AUSTIN (KXAN) - He grew up in a middle-class South Austin family; a good student and an athlete. He went to college and waited tables.
But that life just wasn't cutting it, so when he was 22, he started working for one of the largest and most profitable drug cartels in Mexico.
KXAN News is not revealing his identity in order to protect his safety, but Austin police investigators said they have no reason not to believe his story and they have used information he has provided to better understand how cartels operate in Austin. For purposes of this story, we will call him "Mark."
"Once they get their hooks in you, believe it or not, they don't get loose. They only get tighter," said Mark, who wanted to share his story to keep other young people from following in his footsteps. "Nobody ever shows you the downfalls or the hardships of it."
In the late 1990s, Mark said a childhood friend hooked him up with representatives of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is one of the largest and most powerful cartels in Mexico, along with the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, La Mafia and the Tijuana Cartel.
Austin police Commander Donald Baker, who heads the gang unit, said the Sinaloas were the first of the cartels to start trafficking cocaine. They currently have control of the coveted Southwest Texas drug corridor. The cartel is led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker.
Baker said Austin is not only a destination for illegal narcotics, but also a distribution hub for several cartels working with local street gangs. Information provided by Mark has confirmed for police that cartels are the major suppliers and major distributors of illegal narcotics in Austin, according to Baker.
Mark said it was the life and the lure of the big payday that drew him in.
"Oh, the money and the lifestyle and the clout that goes with it. You walk into anywhere and you have the run of the place," he said. "They cater to your every need and whim. 'You're with who? OK.'"
Mark said he traveled to Mexico in the late 1990s to meet the people he was working for face to face.
"In going down into Mexico I got hooked up with a certain group and was able to buy narcotics from them, bring them back to the US and earn a substantial profit off of that. They started loading me up and started bringing dope back across the border," said Mark.
He refused to describe in detail the exact methods used by cartels, but did share some personal experiences.
"They have special compartments and stuff built for vehicles that will allow them to hide or conceal certain quantities of product and move them. I can't tell you anymore detail about that. I mean you can configure any vehicle out there to do what you need it to do. I mean, just like they build a car- you can build it your way," said Mark. "There's also a technique they use where they send a smaller load and intentionally get it hit and while they're preoccupied, divert a larger shipment around that."
Mark mostly smuggled cocaine into the United States and brought it to Austin, where, at times, he was able to sell up to 20 kilograms in two weeks and earn up to $10,000 a week in salary. All at 22.
But the good times did not last and Mark spent several years in prison. He said he was kidnapped twice by cartel associates and once, he claims, by Mexican federal police.
"They held me for a couple days. I was tied to a chair in a barn and whipped repeatedly with a wire cable asking to get my connections on the phone for them and in refusing to do so, more punishment was doled out. I thought that was it for sure," he said.
Mark said the cartel paid a $100,000 ransom for his release, which he was forced to work off, an incident that put him under the microscope.
"The phone calls kept coming, the requests were getting larger, the demands were getting greater, the exposure was more, the risk was higher and then to the point of you get that feeling that they're just never going to go away," he said. "Some things came to a head where I had to make a basically life altering decision of what am I going to do? And I decided to walk away from that and try to help others out- and so, here we are."
Mark said he paid his way out of the cartel and made sure someone was waiting in the wings to replace the income he was earning for the cartel.
"It's not an easy thing to sit here and to talk about especially because- I mean the only reason I am sitting here is to avoid someone else having to go through that because I can promise you that as soon as you walk across that border- you are in a different world," said Mark. "I'm not here to take people down, I'm here to educate and hopefully keep somebody from making the same decisions I made by letting them know the entire picture."
Baker said demand for illegal narcotics is high in Austin partly because of the number of colleges and universities in the area and police believe it will continue to rise as the local population grows.
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