US aid to Mexico has been used more to suppress grass-roots movements than to uproot drug networks and their allies.
Cooperation between the United States and Mexico is again being applauded following the Jan. 14 capture of drug lord and FBI most wanted, Juan Garcia Abrego. But don’t expect the northbound drug avalanche to slow down.
The bottom line is that US drug users generate a multibillion-dollar bounty. So when one capo goes, 10 others shoot it out. The same gold mine has thoroughly corrupted Mexican authorities, including the army. This produces scenes that make Fellini films seem bland:
· In 1989, drug capo Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo is arrested. During the next three years, his operation expands as Felix Gallardo occupies an office equipped with cellular telephones and a fax machine, and his bodyguards perform clerical work.
· In 1991, US Customs agents look on helplessly as Mexican soldiers shoot and kill seven drug agents waiting to ambush the crew of a cocaine-laden plane.
· In April 1994, Tijuana police chief Jose Frederico Benitez Lopez is shot to death. Benitez had criticized federal investigation of the assassination early that year of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Many observers attributed the assassination to drug traffickers and their friends in high places.
· In May 1994, federal authorities arrest state prosecutor Sergio Ortiz Lara on charges of protecting cocaine traffickers accused of the 1993 killing of a Roman Catholic cardinal in Guadalajara. Ortiz is later released.
· In May 1995, the former attorney general for the state of Jalisco, who had investigated the cardinal’s murder, is gunned down in the same city.
It’s easy to blame Mexicans for succumbing to the narcodolar flood. But to do so ignores the broader context of US Mexican relations that exacerbates the problem.
For the past two decades, aid from Washington – under both Democratic and Republican administrations – has been used more to suppress grassroots movements, which threaten US investments and the availability of cheap labor, than to uproot drug networks and their political allies.
In the 1970s, the State Department’s international narcotics control program delivered more than $95 million worth of helicopters, airplanes, tear-gas projectiles and other arms and assistance into the hands of Mexican authorities.
In the Guerrero province, according to the 1991 book “Drug Wars” by journalist Jonathan Marshall, the army suppressed a local guerrilla movement, while the state judicial police chief for northern Guerrero, a reputed heroin dealer, was left untouched.
In 1978, Peter Bourne, director of the Carter White House’s Office of Drug Abuse Policy, told a Senate subcommittee that the ongoing drug control activities of the Mexican and American governments “rank among the most exemplary forms of international cooperation in the world today.” The reality was quite different.
That year, 7,000 Mexican soldiers, supported by advisers from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, waged a “special war” against marijuana growers. The US Catholic Conference reported that the real targets were Indian peasants. Aerial herbicide sprays poisoned their food crops and starved the Indians out.
The 1980s were no different, according to Marshall. The drug war remained “a convenient weapon against suspected subversives, human rights activists, journalists, opposition political leaders and entire communities of Indians.”
When DEA Agent Enrique Camarena was murdered in Guadalajara in 1985 – by Mexican drug traffickers, police and politicians – DEA Administrator Francis Mullen charged that “Mexico hasn’t arrested a major drug trafficker in eight years.” Drug lord Felix Gallardo – wanted in the Camarena case – reportedly bragged he had purchased a get-out-of-jail-free card with donations to the Reagan administration’s counter-revolutionary army, the Nicaraguan contras.
With the North American Free Trade Agreement tightening US-Mexican financial linkages in recent years, the narcotics skeleton has been shoved further into the closet.
According to a former Bush drug policy official quoted last summer by Tim Golden of The New York Times, “People desperately wanted drugs not to become a complicating factor for NAFTA. There was a degree of illicit activities that was just accepted.”
Likewise, the Clinton administration has soft-pedaled drugs and corruption to avoid further destabilizing Mexico, especially after it arranged a $40 billion bailout of the free-falling peso.
But if so-called “stability” remains Washington’s top priority, the drug war will remain hype. And it will be easy to understand why, in the words of Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Talbo, “the worse guys are beating the bad guys.”