What is the Mexican drug war but a parable for our times?  Here is the blighted and poisoned fruit of the very policies that our rulers promised us would bring growth and development, prosperity and peace, justice and the rule of law to the whole world.  Those policies were free trade, unregulated capital and labor markets, wide-open borders, and the magical elixir of democracy.  During the first Bush administration, they were trumpeted as the New World Order.  During the Clinton administration, they were rebranded as the Washington consensus.  In Latin America, they are known simply as neoliberalism.

Only one thing more was needed to achieve perfection: a unipolar power to punish disturbers of the global peace and stop those who would close a shipping lane, restrict a market, regulate a corporation, or violate the ineluctable laws of supply and demand.  So why does the trade in narcotics remain illicit?  Is there not a global demand for heroin and cocaine, and an abundance of willing suppliers in the world’s developing nations?  Is it, or is it not, the mission of the world’s policeman to help buyers and sellers meet in the global marketplace without interference by nativists, protectionists, or isolationists?

The contradiction is not noticed by Ioan Grillo, who has been living in and reporting from Mexico City since 2001.  A native of England, Grillo has written an informative primer on the Mexican drug war.  His thesis—that the drug cartels constitute a “criminal insurgency” that threatens the Mexican state—has a superficial plausibility.  They have their own paramilitary forces that are as well armed as those of the government.  They extort protection money from Mexican businesses.  They don’t just bribe Mexican police (state and federal); they employ them.  They also build churches, schools, hospitals, and homes.

What is misleading about the insurgency motif is that it suggests a clear line of separation between drug trafficking, cartel leaders, and the Mexican government.  There is not, nor has there ever been, such a line.  During the long reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (“the perfect dictatorship,” according to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa), the Mexican government largely controlled, as well as protected, the drug trade.  Different sections of the border, known as plazas, were assigned to individual capos, who, as long as they paid the army and the federal police, were left alone.  The money flowed up, and power pushed down.  In the 1990’s, this corrupt but ordered system fell apart.  Power and money went horizontal.  The cartels sprang up like the dragon sons of Thebes.

The primary cause of this disaster was Reagan’s South Florida Task Force (1982-90) and its successful interdiction of Andean cocaine moving up through the Caribbean corridor.  Their profits falling, the Colombians asked the Mexicans if they would move their product into the United States.  If this was manna from heaven, the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement was the parting of the Red Sea.  Customs agents, confronted with a 300-500-percent increase in truck traffic, could search only a tiny, random percentage of it.  Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana—these were simply part of the cargo.

NAFTA had another perverse effect: It increased illegal immigration.  Nick Reding, in his excellent Methland (2009), writes that, “in those illegals, the five major DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] had a built in retail and distribution system.”  Whereas, in the 1980’s, they were forced to rely on Americans to distribute and sell their product, they now had Mexican nationals to do it.  Reding makes the politically incorrect deduction that the interests of the DTOs and those of American agribusiness giants like Cargill and ADM are essentially identical, inasmuch as both benefit from open borders and rely on an illegal labor force.  These networks of foreign laborer-traffickers are virtually impenetrable by American law enforcement, in part because of family members in Mexico who function as hostages.

Reding, unlike Grillo, believes the cartels have a real and growing presence in the United States.  In Iowa, state drug agents have been followed and threatened by Mexican traffickers, and their families monitored.  A DEA special agent admits that “the DTOs hold Atlanta,” and that their people “are as highly trained as we are in intelligence gathering, evasion techniques, [and] weapons.”  She admits that “Their counter-intelligence is so superior to our intelligence . . . that it’s just no contest.”

To make matters worse, the cartels have moved some of their production facilities into El Norte.  Mexican nationals grow marijuana on secret plantations located on national-forest and national-park land in California, and they manufacture methamphetamine at superlabs in California’s Central Valley.

Five of the seven major cartels control one each of the five major entry points into the United States.  The Sinaloan cartel has Nogales; the Tijuana cartel, its namesake city; the Juárez cartel, Ciudad Juárez-El Paso; the Zetas, Nuevo Laredo; and the Gulf cartel, Matamoros-Brownsville.  In the United States, there are three main distribution cities: Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston.  Grillo admits that the Sinaloans have claimed Phoenix as their exclusive territory.  I can only infer that the Gulf cartel has done the same for Houston, and that a Sinaloan-Tijuana partnership controls Los Angeles.  According to Grillo, the drug war began in 2004 when the Sinaloans sought to annex northeastern Mexico to their empire.  The Gulf cartel with their Zeta allies successfully fought them off.  The second, far bloodier, phase began in 2008 and continues to this day, with the Sinaloans fighting a four-front war: in Tijuana, with the Arellano Felix organization; in Sinaloa, against the Beltrán Leyvas; in Ciudad Juárez, against the Juárez cartel; and in the northeast against the powerful Zetas.  The Sinaloans sometimes fight La Familia, which is based in the southwestern state of Michoacan.

The Zetas are an example of imperial blowback.  During the 1990’s, Americans trained the Mexican Airmobile Special Forces Group at Ft. Benning, Georgia, as an elite counterinsurgency, antidrug strike force.  In 1994, this unit brutally suppressed the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.  But in the late 1990’s, the commanding officer, Arturo Guzmán, joined the Gulf cartel and brought most of his men with him.  Los Zetas soon went independent.

Clearly, U.S. intervention is escalating the drug war.  Because the Mexican state and federal police work for rival cartels (as bodyguards, enforcers, kidnappers, assassins), whatever tactical training, surveillance techniques, intelligence-gathering methods, or equipment the Americans bestow upon their Mexican counterparts ends up being exploited by the cartels.  Relying on the Mexican military is no solution, because officers and enlisted men often defect to serve drug traffickers for better pay, taking their weapons and training with them.

The U.S. government remains committed to the same failed strategies.  The U.S. military has trained the Mexican marines as an elite anticartel strike force.  DEA agents are operating in Mexico alongside their counterparts in the AFI (the Mexican FBI); while under the 2008 Mérida Initiative, the United States has transferred $1.6 billion in aid, including Black Hawk helicopters and the latest in surveillance spyware.

The Bush and Obama administrations have seemed interested only in containing the violence associated with the drug trade.  Stopping the northward flow of drugs would require repealing NAFTA and ringing the border with troops.  Furthermore, the Mexican government, which benefits from over $30 billion in drug money flowing south annually (at least $250 billion in profits over the last ten years), clearly has no interest in suppressing the drug supply.  By comparison, in 2009, oil exports earned $36 billion; guest-worker remittances, $21.1 billion; and foreign tourism, $11.3 billion.

Grillo reveals what is really going on down there, although he says he doesn’t believe it: The Mexican government has made an alliance with the Sinaloa cartel, giving it a monopoly on the drug trade.  This alliance was made in January 2001, just weeks after Vicente Fox took office, when the Sinaloan narco Chapo Guzmán mysteriously escaped from a Mexican high-security prison and assumed control of the cartel.  In return for this favor, so the theory goes, Guzmán’s Sinaloans agreed to suppress extortion and kidnapping activities and pay a percentage of their profits to the ruling National Action Party.  Vicente Fox and, now, Felipe Calderón have deployed the army and marines to fight the same cartels—the Beltrán Leyvas, Juárez, Zetas, La Familia—that the Sinaloans are fighting.

The U.S. government seems aware of this arrangement.  This explains the otherwise mind-boggling “Fast and Furious” program under which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sold thousands of weapons to Mexican traffickers as part of an intelligence operation.  To listen to American reporters prattle on about it, the failed plan sounds like another example of bureaucratic ineptitude.  Yet the BATF sold all its weapons to the Sinaloa cartel.  Is this yet another coincidence?  Accept what Grillo dismisses as a “conspiracy theory” as a working hypothesis, and the operation makes perfect sense.  So does the fact that American agents in Mexico have helped track down and locate Chapo Guzmán’s various enemies, including his former ally Beltrán Leyva, who was killed in a shoot-out by the Mexican marines in December 2009.

In a closing chapter (“Peace”), Ioan Grillo suggests various policies that might offer a way out of this morass.  The reality, however, is that the drug trade, and the violence associated with it, are not going to go away in a world of diminishing resources, ever-growing populations, and the easy movement of labor and capital across borders.  Order may temporarily be restored to Mexico, but the drugs will continue to move north, guns and money will continue to go south, and the oligarchy and army will continue to reap large profits.  The killing will resume eventually; Mexico will remain Mexico.


[El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo (New York: Bloomsbury Press) 321 pp., $27.00]