Thursday, 24 January 2013

Political economy of Mexico's narco-nightmare

Drug War Mexico review in Global Ganja Report

As nightmarish violence continues in Mexico, with horrific massacres and chaotic urban warfare right on the USA's southern border, a couple of academics at England’s University of Sheffield provide a readable 250-page primer on why this is happening now, and take a stab at what can be done to address the crisis—other than escalating it with militarization.

In Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books, London, 2012), Peter Watt & Roberto Zepeda trace how the crisis developed along with Mexico's embrace of the "Washington Consensus," starting in the 1980s. This refers to the economic dogma of "free trade" that became official under Reagan, demanding borders open to US imports and that state protections of internal industry be dropped. "Neoliberalism" is a tricky word, because it means the opposite in Latin America of what it implies in the US—a return to the "classical" laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century, and abandoning social safety nets and government regulation of the economy.
Under Mexico's old system, in place since the 1920s, an entrenched machine known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stood at the center of everything—including the dope trade. This exploded in the 1970s, as demand for marijuana soared in the US and the famous crackdown on the "French Connection" interrupted supplies of Turkish heroin from the Corsican mafia. Cannabis and opium production took hold in Mexico's mountains, and the same criminal networks established themselves as middlemen for cocaine coming up from Colombia. Watt and Zepeda portray the emergence of Mexico's first centralized narco syndicate, the Guadalajara Cartel, as a state-directed affair—overseen by the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), Mexico's answer to the CIA.
The role of the DFS in shaping the Guadalajara Cartel was revealed in a slew of investigative reporting in Mexico's press (some journalists paid with their lives) after the notorious 1985 torture-killing of DEA agent Kiki Camarena at the hands of drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero after his ginormous marijuana plantation (containing more cannabis than authorities had admitted was grown in all Mexico) was busted at El Búfalo Ranch in Chihuahua state, near the Texas border.
Of course the DFS was meanwhile closely cooperating with the CIA and FBI in, um, drug enforcement. Operation Condor, in which Mexican police helicopters sprayed paraquat on dope fields, did briefly reduce yields, but ultimately couldn't keep pace with expanding production. It didn't help that only those plantations not protected by pay-offs were being targeted—there were even reports that some choppers sprayed water and fertilizer instead of herbicide!
But the breaking up of the old centralized system only saw an expansion of the narco-economy. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), unemployment jumped as state enterprises were privatized, and rural poverty grew as corn prices dropped thanks to cheap US imports. The cartels filled the economic vacuum, as unemployed youth became traffickers and peasants who could no longer survive by growing corn turned to dope. The US-Mexico border became more porous for goods and capital (even as it became more restrictive for migrants), facilitating easier smuggling and money-laundering. The authors state, "Ironically, the cartels were among the prime beneficiaries of NAFTA."

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