Even Violent Drug Cartels Fear God
Dominic Bracco II/Prime, for The New York Times
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: April 19, 2013
Early on a December morning, Robert Coogan pulled his red Chevy hatchback into the parking lot of the state prison in Saltillo, Mexico. It was frigid outside, the sun had not yet cleared the reddish mountains, and Coogan lingered, staring at the tall black letters on the prison’s high walls: “CERESO” — Centro de Reinserción Social, the place where criminals are supposed to be reformed. Coogan, who has served as chaplain at the prison for a decade, slowly pulled himself from the warm car. In dark jeans, brown boots and a thick gray sweater, he looked more like a factory foreman than a Brooklyn-born priest. He wore no clerical collar, just a necklace of pendants with images of the Virgin Mary and Christ on the cross.
Inside the prison’s main building, Coogan tossed his keys onto the counter, and the guard on duty shook himself awake. “Buenos días, Padre,” the guard said, placing the keys on a hook as Coogan, 60, walked through a metal detector that failed to register his large silver belt buckle. “Buenos días,” Coogan said. He headed up a flight of stairs and down an empty hallway toward a thick steel door that opened into the general prison population. A heavyset guard let Coogan in, and with the morning chill aggravating an old running injury, he marched to the chapel just off the prison’s central plaza. A few minutes later, he was at the altar for the 7:40 a.m. Mass.
As usual, only a dozen or so prisoners showed up. Most of the 700 inmates — murderers, rapists, thieves, drug dealers and the innocent among them — were heading to work in one of the prison’s factories or carpentry shops. A crew of musclebound Zetas — Mexico’s most feared criminal syndicate, which runs the Cereso from the inside — sat on red plastic chairs outside the chapel and watched the prisoners pass by, making sure they went where the Zetas’ comandante wanted them to go.
As soon as the Mass was over, Coogan grabbed his portable priest kit — a red laundry basket with wrinkled vestments, hosts in Tupperware and holy water and wine in plastic soda bottles — and quickly made his way to the maximum-security unit, a separate building at the prison’s southeastern corner, where a prisoner whom I’ll refer to as M. stood waiting for him on the other side of a gate. There wasn’t a guard to be seen. They rarely venture inside, Coogan explained, preferring to leave the job of discipline to the Zetas. A few minutes later, a prisoner working for the cartel, in dark sunglasses and cargo pants, showed up to let us into the unit.
M. had been in prison for about three years. He was normally a regular at morning Mass, skinny and skittish, with light eyes, and he had recently grown a scruffy beard. “You look like you belong on ‘Lost,’ ” Coogan said when he greeted him. Unlike other prisoners, M. actually had a family of some means, and in a prison system without uniforms, his style often seemed more appropriate for an indie rock club. His sneakers were clean and hip; his jeans had designer labels.
Inside maximum, M. shared space not just with hard-core Zetas but also with inmates too insane to be kept anywhere else — including one who refused to wear clothes and spoke to angels. He slept little, like any prey encircled by predators, and that morning he anxiously greeted Coogan’s arrival, signaling immediately with darting eyes that he needed to talk privately. Coogan followed him into the yard, where M. pulled out a Bible for cover and positioned himself near a faraway wall. There, he explained that the Zetas wanted him to pay them 2,000 pesos ($165), with the first half due at noon the next day. Coogan, brightening the dusty pen with his purple robes, nodded as M. spoke. He had paid small ransoms to keep M. safe from the Zetas twice already, but this latest demand was larger, more than a week’s pay. He wasn’t sure whether the Zetas were serious or if they were just toying with M. He also didn’t know if M. could be trusted. M. claimed to be locked up because a friend stole a television and he was taking the rap, but other inmates doubted his story and said he was a schemer. Coogan considered his options. Paying the Zetas would encourage extortion, but ignoring the threat, or confronting the Zetas directly, could get M. beaten or killed.
“Why don’t you talk to your parents?” Coogan asked.
“I don’t get any support from my parents,” M. said. His eyes widened with doubt; the priest wasn’t going to help? He flipped through a few pages of the Old Testament. “I don’t want any problems,” he said. “They said, ‘If you don’t pay, you know what’s going to happen.’ I’ve seen them kill people.”
Coogan gently pushed the dirt around with his boots, then bent down and picked up a piece of petrified wood, turning it over in his hands. On the wall behind him loomed a painting of a giant clown with blood-red shoes and a demented smile, the tag of the comandante. All over the Cereso, images of the demented clown appeared. The symbolism was obvious: the Zetas were always watching.
Mexico’s federal ombudsman for human rights said last year that around 60 percent of the country’s prisons were run by inmates. More than 1,000 prisoners have escaped since 2006, often dozens at a time, and hundreds more have been murdered along with an untold number of guards. When I asked the warden at the Saltillo Cereso about the power structure inside, even he did not deny it. Standing near his office, unshaven and exhausted, he emphasized that peace was the priority, not control. “Estamos tranquilo,” he said. “We’re calm.” Officially Mexico maintains far loftier goals. The 1917 constitution requires that the penal system be organized “on the basis of labor, training and education as a means of social readjustment.” But the rhetoric has never matched reality, and now the correctional system is widely described as a disgrace. Since 1992, when drug traffic began to shift toward Mexico from the Caribbean, the country’s prison population has nearly tripled, to about 240,000 inmates. While the government has done little to shore up a notoriously weak justice system, sentences have become longer and jails have become increasingly packed as officials send more soldiers and police officers into the streets to attack drug gangs.
Kingpins are usually extradited to the United States. Midlevel capos come and go. Those left behind tend to be repeat criminals and low-level offenders. The most reliable surveys of Mexico’s prison system — conducted every few years by two social scientists, Elena Azaola and Marcelo Bergman — have found that a majority of Mexico’s inmates are incarcerated for stealing items worth less than $400 or for selling small quantities of drugs. Many claim to be innocent. Some no doubt are. A majority of Mexican inmates did not have a lawyer present when they made statements to the police. “It’s usually the poor and the last links of the chain,” Bergman told me. “They’re the ones who are getting caught.”
Saltillo, a sprawling industrial city a few hours south of Laredo, sits in a wide valley surrounded by toothlike mountain ridges. It once served as the capital of a vast desert region that included most of Texas. These days its earlier ambitions can be seen only in the 18th-century cathedral that rises over downtown with its hulking steeple. The other obvious landmarks are smokestacks from the factories pumping out heaters and toilets, diesel engines and Chrysler trucks — and the pink guard towers of the Cereso, a campus of concrete, steel and earth nearly half a mile wide, on the eastern edge of the city.
The Zetas are relatively new arrivals to the area, having worked as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel until splintering off around 2007. The gang’s founders were mostly corrupt former soldiers who appear to have chosen the state of Coahuila, with Saltillo as its capital, because it sits between the Pacific smuggling routes controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel and the eastern coast controlled by their former employers. The area has the added advantage of being close to the U.S. border, and for all these reasons, it is now a major operating base. When Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, one of the Zetas’ top leaders, was killed by Mexican marines in October, the shootout occurred in Coahuila (as did the theft of his body while the government was still trying to confirm his identity).
At first, the Zetas had no relationship to Colombian cocaine suppliers, so they amassed power through creativity and intimidation, using extortion, kidnapping, migrant trafficking and the theft of resources, like coal and oil, to help supplement their smuggling income. In the process, they have taken public brutality to new levels. In March, three days after five bodies — naked and wrapped in sheets like mummies — were found on a Saltillo street, the local paper ran an editorial declaring it would stop publishing information on organized crime because “there are no security guarantees for the full practice of journalism.” Prison officials gave in earlier than that. Sixteen months ago, the Saltillo Cereso warden who was in charge when the Zetas took over was shot 10 times in his car, in broad daylight, as a school let out a few yards away.
Since then, the prison has become just another revenue source. New arrivals are often little more than hostages, like M., trapped inside and forced to wait and see if their parents can find the ransom money to keep them alive. Access to work and education, or even food and soap, have also been monetized. Prisoners selling candy for the pittance they need to survive must pay the Zetas a tax of 100 pesos a week ($8.25). Jobs in carpentry shops, at prison bodegas or in factories inside the prison all come with a fee, as do materials like lumber, which the Zetas provide for triple the going price. Drugs and alcohol, sold on Saturday nights, cost about what they do on the outside, though inmates must pay $1 for the right to exit their cells and buy them. For as long as the comandante is in charge, all that money flows to him, a mysterious figure believed to be in his 30s, whom no one dares name. Several inmates told me that he was rarely seen but universally feared, running the operation from his comfortable quarters in the conjugal-visits building, where the rooms lack bars but not air-conditioning, which was installed by the Zetas themselves. Right next door sits Coogan’s Catholic chapel.
Coogan did not come to Mexico to save anyone. He first arrived in Coahuila in 1988 through a job with the campus ministry of his alma mater, Fordham University. The second oldest of 14 children born to a corporate lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School, Coogan spoke no Spanish and had never traveled outside the United States. But he appreciated the sense of community he found in Mexico and the effort to survive collectively. “It was like the Brooklyn I grew up in, with people out in the street,” he said. “You go for a walk and you see your neighbors. You talk. I found that incredibly appealing.”
The local priest recognized Coogan’s ability to connect with young people and asked him to stay, and for the next seven years, Coogan acted as his lay assistant, opening a drug-rehabilitation center for young men in the town of Nueva Rosita. About a year after he moved to the region, he noticed that one of the guys who usually hung out on a popular corner had disappeared. When he asked some of the other chavos where he went, they told him, “The hotel.” “What hotel?” They laughed and told him the hotel was the local prison, a place that held about 100 inmates in the middle of rugged country some miles out of town. Coogan began visiting every week, driven by something born in the dangerous and drug-infested New York of his youth, “for seeing how people in crisis give meaning to their lives.” The inmates were surprised that Coogan paid attention to them, and he was just as surprised by their appreciation of his presence. “Sometimes,” he said, “just people being interested in us is all we need to do a lot of things.”
In 1996, when Coogan was 43, his father died. The loss sent him on a quest for stability, and Coogan, who had grown used to a life of service after a wild youth while working as a graphic designer for The SoHo News during the late ’70s and ’80s, entered the Immaculate Conception seminary on Long Island. Six years later, after Pope John Paul II moved one of his heroes — Bishop Raúl Vera López, who had been fighting for the poor in Southern Mexico — to the Saltillo Diocese, Coogan returned to Coahuila and was ordained. At first, Vera rejected Coogan’s request to be the prison chaplain, but Coogan persisted, and Bishop Vera finally agreed in 2002. Now, Vera says, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the post.
But both he and Coogan also say the job has grown more dangerous. When the Zetas killed the warden and took control of the prison in late 2011, Coogan asked for a transfer. He was worried about not being able to help prisoners survive under such a severe threat. Several of the men he knew were killed once they left the prison and returned to their neighborhoods. “It was like, How much can you do?” Coogan said. “And where do you get the energy to do it?” Two weeks after the warden was murdered in his Volkswagen, Bishop Vera visited the prison to say Mass. It was Christmas Day, and he told Coogan that he — the prudent outsider — was the only one capable of bringing hope to such a dark place. Coogan decided to stay. “He’s a man of enormous compassion,” Bishop Vera says. “He knows how to do this.”
As we walked slowly through the prison yard one morning, it became clear that while voluble out of the prison, Coogan keeps mostly quiet on the inside. He let people come to him, and they did, one after another approaching him as we walked toward the chapel. One especially eager young man in a baseball cap stopped Coogan halfway across the plaza. “I think they moved them,” the man said. In a quiet voice, he explained that a group of Zetas had recently demanded 40,000 pesos ($3,300) from his family. “My father works at Chrysler,” he said, nodding toward the smokestacks in the distance. Then he thanked Coogan for helping him secure what appeared to be the transfer of the men who had been threatening him. “It just happened,” Coogan said, loud enough to be overheard by anyone who might be listening.
Moments later, a half-dozen young Zetas lieutenants appeared on the plaza, laughing and strutting. One wore dark sunglasses and a black satin jacket with an American flag on the back. Most of them had shaved heads and wore new clothes. Later I saw them running sprints up and down the plaza. To the extent that Coogan has influence within the prison, it is in part because he grasps their motivations. He not only comes to the aid of those being victimized by the gang, but he also offers the Zetas what no cop or judge ever would — an open mind. While Mexican officials describe the gang members as coldblooded killers, Coogan prefers to see them, as he sees everyone else in the prison, as vulnerable, flawed and capable of change. “These guys who enter the Zetas become part of a system where they find their dignity,” he said. “It’s a terrible way to do it, but I respect them for doing what the church should be doing: giving meaning to people’s lives. When we first met in December, Coogan was counseling a 32-year-old called B., who joined the Zetas in his 20s and worked mostly as a midlevel soldier, moving drugs and doing whatever else needed to be done. Before a group rosary session one day, B. told me that he had been in and out prison since he was a teenager. He started with stealing before getting hooked on cocaine and heroin. At 14 or 15, he stabbed someone outside a bar while he was high. He wept as he told the story, thrusting his hands forward as if he could still feel what it was like to push a knife into someone’s chest.
B. was worried that his wife and daughter might never forgive him. They lived in one of the poorest parts of Saltillo, and he was constantly asking Coogan to bring them a photo to prove that he was doing well. In some ways, he was. He shared a clean corner cell with two friends in one of the more stable cellblocks; he attended Mass often and could usually be seen carrying a Bible. B. praised Coogan for helping him overcome his past by comforting him with what he told other inmates suffocated by shame: “God doesn’t humiliate; he just forgives.”
Coogan figured B. had a shot at survival on the outside, because he never rose high enough in the Zetas for the leadership to insist that he stay in. Privately, though, he worried that B.’s addiction was not yet beaten and that it would take very little for him to be lured back to the Zetas. Even B. knew his chances of success were slim. “I don’t want to go,” he said one day as we sat under a tree outside the chapel. “Here I’m O.K.”
“If you get out, we’ll go out to a restaurant,” Coogan said. “We’ll have a great meal. You can come to my house and stay with me until you’re ready to move on.”
Mostly B. comforted himself by knowing that he had time, his release date was still years away. M., on the other hand, could be let out at any moment, and Coogan knew there was no one on the outside to protect him. He needed to step in, he said, and so he began asking other prisoners whether the Zetas were seriously threatening M. He asked quietly in cellblocks and then loudly in the plaza. He asked people close to the Zetas and those who feared them. He did this even though he knew almost immediately the threat was real. The point of his questions, he later explained, was not to get information but rather to send a message: “I’m interested and paying attention.”
The subtle strategy seemed to work. The Zetas eventually lowered their demand to a more affordable fee of 300 pesos ($25), which M. told me he paid, and then he was safe. The money was beside the point, Coogan explained. The real reason they had taken the pressure off M. was that, as he put it, “the Zetas don’t want God to put the whammy on them.”
It’s true that for all their infamous cruelty — beheadings, kidnappings, the mass murder of 72 Central and South American migrants in 2010 — the Zetas are also known for their respect of the Catholic Church. After I wrote in 2011 about a chapel that Lazcano, one of the cartel’s founders, built in his hometown, word trickled back to Saltillo’s Zetas, who insisted on doing something similar for Coogan. “What color would you like the chapel painted?” one of the leaders asked him. Coogan said he liked it the way it was and told them not to bother because the roof leaked. “Two hours later they had people on the roof,” he said. “There was nothing you could do about it. They made a decision.”
Occasionally there have been more significant moments of solidarity between the cartel members and the priest. In January 2012, dozens of soldiers and police officers raided the Saltillo Cereso. In addition to confiscating drugs and alcohol and electronics, they ransacked the chapel and broke apart the tabernacle. Coogan called it a sacrilege as he showed me the destruction. But the raid ultimately deepened his relationship with the Zetas, who see the Mexican military as villains, not because they represent law and order but because they are presumed to be in the pocket of the Sinaloa Cartel. A few months later, when Coogan strongly resisted a Zetas request to bless a building that included a shrine to Santa Muerte, the idolatrous saint of death, the Zetas moved the shrine and replaced Santa Muerte with Pancho Villa, the revolutionary hero. “To call the Zetas evil, I wouldn’t want to do that,” Coogan said. In a country where the government is corrupt, the church is weak and business tycoons exploit workers while protecting lucrative monopolies, he said of the group’s vicious behavior, “It’s what they were taught.”
“This is a society that oppresses people,” Coogan went on. “If the economy worked for the common good, there would be no Zetas. There would be no cartels.” But that, of course, is a vision no amount of faith could produce. When I returned to Saltillo this past January, armed soldiers had been posted at the airport and the Cereso. When Coogan entered the prison gate, he and the Zetas’ lookouts exchanged predictions about whether there would be another raid. The last time he saw the prison so full of tension, he said, was in the fall of 2012, when a rivalry among four or five Zetas leaders set the prison on edge, with inmates unsure about who was in charge. One of the leaders was a man whose infant daughter Coogan baptized, bringing the entire family to the prison chapel for the service. In Coogan’s photos, the Zetas leader looked tough but proud in a shiny black shirt, standing near his mother. A few days later, he and the others in a power struggle with the comandante were transferred to prisons outside Zetas territory. Soon after that, word filtered back: they were all dead. For all the tensions inside the prison, Coogan struggled more intensely with those trying to survive on the outside. When I visited in January, he filled casual conversation with a stream of tragedies, from the neighbor who robbed his house on Christmas Eve (“he left footprints on the bed”) to the addict who left rehab only to overdose on paint thinner he shot into his veins. Coogan also spoke often of a young man called El Chino, a friend of B.’s, who had been out for a year trying to stay out of trouble. Coogan had done everything he could to help Chino get on his feet. He offered to let him stay at his house, he helped him get access to social services, he set up job interviews. But Chino was a loner and an orphan, and instead of seeking full-time work, he scavenged for scrap metal and did odd jobs for people he met in church.
B. had told me that his daughter lived right next to Chino, and one day Coogan suggested that we check in on them. Chino lived in an abandoned tannery on the edge of a slum, and as we pulled in around lunchtime, a Zetas halcón wearing huge wraparound sunglasses watched us from inside a black Volkswagen. Coogan knocked on the door, and a neighbor peeked outside. “We’re looking for Chino,” Coogan said. “Is he here?”
“He was arrested last night,” the man said.
Coogan threw his hands to his head. “For what?”
“Drinking beer on the corner.”
Chino’s door suddenly opened. It was B’s mother-in-law. She confirmed that Chino had been picked up for drinking, and I asked if B.’s daughter was there. She stepped outside seconds later, a lanky 9-year-old with her father’s cheekbones, wearing sneakers with pink laces. I told her that her dad missed her and wanted her to know that he cared about her. She smiled and looked down, clearly embarrassed.
B.’s wife stepped outside.“He needs to see his daughter, I understand that,” she said. “But he’s so aggressive. Last time he was here, he had a knife to my throat right here on the street with all the neighbors watching.” She looked toward the black Volkswagen. The Zetas’ lookout had turned his car around to face us. I wanted to ask her more questions, but the halcón, glaring while talking on his cellphone, made it clear that it was time to go.
We headed toward the police station to try to get Chino released. “I wish I had better tools,” Coogan said as we drove past bodegas and homes painted the shades of colored chalk. “I wish I could do this better.” He worried that he was doing his job “on autopilot.” There were activities he no longer hosted with the same regularity — movie screenings, meals and Masses outdoors — because of the hold that the Zetas had over the area. Even arranging a birthday cake became impossible. When he asked the prison bakery for one to celebrate his 60th, he was told he needed permission from the comandante.
And now Chino, the guy he thought he could save, was right back where it all started, inside a grimy jail, among other prisoners whose families gathered in a cold, dark hallway near their cells, crying and waiting to talk to someone who could get them out. A thick black door suddenly opened, and a police officer appeared. Coogan stepped forward and asked about Chino, using his formal name, Manuel. The officer looked straight past us and closed the door without giving an answer. “If he’s in there long enough,” Coogan said, “they can pin anything they want on him.”
A few minutes later, the door opened again and a young man with a swollen face emerged, covering his head with the hood of his white sweatshirt. He was followed by another, with a bruise above his left eye. Coogan asked again for Chino, and this time the officer confirmed he was inside. “It’s 620 pesos,” the officer said (about $50). Coogan, distraught, said he needed to get money at the bank. I lent him what he needed, and when he finally walked out with Chino 10 minutes later, we went next door to a gas station, where Chino bought a jug of sugary orange drink that he insisted on paying for even though he barely had any money. Then he walked back into the station and delivered it to the guards. “Give this to the guys in the back,” he said. “They don’t have anything to drink.”
It was a small act of kindness that Coogan would have normally highlighted, but he didn’t now. He looked exhausted, and he was late for a visit to a girls’ detention center. He dropped Chino off downtown and then rushed away.
The next morning, a Sunday, Coogan sipped coffee and petted his dachshund, Little Pup, as he prepared for Mass. Rays of sun poured through his open front door, and as he placed a pile of hosts into a chalice on top of an empty pizza box, I dug through his CD collection.
Most prominent in the mix was Lou Reed. What some priests would have considered off limits, with its cursing, junkies and transvestites, Coogan saw as vital to understanding the world. He pointed me to one of his favorite songs, “Street Hassle,” partly the tale of a woman about to overdose, and the lyrics he often returned to: “You know, some people got no choice/And they can never find a voice/To talk with that they could even call their own/So the first thing that they see/That allows them the right to be/Why, they follow it./You know, it’s called bad luck.”
“That’s it,” he said. “That illuminates for me the situation they’re living.” I wondered how he had spent all these years in such a depressing place, but then I thought of all the other determined, quiet souls I’ve met in Mexico — the teachers helping children who saw their fathers shot and killed; the human rights advocates who go on despite repeated death threats; the lawyers fighting for families of the disappeared. All of them are up against dark forces, deeply ingrained. I wondered how he had spent all these years in such a depressing place, but then I thought of all the other determined, quiet souls I’ve met in Mexico — the teachers helping children who saw their fathers shot and killed; the human rights advocates who go on despite repeated death threats; the lawyers fighting for families of the disappeared. All of them are up against dark forces, deeply ingrained.
In Saltillo, the image that haunted me the most was exceedingly banal: a series of old, dirty, beige doors. They were the entrances to the courts attached to the prison, and every time I walked by them, they were closed. It was a clear sign of the secrecy that goes on inside: paperwork produced in private, devoid of transparency and reliable justice. “The war against narco-trafficking isn’t going to be won in the streets,” Bishop Vera told me. “It’s going to be won in the courts.”
As we drove through his neighborhood on our way to Mass — this one at a small church that he and his neighbors are building 5 and 10 pesos at a time — it was hard not to think of how much would be lost if Coogan ever decided to move on. His sermon seemed to be a pep talk directed as much at himself as the crowd that filled the rough little church with pine benches for pews. He explained that people used to believe they had to buy their way to God’s love, but that Jesus’ message was that God did not need our money. He then emphasized that when the wine ran out, Christ did not punish the family. “He discreetly took care of the failure,” Coogan said. And best of all, he added, Jesus did not simply create more of the mediocre wine they were drinking. “ ‘No,’ he said, ‘If we’re going to offer wine, we’re going to offer the best wine.’ ” He looked out over the heads of his parishioners. “How great is it when things fail,” he concluded, “because it shows us what we are capable of.”
Two hours later, he parked his car in the usual spot outside the prison and walked slowly back inside. Near the main door, a new group of inmates had just arrived, their eyes heavy with lack of sleep. Coogan looked at them, and at their families saying their final goodbyes, and then walked straight toward the yard, past the comandante’s quarters and into his chapel.