Americans seem to pay little attention to the ongoing “drug war” in Mexico in which some 65,000+ people have died. The prevailing assumption is that this is either a turf war between rival cartels, or a war between the forces of the state (primarily the Mexican drug police and the military) and the traffickers.
John Gibler’s To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War offers a competing explanation. This is a war between cartels: the Sinaloa cartel headed by Forbes-listed billionaire “El Chapo” Guzmán and their many rivals, including the notorious Zetas organization. However, powerful elements within the Mexican state and its military and law enforcement apparatus appear to have taken the side of El Chapo. And the main victims of the war are not rival drug cartels like the phenomenally brutal ex-Mexican Special Forces–founded Zetas, but innocents: human rights organizers, activists, journalists, those few public officials with integrity, local police officers, and anyone else who might challenge what Gibler claims is essentially a corrupt nexus between the Mexican government and the cartel with whom they have at least temporarily sided.
What are we even to make of such a damning accusation? Let’s start with this: Historical and contemporary evidence suggests it is true.
Every serious analysis of the history of drug trafficking in Mexico discusses “la plaza”. The plaza consists of smuggling routes and territories particularly lucrative to drug traffickers that are designated for certain cartels in collusion with officials and politicians of the Mexican government. Historically, this division of territories was not an inordinately violent process—although as is usual with business disputes between parties absent the rule of law, the alternative is the rule of force. The long-standing Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) established a system whereby it allocated plazas to particular cartels, who generally cooperated with each other to ensure a minimum of inter-cartel rivalry. While cartel killings were not a rarity, innocent citizens were only infrequently caught in the crossfire.
In 2006, however, newly elected Mexican president Felipe Calderón announced a war against (some) cartels, probably—Gibler argues—to distract attention from the ongoing protests against the fraud and irregularities that characterized Calderón’s election. The ramping up of the subsequent “war” has militarized most of Mexico’s city streets. But the army and police are both impotent and corrupt, and do nothing to stop the violence, which has in fact increased dramatically even as Calderon’s troops have been deployed. People are killed daily with impunity, their killers never captured, their cases never solved, with nobody ever charged. As Gibler concludes, Mexico’s drug war is a farce; a horrible, deadly, disastrous joke played on the Mexican people, featuring citizen disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions by the tens of thousands.
But the violence haunting Mexico is largely born in the U.S.A. Here is how it works: Prohibition in the United States is intended to reduce supply, but U.S. consumers crave drugs either produced in or transported through Mexico: cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and cannabis. Following the inexorable logic of capitalism, Mexican entrepreneurs oblige by satisfying our cravings, with illegality boosting price and thus profits to spectacular levels. In a country of endemic poverty, with 44% of the population subsisting below the poverty rate, economic prospects are scarce. This is particularly the case due to devastation wrought by NAFTA in the agricultural sector. Hence, scores of young men go to work for the cartels, though they are ultimately as disposable as the drugs themselves. The United States funds the Mexican military with money and weapons (this counterproductive aid increasing under the “liberal” Obama administration), and private arms dealers sell boatloads of weapons into what they must know will be the cartels’ hands. The Mexican cartels kill each other as they fight over the plazas, but the government does little to address this, and appears to have picked one cartel it favors, presumably because of the obscene wealth it creates—wealth that props up the Mexican economy. Gibler cites estimates that Mexican traffickers’ profits are between $30 billion and $60 billion per year. Mexican and American banks are awash in this money, which provides needed liquidity and in fact Gibler claims, helped stave off the banks’ complete collapse in 2008. Meanwhile, the drug cartels function more as paramilitaries than as typical organized crime syndicates; their main tactic now is terrorizing entire populations through brutal and random attacks on innocent civilians in bars, hotels, restaurants, wherever, all with the silent acquiescence of the state. Impunity for the killers is the hallmark of this war. Yet the United States almost comically refuses to even discuss legalization—the only conceivable strategy for ending the bloodshed. Without prohibition and the vast profits it creates, this situation simply could not exist. The conclusion is inescapable: Those who support prohibition and the militarization of conflict against drug traffickers—i.e., the U.S. government and the Calderón administration—share responsibility for these atrocities.
And what atrocities they are. The book starts with a description of a jail warden in Coahuila state who hides killers in a prison, gives them weapons and lets them go out and kill scores of innocent people, then lets them back in again. This evidence was only uncovered when a rival gang—the Zetas—kidnapped and tortured a cartel member into telling the story on video before they executed him. (The Zetas, in the style of Al Qaeda, post such videos to YouTube.) People are picked up on the street by the police; hours later they are found dead, duct-taped and thrown in a ditch, exhibiting signs of torture. As Gibler remarks, “When a person’s ruined body is crafted into a message, the meaning is clear: This can happen to you.” Sixty-eight reporters have been killed between 2000 and 2010; none of the cases have been solved. Corruption is rampant but few if any politicians or officials have been convicted. Entire towns are militarized, but the military presence is a mere ruse; cartel members wielding AK-47s rule the streets and dead bodies show up with such frequency that they have becomes a primary source of entertainment for an increasingly shell-shocked public. Funeral directors grimly arrive first at crime scenes; mothers of victims vainly protest for justice; crime beat photographers dutifully photograph the corpses in close-up for Mexico’s graphic crime-sheet papers; embattled journalists ask the druglords what they can safely publish without receiving an answer. Fear is the result. Mexico’s homicide rate hangs around the twentieth-worst in the world, though not as bad as some of its neighbors to the south: expect a To Die in Honduras soon.
This short but unforgettable book shocks, disgusts, saddens, and eventually enrages the reader. Gibler’s narrative provides us with in-your-face proof of that which many already know deep inside but some don’t want us to remember: the drug war is a human rights disaster which for ordinary citizens leaves nothing but death, terror, fear, and injustice in its wake. And it is the drug war zones such as Ciudad Juárez and the other border towns that are most affected, though the drug war has now permeated the entire country and literally no Mexican state is immune. Meanwhile, in the United States, as Gibler observes, “The defense industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police, and the drug gangs themselves; the police are addicted to asset forfeiture laws; prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases […].” Gracias gringos! One cannot read this account and think that the war on drugs is much more than a sick criminal scam set up by entrenched interests motivated by power and greed. And power and greed are winning.
Yet the book ends on a note of hope. At the end of Gibler’s narrative, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity started by Mexico’s famous poet Javier Sicilia, is beginning—a movement to persuade the Mexican populace that something can be done about the spiraling deaths and violence: that legalization offers a way out. Since Gibler’s book was written, this movement has grown in size and scope; and while largely ignored by the mainstream American press, one can read about it in detail on such blogs as The Narco News Bulletin (narconews.com). It will take grassroots efforts by the people of Mexico and the United States to end this violence. And while the legalization* that Gibler and Sicilia advocate for both Mexico and the U.S. will not cure Mexico of its poverty and extremes of inequality or a government so self-interested as to allow its citizens to be killed with such impunity, it will at least weaken the hold of (some) cartels on the Mexican state and lower the levels of violence. It is thus an urgent and necessary first step.
* Gibler doesn’t get into the details of how legalization or decriminalization might work either in the U.S. or Mexico; perhaps this is a task best left to policy experts, not journalists.
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