Mexico’s Drug Wars

Despite increasing efforts by the US and Mexican governments to coordinate their ‘war’ on Mexico’s drug cartels, drug-related violence along the border seems to be escalating inexorably. Last year, even though the Calderón government deployed 40,000 military and police troops across the country, narcotics with a cash value of at least US$15 billion were smuggled into the US, and the death toll from drug-related violence rose to an estimated 6,000. Given the recent upsurge in violence, and the increasing ferocity with which the cartels are fighting the government and each other, there is little reason to expect fewer casualties this year.

The idea of a single ‘war’ on drugs is somewhat misleading. In fact, there are several wars being fought in Mexico as major cartels battle each other for control of the cross-border trade. America’s financial downturn has temporarily lessened the demand for drugs, making an increased market share of what remains more important than ever. Analysts suggest that part of the reason the war has begun to produce so many atrocities – beheadings, public displays of corpses, multiple executions – is that a new generation of traffickers is taking control of the cartels and they have chosen to mark their ascendancy with spectacular displays of violence.

The war metaphor also fails to convey the complicity of government forces in the ongoing violence. A recent report by Human Rights Watch says that “[w]hile engaging in law enforcement activities, Mexico’s armed forces have committed serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions.” This complication is further complicated by the fact that several of the most effective cartels contain significant numbers of former soldiers. Their military experience has allowed the gangs to adopt a new level of discipline and to use sophisticated tactics against their adversaries on either side of the enforcement divide. Mexico’s longstanding problems with impunity have also encouraged both sides to act without any serious fear of ever being brought to justice.

In addition to monitoring the border for the importation of drugs, the US has come to realize that the violence will not diminish unless it can clamp down on cross-border gun smuggling to Mexico. America’s obsession with the right to bear arms makes this considerably more complex, politically, than it ought to be, but American law enforcement has implemented several imaginative initiatives – such as tracking smuggled guns to their point of origin in the US, and questioning dealers who may be complicit in the black market – to bring this under control. What this suggests is that there is now, officially, a growing acceptance of the fact that the drug war cannot meaningfully be described simply as a Mexican problem but has to be addressed within the context of the two countries’ shared economic and political interests.

For some time now, economists have spoken about an emerging transnational entity along the border – Mexifornia, as it is sometimes called – whose functions belong simultaneously to both nations and neither. Illegal Mexican immigration has become central to the economy of several states in the US and the operation of the drugs and arms trade is no exception to this rule. In Reefer Madness, his vivid account of the underworlds which have sprung up around pornography, drugs and cheap labour in the United States, Eric Schlosser has a moving chapter on the exploitation of Mexican immigrants in the strawberry fields of California. Without a ready supply of what borders on slave labour, strawberries would be unaffordably expensive for most Americans. On the other hand, if the true working conditions of these labourers were generally known the industry would probably collapse as few Americans – one hopes – would be comfortable eating strawberries harvested at such terrible human cost. Other journalists have produced equally depressing descriptions of the maquiladora economy that lies on the other side of the border. The drug economy is part of this larger picture and will be misunderstood if it is addressed solely in legal or militaristic terms.

The Mérida Initiative – sometimes called Plan Mexico, to highlight its resemblances to the belligerent Plan Colombia – recognises this linkage and has allotted US$400 million in equipment, training and shared intelligence to combat the problem. But until the US is willing to intervene more decisively within its own markets (in firearms and drugs), and to admit that narcotrafficking cannot be restrained simply through a ‘war’ – however well-funded or sophisticated – the chaos and the carnage will continue. Recent remarks by the Obama administration’s drugs czar, are very encouraging in this respect, as are Secretary Clinton’s public acknowledgement that the US shares responsibility for the problem of drug violence. This is a good start, but it will mean nothing unless both governments are prepared to do much more. Mexico’s drug wars are not simply a national problem, and unless that simple truth is more generally accepted and acted upon, the violence of the last few years will continue, perhaps indefinitely.



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