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The (drug) war at the end of the world

12 January 2010

UPDATE: This was written before this morning’s announcement that “El Teo” — Teodoro García Simental — the presumed Sinaloa cartel leader in Baja California, had been arrested. El Teo formerly was with the Arellano Félix cartel, which controlled the Baja narcotics industry, but in 2008 either went free-lance or opted to become a franchisee of the Chapo Guzmán organization (depending on how you look at it).

The split exacerbated violence amongst the cartels. El Teo is the guy responsible for the soup-maker — the flunky whose job was dissolving dead gangsters in vats of acid… about 300 altogether.

Bringing down El Teo may mean the administration is finally willing to go after Chapo’s people, or they may be doing Chapo a favor, weeding out potential rivals. And, this could lead to further shakeups in the industry, which has an unfortunate way of settling internal disputes, to the consternation of us all.

Patrick Corcoran’s “Ganchoblog” picked up on an op-ed piece by the  Mario Vargas Llosa, which appeared Monday in the Madrid daily, El País.  Varga Llosa basically supports the Calderón Adminstration’s militarized “war on (U.S. exported) drugs” in principal, but thinks it’s unwinnable.   The Peruvian novelist and rightist politician makes the same argument for legalization that everybody else has made.  Patrick said it was raising eyebrows here in Mexico, but I saw nothing particularly eyebrow raising in any of what Vargas Llosa wrote… and, while better circulated than most foreign newspapers, I’m not sure the Spanish conservative daily is all that widely read by anyone other than elderly Spaniards and those with bets on  European futbol scores.

The only remarkable thing I though was that a Latin American conservative intellectual (almost a contradiction in terms, but there are a few) is making the same observation that every other intellectual came to long ago, but for slightly different reasons.  The upshot being — the “war on drugs” is a losing proposition.

I’m not sure how Patrick jumped from Vargas Llosa’s article to his reading of the situation in Colombia:

After all, Colombia is better than it was in Escobar’s heyday, in large part because the gangs operating there are smaller and less powerful, which in turn is in large part due to the government’s having developed the capacity to take down the biggest fish. Similarly, there is no American equivalent to Chapo Guzmán, basically because criminals in the US are arrested long before they gain such notoriety.

Is it? U.N statistics for Mexico now show a murder rate of about 0.10 to 0.11 per thousand. Colombian statistics aren’t listed.  The latest available statistics for Colombia are for 2002.    By 2002, well into the first phase of  “Plan Colombia , the murder rate was three times that (0.63 per thousand) of Mexico’s (which was slightly higher, not lower, in 2002:  0.13 per thousand).  After that date, the Colombians stopped publishing statistics, and no wonder.  Where most Mexican murders, aside from “normal” ones like domestic disputes, and the under-investigated killings of environmentalists (including environmental reporters) and labor activists, have been “narcotics related” deaths.

In Colombia, the relative number of “narcotics related” killings has gone down, based on anecdotal evidence, but that of environmentalists, labor leaders, ordinary ornery peasants, social and religious workers and the occasional “false positive” (poor boys dressed up as “guerrillas” and murdered to meet military quotas for killing “terrorists”) goes on as usual.  In short, nobody is safe in Colombia.  Most of us — barring bad luck or deranged family members — who aren’t somehow DIRECTLY involved in the narcotics industry are.

I hope I’m not misreading Patrick when I say there’s a sense that Mexico is expected to “do more” militarily to avoid the risk of becoming a “narco-state”.  I’m not sure what a “narco-state” is exactly, or why it’s such a bad thing that a representative of a major agricultural industry reach the Presidency (Evo Morales has done a bang up job in Bolivia).

As Patrick says, Chapo Guzmán, who many have always suspected is the only beneficiary of the Calderón Administrations actions against every narcotics “cartel” except Chapo’s, is not a Pablo Escobar.  Guzmán, unlike Escobar,  has no political ambitions.  But, in 2002 (after Escobar’s death), his relation and former associate, Álvaro Uribe, became president, with the full support of the United States (which had known of his narcotics cartel connections since 1991, according to Joseph Contreras of Newsweek Magazine).

The reason I worry that Mexico could become a “narco-state is that it could end up like Colombia:   overrun with U.S. paid mercenaries, numerous DEA and other U.S. government anti-narcotics agents working in the country, and U.S. military personnel not managing to stem the flow of narcotics, but apparently furthering U.S. (not Colombian) military interests in the region.

Otherwise, I don’t worry.  Chapo Guzmán for President?  I don’t think so, but wouldn’t discount someone’s competence just because they’ve been associated with the guy in some way.   At least they know something about rural issues, which might be a better use of limited funding (along with environmental protection and — above all — improved education) than wasting it on what Vargas Llosa and I, two foreign observers, both consider an unwinnable, unnecessary “war” without purpose.

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