How do you feel about the decriminalization of marijuana and how do you think this will affect Mexico?
Decriminalization of just marijuana, according to drug policy experts, peace activists, victims of drug war violence and even most recently the Global Commission on Drug Policy – which is filled by an array of ex heads of state, many of whom hailing from Latin America where drug war violence and victimization has been at its most intense in the world – is simply not sufficient reform. Portugal has quietly been the drug policy reform example over the course of last decade and running, as leading scholarly research has duly shown. Drug consumption has not risen, and in some ways has actually fallen, since the all-out decriminalization policy was instituted. That’s not insignificant news and something from which many countries, the U.S. and Mexico being the most among them, could and should learn a lot.
Nevertheless, the sweeping nature which characterizes rampant marijuana drug policy reform in the U.S. is definitely a step in the right direction and one that has marijuana reform advocates quite content, as I reported before the mid-term election. At that time, already 26 states had adopted some reform measure or another, decriminalizing, outright legalizing or providing medical provisions for the permitted consumption and cultivation of cannabis. By now, 5 more states can be added to the growing list for a total of 31, with Florida almost becoming the 32nd state to adopt a marijuana reform measure.
It is pretty clear that prohibitionist drug laws are as vulnerable as they have ever been before. At the same time, it is unclear when other drug laws going beyond marijuana will be reformed. Much depends upon the extent that the issue can continue to attract grassroots activism and successful voter referendum initiatives, which overwhelmingly has been the lone means with which marijuana drug reform advocates have been able to realize success. In the meantime, the drug war will most certainly continue, with the most pervasive victimization still falling squarely on the backs of the Mexican people.
In one of our previous interviews one author mentioned that the arrest of a drug kingpin (like El Chapo) really doesn’t change anything since there is always a replacement available to keep the drug trade going. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Just last month, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the drug kingpin of the Juarez cartel was arrested. I was interviewed on a local El Paso newscast and wrote-up a report about the arrest. High-profile arrests like these have been going on for years with indeed, little to no impact being made on the drug trade.
In terms of replacements being available, that’s been a known practice for quite some time now.
Years ago, Mayo Zambada, the still at-large Sinloa cartel kingpin and Vicente’s father, gave a very well-known interview to Proceso’s founding editor, Julio Scherer. [Here is the original Spanish version.] Proceso is Mexico’s most investigative and hard-hitting magazine weekly. In the wake of El Chapo’s arrest, Proceso re-printed the Mayo Zambada interview earlier this year. It was clear as to why it did so: at the end of the interview, Mayo confidently proclaims that any and all cartels are always prepared to fill in any void left behind by their captured or killed kingpins and capos with ready-made replacements. The claim was a bit of an exaggeration, however, as it is well-known that capos being killed or detained sometimes results in power struggles and increased violence.
It is true though that most of the time a new capo steps in and business as usual continues to be conducted. After all, there is no larger drug consumer market in the world than that of the U.S., with 2010 having set all-time records for importation and consumption. Interestingly enough, 2010 was also the height of Calderon’s drug war offensive and also of the turf war for control over the most lucrative drug corridor in the world: that of the El Paso / Ciudad Juarez plaza.
Whether or not the high-profile arrests of drug kingpins as a security strategy has actually made a dent into the drug war on behalf of the officials purportedly fighting it is scarcely in doubt though. In fact, the policy was so criticized, that the Pena Nieto administration pledged to either get rid of it entirely or at the very least to move away from it. The only substantive change that has happened, however, was the decision not to parade around captured drug kingpins after they were arrested, as was the custom during the Calderon administration. It was said that such public displays and spectacles added to the allure and appeal of narco culture, providing a basis for many narco corridos and the like.
However, the high-profile arrest strategy is apparently here to stay. Its origins date back to Calderon having drawn inspiration from U.S. military occupation policies in regard to the Hussein regime. Some readers may remember the use of playing cards to identify Iraqi leaders to U.S. soldiers for capture or kill hunts. That’s where this policy first started. During Pena Nieto’s administration, he has arrested not only El Chapo but other prominent cartel leaders too, such as El Viceroy. Curious to many of us drug war journos, however, was the release of Rafael Caro Quintero in August 2013 because of some legal technicality. The legal decision was reversed within a week of his release after some intense DEA pressure, but the kingpin continues to be at-large and may be filling a power vacuum of sorts in the wake of Chapo’s arrest. At the same time, the Sinaloa cartel has long been run by two capos, not just one, and Mayo Zambada continues to also be at-large. Finally, an anti-Sinaloa cartel alliance is also being organized too. That may result in some increased violence and challenges to plazas or it may simply result in different territorial control without increased violence. When cartels can avoid violence, they do, as it is very costly and dents into their profits.
More than anything else though, extreme drug war violence is generated from the instability of government intervention into the illegal drug trade, as was displayed prominently during the start of the Calderon administration, initialized with a huge offensive into Michoacan. Continued impunity also strongly fuels drug war-related violence, as the Iguala massacre has shown us in harrowing ways.
It is probably hard to imagine to most U.S. citizens that a Mayor and his wife would be so embroiled into narco politics and crime, that they would routinely undertake massacres against their political opponents. But this was apparently the case, as mass graves are showing up all around the town in which the student massacre was recently undertaken, for which the Mayor has been accused of masterminding. But that’s the extent to which impunity reigns in Mexico, with strong fuel being drawn from supportive and provocative U.S. policies, including vital arms supplies and training of the same military officials which are often knee-deep involved with narco politics and crime.
As seen by the widespread solidarity actions and political resistance organized and held last week, however, in Mexico and beyond, and even here on the border (in a very rare display of cross-border organizing and simultaneous protests being held on the same issue), there is most definitely a growing opposition and awareness to the impunity and corruption which characterizes the drug war. In Mexico, the issue has been long known and understood, which is why such an explosive increase of activism and resistance happened so quickly and so decisively over the presumed massacre of 43 students in Ayotzinapa. Other places are starting to catch on too, including even here in the States; hence, the global actions in solidarity with the Mexican struggle against the drug war and narco-state repression.
What is a misconception that you find people tend to have regarding the drug war?
I’d say on a few matters. One is about the very deep and extensive involvement which U.S. policy plays in fueling drug war violence in Mexico. In terms of policy, there is a significant lack of familiarity with decriminalization drug reform, such as that of Portugal.
Perhaps there will be a growing awareness of this, however, in light of the sea change that has happened with marijuana reform policies that we just spoke about.
Then again, it could work either way: marijuana reform could be seen as sufficient and thus stultify further efforts to decriminalize other drugs. “This far, but no further,” could be the damaging logic that comes as a result of marijuana reform. The leading marijuana reform organization steers way clear of taking a position on decriminalizing more drugs, or not, for example. Or, if luck will win it, marijuana reform could lead to further decriminalization policies.
While polls are running strong in terms of citizen support for marijuana reform policies, most activists and policy experts I spoke to didn’t credit a shift in the public consciousness as the leading factor for the policy shift. They credited the ongoing recession as one of the strongest motives to decriminalize marijuana and give states a much needed opportunity to balance their budgets, which have long been struggling against decreased tax revenues as a result of the recession. Will additional reform policies also be fueled by a desire for states to gain more public tax revenues? It’s possible. Only time will tell.
What do you propose as a possible solution for the violence in Mexico?
There is a famous saying that pretty much everyone knows in Mexico: “so close to the United States, but so far away from God.” Mexico needs to distance itself from the U.S. in political, economic and diplomatic terms. It needs to stop fighting the U.S.’s “war.” It needs to stop selling its most prized natural asset to multinationals. It needs to scrap the NAFTA agreement, which has had devastating effects on its agriculture sector, resulting in tons of out-of-work campesinos taking on low-paying jobs in the U.S. or dying in attempts to cross the scorching Arizona desert.
Surprising as it may seem, most Mexicans now eat tortillas with corn grown in the U.S. by subsidized agri-business, often sold at less than the cost of production.
All of these policies are nothing short of tragic. So yes, Mexico needs to focus on its own domestic problems in order to carve out a more effective and independent route toward development. Mexico, in spite of half of its territory being taken by force by the U.S., is still a large and resource-plush country. If it began to use and develop its resources for the needs of its own people, it could go far in terms of poverty reduction and could become a leading force in Latin America and beyond. After all, only Brazil has a larger population and a larger territory than Mexico in Latin America. There’s no reason why Mexico can’t be sporting the kind of tremendous growth rates and poverty reduction seen in Brazil during the course of the last decade. Or even the poverty reduction that has been seen in Venezuela.
However, there is something to be said about understanding the significant political and economic pressure which Mexico is subjected to by the U.S. There are consequences to carving out an independent, Latin American route. Cuba knows this all too well. So does Venezuela. So does even Ecuador and Bolivia, to a certain extent. Even Argentina was recently punished by U.S. courts for litigating independent economic policies which protect its own interests.
Because of all of this, under more ideal circumstances, U.S.-based activists and solidarity movements, such as maybe a revitalized Occupy movement, may succeed in pushing for and realizing more Mexico-friendly policies. Decriminalizing all drugs in the U.S. would go far to help Mexico end the drug war once and for all. Drug addiction could finally be treated as a public health issue, as opposed to a militaristic one, which is ironically the very stance that ex-Mexican Presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo now support and favor. More than just that is needed, however, and in general, more independence from the U.S. would likely in turn serve to lessen the imperialistic pressures to which Mexico has long been and continues to be subjected.
In respect to the drug war, the price has been quite high for agreeing to fight the U.S.’s war: up to 120,000 Mexican civilians were estimated to have been killed during the Calderon administration alone. And with the recent student massacre, it is now clearer than ever that the Pena Nieto administration too is as embroiled as Mexico has ever been with narco-state politics and corruption. Sad, but true, is that even a century later the revolutionary saying “so close to the United States, but so far away from God” remains relevant to contemporary U.S.-Mexico politics.