Reading Ed Warner’s “Border Battleground: Mexico’s drug violence is state-sponsored – by the U.S,” (.pdf)  in TAC’s most current issue,  is both a frustrating and sad exercise. Throughout, one can’t help but lament the tragic shortsightedness of our politicians, our government – our citizenry — which when moved, has been pretty effective in forcing several periods of critical change and transformation in this country: the end of slavery, voting rights, ending the war in Vietnam. And so we think, shaking our heads once again – why don’t we just end the War on Drugs?

Warner winds through a troubling analysis of today’s illegal immigration problem, which he contends is increasingly about illegal drugs rather than people (in fact he seems rather open, or at least sympathetic, to allowing productive undocumented families living here to stay here rather than forcing them back to the horrors across the border: 40,000 dead to cartels in the last few years). Disagree on how he gets there, but what he finally concludes is that our first priority should be ending the violent trade that is driving both drugs and illegal persons across that border in the first place.


“That means doing something about our unquenchable drug consumption that drives the crime in Mexico and increasingly in the United States. Either we cut back which seems unlikely, or we stop paying the cartels for it, which can be done.”


Sadly, each day we wait to address this fork in the road, the bloodier and more powerful the cartels are becoming. According to Wired  magazine last week, Los Zetas, which has become the largest and most brutal cartel in Mexico, has overwhelmed authorities in the state of Tamaulipas on the other side of the Texas border to the point that the central government has been forced to set up military bases and has sent some 13,000 Mexican soldiers (30 percent of the Army’s counter-cartel troops) to try to wrest back control.

The Zetas, which were initially formed by ex-Army Commandos akin to our Special Forces, operate with virtual impunity in no less than 17 Mexican states and beyond. Last year, Mexican lawmakers acknowledged that some 71 percent of municipal governments in Mexico were under the influence of one of the major criminal organizations in the country today.

Los Zetas has emerged as the most violent, committing crimes only imagined in hell, not distinguishing between civilians and criminal associates, adults and children, clean and dirty government officials. Journalists and bloggers have been slaughtered, as has anyone else who’s gotten in the way. The gang has pushed beyond Mexico’s borders, as the now-infamous drug corridors have exploded with new opportunities, and weak and corrupt governments fall prey to their well-armed and fearsome presence. A particularly horrific story last spring has become the norm in places like Guatemala today:

One of Guatemala’s worst massacres since the end of the country’s decades-long civil war was the work of the brutal Mexican drug cartel the Zetas, Guatemalan officials said Monday.

The gang’s violent signature could be seen in the manner and style in which the 29 bodies were found: bound, beheaded and strewn across a grassy field near their cut-off heads, said Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal.

Two children and two women were among the dead, most of whom worked on the dairy ranch where the bodies were found, according to Luis Armando Garcia, 23, a survivor of the bloodbath, who talked to The Associated Press in the hospital in San Benito….

A message written in blood on one of the ranch building’s walls said the killers were looking for ranch owner Otto Salguero. Menocal said authorities were trying to find out more about Salguero, whose whereabouts were unknown.

Heartbreaking are the stories that writer Warner says signal this transformation on the landscape of illegal immigration today.

Now the game has changed, he (Arizona ranger Jim Chilton) says. The lone immigrant is not seen so much. Border crossings tend to come in packs led by a coyote, a criminal guide. He in turns works for the cartels, which force the immigrants to carry drugs across the border, or sometimes human cargo held for ransom. They are modestly paid for their effort. Those who collapse from exhaustion along the way are left behind to suffer  slow and agonizing death. The Border Patrol often comes across skeletal remains.

Woe to the immigrant to who try to avoid the cartels if they happen to get caught. Last summer, and independent-minded coyote was leading some 30 people across the border when they were spotted by cartel members keeping watch …

They swooped down on horseback and drove the group back to a safe house in Mexico, where they raped the women and tortured the men. They made an example of the offending coyote by cutting off all of his fingers …

It’s commonplace that women trying to navigate the border must prepare for rape — the cost of crossing. They’re told to carry birth-control polls. Special treatment for children? Not a chance.  More likely they’ll be used to hide drugs. A rancher say our own mafia have some limits to their  cruelty. Not the cartels.

No doubt most readers are feeling fairly sick to their stomachs about now, not quite sure how to square this seemingly primitive, altogether merciless, barbaric behavior with the 21st century western civilization we take for granted on this side of the border. But “the American people create the problem,” says one sheriff quoted in Warner’s report. Sure. That complaint is so-oft repeated it’s an accepted talking point of every pundit, expert, professor, politician and law enforcement official on the subject.

He’s right, of course, but what to do about it? The common retort to the one and arguably best solution — decriminalizing and regulating the drugs, beginning with marijuana, to ultimately shut down the black market that drives cartels to put drugs in the body cavities of Mexican children — is that the “cartels are quite adaptable,” and have already diversified into other areas, like stealing oil from pipelines and hawking pirated goods. Give me a break. Anyone with access to Netflix can watch “The Untouchables”  and understand fast enough that this response is as lazy as it is knee-jerk, and only used (quite ineffectively) to try to justify a boatload of self-serving political and bureaucratic interests in favor of perpetuating drug prohibition. They are called drug cartels for a reason. Start by eliminating their primary source of income and see how far they go. In the meantime, I’ll be watching street violence and incarceration rates in the U.S drop (drug offenders count for about 500,000 of our record-high incarceration rates of over 2.2 million Americans today) and some sanity brought back to the society as the billions of dollars used to fight the war shifts over to helping treat people’s drug-related addictions.

There is an organization of retired police officers called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) who say the same thing. Their website is definitely worth a look. Meanwhile, Latin American leaders — the very people who have the most at stake — have been wisely calling for an end to the American Drug War for years. Two years ago, former officials making up The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy released a report with this goal in mind — so far, to little effect.

“The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war,” former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in a conference call with reporters from Rio de Janeiro. “We have to move from their approach to another one.”

The commission headed by Cardoso and former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia calls on U.S. and Latin American governments to acknowledge the insufficiencies of current policy and to engage in a debate about new alternatives.

But what do they know anyway?

Last week, a woman and her 3-year-old daughter living in an apartment house in Fitchburg, Mass., were terrorized when FBI agents tore through their front door with a chainsaw without warning. Once inside, they forced her, face-down on the floor for 30 to 40 minutes at gunpoint, according to reports, while her daughter cried frantically in the other room. The federal agents (not local police, mind you), it turned out, were engaging in a mass drug sweep called “Operation Lone Wolf,” and they had the wrong house. She got a tepid apology and a promise to reimburse the landlord for the broken door.

It seems like these “mix ups” are happening more all of the time, and oftentimes to tragic ends and in the nation’s poorest, and most disenfranchised communities. Another sad casualty in the daily War on Drugs, and just one more reason to heed Warner’s concluding point, that we cut off this problem at the head.

Isn’t it time?


Photo: Agencia Esquema