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Narco-industrial policy

16 December 2019

When we talk about the history of Mexico’s traditional exports (oil, minerals) we often divide the story into one of free-lancer eventually consoldated into state run operations, although run mostly for the personal profit of the politically favored, and… in the neo-liberal era, privatized for the benefit of those favored few though with the government always ready and willing to step in to help those who help… themselves.  Diego Enrique Osorno, in an extract from his revised version of his 2010 El Cartel de Sinaloa. Una historia del uso político del narco, published as “La cuna de la narcocultura” in Gatapardo, suggests the same he same holds true with another important export… narcotics.

It’s easy to see a parallel between the gangsters who sell drugs, and the crooks running PEMEX.  If nothing else, the former probably never declared their incomes properly nor paid anywhere near the income taxes they owe.  I used to speculate that the state could take over the narcotics trade as a paraestal [state managed business] leaving the crooks running it now in charge, and no worse a company than PEMEX.  That was then, this is now:  the 4th Transformation, the era of a “Moral Economy”.  I’m not sure how narcotics exports fit into a “moral” economy (but then, it’s hard to put the fossil fuel business in a moral framework either), but I suppose… given that there are legitimate, and “moral” uses for both marijuana and opium poppies, and that crop substitution and better economic and cultural opportunities in the rural backwaters of the country will only go so far, maybe an openly state run narcotics “cartel” … freed from crooks in and out of the government,… would be a logical next step in the on-going “Narco” saga. 

From “La cuna de la narcocultura” (my translation)

Following Félix Gallardo’s arrest in 1989, the government claimed the now-imprisoned Culiacán-born “godfather” had organized a meeting with his principal associates among the Sinoloan drug trafficking families, to assign them specific territories.  For several years this was considered the “genesis” from which the Sinaloa Cartel was divided into cells organized in different places called “plazas” in the drug lingo. However, when I interviewed Felix Gallardo himself for this book, the capo told me that while there had been such a meeting, the plazas were assigned by the chief of the anti-narcotics police in the government Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Guillermo González Calderoni.

“It was González Calderoni who distributed the plazas.  He answered to his superiors, but after my arrest, he never arrested anyone of any importance.  They were all friends of his.”   In 1989 there were no “cartels”, the capo told me, who still remains locked in a maximum security prison.

“Cartel” is the word that the DEA began using during the eighties in Latin America, later picked up by Mexican authorities, then by the press and eventually by ordinary citizens.  It is not a precise term, designating a group of traffickers, but referring to an economic organization that dominates all phases of a business and is in a position to control the market and prices of a product or service.  This does not always apply with Mexican “narcos”, however, beyond the mythology surrounding the term — which in recent years has been claimed by the traffickers themselves to name their organizations  — the word “cartel” has transcended its dictionary definition and in the popular imagination it has become a simple way to refer to an intricate conglomerate of gangs , generally made up of family members, in a specific region.

Although it is not clear whether it was Felix Gallardo or the government which created the cartel system, the idea that these various groups all work in a coordinated way with the government still prevails.  As Felix Gallardo told me: “The drug traffickers were not against the government, we were part of the government.” Thus, until the end of the eighties, drug trafficking functioned as a kind of parastatal enterprise [state corporation, like PEMEX] controlled by mostly Sinaloan families.

But in the nineties, Mexico was simultaneously experiencing the consolidation of neoliberal economic policies and a trend towards alternation in power between various political parties.  So, the new competitiveness, as well as a turn to the free market, eventually prevailed in the narco world as well. In this context, the first independent cell to separate from the others was the Tijuana cartel (coincidentally or not, centered in the first state to be ruled by a party other than the PRI). At the time, the Arellano Felix family decreed the autonomy of their territory and began charging special rates to other traffickers who wanted to use the coveted border with California, in the United States.

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