Growing up in México in the late 1980’s the drug traffickers were part of the landscape – visible, yet officially invisible. They were hard to miss, all decked out in cowboy boots and hats with ostentatious gold chains around their necks and shiny huge belt buckles. Cocaine was the novelty, as marihuana was the drug of choice for the narcos. Marihuana was a Mexican thing. It was cultivated, packaged and shipped to the United States via Mexican-controlled smuggling routes. Mexican drug runners controlled the marihuana market from the growing fields through the delivery to the American distributors. The Mexicans controlled the supply chain for marihuana. The marihuana money stayed in Mexican hands.

Cocaine was another thing. Mexicans, in the late 1980’s were just paid smugglers for the Colombian cocaine. It was just another revenue source for the “marihuaneros”, who made extra money by adding cocaine packages to the bales of marihuana already crossing the border.

The cowboy “narcos” weren’t the real drug traffickers as they were just the middlemen who let money go to their heads. The real narcos, like “Don Neto,” for the most part, quietly pulled the strings of their drug empires while staying under the radar of the officials. They mostly lived quiet lives. The ostentatious drug managers were the ones seen on the streets, all decked out in cowboy gear.

Everyone knew where the money for the gold chains and the cowboy boots came from, but everyone pretended it wasn’t so. Everyone looked the other way – citizens and officials alike.

The ostentatious life of the drug managers didn’t end in cowboy boots and gold chains. The life of money included ostentatious homes – many in El Campestre and on the Westside of El Paso – and fancy cars. From this life arose the “narco juniors,” the “nouveau riche” and the “consentidos.” There was “them” and then there was the rest of Juárez residents trying to survive.

They were children of the border, equally ostentatious in El Paso as in Cd. Juárez, although maybe a little less so in El Paso. In Juárez everyone knew the money came from Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “El Señor de los Cielos,” and his Juárez Cartel. In Juárez no one pretended otherwise but kept quiet out of necessity and fear. In El Paso, no one talked about the affluent kids grazing the hallways at Loretto High School, other local schools and in local businesses that made no sense as business enterprises. The El Paso business elites made money from the thing no one wanted to talk about while pretending they were honest businessmen with well thought out business plans.

It was visible, yet invisible.

The American parents were oblivious to their children’s partying at Campestre homes while the kids wondered about the machine gun-clad individuals walking the mansion’s perimeters. Juareños were used to seeing the white Cadillac speeding down the boulevard straddling the U.S.-México border with gruff-looking machine gun toting thugs accompanying the kids, in school uniforms, headed to American schools.

As soon as the convoy of bodyguards reached the border crossing, most pealed off leaving one, or two armed with concealed weapons escorting the “consentidos” to their schools. The American officials smiled as they waved the “juniors” across the border, all while giving the evil eye to those who dared cross the bridge to work the kitchens or the yards of the El Paso elite. Meanwhile, the escorts, ever vigilant, remained within reach of the “narco juniors” to intervene should the need arise throughout the day.

But the need seldom, if ever arose, because the “pact” in El Paso has been accepted for years. The drug managers can spend their wealth at the Loretto’s of El Paso, the shopping centers and the local businesses provided they followed the simple rule of no violence in the city.

Juareños scurried to leave restaurants as gun-toting thugs entered the restaurant and took up positions as the smiling gold-chained cowboy boot wearing drug smuggler took up a table for their entourage of well-healed supplicants dutifully listened to every word, coherent or not, of their master.

In El Paso, no one scurried away as they all knew the façade was that it was visible, yet invisible.

Drug violence is part of the drug plaza reality. There are always interlopers wanting to control the smuggling routes for more profits. Violence is the only way to keep the drug corridors under control.

Except that violence isn’t good for the communities. It brings unwanted attention.

Yet the violence simmered under the façade of all is good for decades.

In 2009, within sight of El Paso’s police chief’s house, gunmen kill a ranking member of a drug cartel who was working for U.S. officials. Yet, not the police chief nor any of the numerous law enforcement agents tasked with drug trafficking arrests working in the city knew the murderers were in El Paso looking to exact revenge.

Invisible, yet visible.

But the money is good, especially if it is in cash.

In the 1990’s Norwest Bank, now Wells Fargo, had a problem with their tellers taking too much time finishing transactions. Bank officials couldn’t understand why it took an El Paso teller much more time to handle deposits in El Paso than it took other tellers in other cities across America. It didn’t fit the carefully crafted time management the bank had recently implemented in all its banks. Was it a problem with El Paso’s tellers not able to key in transactions into the computers? Were El Paso bank managers not following corporate policy? The bank bigwigs flew in to find out why it took so long for the El Paso tellers to do what tellers across the nation were doing in one-to-two minutes.

They soon discovered the simple reason.

Tellers across the nation were handling check deposits with very little cash in them. Most banking transactions across the nation were made by checks. The teller only needed to verify the amount and appropriate account. In El Paso, checks were few and cash was plentiful. The El Paso tellers needed to manually count the cash, and because it was usually large amounts they also needed someone else to verify the amounts. They also needed to ensure the cash was not counterfeit. Only after the cash was verified that the teller continued to do what the other tellers across the nation were doing, verifying the account and completing the transaction.

The bank officials were shocked at the amount of cash that transited El Paso banks. But no one bothered to ask why? They did not ask because they soon realized the answer and didn’t want to upset the revenue streams bolstering the bottom lines for the national banks operating on the border.

Cash makes money for the banks as soon as it is entered into the ledgers. Checks do not make money for the banks until the funds are applied to the appropriate ledgers. When officials were questioned about the cash they ran to their favorite excuse, Mexicans operated in cash.

In an ill-conceived, politically-motivated investigation by some El Paso politicos, the banks were accused of taking advantage of El Pasoans by not lending enough money to Hispanics. The underlining notion was that the large corporate banks sent “El Paso’s money” to other cities, leaving El Paso without “its money.”

The uncomfortable truth was that the banks weren’t in the city because of El Paso’s economy, but rather it was about the visible, yet invisible economy. El Paso businessmen rebelled against the bank investigation, not out of loyalty to the banks, but because they knew the smoke-and-mirrors was in danger of being exposed and they couldn’t have that happen.

Those who orchestrated the bank investigations were either too dumb to understand the pushback from the business elite, or became complicit in the visible, yet invisible charade.

The cash drove the El Paso economy, and in many ways still does today.

Everyone, from the gardeners laboring under the hot sun on up to the local leaders and even the federal officials occupying the largest concentration of law enforcement in America tasked with ending the drug trade, understands the reasons for the cash flowing into El Paso.

All of them understand the visible, yet invisible must be protected. Those opposed know that it is better to stay quiet then to mention the unmentionable.

The visible, yet invisible remains as El Paso’s dirty secret.

Like everything it has evolved. The banks aren’t handling as much cash anymore and thus the banking industry in El Paso has diminished over time. Cash still flows through the city but in other ways. Businesses, strip malls, warehouses and other commercial constructions pop-up all-over town, especially on the Eastside of town, without a clear business model driving them. Restaurants and other businesses come and go without an obvious detrimental effect on anyone.

In 2010, an El Paso high-end furniture store pleaded guilty to accepting $630,745 in cash from one client and not properly reporting to the U.S. government. The U.S. government charged the business for the crime and not the owner of the business. The government accepted that the business was a criminal and the owner wasn’t involved.

Visible, yet invisible.

The spouse of the furniture store owner owned a vehicle where a “condom packed with a ‘white powder’” was discovered and before an investigation could be started, the “white powder” was flushed down the toilet on orders from an El Paso County Sheriff’s captain.

The child of the furniture store owner and the former El Paso official – whose car had a white powdery substance in their car – co-wrote a book arguing for the legalization of certain illicit drugs. The child is now running for the Texas Senate seat.

Visible, yet officially invisible.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...