Political economy of Mexico's narco-nightmare

Posted on January 21st, 2013 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

Drug War MexicoAs nightmarish violence continues in Mexico, with horrific massacres and chaotic urban warfare right on the USA's southern border, a couple of academics at England’s University of Sheffield provide a readable 250-page primer on why this is happening now, and take a stab at what can be done to address the crisis—other than escalating it with militarization.

In Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books, London, 2012), Peter Watt & Roberto Zepeda trace how the crisis developed along with Mexico's embrace of the "Washington Consensus," starting in the 1980s. This refers to the economic dogma of "free trade" that became official under Reagan, demanding borders open to US imports and that state protections of internal industry be dropped. "Neoliberalism" is a tricky word, because it means the opposite in Latin America of what it implies in the US—a return to the "classical" laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century, and abandoning social safety nets and government regulation of the economy.

Under Mexico's old system, in place since the 1920s, an entrenched machine known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stood at the center of everything—including the dope trade. This exploded in the 1970s, as demand for marijuana soared in the US and the famous crackdown on the "French Connection" interrupted supplies of Turkish heroin from the Corsican mafia. Cannabis and opium production took hold in Mexico's mountains, and the same criminal networks established themselves as middlemen for cocaine coming up from Colombia. Watt and Zepeda portray the emergence of Mexico's first centralized narco syndicate, the Guadalajara Cartel, as a state-directed affair—overseen by the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), Mexico's answer to the CIA.
The role of the DFS in shaping the Guadalajara Cartel was revealed in a slew of investigative reporting in Mexico's press (some journalists paid with their lives) after the notorious 1985 torture-killing of DEA agent Kiki Camarena at the hands of drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero after his ginormous marijuana plantation (containing more cannabis than authorities had admitted was grown in all Mexico) was busted at El Búfalo Ranch in Chihuahua state, near the Texas border.
Of course the DFS was meanwhile closely cooperating with the CIA and FBI in, um, drug enforcement. Operation Condor, in which Mexican police helicopters sprayed paraquat on dope fields, did briefly reduce yields, but ultimately couldn't keep pace with expanding production. It didn't help that only those plantations not protected by pay-offs were being targeted—there were even reports that some choppers sprayed water and fertilizer instead of herbicide!
But the breaking up of the old centralized system only saw an expansion of the narco-economy. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), unemployment jumped as state enterprises were privatized, and rural poverty grew as corn prices dropped thanks to cheap US imports. The cartels filled the economic vacuum, as unemployed youth became traffickers and peasants who could no longer survive by growing corn turned to dope. The US-Mexico border became more porous for goods and capital (even as it became more restrictive for migrants), facilitating easier smuggling and money-laundering. The authors state, "Ironically, the cartels were among the prime beneficiaries of NAFTA."
New cartels proliferated, as regional syndicates broke from the Guadalajara machine, demanding control over their own networks and a bigger piece of the pie. But it continued to emerge, with mortifying relentlessness, that the cartels intersected with state power at the highest level. Then now-imprisoned Raúl Salinas—brother of President Carlos Salinas, who signed NAFTA along with Bill Clinton—was named by Swiss authorities in a money-laundering investigation as controlling most of the drug shipments moving through Mexico during his brother's presidency. Shortly after being appointed Mexico's Drug Czar in 1996, Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, a man of "unquestioned integrity" (in the words of US Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey), was busted for collaborating with the Juárez Cartel.
And things only got much worse after the PRI's monopoly on power ended with the historic 2000 presidential elections, that brought Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) to power. He was succeeded in 2006 by another PAN president, Felipe Calderón—who promptly declared "war" on the cartels in response to escalating narco-violence, dispatching thousands of army troops into the streets nearly throughout the country. He also entered into the Merida Initiative with the US, a multi-billion dollar counter-narcotics program that included massive aid to the Mexican military.
Despite President Obama's admonition that "enforcement techniques" should be "consistent with human rights," in fact human rights abuses by the security forces exploded under Calderón—by over 400% according to Human Rights Watch. Watt and Zepeda thankfully shoot down the official line that those impacted by the violence are all involved in "improper activities" and somehow deserve it. With a few choice examples, they demonstrate how the violence—both that of the cartels and the security forces—is "directed toward civil society in order to create a climate of fear and terror."
And guess what? Even as Calderón massively militarized the drug war, the cartels continued to intersect with the security apparatus at the top levels. In 2008, Noé Ramírez Mandujano, chief of the Attorney General's Office for Special Investigations on Organized Crime (SIEDO), was sacked for feeding information to the Sinaloa Cartel.
Slightly oversimplifying, the authors portray Mexico now divided between six feuding crime machines—the Tijuana Cartel in Baja California, the Sinaloa Cartel along the north Pacific coast, the Juárez Cartel in Chihuahua, the Gulf Cartel-Zetas (actually now at war with each other) along the Gulf Coast, La Familia in Michoacán, and the Beltran Leyva Cartel in Guerrero. This leaves the rest of the country—principally the mountainous center, where much of the cannabis and opium is grown—contested turf. There is widespread speculation that the government is attempting to rebuild the Pax Mafiosa of the PRI years by establishing the Sinaloa Cartel in a position of supremacy—giving them a free hand while cracking down hard on their rivals. The Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin Guzmán AKA “El Chapo” has escaped from prison once under implausible circumstances, and remains at large despite a supposed manhunt and a whopping price on his head.
Watt and Zepeda find hope in last year’s No Mas Sangre (No More Blood) campaign, a citizen’s mobilization against the violence led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was brutally murdered along with six young friends in Cuernavaca. The authors see hope in this movement making common cause with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to seek "alternatives to the dominant global order."
The authors end with a challenge to a purely libertarian solution. Legalization, they write, "could potentially reduce the huge profits involved" in the narco trade, but "would not necessarily on its own present a long-term answer to the institutionalized corruption and the eruption of violence of last few years." Well, making the connection to the larger economic context is an important contribution to the debate, but one wishes they wouldn't hedge on legalizing—the inescapable first step that even many politicians are now finally coming to broach. 


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