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<< Back to Dirty Dealing -- Third Edition

Dirty Dealing -- Third Edition

Molly Ivins
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
GQ Recommends
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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."

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