that he had no identification because his wallet had been stolen? If that was true, where did Hernandez get the money for the room, and why did he give the motel a fake address? Did Medina and Hernandez drive to Fort Worth in the white Topaz Medina rented with Juan Gonzales’ Sears card so that Medina could enjoy a base of operations without leaving a paper trail?

The final revelation arrived just as Dick DeGuerin was putting the finishing touches on his closing argument. Newly revealed government records showed that Donacio Medina had been “negotiating” with the DEA office in Houston. DeGuerin referenced this fact during his close, but with no time to think through all the implications, he didn’t know what to do with the information. It is likely that the prosecution revealed this information to the defense as soon as they learned about it. If so, both the prosecution and the defense went to trial knowing next to nothing about the man at the heart of the story.

What does this shocking piece of information imply?

First, it meant that the Muñiz operation originated in Houston and that DEA agents in Dallas joined the investigation late and only at the request of the Houston office.

Secondly, it means that, shortly after arriving in Houston from Mexico, Medina was arrested and “debriefed” by the DEA. What probable cause did the Houston DEA have for picking up Donacio Medina?

We can only speculate. Shortly after being convicted, Muñiz learned through the prison grapevine that an undercover DEA agent overheard Medina bragging about the size of his cocaine operation at a Houston party. Obviously, this theory can’t be documented.

It is also possible that Medina was picked up because two of his brothers were sitting in federal prisons awaiting trial on charges involving enormous amounts of powdered cocaine. One brother was found with almost $5 million in his possession. Two brothers facing narcotics charges suggested that Donacio had a stake in the family business.

Here’s what can be said for certain: Medina agreed to help the feds build a narcotics case against Ramsey Muñiz in exchange for free passage back to Mexico. Trial testimony shows that Medina was held at Love Field by DEA agents until 40 kilos of powdered cocaine were discovered in the trunk of the white Topaz. The moment the drugs were discovered, Medina was released.

Was the federal government targeting Ramsey Muñiz? This question cannot be answered with certainty. Ramsey’s name may have come up when the DEA asked Medina what he was doing in the country. If Medina claimed to be in Houston looking for legal representation for his brothers, Ramsey’s name would have dropped and a quick check would have revealed his prior narcotics conviction.

This would have suggested that, his cover story notwithstanding, Medina had entered the country to do a narcotics deal with an underworld figure named Ramsey Muñiz. It is possible that the DEA officials who targeted Muñiz knew nothing of his political history.

Confronted with the government’s suspicions, Medina faced a simple choice: deny that he and Muniz had a drug deal in the mix and join his brothers in a federal prison awaiting trial, or give the feds Muñiz in exchange for a one-way ticket to Mexico City.

It is possible, of course, that the Houston DEA got it right. The fact that Muñiz drove a narcotics-laden car down a one-mile stretch of I-35 is entirely consistent with the government’s theory. The prosecution had no burden to show who placed the drugs in the Topaz or who the prospective buyers might have been. Prior to trial, the government wasn’t even required to inform defense counsel of their relationship to Donacio Medina or any other criminal informant. In fact, the prosecution likely went to trial knowing very little (and caring even less) about Medina’s association to the Houston DEA.

With the striking exception of a single country, testimony from criminal informants is viewed with grave suspicion in the free world, and for obvious reasons. Alexandra Natapoff is America’s foremost authority on the use and abuse of “snitch” testimony.

“Criminal informants are an important piece of the wrongful conviction puzzle,” she says, “because informants have such predictable and powerful inducements to lie, because law enforcement relies heavily on their information, and because the system is not well designed to check that information.”

There are two enormous problems with the government’s case against Ramsey Muñiz (and virtually every other federal case built on snitch testimony). First, the government targeted Muñiz on the uncorroborated word of a man they believed to be a major narcotic importer. Second, by withholding this information, the government made it impossible for the sharpest defense attorney in Texas to challenge the government’s theory of the crime.

Did Ramsey Muñiz know he was transporting narcotics? That’s the only question that matters. The government shaped the evidence to make it appear that he did, while making it impossible for defense counsel to argue that he didn’t. In a nutshell, that’s what’s wrong with this case.

The government argued that Muñiz got behind the wheel of the white Topaz because it was his prearranged role in a narcotics conspiracy. That’s a nice simple story and, deprived of an alternative explanation, the jury was sure to buy it. But there are plenty of alternative explanations.

Consider this scenario. Confronted with DEA suspicions, Medina “confesses” that he came to Texas to do a drug deal with Ramsey Muñiz. Knowing that Juan Gonzales would soon be driving Muniz to Dallas, Medina rents a car for two days in Gonzales’ name and Gonzales goes along with the plan because it restores his credit and places $250 of free money in his pocket.

Next, the DEA gives Medina and Danny Hernandez 40 kilos of cocaine, the two men place the drugs in the trunk of the rented Mercury Topaz and drive to the Classic Inn in Fort Worth. Hernandez, rents a room without identification so there will be no record of Medina’s stay.

Medina flies back to Houston, at the request of the DEA (while Hernandez guards the stash), then Medina arranges to have Ramsey Muñiz pick him up at Love Field on the evening of March 10th so the Dallas DEA can witness the two men together.

The next step can be reconstructed from trial testimony. Medina approaches Danny Gallardo, an off-duty Fed Ex driver, and asks him to drive to the Classic Inn in Fort Worth on the evening of March 10th so Medina could pick up his car. After arriving at the motel, Medina tells Gallardo that the car isn’t there and asks to be driven to the Ramada Inn in Lewisville. Seeing Muñiz in the Ramada parking lot, Medina exits the car and Gallardo drives off.

Medina then gets into a car driven by an unidentified man and disappears until the following morning.

Trial testimony suggests that, on the morning of March 11th, Ramsey Muñiz, Donacio Medina and Juan Gonzales (recently returned from a whirlwind trip to the Rio Grande Valley) meet for breakfast at the Evans restaurant across the street from the motel. At some point, Medina slips Gonzales the keys to the rented white Topaz and asks him to return the vehicle for him.

The three men drive to Love Field shortly before 11:00 am the morning of March 11th, Medina gets out of the car and disappears inside the terminal. According to trial testimony, Gonzales stops en route to the Ramada Inn to call a relative from a pay phone. Only then does Gonzales inform Muñiz that he plans to spend the night at the La Quinta that evening, and asks his boss to help him move Medina’s rented car from the Ramada to the La Quinta. Although Ramsey doesn’t have a driver’s license, he agrees to make the one-mile trip as a favor to Gonzales.

Trial testimony suggests that Gonzales, learning that Muñiz intended to fly back to Houston after a noon meeting with prospective clients, decided to remain in the DFW area to look for work. The details remain sketchy, however, because Gonzales didn’t discuss his plans with Muñiz prior to arrest and because Gonzales didn’t testify at trial.

Was Ramsey Muñiz innocently moving a car for a friend, or was he engaged in an illegal narcotics deal? The answer depends on whether you believe Denacio Medina or Ramsey Muñiz.

This recreation of the story involves considerable speculation, but so does the government’s theory of the crime. Both reconstructions may be wildly off base. The real story may be buried somewhere in an obscure DEA file folder, but given the slim corpus of facts at our disposal, partisans on either side of the story are reduced to playing a guessing game.

Several questions may never be answered. Did Medina supply the drugs in the trunk of the Topaz or did the 40 kilos of cocaine come from a DEA evidence locker? Both theories are possible.

The more you know about this case the more troubling it becomes. Let’s begin with Donacio Medina. If DEA suspicions are justified (and I suspect they are) we are dealing with a man with an established narcotics distribution network trained and equipped to do his dirty business for him. Why would such a man travel to Texas to do a drug deal with Ramsey Muñiz when he could do this kind of transaction from the safety of his arm chair?

And if Medina came to Texas to do a narcotics transaction with Muñiz, why didn’t the deal go down in Houston or in the Rio Grande Valley where illegal narcotics are cheaper and more readily available? Why jump through all the logistical hoops a Dallas deal demanded? The most likely scenario is that Medina flew to Dallas because that’s where Muniz was doing business. But if Ramsey had a million dollar drug deal in the works, why was he spending so much time with piss ant marijuana defendants?

Here’s the simplest explanation: Medina planted the drugs in the Topaz and, working through Gonzales, placed  Muñiz  behind the wheel because that’s what his deal with the Houston DEA demanded.

Is an innocent and deeply spiritual man living behind bars because a Mexican drug lord was desperate to save his own skin? Of all the theories on the table, this one makes the most sense.

So why doesn’t the Department of Justice release Ramsey Muñiz because, innocent or not, he has paid his debt to society?

Two reasons. First, Ramsey’s innocence, however likely, cannot be proven. Since there is no parole in the federal legal system, the life sentence stands.

Second, the government can’t back away from the Muñiz fiasco without admitting that America’s war on drugs has thoroughly corrupted the federal justice system. Cases based on the uncorroborated testimony of drug dealers are guaranteed to convict the innocent along with the guilty. A morally flawed criminal with a gun to his head will say whatever the triggerman wants him to say.

Snitch testimony is inherently unreliable, that’s why the United States is the only nation in the free world that builds criminal cases on such a flimsy foundation. Unfortunately, America’s war on drugs cannot be waged without criminal informants.

Without the drug war, we are told, all hell would break loose. If a few thousand innocent Americans get locked up in the process, that’s just the price we have to pay. The Roman orator Cicero summed it up nicely a century before Jesus was crucified, “In time of war, the law falls silent.”

It is appropriate that Ramsey Muñiz identifies so closely with the suffering of Christ Crucified. Like his Savior, Ramsey has been sacrificed for the greater good. “You do not understand,” Caiaphas told the religious leaders of his day, “that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

This perverse but powerful logic keeps men like Ramsey Muñiz in bondage. If he would only admit guilt and feign contrition, Muñiz might have been released long ago. But like he says, “How do you express remorse for something you didn’t do?” If you are willing to abandon your last shred of self-respect, it’s easy. But men like Ramsey Muñiz can’t walk through that door.

There is only one way to resolve this dilemma. Barack Obama could issue a presidential commutation on humanitarian grounds. But the president can’t make this bold move unless we move first. Abraham Lincoln got it right, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

What Franklin Roosevelt told a group of depression era reformers, Barack Obama says to us, “I agree with you, I want to do it . . . now make me do it.”