Mexico and the War on Drugs
In an interview with La Jornada Michoacán, Daniela Morales talks to British academic, Peter Watt, who argues that neoliberal policies and the war on Mexican drug cartels are part of the same project; to maintain a weak democracy and a militarized state with the purpose of preserving economic and political control of the United States in the region.
Daniela Morales: To what extent has the war on narcotrafficking in Mexico been effective?
Peter Watt: When one studies the results those policies have had and analyzes the motivations the US and Mexican governments have for implementing them, one finds that the declared goals differ from the real goals. If the Mérida Initiative and the 'War on Drugs' have to do with the security of Mexicans, they have been a complete failure; but if they're to do with other things, perhaps they're quite successful.
DM: What type of other things?
PW: One example would be the Zapatista controlled territories, where despite being the last corner of Mexico where there haven't been executions committed by the cartels, there has been an increase in state violence against those communities under the pretext of looking for narcotics.
And why the rise in the number of elite military commandos in Chiapas? Why so many military bases? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, its part of Plan Sur, an initiative agreed by the US and Mexican governments to prevent Central Americans heading for the US from crossing Mexico's southern border. The other is that in southern Mexico many multinationals have significant interests because there are so many natural resources. Developers want to use those lands for eco-tourism, they want to exploit the natural resources contained in the forests, etc. The pretext is always the 'war on drugs' or 'security', but there is more behind the justifications and Chiapas is just one example.
DM: The Mérida Initiative has objectives that are not exactly to do with combating narcotrafficking?
PW: Initially they called it Plan Colombia but changed the name probably because people associated it with Plan Colombia. Critics of the Mérida Initiative still call it Plan Mexico because they identify it with Plan Colombia. In the case of Colombia, where financial backing of the army and paramilitaries by the US was justified as a war on the cartels and narcotraffickers, the effect was that production and export of cocaine either stayed the same or increased, so if it was a 'war on drugs', against the narcos, it was a disaster. But at least some representatives of the US government were honest enough to admit that the war was not only on drugs but on the insurgents, the guerrilla and in order to safeguard the interests of multinationals.
So from that perspective the policy was successful in safeguarding the interests of capital and maintaining control of a Latin America that is integrating economically. The US has two very strong allies in the region, Mexico and Colombia, the countries that have received the largest amount of military aid. The only countries that receive more are Israel and Egypt. Outside that category at the moment, the largest program of foreign aid from the US is to Mexico under the rubric of the Mérida Initiative. Thus, if the real goals have to do with counterinsurgency, with the establishment of a system of military control in North and Central America, it makes sense.
DM: Money in exchange for economic and political control of Mexico and the region.
PW: There are many things. There's the fact that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a disaster for the majority of Mexicans, for farmers and for the poor who stopped farming because they couldn't demand a decent price for their products and who have now left the country. Migration from Mexico to the United States is by now the largest cross-border movement on the planet, with some 500,000 people crossing annually, perhaps a little less in the last few years, a phenomenon which was provoked by the same neoliberal policies which have been implemented since 1982. Migration has had the effect of liberating a lot of land which multinational corporations are buying up. So on one hand, developers are taking over the land, and on the other, narcotraffickers are using them to grow poppies and marijuana. Those two sectors are the prime beneficiaries of NAFTA.
DM: Do you think the problem of narcotrafficking is a consequence of neoliberal policies in Mexico?
PW: Yes. Narcotrafficking existed long before neoliberalism, but accords like NAFTA created the perfect conditions for the growth of the cartels. The cartels are merely following neoliberal doctrine – fierce and free competition, veneration of private property – and are taking advantage of the poverty and of the debilitated society as much as the corporations.
Neoliberal policies weakened the Mexican state and public institutions. After 1982, and particularly following the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico was importing maize and beans, the country's most ancient products, and now those products are imported from the richest countries because Mexican farmers don't receive a decent price and cannot compete with cheap imported goods.
For example, by 2007 a kilo of illicit drugs could get a price 300 times higher than a kilo of maize; a kilo of marijuana or poppies was worth more than a ton of beans. That's a result of NAFTA and for that reason there are now more hectares in Mexico dedicated to growing poppies than maize. So what are farmers to do in such a context? It's not difficult to understand why growing illegal drugs expanded so rapidly.
DM: In the 'War on Drugs' then, there are at least two aspects which hardly ever get discussed: counterinsurgency and protection of powerful economic interests. Does that explain the ambiguous discourse and participation of the US in that war?
PW: It's estimated that 90 percent of illegal arms in Mexico originate in the US and that by now there are about 15 million illegal arms – some come from the US military – in a country of 105 million people, and those are only the illegal arms, a problem that the Mérida Initiative includes no provision for countering, something which would surely be a step in reducing levels of insecurity.
If it were really a war on narcotrafficking, another way of controlling it would be to rehabilitate drug addicts in the US, but not a cent goes towards rehabilitation programs.
Those who support US policy say that proof that it is working is that there has been a rise in violence in northern Mexico, they say that so much violence is the result of the cartels panicking. But the violence contributes to guaranteeing a high price for drugs, because it makes it more expensive and risky to transport drugs from Colombia or Mexico and to cross them over to the US side. So again, if it's really a war on the narcotraffickers then the policy of presidents Calderón and Obama isn't working because drugs are readily available everywhere and cocaine is getting purer.
DM: What about human rights?
PW: At the Summit of the American in August 2009, Obama said that with the training of elements of the Mexican Army he was sure that the Mexican government and military would guarantee protection of human rights, but the Mexican Army has always acted with total impunity.
Last year, under the Mérida Initiative, the US Congress had asked that 15 percent of the funds go towards the protection of human rights so one of the first things Obama did was to have removed paragraphs relating to such protections. So he can talk about human rights in Mexico, but reality is quite different.
Meanwhile, there are figures which show that between 1993 and 2009, 217, 000 soldiers deserted from the Mexican Army among whom some were trained by the DEA, by the FBI and who formed part of special elite forces, taking their arms with them. Some are now working for the cartels who pay better. I imagine Obama knows all this.
Mexican and US human rights groups, like Human Rights Watch, agree that the militarization of society has led to a rise in violations of human rights, so how can Obama say that he is sure that the military and the government can guarantee security and protection of human rights?
DM: Is Mexico now lacking a functioning state?
PW: There are those who say that Mexico is on the path towards that of a failed state. For example, when Felipe Calderón went to Ciudad Juárez following the incident on January 30, when workers from the US consulate were assassinated, he said that he had the country under control, but he has to go to Juárez in secret, he doesn't appear in public and he can't, because the state does not control the city, so in that sense there's a failed state in Ciudad Juárez because the government cannot guarantee the security of its citizens and that is one of the most obvious qualifications for becoming a failed state.
The neoliberal policies applied in Mexico since 1982 have left a weakened state and it is very ironic that now, after the supposed democratization of the country in 2000, Mexico is now a weak democracy where, for example, remittances sent home from Mexicans working in the US are often used to build infrastructure and to provide services which are normally the obligation of the state. The sad irony is that during 70 years of PRI government, Mexico was virtually alone in Latin America in not having fallen under the hammer of a military dictatorship, but now, with the so-called democratization, it's going very quickly towards a military state. At the moment there are more troops and police on the streets of Mexico than the British government sent to invade and occupy Iraq.
DM: So there's the possibility of a military state?
PW: I think that in 2006 the Mexican political system got scared because the progressive candidate in the general elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, almost won. Well, it seems he did win but was prevented from taking power in a situation reminiscent of 1988, when the PRI fixed the election results to prevent the more progressive Cuathémoc Cárdenas from taking power. What's striking is that the population is totally against neoliberal policies, against NAFTA, that they want to change the Mexican system, reduce inequality, make wide-ranging changes. For example, Carlos Slim, the richest man on the planet, gains around 27 million dollars a day while the majority of Mexicans live on less than two dollars a day. Of course, in Mexico there's no organized insurgency on the scale of the FARC in Colombia, but there are many different groups fighting for the rights of workers, for protection of the natural environment, for the rights of women and I think the fear of Mexican elites and the US government was the threat of a deepening democracy, a democracy which rejects neoliberal economics and the political control of the US.
DM: But don't you think that the US has forgotten Latin America somewhat because it is distracted by its invasions in the Middle East?
PW: If only they would forget it a little! But it's not like that. The presence of US troops in Mexico would be illegal, but it would also provoke as much popular dissatisfaction in Mexico as in the US. Furthermore, Mexico was one of 12 Latin American republics to follow a decision by the International Criminal Court to deny impunity to US soldiers abroad. It's better for the US to train foreign police and soldiers, in this case Mexicans, because that way it will be their problem if someone complains about violations of human rights. In this way Washington has the advantage of appearing before the world as a neutral observer while it finances the regime with arms, training, paramilitaries and helicopters.
The discourse of US politicians changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall; it's no longer Communism because in the 1980s they found another pretext – narcotrafficking – and following the attacks in New York in 2001 the justifications of the 'War on Drugs' became associated with themes like security, the terrorist threat from Islamic extremists, the left, guerrilla insurgents, those who are supposedly transporting Weapons of Mass Destruction through Latin America to mount an attack on the US.
So when US politicians link all of that together they are planting the thought in the public mind that there is a terrorist threat from Mexico, from Colombia, leftist groups, left-leaning governments like those of Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador and they are associating them with narcotrafficking and it provides a very good pretext, particularly in the US where clearly there's little awareness of what's really going on. The discourse of the Cold War is being repeated but now under the pretext of narcotrafficking, terrorism, Chavismo.
Meanwhile, the US military is overstretched in the Middle East, but the preoccupation has to do with the fact that many Latin American countries are integrating with each other. The traditional domination of the north is looking increasingly undermined and the manner in which they try to control the system that they have always dominated, and which is rejected by the people, is by means of coercion, by force, by arms.
There has been talk of establishing a military base in Veracruz, for example, which would be, I suppose, to maintain and ensure the export of Mexican petroleum, but also for surveillance, to gather intelligence on what is happening in the Caribbean, in Mexico and in Central America.
There's another US base in Puerto Rico and there are now some further seven military bases in Colombia because there's no longer a base in Ecuador and these things are all connected. If you look at US policy towards Mexico in terms of combating narcotrafficking it makes no sense. If you look beyond that, from a perverse perspective, it makes a lot of sense to US planners..
DM: How would you describe the perception of Mexico in the UK?
PW: I think that here we know very little, above all at the moment the only thing we get is news about Ciudad Juárez. But the vision we get from the mass media is very much in line with that of the politicians. It's the noble Mexican army and state (with help from their northern neighbors) against the inexplicably evil narcos. That's why it's important to analyze what's really happening, because this is, as Charles Bowden says, our future. It affects us all, Mexicans, Americans, everyone. A UN report a few years back suggested that illegal drugs account for eight percent of world trade, making them bigger than textiles, steel and the automobile industry. The cocaine trade alone is bigger than McDonald's or Microsoft. So it's a global problem.
DM: Which should be of international concern?
PW: Of course. What the media should be saying is that there are around 15, 20 deaths per day in Ciudad Juárez, that it's the most violent city on the planet, more so even than Baghdad. They should ask what created the conditions which meant that narcotrafficking was able to grow with such success. Perhaps they would find that their ruling ideology – that of market forces – played no small part.
DM: Why in this country do people accept the official version so easily?
PW: The media in the UK are very poor and conformist and it's difficult to stay informed when the mass media tend to present you with the perspective of the rulers of the world. There's no newspaper or magazine here which is critical in the way that La Jornada or Proceso are, or if they exist, they're extremely marginal. In that sense, Mexico is much more advanced.
I suppose it is also because Mexico is an ally of the US and the enemy of left-leaning governments like those of Venezuela or Bolivia and the UK is its junior partner. The elites here also have blood on their hands, they're also responsible. It's a global problem, so when we analyze it we at least have to be honest with ourselves and about who's in charge before we can understand it.
Peter Watt teaches and researches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield;
Daniela Morales is a journalist who writes for La Jornada Michoacán.
Originally published in La Jornada.