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Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border
and the Assassination of a Federal Judge
7.1 x 9.3
April 1, 1998
Reprint and Foreign Rights Available
"We were a good family—that's what people forget," Joe Chagra said, "It was the money. You can't know what it does until it happens to you...until everyone is chin-deep in millions of dollars."
Dirty Dealing, a true story, chronicles the rise and fall of the house of Chagra. The Chagra brothers of El Paso were pioneers in smuggling drugs across the Mexican border, and were infamous for their fabulous wealth. But in the end Lee Chagra was gunned down, a federal judge was assassinated, Jimmy and Joe Chagra were imprisoned, and Charles Harrelson (Woody Harrelson’s father) was convicted for Wood’s murder.
When Federal Judge John "Maximum" Wood was gunned down outside his home in San Antonio, Texas in 1979 (the only assassination of a federal judge in more than 100 years) his death sent waves of shock across the country. The FBI labeled it "the crime of the century." Former President Nixon expressed "outrage," calling for quick arrest and punishment. But the crime’s solution would be anything but quick. Dragging on for years and costing $11.4 million, the investigation turned out to be the largest in recent FBI history, surpassing even that of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Gary Cartwright, senior editor of Texas Monthly and author of several nonfiction bestsellers, details the full history of the events leading up to this crime and the trials that followed in Dirty Dealing. This reprint from Cinco Puntos Press includes a new afterword by the author and black and white photographs of all the players. Complete with shady maneuverings on the part of the federal government and an outcome that Kirkus Reviews has called "straight from Oz," Dirty Dealing is one of the richest and most fascinating of all true crime stories.
I don't claim much of a literary background. The town where I grew up (Arlington, Texas) had a tiny library above the fire station. The first writer who truly impressed me and caused me to wonder if there was something out there for me was Hemingway. For a long time I tried to emulate his clean, crisp style and feeling for life and death.
I was going pretty well with Hemingway when I got sidetracked by Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, at which time I lapsed into my Purple Period. Nelson Algren's Walk on the Wildside-I think I read some Conrad about the same time-got me out of the stench of lyrical, overripe nonsense and back in the dust where I belonged. Somewhere in there I read Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors, and later Dog Soldiers, and began to understand that a writer's true function was storytelling.
Like a lot of writers my age, my head was turned by reading J.D. Salinger, though I didn't understand him. I came to prefer William Goldman, who wrote more to my level and with a skill I could appreciate and borrow from. I know it's popular in literary circles to dismiss Goldman as a hack-gone-Hollywood, but I wish I had his gift as a storyteller.
In recent years I have fallen in love with such mystery writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and John LeCarre. There is something cynical and laconic in the way these writers weave a story, as though to say life really has no resolution, it's just one damn thing after another but worthwhile if it's done right.
Two books that influenced my own works were David Storey's This Sporting Life, which I read shortly before beginning The Hundred-Year War; and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which was the inspiration for my two latest books, Blood Will Tell and Dirty Dealing. I am fascinated by this genre and have come to recognize that life imitating art is every bit as literate as art imitating life.
In a way I can't quite explain, Dirty Dealing was influenced, too, by John Reed's Insurgent Mexico. Reed got across a feeling for how the isolation of desert wastelands gives both a meaning and a meaninglessness to life, and how codes within cultures are more permanent than laws within nations.
Here's a rip-roaring tale about drug-running chicanery on the U.S./Mexican Border. Problem is, this tale is more than 20 years old, proving once again that what goes around keeps coming around and around. The "what" in this story is called the War on Drugs, and it don't work, darlin'.
But at least it makes for good reading. In this Cartwright classic, the feds run amok in search for evil-doers, a federal judge gets murdered, and a whole mess of other folks get sent off to prison.
Meanwhile, the drugs keep coming and nothing changes.
A roller coaster ride of a big-time lawyering, scamming, gambling, smuggling and general misadventuring... Fast-paced, sure-footed nonfiction that packs all the intensity and dramatic qualities of a good novel.
This true crime story offers a revealing look at drug smuggling in El Paso...and vividly illustrates the dangers of some federal drug laws and agent provocateurs. Journalist Gary Cartwright's diligent research has produced a rich evocation of the lives of the Chagra family... A sharp and often startling disclosure of personal folly and government corruption
Dirty Dealing, by Gary Cartwright: Dope smuggling, brotherly love, and the assassination of a federal judge, all leading to the biggest investigation in FBI history. Best of all, the Texas Monthly writer makes this true story read like a novel.
Part true-crime drama, part family tragedy, and almost, in Cartwright's own summation, like a fable: "There were three brothers from El Paso. The oldest one got greedy and got killed. The second got greedier and was accused of killing a federal judge. The third went to prison for it." The judge was John H. Wood (known in Texas legal circles as "Maximum John" for his strongly pro-government sentencing practices), whose 1979 assassination was termed "the crime of the century" by the FBI.
The brothers were the Chagras, a close-knit family of Lebanese ancestry. Lee, the oldest, built a successful practice as a criminal lawyer, but always "lived on the edge of respectability," with a darker side that featured compulsive gambling, womanizing and heavy cocaine use. Middle brother Jimmy was a ne'er-do-well until he found a calling in the drug smuggling business, though he gambled away much of the profit in Vegas. Joe, also a lawyer, chose a more traditional lifestyle-until, in rather quick succession, Lee was murdered, Jimmy was facing life without parole on major drug charges in Maximum John's court, and Judge Wood himself was shot to death. Soon thereafter, Joe had a new client: Charles Harrelson, a cold-blooded professional killer (to whom a human head was "just a watermelon with hair on it") who confessed to Joe that he'd murdered Wood. A trail of payoff money led back to Jimmy (by now serving 30 years in the slammer on his drug conviction), and the feds (unconvinced that Joe's relationship with Harrelson was simply attorney-client) pressured Joe by indicting him for conspiracy to murder Wood and obstruction of justice.
The outcome was straight from Oz. Facing a life sentence (would you want to be tried in a courthouse named for the murder victim, before the judge who delivered his eulogy?), Joe pled guilty to the conspiracy charge, a crime of which he was probably innocent, on the condition that he not have to testify against Jimmy (his testimony helped convict Harrelson, however). Subsequently, a jury found Jimmy not guilty on the murder charge. So Joe is now doing ten years in federal prison for conspiring with Jimmy to commit a crime that a jury has said Jimmy did not commit. "I still love him and I know he loves me," says Joe. "That's all I need."
Texas Monthly staffer Cartwright knows his territory, and this story of "greed and fear" and life on the border (in all senses) will hook a wide audience
Not an uplifting story. But it does show that when a government has $11.4 million to spend on a case, and isn't finicky about its methods, or about releasing criminals to jail the innocent, it can put people behind bars. Cartwright has carefully researched his story and tells it well.
Four pages into this rollicking good story, the central figure, Lee Chagra, comes alive: "[Lee] washed his morning cocaine down with strong coffee and remembered the time he had met Sinatra, how genuine he appeared." Everything you'll need to know and remember about Chagra--the son of Syrian immigrants to Mexico and an attorney who spun the world of dope-running, border-crossing, high-living outlaws along the El Paso-Juarez border around his finger like the gaudy rings he favored--can be neatly summarized in that one sentence. Forget the byzantine complications of the plot to follow: Lee Chagra dies two pages later, yet he haunts the rest of this cautionary tale like a high-rolling specter.
Cartwright tells the story of the Chagra brothers, Lee and Joe, as they get mixed up with the drug-running community along the border and in short order find themselves hopelessly entangled in a net cast by the DEA. Even readers unfamiliar with the well-publicized events of the book or of the dark, lawless aspect that often rules El Paso will find themselves pulled along by the plot: brigands and intrigue leap from almost every page, and the story just gets wilder the further into it you venture.
Cartwright's undisguised distaste for certain law officials and agencies is sure to irk some readers; however, his ultimate ability to tell a good story should make Dirty Dealing palatable to even the most stalwart law-and-order types.
- Tjames Madison,
"A hell of a story about drugs, corruption and violence, told by a virtuoso."