Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mexico's Drug Crisis: Myths and Distortions

The drumbeat is sounding louder and louder about the growing crisis in Mexico, a country that is facing "violent, heavily armed gangs" threatening to make it one of several "failed states," as Foreign Policy Magazine recently described in a three-part series that included Somalia and Russia as the other members of the so-called "Axis of Upheaval."

Sam Quiñones writes in Foreign Policy: "The cartels have responded to (President Felipe) Calderón’s war with the kind of buchon savagery that so struck me upon returning to Mexico. In addition to fighting each other, the cartels are now increasingly fighting the Mexican state as well, and the killing shows no sign of slowing. The Mexican Army is outgunned, even with U.S. support. Calderón’s purges of hundreds of public officials for corruption, cops among them, may look impressive, but they accomplish little. The problem isn’t individuals; it’s systemic. Until cities have the power and funding to provide strong and well-paid local police, Mexico’s criminal gangs will remain a national threat, not a regional nuisance."

CNN's Anderson Cooper reports from the border about the "corruption in the Mexican police," forcing the government of President Calderon to depend on the Mexican military to confront the drug gangs, because, according to Cooper, "they are much more respected by the Mexican people." Tell that to the peasant and indigenous communities in Chiapas and Oaxaca who for years have been terrorized by the Army and its paramilitary sidekicks.

It seems to me that we've been here before, not only in Mexico, but in other parts of the hemisphere where the U.S. has stubbornly put forward its interests ahead of those of the many millions of people most affected by the complex factors that contribute to the global drug industry, and its horrific consequences. Only several weeks ago, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy put out its report denouncing thirty years of U.S. drug war failures. So why do we keep repeating the same remedies?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent comments about the U.S.' responsibility in the drug crisis, given the free flow of arms that go south into Mexico to build the drug armies, and the massive market here in the north for their main products, were welcome, considering the years of denial coming out of Washington. However, they don't go far enough, precisely because they are delivered within the context of a further militarization of the problem, as if we haven't learned anything from the past failures in Colombia and elsewhere in the region.

The Washington Office on Latin America, WOLA suggests three ways in which the U.S. can most effectively address drug trafficking and violence:
• launching a more ambitious effort to reduce demand for drugs here at home by improving access to drug treatment;
• combating the flow of arms and illicit drug profits from the U.S. into Mexico;
• and supporting institutional reforms in Mexico’s police and judicial systems.

But WOLA is very critical of the U.S.-backed Merida Initiative, which they don't believe by itself, will achieve any reduction in drug flows into the United States. As WOLA testified recently before Congress, "Congress should not fund the second, $550 million phase of the plan until it sets clear measures of success for the first phase. This is true for both Mexico and Central America."

On Friday's Wake Up Call over WBAI, we had a round-table discussion about these and other issues related to the Mexico crisis, with Maureen Meyer, Associate for Mexico and Central America, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Gerardo Renique, Professor of History at City College of the City University of New York, and editor of Socialism and Democracy, and Bill Piper, the director of the National Office of the Drug Policy Alliance.

There is no doubt that Mexico faces a grave problem with violent crime, much of it an outgrowth of the illegal drug trade, as Renique pointed out on the program, is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Yet drug trafficking, and the violence and corruption associated with it, are not only Mexico's problem. The ongoing demand in the United States fuels the narcotics trade, and the open and readily accessible sale of firearms in the United States has helped exacerbate the scandalous drug violence in Mexico. Should we be surprised to hear that 90 percent of confiscated weapons in Mexico originate north of the border.

The failure of the North American Free Trade Agreement is something else that should be included in the analysis about Mexico's drug war. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, the 1994 NAFTA agreement has increased poverty in the Mexican countryside, setting the stage for the entrenchment of an illicit economy that is in many ways the only sustainable economic alternative for many poor farmers. We've seen this in Colombia for years, so why it's not part of the public debate is puzzling to many critics of US policy.

In any event, to hear the entire dicussion we had on Friday morning, go to the WBAI Archive for the second hour of the show. Once it's fully downloaded, you can push the cursor up about halfway, to about 7:30am, where the conversation began with a quick look at the draconian drug laws in New York known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which on Friday was officially put to rest by leaders in Albany. The changes that are coming through in New York after years of mobilizing by many grassroots activists are also needed on the national and international level when it comes to the poorly named War on Drugs. Let's keep pushing for more!


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