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If it bleeds, it leads

8 February 2010

I admit, I don’t care for British journalist  Ed Vullimy’s reportage from Juarez.  From a 4 October 2009 article in The Sunday Observer (U.K.) one reads:

Next morning the courtyard was still full of the bittersweet stench of fresh blood congealing in pools. The killers threw a grenade into the first room on their right, occupied by a 16-year-old guard. They had soaked up his blood into the soles of their boots and stamped it around in footprints that anyone who cared to might examine. But no one did care to.

This is blatantly manipulative, and — while “bloody good” for a nota roja — misleading.  One would expect blood and guts splattered around when a doorman (not a “guard”) is blown up by a hand grenade, and I assume he’s saying no one was searching for clues at the scene of the crime, when he’s actually saying he did not observe anyone searching this particular clue.  Or, perhaps, that emergency response teams weren’t CSI guys… or just tugging our heartstrings.

In the Sunday Observer article, he claims “The quantity of drugs smuggled across the border is now dwarfed by that to supply catastrophic domestic addiction.”  Addiction rates in Juarez are higher — much higher — than in Mexico as a whole (so is the murder rate, if we go by the official population figures), but from Vullimy’s writings for The Observer and The Guardian, one has to assume ALL narcotics are smuggled through Juarez, or that the Mexican drug user rates is anywhere near that of Juarez (and the United States).

As to the latter, Vullimy’s articles are valuable for their look at this particular “niche market” which is responsible for the out of control violence we’re seeing in pockets like Juarez and Tijuana.  Places like Juarez, I’ve suggested before, are — while very much part of the “real Mexico” — also atypical in their demographics.  They are literally “frontier towns” with a large floating population skewed towards the young and rootless… the kind of population where violence is more common than elsewhere.  And, where drug use might expect to be higher (for all we know, given the problems with an accurate demographic portrait of a community that includes a high percentage of temporary residents, or people who have no intention of staying in the community, it might be within the same parameters as the general Mexican population).

Vullimy’s latest article, “Killing for Kudos — the brutal face of Mexico’s 21st century war” is an extended essay on the assumption that the “war” is about control of the domestic market.  As I said, I question the premise, but “Killing for Kudos” is worth reading — not for banalities like the unsurprising factoid that criminals are ethically-challenged people motivated by status (aren’t most people?) and material gains — but for the reminder that:

Some would argue that all wars are fought indirectly over money and resources – be they 19th-century wars of empire, or of ideology or religion in the 20th century. But Mexico’s war has no ideological pretensions or window-dressing – its only cover is that it was originally fought, like other, lesser, mafia wars, over now diversified product lines that get America (and Europe) high.

Forrest Hylton, a Bogata academic and widely published writer concentrates on one “product line”, and one more associated with his own country, the the essential “The Culture of Cocaine“:

Cocaine is a central commodity of the neoliberal age; so, too, its re-processed form (“crack”) for the desperately poor in de-industrialized cities of the North and South Atlantic. First announced by Richard Nixon in 1971, the “War on Drugs” predates the rise of cocaine and crack by nearly a decade, but, in the 1980s and ’90s, the “War on Drugs” was redoubled in response to the explosion of the cocaine business. It now ranks as the U.S.A.’s longest running military-police campaign. Thus, if we look at cocaine as a social hieroglyph – not as a thing but as a complex relation between networks and organizations of people, as well as between states and bureaucracies – we may glimpse some of the distinguishing features of the contemporary world.

One doesn’t have to be a lefty (and Vulliney’s work appears for the “leftist” The Observer and Guardian) to recognize that there are indeed ideological reasons for the Juarez “drug war”.  Just not directly:

The logic driving the War on Drugs has been chiefly ideological and political, not economic: domestic politics in the U.S. have determined policy abroad. One of the defining policies of Cold War liberalism, President Johnson’s War on Poverty – which had less than one-tenth of the lifespan of the War on Drugs – took for granted that federal and state governments should take responsibility for improving the plight of the poor in northern cities and represented a semi-coherent response to African-American riots and insurgencies. But what if poor black people in cities could be held responsible for their poverty? What if, as industrial jobs disappeared by the millions, they became addicted to selling or consuming illegal drugs, produced and/or distributed by U.S. government allies in Cold War counterinsurgent campaigns? Then African Americans could be locked up for nonviolent drug offenses and warehoused in prisons at an accelerated rate.

Such is the domestic context, without which it is impossible to make sense of U.S. foreign policy in producer countries in the Andes (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) and transport countries in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean (leaving aside Brazil, whose government does not respond to U.S. pressures).

Hylton reviews the history of the “drug wars” as they have moved from the Andes to the U.S. border.  Narcotics are a commodity, and — as with any commodity — going to be exported or consumed locally.  The producers (Hylton is talking about cocaine, which isn’t produced in Mexico, but the same can be said about opiates and marijuana) and transporters don’t have the same issues as the consumers.  I don’t see the consumer demand Vulliney does anywhere outside the border regions, and — like Hylton — note that Latin American producers and transporters have been responding to consumption with non-violent alternative methods of control (legalization of personal use, and more rehabilitation). How the consumers deal with it is another issue entirely:

Rusty, a former narcotics officer for the Department of Corrections in Arizona: “When I talk about legalizing drugs, people say, ‘you can’t mean heroin and crack, right?’ But after 30 years of the drug war, spending a trillion dollars … the bad guys still control the price, purity, and quantity of every drug. Knowing that they control the drug trade, which drug are you going to leave under their control? Regulation and legalization is not a vote for or against any drug. It’s not about solving our drug use problem. It’s solely about getting some control back.”

“They” refers to drug barons, many of them large landowners, as well as warlords, in Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the problem with Rusty’s analysis is that U.S. government allies in such countries – the intelligence services, the judicial systems, the military and police, business and political elites – are either complicit with or directly involved in supplying U.S. and European markets with cocaine and/or heroin, generally in order to finance counterinsurgency wars.

Juarez’ problem is only incidentally related to consumption.  It’s more colorful, and more like to sell books when one talks about shootouts  and writes of blood and gore in loving detail.  But the issues — agricultural policy, market control, and but — overall — even if we don’t completely accept “Rusy’s” analysis, that the consumers expect the producers and transporters to handle the problem — and pay with their own blood.

There’s some atavistic thrill in reading people like Vulliney, and for a superficial look at the issues, it has some value, but it gives no real understanding of the “drug war”.  For that, you need people like Forrest Hylton.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 February 2010 9:17 pm

    “The quantity of drugs smuggled across the border is now dwarfed by that to supply catastrophic domestic addiction.”

    Unless I’m misreading that he’s saying that Mexican gangs collectively make more from Mexican users than American ones. Not only does that come across as intuitively very unlikely, and not only is it unsupported, I think I saw a stat on that subject recently that overwhelmingly contradicts it. Let me see if I can track it down…

  2. Mary O'Grady permalink
    8 February 2010 9:44 pm

    So I take it you won’t be rushing right out to buy Vulliamy’s new book, Amexica: War Along The Borderline?
    (Me neither.)

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