Witness to Mexico's Drug War Escalation: 'Legalizing Marijuana Would Have a Huge Impact'

Witness to the everyday bloody cost of policies and politics, author Ioan Grillo explains the drug war from Mexico's perspective.

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Inside the heart of darkness that is the War on Drugs in Mexico and other Latin American nations—the routine beheadings, the mass graves, the bodies melted in acid baths and the AK-47-toting narco-armies running amok—there may finally be a glimmer of hope. Presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica have all recently taken the courageous stand of calling for alternative forms of drug regulation and prevention. Their voices have joined a growing chorus, which includes former Mexican president Vincente Fox and leading Latin American intellectuals, who are convinced that the US-led war on drugs is, after three decades, an abject failure. So far Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay have passed laws decriminalizing drug possession for personal consumption. (For a color-coded map showing each nation's position on legalization, click here.)

The unprecedented escalating violence south of the border has placed the long-taboo subject of regulating, decriminalizing and even legalizing the use of drugs firmly back on the agenda.

As Latin America shakes off decades of economic and political domination by the US, the nations are increasingly speaking in one defiant voice: No mas! 

To which an increasingly isolated America responds, No way!

The next flashpoint in this hemispheric standoff may occur this weekend, when President Barack Obama is due to attend the Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia. While not officially on the agenda, drug policy—and the US's intransigence—is on everyone's mind, so the an event promises to be uncomfortable for the president, especially in an election year as his administration firms up its anti-drugs bona fides by shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries with the kind of zeal that would make Harry J. Ainslinger weak with admiration.

In an effort—widely viewed outside the US as feeble—to mollify the "restive natives" in advance of the summit, last month Vice President Joe Biden visited Mexico and Honduras on a kind of listening tour. His famously tin ear was on full display, and his frosty reception does not bode well for this weekend's meeting.

Given this explosive dynamic, The Fix thought it wise to get the take of somebody “in the trenches." And no one is better equipped to talk about this than Ioan Grillo. 

Grillo is a British journalist and the author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Bloomsbury). He has covered the drug war from on the ground in Mexico for more than a decade and has held court with people on every side of the conflict. As a reporter for Time, CNN, PBS and theSunday Times (among others), Grillo has discussed the drug war with everyone from presidents and diplomats to the men and women who kill for the cartels.

El Narco is an essential book for anyone hoping to unravel the mystery of why a modern, prosperous country like Mexico has been dragged into a new age of barbarism. It also goes some way to explaining why the response north of the border has been so hopelessly inadequate. Grillo is that rare writer willing to risk life and limb to tell the truth about a war raging right under the nose of a mostly oblivious American populace.

Grillo hails from Brighton, a gorgeous little town on the south coast of England famous for its pebble beaches. Brighton’s most famous outpouring of  “drug-fuelled violence” was back in the 1960s when mods and rockers, hopped up on purple hearts, would show up to beat the crap out of each other. So what on earth drove him to spend his days at the heart of one of the 21st century’s most explosive conflicts? 

“I first came to Mexico before the drug war was really raging,” Grillo tells me from his cell phone as his cab careens through Mexico City traffic. “I had this romantic idea about being a foreign correspondent in Latin America. I was more inspired by the civil wars of the 1980s—think Salvador by Oliver Stone. But by the time I got here, supposedly the wars had all finished. They were now living in a golden age of democracy and free markets. And then the war started here over drugs.”

Having come of age in an England awash in drugs, Grillo found himself particularly drawn to this conflict. “There was a lot of heroin use back in the 1980s,” he says. “So many people from my social group did drugs, but nobody had any idea where they came from. So I followed the story until we reached the horrific stage of the last couple of years.”

There was a time when US drug users loved Mexico’s border towns. Many of us remember being able to cross the border freely, hit the local pharmacias, and then disappear back over the border loaded down with painkillers, sleepers and cheap tequila. Now crossing the border to buy drugs is as advisable as heading over to Afghanistan to procure some fresh opium.

How was the change from Grillo’s perspective?

“When I first arrived back in 2000, most of the violence stemmed from the gangbangers,” he says. “The guys with shaved head and tattoos. They were often from the US—Mexican migrants who’d been arrested and shipped back. The chollos. The violence you saw was the same stuff you’d see going on in Los Angeles or many other cities across the US—guys protecting their turf with pistols or handguns. By contrast, today you’re dealing with death squads. Groups of about 50 guys, often in military uniform. They’ll be wearing bulletproof vests and armed with AK-47s, grenade launchers, .50 caliber machine guns, and even shoulder-carried rockets.

“In the old days, you’d see people being shot, kidnapped, that kind of thing. But now? You’re more likely to hear about some mass grave with three hundred bodies, or 72 people being mown down by machine guns in a nightclub, stuff that’s comparable to various war zones around the world. It’s completely night and day—a transformation from mere gang violence to what can only be described as a low-intensity war."

This point is worth emphasizing. While the “war on drugs” has been in process for 31 years, it remains—at least on this side of the border—more of a metaphorical war than an actual armed conflict. But Mexicans are now living with a level of violence typically associated with places like Somalia or the Sudan. Is there any chance that cartel members are beginning to feel war fatigue?

“Sure. Some of the older people are weary. They realize that they’re trapped. But they see no way out. There’s no mechanism in the system to declare peace. You have to look at these killing machines not as individuals but as institutions. They systematically recruit assassins, train them, pay for them. As institutions, they’re in no danger of collapsing under the weight of the offensive. You can kill or arrest their members, but the cartel just goes out to recruit more soldiers.

War reporters like Grillo, who bear witness to the everyday bloody cost of policies and politics enacted in spic-and-span Washington, DC, tend to pull no punches when asked for their opinion.

“My analysis of the military strategy to break these cartels? On the one hand, you have the government claiming success. They point to the number of kingpins arrested, the amount of drugs seized, the organizations that have been forced to fragment. On the other hand, daily life is more violent than ever, there are more shootouts, it’s more and more unsafe. You weaken one cartel and another grows to take its place. The government’s approach has not decreased the reach of organized crime. In fact the cartels are more aggressive and pervasive than they were five years ago.”

Which is a thoroughly depressing analysis, of course, but patently obvious to anyone with reads the papers or watches the news.

Anyone, that is, apart from the vice president of the United States.

The political establishment throughout Latin America is hotly debating the legalization of drugs as a way out of the current quagmire, with its reliably disconcerting, increasingly frequent reports like that of the gang leader who rolled dozens of decapitated heads into the middle of a Michoacan nightclub, or that of Santiago “Stew Maker” Meza, who claimed to have dissolved more that 300 bodies in acid baths on the orders of the Arellano Felix cartel. 

By contrast, the political establishment in the US remains inflexibly committed to the status quo—and willfully oblivious to the chronic failure of the “war on drugs” and the steep price Mexico and the rest of Latin America is paying. After all, too many domestic interests depend on a maximally financed Drug Enforcement Agency and a prison-industrial complex overcrowded with low-level drug offenders.

The latest act of political theater in this drama of diverging interests between the US and its partners occurred last month when Joe Biden toured Mexico and Honduras to “listen to” the growing calls for legalization. Unsurprisingly, the vice president spent the entire trip swatting away questions like so many mosquitoes. The point of the entire visit was revealed by Biden’s most-quoted utterance: when asked if he thought it was “worth discussing” ending drug prohibition, Biden said, “It’s worth discussing. But there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

I ask Grillo to describe the press conference in Mexico City where Biden made his much-mocked statement.

“Those comments from Biden only went out to the American press,” he says. “The Mexican press weren’t even allowed to hear him speak. So the situation down here was a group of specially invited American journalists sitting in a room to hear Biden’s comments. None of it was picked up by the local press. There were no TV cameras present.”

What did the people of Mexico think of Biden’s demonstration of so-called listening?

Says Grillo: “The debate around drug policy hasn’t had much of an effect on everyday people down here. Most people will tell you that they think it’s ridiculous that we’re fighting this war, and that the bloodshed is the Americans’ fault. But the debate, such as it is, is mainly happening among the so-called red circle—the elite, the Mexican intellectuals. You have former Mexican president Vincente Fox now in favor of ending prohibition. The current president, Felipe Calderon, is even signaling that he’s in favor.”

And what about Biden’s claim that he’s spent “hundreds of hours” in congress debating the legalization of drugs?

“If that’s the case, he made some pretty fundamental errors,” Grillo says with a laugh. “He said something like, ‘In my experience, when you legalize drugs in any country, more people take drugs.’ That’s simply not true. For a start, no country has ever legalized drugs. But taking the example of Portugal, where they’ve lowered sentences and decriminalized certain drugs, there hasn’t been a significant increase in drug use. Biden was employing an old argument used by the prohibitionists, and there’s absolutely no evidence to back that up.”

Little that took place on Biden’s southern swing will surprise anyone who has followed US drug policy. Disinformation and fear-mongering have long been the order of the day; Stalinist press conferences geared for exclusively domestic consumption are, especially in an election year, hardly out of character. Still, it’s instructive to remember that Biden represents an administration that is trashed by opponents as “liberal” and “soft on drugs.”

Biden followed up his “no, no, no” tour by pledging another $170 million to fight the war on drugs south of the border, a move that to this writer had the look not only of a bribe but also of a patronizing pat on the head for Latin American leaders. I asked Grillo what he thought of the gesture.

Not much, he said. “The Mexican federal security budget is about $15 billion a year from Mexican money alone. The US contribution isn’t that significant. And the money gets recycled: it goes back to US companies for training and equipment—wire tap gear, black hawk—and to the US military and police to help with strategy. It all reinforces this confrontational military approach. Mexico already has a trillion-dollar economy. They don’t rely on American handouts.”

So what is the future of this debate? Will these overtures from the “red circle” filter down and create a groundswell of popular support for ending prohibition?

“All I can say for sure is that drug use in Mexico will certainly increase. That’s a simple effect of globalization. But it’s going to be an interesting few years. If the US went ahead and legalized marijuana, that would have a huge impact. If that were to happen, then you would have the Mexican government asking why on earth it’s sending the army out to burn marijuana fields when it’s legal in California. That could be a huge changing point.

“But views on drug policy are also a generational thing. Younger people coming up are more interested in drug legalization. The simple fact that someone like Vincente Fox is talking about this is a big deal. I spoke to him, and he’s completely pro-legalization.”

So why is the debate, north of the border, controlled by those who know least about it? It’s a demoralizing situation similar to the current debate around sex education and the availability of contraception. The voices shouting loudest about the issue are those least affected by it, like Catholic priests and married evangelicals. On the drug-war debate, it is very rare that anyone from the communities worst affected by either the drugs or the war are being listened to when the likes of a Joe Biden blows into town.

Says Grillo: “Legalization seems like a harder argument to make in the US than down here. Americans grow up having this idea drilled into their heads that drugs are evil. It’s harder for them to conceptualize the debate in a different way.”

And of course the entrenched interests.

“Well, yes. The DEA, the prison industry, even the Christian groups who want to frame this from a moral perspective. But the status quo is not sustainable, is it? Something’s gotta give,” he says. (In the face of burgeoning support  among US voters for the reform of drug laws, the DEA recently releasedthis pamphlet explaining why it believes decriminalization and legalization, even of marijuana, are terrible strategies.)

With that, Grillo’s taxi comes to a stop, and it’s time for him to leave. We hang up. It’s always, as I said, depressing to discuss the drug war, even with someone as deeply knowledgeable as a reporter like Ioan Grillo. After all, it isn’t the Iaon Grillos of this world—the true experts who have risked getting right down in the belly of the beast to see for themselves—who define this debate. It’s the nuts like Bill O’Reilly, who wants to take America back into some make-believe version of the 1950s where one puff of weed sends you crazy.

There’s a timeworn slogan often cited in AA that the definition of insanity is, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Somebody ought to tell that to the Obama administration. At this weekend's summit, maybe somebody will.

Tony O'Neill is the author of the novels Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City (Harper Perennial) as well as several volumes of short stories, poems and nonfiction. His journalism has appeared in theGuardian, Dazed and Confused and 3 am magazine. You can visit him at www.tonyoneill.net