The political economy of Mexico's drug war

“The whole world has a bad strategy for fighting drugs...This is a health problem, not a criminal problem.”
—Dr. Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, Juárez physician

THE MEXICAN drug war is a killing machine. The level of violence and slaughter is similar to conventional warfare. In just six years, 70,000 people have been killed, but some estimate the number is a staggering 120,000.1 More than 20,000 people have disappeared and a quarter of a million have been displaced.2 A major investigation into narcofosas(mass graves) in Mexico by the magazine Milenio found the corpses of 24,000 people.3 Entire cities and towns have erupted into war zones chock-full with military checkpoints and drug cartel roadblocks. Armed with military grade weapons including grenade launchers, the drug gangs are an equal match for Mexican soldiers and police. Drug cartel sicarios (assassins), the military, and police have committed atrocities and violated human rights countless times. Dismembered body parts are left on streets and found decomposing in barrels of acid. Dead bodies with mouths duct taped shut hang from busy commuter bridges. Women are raped and murdered with impunity, and journalists who expose law enforcement corruption are kidnapped and killed. The drug war takes no prisoners.

This bloody war, ostensibly to rid the country of illegal drugs and drug trafficking, has been a grisly failure. Mexico continues to be a major exporter of heroin and marijuana and a central transshipment point for cocaine from Andean South America bound for the United States. Drugs cross the heavily fortified US-Mexican border far more easily than do migrants seeking work in the United States. The power of the drug cartels to kill, corrupt, and elude capture has grown exponentially as have their profits.

Former president Felipe Calderón unleashed la guerra contra las drogas upon his inauguration in 2006. For six years as the death toll climbed and drugs flowed unimpeded through the country, El Presidente insisted that the war was being won. Calderón had no sympathy for those murdered in drug war violence. He called fifteen teenagers who were mowed down at a party by Juárez cartel hitmen “thugs.” In fact, they were students and athletes.4 More than anyone else in Mexico, Calderón has blood on his hands. He leaves behind a country where torture, mass executions, and beheadings are the new normal to teach at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge.5

The drug warriors in Mexico are junior partners in the war on drugs. It is on the other side of the border, thousands of miles away in Washington, DC and Langley, Virginia where the senior partners call the shots. The drug warriors in the White House, the Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have blood on their hands, too. For almost a century, American politicians and federal antidrug agencies have dictated drug policy to their neighbor. Coercing Mexico to enforce total drug prohibition has been a central and enduring source of tension between the two countries.

The border between Mexico and the United States spans six Mexican states and four US states, and has over twenty commercial railroad crossings. There are forty-five Mexico-US crossings with 330 ports of entry. According to the Migration Information Source, in 2004, 660,000 passengers and 12,338 trucks crossed the border every day. Border city twinnings—municipalities connected by one or more legal border crossings—dot the nearly two-thousand mile border. Sister cities Ciudad Juárez in Mexico and El Paso in Texas are on major drug transit routes. Two rivers, the Rio Bravo and the Colorado, and two deserts, the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan, straddle both countries. 

The drug war passes through this porous and dangerous, remote and urban geography. Nature has always conspired to defeat attempts to eliminate trafficking between the two countries. It is a mathematical impossibility.

The United States has never respected Mexican sovereignty and the right to self-determination. American armies invaded Mexico in 1846 and conquered half of its national territory. The US annexed the states called Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. Then in 1914, the US invaded again. The military was sent to the port of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution to aid Venustiano Carranza in his fight against Pancho Vila and Emiliano Zapata.

Since the 1900s, the United States has intervened covertly and overtly to enforce drug prohibition south of the border. Mexico hasn’t been allowed to develop an independent approach to drug use within its borders nor to international drug trafficking. Prohibitionist drug policies have transformed Mexico into a major cultivator, exporter, and transshipment point for illicit drugs that supply the US market.

History of prohibition
Up until the early 1900s, the use of opium, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol were legal in the United States and could be purchased at pharmacies and stores. A steady series of laws passed in the United States made all drug use illegal.

The 1909 Opium Exclusion Act barred the importation of opium for smoking. Initially, the law applied only to the opium processed for smoking that was favored by Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. In 1914, the Harrison Act was passed prohibiting all non-medicinal use of opium, morphine, and cocaine, effectively outlawing the use of medicinal morphine that white, middle-class women used in products like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and Dr. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne. After a protracted national struggle between the women’s temperance movement and pro-alcohol-consumption groups, the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was passed, making the production, importation, and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made marijuana use illegal.

The federal government had effectively banned the use of all mind-altering substances, but Americans weren’t having it. Millions ignored the new vice laws, and black markets were quickly created to supply people with alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Prohibition caused initial shortages that had the effect of dramatically boosting drug prices. The super-profits to be made ensured not only the survival of the black market, but also that new suppliers would fill the vacuum. Mexico’s proximity to the United States made it an easy source and traffickers rushed to supply their neighbor with illicit narcotics and alcohol. Exports of Mexican opium, heroin, and marijuana for US consumption steadily increased as a result of Prohibition.6

The Mexican border cities of Baja, Ciudad Juárez, and Tijuana became legendary drug tourist destinations for Americans. One observer noted, “Ciudad Juárez is the most immoral, degenerate, and utterly wicked place I have ever seen or heard of in my travels. Murder and robbery are everyday occurrences, and gambling, dope selling and using, drinking to excess, and sexual vices are continuous. It is a Mecca for criminals and degenerates from both sides of the border.”7

In order to enforce Prohibition, the American state created new law enforcement agencies that over time have become politically and financially invested in the continuation of prohibitionist drug policies (as well as the continuation of those activities they are ostensibly designed to prohibit), despite their demonstrable failure.8 All across the country, customs agents and antinarcotics squads raided opium dens and “speakeasy” bars, shut down pharmacies and arrested smugglers, dealers, and drug users.

Prohibition created a new class of criminals—drug law violators—who needed to be processed through a criminal justice and penal system that kept expanding as more and more people were caught in its dragnet.   

At the same time that the American government was enforcing drug prohibition nationally, it was attempting to do the same internationally. From the beginning, the United States directed global narcotics control efforts and threatened sanctions for noncompliance. US officials at the Hague Convention of 1912 and the Geneva Opium Convention of 1925 coerced countries to sign on to laws prohibiting the cultivation and export of coca leaf, marijuana, and poppy and to ban recreational use of all drugs.9

By 1927, legislation consolidating the prohibition of the cultivation, production, and recreational use of all drugs had been enacted in Mexico. Nevertheless, Mexicans recognized the futility of drug prohibition early on and in 1938 attempted to chart a different course. As the head of the Federal Narcotics Service, Doctor Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra implemented a new drug policy based on public health and harm reduction principles. Viniegra had the credentials and experience; he’d worked for years with drug users in a psychiatric hospital and was a researcher and writer who studied the effects of drugs. He argued that Mexico could control the drug trade in three ways: create a government-regulated system of drug distribution, implement a public health campaign to educate people honestly about drugs, and expand the drug-treatment system. He told US customs agents, “It is impossible to break up the traffic in drugs because of the corruption of the police and special agents and because of the wealth and political influence of some of the traffickers.”10 Viniegra openly criticized US antidrug policy as punitive and argued it was a waste of money. He opposed the criminalization of drug users and didn’t believe “the concept of the addict as a blameworthy, antisocial individual.”11

Dr. Viniegra challenged the prevailing idea that marijuana was a dangerous drug. His fourteen-year study, El Mito de la Marijuana, concluded that pot didn’t induce psychosis or provoke violent, criminal behavior. He knew that smoking marijuana created fewer social problems than drinking alcohol.12 These views put Viniegra on a collision course with US drug policy and Harry J. Anslinger, the notorious Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), who believed that drug users “were criminals first and addicts afterwards.”13

Anslinger’s thirty-two-year career as America’s premier drug warrior was based on lies, hysteria, paranoia, and vicious racism. From 1930 until 1962, America’s first drug czar waged an unrelenting war on drug users. His most obdurate obsession was “reefer madness.” Anslinger unleashed drug panics that claimed marijuana caused instant addiction, suicide, insanity, and violent crime. At a congressional hearing he stated that marijuana “is dangerous to the mind and body and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions.”14 The “criminal type” targeted for arrest and prosecution were disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Anslinger’s zealous crusade against marijuana incited fear and hatred against Mexicans and inevitably led to clashes with Mexico, a major exporter of marijuana to the United States. At a 1937 congressional hearing on the Marijuana Tax Act, Anslinger endorsed the racist views of a letter from the editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier that he entered into his official testimony: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.”15

A common belief about marijuana among law enforcement personnel was that, “Under marijuana, Mexicans become very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear.”16

Anslinger allocated huge resources to stop marijuana and Mexican traffickers from crossing the border. The FBN meddled in Mexican drug policy and pressured the country to enforce prohibition more aggressively.

Anslinger would never let Mexico legalize and regulate drugs. The reaction from Washington upon learning that Mexico would create a national narcotic monopoly and that addicts could acquire drugs from official dispensaries or state-licensed physicians was swift. Anslinger imposed an embargo on the shipment of all medicinal drugs to Mexico as punishment.17

Jose Siurob, the head of the Public Health Department, faced the wrath of the FBN and the US State Department. In Mexico City, over seven hundred drug users were enrolled in the first public health clinic. Mexico was charged with breaking international narcotics conventions treaties and of supplying the drug addicted with narcotics “merely for the purpose of satisfying their cravings could not be regarded by the Commissioner of Narcotics as otherwise than constituting distribution for abusive use.”18 Siurob initially tried to defend the program and pointed out its success. Siruob was confronted at a conference in Washington, DC by Anslinger and told that the embargo wouldn’t end until the narcotics clinics closed. “The average drug addict who purports to undergo this treatment will invariably seek other sources of supply as his dosage is reduced,” Anslinger claimed. “What is being sought under the guise of a solution appears to be a form of government subsidization of drug addiction—a plan as fantastic as it is amoral. If drug addiction is an evil habit—and who will say that it is not—it should be rooted out and destroyed.”19 Siurob caved and the clinics closed.20

It is a tragedy that in the battle between Mexico and the United States to define drug policy, Anslinger won. If Siurob and Viniegra had prevailed in 1938 and drugs were legalized and drug use treated as a public health issue, over seventy thousand Mexicans would be alive today. Unfortunately, Anslinger’s violent and racist legacy of prohibition lives on in both Mexico and the United States. 

The political economy of the war on drugs
A number of economic and political factors colluded over decades to make Mexico a major drug cultivating and exporting country. A critical factor that allowed the drug trade in Mexico to not only grow and survive but to expand is the central involvement of the Mexican state. The sheer size of the drug economy, the role it plays in keeping the country financially solvent, and the insatiable greed and corruption of government officials guaranteed that prohibition could never completely succeed.

For seventy-one years, Mexico was controlled by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI). Ties between the PRI and illegal drug traders began in the first half of the twentieth century during Prohibition, and by the end of World War II the relationship between drug traffickers and the ruling party had solidified.21 The PRI viewed the illegal drug trade as a source of profits, patronage, and power. It created a durable political, police, and military infrastructure that enabled drug traffickers to cultivate, manufacture, and distribute cocaine, heroin, and marijuana for export to the United States. The PRI and the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), a domestic secret police organization modeled on the CIA and FBI, created and controlled the plaza system. The system operated by establishing “[t]ransportation routes and territories controlled by specific cartels in collusion with police, military and government officials. Control of a plaza gives the drug lord and police commander of an area the power to charge less powerful traffickers tolls, known as pisos. Generally, one main cartel dominates a plaza at any given time. . . . The cartel that has the most power in a particular plaza receives police and military protections for its drug shipments.”22

President Miguel Alemán created the DFS in 1947 at the urging of the US government. The DFS, CIA, and FBI collaborated on the surveillance and repression of trade unionists, Marxists, Communists, and populist urban and peasant movements. According to the writers Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda, “The DFS and the CIA shared information on suspected subversives and antinarcotic operations were frequently used as a device for quelling social movements and justifying the repression of political adversaries.”23

The DFS, a wholly owned subsidiary of the PRI, had another role; it organized and controlled drug trafficking. For the CIA, DFS and the PRI contained Russian influence in the region and eliminated the left-trumped concerns about the burgeoning illicit drug trade. The DFS enforced the dictates of the PRI and the drug cartel capos (bosses) and functioned as an institutional protection racket. DFS agents and PRI politicians at the highest levels were involved in some of the largest trafficking operations in Mexico, and coordinated the transit and sale of narcotics.24 An example of the close partnership between drug traffickers and the PRI was the relationship between Alberto Sicilia Falcón and former president Luis Echeverría during the 1970s. Sicilia Falcón, a Tijuana-based cocaine drug kingpin, was connected politically to the family of Echeverría through his wife María Esther Zuno de Echeverría.25 DFS agents provided protection for his estimated $5 billion-a-year business. Not only did Sicilia Falcón pay massive bribes to the PRI elite, he was also a CIA asset.26 There was also another Echeverría family connection to the drug trade. President Echeverría’s brother-in-law, Rubén Zuno Arce, was a high-level capo in Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo’s Guadalajara drug cartel.

Recent revelations from Sócrates Rizzo Garcia, the former PRI governor of Nuevo León, confirm PRI complicity in the drug trade. Rizzo Garcia admitted that previous PRI presidents controlled the assignment of drug trafficking routes. He said in a speech at the Autonomous University of Coauhuila, “Somehow the problems with drug trafficking were avoided, there was a strong State control and a strong President and a strong Attorney General and a tight control of the Army.”27

For forty years the DFS imposed a rigid structure and order on the drug trade that minimized violence and kept the profits flowing to the capos and payoffs to the politicians. The fusion of political and business interests between the PRI and the drug cartels created a dynamic that reinforced the power and position of the narcoeconomy. An entrenched layer of federal, state, and local government and law enforcement officials depend on and profited from cartel cash bribes, known as the “corruption tax.” It’s an ironic and symbiotic relationship: enforcing drug prohibition drives the corruption tax. It’s estimated that $1 billion in bribes is paid to the municipal police alone every year.28 Cocaine traffickers spend an estimated $500 million per year in bribes.29 And bribery, like drugs, crosses the border. American border-patrol agents are on the payroll. In the last seven years, 144 officers and agents with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges.30 Margarita Crispin, a former customs officer, collected $5 million over three years for allowing shipments of marijuana to pass through her checkpoint. With such gargantuan sums of money on offer, everyone has their price. The endemic corruption is not an aberration, but a necessary cost of doing business. When the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) surveyed its top fifty informants and asked them to name the most important factor for running a drug business, they overwhelmingly answered corruption.31

While whole sections of the government, police, and military are on the cartel payroll, another section is not and is committed to rooting out corruption and enforcing prohibition. These internal contradictions contribute to the chaos and violence of the drug war. Attempting to investigate and prosecute drug kingpins or powerful politicians involved in drug trafficking is a dangerous occupation. Thousands of assassinations of Mexican and American drug-enforcement agents, governors, mayors, clergy, citizens, lawyers, judges, and journalists who have tried have been assassinated.32

The development of narcocapitalism in Mexico depended on the enforcement of prohibition on both sides of the border. Drug production and smuggling under the dangerous conditions of illegality creates massively inflated prices for drugs. A Mexican farmer is paid about thirty-six dollars for a pound of marijuana. In the United States a pound of pot can be sold for seven hundred dollars.33 For outlaw capitalists, illicit drugs are lucrative commodities that have well-established domestic and international markets. This guarantees that drug cartels will assume numerous risks to supply consumers.34

Agricultural conditions in Mexico are ideal for growing poppies and marijuana. Coca leaf is not grown in Mexico and is cultivated exclusively in Bolivia, Columbia, and Peru—but Mexico is a major transshipment route for cocaine. Farmers in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa, known as the triángulodorado (golden triangle), have a long history and an expertise in growing drug crops. Chinese immigrants initially introduced poppy to Mexico. The drug trade has always been a global enterprise where plants and their derivatives pass through borders in search of markets.

Uneven development of the agrarian sector ensured that there was an endless supply of unskilled, landless, and impoverished workers in Mexico willing to risk working in the illicit narcoeconomy. It is this desperate, economic necessity to earn a livelihood that the drug cartels exploit.

The narcoeconomy has a multiplier effect in the vast number of other jobs it creates indirectly. The transportation, security, communication, and banking industries all service the illegal drug trade. Drug profits are invested in and have transformed rural villages from illiterate backwaters to modern towns with Wi-Fi cafes and ostentatious narco-palaces.35

Proximity to the United States was also critical in sustaining the Mexican drug economy. The American market for drugs is the largest in the world, and consumer demand for mind-altering substances never wanes. Mexico is chided for being an exporter of illegal drugs, a country of rogue narcotrafficantes, but the US is the number one importer of drugs from the country. Millions of Americans want to use drugs, and where there is a demand, there is a supply. 

The US has never respected Mexican sovereignty. In the 1930s, the US Department of Treasury, the forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), sent agents into Mexico without permission to gather intelligence on drug smugglers and to arrest and extradite suspects. Mexican officials requested that their drug agents be permitted to cross into the United States to carry out the same activities. The State Department and the Bureau of Narcotics turned down the request.36 This double standard is still in effect today.

Mexican law enforcement personnel are major targets for DEA harassment and investigation. According to Maria Celia Toro, “More than anything else, this circumstance has been the source of the most intense U.S-Mexican conflicts over drugs. . . . DEA agents have become, in practice, decisive actors in the implementation of antidrug laws in Mexico.”37

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a ramping up of the war on drugs in Mexico and an increase in the power of the DEA and the US Border Patrol to intervene directly and coerce compliance with US drug policy directives.

Richard Nixon continued Anslinger’s war on Mexico and marijuana. He set up the Special Presidential Task Force Relating to Narcotics. A report by the task force said that Mexicans were “responsible for the marijuana and drug abuse problem.”38 The opening shot came in September  1969 with the Nixon administration’s launching of Operation Intercept 1. Nixon didn’t inform anyone in the Mexican government about the operation. Over 2,000 US customs and border patrol agents were stationed along the Mexico-US border to stop and search every vehicle and person crossing land and sea borders for drugs. Traffic backed up for miles, and the wait to cross the border topped six hours. Thousands of people were strip-searched. Cargo ships, fishing vessels, and ocean liners were boarded and searched. Trade between the two countries was effectively shut down, border economies collapsed, and thousands of Mexicans lost their jobs. Over the course of the three-week operation, over five million citizens of both countries passed through the drug dragnet, but almost no drugs were seized.39 Operation Intercept 1 cost $30 million.40 But the show of force by American drug warriors wasn’t so much about intercepting drugs at the border. Its ulterior motive was to punish Mexico for not eradicating drug crops and to pressure them do so in the future.

In the end, drug interdiction agents were quietly withdrawn from the Mexican border. President Díaz Ordaz signed agreements that changed Operation Intercepts’ name to Operation Cooperation, which was then completely abandoned.41 Mexico received $1 million in military aid to scale up the war on drugs.

Changes in illicit drug production were taking place internationally that affected the drug trade in Mexico. In 1971, Turkey outlawed the growing of poppy, and a bloody crackdown on heroin traffickers in Europe was unleashed.42 This had a direct impact on the French Connection, the name for the heroin-smuggling operation that originated in the Middle East and involved drug traffickers in France and Italy whose main market was the United States. With the dismantling of the French Connection’s distribution and supply network, Mexico filled the vacuum. It was a business opportunity too promising to ignore. The cultivation of poppy and heroin manufacturing expanded and Mexico became the major supplier to the United States. Mexican black-tar heroin filled between 80 and 90 percent of the North American demand—an almost 70 percent increase from 1971 to 1975.43

When drug cultivation and manufacturing is pushed out of one country it inevitably pops up in another. This is called the “push-down, pop-up effect.” It is a central dynamic of capitalism; if there is a market for a commodity—and there is an insatiable international market for illicit drugs—production will shift to another country or region to fill the demand.

The expansion of illicit drug production in Mexico during the 1970s created jobs for poverty-stricken agricultural workers. Drug lords provided farmers with seed, fertilizer, and vehicles to transport the harvest. At one point, fifty-thousand Mexicans were employed either directly or indirectly in drug production, and the number since then has only increased. Currently, it is estimated that half a million people in Mexico work in the drug trade. That’s more than three times the number of workers at PEMEX, one of the largest oil companies in the world, and almost double the number of soldiers enlisted in the Mexican army.44

Operation Condor (OC) was the next attempt in Mexico to eradicate drugs, but this time at the source. During the early 1980s, five thousand Mexican troops and hundreds of Federal Judicial Police descended on the triángulo dorado to destroy poppy and marijuana fields. The United States invested $150 million dollars in the operation and supplied the Mexican government with aerial photographic and telecommunications equipment, helicopters, airplanes, and technical assistance.45 DEA agents planned and assisted their Mexican counterparts in identifying illicit crops and training pilots in aerial spraying techniques. The centerpiece of OC was the spraying of the herbicide paraquat, also known as Agent Orange. Paraquat is toxic to humans and animals, and contaminates the ecology of the land.46 Tons of it was dumped on both illegal and legal crops, infuriating farming communities. Large plantations were particularly vulnerable to defoliant spraying from the sky, as they were easily detectable by aerial photography.

OC was an initial success, and in three years drug crops in the triángulo dorado were decimated. Heroin and marijuana exports to the US dropped by half; but as a result of the supply constriction, the price shot up exponentially. Still, OC was dubbed the “Mexican Miracle.”

The most committed and innovative drug traffickers adapted their organizations to the new realities of the war on drugs. OC had knock-on effects that led to profound changes in how the drug trade was organized. Cultivation shifted from the Golden Triangle southward to smaller, remote areas in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Chiapas. This is an example of how the push-down, pop-up effect operates within countries. These states then became new epicenters of the drug trade, and hence of the war on drugs.

Some traffickers abandoned the heroin and marijuana markets for cocaine and built links with Colombian traffickers. Within a decade, Mexico became the major transshipment point for exporting cocaine to the United States.

OC triggered the “cartelization” and the reorganization of the drug market and amplified the drug lords’ power and influence throughout the country. A war between drug lords commenced; and the strongest and the most violent survived. The drug traffickers with extensive, national networks and with corrupt politicians and police on the payroll were able to create monopolies and drive smaller, less connected traffickers out of business. For example, Alberto Sicilia Falcón paid millions in bribes to officials to divert eradication teams from his plantations and toward those of his competitors. It was rumored that some traffickers paid pilots to spray water and fertilizer on their crops instead of paraquat.

The DFS continued to play a central role in protecting drug traffickers and facilitating the drug trade. A fleet of six hundred DFS tankers packed with marijuana was used to cross the border – about twelve per day.47 The DFS took 25 percent of the profits. The Guadalajara cartel spawned the original mafia drug dons: Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Arellano-Felix brothers, Héctor Él Güero Palma, Manuel Salcido Uzueta, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

In the 1980s, a series of intersecting developments in the United States, Mexico, and Latin America coalesced that resulted in more drug market innovations. President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs at home and abroad. He appointed a “drug czar,” Congress passed mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders, and the South Florida Task force was created. And in 1984, a new drug appeared on the streets: crack cocaine.48

Colombia is the cocaine processing capital of the world. It is the leading trafficker of cocaine in the Crystal Triangle, which includes Bolivia and Peru. In 1982, cocaine surpassed coffee as the leading export, making up 30 percent of all Colombian exports; 79 percent of marijuana and 75 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States was processed or originated in Colombia that year.49 Fortune magazine described the business of cocaine as “probably the fastest growing and unquestionably the most profitable in the world.”50

Colombia became a target for Washington’s drug warriors, and the CIA partnered with known drug-trafficking organizations to halt the flow of cocaine to the United States. According to Trenton Parker and Gunther Russbach, former CIA operatives, the CIA set up two preliminary meetings attended by various Colombian drug lords with the goal of organizing a drug-trafficking cartel.51 The result was the creation of the Medellín and Cali cartels. Pablo Escobar, the billionaire head of the Medellín cartel, became one of the most wanted drug kingpins. But it’s not just gangsters with guns who control and profit from the drug trade. The Colombian state provided high-level protection via private paramilitaries and the business elites from the chemical industries that transform coca leaf into white powder also profited enormously. 

The DEA has been centrally involved in the drug war in Colombia. The Colombian police and DEA agents carried out a joint raid on Escobar’s Tranquilandia, a huge complex of cocaine laboratories deep inside the jungles of Caquetá. It’s estimated that $1.2 billion worth of cocaine was destroyed.

But for over a decade, tons of cocaine arrived unimpeded from Colombia along the Florida coastline, destined for Miami, a central drug distribution hub. Escobar even used submarines to bring cocaine into the United States. Eventually, agents working for the South Florida Task Force were able to seize enough shipments and exert immense pressure on traffickers with interceptions, arrests, and convictions that Colombians looked for new entry points.

They turned to Mexico, which proved to be a wise business decision. Mexico had its own tried and true narco-bourgeoise on the payroll and could expand to accommodate a new product with endless pools of cheap labor. This is another example of the push-down, pop-up effect.

The crackdown on the Colombia-to-Florida cocaine route and its subsequent rerouting through Latin America drove the price of cocaine up to even more profitable levels, ensuring that business would resume despite the risks. Currently, an estimated 95 percent of cocaine travels through Mexico into the United States, up from 77 percent in 2003. The switch in supply chains from Miami to Mexico also meant that the drug war, with its attendant murder and mayhem, would ensnare more countries in the hemisphere, in particular Honduras and Guatemala.

The Colombian-Mexican cocaine partnership made Mexican drug traffickers billionaires. Amado Carillo Fuentes, the former head of the Juárez cartel, was given the nickname El Señor de Los Cielos, or Lord of the Skies, because he used his fleet of twenty-seven Boeing 727 jets loaded with cocaine to fly between Medellín and Mexico every week. Miguel Felix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero, and Ernesto Fonseca Carillo of the Guadalajara cartel reportedly each earned $5 billion a year.52 This vast amount of wealth enables the drug cartels to corrupt police and politicians at all levels, use violence against would-be detractors with few consequences, and build parallel employment structures, shadow governments, and security forces. Major drug traffickers are able to challenge the Mexican state for power because of the enormous profits that derive from prohibition. If Mexico is a failed “narcostate,” it’s because of forty years of a failed drug policy.

Neoliberalism and Mexico’s narcoeconomy
Under the administration of Carlos Salinas, neoliberal economic reforms transformed Mexico into a giant “free market.” State control of key sectors of the economy were auctioned off to private investors in a free-for-all. Carlos Slim was a major beneficiary of this process. Slim, the richest man in the world, is estimated to be worth $69 billion. He bought the state-owned telephone company Telmex, which came to dominate the cell phone market in Mexico.

The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 fast-tracked the break up of the state owned economy and had the effect of making Mexico heavily dependent on and more integrated into the US economy. By 2006, around 85 percent of Mexico’s exports were sold in the United States.

For Mexican workers and farmers, NAFTA was like a housing collapse. In the first year of the agreement, there were one million layoffs. At the end of 1996, there were 8 million unemployed and five million working in the informal economy.53 Workers in foreign-owned export assembly plants called maquiladoras earned six dollars a day. That wage left millions of Mexican families living in abject poverty.

Farmers felt the impact of NAFTA through the amendment of Article 27 of the Constitution. As a condition of membership in NAFTA, Mexico was forced to eliminate the system of communal land sharing known as ejido. Public lands were divided up and converted into private property. Subsidies to farmers were eliminated, and government price regulation of staple crops scrapped. Government-subsidized stores that made food available to the poor were closed. The price of basic foodstuffs doubled and tripled at the same time that wages fell. Mexico went from being almost self-sufficient in food production to importing over 40 percent of its food, mostly from the United States. Hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers lost their farms to the corporate giants of agriculture.

NAFTA created a new billionaire business elite in Mexico—men like Carlos Slim—but also businessmen like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the CEO of the Sinaloa drug cartel. He made the Forbes billionaire list four times and is worth between one and ten billion dollars. Cell phones and cocaine both have huge consumer markets. As does methamphetamines (meth), a stimulant that increases energy and alertness. El Chapo, a capitalist innovator of new drugs, saw the potential for huge profits in the methamphetamine market and set up super-laboratories close to the US border earning him the nickname “El Rey de Cristal,” the crystal king, and Mexico the nickname “Methico.”54 Meth found a ready sales force of unemployed workers in the Midwest who sold to workers in food processing plants, who often worked double shifts.55 The media launched a meth scare and the DEA shifted resources to combat the Mexican drug trafficking organizations that smuggled it into the US by the ton.

The free market reforms that the NAFTA implemented in the legal Mexican economy reshaped and expanded the illegal narcoeconomy. Drug cartels bought bankrupted farms on the cheap and increased the cultivation of poppy and marijuana on lands that used to grow corn, beans, and other staple crops.

To facilitate the increased cross-border trade, investments were made in transportation infrastructure. But the highways, bridges, and rail lines that were built to carry cheap imports from the maquiladoras into the United States were also used to import drugs. The number of vehicles crossing the border swelled and the pressure on customs agents to limit inspections and waive freight trucks, trains, vans, and cars through security checkpoints greatly benefitted drug-smuggling operations. 

The unemployed found dangerous but well paying, steady jobs in the recession-proof drug trade as farmers, drug couriers, truck drivers, chemists, street sellers, informants, armed security guards, and sicarios(hired killers). The drug trade is unique in needing a class of workers with job skills that include the ability to torture, dismember, kidnap, rape, and murder. The drug cartels recruit cadets from Mexican police academies funded by US-taxpayer money. A former sicario explained: “All of the law enforcement academies in Mexico—the different police forces, the investigative police, the military police, and the army—have been used by the narco-trafficking organizations as training grounds for their future employees.”56 One of the most feared and brutal drug cartels, Los Zetas, were trained by a Special Forces group at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.57In Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Monterrey, banners brazenly advertise employment with the Zetas. One banner declared, “Los Zetas wants you. Military, or ex-military. We offer a good salary, food, and we care for your family. Do not suffer bad treatment. Do not suffer hunger.”58 In some states, the drug cartels use their profits to build schools and medical clinics, and to open new businesses. They’re viewed as Robin Hoods that help the poor who’ve been abandoned by the corrupt, rich elite in Mexico City.

It is the illegality of the drug trade that forces disputes within the industry to be settled outside of the law, hence the need for sicarios. Legal businesses can sue competitors or win monetary settlements and prison terms through the justice system. The sicarios enforce a rough justice on rival cartel members and even on their own who steal money, lose drugs, or draw unwanted attention. Death is an essential part of the illicit drug trade; it is a calculated business expense.

The election of Vicente Fox in 2000, which broke the PRI’s seventy-one-year hold on power, led to infighting between the PRI and the National Action Party (PAN) and to a reorganization of federal and state police and political institutions. This change effectively ended the PRI’s domination and control of the drug trade by dismantling the plaza system. With the PRI no longer able to impose a structure and order on the drug trade and the splintering of government authority, the cartels saw an opening to act more independently. They began to focus on buying off or intimidating local authorities in order to ensure safe transit of their goods.59 The unraveling of the plaza system led to more turf wars among cartels. And the violence associated with the drug trade accelerated to more extreme heights because there was no longer any way to settle disputes over who controlled the plazas.

The growth of the drug trade and the dramatic uptick in murders in Mexico has to be seen as a consequence of the changing economic environment enacted by neoliberal policies. NAFTA helped to consolidate the central role of the drug trade in the Mexican economy and provided the cartels with a poor, desperate, disposable and criminalized workforce with no human or civil rights. And with the PRI no longer able to impose political stability or to control social groups, a power vacuum was created that the drug kingpins filled.

The six-year presidency of Felipe Calderón saw an unprecedented ramping up of the war on drugs that had lethal consequences at all levels of Mexican civil society. No one was immune from drug-war barbarism, from the well protected at the top of society, to the taco vender on the street, to ambulance drivers at crime scenes, to teenagers at a birthday party in a private home, to drug addicts in a rehab facility. Targeted assassinations of judges, mayors, politicians, and prosecutors, ambushes of counternarcotics police, videos of torture uploaded to YouTube, kidnap-for-ransom, car bombings, and highway blockades are standard fare in Mexico’s war on drugs.

From 2006 until 2012, Calderón dispatched fifty thousand soldiers and five thousand federal police to cities and villages all over Mexico—over seven thousand  soldiers and 425 federal police officers alone were sent to Ciudad Juárez, the capital of both drug-war bloodletting and the murder of hundreds of mostly young women maquiladora workers called femicide.60 Calderón’s massive troop surge failed to stem the violence and instead fueled it. The Mexican military has a long track record of violating human rights, and the rise in allegations of abuse is a direct result of their role in the drug war. In pursuit of drug traffickers, soldiers have brutally attacked civilians suspected of aiding the cartels. A report by Human Rights Watch found that, “Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country.”61 The Mexican National Human Rights Commission (MHRC) documented twenty-six cases of abuse of drug suspects, seventeen of which involved torture, including asphyxiation with plastic bags and electric shocks to the genitals.

As the body count continued to climb to over thirty-four thousand, Calderón declared that he was winning the war on drugs. And his attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora said the increase in homicides was a “sign of their [the cartels] weakness, decomposition and deterioration.” On the other side of the border, Michele Leonhart, the head of the DEA, said, “It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs. They are like caged animals, attacking one another.”62

Freedom of the press is another casualty of the war on drugs in Mexico and reporters that cover it work under the constant threat of death or disappearance. More than thirty journalists were killed during Calderon’s presidency, as Mexico became one of the most dangerous places in the world for media workers. Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists explained: “Plomo o plata. Lead or silver. It’s a well-worn phrase in Mexico, one that’s all too familiar to the country’s journalists. It means, simply, we own you. Take our plata [slang for money] and publish what we tell you. Or we kill you.”63

Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a reporter and cofounder of the weekly newspaper Ríodoce said of his work: “When you write an article about the narcos you don’t think about your editor. . . . You don’t think about your reader. You think about the narcos and whether they’ll like it, whether they’ll have a problem with it, whether they’ll be waiting outside to take you away. The narcos control the newsroom.”64

The Zócalo newspaper chain, which publishes five papers in the state of Coahuila, announced it would end all coverage of the drug war because of the risk to its employees.

The widespread censorship of crime and corruption stories contributes to the difficulty in estimating the exact numbers killed and to impunity for those who murder and maim. The MHRC found that, “In Mexico, where just eight of every 100 crimes committed are reported and only 1 percent of crimes are investigated by prosecutors, this allows 99 percent of crimes to go unpunished.”65

President Calderón pledged to root out the corruption, but the ability of the cartels to buy the complicity of those charged with fighting the drug cartels was as spectacular as the violence. In 2008, Noé Ramírez Mandujano the director of an elite counternarcotics unit, along with thirty-four others, was arrested by federal police on charges of tipping off drug traffickers and accepting bribes ranging from $150,000 to $450,000 from the Beltran Leyvas’ Pacific cartel.66 Entire police departments were fired for taking bribes in cash or drugs. The former Secretary of Defense Guillermo Galván admitted that at least one hundred thousand Mexican soldiers had switched sides and gone to work for the cartels for higher pay.67

The drug war in Mexico couldn’t be waged without megadoses of money and military technology from the United States. American law enforcement agencies have stealthily extended their role inside Mexico. DEA operatives, ATF agents, and US military personnel are involved in almost every level of drug interdiction operations. DEA officials are proposing a plan to embed a group of private security contractors—including retired DEA agents and former Special Forces officers—in Mexico, and the DEA is operating a “fusion intelligence” center in an undisclosed location.”68 Diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks describe the DEA as a global intelligence agency (they have eighty-six offices in sixty-seven foreign countries) that is under pressure from foreign governments to use its resources to spy on local insurgent groups and political rivals.69

The war on drugs in Mexico has become conflated with the war on terrorism, especially since 9-11, with the border now designated as a “war on terror” conflict zone. The United States considers so-called narcoterrorism to be a threat to its national security and believes that Mexico is on the verge of becoming a failed narcostate. The linking of drugs and terror allows both governments to suspend and violate human and civil rights and to detain and kill suspects. Two Taliban-linked drug traffickers are on President Obama’s “kill list.”70 How long will it be before Mexican drug dealers are put on the kill list?

The United States is the world’s drug court. For decades, alleged Mexican drug traffickers have been extradited to the United States to stand trial: in 2008 ninety-five alone.71 The United States is the only country that has the power to extradite hundreds of noncitizens to face hostile and racist American judicial institutions that routinely hand out life sentences for drug trafficking. On the DEA website is a list of most wanted fugitives. The vast majority are from Central and Latin America.

Mérida Initiative/Plan Mexico
The United States funds the carnage in Mexico through the Mérida Initiative, a $1.9 billion counternarcotics program; with an additional $13 million from the Defense Department. Mexican security forces are trained in counter­terrorism techniques to track, capture, or kill drug cartel members using the same methods used to hunt members of Al-Qaida and the Taliban.72 Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that $80 million for Blackhawk helicopters and CASA 235 surveillance planes at a cost of $50 million each would be included in the Mérida aid package. The US Customs and Border Protection Agency have used predator drones along the border for years. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer called them “ideal for border security and counter-drug missions.”73 Brewer believes Mexican migrants are drug smugglers and said, “The majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in.”74 For the first time under the Obama administration, Global Hawk drones operated by the US military flew deep into Mexico to gather intelligence on drug traffickers.75

Defense Department contracts to arm the Mexican state are lucrative for American corporations like Bell Helicopter, Northrup Grumman, Sikorsky, and United Technologies Corporation. They are drug-war profiteers and spend millions lobbying politicians to win these sweetheart deals.76

The United States supplies Mexico with 70 to 90 percent of the weapons used in the drug war, according to government figures.77 Mexico prohibits the sale of guns so more than 6,700 licensed gun dealers along the Mexican-US border fill the demand. In Phoenix, Arizona, just two hundred miles from the border, there are 853 federally licensed firearms dealers. Customers can legally buy as many weapons as they want as long as they’re eighteen or older and pass a criminal background check. The Sinaloa drug cartel made Phoenix its gun superstore and recruited groups of “straw” buyers to purchase up to twenty weapons at a time.78 Business is booming, particularly for the high-powered, semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles and Barrett M99.50 armor-piercing sniper rifles that the sicarios prefer. 

The ATF conducted a secret operation to run guns across the border to drug cartels. The operation was called “Fast and Furious.” ATF agents allowed straw buyers to purchase thousands of weapons in US gun shops and tracked them to the Mexican border. The purpose of the operation was to trace the guns into Mexico and bust high-profile drug kingpins. The problem was the ATF lost track of the weapons until they showed up at crime scenes in Mexico. In December 2010, “walked” guns were identified as the murder weapons in the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.79 That set off a congressional investigation. In a hearing, US Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that of ninety-four thousand weapons confiscated from drug traffickers by Mexican authorities, more than sixty-four thousand came from the United States.

The other critical role the United States plays in ensuring that the drug war grinds on and is profitable to American corporations is the laundering of drug money. The drug trade is a strictly cash business, no credit cards or checks accepted. Billions in cash need to be turned into other currencies or usable assets on both sides of the border. Colombian drug kingpins created the Black Market Peso Exchange, and “peso brokers” illegally convert dollars into pesos. American financial institutions—Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, and Wachovia— have been investigated for laundering drug money.80

HSBC got caught. From 2006 to 2010, the Sinaloa cartel, the Colombian Norte del Valle cartel, and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC. Matt Taibbi described how the cash was washed: “The banks’ laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space.” Breuer [US Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer] admitted drug dealers would sometimes come to HSBC’s Mexican branches and “deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows.”81 Executives at HSBC admitted guilt and were fined $1.9 billion. That’s about two months worth of profits for the bank. Incredibly, no one went to prison.

The capitalist financial system plays a decisive role in the maintenance of the global illicit drug trade. The banks are happy to manage and invest $350 to $500 billion a year in illegal drug profits for criminal organizations. The laundering nets banking networks and intermediaries—lawyers, brokers and trust managers—about $150 billion annually.82 The National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers launder between $18 billion and $39 billion every year.83 Drug profits function as liquid investment capital and are so critical and integrated into the world banking system that during the 2008 economic meltdown, according to Rajeev Syal, “Drugs money worth billions kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis.” 84

The success of failure
There is a worldwide consensus that the war on drugs has failed. In 1998, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) held a meeting titled, “A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It.” We didn’t do it. Fifty years after the war on drugs was declared the number of drug users hasn’t declined. Over 230,000 million people around the world—1 in 20—used illicit drugs in 2011, according the UNODC’s own statistics.85 Drug prices are stable and the purity of some drugs has actually increased. Globally, the two most widely used substances are cannabis and amphetamine-type stimulants. The United States continues to be the largest market for illegal drugs in the world. By any measurement—number of users, availability of drugs, public safety, corruption, money laundering, or the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations—the war on drugs on both sides of the border is indisputably a lost cause.

But the creation of a drug-free world isn’t the goal of the war on drugs, notwithstanding the hysterical rhetoric of the DEA’s Michelle Leonhart, or “tough on crime” presidents and politicians. The true objectives of the drug war can’t be understood from the mainstream media that whips up xenophobic drug panics to scare people into support for anti-immigrant legislation and for the militarization of the Mexican border. Nor can the real motives be gleaned from government antidrug agencies or drug policy “experts” who exaggerate the dangers of drugs, especially marijuana, and counsel, “Just say no.”

The drug war has a dual function: an economic one to make profits for the narcocapitalists at the top of the drug chain and the drug war military industrial complex, and an ideological one, to police political dissent. It confers a number of concrete benefits on the Mexican and US governments. For the United States internationally, it is the pretext to intervene in the internal affairs of Central America, Latin America, and elsewhere. The drug war allows for the arming of governments that promote US military and business interests. Domestically, the drug war scapegoats Mexicans and African Americans for social and economic problems. And fighting a drug war with no end in sight is a permanent source of profits for US gun dealers, military contractors, and banks, not to mention the producers of all the non-military equipment used by the various agencies and cartels involved in the trade and in law enforcement.

In Mexico, the drug war is a mechanism of social control of oppressed groups that would challenge the state for power and for a bigger share of the wealth. It is used as a justification to attack movements for social justice, and labor and indigenous rights. Sections of the Mexican state, police, and military organizations profit from the drug trade through massive and widespread corruption. And of course the drug capos are raking in billions of dollars every year.

Economically and ideologically, the war on drugs hasn’t failed, it is a stunning success. The illegality of drugs increases the rate of profit exponentially and funnels billions of dollars into the repressive apparatus of the police and military to oppress and imprison people fighting for human and civil rights. These are the real reasons the war on drugs doesn’t have an exit strategy and why certain sections of society want the war to continue despite the carnage.

The case for legalization
In 2009, over the objection of the US, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. It had no impact on the drug war. Decriminalization is illogical, making it legal to possess a certain quantity of a drug but not to produce, sell, or transport it. Decriminalization leaves untouched the violence of the drug cartels competing for la plaza, and the superprofits that illicit drugs generate that make it worth murdering people to control market share. Furthermore, decriminalization continues to stigmatize, criminalize, and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of workers in the drug trade—from poppy and marijuana farmers, to drug mules who swallow condoms full of heroin, to smugglers crossing borders. To end the death and destruction of the drug war, every facet of drug production has to be legalized.

Barack Obama opposes legalizing drugs. As he stated at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012, “Legalization is not the answer. The capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting, than the status quo.”86 But there are no constraints on the illegal drug trade; the corruption of the status quo is endemic and has over decades proven impossible to eliminate.

In a rare move, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos disagreed and insisted that legalization should be discussed as an option. Obama is now in a hypocritical position because the American states of Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Presidents in Central and Latin America are exploring legalizing drugs. Guatemalan president Otto Peréz Molina, a former military officer and drug warrior said, “Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls.”87 In Uruguay, with the full support of President José Mujica, marijuana is being legalized and a state-run system will regulate and sell it. But it remains to be seen whether the leaders of Central and Latin America who are rightfully fed up with the war on drugs will back up the talk of pursuing legalizing drugs with concrete action. It means going up against the United States and risking trade sanctions and the loss of military and economic aid.

In a sign that countries in Central and Latin America may be backing down, at the gathering of the Organization of American States (OAS) in June of this year, the general assembly ended without including the themes of decriminalizing or legalizing drugs in its final declaration. Secretary of State John Kerry was on hand to bully the delegates, saying about legalization: “These challenges simply defy any simple, one-shot, ‘Band-Aid’ approach. Drug abuse destroys lives, tears at communities of all of our countries.”88 Kerry is wrong. It is the war on drugs that destroys lives and allocates billions to arm and train the police and military but refuses to fund drug treatment services to all those who need it.

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, however, is towing the Washington line and went on record as saying, “We must crush organized crime.” Peña Nieto is committed to continuing the war Calderón started, and he plans to form a new ten-thousand-officer national police force and to create special elite units to combat kidnapping and extortion within the federal police force.89He hired Óscar Naranjo, a retired general and the former head of the Colombian National Police to advise him.

The fight to legalize drugs has to link the issue to the pervasive poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality in Mexico. They are the reasons why the drug trade is able to survive and thrive. The struggle to end the drug war in Mexico that was kicked off by poet Javier Sicilia’s organization Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity will have to confront the powerful economic and political interests that are invested in and profit from prohibition on both sides of the border.90 There is another formidable enemy, though, that the Mexican people will have to face in order to end the murder and mayhem—the narco-trafficantes. Like presidents Obama and Peña Nieto, drug cartel CEOs don’t want prohibition to end. On that all the capos agree—there’s too much to lose.

Those of us on the other side of the border have a responsibility to continue the fight to end the war on drugs in the United States.The legalization of marijuana in two states was a huge victory toward ending the racist drug war and should give confidence to countries in Central and Latin America to do the same. An uncompromising, militant, binational movement for legalization has the ability to defeat the drug warriors and enact the kind of drug policy that Jose Siurob and Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra did way back in 1938.

  1. Mark Karlin, “Death toll could exceed 120,000 as Calderón ends six-year reign,” Truthout, November 28, 2012.
  2. “El derecho a saber: Personas desaparecidas,” Propuesta Civica, Pr2006-2012, Base de datos, December 20, 2012,
  3. Victor Hugo Michel, “Los cientos de ‘borrados’ del narco,” Milenio, November 12, 2012.
  4. Daniel Hernandez, “Calderon’s war on drug cartels: A legacy of blood and tragedy,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2012.
  5. Daniel Hernandez, “Outgoing Mexican president Felipe Calderon heading to Harvard,”Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2012. According to the article: “Earlier this year, Calderon was in negotiations to take a post at the University of Texas at Austin, sparking protests among students and faculty there. One organizer of a petition against inviting Calderon to the University of Texas told a local news outlet in September that his presence there would be “like saying, ‘We don’t care about your pain.... We don’t care that your country has been ravaged.’”
  6. María Celia Toro, Mexico’s “War” on Drugs: Causes and Consequences (Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1995), 7.
  7. Oscar J. Martinez, Border Boom Town: Cuidad Juarez since 1848 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978), 57.
  8. “The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.,” Marx wrote facetiously in a long passage in Theories of Surplus Value, “and all these different lines of business, which form equally many categories of the social division of labor, develop different capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them.” The entire section, titled “Apologist Conception of the Productivity of All Professions,” is well worth reading. (Available at
  9. Both conventions stipulated that narcotics could only be used for medical and scientific purposes. China and India refused to sign on because they wanted to allow the recreational use of smoking opium and marijuana.
  10. Quoted in William Walker, Drug Control in the Americas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 125.
  11. Walker, 125.
  12. Walker, 124. Viniegra’s study was groundbreaking and presaged the conclusions that the La Guardia Committee study published in 1944. The study found that use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity, or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use. Anslinger was infuriated by the release of the report because it conclusively refuted the lies and myths that he was promoting.
  13. Ibid., 126.
  14. Quoted in John McWilliams, The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Associated University Presses, 1990), 70.
  15. David Kopel, Refer Madness and the Prohibition of Marijuana in the United States, October 26, 2010, Encyclopedia Britannica Blog,
  16. Frederic Bloc, “Retired Judge Reveals the Surprising Rationale for America’s Extremist Drug Laws,” January, 9, 2013,
  17. Walker, 128.
  18. Walker, 129.
  19. Walker, 172.
  20. Walker, 131. Siurob said, “The Mexican regulations are entirely wrong.” It’s not clear what happened behind closed to doors to make Siurob completely reverse himself. Herbert Gaston of the treasury department told a colleague, “I had a very pleasant conversation with Dr. Siurob and his associate Dr. Zozaya. . . .They are completely won over to our method of handling the narcotics problem and ask our continued help and advice.. . .This is a notable victory for Harry Anslinger.”
  21. Shannon O’Neil, “The real war in Mexico: How democracy can defeat the drug cartels,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, no. 4, July/August 2009: 65.
  22. Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches From the Streets of El Paso and Juárez (Austin: University of Texas, 2009), 23–24.
  23. Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda, Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy (London: Zed Books, 2012), 28.
  24. Watt and Zepeda, 30.
  25. Watt and Zepeda, 55.
  26. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffery St. Clair, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (London: Verso, 1998). See chapter 12, “The CIA, Drugs and Central America.”
  27. Borderland Beat reporter Gerardo, “Sócrates Rizzo: PRI presidents oversaw drug trafficking,” Borderland Beat: Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War, February 27, 2011,
  28. Samuel Blackstone, “The amount of money Mexican drug cartels spend on bribes is staggering,” Business Insider International, June 15, 2012.
  29. Peter Andreas, “The political economy of narco-corruption in Mexico,” Current History, 97, 1998: 162. That figure is from the 1990s; it’s undoubtedly higher now.
  30. Fred Lucas, “144 Border agents charged with alien, drug smuggling and corruption since 2005,”, January 10, 2013. These are the border agents that got caught. It’s unknown how many are corrupted by drug cartels, but the sheer volume of drugs that cross the border suggests that the corruption is widespread.
  31. Patrick Radden Keefe, “Cocaine Incorporated,” New York Times Magazine, June 15, 2012.
  32. Kiki Camarena, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, and dozens of journalists have been murdered because they attempted to expose the links between the government and the drug traffickers.
  33. Beto O’Rourke and Susie Byrd, Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico (El Paso, Texas: CincoPuntos, 2011), 38.
  34. In Capital, Marx quotes T. J. Dunning making the following remark: “With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 percent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 percent certain will produce eagerness; 50 percent, positive audacity; 100 percent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 percent, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave-trade have amply proved all that is here stated.” (
  35. James H. McDonald, “The narcoeconomy and small-town, rural Mexico,” Human Organization, vol. 64, no. 2, 2005: 117.
  36. Walker, 36.
  37. Toro, 61.
  38. John Gibler, To Die In Mexico: Dispatches From Inside the Drug War (San Francisco: City Lights Books: 2011), 46.
  39. Edward Jay Epstein, Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America, part 3, chap. 7: “The Nixon Crusades. Operation Intercept,”
  40. Walker,192.
  41. Epstein, Agency of Fear.
  42. The ban didn’t work and in 1974 Turkey rescinded it and licensed farmers to grow poppy for the pharmaceutical industry. Turkey along with India is a major supplier of legal opiates to the United States.
  43. Walker, 192.
  44. Watt and Zepeda, 164.
  45. Watt and Zepeda, 48.
  46. The chemical paraquat has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, ischemic heart disease, two forms of leukemia, as well as liver, eye, and kidney damage.
  47. Watt and Zepeda, 50.
  48. Crack is a smokable from of cocaine and is cheaper than powdered cocaine.
  49. Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle, Cocaine, Death Squads, and The War on Drugs: US Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 45.
  50. Louis Krarar and Jonas Blank, “The Drug Trade,” Fortune, June 20, 1988.
  51. Villar and Cottle, 47. The aim was to centralize the cocaine trade in Colombia and neutralize Peru and Bolivia as rivals.
  52. Cockburn and St. Clair, 349.
  53. Watt and Zepeda, 123.
  54. Jerry Langton, Gangland: The Rise of the Mexican Drug Cartels from El Paso to Vancouver (Canada: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 80.
  55. Nick Reding, Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009).
  56. Charles Bowden & Molly Molloy, El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin (New York: Nation Books, 2011), 74.
  57. According to Craig Deare, a former special forces commander, “They [Los Zetas] were given map reading courses, communications, standard special forces training, light to heavy weapons, machine guns, and automatic weapons.”
  58. Ioan Grillo, “Despite a major government crackdown, Zetas keep expanding their reach,” Borderland Beat: Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War,
  59. O’Neil, 66.
  60. See, for example, Damien Cave, “Wave of violence swallows more women in Juárez,” New York Times, June 23, 2012, and Kathleen Staudt and Howard Campbell, “The other side of the Ciudad Juárez story,” Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Winter 2008.
  61. “Neither rights nor security: Killings, torture, and disappearances in Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs,’ Human Rights Watch, November 9, 2011. The Mexican military has a well-documented history of violence against the labor movement, most recently against teachers in Oaxaca, and against indigenous groups like the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
  62. “Mexican drug cartels targeting and killing children,” Washington Post, April 7, 2011.
  63. Carlos Lauría and Mike O’Connor, “Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press,” September 8, 2010, Committee for the Protection of Journalists,
  64. Quoted in Gibler, 83.
  65. “Mexican rights body says disappearances, murders soared in last six years,” Fox News Latino, November 22, 21012. For reports in Spanish on human rights violations in Mexico, see the website for Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos México at
  66. Ken Ellingwood, “Mexico traffickers bribed former anti-drug chief, officials say,” Los Angeles Times, November 22, 2008. See also Tracy Wilkinson, “Mexico acknowledges drug gang infiltration of police,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2008. The Los Angeles Times has an extensive series of articles on all aspects of the drug war titled, “Mexico Under Siege: The drug war at our door step.” All are available online at
  67. Langton, 131.
  68. Ginger Thompson, “US expands its presence in Mexico, ramping up the drug war,” Truthout, August 7, 2011.
  69. Patrick Gallahue, “Narco-Terror: Conflating the Wars on Drugs and Terror,” October 28, 2011, Count the Costs: Fifty Years of the War on Drugs,, 176.
  70. Ibid.
  71. “10 Major drug defendants extradited from Mexico to the United States,” News Release, DEA Public Affairs, Administrator Michele Leonhart bragged, “Extradition is one of the most powerful weapons we have to battle drug cartels. The cartels fear not only the US justice system, but the strength of our partnership with President Calderón and the Mexican government in this fight.”
  72. James Bargent, “US to train Mexican forces in counter-terrorism,” Insight Crime, January 18, 2013,
  73. William Booth, “More predator drones fly US-Mexican border,” Washington Post, December 21, 2011.
  74. Paul Davenport, “Jan Brewer: Most illegal immigrants are smuggling drugs,” Huffington Post, December 28, 2012.
  75. Ginger Thompson and Mark Mazzetti, “US drones fight Mexican drug war,” New York Times, March 15, 2011.
  76. Laura Carlsen, “Congress sends drug war south, taxpayer money to defense firms,” Huffington Post, May 20, 2009.
  77. Luis Astorga and David A. Shirk, “Drug trafficking organizations and counter-narcotics strategy in the US-Mexican context,” A working paper, Center for US-Mexican Studies, El Colegio de la Frontera and the Woodrow Wilson Center, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) uses the 90 percent figure and the General Accounting Office (GAO) reports 87 percent.
  78. Katherine Eban, “The truth about the fast and furious scandal,” Fortune, June 27, 2012.
  79. Laura Carlsen, “Obama’s Mexicogate?,” Huffington Post, May 6, 2013.
  80. The Alternative World Drug Report 2012, Counting the Costs: Fifty Years of the War on Drugs,, 27. In 2010, Wachovia was found to have failed to apply proper antilaundering strictures to the transfer of $378.4 billion into dollar accounts Mexican currency exchange houses. According to the federal prosecutor in the case: “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.” For allowing transactions connected to the drug trade, Wachovia paid federal authorities $110 million in forfeiture and received a $50 million fine for failing to monitor cash, which was used to transport twenty-two tons of cocaine. These fines represented less than 2 percent of the bank’s profit in 2009.
  81. Matt Taibbi, “Outrageous HSBC settlement proves the drug war is a joke,” Rolling Stone, December 13, 2013.
  82. Christian De Brie, “Thick as thieves,” Le Monde Diplomatique, April, 2000.
  83. “Illicit Finance,” National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment, 2009,
  84. Rajeev Syal, “Drug money saved banks in global crisis, claims UN advisor,” The Guardian, December 12, 2009.
  85. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report, 2012,
  86. Christi Parsons and Matea Gold, “At Americas summit, Obama says no to legalizing drugs,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2012.
  87. Otto Peréz Molina, “We have to find new solutions to Latin America’s drugs nightmare,” The Guardian, April 7, 2012.
  88. Randal C. Archibold, “In Americas resistance to legal marijuana,” New York Times, June 6, 2013.
  89. Jo Tuckman, “Mexico changes stance in drug war – but little difference seen from Calderón,” The Guardian, December 18, 2012.
  90. An interview with Javier Salicia can be found at Omar Farooq and Connor Guy, “The Movement for Peace and Justice in Mexico,” Nation, June 5, 2012,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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