Ben Ehrenreich at the London Review of Books has written one of the best articles on the current situation in Mexico that I have seen. Thousands of people are dying there, caught up in a sinister nexus where all the main players — drug cartels, their officials backers (and servants), the various Drug Warriors on both sides of the border, the corporations profiteering from the Drug War, the august and respectable financial institutions who move the money for both the cartels and their official antagonists, and the American and Mexican politicians who happily game the murderous system for their own cynical advantage — are reaping huge rewards, while a whole society is being destroyed.
As Ehrenreich points out in the succinct but detailed historical background he provides, the current Drug War-fueled destruction is just part and parcel of a larger assault on the underpinning of Mexican society — a wider campaign that includes brutal economic war, and the relentless militarization of society on both sides of the border. On the U.S. side, it is again a thoroughly bipartisan affair, ranging from Richard Nixon to Clinton’s NAFTA and beyond.
Unfortunately, the article is not one of those that LRB makes available to non-subscribers every month. Fortunately, your correspondent happens to be a subscriber, so below are some extensive excerpts from Ehreneich’s superb piece.
There have been more than 2000 killings in Juárez so far this year. … The violence is dizzying, all the more so because so little light has been shed on it by the press, either in Mexico or abroad. Most accounts stick to the official narrative: the bloodshed is simply the result of heightened competition between drug cartels for control of profitable smuggling routes, and of the military battling it out with the bad guys. The dead are generally identified only as ‘pistoleros’ or ‘sicarios’; their killers as ‘armed commandos’. The most basic facts are left unspecified: body counts, names, places, dates. … The government, the opposition, the cartels and the various factions within all of them spread disinformation as a matter of policy, which means that political gossip tends to revolve around who stands to profit from which distortion. To make things more complicated, there is a great deal at stake for Mexico’s powerful neighbour to the north. The two most pernicious strands of contemporary American politics – nativism and the all-encompassing discourse of ‘security’ – feed into the notion that Mexico is slipping into anarchy.
Horrific though it is, the violence is neither inexplicable nor entirely senseless. It is the result of a struggle over drug distribution in which a remarkable number of players have come to have a deep investment: not only the narcos, but their ostensible opponents on both sides of the international border and of the hazier divide separating legality from criminality. Drugs are an old business in Mexico. Farmers in the remote high sierra of the western state of Sinaloa have been growing opium poppies since the late 19th century – and marijuana long before that – but smuggling did not become a viable enterprise until the US created an illicit market by regulating the use of opiates in 1914. Then, as now, drugs flowed one way: north. The American appetite for forbidden intoxicants grew quickly in the second half of the last century. As the US market expanded, so did the smuggling industry that serviced it. Until the early 1970s the smugglers were subordinate to the local politicians and military and police commanders under whose protection they were permitted to operate, and who in turn took their place in a chain of command that rose all the way to the presidency.
This arrangement ran smoothly until marijuana’s newfound popularity led Richard Nixon to declare a ‘war on drugs’ and to begin putting pressure on the Mexican government to staunch the flow. Even then, other motives were concealed beneath the American government’s apparent concern for the health of its citizens: Nixon’s chief of staff recorded in his diary that in the course of a briefing on drug enforcement in 1969, the president had ‘emphasised … that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognises this while not appearing to.’ That year, Nixon ordered a massive policing effort on the Mexican border called Operation Intercept. Relatively little contraband was found and Mexico was furious about the crackdown, but the US administration considered it a success. Gordon Liddy, then the co-chair of Nixon’s narcotics task force, would later write: ‘It was an exercise in international extortion, pure, simple and effective, designed to bend Mexico to our will.’ It worked: the next anti-drug effort was called Operation Co-operation. Seven years later, with logistical help from the US, Mexico launched its first major military operation against the drug trade. Operation Condor, led by a general who had taken part in the massacre of students at Tlatelolco in 1968 and the anti-guerrilla campaigns of the 1970s Dirty War, dislodged hundreds of peasants from the western sierras. Complaints of torture by federal troops abounded.
n the 1980s a massive expansion of the cocaine market in the States coincided with the growth of leftist guerrilla movements in Central and South America. Under the cover of the drug war, Reagan took on both at once. In 1986, he signed a directive that linked narco-trafficking to ‘insurgent groups’ and ‘terrorist cells’ abroad, and declared the narcotics trade a threat to national security. The effect was to militarise the war on drugs, converting what had once been a matter for domestic law enforcement into an instrument of foreign policy.
At the same time, and not coincidentally, Mexico was undergoing a shift to neoliberalism under the presidencies of Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas, both of whom were educated, or partially educated, in the US. The smuggling business, too, was about to take a neoliberal turn. It had consolidated in the 1980s under one man, Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo. Known as El Padrino, or the Godfather, Félix Gallardo emerged from the old system: he was a former policeman and chief bodyguard to the governor of Sinaloa. When a US Drug Enforcement Agency officer working undercover in Mexico was kidnapped and killed, the first Bush administration pushed hard for Félix Gallardo’s arrest. Negotiations for the trade pact that would later be known as the North American Free Trade Agreement were underway and Salinas wanted to keep the Americans happy, so in 1989, Félix Gallardo was arrested. But Félix Gallardo had seen what was coming and by then he had divided up his empire, distributing the most valued smuggling routes, or plazas, to trusted lieutenants. Just as Salinas was breaking up and privatising hundreds of state-owned industries, so Félix Gallardo was breaking up his domain, effectively creating what are now the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels.
…In 1993 and 1994, US immigration officials began pouring resources into securing the border at two major urban crossing sites – between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and between San Diego and Tijuana. Perversely, this helped the cartels seal their monopolies on the trade. ‘Borders breed smuggling,’ the sociologist Fernando Escalante explains: ‘A closed border breeds organised smuggling. It favours cartels, it favours organised crime.’
Now the Economic War experienced a great "surge" under those fightin’ progressives, NAFTA-men Bill Clinton and Al Gore:
The broader effects of NAFTA and the reforms that accompanied it were more diffuse and far more destructive. A constitutional amendment passed as a precondition for the trade pact did away with the legislation that since the 1930s had forbidden the private sale of communally held farmland. Now cheap and highly subsidised American corn flooded the Mexican market. Local farmers were unable to compete: 1.1 million small farmers and 1.4 million others dependent on the agricultural sector lost their livelihoods. Campesinos left ancestral holdings, forced into the uncertainties of migrancy, both within Mexico and abroad. Villages were left almost abandoned. In a few short years, extraordinary wealth was concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority while the dream of an agrarian republic that had sustained the country for most of the 20th century collapsed. The anticipated shift to export-oriented manufacturing was a failure. Few of the promised jobs in the foreign-owned assembly plants known as maquiladoras materialised. The ones that did soon vanished as companies pursued still cheaper labour in China.
As a result of the "reforms" of the progressive duo, almost a third of the Mexican people have been forced into penurious, petty hustling and scrabbling to eke out an existence on the margins of modernity:
Nearly 30 per cent of the population now works in the informal economy – washing car windows on street corners, selling tacos, sodas, DVDs. Cuts to education have helped create a new class of young people: the 7.5 million so-called ninis who aren’t in school and don’t have jobs (‘ni estudian ni trabajan’). The minimum wage has lost two thirds of its buying power and nearly half the population lives in poverty. In his book on the epidemic of murders of young women in Ciudad Juárez, Huesos en el desierto (‘Bones in the Desert’, 2002), González Rodríguez wrote of the vast new class of the uprooted and excluded, poor migrants from the countryside who now find themselves wandering in a ‘vertiginous universe of technology and productivity, merchandise and calculation’.
In the 1990s, "neoliberals" — i.e., ball-crushing boardroom Bolsheviks committed to the crony capitalism known laughingly as "free trade" — took power in Mexico, with predictable ‘shock doctrine’ results:
Between 1989 and 1999, the National Action Party (the PAN), which represented the socially conservative transnational elite that had profited most from the PRI’s economic policies, won the governorships of eight states, including the border states in which the most important drug trafficking routes were situated. By 2000, when the PAN won the presidency with the election of the former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox, the old networks of political patronage that had contained and controlled the drug smuggling industry were in disarray. The cartel leaders broke free from the system that had kept them in check. The old arrangement was turned on its head. Traffickers had once worked for the police and the politicians: now the police and politicians were working for them.
The democratic renaissance prophesied by Fox’s allies delivered little. Corruption persisted. The transformation of the economy along neoliberal lines continued, but without even the tattered remnants of the PRI paternalism that had for almost a century redistributed some small portion of the nation’s wealth in exchange for votes and obedience. Now the market alone would rule, and the millions it left behind would have no option but to adjust to the new realities. ‘The campesinos,’ Fox’s finance secretary announced in 2003, ‘will have to transform themselves into industrial workers or true business people.’ Many have done precisely that – either in factories, fields and kitchens north of the border, or in the precarious employ of the drug cartels.
The current president, Felipe Calderon, took power in a disputed Bush-like election, with a similarly farcical "recount" process: "The electoral tribunal ordered a partial recount, declared Calderón the winner and promptly destroyed the ballots." Then, like Bush, he proceeded to seize upon a convenient "crisis" — the post-NAFTA cartel conflicts — to militarize the situation and shore up his own illegitimate power:
Less than a fortnight later, Calderón called on the military once again, this time ordering 6500 troops to his home state of Michoacán to stem the rising violence there. The drug war was for him what the war on terror had been for George W. Bush. Like Bush, he lacked legitimacy in the eyes of at least half the population: the drug war ‘allowed him the tools he needed in order to govern’. Over the next two years, he would send 45,000 troops – a quarter of Mexico’s armed forces – to the northern border, the south-western state of Guerrero, and the so-called Golden Triangle, the mountainous poppy-growing regions of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua. For most of the last century, the Mexican military had been almost unique in Latin America in keeping a respectful distance from civil institutions and from the US. Calderón changed that. In 2008, the two countries launched the Merida Initiative: Mexico accepted $1.3 billion in counter-narcotics funding from the US and an unprecedented level of military co-operation was established.
Ehrenreich then makes a key point — an insight that holds true not only for Mexico, but in virtually every case around the world where conflicts, disputes — and political and corporate agendas — have been militarized:
Everywhere the military has visited, the bloodshed has grown much worse.
Militarizing a situation guarantees there will be indiscriminate killing, enormous destruction, economic ruin, social collapse, degradation of infrastructure, the spread of disease, and massive, pervasive corruption. This is what you are knowingly perpetrating every time you militarize a situation. It invariably makes the situation worse — unless, of course, bloodshed, ruin and corruption are, in fact, your goals.
Ehrenreich goes on:
Between December 2006 – when Calderón took office and sent out the first troops – and July 2010, more than 28,000 Mexicans were murdered. The president has insisted that 90 per cent of the victims were cartel members, although only 5 per cent of the murders have been investigated, much less solved. In the first four years of his term, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission received 4035 complaints alleging abuses by the armed forces – more than it had received in the previous 15 years – including allegations of murder, torture and rape. Because the military is charged with investigating itself, such abuses invariably go unpunished. And ‘because writing or saying what the military is up to could result in serious injury or death,’ the American journalist Charles Bowden notes in Murder City, his recent book about Juárez, few of the more serious abuses are ever reported.[*] At least 31 reporters have been killed or disappeared since 2006.
Ah, but of course now we have another progressive in the White House — a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, no less, an heir to Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi. Surely now, things will change, we will take a new direction, away from the obviously failed policies of the past. Yes? No.
Calderón, unfazed, has promised to keep the troops on the streets until the end of his six-year term. His support from the north has been unflagging. Obama has proposed extending the Merida Initiative, and has requested an additional $310 million for 2011. His administration appears to situate Mexico within the discourse of failing states battling insurgencies and requiring American help. It’s a bad fit – the cartels are not revolutionary cells so much as organisations of global capital – but the rhetoric provides a domestic pretext for folding Mexico into US security protocols. Carlos Pascual, the new US ambassador to Mexico, last summer confidently proposed ‘a new role’ for the Mexican military in Juárez, one consistent with counter-insurgency tactics employed by the US across the globe: they would secure the perimeter of five-block-square ‘safe zones’, and push that perimeter outward block by block.
Ehrenreich’s conclusion is bleak indeed — worthy of Cormac McCarthy — but, one fears, all too accurate:
Whatever shape it takes, the war on drugs continues to be even more profitable than the drug trade itself. All the killing keeps prices per gram high, so the cartels do fine, as do the legions of sicarios and the funeral directors they help to feed. The bankers who launder the money also win, as do the businessmen into whose enterprises the newly laundered funds are funnelled. The American weapons manufacturers stand to do nicely, as do the US security consultants and military contractors who will deposit almost all of the Merida funds into their own accounts, and who can expect to make billions more from the militarisation of the border on the American side: someone has to make the helicopters, the cameras, the night-vision goggles, the motion sensors, the unmanned drones, as well as build the private prisons that hold the migrants. Finally politicians too stand to gain, not only Calderón and the PRIistas who are likely to profit from his failure in 2012, but the Americans who have sponsored him: the agile ones who can leverage campaign contributions from the contractors, the populists who win votes by shouting about the barbarian hordes advancing through the Arizona desert, the moderates who get re-elected term after term by expounding in even tones about the need for something called ‘comprehensive border security’. The killing is therefore unlikely to stop.