Since the beginning of 2008, the violence in Mexico and especially in Ciudad Juárez has risen to unprecedented levels. The number of dead, mostly civilians, has surpassed 30,000 people, and of those homicides, about 8,600 occurred in Ciudad Juarez alone. The violence has become a normal way of life. I asked Noam Chomsky about this war in order to understand the reasons behind it.
Luis Cárdenas: Journalists in México live in constant danger. For example, a photojournalist from the newspaper El Diario was recently murdered in Juárez. The newspaper responded by printing an op-ed piece addressed to the cartels entitled, “What do you want from us?” Would you care to speculate on who is responsible for these attacks against the media and why?
Noam Chomsky: While I was there—this year and the year before—I met with journalists and editors from La Jornada, who I think are extremely good. They gave me off-the-record information that they had dug up about the drug cartels and about the U.S. tolerance of them, but they said they can’t publish it because it’s a death sentence. The cartels have the power to kill anyone they want so the media are intimidated. It’s obvious why the criminal gangs don’t want it published. I think El Diario knows exactly what the cartels want; they want them to stop publishing information about them.
They still do publish some. For example, La Jornada had an article reporting the inquiries of a professor at one of the universities, a specialist on drugs who works for the United Nations drug enforcement agency, who said that about 80 percent of the businesses in México are involved in one manner or another with the drug racket. Once you start publishing things like that and looking into it, you’re getting to the power centers of Mexican society and they’re not going to want to be exposed. If they can use the drug assassins to stop it, they will.
Do you think it’s a good idea for the Mexican government to suspend certain guaranteed constitutional rights in Juárez or elsewhere in México until order is restored?
You first have to ask what the Mexican government is trying to do and that’s a little opaque. It looks to some extent as if they’re supporting one of the cartels against the other. If that’s what they are trying to do then there is no justification for them to do anything. If they want to stop the drugs, the drug rackets, I think they know how to proceed and it’s not with military action. You have to get to the heart of the matter. Part of the answer was given by the declaration of the three ex-presidents, Zedillo, Cardoso, and Gaviria. They came out with a study or declaration about two years ago in which they said that criminalizing drugs is just creating the problem and that in some fashion the drugs should be legalized, like alcohol, and regulated. Then you wouldn’t get criminal syndicates.
The drug problem is in the United States, not in México. It’s a demand problem that should be dealt with here—and it is not being dealt with. It’s been shown over and over that prevention and treatment are far more cost effective than police action, out of country action, border control, and so on, but the money goes in the other direction and never has an impact. When people, leaders, carry out policies for decades that have no consequences for the stated goal and are very costly, you have to ask whether they are telling the truth. Why carry out these policies year after year at great cost if they’re having essentially no impact on the stated goal? There are only two plausible answers to that: one, all the leaders are collectively insane, which we can rule out. Or, two, they are pursuing different goals. If you want to know what the other goals are, you see what other consequences are being achieved and there are some. Abroad, it’s a counterinsurgency campaign, cover for counterinsurgency in Colombia. At home, it’s a way of getting rid of a superfluous population. There is a very close race/class correlation—not perfect but close—and in fact, black males are being removed. If it were in Colombia, they’d call it limpieza social. In the U.S., they put them in jails.
Since the drug war started, there’s been a very sharp increase in incarceration rates. The U.S. is way beyond, maybe five, ten times as high as comparable countries, probably the biggest in the world, and its target is primarily black males, Hispanic males, some women, some whites, disproportionate to the population. After all, think of the history of this country, it’s a history based on slavery. After slavery, after the emancipation proclamation, there were about ten years in which blacks were formally sort of free and then slavery was reintroduced by incarceration. By the 1870s, the states had passed laws, and the federal government approved them, in which essentially black life was criminalized. If a black man was found standing on a street corner, he could be arrested for vagrancy. If somebody claimed he looked the wrong way at a white woman, he’d be incarcerated for attempted rape. Pretty soon, you had the black male population mostly in jail to become a slave labor force.
A lot of the American industrial revolution was based on slave labor from leased prisoners in the U.S. steel mines. This went on until the Second World War when there was a need for labor. There was a post-war boom that went on for 20 years in the 1950s and 1960s. During that period black men could begin to integrate into the work force and get a job in an auto plant, or a fairly decent job, buy a house, send kids to school and so on. By the 1970s it was over. The economy was being financialized, production was being exported, there was a rust belt developing where the manufacturing jobs were essentially no longer available. So what do you do with the black population? The answer was to throw them back in jail under the pretext of a drug war. That’s the consequence and it’s pretty well understood.
So we have policies that are carried out which have essentially no impact on the stated goal and measures available which would have an impact and are not being used. The consequence of the policies happens to be significant for power centers—carry out counterinsurgency operations in Colombia and elsewhere, and you can carry out social cleansing, in effect, in a traditional American way.
That’s one part of the drug war. The other part is the arms. Where are the drug cartels getting their weapons? They are being provided by the United States. Cut off that flow of arms, it wouldn’t end the violence, but it would have a big effect.
What about NAFTA? Is that part of the problem?
That’s part of the problem. In fact, I was told by journalists that there are in México, close to the U.S. border—visible from spotter planes—big areas that used to be devoted to agriculture, which are now devoted to growing poppies. They say you can’t get in there because they’re guarded, first by the cartels, but also by the army, which is hand in hand with the cartels. These are among the predicted consequences of NAFTA and it’s pretty clear that the Clinton administration understood it. Remember that the Mexican-U.S. border used to be an open border. People crossed to see their relatives. It was militarized starting in 1994 when NAFTA was passed. Maybe it’s another one of those coincidences. I doubt it.
Given those conditions, the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, the constant supply of weapons from the United States to México, and NAFTA, what can México do to counteract all of this?
It’s pretty hard. You know the famous statement: “Too far from God and too close to the United States.” Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to that. México maybe could do things, but it’s hard to know what. While I was in México last September, there was an article in La Jornada reporting a study by economists at UNAM, that during just the Calderon years, real incomes for working people dropped by some spectacular amount—60 percent or something—and people were basically reduced to survival. Those are results of particular economic policies.
Is it possible for the United States to help its citizens without adversely affecting citizens in other countries?
I think these policies are harmful to the United States, too. Governments are not in the business of catering to their citizens. It’s as old as Adam Smith. The governments work for their main constituencies. When the Republicans come into office with plans to increase benefits for the wealthy. Same when Obama poured money into the banks, that’s his constituency, in fact that’s the main source of his campaign funding. The things governments are doing here which have harmful effects abroad are not being done for the benefit of the citizens. For over 30 years since the financilization and the hollowing out of the productive system, real incomes have pretty much stagnated for the majority of the population. It’s had the same effects as neoliberalism in México—less harsh, but similar.
Do you envision a day when marijuana will be legalized in the United States? Wouldn’t that still leave the problem of other illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin to contend with?
Legalizing marijuana would make a lot of sense. I don’t think there’s a single case of marijuana overdose on record and there are tens of millions of users. It’s much less dangerous than alcohol, for example. The worst drug of all by far is tobacco. The death toll from tobacco is overwhelming.
What about cocaine and heroin? They would still be there.
The fact of the matter is, they are far less dangerous than tobacco. Everyone is in favor of regulation, but what about criminalization? It’s a topic that has to be considered carefully. In Portugal, for example, I think they’re all legal and there’s been no detectable increase in drug use as far as I know. In fact, when drugs are legalized, use sometimes goes down, it’s been claimed. Part of the reason that teenage kids use illicit drugs is because they are illicit. They are thumbing their nose at society. If they were legal, they might not. I don’t think it’s a simple question, it has to be experimented with, but the point is the idea that criminalization is the only answer is almost surely wrong. Take tobacco. It’s not criminalized. It’s by far the worst killer. There is a lead article in the New York Times today about deaths from cancer. Lung cancer is beyond all the others combined. Furthermore, it’s so rarely detected that it is almost always lethal. But tobacco use has declined, not through criminalization. If you walk around MIT, you won’t see any students smoking unless they’re foreign students. If you go down to the nearby McDonald’s in a poor urban area, everybody is smoking. It wasn’t criminalized, it was education and that is a way to do things. It works.
Education may be effective in preventing addiction, but once someone is addicted, it is difficult to make them stop.
Then they need treatment, but putting them in jail doesn’t help. In fact, putting them in jail creates criminal cartels.
Do you think it’s wrong for a sovereign country like the United States to make every reasonable effort to stop and deport illegal immigrants from entering the country without violating basic human rights?
It’s an interesting question to ask about the United States where everyone is an illegal immigrant except the people in Indian reservations. This is an immigrant society. The native population didn’t have the power to prevent them from coming in so they came in. Where we’re sitting now was, a couple of hundred years ago, the territory of the Wampanoag Indians. At a certain point, until the late 19th century, entry was free. Then restrictions started being put in because the people who had already taken the country wanted to keep it their way. Should there be border controls anywhere? It depends. Suppose you believe in a free market—nobody does—but take the people who claim to believe in free markets, they should be saying that the movement of labor should be free. You go back to their saint Adam Smith; if you don’t have free circulation of labor, you don’t have free markets. Nobody talks about that either. Should there be border controls all together, should people be free to live where they want to live? That gets to the notion of nation states.
Take communities. Should a community be free to enact legislation to say we don’t want blacks? Now it’s illegal, 50 years ago it was legal. Is that progress or is that regression? That’s a subcase of the question you’re asking, a question which has complex moral dimensions. I don’t think you can give a simple answer.
I’m wondering what type of education system is best, going to school in México is not mandatory, although they say it is, it really isn’t. The U.S., on the other hand, spends a lot of time making sure that “no child is left behind.”
They use that slogan, but the “no child left behind” legislation should be called “every child will be left behind.” Teaching kids to pass tests is not education, that’s mis-education. It’s training for the Marines.
Take UNAM for example, it’s a very high quality university. It’s hard to get into, but it’s free. In the United States, if you take the main public education systems either you have to be rich or able to go deep into debt to go to school, unlike México where it’s free. That’s a far more progressive system than in the U.S. In México City there is actually a college set up by Obrador, which is not only free but has open admission. It’s true there are plenty of defects in the Mexican education system, but in some ways it is a lot better than here. You should have decent educational opportunities for everyone.
It makes sense for societies to make education compulsory for children. Children are vulnerable. The decisions can’t all be left in the hands of the parents. They can be irresponsible too. There is a social responsibility to take care of vulnerable people, like the elderly. That’s a social responsibility, as is obligatory decent education and that is not happening. For example, the Boston Globe, which is a liberal newspaper, had a lead story describing the successes in education and the main success was that they doubled the number of charter schools. Is that a success? From the point of view of business interests it’s a success. They would love to privatize the school system at public expense because it’s taxpayer money. But there is no evidence that charter schools are any good. In fact, the evidence is that they are more or less like public schools even though they cherry pick their students. Why is that a success? It is a success if you accept the doctrines of private power. If you are concerned with the citizens, it’s not a success.
California is maybe the richest place in the world, but they’re destroying the best public education system in the world. Tuitions are so high they’re prohibitive. The main universities in the public system—Berkeley and UCLA—will probably eventually be privatized and the rest reduced to vocational schools. In the richest part of the world, they are destroying the best public education system there was. In a poor part of the world, they are maintaining a free public education system. That’s important too.
Luis Cardenas was born in Ciudad Juárez, México. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then returned to Juárez for ten years to work as an engineer. He currently lives in the Boston area.