In the late 19th and early 20th century opium was imported into Mexico, mainly by Chinese immigrants. But by the 1920s and 1930s Mexicans were growing the poppies. Opium, cocaine, heroin and marijuana crossed the border into the United States with relative ease. With the outlawing of narcotics in the US, exporting became a very profitable line of business for those prepared to take the risks.
During the Cold War, a number of top officials of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) were involved, together with elements of the CIA and the World Anti-Communist League (WACL), in trafficking drugs into the United States. This apparently continued for at least 40 years.
Nevertheless, the Mexican army was used as part of a national campaign to eradicate the drug trade, and the growing of poppies. Much of this was ineffectual as growers bribed officials to leave their crops alone. In some states, such as Guerrero, the army was involved in armed conflict with local peasants. Indeed, when I was in Guerrero in 1979, travelling in a bus between Acapulco and Monelos, we were stopped by a unit of the army and forced to get out. In fact, the army was as much, if not more, concerned with combating ‘subversives’ as drug traffickers.
In Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed books, 2012) Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda detail what, in 1976, was called Operation Condor, which involved the aerial spraying of opium fields with such chemicals as paraquat. It was a partial success. For a while the volume of drugs entering the United States was halved. But the demand for drugs in the US was, and still is, insatiable.
The Mexican state and drug traffickers have had, as the authors note, ‘a long history of collaboration, and it was generally state actors who supervised the entire business.’ This increased in the 1980s. Interestingly, the actual consumption of drugs including marijuana is and was lower in Mexico than in other Latin American countries and insignificant compared with the United States.
Since the 1980s, however, the poverty of the working class has exacerbated and perpetuated both drug production in Mexico and export to the US. According to Watt and Zepeda:
‘The prevalence of drug production, combined with economic reforms that essentially excluded much of the rural workforce from legitimate commercial activity, meant that it was very difficult to create suitable alternatives within the formal economy.’
By the mid-1980s Colombian drug cartels joined Mexican traffickers in establishing smuggling operations into the United States.
The election of Vincente Fox to the Mexican presidency in 2000, brought with it massive opportunities for the increasing and expanding of business by the narco-traffickers. And it allowed Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán Fuentes, the Capo of the Sinaloa cartel, to become the world’s most powerful and richest trafficker. ‘Perhaps the most significant charge in narcotrafficking as the new millennium began,’ say Watt and Zepeda, ‘was the cartels now started to treat members of the army, police forces, bankers and political officials as their employees,’ a reversal of the old arrangement. The development of a limited, bourgeois democracy in Mexico from the old authoritarian regime actually increased the power of the wealth of the narcotraffickers! As a result, Mexicans now live in a society characterised by ever-rising crime and insecurity.
The authors of Drug War Mexico note that although narcotics have been prevalent in Mexico since the 19th century, the level of illicit drug production and trafficking has now reached unprecedented proportions. For example, 90 per cent of all cocaine consumed in the US is trafficked through Mexico.
Many towns and cities in Mexico are suffering from organised crime. The exact number of deaths related to drug cartel violence is not known. Between 2006 and 2011 it was officially estimated at 39,000. More than 5,000 persons were reported as missing or disappeared, and 9,000 corpses have yet to be identified. My guess is that up to 100,000 Mexicans have died since 2005. More than 500,000 Mexicans are now directly or indirectly involved or employed in organised crime related to drugs. According to Juan Ramóde la Fuente in Foreign Affairs Latinomérica (2009), ‘We are confronted by a brutal and very sophisticated force, which has submarines, helicopters, airplanes, and sophisticated weaponry.’ The anti-drugs activities and efforts of both the Mexican and United States authorities have had little effect to date; although the Mexican army appears to have had more success in combating the so-called Zapatista uprising in Chiapas (the Zapatistas oppose the consumption of both narcotics and alcohol).
Is there a solution or solutions to Mexico’s drug wars, violence and killings, or the trade in drugs? Watt and Zepeda see some hope in legislation and in pressure groups – but not much. The brutal facts are that, within capitalism, in Mexico, the United States and globally, the commodification of drugs will continue as long as there are big profits to be made from their production, sale and trafficking.
Peter E. Newell