Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador faces a dilemma. The American-imposed drug war has plunged his country into violence and corruption. The situation is intolerable, yet any attempt to break the chain means a confrontation with the United States that could prove even worse.
It’s a deadlock that only a Mexican Robespierre could break—and AMLO, a mild-mannered center-leftist, is no L’Incorruptible. His country’s plight is so extreme, its future so bleak under current policies, that the only way out is to confront the drug war head on. Bold action is needed. AMLO has fought for years against the Mexican oligarchy, so he’s clearly got staying power. But despite his reported desire to “open up the debate” about legalization, it’s not clear he’s got what it takes to fight an even bigger battle over U.S.-imposed drug policies.
So what will he do: surrender to U.S. dictates, or strike out in a radical new direction? After decades of mounting bloodshed, there’s no middle ground.
This is not an impasse that Mexico created, but one that external forces have imposed. Americans have long gobbled up drugs that Mexican labor supplied. The pattern goes back to 1906 when Chinese immigrants uprooted by the San Francisco earthquake moved to Juarez, sister city of El Paso, and used their new location to market opium throughout the American Southwest.
Spillover was limited as long as dealers obeyed certain rules. “Drug dealers behaved discreetly,” historian George W. Grayson notes, “showed deference to public figures, spurned kidnapping, appeared with governors at their children’s weddings, and, although often allergic to politics, helped the hegemonic PRI [Mexico’s long-entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party] discredit its opponents by linking them to narco-trafficking.” Territory was so neatly divided that traffickers wishing to cross over into another’s turf had to pay a derecho de piso, or right of passage.
But then the United States declared war, and the system went haywire. Vowing to combat the “pestilence of narcotics,” Richard Nixon mobilized thousands of customs and border patrol agents in September 1969 to search cars and individuals making their way across the border. With traffic tied up for weeks, Mexico had no choice but to send troops into the marijuana and poppy fields to hack away with machetes. In 1976, it agreed to spray the defoliant paraquat in the “golden triangle” of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango and to send in thousands more troops as a show of force. Methods of persuasion included shocking alleged traffickers with electric prods, shoving their heads into filthy toilets, and forcing gasoline or soft drinks up their noses.
But the only effect was to displace production southwards to Guadalajara where traffickers sporting suitcases full of cash now paraded about with platoons of heavily armed guards. The murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Guadalajara in 1985 brought another crackdown. Dealers responded with still more violence and increasingly sophisticated smuggling techniques.
Each escalation was as pointless as it was destructive. But it was after 9/11 that U.S. policy really entered a twilight zone. In the fevered imagination of Washington’s neoconservatives, the drug cartels and al Qaeda were now a single malevolent force. “[I]t’s important for Americans to know that trafficking of drugs finances the world of terror, sustaining terrorists,” George W. Bush warned three months after the fall of the Twin Towers. Republican super-hawk John McCain declared in 2002 that “counter-narcotic and counter-insurgency operations” were two sides of the same coin, while General John Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, added a few years later that “the transnational terrorist, the narco terrorist, the Islamic radical fundraiser and recruiter, the illicit trafficker, the money launderer, the kidnapper and the gang member” all constituted a common threat to U.S. security.
The upshot came in 2008 when Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón signed the Mérida Initiative, a $1.6 billion offensive aimed at halting the flow of drugs and combating terrorism. The resulting wave of violence exceeded all expectations. Murders doubled, kidnappings nearly tripled, while even car thefts zoomed. The body count, British scholars Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda observed, rose so precipitously that:
In April 2011 alone, more than 300 dead bodies, presumably victims of the narcotraffickers, were found in Tamaulipas, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua. In San Fernando, Tamaulipas, almost 200 corpses were found in 40 narco-fosas(mass graves). In August 2010, in the same place, 72 Central American migrants were found executed. In Durango, 103 corpses were discovered in clandestine narco-fosas. Twelve executed bodies were found in Sinaloa and four in Sonora, in April 2011 alone….According to the confidential testimony of one sicario (assassin), by 2011 there could have been at least a hundred clandestine narco-fosas throughout the country, containing thousands of executed bodies yet to be discovered.