Reporting from Tijuana — Billowing clouds of marijuana smoke drifted over the hills as a pair of Mexican army soldiers pondered the consequences of the biggest dope seizure in Mexican history: About 134 tons of cannabis, or 334 million joints by military estimates, were going up in smoke.
"Think of all the people who won't be able to smoke this dope," Noe Lenin Rubio Torres said at the military's formal burning ceremony Wednesday. "Only the little angels in heaven are going to get stoned tonight," said fellow soldier Lucio Rangel.
Mexico's drug wars produce setbacks at a depressingly constant pace, but Monday's seizure of the enormous marijuana load stuffed inside six cargo containers provided the government a rare occasion to celebrate the sweet, burning scent of victory against organized crime.
President Felipe Calderon congratulate Baja California security forces who discovered the load after a shootout with traffickers, and the government flew the national media out from Mexico City to a sprawling army training base for the carefully choreographed burning event.
The Mexican military's public incineration of seized drugs is a regular occurrence, and this one was accompanied by the usual pomp and circumstance. There was a solemn flag ceremony, salutes and speeches, and a drum and bugle corps played while lines of soldiers, like ants, passed along the marijuana bundles and tossed them into the giant pile.
The bundles had different labels, presumably markings for the different distributors who were supposed to have received them in the U.S. Some had ponies and Dalmatians; others a smiling Homer Simpson, saying, in a roughly translated caption: "I'm getting smuggled. What of it, man."
After Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica, Baja California's top military commander, pressed a button from the table of honor, igniting a charge under the sagging platform, flames engulfed the more than 15,000 bundles. Police, soldiers and dozens of reporters moved forward to gawk and take pictures.
Government officials believe the marijuana probably belonged to Mexico's most powerful organized crime group, the Sinaloa drug cartel. The seizure, they said, deprived the group of nearly $200 million.
But it also raised some unsettling questions. How did so much marijuana end up in an industrial district just south of the U.S.-Mexico border? The Mexican army and navy have checkpoints at all the major roads and freeways leading into the city.
Duarte Mugica said the dope had come via air, land and sea routes, and emphasized how efficiently government forces had found the stash. "The citizens should be proud of the armed forces," he said before leaving a scrum of reporters.
One soldier interviewed recently at a military checkpoint south of Tijuana said traffickers have many options. "They go around us. There are mountain roads and trails all over the place," said the soldier.
Rubio Torres, the soldier, said his team labored three days to count, transport and weigh the drug load before it was doused in diesel fuel and set aflame. He and some of his fellow soldiers smelled the smoke, more curious than mischievous. Smells like diesel, they agreed.
"This marijuana was supposed to go for all those users" in the U.S., he said. "It's an honor to know that so many people won't be able to smoke this."