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Do the United States and Mexico Really Want the Drug War To Succeed?

Robert Joe Stout (mexicoconamor [at] yahoo.com) lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, and his articles and essays have appeared recently in America, Conscience, The American Scholar, and Monthly Review. His most recent book is Why Immigrants Come to America (Praeger Publishers, 2007).

Until 1914 laudanum and morphine were legally sold and distributed in the United States, heroin was prescribed as a cough medicine, and coca and cocaine were mixed with wine and cola drinks. Although most of the opium came from the Orient, Chinese settlers on Mexico’s west coast, particularly in the state of Sinaloa, began cultivating adormidera (opium gum) during the 1870s and gradually developed an export trade.

Even after the use of opium-based products was declared illegal in the United States the exportations from Sinaloa continued; prosecution of offenders, if it happened at all, was benign. The adormidera crossed into the United States through places like Tijuana, a dusty little frontier town until the mid-twentieth century; San Luis Río Colorado, across the border from Yuma, Arizona; Nogales, also on the Arizona border; and Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande River from Presidio in Texas’s isolated Big Bend country. Customs agents on both sides of the border, but particularly in Mexico, cooperated with the exporters and the flow of drugs, though not large by 1960s or ‘70s standards, went through virtually unimpeded.

The majority of those involved were locals who spent the cash they acquired in the areas in which they operated. They hired local residents for construction, transportation, ranching, and other sidelines in which they invested their earnings. As far as most of their neighbors were concerned they were good citizens whose business was no better or worse from that of any other.

Prohibition changed this genial and basically cooperative landscape. Large amounts of liquor were harder to conceal than adormidera or marijuana, making it necessary for exporters to bribe—or form partnerships—with those in charge of customs. Politicians ranging from local councilmen to state governors became involved, forcing the local exporters either to join them or evade them as well as evade law enforcement.

The end of Prohibition wounded but did not slay the golden calf of liquor exportation. The politically connected entrepreneurs that controlled the aduanas (customs inspection stations) also controlled prostitution and a percentage of drug exportations. They financed the construction and operation of luxurious night clubs, gourmet restaurants, and gambling activities that attracted large numbers of U.S. residents. Both politically affiliated and independent drug exporters invested in these enterprises as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and other border cities became brightly lit tourist meccas surrounded by desolate slums packed with new arrivals, deportees, addicts, beggars, and petty criminals.

By 1948 the volume of Sinaloa adormidera crossing the border triggered harsh recriminations from representatives of the U.S. federal government. Mexico’s Attorney General responded with equally acerbic suggestions that officials north of the border deal with those who were purchasing the drugs since the market attracting the exports was in the United States. Mexican federal and state law enforcement did arrest a few farmers and mulas (mules, i.e., those hired to transport contraband) but did not prosecute any leading political or business figures.

Despite cinema and television depictions of drug runners as gun-toting, Pancho Villa-like gangsters, the truth was that many well-attired and well-educated governors, bankers, and businessmen considered the business of growing and exporting adormidera as natural (and as profitable) as growing cotton or corn. The income from drug exportations filtered through the economies of the states involved and was attributed to “sale of agricultural products” if the source was questioned.

As marijuana and cocaine use increased exponentially during the 1960s in the United States, Sinaloa drug exporters expanded into other areas, particularly Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico, where they clashed with exporters who had greater access to delivery points across the border. They also competed for connections with the major Colombian “cartels.”

By the 1970s importing Colombian cocaine and getting it into the United States had become an increasingly complex business. The so-called “cartels” or drug corporations included accountants, lawyers, chemists, legislators, and entire corps of police departmentalized into individual functions which included marketing, investment, press relations, and militarized units, most of which were led by experienced former Mexican Army and Navy officers. (The term “cartel” is erroneous since the drug organizations have nothing to do with medieval trade unions; instead they function like private corporations.)

As these organizations grew they brought more elements of Mexican society into their operations, particularly for laundering profits and transporting drugs. Tourists and businessmen and women—well-dressed, affable, polite—crossed the border with false-bottomed luggage filled with cocaine. Soccer balls and balloons contained packets of powder. Brassieres that made small-breasted women seem much more amply endowed were padded with cocaine sewed into the garments. According to retired U.S. Air Force journalist James McGee, importers in El Paso brought thousands of colorful Mexican piñatas across the border—piñatas that never were retailed but ripped open and discarded after the cocaine packed inside them had been removed.

As happens with most corporations, junior operatives (executives) began to break away and form smaller organizations of their own. Murders and assassinations between rival bands increased as they vied for portions of the lucrative trade. Breakaway groups unable to chisel a large enough portion for themselves branched into people smuggling, counterfeiting, business shakedowns, prostitution, auto theft, and kidnapping. Others paid their bribes and expenses with “merchandise” (i.e., cocaine or heroin) or, unable to push it into the United States, increased distribution in Mexico, where profits were lower but easier to obtain. Gradually—first along the frontier with the United States, then in cities throughout the country—more and more Mexican nationals, especially those under thirty years of age, became habitual drug users.

Gradually the principal criminal organizations gobbled up smaller local operatives. (“Join us or join those in the cemetery,” was the ultimatum usually given.) The smaller criminal bands paid monthly “quotas” to be allowed to operate. The dominant corporations paid quotas to government officials, business executives, and military commanders, while also purchasing legitimate businesses like major sports franchises and investing in the stock market.

The financial fluidity of these rapidly expanding corporations enabled them to establish “nations within the nation” that were functionally self-governing and absorbed or supplanted many social and communal activities. The kingpin was Juan García-Ábrego; his so-called “Cartel del Golfo” transferred thousands of tons of cocaine that had been flown from Colombia to clandestine landing strips in Quintana Roo and the Yucatán for smuggling into the United States.

When Mexican authorities arrested and extradited García-Ábrego to the United States in 1996 his organization foundered and its new leaders temporarily allied themselves with the Sinaloa group. Such “marriages” and subsequent breakups occurred frequently throughout the 1980s and ‘90s depending upon arrests, betrayals, governmental changes, and business opportunities. But although the names and faces changed the business continued unabated.

In many aspects (investment, trade, communication, transportation, defense) the “nations within the nation” that the drug corporations formed paralleled the structure of Mexico’s federal government. Many who operated within the corporate systems functioned in similar capacities within federal and state law enforcement and financial entities. The capos contributed to local and regional political campaigns, thus assuring themselves of being able to extract needed favors and permissions from the many officeholders in their debt. According to a retired state employee named Pedro Enrique Martínez who chauffeured a number of Sinaloa politicians:

The capos (drug lords) realized it wasn’t cost effective to have to keep bribing those who held higher offices so they started recruiting young local candidates, helping finance them to win elections. Soon every city, every municipio (county), every state bureaucracy was infiltrated. Sometimes the capos would go years and not require anything then one day they’d say “We need this bill passed” or “We need this shipment to go through” and they’d get what they wanted.

What the leader of the so-called “Sinaloa cartel” Joaquín (“El Chapo”) Guzmán wanted, he informed the government of Mexican president Felipe Calderón, was to be allowed to run his business without interference from the military. Some members of the bureaucracy and Senate and House of Deputies quietly supported this concept, harking back to the presidency of the PRI’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari between 1988 and 1994, when drug exportations enriched participating politicians without arousing bloody criminal confrontations. Nonetheless, Calderón and his administration remained committed to U.S.-financed policies of militarized action.

Although Calderón and his inner circle were loath to admit it the militarization provoked greater violence and bloodshed without diminishing the flow of drugs northward (and rapidly increasing narcotics use and addiction in Mexico). As proof of the success of the military operations Calderón cited increases in the street price of cocaine in the United States, but he did not mention how much those increases stimulated importers and producers to greater activity.

Addiction and crime associated with drug users became a major problem in the United States but the vast majority of users—like the vast majority of persons who buy and use alcoholic beverages—are not addicts. Bankers, politicians, athletes, university professors, insurance salespersons, construction workers, and thousands of others indulge only on weekends or at parties or as sexual provokers. They purchase the cocaine and marijuana from other athletes, salespersons, or bankers who have regular suppliers, most of whom they have being doing business with for years. All are far removed from street warfare between mafiosos and armed military and they are a primary reason that the “War on Drugs” has not reduced the demand for cocaine, marijuana, and other narcotics in the United States.

In her “Americas Program” column on September 3, 2009, entitled “Drug War Doublespeak,” Laura Carlsen insisted: “Drug-war doublespeak pervades and defines the United States-Mexico relationship today. The discourse aims not to win the war on drugs, but to assure funding and public support for the military model of combating illegal drug trafficking, despite the losses and overwhelming evidence that current strategies are not working.”

According to Mexican national security specialist Ghaleb Krame the narcotraficantes developed a sophisticated counter-intelligence system and utilized highly mobile guerrilla groups that constantly changed their bases and personnel while the Mexican army, bogged down by traditional channels of protocol and information, was unable to effectively counter these maneuvers. As a consequence the Mexican government expanded its dependence on paramilitaries to do what the police and military could not do legally.

Undercover operations are not confined to infiltrating and investigating drug corporation activities but like the brigadas blancas of the 1960s and ‘70s guerra sucia (“dirty war”) they disrupted social protest movements and sequestered and sometimes tortured those defending ecological, communal, or union rights. Human rights advocates and journalists like Miguel Badillo insist that the “War on Drugs” is “a simulation whose real objective is to stomp out growing social discontent” in the country.

Other forces primarily formed of former military and police personnel became private “armies” contracted by individual entrepreneurs. They escort dignitaries and their families, guard business and industrial sites, and—like the drug organization paramilitaries—serve as armed couriers. As a Oaxaca self-employed contractor, Ali Jiménez, told me, “It’s come to the point that the government lets these guys (entrepreneurs) surround themselves with gunmen since nobody can trust the police and there’s no public security.” A former Chihuahua journalist who left the profession because of death threats told me, “The War on Drugs is like a football [soccer] game without coaches or referees, soldiers and narcos charging this way and that, doing more harm to the spectators than to each other.”

The drug corporations have infiltrated all levels of government and their payrolls include thousands of lookouts, messengers, farmers, and truck drivers. However, the federal government and the inexperienced Mexican military seem to lack cohesive intelligence reports or effective plans for doing anything more than random searches and seizures. Often they respond to misleading or false information they acquire from informants, many of whom are paid by the drug organizations to finger competitors or businesses whose only connection with the mafiosos is having failed to pay adequate protection money.

Drug corporations like the “Cartel del Golfo” were even able to seduce high-ranking members of Mexico’s top organized crime-fighting agency, SIEDO (Sub-Prosecutor General of Special Investigations into Organized Crime). The PGR (Prosecutor General of the Republic, Mexico’s Attorney General’s office), which had its own problems with infiltrators in its ranks, investigated high-ranking SIEDO functionaries in 2008—investigations that were hampered because SIEDO informants, some of whom were receiving more than $450,000 a month, informed the “Cartel del Golfo” of every step that the PGR was taking. Finally, through a former Cartel del Golfo member who testified against the organization as a protected witness, the PGR arrested Sub-Prosecutor Noé Ramírez-Mandujano and Miguel Colorado, SIEDO’s Coordinator of Intelligence, for their connections with organized crime.

The drug corporations retaliated. In May 2007 gunmen assassinated José Lugo, Mexico’s coordinator of information of the Center for Planning and Analysis to Combat Organized Crime. Others ambushed and shot Edgar Millán, acting head of Mexico’s federal police, later that same year. In November 2008 a drug organization hit squad abducted and executed Army General Mauro Tello a few days after he assumed the post of anti-drug czar in Cancun, Quintana Roo. In 2009 they executed government-protected witness Édgar Enrique Bayardo-del Villar while he was breakfasting in a Mexico City Starbucks.

Although Calderón’s government tried to squelch rumors that the fatal crash of a Lear jet carrying Government Secretary Juan Camilo Mouriño was not the result of pilot error, journalists and commentators throughout the country insisted that government version was a cover up and the aircraft had been sabotaged by El Chapo Guzmán’s corporation in retaliation for the arrest and imprisoning of one of his top aides.

As competition among the major drug organizations increased, with assassinations of rival leaders commonplace, the militarized “Zetas” emerged as an elite armed force, first aligned with the Beltrán-Leyva Gulf Cartel, but later an independent corporation functioning on both Mexico’s northern and southern borders. The Zetas were tightly disciplined (their leaders were deserters from Mexico’s Special Forces and many had been trained by the U.S. School of the Americas and/or the Kaibilies in Guatemala) and brazenly recruited active duty militaries.

Although the Zetas occasionally openly confronted police and military units they focused primarily on intimidating and extracting quotas from growers and transporters as well as those engaged in legitimate businesses, including cattle ranchers, merchants, local entrepreneurs, bar and nightclub owners, farmers, polleros (people smugglers), and truckers. They dealt harshly with those who tried to circumvent or reduce these obligations—kidnapping, torturing, and often decapitating those who were delinquent in their payments.

By 2008 Mexico had committed some 50,000 troops to the “War on Drugs.” Because the Mexican military had been a peacetime force primarily involving garrison duty (and, since 1994, containment controls around the Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas) it offered relatively few benefits and minimal salaries to enlisted personnel. Recruiting was focused on marginal residents of city slums where life was hazardous, and in poverty-wracked rural areas that offered no other hopes of employment. Theoretically recruits needed to have completed junior high school to enter the military but proof seldom was required and criminal behavior, if confined to misdemeanors, often was overlooked.

These poverty-bred soldiers, many just out of basic training, adhere to medieval practices of supplementing their meager salaries with what they acquire during cateos (searches and seizures of property) and shakedowns. Victims accuse soldiers of stealing money and stripping personnel property from persons stopped at highway checkpoints. Federal authorities derail prosecution of soldiers accused of abuses by insisting that those levying the charges “are politically motivated” and that the accusations are exaggerated or falsified.

The drug corporations also recruit from marginal areas. Although they promise “guns, money, cars, and women” to potential deserters many of the hundreds of thousands they hire do not carry weapons and primarily act as lookouts, messengers, decoys, and money handlers. Like many legitimate corporations the drug organizations have established salary scales, usually beginning with the equivalent of US$800 per month, a figure that doubles after a set number of months or year of service. (Schoolteachers in southern Mexico receive the equivalent of $800–$1,100 per month and most workers are paid less, thus vaulting a newly recruited drug corporation lookout or messenger into the upper 10 percent of money earners in his or her community.)

To tens of thousands of young people employment with a drug corporation “at least offers something,” as a seventeen-year-old high school dropout told me after a friend offered to connect him with a recruiter. Al Jazeera quoted a drug organization member: “I could never go back to making ten dollars a day. At least here I get paid and I have some opportunity to rise up. In other jobs I will always be at the bottom.” That most of these newly recruited members have no criminal records and intermingle with the general population created an environment “like those old science-fiction movies about androids, you never know who’s on your side and who isn’t,” as an editor from a Mexican daily exclaimed during a Mexico City news conference.

Drug-associated killings became so frequent that by 2008 Mexican newspapers like La Jornada grouped daily execution and assassination reports under a single back page headline. During the first eight months of 2009 they reported an average of twenty-one killings a day. By 2010 the average number of drug-associated deaths averaged nearly forty a day.

Because President Calderón needed—or thought he needed (or his ultra-conservative National Action Party thought that he needed)—the support of governors alleged to have connections with various drug organizations he shunted aside revelations about their narco-business contacts. Prosecution of commerce in cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs occurred in a patchwork pattern, with political alliances given priority over enforcement. Many governors, high-ranking politicians, business impresarios, and generals remained immune even when military raids or PGR investigations targeted their agencies.

Only when “the structure of power that those controlling the politics of the nation have maintained as accomplices and members of this series of criminal organizations has collapsed” will real solutions to the internal warfare among the “nations within a nation” be possible, Guillermo Garduño-Valero, a specialist in national security analysis from Mexico’s Metropolitan University (UAM), told La Jornada. The drug corporations have become so powerful politically, he argued, that both the federal and state governments have become subservient to them and the occasional arrests and assaults on organization leaders have little or no impact on the lucrative trade.

Both the governments of Mexico and the United States have demonstrated a need to justify military actions and to portray the “War on Drugs” as a battle between good and evil with no gray areas in between. To make the rhetoric effective it has been necessary to villainize the perpetrators of the “evil” and to ignore the dominant reasons that the evil exists: unabated drug consumption in the United States. Also overlooked has been drug-associated violence in the United States, particularly in city ghettos where gang warfare involving drug distribution has existed since the 1960s.

Until late in the twentieth century heroin and cocaine addiction in Mexico was not considered a major problem. Narcotics filtered to Mexican buyers as a spin off from smuggling, but most production and distribution was focused on getting the narcotics to consumers north of the border who would pay ten or more times what the drugs sold for in Mexico. Governmental sources in both countries consistently denied that U.S. military intervention into Mexican territory was being planned; nevertheless several governors of states on the U.S. side of the border have requested permanent military “protection,” including armed patrols and battle-ready commandos.

Many of the groups that distribute narcotics in the United States are linked to specific Mexican corporations just as U.S. auto, livestock, cosmetics, and computer exporters are linked with importers in Mexico. Gangs in the United States clash primarily over obtaining drugs for street sales, but the majority of imported narcotics passes into the hands of white-collar distributors with regular clients who can afford the prices established for purchasing cocaine and other drugs.

Although many journalists and editors would like to deny it, newspapers and television which rely financially on readers, viewers, and advertisers profit more from graphic reports about beheadings, drug raids, and high-speed chases than they do from features about controlled or casual use of narcotics. Attitudes towards drug use in both countries run a gamut between “drugs are a sin” to “I enjoy them, why not?” That they can be detrimental to one’s health, just as the consumption of alcoholic beverages, cigarette smoking, overeating, driving a car at excessive speeds, or long-term exposure to direct sunlight can be detrimental, is grounded in fact.

Unfortunately facts and politics do not go hand in glove. Nor do facts and marketing. Newspaper wire services and television reports designed to stimulate interest and sell sponsors’ products (and/or comply with ownership political biases) influence public opinion and public opinion influences the decisions of legislators and Congressmen. As Laura Carlson insists: “These claims and others like them, although unsubstantiated, accumulate into a critical mass to push a public consensus on implementing dangerous and delusional policies. Like the model it mimics—the Bush war on terror—the drug war in Mexico is being mounted on the back of hype, half-truths, omissions and outright falsehoods.”

Unfortunately, major questions that need to be answered are shunted aside by policymakers on both sides of the border and preference is given to partisan stances that have less to do with the drug trade or the war against it than they have to do with maintaining economic and political power. Neither government seems capable of asking: Can Mexico really afford to end the production and exportation of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, and designer drugs without its U.S.-dependent economy collapsing?

In many respects, the drug organizations operating in Mexico exemplify what “free enterprise” is about: developing and marketing a product that satisfies willing consumers. Their armed components make their competition deadlier than competitors in other industries, but their methods of operation duplicate those of legitimate corporations: they seek (or buy) government support, network a well-organized retail trade, and invest their profits in condominiums, the stock market, and high-visibility consumer items. Their corporate structures, divided into distinct operations and with well-defined chains of command, enable them to replace any executive who is arrested or killed without that materially affecting production or sales.

The money they bring into Mexico, unlike money brought in by legitimate corporations, does not require government investment and consequently is untaxed and unreported (which prevents it from benefiting the nearly 80 percent of the population with inadequate and/or poverty level incomes). Nevertheless, what the mafiosos spend on purchases, construction, and salaries circulates throughout the economy. The owner of a Michoacán taquería reflected the viewpoint of many Mexican residents: “They have lana [literally wool, but popularly used to describe money], they eat well; I now have five locations instead of just one.”

Proposals to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, as various states in the United States have done, came under discussion during the early years of President Vicente Fox’s administration but evoked a vehemently negative response, particularly from the Catholic Church hierarchy and those influenced by Church doctrine. Calderón’s PAN government seemed more inclined to reinstitute the Salinas de Gortari era of tacit coordination with a single dominant drug corporation, a process that could not be discussed openly and would involve purging local, state, and federal governments of alignments with everyone except the chosen affiliate (which many sources in Mexico insist is El Chapo’s “Sinaloa Cartel”).

As long as the assassinations, beheadings, cateos, and the majority of the corruption of government official remain south of the border the United States can maintain its pro-military stance, send money and arms to Mexico’s conservative government, and focus on more demanding issues. Mexico, in contrast, rejecting any form of legalization, remains bound to its U.S.-appeasing commitment to continue a bloody confrontation that seems to have no end.

Although legalization would re-channel importation and sales and make addiction, overdoses, and side effects a public health problem instead of strictly a law-enforcement concern, drug-related crimes would continue to exist, just as alcohol-related crimes continued to make headlines and fill jails after the repeal of Prohibition. Taxes on importation and sales could finance rehabilitation and other government programs; corporations handling importation and sales could be effectively audited but social, ethical, and religious conflicts over morality and behavior would continue.

Nor would legalization magically resolve the economic issues that gave rise to the complex business of drug exportation and use, and it would have to occur in both Mexico and the United States to be effective. Restricting or controlling the financing of drug operations would not be possible without breaking up the distribution and investment chains that involve not only the two governments, but also entrepreneurs and legalized businesses. But it can hardly be denied that legalization is a necessary first step toward any decent, or even tolerable, outcome.

The nationalism exhibited by the governments of both the United States and Mexico has impeded dealing rationally with drug cultivation and distribution. Coupled with the lack of accurate information—and/or falsification of the information available—it has created a paradigm where the solution has preceded analysis and wrenched fact and fiction into a definition that fits the solution, rather than the solution being the culmination of analysis. In much the same way that trying to solve the “illegal immigration problem” by constructing walls and making arrests puts the cart (solution) before the horse (employers), trying to curb the importation of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other drugs by militarized procedures is doomed to fail because it does not recognize or deal with the undiminished demand for the products involved.

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