Michael Deibert‘s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Miami Herald, Le Monde
diplomatique, Folha de Sao Paulo and the World Policy Journal, among other venues. He has been a featured commentator on international affairs on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Channel 4, National Public Radio, WNYC New York Public Radio and KPFK Pacifica Radio. In 2012, he was awarded a grant from the International Peace Research Association and, in 2008, he was selected as a ﬁnalist for the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism, sponsored by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, both in recognition of his work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico is his third book.
Interview by Virginia Isaad
Frontera List focuses on the number of deaths in Juarez which is higher than what’s often published. After writing this book, how do you feel about how the war and the casualties are portrayed in mainstream media?
I feel that the generally accepted figures of those who have died in the war in Mexico since 2006, which, if one takes into account the 2012 Propuesta Cívica report of around 21,000 people who have had disappeared in addition to more than 70,000 killed, are actually quite conservative. As I mention in the book, after the Tamaulipas massacres in 2010/2011, one Zetas lieutenant said they he thought up to that point the Zetas had buried up to 600 bodies around Tamaulipas alone. I think the full number of those killed in Mexico may be many, many more. And people also like to forget, because of the drug trade and US drug policies, there are also bodies dropping in places like Miami, Chicago and New Orleans in the United States every single day.
You put yourself in some precarious situations while researching this book. What is one incident that stands out and why?
In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in late 2013, while finishing up some interviews with people who had been deported from the United States, a contact and I were driving though a cartel-dominated part of the city to another interview across town. As we began to leave the first neighborhood we ran headlong into a Gulf Cartel roadblock of half a dozen guys with automatic rifles stopping cars and deciding who could pass and who couldn’t. They let some go, and stopped some others. To me it looked as if they were scanning the cars for someone in particular, though my contact said that he thought they were actually coming out as a show of force to recruit young people in the neighborhood, something they do from time to time.
You quote an interviewee who says “a new culture and belief are taking hold.” How would you characterize the war now versus five years ago?
Unfortunately, I think now, certainly among border communities in Tamaulipas but also in other parts of Mexico, there is a kind of collective PTSD among many people who live there, and a fatalism verging on despair. You send your kids out for school in the morning and don’t know whether they wil be trapped there by a gunattle later in the day. You open up a business and someone shows up claiming they work for this or that criminal group and that you must pay la mordida or else there will be consequences. You get on the highway to drive from Reynosa to Matamoros and God only knows if you will get there alive or not.
America plays a large role not only as drug consumers but also gun suppliers. What needs to change in America in order to bring about changes in Mexico?
I think there needs to be a general decriminalization and regulation of narcotics in the United States similar to what what we saw with alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition. Since Richard Nixon’s famous speech in 1971, which many view as the beginning of what came to be known as the war on drugs, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion fighting it, and yet we have seen violence related to the drug trade cut a bloody swathe through Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere. All these year later, I could still step out the door of my apartment in Miami and cop any drug I wanted in about 20 minutes. Over half of sentenced prisoners under federal jurisdiction in the United States are serving time for drug offenses, for which African-Americans are sent to prison at 10 times the rate of caucasians. Does that sound like a successful, equitable system of justice to you? It doesn’t to me.
In terms of the gun industry, I have a story in the book about a guy from Houston who helped facilitate the purchase of more than 100 military-style firearms, many of which ended up in the hands of Mexico’s cartels, including at such locales as a February 2007 assault on the Guerrero state attorney general’s office in Acapulco that left seven people dead. It is not an unrepresentative case and, as I’m sure you, know, for many years, at gun shows in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, unlicensed dealers were not even obligated to record the buyer’s name, and in Arizona, no licensing or permit requirements whatsoever were imposed for purchasing firearms, including limiting the firearms a person could purchase by quantity or time period. The US is a great one-stop shop for the cartels.
My hope is, building on the example we’ve seen shown by states like Colorado and Washington, US drug policy will go the way of Portugal, which in November 2000 decriminalized “personal” drug possession and use up to amounts generally thought of to be able to be consumed by one person over a 10-day period, including for drugs such as cocaine and heroin. With an emphasis on dissuasion and prevention of drug addiction as well as treatment, in the 14 years since the law was passed, Portugal didn’t see a significant increases in drug use among the population and rather drug consumption among 15 to 19 years olds, a particularly at-risk group, actually went down. Portuguese police are making fewer arrests but are seizing larger quantities of drugs because now, rather than low level drug use and dealing, they are free to combat organized crime.
A lot of media coverage focuses on capturing drug kingpins like El Chapo however you say it does very little to truly impact the drug trade. What needs to happen in order to cause the foundations of these cartels to unravel?
As I said, I think there needs to be a general decriminalization of narcotics, and we need to realize that it’s not productive to put people – the users – in jail, for basically beings sick. As Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, one of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel says at one point in the book, even if authorities might feel a momentary elation at the killing or capture of this or that drug lord, their replacements are already out there.
If there’s one thing you wish readers would take from this book, what would it be?
The the policies of the United States with regard to the drug trade – from the prohibition of narcotics to the free flow of firearms to the private prison industry that jails so much of our population to the US banks that launder billions of dollars of drug money – have corrupted not only drug producing and distributing counties like Colombia and Mexico, but the United States itself. And it is time that these policies change.