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Organized Crime: An American Tradition

The DEA and the Sinaloa Cartel

by NICK ALEXANDROV

El Universal, the Mexican newspaper, reported on January 6 that Washington and the Sinaloa Cartel have cooperated for years. Sinaloa lawyer Humberto “Loya-Castro stated that [DEA] agents told him that, in exchange for information about rival drug trafficking organizations, the United States government agreed…not to interfere with his drug trafficking activities and those of the Sinaloa Cartel,” published court documents reveal.

These disclosures should be considered together with those the intrepid journalist Anabel Hernández published in Los Señores del Narco, translated as Narcoland for last fall’s English-language release. Her main argument, as she explained on Democracy Now! last September, is that in Mexico there isn’t “really a war against the drug cartels. What exists in the government of Felipe Calderón was a war between the cartels, and the government took a side of that war, protecting the Sinaloa Cartel.”

President Calderón, during his six-year term ending in 2012, presided over an unprecedented slaughter—perhaps 120,000 Mexicans were murdered while he held office, Le Monde estimated—and the distribution of unprecedented U.S. funding—well over $1 billion by April 2013—“to the Mexican military, police, and judicial systems for training and equipment,” the Center for International Policy’s Laura Carlsen summarized. When his term ended, he fled to an institution certain to ignore the blood on his hands—namely Harvard, where he was a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government.

Past recipients of this honor include Héctor Gramajo Morales, an architect of the genocidal rampage that ripped through Guatemala’s countryside in the 1980s, and a guest speaker at the School of the Americas in December 1991, during its commencement exercises. One wonders whether, to mark the occasion, he imparted his political philosophy: “You needn’t kill everyone to complete the job.” Massacring 30% of the public was more reasonable, he stressed.

In her review of Washington’s Mexican policy, Carlsen noted that Thomas Shannon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, remarked in April 2007 that U.S. assistance for Mexican security forces was a means of “armoring NAFTA,” the so-called “free trade agreement” that turned 20 years old as this month began. The arrangement, DEA official Phil Jordan explained, was a “deal made in narco heaven.”

“For Mexican drug cartels,” U.S. Army War College professor Paul Rexton Kan writes, “the provisions of NAFTA came at an opportune time, when U.S. interdiction of Colombian cocaine in the Caribbean was increasingly taxing Colombian groups while the demand for methamphetamines in the United States skyrocketed,” indicated in “the number of meth-related emergency room visits in the United States,” which “doubled between 1991 and 1994.” The result was that “Mexican cartels were able to capitalize on newly available overland routes to bring cocaine and meth to the U.S. market,” and commercial-vehicle smuggling shot up 25% in NAFTA’s first year—“the biggest jump on record,” Kan concludes.

The connections between NAFTA, drug smuggling, and the ruin “free trade”—slang for the U.S. dumping of government-subsidized corn into Mexico—brought to the Mexican countryside are rarely examined. Dale Wiehoff, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, is one of the few writers reflecting upon these interwoven developments, and argued last summer that the exploding numbers of “unemployed and displaced young Mexicans were vulnerable to the drug cartels[.]” Displacement is fueled by the conversion of subsistence lands to potential profit sources, with poor farming communities shattered in the process. In the state of Sinaloa, where the cartel originated, NAFTA spurred these processes of territorial transfer, as agribusinesses amassed plots that had once been worked collectively.

Tracy Wilkinson reviewed current conditions there in the Los Angeles Times last autumn. On the enormous farms, “the planting, weeding, pruning, and picking of the vegetables fall to armies of workers from Mexico’s poorest states,” like Oaxaca, Chiapas, and others NAFTA devastated. Carmen Hernandez Ramos “is 52 and looks 80,” and is just one of the many laborers there who “feel trapped,” Wilkinson explained, and are “housed in fenced compounds” in desolate regions.

But not everyone suffers. The Guardian reported in July 2012 that HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, had “laundered billions of dollars for drug cartels,” its subsidiaries permitting “Mexican drug lords to buy planes with money laundered through Cayman Islands accounts.” Leopoldo Barroso, a former bank official, voiced worries regarding “allegations of 60% to 70% of laundered proceeds in Mexico” moving through HSBC, supposedly tainted by these revelations, as if its money would have been clean otherwise. But the differences between legitimate and illegitimate business activity are vague, if even meaningful, as Roberto Saviano observes in his foreword to Hernández’s Narcoland: the book demonstrates that “it is not the mafia that has transformed itself into a modern capitalist enterprise,” but instead “capitalism that has transformed itself into a mafia.”

Others would say this assessment doesn’t go far enough—that organized crime is intrinsic to capitalism, a “phenomenon that complemented rather than conflicted with” the maturation of U.S. “economic and political power structures,” British historian Michael Woodiwiss argues, pointing out that “the United States can claim no legitimacy” in its alleged anti-crime initiatives. Pick any episode in the country’s history, whether “the frequently criminal exploitation of African American and other working peoples, the enactment of prohibition laws that fostered corruption and criminal enterprise,” or “the involvement of intelligence agencies in drug trafficking operations,” and this fundamental point is made. The recent DEA-Sinaloa revelations only drive it home.

Nick Alexandrov reports on the deteriorating political climate in Honduras in the December issue of CounterPunch magazine. He lives in Washington, DC.