Apr/May 2015 Nonfiction

Good Guys, Bad Guys: The War on Drugs

by Robert Joe Stout

Shortly before 11 a.m. on an oppressively sultry summer morning, half-a-dozen armed members of Mexico's military shoved their way into a modest middleclass dwelling in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. According to the forty-year-old mother of three they showed no warrants nor gave any explanations.

When she protested that they had no right to enter, the soldier in charge jerked his weapon towards her head and told her to shut up and leave them alone. They pulled everything off the walls, overturned furniture, ransacked drawers and cabinets and flung the contents onto the floor. They ripped the beds apart, tore garbage bags open and overturned all of the kitchen containers, scattering rice, beans, sugar, salt across tables and sink while the mother, clinging to her two youngest children, complained, "You have no right—!"

"We have a right to do what we want whenever we want!" one of the soldiers spat back.

Finding no drugs—ostensibly the purpose of their search—they stomped out and climbed into the Humvee they'd parked on the walkway. Over his shoulder one of the departing soldiers laughed, "Sorry for the mess we made!"

Throughout the country Mexican civilians suffer daily abuses at the hands of the military. They have filed over 8,000 denouncements of violations with Mexico's Human Rights Commission including accusations of robbery, forced disappearances, torture, damage to personal property, and rape.

Until 2013 charges against individual soldiers or Army units only could be processed in military, not civil courts, even though Mexico's constitution specifically prohibits the deployment of the armed forces in situations involving the general population. Military authorities attested that the accusations "are being investigated," but Mexico's Human Rights Commission reported that only 38 out of a reported 5,600 investigations had resulted in convictions.


The "War on Drugs"

As far back as I can remember, the "War on Drugs" has been an Orwellian combat on a distant horizon, an ever-present media presentation that surfaces primarily during election campaigns in the United States and in Mexico. War on anything arouses patriotic sentiments and indicates a real seriousness of purpose. But a "War on Drugs"? Drugs can do a lot of things to those who use them, from dulling sensibilities to exploding internal organs, but they don't possess or manipulate guns or tanks or helicopters and they don't have a geographical or political presence, the usual requirement for defining the object of a war on, against or with another nation, religion, or ideology.

In the Mexican magazine Proceso, Sabina Berman compared the "War on Drugs" with the Prohibition era in the United States:

Thanks to its being illegal (during Prohibition), the price of alcohol had reached stratospheric levels and its traffic financed bands of gangsters committing crimes increasingly more destructive... their economic power permitted them to corrupt local and federal police to the point of converting them into agencies of doubtful capabilities.

Other journalists and academics have made similar comparisons but politicians in both countries prefer to keep things intellectually simple: The goal of war (like football) is to win. To win a war one needs soldiers, soldiers need weapons, therefore to win the "War on Drugs" more soldiers and more weapons are necessary, hence the militarization of Mexico and the passage of the so-called "Plan Mérida" to equip Mexican soldiers to raid more homes and kill more people. All of this without real examination or analyses of who is on the opposing side, one's own manpower resources or where the battles are being fought.

At the height of his career, on his way to becoming a popular legend, the poet Allen Ginsberg decided to break his addiction to smoking cigarettes. He managed to get through a week or so when another guest at a party Ginsberg was attending offered him a smoke. Unable to resist, Ginsberg accepted it and learned forward to get a light when his partner yanked the cigarette out of Ginsberg's mouth, ripped it in two and threw it aside.

"Anybody will become a Fascist if he believes he's right enough!" Ginsberg growled in annoyance.

While it would be inaccurate to call Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto "Fascists" it is not inaccurate to accuse them of tunnel vision in their persistence on granting impunity to armed forces attempting to break the power of the drug exporting organizations. Nor is it inaccurate to describe this tunnel vision as extending all the way to Washington, D.C. where the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have approved the sale of millions of dollars in sophisticated military equipment to persist in what has become an increasingly futile program to keep cocaine and marijuana out of the hands of U.S. users.

It is well worth examining who the participants in this war really are, how they operate and what goals they hope to achieve, beginning with the "bad guys," the so-called drug cartels:


The "Bad Guys"

The drug organizations operating in Mexico and the United States did not appear overnight: They have been organizing and developing for more than a century. Until 1914 laudanum (a liquid opiate) and morphine were legally sold and distributed throughout the United States, heroin was prescribed as a cough medicine and coca and cocaine commonly were mixed with wine and cola drinks. Although most of the opium came from the Orient, Chinese settlers on Mexico's west coast had begun cultivating adormidera during the 1870s and gradually developed an export trade.

Even after the use of opium-based products were declared illegal in the United States the exportations continued; prosecution of offenders, if they happened at all, was benign. While he was the military governor of Baja California (then a territory, not a state) Abelardo Rodríguez was recognized as king of western Mexico's drug trade. Rodríguez later became president of Mexico (1932-1934).

Much of the exportation crossed into the United States through isolated border points such as Tijuana, a dusty little border town until the mid-twentieth century, Nogales and Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande from Presidio in Texas's isolated Big Bend country. The exporters were locals who spent most of the money gained from their drug transactions in the areas in which they operated, often donating to local festivals and churches. They hired local residents for construction, transportation, ranching and other sidelines in which they invested their earnings. As far as most of their neighbors were concerned they were good people whose business was no better or worse from that of any other.

With the advent of the consumer boom in the 1960s many of the local Mexican drug exporters became exceedingly wealthy. They expanded their operations, keeping control within their families and circles of close friends. Because they needed to do something with the immense amounts of cash they were accruing they purchased cars and condominiums and ranches. These cash purchases spread money throughout the country.

To buy or build a condominium one had to pay construction workers and their suppliers, plus local taxes and transportation; to buy and operate a ranch one had to purchase cattle, feed, heavy equipment and build reservoirs and roads. Few of those receiving this cash were criminals or delinquents and few had connections with organized crime. They spent the cash they received on everything from school tuition and church tithes to sports tickets and Disneyland vacations. In 2008 investigators concluded that 78 percent of the money in Mexico's economy originated with the drug trade.

As the influence—and power—of the Columbian exporters increased, they contracted individual Mexican exporters to channel their merchandise into the United States. No longer did these Mexican "cartels" consist of rural jefes commanding a gang of drug runners, they had become complexly organized businesses that included accountants, lawyers, chemists, legislators and entire corps of police. They included clearly defined chains of command and were departmentalized into individual functions which included marketing, investment, press relations and militarized units, most of which were led by experienced former Mexican Army and Navy officers. (The term "cartel" is erroneous since the drug organizations have nothing to do with Medieval trade unions but function like private corporations.)

"They're a hydra," a Mexican economist told me. "Arrest one leader and immediately two or three more appear."

As the drug trade became increasingly lucrative and Mexico's economy, unable to accommodate the estimated two million young people entering the labor pool each year, faltered, the drug exporting corporations increased in size and complexity. As happens with legitimate corporations, junior operatives broke away to form organizations of their own. In their vying for portions of the lucrative trade, murders and assassinations between rival bands increased. In addition, breakaway groups, unable to chisel a large enough portion of the drug trade for themselves, branched into other criminal activities, including people smuggling, counterfeiting, business shakedowns, prostitution, auto theft and kidnapping.

Gradually the principal criminal organizations gobbled up smaller local operatives. ("Join us or join those in the cemetery" was the ultimatum usually given.) The bigger organizations operated throughout the country, particularly in urban areas that were transportation and shipping centers and along Mexico's southern border where much of the cocaine being brought in from Columbia was unloaded. The smaller criminal bands paid monthly "quotas" to be allowed to continue operating and the dominant corporations paid quotas to government officials, business executives and military commanders and purchased major sports franchises, legitimate businesses and invested in the stock market.

It is against these corporations—underground governments that many consider to be better disciplined, better financed and militarily better equipped than the forces opposing them—that the "War on Drugs" is being fought. On the front lines, as in almost every war, battles gobble up the lives of foot soldiers and innocent civilians while executives on both sides move chess pieces from their boardrooms and exclusive spas.

And the military forces opposing them?


The "Good Guys"

The last declared war in which the Mexican military fought was against the French invasion in the 1860s. Troops representing the federal government battled revolutionaries early in the twentieth century but did not participate in either of the two World Wars or any United Nations actions. Nevertheless the military has provided a secure and comfortable livelihood for military academy graduates as they rose through the officer ranks. Mexico has the highest percentage of active duty generals than any country in the world.

Because it has been a peacetime force primarily involving garrison duty (and more recently containment controls around the Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas) the Mexican military offers relative few benefits and minimal salaries to its enlisted personnel, thus it has not been an attractive employment alternative. Recruiting is focused on marginal residents of city slums where life is hazardous, choices are few and anything seems better than remaining in the barrios. Theoretically recruits need to have completed junior high school to enter the military but proof seldom is required and criminal behavior, if confined to misdemeanors, is overlooked.

Both the army and the navy make teaching how to use military weapons the major focus of basic training. Drug corporation infiltrators openly recruit these militarily prepared recruits, promising money, cars, women and life insurance policies if they desert. (The life insurance is a surprisingly effective inducement. A nineteen-year-old told me that his parents had accepted his brother's involvement with a drug corporation because he was sending them money and his life insurance policy would help provide for them if he were killed.) Desertions have reached as high as 30 percent of the active enlisted force, forcing a constant reshuffling of assignments among minimally trained enlisted personnel.

The ghetto-bred soldiers, many just out of basic training, adhere to Middle Ages practices of supplementing their meager salaries with what they can acquire during cateos (searches and seizures of property) and shakedowns. Victims of these actions have accused soldiers of stealing money, jewelry, cell phones and laptops during these searches and of stripping personal property from persons stopped at highway checkpoints.

In September 2009 Gustavo de la Rosa of the Chihuahua state Commission on Human Rights sought asylum in the United States after receiving death threats from unidentified persons who told him to stop criticizing military human rights violations and to cease defending victims of military aggressions in Ciudad Juárez. Since then hundreds of Mexican civil rights advocates, parents of persons "disappeared" by the military and Mexican journalists also have filed for political asylum. General Guillermo Galván, Mexico's Secretary of Defense from 2006-2012, derailed prosecution of soldiers accused of abuses by insisting that those levying the charges "are politically motivated" and the accusations are exaggerated or falsified.

The cateos and takeover of law enforcement activities by the military has intercepted drug shipments and confiscated caches of weapons and money but has not diminished the power of the drug corporations nor curtailed their activities. Governmental insistence that the military can do no wrong has given soldiers full freedom to do as they choose without fear of chastisement, creating a situation where both the military and the drug corporation capos thumb their noses at legal restrictions.

Although much less publicized (and completely ignored in drug war discussions between the two countries), the federal government has dispatched Darth Vaders and Robocops to break up popular protests in Oaxaca, Guerrero, the Distrito Federal and the Estado de Mexico. (Darth Vaders and Robocops are popular descriptions of helmeted and visored soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and leg armor because they resemble movie science fiction characters.) In addition, 15,000 Mexican troops have surrounded the Zapatista communities in Chiapas for over fifteen years; using the pretext of drug searches they have destroyed food and water supplies and manhandled and sometimes sequestered residents.



While many people in the United States support the "war on drugs" as crucial to national security, they fail to recognize that the drug organizations actually have prospered since the military intervention began. A former Chihuahua journalist who left the profession because of death threats told me "It (the War on Drugs) is like a football (soccer) game without coaches or referees, soldiers and narcos charging this way and that, doing more harm to the spectators than to each other."

Their "charging this way and that" fulfills a basic definition of war: To win, one needs soldiers and soldiers need weapons and once they have those weapons they use them with little regard for or understanding of what government higher ups, generals or drug corporation capos are doing or thinking. But "war" as historians describe conflicts like the Civil War, the world wars, the War of the Roses—even the "Indian wars"—involve location, armies, ideologies. Joaquín Guzmán—El Chapo—the now imprisoned head of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel and according to Forbes magazine one of the world's richest men at the time of his arrest, made it clear that he did not want—or need—to overthrow the government, he simply desired to run his businesses unimpeded by the military or militarized police.

Like El Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel the drug corporations have created nations within a nation that in many aspects (investment, trade, communication, transportation, defense) parallel Mexico's federal government. Many who operate within the drug corporations' systems also function as elected or appointed members of federal and state governments. The raids, cateos, ambushes and assaults by military individuals and detachments only minimally affect these overlapping bureaucracies.

A Mexican newspaper cartoonist depicted the "War on Drugs" with an elasticized individual whose arms, wrapped every which way around his body, held narcotics paraphernalia, greenbacks, military orders and a pistol pointed at his astonished and uncomprehending face. "Do I shoot?" he asks.

Some estimates indicate that drug sales bring as much as three times the money into Mexico as petroleum sales or remittances from workers in the United States. Given the amount of income thrust into Mexico's economy, can the country afford to win the "War on Drugs"? The question is not one that either Mexico or the United States has ventured to answer. What is clear, however, is that there is no way that military street actions will stop the flow of cocaine, heroin, crank and designer drugs flowing to millions of consumers in the United States who remain unaffected by cateos, assassinations, Plan Méridas and bribes. As long as there is a market the hydra will keep growing new heads. And the arms manufacturers will prosper.


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