A new book looks beyond the clichés to examine the causes of the violence associated with illegal drugs trafficking in Mexico. Latin America Bureau talks to one of its authors, Peter Watt.
LAB: Why do you in the title of your book, "The Drug War in Mexico: Politics, Violence and Neo-Liberalism in the New Narco-Economy", make the immediate link with neo-liberal economic policies in Mexico?
PW: Well, the neo-liberal policies brought in during the 1980s basically drove millions of Mexicans into poverty, and so provided a cheap labour force for the drugs cartels. In the runup to NAFTA in 1994, the people pushing for it were the big multinationals and big Mexican companies who were funding the PRI. The process meant a new subordination of the Mexican economy to the US economy. For example, subsidies were lifted on production of Mexican corn, and then Mexico was flooded with imported corn from the US, where government subsidies were still in place. This meant that in the first six years of NAFTA some two million small famers in Mexico left the land. This migration from the land to the cities, to the maquiladoras on the border, and to the US itself has helped produce a flexible labour pool for criminal organizations to employ, a massively cheap labour force.
LAB: Would you say then that the recent 'war on drugs' of the Calderón government has been a failure?
PW: Prohibition of substances has been going on in some form or other for almost 100 years, and has always been a failure. But the Calderón militarization of this has been an unmitigated disaster. Look at four measures of this – based on the government's own statistics. First, the overall violent crime rate had been falling in Mexico before this new initiative. In the past six years though it has increased by more than 200%. Similarly with the homicide rate: it had been falling, but has now more than doubled. Thirdly, it has not reduced addiction rates within Mexico itself. These have always been low compared to other countries, but if anything, they have now gone up half a per cent, and so the 'public health' argument to support the drugs war doesn't make sense. And finally, the number of human rights abuses committed by the military during their attempts to control the drugs cartels –illegal detentions, torture, deaths, have shown a six-fold increase.
LAB: And so if it is not about any of these factors, what are in your view the reasons for the militarisation of the fight against the drug cartels?
PW: I think that George W. Bush's under-secretary of state for Latin America, Thomas Shannon put it succinctly: 'we're armouring NAFTA'. The aim is to protect a very unequal and unfair system. It is to preserve the hegemony of the Mexican business and political elites, as well as US and international business interests, and to stop the poor 'interfering' in this. I think that the 'democratic transition' in Mexico has in fact brought in a near-military dictatorship. Take for example, the Plan Merida, the largest US foreign aid plan outside the Middle East. Most of the US$1.8 billion has been targeted at Mexico. But all that expenditure has in fact gone to the US military to provide hardware and to US contractors. Mexico and Colombia have been used to shore up support for the US, when it appears that in much of South America its influence is waning as they start to increase trade with one another, and to promote integration without the US.
LAB: Now that the PRI is returning to power, do you think that will bring any change to the fight against the drug cartels?
PW: There's no doubt that under the PAN, the 'war on drugs' has been a failure. There's an argument that says that the PRI provided a modicum of stability throughout Mexico, and that they can deal with the cartels, the so-called 'pax mafiosa'. But who do the PRI represent now? They abandoned any idea of being nationalists in 1982 with the adoption of neoliberal polices and again by joining NAFTA under Salinas: they now represent the middle classes and the very rich, just like the PAN. When they were in power before, the criminal organisations knew they were answerable to the authorities – they had to pay off the PRI mayor, governor and so on, or they would be exposed or got rid of. But now that 'pax mafiosa' has obviously broken down. The criminal organizations have become much more powerful. In some areas they are even challenging the state, taking on the police and the army- and often with the state's own weapons. They now consider politicians as their employees, not the other way round. So I think that the situation has grown so much worse the PRI will not be able to control it.
LAB: Could the answer then be as many people are saying, to legalise these illicit drugs?
PW: It could be part of the answer, provided that the process is strictly controlled and policed. At the moment, the prosecution rate for alleged drugs crimes is only 1%. I don't think the PRI will want to take this step anyway, and the fact is that the drugs cartels are good capitalists: they are branching out and making money in many different areas. For example, it's said that only 40% of the Sinaloa cartel's activities now involve illicit drug smuggling. They've moved into areas like extortion and kidnapping, people trafficking and so on, where the rewards are greater and it is less dangerous for them to operate.
The Drug War in Mexico: Politics, Violence and Neo-Liberalism in the New Narco-Economy, by Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda is published by Zed Press.