How Mexico's War On Drugs Went Wrong

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It was billed as a triumph of law enforcement and cooperation between security agencies from Mexico and the United States: the arrest of Jesus Alfredo Guzman, alias El Gordo, or "The Fat One". A senior figure in the narco-trafficking underworld, Guzman is also the son of the biggest of the lot, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most wanted man with an estimated personal fortune in excess of $1 billion.

Except he wasn’t. Guzman, that is: the man in custody was actually one Felix Beltran, an innocent car dealer from the outskirts of Guadalajara, as the federal attorney general’s office admitted shortly afterwards. What started as a story of derring-do by the Mexican Marines, who carried out the raid, had come perilously close to bearing out a famous dictum of Marx (Groucho): "military intelligence is a contradiction in terms".

There could be no starker illustration of the basic folly of a society declaring a "war on drugs". Sooner or later the drugs will declare war back. Mexico goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, after six years in which the present incumbent, Felipe Calderón, has expanded the armed federal police sixfold, with assistance from across the border in the shape of "Plan Merida", US government funding to buy aircraft, surveillance software and military training.

What is sauce for the goose, of course, is sauce for the gander; there is one rather conspicuous shopping mall for cashed-up narco-traffickers looking to upgrade their capacity to fight back.

Sure enough, investigations by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms show a large percentage of weapons used in violent incidents involving the cartels also come from the United States. Estimates of the death toll vary, but all agree there has been a huge upsurge in the number of killings since Calderón took office. His drug war may very well have cost 60,000 lives, including many innocent bystanders and a steady trickle of journalists who asked the wrong person the wrong questions.

The front-runner in the race to succeed Calderón is Enrique Peña Nieto, a scion of the family that established post-colonial Mexico and candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (which sounds like another contradiction in terms, but hey, this is Mexico). He’s vowed to deliver more of the same, with still greater intensity: security spending, having already doubled since 2006, would treble under a Peña presidency.

There is another way, and more and more Mexican voices are being raised in its favour. I visited Eduardo Gallo y Tello at his sumptuous house and gardens, high in the southern suburbs of Mexico City, to hear about his campaign for drugs to be legalised and regulated, instead. The opulent surroundings testify to the fruits of his successful business career, running a chain of hotels — but they belie the sadness in his life. His daughter, Paola, then 25, was kidnapped and killed 10 years ago by members of a drug cartel.

Determined, he told NM, not to let her become just another "statistic number", he short-circuited the bumbling efforts of police to investigate the crime himself, and devoted his considerable energies to researching the political economy of the drug trade. At first, few, if any of the rehab agencies working in the country would back his call for legalisation. Now, it’s finding growing support.

Declare a substance in demand to be illegal, he explains, and you make it more difficult to produce, move and obtain. That forces the price up, in turn attracting people who want to make money and are willing to break the law in order to do it. The same logic lay behind prohibition of alcohol, in the US itself, and that didn’t work, either. "We have to find a way to make the cartels reconsider, that this is not as good as they thought it was. And that means regulating drugs," he said.

The reasons why Mexicans join the cartels are not difficult to figure out. Not from the perspective of Ciudad Juarez, which sits on a key border crossing (read "smuggling route") with the United States. The iconic Texan town of El Paso gazes down from the other side, across the dried-up bed of the Rio Bravo (the Americans call it the Rio Grande). The water is stored in reservoirs upstream in New Mexico. The US is bound by treaty obligations to give its southern neighbour a prescribed share, but that does not make up for the dusty desolation of a city deprived of its river.

Juarez has seen more than its fair share of violence, much of it drug-related as rival cartels battle for control. Alternative livelihoods are unattractive. Agricultural labourers, in the surrounding fields, have few rights: they can find themselves paying to travel to work, only to be turned away if weather conditions, or employer whims, prove unfavourable.

To have farm workers returning empty-handed to their wives who live in the cheap concrete boxes, baking in the sun, that pass for housing developments, is a significant contributory factor to high levels of domestic violence, according to veteran local campaigner and scholar, Professor Manuel Robles Flores.

The reporter meets Professor Manuel Robles Flores. Photo care of Jake Lynch.

Still flush from successfully seeing off a Clinton-era proposal for a US nuclear waste dump just across the border, Flores held forth below the picture on the wall of his museum from a visit by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista peasant rights movement. "To live and die with dignity," is his aim; he and local farmers are now petitioning for water rights, and a renegotiation of those treaties with Washington.

Another version of the future for youth in Juarez is to enter a maquila, the factories that owe their existence to the North American Free Trade Agreement, under which US-owned firms can benefit from cheap labour while avoiding any tariffs on the goods they export into the world’s richest market.

Theresa Almada runs a community centre, the Casa de Promoción Juvenil, in a tough barrio of Juarez. It offers after-school classes to keep local kids off the street, and she scrapes together funding to pay for the most promising to attend university. One of them, Eric Poncé, was drifting towards a life of crime, but now expresses his anger, at the depredations of police and gang-bangers in his community, through energetic rapping, and articles for the college magazine. "Theresa-Mama paid for my enrolment", he declared, "otherwise I’d be dead or in a factory earning 500 pesos a week [about $35]without any dreams".

Eric Ponce in action. Photo by Jake Lynch

In other words, the promotion of peace, not the waging of war will ease Mexico’s troubles. Striking in interviews with community workers, campaigners and think-tankers alike was the clarity that this must mean peace with justice. Create a more equal society, I have been repeatedly told, and you will pull up the roots of violence.

Such notions have featured in the presidential poll, but not as prominently as they should have. Until they rise further up the political agenda, the good people I’ve met here seem destined to have to carry on picking up the pieces.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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