To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from a Deadly Drug War

Reviewed: To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War, by John Gibler (2011, City Lights Press, 218 pp., $13.95 PB)

In Mexico, journalist John Gibler points out, there is the War on Drugs and then there is the drug war. The War on Drugs is the spectacle -- the well-publicized deployment of troops, the high-level diplomatic meetings, the perp walks of captured capos before the media, all designed to show that the Mexican government is dead serious about confronting the "menace to society" that Mexican drug trafficking organizations, the mislabeled "cartels," represent.

The drug war is what is really going on -- the tens of thousands of murders, the amazing ability of cartel killers to do their dirty work in broad daylight in cities full of police and soldiers and never get arrested, the unending flow of drugs north and guns and cash south, the undeniable collusion between factions of the security apparatus and different cartels, all within the context of a nation unable to provide safety or security for its citizens.

The Mexican War on Drugs is little more than a charade, or, as Gibler puts it, "a terrifying farce." And it is a charade in which the US is complicit. Our government is handing out $1.4 billion in Plan Merida funds, most of it going to the Mexican military and law enforcement apparatus to "strengthen institutions." But those institutions our money is supposed to strengthen -- the army, the national police -- are precisely the ones complicit in the drug wars.

How is it that Ciudad Juarez could see 3,000 drug war murders last year in a city filled with soldiers and military checkpoints? How is it that 95% of those murders are never even investigated? How is it that convoys of SUVS filled with rifle-toting cartel gunmen pass freely through the streets? How is it that 90% of those arrested in the drug war in Juarez are affiliated with the Juarez Cartel (La Linea), while the Sinaloa Cartel, which is waging a deadly battle to take over la plaza (the franchise), has hardly anyone arrested? How is that 90% of those who were arrested are later released without charge?

And how is it that there is la plaza in the first place? To be clear, the term refers to the ability of a cartel to go about its smuggling business unimpeded in a particular geographic location. That means someone, typically a military or national police commander has awarded la plaza to a particular cartel, allowing  safe and secure transit for its goods and either looking the other way or actively participating in the killing that needs to be done.

This is the second week in a row that I've reviewed a book that left me angry. Last week, it was The Wars of Afghanistan with its carefully documented evidence that billions of US taxpayer dollars going to Pakistan to help the US in Afghanistan were instead used to help gin up Islamic fundamentalist armies aimed at establishing a pro-Pakistan caliphate in Afghanistan, all under the watchful eye of the CIA and the Pentagon. And now, Gibler's revelations about the complicity of Mexican military and law enforcement in the drug trade--while we finance them.

Of course, it's not really a revelation. Anyone who has been seriously watching Mexico knows exactly what is going on, but given the lame US media coverage, it's easy to slip into a sort of crime beat mentality that is good for counting the bodies, but not so good for much else. To Die in Mexico is a sure antidote for that particular ailment.

Gibler's taut prose, keen eye, carefully honed outrage, and willingness to actually do on-the-scene reporting bring the horrifying reality of Mexico's drug war to vivid light. He travels with reporters who don't report because they don't want to end up like the 60 journalists murdered in Mexico in recent years; he travels with crime beat (nota roja) photographers who memorialize the corpses on the pages of their tabloids; he goes to Culiacan, the home of the Sinaloa Cartel, to interview Mercedes Murillo and the Sinaloa Civic Front and the journalists of Rio Doce, who tell him they can't do real journalism because it would be bad for their health. (I made that same trek, talked to those same people, three years ago).

The cowing of the press is a critical issue. Because of it, Gibler writes, a cone of silence descends over the drug war. The killings are noted, yes, but never is there any discussion of who did it or for whose benefit. There is no investigation beyond local cops counting bullet casings at the scene while managing to miss the convoys of cartel gunmen roaring by. Those whose tortured bodies prove their guilt by virtue of having been killed.

It's not just the corruption and impunity in Mexico. Gibler offers a devastating and heartbreaking critique of drug prohibition as well. His arguments are not new to people who follow this, but his eloquence is moving and astounding. And he offers a critique of a global capitalist order in which Mexico exports goods, workers, and drugs and imports guns, cash, and the violence of prohibition.

Yes, I am angry after reading To Die in Mexico. I've been cranking out the Drug War Chronicle for more than a decade because I hate drug prohibition and what it has done not only to our society, but around the world. Years of immersion in the huge pile of crap and lies that is the drug war tends to coarsen one, but work like Gibler's gets the righteous juices flowing again. I think that's a good thing.

Gibler writes with a wisdom and eloquence about Mexico and its drug war unmatched by anyone except the Sage of the Southwest, Charles Bowden. And like Bowden, he sees Mexico's drug war for what it is: a horrifying charade, a terrifying farce. And we're paying for it. I heartily recommend this book.


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