My essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” was recaptured by Mexican marines in January. It was the latest in a long history of farcical escapes and imprisonments that have dominated the life of the world’s most infamous drug boss.
His legacy is clear. Unmarked graves of mass killings are ubiquitous across Mexico, a product of both failed policies against cartels and complicity with them. The civilian death count in the last decade alone is estimated at over 100,000 people, with at least 25,000 missing — comparable to the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mystery still surrounds the drug trade. When the cartel head was recently interviewed by Sean Penn in Rolling Stone, veteran “war on drugs” chronicler Don Winslow condemned the article for its myopia, and bias. He called it a “brutally simplistic and unfortunately sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer.”
Guzman’s capture, and the way it was covered, highlight a narrative about the “War on Drugs” that has dominated the media for years. It’s a myth that revolves around determined Mexican officials targeting drug bosses and successive American administrations funding a drug war to destroy the dealers, pushers, and producers. Anabel Hernandez exposed this narrative as a lie in her book Narcoland (2010), a massive bestseller in Mexico. In it, she detailed the intimate connections between every level of the Mexican state and the cartel run by Guzman, the Sinaloa. Washington was complicit in the game, according to Hernandez. Any real battle against drugs was an illusion, for show, she argued — and she named all the officials, including Mexican presidents, with ties to the narco trade.
The real Washington agenda in Mexico was compromised, and never about destroying the drug trade. In 2014, the Mexican newspaper El Universal found evidence in court documents that DEA agents had met Sinaloa cartel members between 2002 and 2012 and left its business free to operate in exchange for information on rival cartels. The DEA was willing to accept Sinaloa carnage to pursue another, apparently noble agenda, fatally breaking Washington’s publicly stated opposition to Guzman’s empire. It’s a tactic that’s been similarly used by the DEA, with equally devastating results, in Afghanistan and Colombia. In this worldview, civilian deaths are a necessary casualty.
Despite decades of narco killings, little is still known about the secretive “War on Drugs.” Journalist Ioan Grillo, author of the book Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, writes that both countries have wrongly pursued a “cartel decapitation strategy.” “While these kingpins rot in prisons and graves,” Grillo notes, “their assassins have formed their own organizations, which can be even more violent and predatory.” It’s an extreme form of cross-border capitalism that rewards groups involved in politics, mining, money laundering, fraud, and all forms of criminality. It’s arguable that these gangs would continue making money even if all drugs were legalized.
Narco History (OR Books, 2015) is a perfect backgrounder to the “War on Drugs.” In it, Mexican author Carmen Boullosa and American academic Mike Wallace uncover a century of failed drug policies that have only worsened the violence consuming Mexican and American communities. “We argue that the very term ‘Mexican Drug War’ is profoundly misleading,” they write, “as it diverts attention from the American role in its creation.” As they explain,
“Americans understandably view the blood-drenched bulletins from below the Rio Grande as dispatches from a different world. They are reports from a distant battlefield, limning a Mexican Drug War — presumably a conflict of Mexico’s making, hence Mexico’s responsibility alone. But we believe the term to be a misnomer, as the complex phenomena to which it refers were jointly constructed by Mexico and the United States over the last hundred years … What is perhaps less appreciated is how much the present situation dates to America’s long-ago coupling of a voracious demand for drugs with a prohibition on their use or purchase.”
Beginning in the 1910s, the authors explain, “Mexico was not a helpless, hapless victim. Powerful forces within the country profited hugely and happily from supplying gringos with what their government forbade them.” Prohibition, criminalization, and racism are early targets of the author’s wrath as key instigators of instability and corruption. They cite Southern American whites who believed that cocaine made black men rape white women. “It was not fear of drugs per se that drove the prohibitionists, so much as fear of the social groups who used them,” they argue. Henry Aslinger, the fanatical antidrug head in the US, was explicitly racist in his pronouncements. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he said.
The authors clarify how the long and porous border between Mexico and the United States has contributed to the drug trade. In the early 1900s, “border crossing was a breeze because there were no official restrictions or quotas on Mexican movement north.” American agricultural companies wanted cheap labor and Mexicans were the solution (returning to their homeland in the winter). Drugs moved easily between the two countries, particularly opium.
Fearing an underclass that could challenge Mexico’s social and political hierarchies, Mexico launched a “war on drugs” that was essentially a war on the poor people most susceptible to the trade, mirroring the way Chinese and blacks were demonized for drug use in the United States. As Wallace and Boullosa write, “revolutionary elites associated alcoholism, opium addiction, and marijuana consumption with lower-class illiterates and (mistakenly) with indigenous Indians — ‘backward’ social sectors. Drugs were perceived as obstacles to forging a new model citizenry, one that could build a modern, progressive, and civilized Mexican nation.”
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in America pushed the drug onto the black market where it remains to this day, despite an increasing number of US states legalizing and regulating it. But even back then, voices of reason existed. Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, head of the Mexican Federal Narcotics Service, was a respected physician for his work at Mexico City’s Hospital for Drug Addicts. In October 1938 he published a prescient paper titled “The Myth of Marijuana,” in which he argued that it was a relatively harmless substance that didn’t induce criminal behavior or psychosis. He opposed Mexico’s prohibition of the drug and pushed for a government-sanctioned monopoly on drug distribution. America vigorously opposed the idea. Narco History doesn’t explicitly say it, but Viniegra’s report, had it been adopted by America and Mexico in the 1930s, could have saved both nations decades of violence, rampant corruption, and drug lords like Guzman.
Former Mexican President Vincente Fox today claims that all drugs will be legalized in Mexico within 10 years, which may be one way to halt the apocalyptic drug-related violence that has wracked the nation for decades. Mexico’s Supreme Court approved in 2015 the growing of marijuana for recreational use, bringing the drug’s legalization one step closer.
By the mid-1970s, Mexico was supplying 75 percent of America’s marijuana, guaranteeing corruption on an industrial scale in both nations. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon declared an official “War on Drugs” that a new, more brutal phase emerged. “Not even Nixon still believed that marijuana drove people to rape and murder,” the book argues, “but he did believe, as did many cultural conservatives, that cannabis was doing something worse — undermining American civilization itself.”
Such a challenge required a monumental effort, and in 1974 Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At its inception, it had 1,470 agents and an annual budget of less than $75 million. Today, its budget is more than $5 billion annually, and it has offices in 62 countries. There are serious questions about whether the DEA, a government body that alleges clear connections between drug trafficking and terror plots, are stopping threats or just staging them against low-level drug pushers or innocent people, to prove they can effectively prosecute criminals. Although a senior DEA agent in Kenya recently told me that the “links can’t be shown [in court] because of the nature of the information,” hard evidence is mostly lacking.
Nixon’s legacy — an endless war against groups and individuals he believed were deviant —continued long after his resignation. Narco History artfully details President Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the drug war against the Mexican people (though it was never framed that way, the results were devastating for farmers and peasants who relied on the drug trade to make a pitiful living.) Marijuana, Reagan laughably said, was “probably the most dangerous drug in America.” Despite the American government pumping huge amounts of money into tackling Mexican drug barons, contraband continued flowing into America, a country with an insatiable appetite for illicit substances.
President Reagan wasn’t deterred. Perhaps the most egregious example of Washington’s hypocrisy in the “War on Drugs” involves the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The administration wanted to back the Contras, a paramilitary group aiming to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The cynicism and brutality of the policy is explained in Narco History:
“One idea they [the US government] hit upon was to covertly ferry arms to the Contras via Mexican drug dealers. Félix Gallardo, at that point running four tons of cocaine into the United States every month, provided ‘humanitarian aid’ to the Contras in the form of high-powered weaponry, hard cash, planes, and pilots. Indeed, a Caro Quintero ranch became a training facility, run by the DFS — the CIA’s faithful Mexican affiliate. In return, Washington looked the other way as enormous amounts of Mexican-processed crack cocaine flooded the streets of US cities, the super-addictive, mass-marketed drug wreaking havoc in poor communities, and triggering an Uzi-driven competition for market share that sent crime rates spiking.”
By the 2000s, drug violence was soaring in Mexico, a direct result of the US-backed, militarized “War on Drugs.” This led to a stream of Mexicans seeking shelter in America, millions over the years, and yet it was rarely explained in American political and media discourse why these individuals were coming in the first place. Drug and criminal gangs, such as the Zetas, were kidnapping, extorting, and killing the desperate souls fleeing for their lives (these stories are beautifully and painfully reported in The Beast by Óscar Martínez.) The Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land details how growing numbers of Mexicans are fighting back against the cartels and arming themselves for the battle.
There’s little evidence that either Mexico or America is intent on seriously changing its approach to drug gangs. Although Mexican towns like Juarez are less apocalyptically violent than a few years ago, Narco History concludes with a cautious tone. While noting large public acceptance in America for marijuana legalization, a massive shift since the 1960s, the authors argue that the “war on drugs” has always been a battle to subdue minorities — America’s culture of mass incarceration against Hispanics and African-Americans attests to this theory — and it continues to be the case in both Mexico and America:
“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.'”
America’s role and responsibility in Mexico is contested. Despite many arguing for continued funding of Mexican political reform, a recent New York Times letter by Laura Carlson, Mexico City-based director of the Americas Program in the think tank Center for International Policy, questioned this morality. “As a political analyst living and working in Mexico for the last three decades,” she wrote,
“I have watched with horror how the United States-Mexico drug war strategy has led to the explosion of violence and criminal activity here. The deep-rooted complicity between government officials and security forces on the one hand and cartels on the other means that the training, equipment and firepower given in aid and sold to the Mexican government fuel violence on both sides […] Victim organizations that have organized throughout the country demand that the United States stop funding the drug war under any guise.”
Narco History, a timely, insightful, and passionately argued short volume, is essential reading to understand why both Mexico and America have been ravaged for over a century by cartels, politicians, and gangs. The authors aren’t starry-eyed about legalization (although they support it) because they fear that drug cartels, such as Guzman’s Sinaloa, could become corporations and sell marijuana or other drugs legally on the market. What’s required for a wholesome change in Mexico’s dysfunctional political structure is “a complete dismantling of the anti-drug regime.” Tragically, at present, there’s too much money to be made for the war to stop.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author of many books including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).