Attempts to rescue the brutal past from historical amnesia and indifference have been an immense challenge for Argentine, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Chilean, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan human rights campaigners and victims of political repression, and it has taken decades of persistence and direct action to bring any of those responsible for past crimes to trial. One wonders how future activists will confront the murderers, torturers, politicians, and bankers of the drug war in Mexico. Will the respectable men and women of the international banking industry, for example, who enable the carnage and chaos by laundering billions of dollars of cartel money, ever face jail sentences for their active complicity in one of the planet’s most violent criminal industries?
The conflict in Mexico, which currently sees people disappearing and being murdered at a rate quicker even than the Argentine military junta could dispose of dissidents, or the army in Guatemala could achieve during their genocide, is contrasted with the indifference of the war on drugs’ profiteers. It is the nameless elites of the international corporate banking sector who facilitate this ghastly business, washing the money and becoming spectacularly wealthy on the country’s turmoil and misery.
Immediately after former President Felipe Calderón began waging a war on organized crime in 2006, the annual number of homicides in Mexico rose exponentially. The Mexican government’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) recorded a staggering 95,632 homicides between 2007 and 2011. In 2012, estimates suggest that around 27,700 people were murdered in Mexico as a result of the drug war. Of these murders, 98.2 percent remain unsolved. As the poet and peace activist Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered by cartel sicarios, remarks, “justice is the exception, impunity is the norm.” One despairing editorial in Le Monde placed what it calls Mexico’s "spiral of barbarity" among the most violent conflicts on the planet. Throughout, however, the banks have been doing very well.
Were there an earnest drug war strategy, the U.S. and Mexican governments would investigate the tens of thousands of unsolved murders and disappearances. A concomitant aspect of such a strategy would pursue and arrest high-level white-collar criminal bankers who launder the funds, thus allowing the cartels to thrive. For international high-level criminal bankers the prosecution rate is close to zero.
The war on drugs—like its counterpart, the war on terror—promises a hazy pastiche theme park beyond the rainbow where hard-working families and humble entrepreneurs will succeed and realize their dreams via honest resolve and determination. For the moment though, and in order to win, the tale goes, the state must first wage war on those who would do harm. But the war is a sham, for the simple reason that the groups who benefit from the conflict have no interest in seeing it end. In a world whose only rules are those of profit and the market, peace and equality stand little chance. The banks, the arms industries and transnational criminal organizations share a vision of the future and it looks nothing like the rosy PR version of paradise touted by politicians on both sides of the border.
This war is solely about power, money, and territory, a fundamentalism rather different, though equally as vicious, from the Latin American Dirty Wars of the 1960s and 1970s. It is about the eventual and absolute triumph of the market and its utter indifference to the multitude of the war's appalling socio-economic consequences. It is perhaps the most eloquent yet absurd expression of neoliberal capitalism at its most rampant, consumerist, and destructive zenith.
A flurry of contrived media and political astonishment follows each time an international bank is caught laundering billions of dollars on behalf of Mexican crime syndicates, but it is neither persistent nor prolonged enough to generate close scrutiny. In 2010, Wachovia, part of the Wells Fargo group, reached a settlement with U.S. federal authorities and paid a fine of $110 million following investigations into the bank’s systematic money laundering activities. Furthermore, the bank had failed to apply appropriate money laundering controls to wire transfers that totaled some $378.4 billion, equivalent to a third of Mexico’s GDP. The fine represented about two per cent of the bank’s annual profits. Crucially, no one went to jail.
And in 2012, following a report by the Senate, the U.S. Justice Department found that British banking giant HSBC had violated the Banking Secrecy Act, the Trading with the Enemy Act, and the USA Patriot Act on multiple occasions. The bank’s most serious and blatant criminal activity was its business partnership with the Sinaloa cartel.
The HSBC fine of $1.9 billion was the largest in banking history, but nonetheless represented around five weeks' profit—hardly a huge dent in an otherwise extremely healthy margin. Meanwhile, the personal bank accounts of the individuals involved in criminal activity emerged intact. In order to restore its previous profit margin, the bank’s shareholders, investors, pensions, and bank account holders paid the bill. Again, no one goes to jail.
In a fitting illustration of the class-based nature of the drug war, then U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer claimed, following the Senate’s investigation, that the fine—of which the guilty parties themselves paid not a penny—was better than the “collateral consequences” of prosecuting the bankers. Following the deaths and disappearances of over 120,000 people in Mexico and “collateral damage” equivalent to 43.5 times the number of people killed in New York on September 11, 2001, Breuer’s main concern was the plight of the very bankers who allegedly had laundered billions of dollars on behalf of known terrorists and cartel capos. Breuer justified the leniency afforded to the bankers by citing a newly-found love of the poor and invoking the mass unemployment that would unquestionably ensue if the courts locked up a handful of upper-class criminals. Were the bank to have its license revoked, went his logic, thousands of people would find themselves out of work. In this case, the U.S. Department of Justice was only too willing to make an exception, for fear of destabilizing what Breuer otherwise considers a stable U.S. banking sector.
Not one for irony, Breuer noted: “in this day and age we have to evaluate that innocent people will face very big consequences if you make a decision”—a comment unlikely to comfort the hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico and elsewhere who have been directly affected by the bank’s criminal behavior.
HSBC’s Group Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver, meanwhile, was “profoundly sorry” for these “past mistakes,” a statement that appears to have satisfied the Justice Department. At least in the United States, for all the government’s complicity with the corrupt banking sector, there was some public recognition of wrongdoing and a thorough investigation by the U.S. Senate. On the other hand, the UK’s Financial Services Authority (FSA)—where HSBC is headquartered, after all—was unable to muster any investigation into unlawful activity. Furthermore, ex-CEO of HSBC, Lord Stephen Green, now Prime Minister David Cameron’s Trade Minister, avoided tough questions by declining requests for interviews with the UK’s purportedly muckraking media.
The Wachovia and HSBC cases barely scratch the surface of a global problem that sees numerous banking giants actively seeking out liquid assets, regardless of origin. That the banks are reaping billions of dollars in proceeds from organized crime in the midst of the deepest global economic recession in decades is indicative of the dismal record of unregulated capital and its rotten social consequences. Western governments bail out the world’s wealthiest and most powerful banks with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money while simultaneously demolishing and privatizing public services and programs.
The multi-billion dollar criminal industry in Mexico would not have achieved its power were it not for the cooperation of the banking sector. It is the active complicity of the respectable men and women of the political and business elites—a crowd who, despite (or perhaps because of) their degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Princeton, their acculturated air of respectability and superiority, and their access to political and economic power—that lies at the heart of late capitalism’s inherent amoral corruption and its indifference to human suffering.
Peter Watt teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the book, Drug War Mexico. Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books 2012).