Drug cartel violence has political, economic roots

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CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico -- Recent media reports about Mexico picture a country near collapse, with police and army outgunned by well-armed and organized drug cartels. U.S. government travel warnings speak of “small unit combat” taking place against cartel units equipped with uniforms, heavy automatic weapons and even grenades.

In several locations, Mexican Army troops have fought pitched battles for control of municipal police stations, with casualties on both sides and prisoners dragged away in Abu Ghraib-style hoods and blindfolds to parts unknown.

The uncontested facts of the situation are that between 5,000-6,000 people died during 2008 in Mexico’s current domestic conflict, and more than a thousand have been killed or “disappeared” so far this year. Victims have been tortured, mutilated or even beheaded.

In Ciudad Juárez, a border city of about 1.7 million on the front lines of the conflict, Mexican Army reinforcements this week brought the total official military presence to 8,500, roughly one soldier for every 200 residents. Yet the killing continues. If one is to believe official figures, Ciudad Juárez is now, on a per-capita basis, more dangerous than Baghdad or Kabul.

However, trustworthy information about the conflict in Mexico is surprisingly scarce, most probably because of the great variety of interests at stake.

The right-wing Mexican government has consistently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, tried to minimize the situation, reassuring domestic and foreign media that it is in firm control of every square centimeter of its territory, that the cartels are on the run and that in tourist centers like Acapulco or Cancún, it’s Spring break party time as usual.

In stark contrast, interventionist forces in the United States paint Mexico as a “failed state” teetering near collapse, even though the current conflict is largely limited to the northern border states and parts of the Pacific Coast, while in vast swaths of the country’s interior life goes on in relative normalcy.

Still other forces do nothing but muddy the water. A few self-styled anarchists and first-world supporters of the indigenous Zapatista rebellion in southern Mexico regard the conflict as glad tidings, heralding the imminent collapse of the “dis-government” in Mexico and the death of the state.

In the United States, both “Drug Warriors” and supporters of drug legalization are using the conflict as a convenient platform upon which to preach their particular viewpoints.

In Mexico itself, a fantasy “Citizens’ Commando” vigilante group in Ciudad Juárez threatened in December to begin executing one “criminal” a day, while a previously unknown “guerrilla” group of uncertain political orientation, the Armed Movement of the North, or MAN, issued a Jan. 1 online “Declaration of War” against the Mexican government and later claimed responsibility for the Feb.28 downing of an unarmed Federal Water Commission helicopter.

Even the cartels themselves have been adept in their use of propaganda, organizing paid “demonstrations” against the militarization of northern cities, jamming police and military communication frequencies with “narco-corridas” (pro-cartel musical ballads) and hanging “narcomantas” (giant, professional-quality pro-cartel banners) over streets and on the sides of major buildings in cities across northern Mexico. And in case this fails to make the point, cartel gunmen have been murdering reporters in record numbers, making Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalism.

According to Mexican left and working-class sources, a great part of the blame for the current crisis lies with the Mexican government itself, which has for the last eight years been controlled by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). In Mexico, NAFTA (grotesquely known in Mexico as TLC, for “Tratado de Libre Comercio”), extreme neoliberal policies and the global economic crisis have brought about a collapse of government social services and food subsidies, along with growing poverty and joblessness, leaving a social vacuum that the criminal cartels are happy to fill.

According to a report by the independent Mexican Electrical Workers’ Union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas, SME), the average wage for Mexican workers even before the current crisis, was less than $2.50 per hour (U.S.). Since 1982, Mexican workers’ real purchasing power has fallen by over 48% when adjusted for inflation, while the value of the country’s minimum wage has fallen by more than 70 percent in the same period. According to the SME, in 2005, over three-quarters of the Mexican population lived in poverty, including one-third of all teachers, half of all technicians and skilled workers, 77 percent of industrial machinists, 79 percent of service employees and 96 percent of domestic workers.

And, since 2005, while wages have largely stagnated, the value of the Mexican peso has fallen by a further 25 percent in relationship to the dollar, much of the fall occurring in recent months since the outbreak of the financial crisis in the United States.

According to a study conducted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in 1996 some 50 percent of the entire Mexican population was suffering from malnutrition. By 1999, the rate of malnutrition among the working population alone had risen to an estimated at 79.6 percent.

Writing in the March 14 El Diario de Juárez, political analyst Rafael Loret de Mola points out that the current wave of violence cannot be explained without reference to this deadly “social distortion,” particularly on the border, where “the comfortable are accustomed to gazing out from what has been consistently rated as one of the ‘safest’ cities in the United States [El Paso, Texas], into the biting poverty of the wretched Juárez ‘colonias’ [shantytowns].” Loret de Mola, whose best friend, attorney Julián Sosa González was gunned down in downtown Juárez only days ago, calls sensationalistic worldwide reporting of the murder of hundreds of women in Juárez during the first part of the decade a “smoke screen” to conceal the gradual “Colombianization” of Mexico, where during the same period some seven men were also being killed for each woman murdered.

Breathtaking levels of corruption and ineptness on the part of law enforcement agencies, a deep-rooted bureaucratic culture of bribe-taking and “compadrismo,” (favoritism), and neoliberal economic policies have all led in the border area to a profound de-legitimization of the Mexican state itself.

Added to this, the decline of the “maquiladora” (so-called “twin plant”) industry, rising unemployment and the closing of the emigration “safety valve” due to the crisis in the United States have created an explosive mixture of lawlessness, extreme poverty, hunger and despair that the cartels have been happy to detonate.

Mexican media reports suggest that while the political left in Mexico is in near-total disarray, the cartels have bought a degree of mass popular support by passing out food, medications and backpacks full of school supplies in impoverished neighborhoods, offering social services that the government cannot or will not provide. Meanwhile, cartel agents recruit gunmen and smugglers with promises of easy money, protection for one’s family, immunity from prosecution and free access to drugs.

Nor is the United States exempt from the violence currently lashing Mexico. Already, a number of kidnappings and killings in Arizona have been blamed on the Mexican drug war, and some Mexican media reports allege that the cartels are even now in the process of recruiting and training unemployed and marginalized young people in the United States as “sicarios” (gunmen).

A cruel irony is that right-wing Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s recent self-serving statements blaming U.S. drug consumption and corruption for Mexico’s drug war are objectively correct. One need only remember Iran-Contra to realize that the international and domestic drug trade is neither victimless nor politically neutral. The contention that an ongoing billion-dollar, multi-ton drug trade can be carried on “invisibly” from Mexico to Boston, Chicago and New York without the knowledge of the same U.S. authorities who claim to detect every gram of “terrorist” explosives before it enters the country is more than absurd.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Mexico on March 25 and 26. Americans need be ready to resist calls for more U.S. “aid” for the dysfunctional and corrupt Mexican government (which many Mexicans, Loret de Mola among them, suspect is now actually in league with one of the cartels against the rest).

Any call for direct intervention or militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border must be firmly resisted, solidarity activists urge. Poverty, hunger, inequality and exploitation are not solved by sending in the Marines. Abundant, well-paying union jobs, universal education and health care, affordable food and decent housing on both sides of the border (along with courteous, incorruptible and –people-oriented law enforcement) are more deadly to organized crime than any quantity of bombs and bullets.

Ultimately, perhaps the only way to finally smash the power of the cartels is to curb Americans’ own raging appetite for drugs. In stark terms, Americans taste for a “wee toke of the gentle herb” (and drug profits) is tearing Mexico to pieces. Communists on both sides of the border have historically condemned substance trafficking and abuse.

The U.S. Congress could devote resources to directly attacking the inequality, hunger, discrimination and poverty that lead marginalized young people on either side of the border to deal drugs and risk their own precious lives for the drug-lords.

A capitalist society is by definition a “war of each one against everyone else” that naturally breeds organized crime. The way to fight organized criminality at home or abroad is not with military aid, “advisors,” militarized borders or armed intervention. Responsible, progressive and popular action to clean up America’s own house, plus people- to-people demands for justice for our neighbors and relatives across the border would be the best possible international solidarity we can offer to the suffering people of northern Mexico.