Feb 11, 2012

Death, Drugs and Legalisation: How Mexico is getting desperate

Conor O’ Donovan 

Staff Writer


On New Year’s day, six bodies were found in different parts of Mexico, a relatively peaceful day, if Mexican newspaper La Reformas usually more metronomic ‘Ejecutometro’ (execution meter) is considered. Revered Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, a man noted for coy narrative (‘to be interpreted by the reader with no endorsement from the teller’, according to the New York Times), recently addressed the issue of drugs. He was, for once, quite forward.

‘Sometimes we win, sometimes they win’, stated the former diplomat. While there have been slight improvements in infamous areas such as Ciudad Juarez, the corpses hanging from bridges, a cartel signature, are spreading into other areas. Areas near Mexico City, once thought to be an oasis for diplomats, corporations and the wealthy, such as Acapulco and Cuernavaca, have suffered recently. A burned out vehicle containing two decapitated bodies was discovered at the entrance to an expensive Mexico City shopping centre.

As the carnage looks set to infiltrate the capital, Mexico must reevaluate its handling of drug crime. Thus far the authorities have targeted the linchpins of cartels. This has yielded some limited success, as the Gulf Cartel has struggled since leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén’s arrest in 2004. Turf wars with Los Zetos, who split from the Gulf Cartel in 2010, have also influenced the situation, however. In 2010, the army managed to kill Ignacio Coronel, leader of the Sinaloa Federation. Joaquin Guzman stepped in swiftly.

Overall, the strategy of targeting the top has left weak municipalities unable to cope with those carrying out operations. The cartels have almost free reign in many areas with, perhaps, the exception of a few bribes. During the past 6 years, there has been an estimated 50,000 drug related deaths, with three in every four murders linked to drugs.

The only way to alleviate Mexico’s now chronic drug crime problem, according to many and affirmed by Fuentes, is to legalise drugs. This November, Mexico will hold its general elections which have assumed particular significance. They mark six years since Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs and his deployment of the Mexican army against cartels. Now, at the end of his tenure, only 18% of Mexicans believe the government is winning this war amid speculation that the Sinaloa Federation is involved with the ruling National Action Party.

Some believe legalisation would have a similar outcome to the repeal of prohibition in America. Prohibition in America was a politically driven movement involving groups ranging from industrialists hoping to damage the German brewing economy during WWI to the Ku Klux Klan. The drugs industry in Mexico is not a political movement, but a group of coordinated and violent factions. Though there was an unprecedented rise in organised crime during prohibition, the key difference is that Mexico’s problem is an ingrained social issue, rather than a result of its own misinformation.

The idealised notion that united legalisation would lower crime rates both sides of the border is an equally flawed concept. The collapse of the mobs post-prohibition was due to the existence of established, potentially legal, tenders and distributors of alcohol. The cartels will not recede in the same way. For one thing, where are ethical, licensed, marijuana wholesalers going to come from? Also where is the murderous competition between cartels going to go? Furthermore, the cartels have survived thus far despite their illegality and the attention of the Mexican army. Their ingenuity cannot be underestimated.

A recent scheme saw rigorously vetted holders of the hard sought SENTRI pass turning up with rucksacks of marijuana at the Mexican border. A network of spies, established by Texan citizens Jesus Chavez and Carlos Gomez, observed the models, colours and registration of cars crossing the border, and the driver’s routines. The two men then had keys cut for their targets by a contact in Texas. What the plan lacked in subtlety, it made up for in originality. It took a Supreme Court judge to spot the pattern of models, colours and bewilderment on the part of innocent drivers.

Another issue with the proposed legalisation is that produce will almost certainly still be illegal in the US, the market’s chief consumer. The US accounts for the consumption of 90% of Mexico’s cocaine. Methamphetamine, the latest commodity in a market whose staples are marijuana, cocaine and heroin, also makes its way North in significant quantities. Many of the cartels have a significant presence in the US with a 120-hectare Sinaloa marijuana growing operation being uncovered in California.

This is hardly surprising, as California is the main champion of drug legalisation in the US and therefore a key market. It came to light in October, however, that , leader of the prominent pro-drug group , is a target for Federal officials. Regardless of possibly questionable motives behind such targets, it illuminates the attitude of Federal Government towards marijuana and the low likelihood of a joint legalization with Mexico.

Unfortunately for Mexico, there are few other options available to them. This is part of the reasoning behind drastic measures. Even if the strategy of targeting perpetrators rather than leaders is employed, the death toll will rise before it falls. Those affected by drug related murders (which is a broad dynamic) will not care how encouraging the new approach is. Also there are always countless disaffected youths marginalized by Mexico’s school system waiting to replenish the ranks of cartels.

Indeed, addressing education could be more plausible as a starting point. The constant presence of the drug trade and crime on the political agenda highlights how cartels have ingrained themselves in Mexican society. Brutalised corpses left behind by cartels are horrifying, but they also make violence, as well as drugs, a part of everyday life for impressionable youths in disadvantaged areas. Claiming this effect is intended would be slightly far fetched. However, if the government can reach these youths before they are indirectly indoctrinated, they may have a realistic chance of denting the death toll.

Negotiation with cartels is another option that has been explored. However, the split between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas illustrates their fickle and volatile nature. The Beltran Leyva Organisation was head of security for Sinaloa until joining Los Zetas in 2006. La Familiar Michoacana, a former anti-drugs group, announced their entry into the fray in no uncertain terms, tossing five disembodied heads onto a crowded dance floor. Entry into any sort of dialogue would be very dangerous. It would also acknowledge and legitimize even the illegal presence of the cartels in Mexico.

Many of Fuentes’ narratives concern the Mexican revolution. Francisco Madero liberated Mexico from long time autocrat Porfirio Díaz. Ten years later, Álvaro Obregón was inaugurated as President. Today, Mexico is in the grips of a similarly complex struggle. Its oppressor is not one entity, but the violent, selfdestructive hydra, the cartels, much like the factions of the decade between Madero and Díaz. While Mexico craves peace once again, legalisation is no more than surrender to the Northern American peninsula’s destructive drug habit.

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