Days of the dead

Mexico's failed "war on drugs" and Washington's complicity

EVERY DAY in Mexico is “El día de Los Muertos” (the day of the dead). The war on drugs has rained down bloody murder on the people of Mexico. Kidnap-for-ransom, decapitations, decomposed bodies in vats of lye, grenades launched at groups of civilians, firefights, and assassinations have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people last year. So far this year, 1,000 have been killed. Potential targets, other than the drug combatants themselves, include: clergy, journalists, politicians, judges, farmers, teachers, and anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 2007, President Felipe Calderón made the decision, under pressure from the Bush administration, to fight an all-out war against the drug cartels. The spectacular and gruesome increase in violence stems directly from the government’s attempt to crack down on the drug cartels. Previous presidents, politicians, and police had turned a blind eye to the drug trade, taken enormous bribes, and by and large, let drug lords kill one another over turf and markets. Drug war deaths are still overwhelmingly concentrated among those involved in the trade, (85 percent), although that’s changing.

President Calderón has deployed 45,000 federal troops and 5,000 police to eighteen states, and committed billions to fight the narcotraficantes. Calderón believes the increase in violence is one measure the war has been a success. He thinks it shows the cartels have been hurt badly and are lashing out at the government and one another. But nothing could be further from the truth. The drug trade continues to flourish despite the carnage and the occasional capture and extradition of a drug kingpin.

The traffic in illegal drugs in Mexico is estimated to be worth an eye-popping $24 billion a year. Drug cartels are fighting to the death to continue making those super profits. The money allows them to corrupt the government forces that are supposed to capture and kill them. A study published in La Jornada revealed that an estimated 62 percent of municipal, ministerial, and federal agents are suspected of being linked to the cartels.

The corruption of the Mexican military and police are legendary and reach into the highest echelons of law enforcement. The cartels are so rich and powerful they’ve corrupted law enforcement officials from the drug tsar to police officers in small, sleepy pueblos.

In 2008, Noé Ramirez Mandujano, the former drug tsar and head of the agency Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SEIDO in Spanish) was arrested for giving information to drug cartel members in exchange for $450,000 a month in bribes. Calderón’s government acknowledged that at least thirty-five officials and agents from SEIDO have been fired or arrested. The officials, including a senior intelligence director, are believed to have leaked sensitive information to the traffickers they were investigating for as many as four years. The government officials each received monthly payments of $150,000 to $450,000 from the Beltran-Leyva Cartel.

Los Zetas, (the Z’s), is one of the most feared hit squads for hire. They’re a gang of elite soldiers trained in the United States to fight the war on drugs in Mexico, but have gone over to the other side and now work for the drug cartels.

Drug cartels increasingly resemble a modern military and are outfitted with state-of-the-art weaponry such as antitank rockets, armor-piercing munitions, and grenade launchers. Semi-automatic and conventional weapons are purchased from licensed U.S. dealers strategically located near the border and then smuggled into Mexico.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged in a recent trip to Mexico that weapons made in the United States cross the border and fuel the violent drug war. Clinton doesn’t want the narcotraficantes to get U.S. made weapons, just the Mexican military. She announced that the U.S. is providing the Mexican army with $80 million worth of Blackhawk assault helicopters and the navy with a reconnaissance plane to “respond aggressively “ to drug traffickers.

The money and military hardware handed over to the Mexican military to wage war isn’t seen as contributing to the violence by Clinton or President Obama, who also met with Calderón and reiterated his support for the war on drugs, but they do. Human Rights Watch has documented allegations of serious human rights abuses by the Mexican army.

Calderón’s military is on a mission to eradicate the growing and smuggling of opium, marijuana, and cocaine, as well as capture members of drug cartels and restore law and order. This inevitably creates conflicts between soldiers and civilians. It has led to a tripling of complaints against the army including rape, torture, and murder according to Human Rights Watch, and a sixfold increase in human rights violations by the Mexican military.

The Mérida Initiative, begun under the Bush administration and continuing under Obama’s, allocates money, training, and weapons to the Mexican military. Congress has approved $1.4 billion in “security aid” to Mexico and the war on drugs was allotted $48 million for “international narcotics control and law enforcement.” In addition, the U.S. military is carrying out its own aid program separate from the Mérida Initiative under Section 1206 of the National Defense Authorization Act. It allows the Pentagon to fund foreign militaries under the pretext of combating terrorism. This year the program has given the Mexican military $13 million in arms and training. According to a Huffington Post report, a measure buried in the House version of the U.S. 2009 supplemental bill “delivers an extra $470 million to Mexican security forces. Of that, $310 million goes directly to the Mexican armed forces. This comes on top of $700 million already provided for in the Mérida Initiative.”

The purpose of the Mérida Initiative (also called Plan Mexico by its critics) is similar to Plan Colombia, a U.S.-funded operation in Colombia designed to strengthen Colombia’s military and suppress dissent under the guise of fighting the cocaine trade. Plan Colombia succeeded in encouraging traffickers to move from Colombia to Mexico, which is now the main supplier of illicit drugs to the United States market. This is known as the “push down, pop up effect.” The crack down on the drug trade in one country simply forces the business to move to another country.

Increased commerce between Mexico and the United States as a result of “free trade” has pushed drug traffic through ports of entry along the border. Drug distribution routes called “narcocorridos” have shifted to the four states that border the U.S.: Chihuahua, Baja, Sinaloa, and Durango. These states have seen the most dramatic rise in violence because the drug cartels are battling among themselves over control of markets and drug delivery routes. Desperate to get drugs into the United States—the largest and most lucrative market for illegal drugs—the cartels have even dug tunnels under the border. Seven tunnels were found between Mexicali and Calexico.

The border is the nexus for both drug-related violence and violence against emigrants. Drugs exported to the U.S. keep the Mexican economy afloat, and undocumented immigrant workers are indispensable to the American economy, yet both are illegal. The United States whips up racism and hysteria against immigrants saying they’re “flooding” the border and that drug war violence is “spilling” over into U.S. border cities. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has pledged to increase the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and border patrol police to inspect Mexico-bound vehicles for weapons and stashes of cash. She said of the drug traffickers, “We are taking them on and we’re taking them out. That’s our goal.” The truth is the people dying on both sides of the border are overwhelmingly Mexican migrants. Last year, 318 people died trying to cross the border. There were no frenzied headlines or press conferences about that.

Mexico’s economy, destabilized since 1994 with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, is in massive crisis. According to the Mexican government, more than 329,000 jobs have been lost since June of last year. As many as 30 percent of adults are unable to find full-time work, and 43 percent of the population lives in poverty, according the conservative estimates of the World Bank. The border region has been particularly hard hit by the recession because of the economic downturn in the United States. The maquiladoras in Juárez lost over 20,000 jobs last year, mainly in auto assembly and parts plants.

The U.S. economy has hammered the industries that immigrants work in: construction, hospitality, and manufacturing. Money sent to Mexico by migrant workers living in the U.S., a crucial source of money for poor families in Mexico, fell by 3.6 percent last year, the first annual decline in a decade.

The meltdown of Mexico’s economy and staggering rates of poverty have lead directly to the growth of the narco-economy. The drug trade fills the vacuum left by the decline in manufacturing and the growing and exporting of domestic corn and beans. Unemployment and desperation push people into the ranks of the narcotraficantes; after all, it’s a growth industry and they are hiring. In the cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, banners advertise jobs with Los Zetas. They offer “good wages, food, and help for your family.”

Rene Jimenez Ornealas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico explained, “What organized crime mostly has on the frontlines are people who need to eat.”

There is a way to end the prohibition-related violence the war on drugs creates: legalize drugs, starting with marijuana. Marijuana should be fully legalized on both sides of the border. The drug cartels make about 62 percent of their income from marijuana sales in the United States. If marijuana were legalized, taxed, and regulated like tobacco and alcohol, there would be an instant decrease in the death toll.

Legalizing marijuana is on the agenda in cash-strapped California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has come out for a debate on legalizing the drug and using the taxes from its sale to reduce the state deficit. Numerous polls show a majority of Californians is in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use.

Recently, a bill sponsored by President Calderón and his ruling National Action Party to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines passed in the Congress and is waiting for his signature. Calderón is expected to sign it.

The war on drugs has been a spectacular failure. In its thirty years of existence it hasn’t decreased the supply, availability, or consumption of drugs; nor has it reduced the violence associated with drug trafficking. Moreover, combating drugs has been a useful pretext for the United States to justify counterinsurgency operations, particularly in Colombia, and has provided an excuse for repressive states to further militarize the state and criminalize dissent.

The billions of dollars wasted on the war on drugs in Mexico could go to rebuild the Mexican economy in order to provide the education and jobs that the Mexican people so desperately need. In the United States, the money could be put toward drug treatment instead of incarceration.

So long as there is a demand for illicit drugs—and the U.S. is the main market—the drug trade will continue, and the militarization of the “drug war” will only fuel the violence and drive up the price. As Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano remarked, “The dominant system loves money. The U.S. loves money. That’s why, in this fight against drug trafficking and terrorism, as long as there is supply and demand, there will always be drug use. On the other hand, while there is a supply of weapons, there will always be wars.”


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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