Two eloquent studies of the drug war deliver different assessments of its origins… but both follow the trail of blood back to cynical policymakers in the US and Mexico
Amexica: War along the Borderline
2010, Bodley Head
336 pages, hardback
To Die in Mexico
2011, City Lights Publishers
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
THE WAR on drugs, Ed Vulliamy argues in his polished masterpiece Amexica, is the first real 21st-century war because, in the end, it is about nothing. A conflict of the post-political era.
He writes: “It is being fought in an age of belligerent hyper-materialism as an ideology in itself, the leading exponents of which run their corporations or banks with personal greed as their sole credo, and their brands as icons of this post-modern religion.” [p. xxvi]
It is a war empty of ideology, without affiliations on either left or right, and as much about brands and modern lifestyles and the digital era as it is about ethnicity, poverty, ideals, history. Latin America’s hard-earned civilisation is being rolled back to the times of barbarism before our eyes.
The scale of violence and terror in Mexico’s descent into hell is amply and eloquently described by Vulliamy, an award-winning reporter for the Observer newspaper in London, from decapitated bodies to the tentacles of corruption that reach deep into the country’s executive power.
Between 34,000-38,000 people have been killed in the last four years in the Mexican government’s armed crackdown on the drug gangs. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has begun to voice serious concern about the scale and nature of the violence, which is coloured by acts of such extreme degradation as to make this war, one of many Vulliamy has covered, especially chilling.
As if to order, on July 8 in the latest of the country’s grim list of atrocities, 17 people were killed when gunmen opened fire on customers and staff in a bar in Monterrey.
Pioneers of globalisation
Vulliamy drapes a shroud of history on the Mexican cartels, as mafia pioneers of globalisation and beneficiaries of the triangular trade in cocaine and weapons constructed by the US government itself to arm the contras in its own war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
He writes: “Mexico’s cartels combined three things to act as a conduit in flooding America with crack and cocaine: the knowledge of smuggling routes as old as the border itself, the unofficial acquiescence of the Reagan administration, and their conviviality with Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI], which had ruled since 1917.” [p. 6]
This triangular relationship, and US complicity, largely prevailed until 1985 when the death of the DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Guadalajara at the hands of the Mexican cartels changed everything. As Vulliamy points, there is evidence that the CIA knew and may even have trained his killers. Washington demanded action, the cartel of the don of dons, Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, was broken up – and, like the GM crops so favoured by American consumers, cloned offspring sprung up across the region as a turf war enveloped Mexico.
Predictably, it would have been impossible for these cartels to operate without the help of the PRI, but cohabitation and co-operation gave way in the late 1980s to dramatic economic and political change in Mexico that culminated in 2000 with the defeat of this behemoth of Latin American politics and the ascent of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). With the PAN has come an assault on the cartels that has evolved rapidly in its strategic objectives from their control of drugs to the very survival of the Mexican state. At the same time, Barack Obama’s administration in the US has made contradictory noises, accepting co-responsibility for this problem and agreeing that US arms smuggling to Mexico – and the US appetite for drugs – are at the heart of it, while stepping up military aid to Mexico’s army and police force and militarizing the US frontier. Obama is, bizarrely, digging in his heels about prohibition while expanding the legalization of marijuana.
Vulliamy traces an epic journey along the US-Mexican border – a separate land neither fully Mexican or American where along which most of the violence has taken place – telling tales of both dread and hope from Tijuana to Matamoros. It is a border loaded with instructive lessons about how all the actors in the unimaginably bloodthirsty drama behave, and history, from the US invasions and abuses of the 1840s to the 1910s as Washington tried to pull the strings of a southern puppet it has never been able to control.
A master communicator, the reporter speaks to the brave people who try to keep lives together and pick up the pieces of debris scattered everywhere in this arid, unforgiving territory, including the gringos who make it their business to try and help, such as the Reverend Robin Hoover of the First Christian Church, and brave locals such as Pastor José Antonio Galván of the Visión en Acción rehabilitation centre. The author enters the cauldron of Ciudad Juárez, visits the scene of massacres and the cemeteries where their victims pile up. He examines the maquiladora industry that has grown up in the border area, and the hateful femicide that has become cruelly intertwined with the drugs war and exploitative capitalism of the region. He considers the role trucking has played within NAFTA and US money entering the transportation industry, and the narco battle for Nuevo Laredo that opened the killing to a new level. He explores the role of the army and the police in this war, and how they try to stay alive – and prosper from it.
In his epilogue, Vulliamy identifies something like nostalgia for the old ways of the cartels before the bloody chaos that now prevails, when they were run by half-educated men with roots and business acumen, social bandits Hobsbawm would call them. Today, his sources point out, there is just crude brutality and bloodshed in the hunger between mass killers for something like respect. As Dr Hiram Muñoz of the forensic autopsy team in Tijuana points out, comparing the grotesque executions of an ancient Rome in decline with those of Mexico, torture and violence has always marked the end of a civilization. “And I think we are in a moment of crisis,” says Dr Muñoz, “in the culture of global business.”
The narcotraficante, like the factory owner, is in recession, and he is taking desperate measures to stay in business.
US prohibition reflex
John Gibler’s study of the drug war, To Die in Mexico, takes a similar journalistic approach to that of Vulliamy – both being a species of war reporting – by visiting and recounting in graphic detail the scenes and senses of numerous acts of terror as part of a broader conflict. However, Gibler is much more inclined to explore the politics of drug-trafficking in Mexico, to attribute blame to the US, to explore why the irrational reflex of prohibition continues to characterize policymaking, and why legalization must now be considered – ultimately delivering a far more powerful book.
Gibler, it must be remembered, is also taking a far greater risk: he lives and works in Mexico itself, unlike Vulliamy who has a home in Tucson, Arizona, and his work has reflected in much more detail on the endemic problems facing Mexico. It is courageous indeed for a US journalist to write in such detail about the drug problem while remaining in the country – this, remember, is the most dangerous place in the world for a journalist.
If less inclined to the eloquent narrative that characterises Vulliamy’s work, Gibler’s analysis situates the issue within a far broader understanding of governance and policy, reflecting a more nuanced comprehension of this war and its causes, as well as its impact on Mexican civil society. The drug war in Mexico, he writes, is two wars: a war between disciplined and organized trafficking organizations in which the Mexican state also participates; and a media war that presents combat and arrests as the product of diligent law-enforcement operations.
Gibler situates the current mayhem in the so-called democratic apertura that began after the turbulent sexenio of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) and the onslaught unleashed by President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) against the expanding Gulf Cartel that was now able to compete against well-established Sinaloan cartels. Zedillo’s successor, Vicente Fox – who ended control by the PRI – also favoured the Sinaloan cartels over the new pretenders, but by 2004 it was too late and the Sinaloans had begun to fight among themselves.
When Mexico’s current president Felipe Calderón took power in 2006, he did so with questionable legitimacy after widespread allegations of fraud. In time-honoured fashion, he decided to use the armed forces to bolster his credibility, formalising the drug war, but again leaving the Sinaloans relatively unmolested. The main problem with this approach, according to Gibler, has been the most open secret in Mexico City and Washington for decades: the Mexican military and federal police are so deeply implicated in drug-trafficking that it is simply adding fuel to the fire.
Gibler writes: “The Mexican army and federal police have administered drug-trafficking for decades… The chief national capos, or drug lords, are not only the most wanted narcos of the day – such as Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán – but also generals in the Mexican army and commanders of the federal police.” [p. 25]
The US has continued to channel arms and money to Mexico’s army and federal police to help them as well, despite knowing full well the past links of senior officers with the cartels. The author continues:
“High-level federal officials in the United States government know all of this and go along with the theatrics, because, among other reasons, the US economy is also buoyed by the influx of drug money. The defence industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police and the drug gangs themselves; the police are addicted to asset forfeiture laws; prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases; and the criminalization of drugs has proven a durable excuse to lock people of colour in prison in a country still shackled by racism.” [p. 26]
The size of the cross-border trade in guns itself is staggering. Gibler reports that Calderón’s drug war has created a boom for 7,000 US gun stores in the border region, and the Washington Post reported in September 2010 that 62,800 of the more than 80,000 illegal guns confiscated in Mexico between December 2006 and February 2010 were traced back to gun stores in the US.
Racialized social control
Gibler confronts the issue of illegality – which makes the drugs trade so profitable – and how Mexican narco money has long been laundered through American banks. Vulliamy has also written in detail about the past role of such US banking giants such as Wachovia Corp and bank of America Corp in handling laundered Mexican funds . Business savvy and globalized, the cartels’ money is sprinkled across the region and in Mexico they have diversified into controlling entire sectors of the economy, as well as the lucrative trade in human trafficking.
Gibler provides a fascinating and detailed insight into the history of both drug use in the US and the “war on drugs” unleashed by Ronald Reagan through the very plausible – but radical – lens of social control. Prohibition – and the refusal of the US political class to even countenance legalization are important components of what he argues is a massive and sophisticated post-slavery form of racialized control of non-whites, which fused subtly with the Cold War counter-insurgency priorities of the 1980s to push the bloody chaos of illegal drug-trafficking south of the border into Mexico.
He is at pains to point out that this is a truly global marketplace and the raw facts of what is going on “shatter the sordid drug war myths of cops and robbers, of Robin Hood drug lords, of an honest United States of America and a corrupt Mexico.” [p. 60]
Throughout this short but powerful book, Gibler accompanies journalists riding the grim carousel of death on Mexico’s streets, exploring the realities of a profession under siege in states such as Sinaloa and just how they cover the drugs war. He meets some remarkable victims of the violence, such as Salomón Monárrez of the Sinaloa Civic Front who took six bullets and lived. Monárrez, like other brave Mexicans, had had the audacity to seek justice for the victims of a military massacre.
Gibler picks his way through the many – and they are many – abuses and atrocities of this kind committed by the Mexican state and its agents in prosecuting a policy senior officials have long known will never succeed.
He then turns his considerable journalistic armoury on the hypocrisy of both the Mexican and US governments towards drugs policy in general and the issue of legalization in particular. His concluding Chapter 5 is the angriest, and most well informed, denunciation I have yet read of the failure of policy in the region and the cynical motives that underpin that failure. Gibler writes what he thinks:
“Calderón sent the army into the streets to protect him, seeking to grasp through the exercise of violence the social legitimacy he never achieved through the ballot box. The army meanwhile does what it has always done with drug traffickers; sell the plaza to one group and eliminate that group’s rivals… US policy has not stopped the flow of drugs, but it has outsourced most of the killing. Judging by the drug war’s own proclaimed objectives, there is no better case study in failure. But it is not a failure, of course; illegality increases the value of the commodity, and illegality allows for massive funding of police and military repression and mechanisms of social control. The drug war is a horrid success of state violence and capitalist accumulation, a cash-intoxicated marketplace that simply budgets for murder and political graft to keep things running smoothly.” [pp. 202-04]h
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books