Mexicans Romanticizing Drug Kingpins Reflects Lack of Confidence in the Rule of Law

"Narco Saint" Jesús Malverde.

“Narco Saint” Jesús Malverde.

The anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday this past weekend found me revisiting some of his speeches and shorter works, and remembering the more noteworthy quotes taken from his writings and public pronouncements. One of the more plainly stated dangers Malcolm warned against, in a speech delivered at the Audubon Ballroom, shortly before he was killed, concerned the media. “If you’re not careful,” he said, “the newspapers will have you hating the people being oppressed, and loving the people doing the oppressing.”

As if on cue, CNN.com ran an unfortunate meditation on Friday by Ruben Navarette, on responsibility for drug violence in Mexico, that illustrates precisely this point. Despite tens of thousands of deaths, myriad human rights abuse claims and billions of dollars of dubious investment, Navarette concludes—not implausibly, it should be said—that on the question of whether the government is winning its war against the Mexican drug cartels, the jury is still out. But Navarrette isn’t interested in weighing the pros and cons Mexico’s iron fist approach to the country’s drug cartels. He’s looking to assign guilt.

“Many Mexicans wrongly put the blame for those deaths entirely on the shoulders of Mexcian President Felipe Calderon,” Navarrette argues. “Calderon is a convenient target because he has made it his personal mission to destroy Mexico’s drug syndicates…The cartel’s customers are mainly Americans, who consume more than their share of illegal drugs.” Given this last, oddly-wrought observation, you might expect Navarrette to turn his critical gaze northward, but no. “As for blame, Mexicans should at least dole it out correctly…the Mexican people also bear a responsibility—for empowering the drug lords.”

For Navarrette, the hearts and minds of ordinary people are decidedly in the wrong place.

For decades, Mexicans have romanticized the drug trafficking industry in film, music and other aspects of popular culture. There are many “corridos” (Mexican ballads) that tell the story of the rise-from-nothing fellow who becomes the head of a powerful syndicate relying on his wits and strength…. There are even so-called drug saints that some Mexicans pray to — inspired by Robin Hood-like figures who are seen as protectors of the poor against the government. Of course, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize these saints, but this fact hasn’t made them any less popular. One of the most popular of the “narco saints” is Jesús Malverde, named after a bandit, who legend has it, was killed by authorities in the early 1900s. Known as the “generous bandit” or the “angel of the poor,” Malverde is a folk hero to some in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that glorification of bad guys is a universal phenomenon, and one particularly embraced in the United States, the fact that Navarette scolds ordinary Mexicans for not celebrating a government that has put them at a distinct disadvantage over the better part of a century—and that increasingly puts them at risk—reveals remarkable bad faith at best. At worst, it suggests an impoverished sense of a sovereign’s responsibility to its people.

In this, Navarrette has it exactly backwards. “Recently,” he bemoans, “Mexican actress Kate del Castillo…tweeted that she has more faith in Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman than she does in government.” Unfortunate, sure. But understandable? Absolutely. Del Castillo’s tweet represents not the actress’ failings, but Calderon’s and the country’s security services. Where the government has manifestly failed, illicit actors have filled the void. Cops are crooked because they’re paid less than minimum wage. Low-level drug runners turn to trafficking not because it’s a natural preference, but because it’s a viable job in an otherwise bleak employment landscape. The loyalty citizens profess to this violent syndicate or that have nothing to do with actual support, and everything to do with survival in an uncertain social terrain where law enforcement is often a perpetrator.

To his credit, Navarrette hints his understanding that “police in Mexico are thought to be corrupt or corruptible.” So it’s strange, then, that he slaps ordinary Mexicans on the wrist with the demand that they “stop writing poems and songs that honor drug traffickers and instead start praising the Mexican law enforcement officers bravely trying to bring these outlaws to justice.” And despite the fact that the military “is accused of being heavy-handed with civilians and violating the rights of Mexican citizens,” and that blame for it all “should go to Calderon,” these same citizens ought to, from Navarrette’s vantage point, “support their government and stand by their president in fighting a battle that needed to be fought.” Sound familiar?

Navarrette, in an op-ed piece days earlier describing his participation in a debate on the issue, “drew a parallel between the drug war and the war on terror. Nobody wants to fight these battles, but they have to be fought.” Navarrette noted that “If the United States lets its guard down, Islamic radicals will strike again and kill more Americans. Likewise, if Mexican President Felipe Calderon surrenders to the drug cartels, there will only be more bloodshed.” This last sentence is key. By continuing to perpetrate the false choice facing governments of either killing everyone involved in the drug trade or surrendering to them, Navarrette and others shunt aside a third way of solving the trafficking crisis—one that depressurizes the market and increases state capacity for the provision of public goods, the combination of which would surely undermine the social and economic foundations upon which the cartels thrive. It certainly wouldn’t be a solution without its problems. But then again, it sure beats what we have now—one that leaves tens of thousands dead, tens of thousands more without rights, millions addicted to narcotics without any hope for treatment, a government hobbled by its own lack of legitimate authority, and a crew of cartel bosses so rich they regularly make Forbes Magazine’s annual list of the world’s most wealthy people.