In the most recent issue of NACLA, anthropologist Howard Campbell examines how Ciudad Juárez became the world’s most violent city after Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers and federal police to fight the cartels. Campbell, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, spoke with NACLA to further explain the political, social, and economic forces that led to this hyper-violence in Mexico. The following is the transcript of a June 25th interview in which Campbell discuses his article “No End in Sight: Violence in Ciudad Juárez” in the “Mexico Drug Crisis” issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.
How do you explain the hyper-violence in Ciudad Juárez and Mexico? What is the goal of the Mexican and U.S. governments with the Drug War?
The hyper-violence is caused by the struggle between organized crime groups and corrupt police and military officials for control of the international traffic of drugs through Juárez and for control of various other illegal business activities such as extortion, carjacking, kidnapping, and human trafficking. This is aggravated by human rights abuses committed by police and the military as they fight against some traffickers and criminals (while protecting others). The violence is also the result of the complete anarchy that has reigned in Juárez as it has become a kind of "failed city" as a result of the bungled and corrupt occupation of the city by the army and federal police. Common criminals have exploited the lack of legitimate authority. There is also a struggle within the Juárez police department for control (involving cops killing other cops) and between the city and federal police.
The objective of the U.S. and Mexican Drug Wars may have some good intentions, such as reducing the supply of illegal drugs available to youth and various groups who abuse drugs. In practice, however, the war on drugs is wasteful of money since as currently conceived, the war is not winnable. It is nearly impossible to stop people from getting access to many of these drugs. Prohibition also raises the price of the drugs. This strategy militarizes what are essentially health, social, and moral issues. The result is the incarceration of poor and minority users and the deaths of thousands of mostly young poor people who work in the drug trade or are the innocent victims of it. The strategy has also militarized much of Mexico, produced more violence not less, and been an utter failure. Those who benefit from the drug war are largely anti-drug warriors, politicians in both countries, and elite drug traffickers who profit from prohibition.
Could you describe the cultures of prohibition in the United States and Mexican governments? How do these cultures affect the drug war?
The U.S. prohibition culture is puritanical, moralistic, and hypocritical: U.S. has the demand for drugs and supplies the weapons to the cartels and criminals. Mexico supplies the drugs and the cannon fodder of victims fallen in the drug war. Mexican drug war culture is a product of several factors: legitimate concern about the rise of criminal power in Mexico, a cynical attempt by President Calderón to obtain political legitimacy after a contested election, a poor heavy-handed strategy that could never work (a standing army has trouble stopping forces that are both like a guerrilla army in the mountains and completely permeating mainstream society), and a government so riddled with corruption (especially top cops and generals on cartel payrolls) that it is not clear if the "drug war" is really a war or just a mirage or smoke screen to attack several cartels while protecting other cartels (esp., the Sinaloa/Chapo Cartel).
How is the drug trade in Mexico, and the United States, related to local and national economic declines?
Poverty in the U.S. leads to extensive drug abuse and to a lesser extent in Mexico. Likewise drug trafficking is a primary economic option for youth who were abandoned and neglected by the Mexican neoliberal economic project and the extreme social inequality. The same is the case to a lesser extent in the United States. The decline of good blue-collar jobs is a big contributor to informal economic activity such as drug dealing. The Mexican economy was hit even harder by the global financial crisis than was the United States. Juárez was especially hard hit. This increased economic desperation contributed to increased crime and drug trafficking in Juárez, as did the lack of "social development" for the majority of Juárez residents caused my maquiladora development. In general drug trafficking is associated with lack of opportunity in the formal sector of the economies of both countries, which is a product of economic decline in specific social sectors and regions.
Is the United States the only obstacle in legalizing drugs in Mexico? Could creating a fair drug trade be a solution?
Both the United States and Mexico need to share the burden of reducing harm caused by the drug trade. This can be accomplished by legalizing soft drugs, providing more funds to cure addicts, strongly attacking the money trail created by illegal drug trade, U.S. providing more work visas for poor people in cities hit by drug violence like Juárez, U.S. controlling arms flow, U.S. helping Mexico with more funds to institute a massive real reform of the police force, U.S. reducing drug demand, and U.S. playing a greater role in facilitating balanced economic growth and distribution of wealth in Mexico.
How did you become interested in Mexico and the Drug War? What have you learned from your investigation that has influenced your perspective on drugs?
I became interested in the Mexican drug trade while living in Mexico City and then Oaxaca in the 1980s when the first big cartels began to blossom. Since 1991 I have lived in El Paso immediately adjacent to Juárez. Many of my students are form Juárez. I go there constantly and learn about the drug trade from friends, neighbors, students, co-workers, and casual acquaintances as well as people I interview. On the border the drug trade is everywhere and causing massive harm in Juárez. This is why I study it.
Could you provide our readers with a book, article, essay list that would offer them reliable information about the drug trade and Mexico?
Readers may want to also check out Los Señores del Narco by Anabel Hernandez, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? by George Grayson, Murder City by Charles Bowden, and soon to be released books by Alfredo Corchado and Ioan Grillo. Mexican publications such as El Diario (Juárez), Proceso (Mexico City), and lapolaka.com extensively cover drug-related issues.
Please describe your book Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches From the Streets of El Paso and Juárez.
My book Drug War Zone consists of oral histories of drug traffickers and law enforcement officials fighting the "drug war" as well as anthropological analyses of Mexican narco-culture and the culture of U.S. drug law enforcement.