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Thanks to Longform.com – a truly terrific and free site for anyone with an interest in in-depth, deep-background, 10,000-plus word epic reporting – I’ve discovered a fascinating New York Times article titled “Cocaine Incorporated,” about the organizational activities of the “diversified and vertically integrated” Sinaloa drug cartel, of Sinaloa, Mexico. The most famous name in cocaine is probably Pablo Escobar, but Sinaloa’s CEO, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has by this point both outsold him – “according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chapo sells more drugs today than Escobar did at the height of his career” – and outlived him – “when Pablo Escobar was Chapo’s age, he had been dead for more than a decade,” making Guzman “55, which in narco-years is about 150.” The article makes the point that the transactional nature of the drug business usually extends, metaphysically, to its leaders, in that “the implicit bargain of a life in the drug trade” is that “careers are glittering but brief and always terminate in prison or the grave.” So far, Guzman has avoided holding up his end of the bargain.

The cons and tragedies of the drug trafficking industry are common headline fodder, but there is actually a great deal more than brutality to behold.

The drug war in Mexico has claimed more than 50,000 lives since 2006. But what tends to get lost amid coverage of this epic bloodletting is just how effective the drug business has become. A close study of the Sinaloa cartel, based on thousands of pages of trial records and dozens of interviews with convicted drug traffickers and current and former officials in Mexico and the United States, reveals an operation that is global (it is active in more than a dozen countries) yet also very nimble and, above all, staggeringly complex. Sinaloa didn’t merely survive the recession — it has thrived in recent years. And after prevailing in some recent mass-casualty clashes, it now controls more territory along the border than ever.

“Chapo always talks about the drug business, wherever he is,” one erstwhile confidant told a jury several years ago, describing a driven, even obsessive entrepreneur with a proclivity for micromanagement. From the remote mountain redoubt where he is believed to be hiding, surrounded at all times by a battery of gunmen, Chapo oversees a logistical network that is as sophisticated, in some ways, as that of Amazon or U.P.S. — doubly sophisticated, when you think about it, because traffickers must move both their product and their profits in secret, and constantly maneuver to avoid death or arrest. As a mirror image of a legal commodities business, the Sinaloa cartel brings to mind that old line about Ginger Rogers doing all the same moves as Fred Astaire, only backward and in heels. In its longevity, profitability and scope, it might be the most successful criminal enterprise in history.

This article goes past the headlines, past the body count, and examines the Sinaloa cartel as a business, revealing instances of both brilliance and depravity in unexpected places. I highly recommend it.

ADDENDUM

A couple years ago, I was forwarded an email that included some truly incredible pictures of a drug smuggler caught while driving a truck outfitted and decal-ed to look exactly like a Texas DOT truck – except that is was packed with drugs and cash – by a vigilant Texas State Trooper, and the even more incredible drug bust it led to. Also included was this:

Drug dealers no longer count their money, they weigh it. One million dollars in 100 [dollar] bills weighs 37.4 lbs. And in fifties it weighs 74.8 lbs.

I’ve found the same pictures and setup on a message board here. Be ready to have your mind blown.

 

This has really nothing to do with anything – except the possibly hard-wired impulses of human nature – but I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it.

Several years ago, a group of Yale economists led by Keith Chen taught, through a series of Pavlovian exercises, a group of capuchin monkeys to use money. The monkeys were given tokens, and though they didn’t understand at first, they soon found they could exchange them for different morsels of food, and began to value them. They coveted the tokens, protected their own stash, and stole them from each other. The focus of the experiment was to see how the monkeys responded to certain economic incentives, as different monetary situations were put to them. For the most part, they behaved as expected.

The most interesting part of the experiment was completely unforeseen by Chen and his fellow economists, and came about by accident. As reported by the New York Times:

Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys’ true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

A relatively short amount of time removed from understanding the use of money, a male monkey paid a female monkey for sex. But wait, it gets better, with how uncomfortable the Yale experimenters were with this new development (and here I’ll refrain from making any jokes about Yale economists being uncomfortable with sex):

This is a sensitive subject. The capuchin lab at Yale has been built and maintained to make the monkeys as comfortable as possible, and especially to allow them to carry on in a natural state. The introduction of money was tricky enough; it wouldn’t reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel. To this end, Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it.

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It turns out that Dr. Greg House exists, and his name is actually Gurpreet Dhaliwal. No kidding. An article in today’s New York Times describes Dr. Dhaliwal’s savant-like ability for diagnostics…

To observe him at work is like watching Steven Spielberg tackle a script or Rory McIlroy a golf course. He was given new information bit by bit — lab, imaging and biopsy results. Over the course of the session, he drew on an encyclopedic familiarity with thousands of syndromes. He deftly dismissed red herrings while picking up on clues that others might ignore, gradually homing in on the accurate diagnosis.

Dr. Dhaliwal regularly receives cases from physicians who are stumped by a set of symptoms. At medical conferences, he is presented with one vexingly difficult case and is given 45 minutes to solve it. It is a medical high-wire act; doctors in the audience squirm as the set of facts gets more obscure and all the diagnoses they were considering are ruled out. After absorbing and processing scores of details, Dr. Dhaliwal must commit to a diagnosis. More often than not, he is right.

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