The Shadow Catcher: A U.S. Agent Infiltrates Mexico's Deadly Crime Cartels

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9781451632873: The Shadow Catcher: A U.S. Agent Infiltrates Mexico's Deadly Crime Cartels
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In this gritty exposé, a firsthand look inside U.S. undercover operations targeting the immigrant smuggling, counterfeiting, and drug rings of Mexico’s dangerous mafia.

Living under an assumed identity and risking his life were all in a day’s work for U.S. Government Agent Hipolito Acosta. He worked regularly in high-stakes undercover operations infiltrating Mexico’s murderous immigrant smuggling rings and drug cartels.

Acosta’s investigations are legendary, both inside law enforcement and the crime cartels he helped neutralize. He had himself smuggled from Mexico to Chicago with a truckload of poor immigrants; worked his way into the confidences of a gang of international counterfeiters; socialized with some of Mexico’s most vicious drug lords; arrested a female smuggler by luring her across the U.S. border for an amorous rendezvous; and was the target of multiple murder plots by the criminals he put in jail.

For three decades, Hipolito Acosta’s work routinely made national headlines, and he quickly gained a reputation as a daring crime fighter who used his intelligence and audacity to stay one step ahead of those who would kill him if his cover were ever blown.

Acosta’s stories read like chapters from a page-turning crime novel, but The Shadow Catcher is more than a front-seat ride through the criminal underworld along the U.S./Mexico border. This heartbreaking exposé goes beyond sensational headlines and medals of honor to divulge what an agent endures in order to ensure that U.S. law is enforced and to reveal the unseen human side of illegal immigration.

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About the Author:

Hipolito Acosta is the most highly decorated officer in the history of the U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service. The son of Mexican-American migrant workers, Acosta rose through the ranks from Border Patrol Agent to a key position in the Department of Homeland Security. Acosta and his wife live in Texas.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

Playing Pollo from Ciudad Juarez to Chicago

THE CHILL OF the river cut through my body like a jolt of electricity. The night was black and starless, and the water was creeping up to my neck. I felt like I was suffocating, the coldness of the water and air were sucking the breath out of me.

My fear turned to panic as the current threatened to pull me under the surface. I was too far advanced into the river to turn back, and I was not close enough to the other bank to feel confident. Our slimy smuggling guide was moving effortlessly through the swift waters of the Rio Grande, but he did not bother to offer us encouragement. He had made this crossing many times. This was his livelihood. Behind us, closer to Ciudad Juarez, I spotted what seemed to be a separate group of mostly women and children. The younger ones were being carried on the shoulders of their elders.

Everyone who made it this far was exhausted from days of traveling from Central America and other parts of Mexico to reach the Rio Grande. They were risking the lives of everyone in their families in the unforgiving currents. As many as four or five hundred people drown each year trying to cross the Rio Grande where it forms the border between Mexico and the United States, but many of the deaths are not officially reported or recorded.

I was thinking of my young wife and sons in Chicago waiting for me to come home from this assignment, just as the immigrants behind me must have been thinking about family they had left behind. In our own ways, we all wanted the same thing. It was just that I was born and raised on the side of the river these people were willing to risk everything to reach.

I had traveled to Ciudad Juarez five days earlier as an undercover U.S. government agent. My assignment was to infiltrate a human smuggling ring, the first time a mission like this was ever attempted by our agency. I had been forced to acknowledge that our effort in Chicago to capture and deport illegal immigrants was getting us absolutely nowhere, and I was determined to do something more proactive by going after the human smugglers at the starting points of their pipelines.

One such staging area was La Rueda Bar, a crowded, smoke-filled, downtown Juarez lounge along a drag jam-packed with similar establishments, for block after block. It hadn’t taken me long to find it. It was one of the primary contact points for smugglers and pollos in Juarez, according to my preliminary research. I was able to pick it out from the other drinking holes along the strip by its ugly, garish lime-green color and its trademark oversized wagon wheel hanging over the side entrance. The Mexican and American patrons loitering in the shade on the sidewalk outside were guzzling cold beers or tequila. Most were completely oblivious to the human transport wheeling-and-dealing in their midst.

The city of Juarez, Mexico, is impoverished, dirty, and dangerous. It was settled in 1659 by Spanish explorers, but its population exploded in the 1970s, when streams of Mexico’s migrants began arriving from all parts of the country with the hopes of finding employment at American-owned assembly plants, known as maquiladoras. These plants hired Mexican laborers to manufacture goods with American raw materials, trying to create a win-win situation for the unskilled Mexican laborers without necessitating border crossings. Despite the thousands of secure but low-paying jobs offered at the local plants, the vastly more lucrative trades of drugs, prostitution, and human smuggling attracted a ruthless criminal element to the town. Juarez was a hard-edged frontier town that was slowly drifting toward lawlessness.

The town’s nightlife was not suffering though. Americans crossed one of the three border controlled bridges from El Paso into Juarez for an evening of inexpensive fun on the “Juarez Strip” that contained more than fifty bars and nightclubs offering cheap drinks, dancing, dinner, and sex. La Rueda Bar was always a particularly popular destination.

I had crossed into Juarez on two consecutive nights to stake out the location. Both times, the dive was buzzing, overflowing with locals, prostitutes in short skirts and their johns, and drunks at all levels of intoxication. I was disguised as a pollo, or chicken. A pollo is a person seeking passage into the United States illegally. They were called pollos because of the way they followed their smuggler like frightened chickens with their heads about to be removed. Many in the United States call them “wetbacks,” a derogatory term referencing their swim across the Rio Grande. Being Hispanic, my disguise wasn’t much of a stretch.

In my pre-mission investigation, I had gathered enough information from street-level informants back in Chicago, where I was based, to learn that La Rueda was a major clearinghouse for immigrant smuggling. As a pollo, I was the lowest creature on the human trafficking food chain. Other agents had posed as pollos before, but only in U.S. operations, and with backup. No agent had ever infiltrated a smuggling organization in Mexico, never mind alone.

Going deep undercover would give me an inside view of the workings of a human trafficking organization, making it easier to identify ring leaders and dismantle the organization once I had gathered enough evidence. I would be dealing with the main smugglers firsthand. I would also have to endure the harrowing journey that thousands of illegal migrants were taking daily, risking their lives to escape the misery and poverty in their homeland.

I had been working in the Chicago district office for the past several years, mainly deporting illegal immigrnts, which was frustrating. Deportation was nothing but an inconvenience, not a deterrent to desperate people. I knew that immigrants deported one day were back on U.S. streets by the next week at the latest. The smuggling that got them here in the first place was the problem that troubled me most.

The antismuggling unit had been a department in name only when my colleague Gary Renick arrived in Chicago two years before me. No agents were assigned exclusively to the unit, but there was one priority target, the Medina family. The Medinas were an extremely tight, impenetrable human smuggling and drug syndicate, well-known to INS agents in Chicago and El Paso. Their lucrative smuggling ring ran between Juarez and Chicago, and I decided to do whatever it took to take them down, including going undercover in Mexico to infiltrate their operation at its source.

The mission may have bordered on reckless, but we had no model to follow. We were becoming overwhelmingly frustrated at the usual immigration procedures, which were stale and ineffectual, almost like Band-Aids on a hemorrhage. We hungered to try something different. Since our intelligence was that the Medinas used La Rueda Bar for their base of smuggling and narcotics operations, this was the logical place for me to get at the family.

I flew into El Paso several days before the operation was scheduled to commence. My sister Minnie and her family lived there, so I stayed with them until I did some reconnaissance of the Juarez area.

On any night, La Rueda was hopping. During my two days of surveillance, I had seen peasants gathered on the street, most likely determining who would go inside to negotiate. Eventually, one of them would enter the bar, emerging shortly with a contact. They would exchange money on the street, not concerned about being arrested. Uniformed Mexican lawenforcement officials also entered and left the bar but only spent their time laughing and joking. They were likely crooked, too, probably on the take.

Brutes driving huge pickup trucks came and went throughout the night. I watched them climb out of their vehicles with.45-caliber handguns stuck in their belts. They were obviously major players for the dope dealing business that also operated from the bar.

My clothes—an old pair of jeans and a faded flannel shirt—looked like any other hardworking Mexican’s, but my hairstyle was a problem. Before this case I had taken down several vengeful criminal groups in Chicago and had grown an Afro for the role. That hair blended in fine on the streets of Chicago, but here, I wasn’t sure. Luckily, in the crowd of misfits, no one gave me a second glance.

I asked my sister Minnie and her husband, Dick Hartnett, to drop me off a few blocks from La Rueda. Minnie had always been a pillar of strength for our family, and being with her as I was about to enter this shadowy world was comforting. While this assignment was dangerous, having Minnie and Dick bring me to Juarez was not. Day trips from El Paso and other southern U.S. border cities were common, since shopping and meals were a bargain in Mexico. Besides, I found comfort in knowing that a member of my family would know where to begin looking for me if I encountered trouble.

No one spoke as we crossed the International Bridge into Juarez. As we neared my destination, my sister’s worry-filled voice broke the silence. “Do you really need to do this?” she pleaded. “What if something happens to you? Who is going to be there for you?”

Before I could even answer, my brother-in-law jumped in to defend my decision. “He knows what he is doing,” Dick said reassuringly “Somebody has to do it. He will be fine!”

“Don’t worry.” I smiled, placing my hand on my sister’s shoulder. Reaching beneath my seat, I pulled out the small bag of old clothing I had packed for my adventure. Carrying it would make me look more like someone who had been traveling through Mexico. My sister sat there silently as I climbed out of the van. I stood on the curb and watched as she quickly pulled away. It was showtime.

I crossed the street and entered La Rueda’s side door. Aside from my hair, my Tex-Mex Spanish was not the same as a native Mexican’s Spanish, so I had to be careful about what I said. These people wouldn’t hesitate to kill me, even if they identified me as an American undercover agent.

I advanced nervously through the crowd toward the horseshoe-shaped bar. I would have felt more at ease with a partner, but our Chicago management team decided that I would go alone because of budgetary constraints. My eyes were slow to adjust to the dim lighting. The only bar patrons who stood out through the haze of cigarette smoke were the call girls. One of my favorite songs, Ramón Ayala’s “Tragos de Amargo Licor,” was playing on the jukebox, but the loud laughter drowned out the lyrics, and nobody paid it any attention. I squeezed between two badasses doing shots of tequila with a couple of señoritas and sat down on an empty bar stool. I set my small mochila, or “tricky” bag, of old clothes, at my feet. I had brought a small .25-caliber derringer with me, which was hidden in my back right pocket.

Without saying a word, one of the bartenders walked up and stood across the bar from me. I asked him for a beer, placing a twenty-dollar bill on the bar.

“My name is Jose Franco. I am looking for someone to take me to Chicago,” I said. I chose Jose Franco for my alias because it was easy for me to remember. Jose was a common Mexican name and Franco was my father’s middle name.

The bartender placed a beer on the bar and took my twenty. When he returned with my change, he demanded to know who had sent me.

“Somebody at the bus station sent me here after I asked how to get north,” I said, slipping him a ten from the change.

“Wait,” he told me. “Let’s see what I can do. When someone who can help you comes in, I will let you know.”

As I looked at the faces in the bar, I felt healthy amounts of fear and respect for what I had gotten myself into. Maybe my nerves showed and helped convince the smugglers I really was just another pollo. They were used to seeing trepidation in the faces of the disenfranchised peasants who placed their lives in their unscrupulous hands.

I had to proceed cautiously. I was hoping to be selected by a member of the Medina clan. But whichever coyote ended up with me was out of my control, like so many aspects of this mission. I was carrying only slightly more money than I needed and I had no badge or backup to rely on if I met with trouble. I sipped my beer and casually observed the crowd. I watched five or six other pollos enter and leave the bar after speaking with a small group of men, presumably coyotes.

After two hours, I thought that I had either been forgotten or fooled by the bartender. I wanted to approach a group of coyotes myself, but I decided patience was a better option. Finally, at close to one o’clock in the morning, I noticed three men engaged in hushed conversation with my bartender. The bartender pointed at several people sitting around the room, and then he pointed at me. Each coyote selected one of the pollos and moved toward his choice. The man who came toward me had been at the center of their small group when they entered the bar. He was shorter and slimmer than the other two, but undoubtedly in charge of the posse. I recognized him. He was Jose Medina, one of the Medina family’s top soldiers. I was in.

“I hear you want to go north,” he said with an arrogant sneer.

We agreed on a price and I told him I would pay the whole thing when we got there.

Jose had a sarcastic grin on his chiseled face. “No, my friend, you have to pay half of the money up front, and you have to do it now. That is, if you want to go.”

I hesitated, acting like I was considering my options.

“Look, you got to have faith in us,” Medina coaxed. He explained the system. Pollos were sent off according to a combination of factors—destination, number in the group, and first-come, first-served. I would not be departing immediately under any circumstances, but I still needed to accompany him to a staging area if I was interested. At the earliest, I would be crossing in one or two days.

“You have my word,” he promised. “Anyway, you can always find me here.”

The ringleaders of the Medina clan made pollos give them a down payment and commitment fast, or else someone else moved ahead of them. I pushed my crisp dollars toward Jose Medina and ordered another beer. Two companions joined him, generously passing several twenty-dollar bills to the bartender for his cut of the referrals.

I downed my beer and got up as Jose motioned to me and a few of his other “customers.” He led us outside to an idling van. I’d heard too many stories about immigrants who paid their smuggling fees and then were herded into vehicles and taken several miles outside the city to be beaten, robbed, abandoned, or killed by the side of the road. Others were never seen again. But I got into the van with the other pollos anyway.

To my relief, we did not leave town, but went straight to El Correo Hotel, a seedy establishment ten minutes away from La Rueda at this late hour, when the streets were mostly deserted. The dimly lit entrance hall was jammed with twenty men, women, and children ready to depart on the next trip, as soon as a guide and vehicles arrived. We walked past a small reception desk, manned by an old man snoring, his head slumped on the counter. If he was a hotel employee, he wasn’t registering guests.

The word hotel was a misnomer. El Correo was no vacation-guide spot. It was a human-smuggling and trafficking distribution hub, used by several different smuggling operators in Juarez. Like other clearinghouses, the activities that went on there were well-known and accepted by law enforcement agents who took a cut of the profitable busin...

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