Why the US Shares Responsibility for the 'Mexican Drug War' And Its Atrocities

The following is an excerpt from A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the "Mexican Drug War"  by Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace (OR Books, 2015):


The term “Mexican Drug War” is a misnomer, as the phenomenon to which it refers was a joint construction by Mexico and the United States, erected over the last hundred years. If that’s true, then it suggests that ending the “war” would likely require a joint effort from both sides of the border. Are there any signs of this happening?

Actually, there are. Over the past twenty years a conviction has been growing that the prohibitionist policy officially enforced by both nations is deeply flawed and should be modified or repealed. At first, this dissent was voiced by a very few. It was difficult, even dangerous, to challenge the widely held (and strongly policed) consensus. Interdiction of supply and incarceration of users were deemed the best ways, the only acceptable ways, to deal with the growing use of narcotics in the United States. But slowly, step by modest step, then with accelerating speed and growing support as the costly and often horrible consequences of reigning policy became ever more apparent in both countries, a campaign got underway to breach the ramparts of the War on Drugs regime. 

So What's Next for the US?

There has clearly been a major change in popular thinking about pot, and it seems to be accelerating. In a 1969 Gallup poll only 12 percent had supported legalization. Then the numbers rose slowly, to 25 percent in 1995 and 36 percent in 2005, then jumped to 48 percent in 2012 and vaulted to 58 percent only a year later, breaking through to majority status. This gives credibility to the widely held belief that upcoming ballot initiatives or legislative proposals proposing legalization—scheduled for 2016 in Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Arizona, and, once again, pivotal California—are likely to succeed.

Will marijuana reform then sweep the nation, becoming national policy? That will depend on the outcome of an upcoming political struggle.

There are significant forces lined up to perpetuate the status quo. These include institutions that are themselves products of the war on drugs approach and would not long survive its passing. The Drug Enforcement Administration would be hard-pressed to justify its annual budget of roughly $2.5 billion if the legal ground shifted beneath it. Many police departments and public prosecutors have been in the forefront of lobbying campaigns against marijuana ballot initiatives and legislative drug-law reforms, although others have embraced decriminalization as they consider hunting down tokers a diversion from pursuing serious criminals. The mammoth incarceration complex that has grown up to house a wildly expanded prison population will likely resist any diminution in the production of felons, its lifeblood, as would the many communities that have been forced by deindustrialization to accept the running of jailhouses as their bread-and-butter industry. The gun lobby might not be frontally challenged by drug legalization, but arms manufacturers have made big money from legal and illegal sales to Mexico, and the NRA is hyper-alert to anything that might imperil Smith & Wesson’s profits. There are many in faith-based institutions who would decry granting legal absolution to those who indulge in immoral (some would say wicked) behavior. And many in public health institutions would oppose the further diffusion of toxic substances.

Ranged against this formidable congeries of prohibitionists are the increasingly organized forces promoting repeal. These groups include the Drug Policy Alliance, NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the Marijuana Policy Project, the Marijuana Majority, LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), and innumerable local groups like Arkansas CALM (Citizen’s Alliance for the Legalization of Marijuana), whose vice president, pastor at the Sabbath Day Church of God in Hot Springs, is promoting an Arkansas Hemp & Marijuana Amendment to the state constitution. Their members contest these arguments and interests, and advance other concerns.

There are proponents of public health who suggest that prohibition has diverted resources from health care to punishment; libertarians who object to governmental intrusion in the private lives of citizens; strapped states seeking to tap potential tax revenues and reduce the costs (in the billions) of enforcing laws on possession; to say nothing of the thirty million Americans who annually smoke weed because they enjoy it.

Spurred by mass protests against militarized policing, led by African Americans, there has also been an increase in public repudiation of the immense expansion of the prison population, and the use of marijuana possession as justification for the mass incarceration that has overwhelmingly (and not coincidentally) ensnared people of color. Nationwide from 2001 to 2010, police made more than 8.2 million marijuana arrests; almost nine in ten were for possession, not sale. Between 1997 and 2012, New York City alone arrested and jailed more than six hundred thousand for simple possession; 87 percent of those arrested were blacks and Latinos. African Americans, who make up 14 percent of regular drug users, are 56 percent of those in state prison for drug offenses.

Even when their sentences are short ones, those who pass through this gulag are marked for life. As convicted felons they cannot vote, serve on juries, or receive public benefits like food stamps, housing, or education; they are often fired, and their future job prospects crippled. Ironically, the unemployable victims become prime candidates for recruitment by the very drug industry that prohibitionists want to dismantle. “Broken Windows” policing proponents argue that coming down hard on minor crimes prevents future major ones—a theory that bears some resemblance to the argument that marijuana should be proscribed lest users move on to harder stuff—but they take no cognizance of the devastating long-term impact on those arrested, those for whom broken windows mean broken lives.

Legalizers note, too, that moralizers who defend prohibition seldom extend their ethical concerns below the Rio Grande, hence fail to include the mass slaughter of Mexicans in their moral calculus. They also critique those who justify criminalizing drugs on public health grounds by noting that countries adopting harm-reduction strategies have done far better at diminishing drug-related medical damage than punitive-minded states. They also cite the U.S. success with nicotine reduction programs aimed at a lethal but legal drug, which have dramatically reduced smoking to its lowest level since the 1930s. In the case of the alarums raised over marijuana’s purported dangers, anti-prohibitionists point to the mortality statistics; as one runs an eye down the Center for Disease Control’s annual list of fatalities from drug consumption, the numbers (in 2012) tumble down from the 480,000 deaths chalked up to cigarette smoking, to the 88,000 alcohol-related deaths, through the 3,635 heroin overdoses, to the grand total of marijuana mortalities: zero. 

Weighing up the pro- and anti-legalization contenders, and factoring in inertia—as the Founding Fathers knew, “experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed”—it is hard not to be pessimistic about the possibilities of a wholesale turnabout. On the other hand, there is a strong pragmatic streak running through the American past, alongside an at-times zealous utopianism.

On January 15, 1920, the Anti-Saloon League issued a press statement hailing the imminent demise of legal liquor. Tomorrow at midnight, the victorious prohibitionists rejoiced, a new nation would be born: “Now for an era of clean thinking and clean living!” Twelve years later, in 1932, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who with his father had been the biggest single financial backer of Prohibition, now ruefully wrote: “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

Rockefeller was a Johnny-come-lately to the drive for Repeal, as by then a formidable coalition had gathered that was appalled at the amount of vice spawned by the effort to impose virtue, at the level of violence generated by inter-gang warfare, and at the amount of corruption spawned by the state’s war against the gangs. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had fought vigorously but unsuccessfully against the dry crusaders, had remarked dryly that “it would take seventy-five thousand coast guardsmen to protect the Florida coastline alone—and then we’d need seventy-five thousand more to watch them.” 

Yet the corruption never came close to the degree of rot that has corroded Mexican institutions. The level of violence attained in the U.S. in the 1920s—all those St. Valentine’s Day Massacres—was piddling compared to the mountainous death toll in Ciudad Juárez alone. Nevertheless, despite the Prohibitionists having (so they thought) ensured their proscription’s permanence by carving it into the Constitution itself, the United States managed to reverse itself. Despite the embarrassment of having to go through the enormously complex process of inserting an amendment into the Constitution, and one dedicated solely to repealing another amendment, Americans re-legalized a substance that was (and remains) far more dangerous than heroin, or cocaine, or crystal meth, to say nothing of marijuana.

Yes, it’s a different time, different circumstances, different players. Yes, the odds are against a twenty-first-century replay of the twentieth century’s Repeal; but the fact remains that the U.S. has done it before, and could do it again. Legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drugs) would not be a magic bullet. Believing it would end the drug wars overnight would be as delusional as was the fantasy of prohibitionists that banning alcohol would usher in “an era of clean thinking and clean living.” There are far too many variables involved to say with any surety how it would work out. The possibility of negative as well as positive unanticipated consequences would have to be kept in mind. But given that the damage already wrought by drug prohibitionsts far outweighs the damage done by their anti-alcohol forebears, it’s time to consider a change. 

And what’s next for Mexico?

Here the odds against a Uruguayan or Colorado-style reconsideration are considerably higher, given that Mexico remains constrained by American policy, and by the presence of vicious cartels on its soil. But it’s possible to hypothesize a route toward revision. Peña Nieto’s administration has been reluctant to do more than speculate about changing the rules. The PRI strategy, after all, had been to avoid dealing with drug war issues as much as possible, and to focus instead on neoliberal economic initiatives. Legalization would require a drastic shift of priorities (though not of ideology, as decriminalization could be packaged as a blow for free trade). But the autodefensa movement, and now the nationwide outrage over the mass murder of the Forty-Three, coupled with the concern of international investors about ongoing rampant criminality, has forced EPN to confront the crime issue. But how? Given that a replay of Calderón’s allout military assault is almost certainly off the table—been there, done that, didn’t work—one of the likeliest ways of tackling crime would be to go the decriminalization route, drying up the sea in which the cartel fish swim. But here he would run up against the United States, whose ability to retaliate through decertification and other measures remains unimpaired, as it has for the last century. How to break out of this trap?

One possibility: PRD politicians in Mexico City have said they will submit a legalization package to the city’s legislature, where passage would be quite likely. The capital is more liberal than the country on cultural matters, having already accepted legalized abortion and gay marriage.57 If the city did, the federal government would be confronted with the same quandary the Obama administration faced after Colorado and Washington’s breakaway move; they could sue or order arrests, or they could acquiesce. Assume, moreover, that in 2016 California legalizes marijuana production and distribution (current polls show 65 percent in favor). It’s just possible that a Mexican legalization of exports might not bring down the wrath of the still-in-power Obama administration; indeed the whole war on drugs regime might become destabilized, perhaps unsustainable.

There are plenty of U.S. businessmen who are plumping for such an eventuality; one former Microsoft executive is soliciting investors for $10 million in start-up money to create the first U.S. national marijuana brand, which would supply cannabis imported legally from Mexico to recreational and medical outlets. (He has begun buying up dispensaries and touring with Vicente Fox touting his vision.) After New York passed its medical marijuana law in July 2014, and gave the Health Department eighteen months to choose five companies to produce the herb from “seed to sale,” it triggered a grass rush of would-be growers, investors, lobbyists, consultants, and branding firms. In October, nine hundred people flocked to a three-day East Coast Cannabis Business Expo, Educational Conference and Regulatory Summit, chockablock with vendors and venture capitalists prepared to shell out $20 million in start-up costs. The venerable counterculture magazine High Times announced it planned to create a private equity High Times Growth Fund to invest in cannabis businesses.

But what of the cartels? How are they likely to respond to all this flux? How are they dealing with declining marijuana profits? Some are bailing out. An April 2014 report from the Golden Triangle region of Sinaloa found that farmers were no longer planting marijuana, its wholesale price having collapsed from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Scilla, fifty, a lifelong cannabis farmer, adding: “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Are the cartels really ready to abandon marijuana production? Perhaps they could go straight, becoming corporations—Sinaloa Cartel, Inc.? The rate of return on legal weed would be less, but so would overhead—fewer bribes, lower arms-budgets and transport costs. But what about competition? Would the Zetas, turned purveyors of Zeta brand joints, be prepared to join with the makers of “El Chapo brand” reefers in peaceable trade associations? Attend conventions? Would American tobacco corporations flock south and go toe-to-toe with the formerly fearsome killer-businessmen? It doesn’t seem likely. But for the moment the issue is not pressing, as the cartels can simply shift to an as yet un-decriminalized product. Indeed, they already have.

Drug farmers in Sinaloa are filling their fields with opium poppies, partly in response to heightened demand in the United States. American authorities, trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse, have tightened controls on semi-synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. As the pills have become more costly and difficult to obtain, the cartels have adjusted their product line, sending heroin flooding north. Similarly, cartels are experimenting with cultivating coca leaves; in September 2014, 639,000 plants were discovered in Chiapas.

In the long run, however, a half-criminal and half-legal situation probably could not stand, and would likely require a complete dismantling of the anti-drug regime, including the whole spectrum of presently criminalized drugs (as did Mexico’s 2009 law, though only for possession of tiny amounts, and as does the full-rigged approach adopted by Portugal). The peaceable production of drug crops would become just another industry—like growing avocados or making tequila—and by providing decently paying agricultural jobs for campesinos, might go partway to reversing some of the damage wrought by NAFTA. In the end, a real recovery would require tackling Mexico’s pervasive poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality by providing the citizenry with decent jobs, good educations, and affordable healthcare. This, however, is a social project incompatible with an ongoing commitment to neoliberal demands and continuing fantasies of salvation through oil investment, especially now that the price of oil has collapsed.

Would ending the “Mexican Drug War” by decriminalizing it out of existence be politically conceivable? Perhaps, given the blood-soaked alternative. The hope would be, given the tremendous hit the cartels would take thanks to diminished profitability, that they and their ganglet offspring (like the Guerreros Unidos, who committed the savagery against the Forty-Three in Iguala) might become vulnerable to a focused assault by restructured and less bribable forces of order. If some of civil society’s current furious insistence that justice, law, and order prevail were to be channeled into pressing for a structural solution, rather than another short-term fix, there’s a chance that Mexico might be able to dig itself out of the mess it has gotten into, courtesy in large part of the U.S.A. Perhaps it’s time to say:

¡Ya Basta! One hundred years is enough.

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