David P. Hamilton : The Physics of the Drug War

Mexican soldiers at site in Acapulco where three dismembered bodies were found in March 2012. Photo by Pedro Pardo / Agence France-Presse /Getty Images.

Drug War futures:
The dynamics against
an end to prohibition

The reliable physics of the drug war is that the more pressure the Mexican government puts on the drug cartels, the more violent they become.

By David P. Hamilton | The Rag Blog | September 14, 2012

Recently, Tom Hayden traveled through Austin with the Caravan for Peace composed of Mexican drug war victims. In his talks here, he sought to link the antiwar movement with the anti-drug war movement. This is a promising strategy that would unite and broaden both movements. But the forces that are rallying in support of drug prohibition include a powerful new alignment that will fight to its last billion to preserve the status quo.

Some think the dam was broken with the advent of medical marijuana in California, that legalization, at least of marijuana, is inevitable as a result. But those in favor of maintaining marijuana prohibition are likely to become less violent and better organized, have covert official sanction and new allies joining them in the fray.

Hayden spoke hopefully of how Latin American leaders, especially those in Mexico and Central America, were beginning to rebel from having to pay for U.S. drug prohibition with the blood of their citizens. As a case in point, earlier this year Guatemala’s new president, Otto Perez Molina, called for complete legalization of the prohibited drugs, including their manufacture and transit.

Unfortunately, it now appears that Perez Molina’s threat was a ploy to extract further U.S. drug interdiction money. The ex-general, chief of intelligence and serial human rights violator decided that the bad part of the deal was that Guatemala was required to pay for its own bloodbath.

Blood has a price and apparently that price has now been met. However inconsistent with his earlier gesture toward legalization, Perez Molina just allowed two hundred U.S. Marine combat troops and four of their attack helicopters to enter Guatemala to help the local police in chasing Zetas through the jungle.

In Mexico, the invariable result of this approach has been increased violence. Perez Molina’s threatened exit from the drug war has quickly morphed into an escalation thanks to cash and guns provided by the Obama administration and the U.S. taxpayer.

But however much the governments of Central America groan over being located in the drug transit corridor, even collectively they matter little compared to Mexico. Mexico is the colossus among them, with more people, more money, and a 3,169 km border with El Norte. What Mexico decides governs the approach to be taken by all the countries to the south through Panama.

The changing face of the drug war in Mexico

Major transitions have taken place recently in the drug war violence gripping Mexico. The murder rate in Ciudad Juarez is falling very fast, down over 50% since the peak in 2010. In July 2012, there were 40 murders in Juarez, 33 of them drug related. This compares to 8.5 a day in 2010.

The most plausible explanation is that the Sinaloa cartel seems to have largely wiped out the Juarez cartel and taken over complete control of drug trafficking in that city. It should also be noted that the murder rate in Juarez climbed to being the highest in the world after the Mexican army was sent in to fight the cartels and dropped precipitously as soon as they left.

Tijuana has now quieted down so much, a result of the Tijuana cartel taking over all of Baja California Norte, that now the mayor of San Diego has begun encouraging tourists to cross the border again.

The murder rate in Mexico topped out at 21 per 100,000 per annum in 1986, a time when many of us thought it was such great fun to go there. I drove to Mexico City with my seven-year-old daughter that year. The Mexican murder rate declined steadily until 2007, when it bottomed out at 10. The decline in the murder rate in Mexico was steepest during the administration of Vicente Fox, from 1 December 2000 through 30 November 2006.

Mexico officially declared war on the cartels 12 years ago when the PAN took over the presidency from the PRI. In contrast to the corrupt PRI party that colluded with the old drug lords, the new PAN plan was to arrest the leaders and break up the cartels using the military.

Vicente Fox endorsed this approach and did send troops into Nuevo Laredo with disastrous results, but he mostly just talked. The murder rate nationwide continued to decline, the drugs continued to flow, and eventually, after he left office, he came out for legalization.

Calderon put into practice the continuous aggressive military approach with far more disastrous results. The Mexican Drug Wars began in earnest on 11 December 2006 when newly elected PAN President Calderon, in office for just 11 days, sent 6,500 Mexican soldiers into his home state of Michoacan to fight the growing power of the La Familia cartel.

During the Calderon administration, the murder rate nationwide doubled with 50,000 drug war related deaths, tourism went into recession as a result of the violence and Mexico, its honor besmirched, is now called a failed narco-state.

This military-judicial approach has failed. Since the election of his replacement, Calderon was jeered in the Mexican Congress while defending his drug war policy. His strategy of arresting the leading cartel figures has invariably triggered greater violence between those who aspired to take over the positions being vacated, victory usually going to the most vicious.

As arrests were made and troops deployed, these battles heated up and corruption was exacerbated as more police and politicians had to be paid off or killed. The cartels, with vast financial resources and roots in Mexican society going back generations, were strengthened in the process of the struggle.

Drug warfare in Mexico has migrated and in different locations you have different combatants. While Juarez and Tijuana have calmed down, on the Gulf coast the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, the latter allies of the Sinaloans, are slugging it out from Vera Cruz to Monterrey. On the Pacific coast, the Sinaloans fight the La Familia/Knights Templar and Zetas in Acapulco. Throw in the military and the police fighting on both sides and you have a confusing battlefield.

The general configuration of the Mexican drug cartels is that there are two large “federations” fighting for dominance. The biggest and oldest is the Sinaloan cartel and their allies in the Sinaloan Federation.

The Sinaloans cover the northwest, except for enclaves in Tijuana, previously in Juarez and in the area of northern Sinaloa where the Beltran/Leyva cartel rules. Now the Sinaloans are reputedly in control in Juarez. Their principal ally is the Gulf cartel.

The next largest group, the Sinaloan’s principal adversary, are the aggressive newcomers, Los Zetas, who broke from the Gulf cartel in 2010 and now dominate in 11 states, mostly along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts. Their headquarters is in Nuevo Laredo.

The were founded by deserters from the Mexican special forces who had been trained to fight against drug cartels, bought off originally by the Gulf cartel, but soon they became independent. They are notorious for their military expertise and brutality and they are ascendant.

Member of Javier Sicilia’s Caravan for Peace against the Drug War during rally in New York City Sept. 16. Photo by John Moore / AFP / Getty Images.

The El Paso phenomenon

In 2010, Ciudad Juarez claimed the highest murder rate in the world with 3,111 homicides or over 200 per 100,000 residents per annum. Some estimates put that figure at nearly 300 per 100,000. As the Rio Grande isn’t very grand at that point, Ciudad Juarez and El Paso sit side by side with only a shallow stream dividing them. Ciudad Juarez has about 1,400,000 residents, and El Paso another 750,000.

El Paso had five murders in 2010, or 0.8 per 100,000. That tied Lincoln, Nebraska, for the lowest murder rate in of any city in the U.S. At the same time, Ciudad Juarez had more murders than that on the average day. To a lesser extent, this same striking contrast is also apparent in Brownsville-Matamoros, San Diego-Tiajuana, and Laredo-Nuevo Laredo.

What can explain the fact that murders are easily over 200 times more common in Juarez than in neighboring El Paso? Since the main function of drug cartels is moving illegal drugs across the border, it cannot be the case that the cartels just don’t exist north of the border. Captured cartel affiliates in the U.S. also testify otherwise. So why aren’t there piles of decapitated corpses in East LA or South Tucson? LA’s murder rate is at a 40-year low.

There are only a few logical possibilities to explain this phenomenon. The drug cartels either have truce agreements that are in effect when they operate inside the U.S. or they have an implicit truce because they all recognize the negative consequences of arousing the U.S. police unnecessarily or they have territories in the U.S. that are firmly established and uncontested.

The last of these possibilities seems unlikely given their lack of a similar territorial agreement in Mexico. Given the peacefulness of the U.S. side, some level of agreement seems likely. If they do have an agreement, it would not be unprecedented.

All the present day cartels used to be part of one confederated organization headed by Miguel Angel Felix Gallado who founded the Guadalajara cartel in 1980 and established an alliance with Pablo Escobar of the Medellin cartel in Columbia. Gallardo was the “godfather,” the “lord of Mexican drug lords.”

According to Peter Dale Scott, ex-Berkeley professor, Canadian diploma,t and author of Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America¸ Gallardo’s organization prospered “largely because it enjoyed the protection of Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), under its chief Miguel Nazar Haro, a CIA asset.”

In 1987, after DEA raids on his properties, Felix Gallardo “decided to divide up the trade he controlled as it would be more efficient and less likely to be brought down in one law enforcement swoop.” He “convened the nation’s top drug narcos at a house in the resort of Acapulco where he designated the plazas or territories.” Thus were born the modern cartels.

This event was the first of many instances where pressure from the police fragmented the industry, producing violent power struggles.

Nieto’s choices

Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI will be the next president of Mexico, an office he won with only 38% of the vote. He also lacks a majority in the Mexican Congress. His position is not strong and his potential to maneuver is limited. In that sense, it will indeed be a new PRI.

But the old PRI was notorious for making corrupt deals, including those with drug lords that were partially designed to institutionalize the industry so as to minimize competitive frictions and keep them from becoming violent. This policy did nothing, of course, to reduce drug trafficking, but it was successful in minimizing violence.

Polls show that the majority of Mexicans tell pollsters that they support the war on the drug cartels. Polls also show that the primary issue in the collective mind of the Mexican electorate was reducing drug violence. This is contradictory.

Although vague about his plan, Nieto ran on a platform that emphasized the reduction of violence, not the smashing of the cartels. He gives lip service to the continuation of the war on the cartels, but everyone knows that when his party was last in power the PRI made deals and the murder rate was half what it is now.

Back before 2000, the drug gangs were far less violent. Then the government facilitated agreements between cartels and safeguarded their leadership, while drugs moved silently north. Police were paid. Politicians were paid. People weren’t being decapitated. A network of trade that has been around since the 19th century was expanding, another growth industry for Mexico.

Violence has spiked since the government was taken over by the PAN. The PAN strategy was anti-corruption and war on the cartels using the military. Lots of kingpins were knocked over and the ensuing leadership struggles invariably instigated greater violence. The harder the government has pressed, the higher the level of violence. The peak murder rates in Juarez occurred after Calderon sent 20,000 army troops into that city. Those rates drastically declined when the army was removed. Coincidence?

The reliable physics of the drug war is that the more pressure the Mexican government puts on the drug cartels, the more violent they become. If Nieto is going to reduce violence, he must reduce that pressure. It is patently ridiculous to think that these venerable institutions, the contrabandistas, a part of Mexican life for many generations, are somehow going to go away while that massive market in the U.S. continues to beckon with such highly profitable opportunities.

As long as there is drug prohibition in the U.S. there will be drug cartels in Mexico. Legalizing cannabis, cocaine, and opiates in the U.S. would cause a major market collapse, with the ensuing deflation possibly triggering a depression.

As limited as are Nieto’s options and despite his pledges to continue the drug war and his acceptance of further U.S. anti-drug largesse, he was put in office by constituents who hope that his promise to reduce violence must necessarily involve traditional PRI willingness to make deals with the cartels.

Reducing that violence requires leadership in making peace treaties between the warring parties after a lot of blood has been spilled. This will require difficult agreements about territories and establishing a disciplinary system where those who break the treaties will face the combined forces of the offended cartel and the government. The inevitably attendant corruption must be institutionalized. With decades of experience, who better for this difficult task than the PRI?

The lineup of forces

If Nieto is successful in his campaign promise to reduce drug violence in Mexico by 50% during his term, it is not good news for the advocates of marijuana legalization. It will instead mean a better organized and less repugnant illegal drug industry streamlined by Mexican government regulation.

All parties involved in this nascent arrangement know that legalization would severely deflate the entire burgeoning industry. Those addicted to the tens of billions generated annually by illegal drugs include cartel affiliates like Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and every other major bank, the ultimate repositories of all that money, which would evaporate like the morning mist with legalization.

It is reputed that the above mentioned cartel affiliates have considerable influence within the U.S. political power structure, so much so that the drug war policies of Obama are indistinguishable from those of Bush.

Opposition to legalization would also seem the logical course for any Mexican government that wanted to stay in the good graces of the cartels in return for the cartels restraining themselves from the ancient tradition of ritual bloodletting. Cleansing the cartels is a PR problem solved by reduced violence.

The value of the illegal drug trade is a not insignificant element of the Mexican gross domestic product or its foreign currency earnings. There can be no doubt that marijuana is Mexico’s most valuable agricultural export. The tentacles of the drug trade reach into the deepest recesses of the Mexican oligarchy. If you sell luxury goods in Mexico, you’re in the illegal drug business.

The long-standing Mexican consensus has been that the nexus of the problem is north of the Rio Grande, so don’t damage Mexico in the process of fighting the Yankee’s drug problem.

The result of Nieto’s success will be reduced violence and a better organized illegal drug industry, both dedicated to not killing the goose that keeps laying those golden eggs — drug prohibition in the U.S. As long as U.S. prohibition stays in place, this system can keep paying off with the big bucks even while European and Latin American governments are drifting steadily toward decriminalization.

As a concession to the American consumer, Mexico will soon be able to ship north connoisseur quality to compete with California medical grade pot at $250 an ounce. Cheaper, but still five times the price were it legalized.

The traditional vested interests in favor of marijuana prohibition include the prison-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical, tobacco, and alcohol industries, gun manufacturers and dealers, police associations and prison guard unions and, of course, the banks.

But there is a relatively new player joining their cause, the medical marijuana industry. This industry is a rapidly growing manifestation of California’s most valuable agricultural export. It is already generating billions. And those ex-California hippies now making those big bucks do not want to kill off that golden goose either.

Since prohibition is universally hated by their clientele, the medical marijuana industry must endure the special requirement of coming up with a plausible cover story to justify their opposition to legalization, hiding both their hypocrisy and financial self-interest. Such an obfuscating devise is currently in evidence in Washington where the medical marijuana industry is opposing legalization because the law specifies questionable levels of driving impairment.

In California, they claimed to be protecting the interests of their “patients” in opposing legalization. In fact, marijuana prohibition is very much in their class interest.

This is another issue where the opposing forces are both strengthening and polarizing and the U.S. government seems incapable of devising a sensible solution. Despite the unpleasant side effects, the drug war still works quite well as a means of social control.

Although most U.S. citizens favor marijuana decriminalization, almost no establishment politician of either mainstream party will take any initiative in that direction. It is a taboo issue in federal elections despite majority support for reform.

The forces in favor of prohibition have to clean up the PR embarrassment of the violence, but with tens of billions annually at stake, this coalition of forces, the cartels, the big banks, and the pot growers, pot script doctors and pot dispensaries, have unlimited money, a huge financial interest in the outcome and the support of governments in both the US and Mexico in maintaining prohibition.

[David P. Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government was an activist in Sixties Austin and a contributor to the original Rag. David writes about France and politics (and French politics) for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag BlogThe Rag Blog

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