February 19, 1999
By Jesus Martinez
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
MEXICO CITY The loudly trumpeted U.S.-Mexico bilateral war on drugs is not convincing to average Mexicans and much less to informed observers. As Arnaldo Cordova, one of Mexico's most astute political analysts, has written, "Every time the government announces a new plan of operations against drug trafficking, we cannot avoid feeling inundated by a profound sense of skepticism."
Cordova suggests this is attributable to the poor results achieved by government efforts in contrast to the widely evident rise in power and influence of drug barons. Their power is due simply to their "enormous impunity" and the "official protection" that drug traffickers and other organized criminals enjoy.
Indeed, it is fair to say that people in general believe that the best organized and most dangerous of all criminals are the authorities themselves.
This rise of organized crime and the corruption of legal institutions in Mexico cannot be explained in terms of genetics or national character Mexicans are no less corrupt or honest than other peoples.
One important factor is political in nature, and closely tied to the anti-communism so fundamental in 20th century U.S. foreign policy.
A study by the Mexican Institute on the Study of Organized Crime found that Mexicans enjoyed relative public safety three decades ago. However, the extension of the Cold War to Mexican territory transformed the role and character of the police and armed forces.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government followed the examples of right wing military dictatorships and initiated a dirty war against rural and urban groups labeled as communist and regarded as subversive. Washington looked favorably on all this.
On October 2, 1968 army and security forces fired upon a peaceful student rally at Tlatelolco Plaza, killing many civilians (estimates range in the hundreds) and injuring many more. This initiated an era of state terrorism that featured the persecution, incarceration, and even physical disappearance of thousands of civilians from all walks of life. With the pretext of fighting urban or rural guerrillas, security forces ignored constitutional and civil rights.
Participating agents enjoyed a prime additional benefit "war booty," the illegal acquisition of the material possessions of those detained.
The security forces continued to operate with impunity until the 1980s when some were abolished, but many of their members rose through police or military ranks, where their ambition resulted in the institutionalization of corrupt practices.
A well known example was Arturo Durazo, who used his life-long friendship with then president Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-82) to become chief of police in Mexico City. Despite his modest salary, Durazo became wealthy and built immense mansions from the daily tribute he required of all his subordinates who, in turn, extorted innocent civilians in order to keep their jobs and please their boss. Uncooperative criminals and drug traffickers under arrest were often killed and their confiscated goods delivered to chief Durazo.
Mexican officials involved in drug trafficking expanded their activities to include kidnappings, bank robberies, smuggling of stolen vehicles, as well as extortion and robbery. Today crime rates continue to escalate even though there is an alarming militarization of everyday life in Mexico.
Moreover, there is ample evidence that organized crime has infiltrated the highest levels of government. The accounts of illicit activities during the Carlos Salinas de Gortari presidency (1988-1994) make Durazo look like a church choirboy. Yet presidents Bush and Clinton continuously "certified" the Salinas government as cooperating in the "war on drugs."
Drug trafficking continues to grow in Mexico, Colombia and the United States, irrespective of Washington's certification decisions. The drug barons' power and influence rises in direct proportion to the insatiability of the American appetite for cocaine and other drugs.
What are the causes of this what makes Silicon Valley executives, inner city teenagers, and the suburban middle classes want to use cocaine, crack, or other substances?
The U.S. government's failure to convince its citizens to stop consuming drugs has led Congress and the White House to perpetually look elsewhere for scapegoats while ignoring the underlying social problems of the American drug crisis.
The annual process of certification of nations as partners in the war against drugs has become as meaningless and ineffective as Ronald Reagan's "just say no" campaign.
More than ever, the United States and Mexico share a drug problem. Clearly, there is a need for a better approach and more effective solutions.
Jesus Martinez is an immigrant researcher and activist who was formerly a member of the Political Science Department at Santa Clara University.