Mexico’s Drug Crisis: Alternative Perspectives

June 30, 2011

The U.S.-led global war on drugs has recently faced perhaps the most powerful challenges to its legitimacy, from both above and below. On June 2, a report issued by the Global Commission on Drug Policy denounced the drug war as a failure. Even though critics of the drug war have made this case for years, the report was significant because of who sits on the 19-member commission that produced it. These include such establishment figures as former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker; former presidents César Gaviria (Colombia), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil); the novelists Carlos Fuentes (Mexico) and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru); and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.


In its report the commission recommended, among other things, ending “the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others”; encouraging “experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs”; offering “health and treatment services to those in need”; investing “in activities that can . . . prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place”; deemphasizing the militarized approach in favor of “prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation”; beginning “the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime”; and breaking “the taboo on debate and reform.”


Two days after the report garnered headlines, mass demonstrations against the drug war in Mexico continued with a second March for Peace With Justice and Dignity. The march set out from the city of Cuernavaca toward the country’s—and perhaps the world’s—most violent city, Ciudad Juárez, where participants signed a six-point “social pact” demanding an end to the drug war and impunity for the violence it has generated. These developments point to the emergence of a new social movement that is contesting the drug-policy status quo under the slogan “No Más Sangre” (No More Blood).


The movement’s main target is the conservative administration of President Felipe Calderón and its disastrous policy of waging a fully militarized war on drug-trafficking organizations—a policy that has led to escalating bloodshed, with more than 40,000 people killed since he took office. With no end in sight, this civil war is Mexico’s worst social violence since the government battled Cristero religious rebels during the 1920s. Mexico’s drug war has been fully abetted by the United States, which has funneled more than $1.6 billion into defeating drug organizations at its “backdoor” through the Merida Initiative, a regional security pact backed by President Obama.


Although U.S. proxy drug wars in the Americas are nothing new—witness Colombia’s repressive campaigns since the mid-1980s—the scale, horror, and prime-time proximity of the bloodletting in Mexico has provoked panic on both sides of the Rio Bravo (Grande). In the United States, the specter of a “failed” or “narco” state fans dire predictions, while Mexicans bear the brunt of the crackdown and the renewed prospect in the upcoming 2012 election of a return to a still harsher “law and order” regime by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000.


The sensationalized media coverage and the government’s stilted depiction of the crisis do not clarify much. For many of us, it is difficult to even make sense of the basic battle lines. Are Mexico’s invading police, army, and administration responsible for the daily atrocities against Mexican civilians? Or is it the corruption and greed of Mexico’s ultra-capitalist narco-culture? Is the bloodletting a sadistic reflection of byzantine retaliatory turf wars among Mexico’s provoked drug organizations? Can one even clearly separate the Mexican police from drug traffickers? Is the United States, with its massive consumer demand for recreational drugs passing through Mexico, and governments that insist on exporting dangerous prohibitionist drug policies abroad, the ultimate culprit?


The superficiality, silences, and outright distortions of reports demand alternative, progressive analyses of Mexico’s drug war. For example, sensationalism about drugs and killings prevents genuine understanding of the war’s unseen logic, deeper historical roots, and emerging responses in civil society. The essays that follow aim to foster new visions, starting with much-needed background.


The opening essays in this Report reflect on the past and future of the crisis. Isaac Campos, a U.S.-based historian of Mexico and marijuana, ponders the drug war’s ability to endure despite its sickening costs and a virtual consensus among experts that it is doomed to fail. He suggests that reformers might well recognize that, beyond imperial arrogance, these policies are anchored by a long and strong history of anti-drug ideology in Mexico. Putting an end to prohibitionist hegemony, he suggests, will require efforts on both sides of the border. Ethan Nadelmann, a leading voice of drug law reform in the United States, suggests a few measures that could be adopted in the United States in light of Mexico’s tragedy.


North American anthropologist Howard Campbell, who has studied the rise of a “drug war zone” along the U.S.-Mexican border, analyzes how Ciudad Juárez turned into the drug war’s murderous ground zero. Since the 1990s, power struggles among traffickers, the regional social distress stoked by neoliberalism, and Mexico’s flawed transition to democracy, have fed a “counterculture of crime” and ultimately today’s urban carnage. Campbell notes that the drug crisis, however severe, did not begin with Calderón’s reckless decision to launch a full-scale war shortly after he was elected in December 2006.


The subsequent essays explore some surprising and complex actors in the drug trades. Historian Elaine Carey, together with ethnographer José Carlos Cisneros Guzmán, illustrates how women have played a prominent role in Juárez border commerce dating to the 1920s. Female traffickers, then and now, use their kinship ties (and drug trading) to empower themselves in a patriarchal society, often after the murders of their husbands. Also in an ethnographic vein, Rossana Reguillo profiles a 16-year-old hit man, Beto, who tells us how he came to work for La Familia, an ultra-religious trafficking organization in the southern state of Michoacán.


Natalia Mendoza Rockwell, in a 2009 article translated and republished herein, explores how contemporary narco-trafficking in Mexico’s northern border zone operates within a long historical and cultural context of frontier contraband, warfare, and idealized notions of the ranchero and “man of honor.” Narco-trafficking, she concludes, offers its laborers “a kind of subsidy, a grace period, an old lifestyle; it allows people to maintain their otherwise unprofitable ranches, it allows them to avoid having to migrate, and it allows them to stay out of the wage-earning labor market.”


We conclude with two essays on how the Mexican drug war has been represented in the media. Whether cast as the official story or as a lurid tabloid account, media representations have taken on a life of their own in this struggle by presenting often context-free, black-and-white, and panic-inducing stories. John Gibler, a North American writer on Mexico, focuses on the “marketing” of the drug war—that is, how the media’s coverage of drug-war violence amounts to a propaganda campaign in favor of the government’s militarized policy. Gibler further argues that the coverage re-inforces a political culture of impunity and displaces the important political struggles in Mexico that not too long ago used to grab headlines.


Michelle García, a prominent Mexican American journalist, deconstructs the daily press orgy of sex and violence, which couples images of (usually male) carnage and scantily clad women. She interprets the “sexy” imagery as a means of diminishing the real victimization of women in the north of Mexico, as well as their often genuinely heroic responses. The images of working-class suffering, meanwhile, are served up as a focal point of fascination—“the delectable bodies of misery,” in the phrase of Mexican writer José Joaquín Blanco.


Although we are able only to scratch the surface of this all-important issue, we hope this Report will contribute to the burgeoning movement to rethink drug policy. Several urgent tasks remain, among them: envisioning more democratic, humanitarian solutions to the problem of drug abuse; recovering the dignity, rights, and security of those who have suffered the drug war’s violence; and defending Mexican sovereignty while taking responsibility for U.S. society’s complicity with the illicit-drug industry.


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