Part 2 of an interview with Drug War Mexico co-author Peter Watt. Also read Part 1.
I recently spoke with Peter Watt, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield, and co-author of a new study examining Mexico’s disastrous fight against narcotrafficking, Drug War Mexico. We discussed the origins and development of the Mexican drug trade, the intersections between neoliberal economic policies and the American-sponsored “war on drugs,” the prospects of continued democratization in Mexico, and what the new presidency of Enrique Pena Nieto might possibly hold for the country moving forward.
You and Roberto Zepeda spend time looking at the effects of the end of PRI hegemony. Some thought the 2000 elections would turn a hopeful new page in Mexican history. You argue it ushered in something quite different. Can you talk about what happened during this change of the guard, and why?
There were great hopes pinned on the supposed transition to democracy in 2000. It’s unsurprising that people were fed up with the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] dinosaur which had been in power for seventy-one years. But electoral pluralism and a change of political party don’t automatically mean that fundamental social problems disappear. What meaning can democracy really have in a country which is governed for and by the rich? The poor and the middle classes lose out every time, no matter who holds the reins. Unless there’s a radical restructuring of how society is run, by whom and for whom it is run, we can’t expect elections to have any profound impact. And unless there is a cohesive and organised popular opposition movement then elites are unlikely to change things much. They need to be pressured to do so, and eventually they need to be replaced by much more democratic forces which address inequality and poverty. But there was never any indication that the PAN [National Action Party] would do anything of the sort, aside from the vacuous rhetoric of the public relations exercises during election campaigns via the mass media.
One key change probably begins before the PRI loses the elections in 2000. As their support is waning, the PAN begins to hold political power in a number of states in the 1980s and 90s. And in those states where the PAN are in charge they no longer have a monopoly over the drugs trade. Increasingly, drug trafficking organizations are able to negotiate things on their own terms. The weakened central authority of the PRI, the increasing social instability and vulnerability of the population brought on by greater poverty and social hardship, is a golden opportunity for organized crime.
And remember that these organizations are very heavily armed and professionally trained. The group, Los Zetas, for example, is formed by deserters from the Mexican army, some of whom, ironically, are ex-anti-drug squad elites, many trained in the United States. All that investment by the Mexican and US governments into training elite squads—courtesy of the taxpayer—is now to the advantage of what has become one of the most dangerous criminal organizations on the planet.
By the 2000s, as Anabel Hernández argues in her book, Los señores del narco, high-level criminals are no longer employed by or subordinate to the PRI, the politicians, the police and the army. Quite the contrary, they are now in a position in which they view the political and law enforcement authorities as their own employees.
The last six years have witnessed a dramatic surge in violence and securitization of the state. We’ve seen a hideous spike in the number of dead, but you see other troubling consequences as well. Can you unpack these, and discuss their implications for both Mexico and the United States?
Well, the PAN gained the presidency in 2000 under Vicente Fox, promising a shift in Mexican politics. If nothing else, the PAN victory was an unambiguous and final rejection of the PRI. But the hopes that the PAN would provide substantial and structural change soon faded. Only six years later, the left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (often referred to as AMLO) Party of the Democratic Revolution looked like it may very well win the elections. And this despite a vicious propaganda campaign channelled through the mainstream media demonizing him as a danger for Mexico, comparing him to a new Chávez, Mussolini or Hitler, depending on one’s preference.
The possibility of a left turn in Mexican politics was a terrifying prospect for Mexico’s traditional elite, married as it is to the Washington Consensus. The prospect of the reformist AMLO in power was considered too much of a threat to the status quo, which, despite being pretty disastrous for most of the population, nonetheless rewards the rich and powerful handsomely. So it seems the PRI and the PAN made a pact to make sure the AMLO would be denied power, regardless of the vote. In what appeared to be a fraudulent election (something with a long and notorious history in Mexico), the PAN won again, under the leadership of Felipe Calderón. This sparked the largest protests Mexico had ever seen—everyone knew that the political establishment was protecting itself and that its commitment to democratic principles was a total charade.
So it was perhaps a way of distracting popular attention from electoral fraud that Calderón, only after ten days in office, increased the number of troops to 50,000. That’s more than Tony Blair sent to invade and occupy Iraq. No wonder some parts of Mexico now resemble a war zone. The government makes one outrageous claim after another, saying organized crime is taking over, that the war on drugs will make Mexico secure and safe for your children, that there’s an outbreak in addiction rates, that they’re going to reduce homicides, and so on. There are few things as potent as fear to keep people in line.
But if you look at the statistics, it’s the war on drugs itself that has exacerbated all these things. Organized crime has become more powerful since 2006. The flow of narcotics north continues largely unabated. The addiction to narcotics in Mexico has always been tiny compared to the United States or Western Europe. But it’s actually increased since Calderón started this war. And the homicide rate was actually decreasing before he took power. As soon as this military strategy takes hold, suddenly there’s a massive upsurge in violence. And it gets more and more violent every year. The government released figures in August 2012 which indicated that about 100,000 people had been killed between 2007 and 2011. 2011 was the most violent yet, with around 27,000 homicides. That’s three every hour or one every twenty minutes. If this were taking place in some enemy of the Anglo-American empire, like Iran or Cuba, politicians, intellectuals and pundits would be pushing for another military intervention, citing the West’s responsibility to protect, to promote human rights and democracy, etc. But Mexico is a key regional ally of Washington and a major trading partner, so instead the Obama administration actively supports what the government’s doing through massive amounts of military spending under the rubric of The Mérida Initiative.
The magazine Milenio just completed a major investigation into mass graves in Mexico. Their conservative figure for the number of people disappeared into mass graves in Mexico is some 24,000. Note that they say this is “conservative” because some municipalities and states were either unable to or would not provide information. That’s a staggering figure, comparable to some of the worst atrocities of our times. It’s devoid of the ideology that characterised civil wars in the 20th Century. It’s all about profits, and who’s in control of territory and markets. So the Mexican government’s strategy, supported with military wherewithal by Obama, has massive responsibility in this. Human rights abuses in Mexico have risen dramatically in the last six years. Of the thousands of abuses reportedly committed by the military, which is ostensibly protecting civil society from organized crime, there have been about eight prosecutions in the last six years. So the military are clearly a major problem. And then we have the fact that groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, being impeccable capitalists, are forever seeking out new markets, seeing investment opportunities in all manner of human suffering. So organised crime in Mexico is not just about heroin, cocaine, cannabis and meth. Some 41 percent of laundered profits originate in drug trafficking. But 33 percent originates in human smuggling and human trafficking. That comprises kidnapping migrants and forcing them to work as sicarios, or assassins, or forcing them to work as drug runners, holding them in “safe” houses for ransom and killing them when their families can’t pay up. It’s forcing young girls and women into prostitution and reaping the profits and laundering them through major banks. It’s smuggling Mexican and Central American migrants into the United States for an exorbitant fee, often abandoning them in the desert or killing them outright. And there’s been an expansion of all types of criminal activity like extortion, piracy, organ trafficking, illegal pornography and child pornography.
There’s another aspect to this which I think is fundamental. In every war, crisis and conflict, we should look to who is benefiting from the status quo because it’s very possible that they bear responsibility. In this case, the Mexican political and economic elites are doing extremely well. In fact, they have never had it so good. Big business, both domestic and multinational, has never had so much freedom to operate in Mexico. There are far fewer union and labour rights—a process which is set to accelerate under the new administration of the Enrique Peña Nieto. And deregulation and the privileging of investor rights have given corporations a freer hand to fire workers, to impose more stringent working conditions and offer lower pay. And of course, those in high positions in the business sector in both Mexico and the United States are entangled with both governments. Another group to benefit is the banking sector, as mentioned earlier, which launders the profits—millions of dollars—every week. Their interests are also those of the business and political elites. A third group to benefit from the current crisis and chaos is organized crime, which has seen its influence grow massively. And those groups also have ties to big business, the banks and the political system. That’s not a new dynamic but it has become much more influential in the past decade.
So you have a system which favors the super-rich, the politicians and organized crime, all of whom have a shared interest in the continuation of the status quo. Over half the population lives below the poverty line and they don’t see many prospects of improvement. There’s a limit to how much propaganda via the TV, radio, soap operas and advertising can convince people that they’re not being screwed. So as public disillusionment and cynicism with the political and corporate sectors increases, a way to maintain such an unfair and unequal system is through the constant threat of violence, keeping people afraid and using the state security forces to repress and intimidate dissenters and oppositionary social movements. Now that the Cold War ideology of anti-communism has evaporated, the war on the narcos has a secondary purpose, which serves as a pretext for militarizing areas of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas which have strong traditions of social resistance. Speak to people in some areas of rural Guerrero about their experience of the quasi-permanent military presence there and you soon learn that much of the government’s strategy has nothing to do with narcotics but with social control.
One of the effects of globalization has been to make Mexico ever more dependent on the US economy. By now around eighty per cent of Mexican exports are destined for the United States. Maintaining “stability” in Mexico, making sure that it is a “safe” climate for investors, keeping wages down, dismantling the unions, are all factors that mean that the US government has no interest in seeing a dramatic shift in how things stand.
Finally, Mexico has a new president. Can you offer any thoughts on what we might expect from the EPN sexenio [term of office]?
Enrique Peña Nieto wouldn’t be where he is now if he weren’t backed by Mexican elites, the US government and business. They’re the ones who buy and win the elections. As I mentioned a moment ago, the most powerful forces both in the Mexico and the United States don’t want to see radical change. They want a continuation of the status quo. If that means that most people live in poverty and that some areas are blighted by violence, so be it. That’s an external concern, so as long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line.
Peña Nieto’s political campaign was an advertising campaign, which repeated hollow slogans like, “you’re going to earn more money.” And the campaign was bolstered significantly by mainstream media organizations like Televisa. As documents published by The Guardian demonstrated, the Peña Nieto campaign had effectively been paying for airtime and positive coverage on Televisa.
And then there were the numerous allegations of electoral fraud which followed the elections. For example, the PRI offered food vouchers to the poor, which they could claim once they had voted for Peña Nieto. The lines of poor people lining up to exchange vouchers for food, many of whom were refused, following the election was a fitting illustration of the PRI’s utter cynicism and contempt for the electoral process, something which has a long history in Mexico.
What of Peña Nieto himself? I think what Carlos Fuentes said just a few months before his death summed it up. Fuentes said that if Peña Nieto came to power, the consequences would be unimaginably disastrous because the man is so downright ignorant and incompetent, which seems to me like a very reasonable description. When he was asked by a journalist at a book festival about three books that had influenced his life, Peña Nieto was unable to come up with any that he had actually read. As he faltered over the question, he claimed to have read some passages from the Bible which he thought were really good. He was able to mention one book, La silla del águila, but attributed it to Enrique Krauze, not the actual author, Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes was one of the most influential and respected Mexican and international public intellectuals in the last one hundred years, and Peña Nieto can’t even get the book that he wrote right.
And then there’s his record while he was governor of the State of Mexico, which is much less amusing. When the state government attempts to expropriate land in San Salvador Atenco in order to build a second airport to serve Mexico City, Peña Nieto sends in federal police forces to beat up and imprison protesters. The attack is vicious and brutal. The leaders get locked up in maximum security prisons, one of them receiving a sentence for 150 years. Amnesty International documents numerous human rights violations, including complaints of sexual violence committed by the federal police, beatings and torture. Two people are killed by police.
So when Peña Nieto visits the Ibero-American University during the 2012 campaign, he’s confident that he will receive a warm welcome by the students there. After all, this is a private, fee-paying university. But the exact opposite happens. When he tries to give a speech, the students start yelling “murderer” at him, referring to Atenco, and he’s unable to finish. He eventually has to leave and the campaign team are so worried that something might happen to him that he hides in the restrooms until they find a safe passage for him to exit the university. He later claimed that students protesting against him were paid for the opposition and that they weren’t really students, a falsehood later repeated by Televisa. So the students make a film, which they post on YouTube, in which they show their university credentials. 131 students take part. The movement I Am 132, begins as people start saying that they’re all student number 132. In other words, there are millions of Mexicans who oppose the return of the PRI. The video goes viral on the internet and a vibrant new student movement forms.
So although the Peña Nieto has just announced a strategy to beat organized crime, which he claims will demilitarize parts of Mexico, my feeling is that the new government simply wants to present itself in contrast to what has preceded. There is a possibility that the PRI try to re-establish the control and monopoly of the drug trade, the Pax Mafiosa, that it had during the twentieth century.
But I doubt much will change substantially unless the government is forced to do so by civil society movements. Were there a sustained coalition of opposition movements challenging rule by and for the rich, then maybe things could start to change. But we should not look to Peña Nieto and the corrupt PRI for answers—they’re the problem and we should get away from thinking that they can provide solutions to a status quo which so rewards and benefits them.
Unless there are serious efforts to reduce inequality and combat corruption— neither of which demands a military strategy—there’s little room for optimism in my view. If bankers don’t start going to jail, there’s no inclination for them to act differently. HSBC have just been fined $1.9 billion for laundering money on behalf of organized crime in Mexico, but that fine only affects shareholders, not the individuals who are washing hot money. And it’s not just HSBC—other banks have been accused of money laundering. As Antonio Maria Costa, the former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has said, in the context of the global financial crisis, it’s drug money that’s helping prop up the banks by giving them liquid assets. Unless governments address this central issue, the war on drugs is but a charade. Drug cartels are ultra-capitalist organizations whose prime concern is the accumulation of profit. In order to tackle organized crime, the governments in Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom should radically alter the context in which they operate and dismantle the systems, run by the banks, which allow organized crime to accrue massive profits.
In the United States and Great Britain, the crisis in Mexico is represented in the media as a contemporary version of the “white man’s burden”. This is their problem, something they need to sort out, but with our help, of course. But think about where the largest markets and demands are for narcotics. Western Europe and the United States. The same for sex trafficking. And finally, think about where those banks that launder the cash are centred. It’s Manhattan, Miami and the City of London. Stephen Green, the former CEO and chairman of HSBC, left the company to join the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron and became Trade Minister. During his tenure at HSBC, he received about £25 million in bonuses and shares. At the same time, Mexicans, Americans and Britons are being told to tighten their belts in the context of severe austerity cuts to public services. Green also acts as adviser to British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne on banking of all things. That sounds very much like our problem too.