As part of an ongoing debate about the relationship between free trade and Mexico’s drug war, authors Mike Wallace and Carmen Boullosa* respond to a critique of their book “A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War.” InSight Crime published an article about the book on April 6, and Manuel Suarez, one of the negotiators of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), responded. Here is the authors’ rebuttal.
Professor Suarez makes two fundamental points. First, that the basic cause of drug war violence is prohibition, a proposition with which we are in complete agreement. Second, that particular US and Mexican economic and trade policies (including NAFTA) had “nothing to do with” the unfolding catastrophe, and here we think he misunderstands our argument.
The professor says that our “book’s thesis is that NAFTA opened the US’s door to drugs from Mexico, mixing them with legal trade, which is false.” He’s right. It’s not only false but preposterous. Only thing is, we didn’t say this, or anything remotely like it.
The problem here is that Suarez is responding not to the book, but to an excerpt that Jacobin magazine generously published, believing the selected text deserved highlighting. Nevertheless, the excerpt is only one strand taken from a thickly braided rope (and even in the Jacobin piece we didn’t say what he says we said).
When we learned that InSightCrime was interested in reviewing our project, we suggested it might be sensible to respond to the totality of the argument (i.e., the book not the excerpt). David Gagne did so in his fair-minded recounting. Suarez seems to have demurred, as is of course his right; but it requires us to give readers a more complete account of what our argument really is.
Our central proposition is that the roots of the so-called “Mexican Drug War” run back not to the neoliberal 1980s, but to the early 1900s, when the US passed laws in 1909 and 1914 that criminalized the sale and use of most major drugs (though not marijuana). Drugs were thus banned even before alcohol was prohibited, and the ban stayed in force after Prohibition was repealed. Marijuana was outlawed in the 1930s.
The book goes on to discuss repeated efforts by the US to get Mexico to interdict cross-border shipments which it had been unable to block itself. Among the many interventions we recount are the 1930s successful campaign by the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics to force Mexico to reverse its rejection of the US criminalization policy in favor of a public health oriented, harm reduction approach. In the 1960s we look at how G. Gordon Liddy of later Watergate fame engineered a border shutdown to coerce Mexico into launching crop eradication programs. And in 1986 Congress passed a certification program that threatened to cut off US aid, and bar access to desperately needed credit from international lending agencies, if Congress deemed a nation’s anti-drug efforts insufficient. And, as we start the book with prohibition, we conclude the book with a survey of the growing movement, in the United States, in Latin America, and at the United Nations, to reject as a disastrous failure the criminalization/incarceration approach the US has pushed for the last hundred years.
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But the emergence of the cartels and the outbreak of murderous violence cannot be fully understood by focusing solely on attempts at suppression of the trade. It requires some attention to the larger web of relations between the US and Mexico. We look at, among other things, a string of economic crises (dating back to the 1930s), and describe how both countries responded to them. In each case, our interest lies less in the policies themselves, than in their impact on the steadily mushrooming drug trade.
In this context we look briefly at the debt crisis that exploded in 1982, which Suarez blames on “populist excesses” of the Echeverria and Lopez Portillo regimes. Although Suarez asserts that “the book ignores this,” we do note PRI corruption, nepotism, and squandering of funds on ill-advised projects, but we note also the successes of using oil-backed debt (bought by eager US bankers recycling petrodollars) to make productive investments in infrastructure development. But the global economic crisis of the 1970s, and US efforts to deal with it, wrecked Mexico’s ability to sustain its debt. As Suarez admits, the debt was sent soaring by Volker’s all but doubling of the prime rate, and then made completely unpayable (as Suarez neglects to mention) by the collapse of oil prices. We can debate whether Volker’s approach was the best way to deal with inflation, but our interest in the book is only in exploring how the subsequent economic catastrophe — the 1980s weren’t known as the Lost Decade for nothing — facilitated a dramatic expansion of the drug trade.
Similarly, we note that Mexico’s reform of the rural landholding system and its scrapping of assorted subsidies and regulations, together with the implementation of NAFTA and a second debt crisis, sent impoverished Mexican farmers fleeing to urban slums, border maquiladoras, or the United States. Suarez is pleased with this “migration,” and he hails the economic policies that induced it, as the agrarian sector was inefficient and overpopulated. Indeed, he thinks more migration is “essential.” Now the professor may be right in arguing that the wholesale uprooting of the peasantry, and its more or less forced relocation, will work to the country’s betterment in the long run, though his response to this movement of people does seem a bit callous and overly abstract (how was this “migration” experienced?).
But our concern is not with the long-term impact of the 1990s initiatives. We are only focused on their impact on the drug trade: a pouring of impoverished peasants and unemployed urban slum dwellers into the pre-existing narco-economy, as growers, packagers, transporters, guards, peddlers, and assassins. There were also unanticipated, inadvertent consequences, like the way the increased flow of cross-border traffic facilitated the evasion of inspection.
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Two more observations on Suarez’s commentary. He clearly supports a “free market” policy in general, but perhaps he would agree that one of the more damaging US contributions to the ongoing violence was its free market approach to gun running. In 1994 Congress slapped a ban on the manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons. Though it was scheduled to sunset in 2004, two-thirds of Americans (among them President George W. Bush) supported extending the ban. Fierce opposition by right-wing Republican privateers killed it at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Assault weapons resumed their flow to cartel killers, and violent confrontations began to increase.
Suarez suggests that the reason violence rose to apocalyptic levels is that the Fox and Calderon regimes “dismantled a very effective national security apparatus which kept the situation under control.” But in the Zedillo years the situation wasn’t under control, it was getting way out of hand. The fragmentation of the Guadalajara Cartel had ushered in violent turf wars, and the Gulf Cartel had moved toward militarization by founding the Zetas. Many elements of the “national security apparatus” were stunningly corrupt, and in the pocket of the drug lords, including the head of Mexico’s DEA, and the entire Federal Judicial Police (PJF), which Fox indeed dismantled. Perhaps Suarez believes changes in Mexico’s Investigation and National Security Center (CISEN) are sufficient to explain the surge in violence, but no single agency could have altered these events.
The truth is that the federal state had indeed once kept violence in check through the plaza system, in which suborned federal and local officials turned a blind eye to trafficking in return for a modicum of inter-cartel order, and massive payoffs to the officials. But by the late 1990s, the PRI’s supervisory power had been long since washed away by the tidal flows of drug trade money, which gave drug lords the upper hand in state/cartel relations, and led to the wholesale corruption of the “national security apparatus.” In effect, Fox and Calderon were responding to this corrosion — and US pressure — by militarizing their assault on the cartels, with catastrophic consequences. The escalation of violence, which has led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Mexicans, can’t simply be attributed to a single source, and in our multi-strand book we try to account for it in all its complexity.
*Mike Wallace and Carmen Boullosa are the authors of the book “A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War.” Wallace is a Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, and Boullosa is the author of 15 novels.