On September 26, 2014, local police kidnapped 43 students from the Rural Teachers’ College “Raul Isidro Burgos” near Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The students have not been seen since.
One of those students was Antonio Santana Maestro. His close friends say he was one of the best students in class. He loved to read. His nickname was Copy because he was able to copy everything he read into his brain. He dreamed of becoming a teacher, yet that dream was left unfulfilled due to his untimely disappearance.
On September 26, Antonio, along with his classmates, was passing through Iguala – en route to Mexico City to participate in the annual October 2nd march commemorating the 1968 massacre of student protesters. Local police from Iguala stopped the bus, and opened fire on the unarmed students. At least three of the students were killed on the scene. The police then ordered the students to disembark from the bus. Some of the students were able to get away, but the police captured 43 of the students and handed them over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel. They have not been seen since. The continuing search for the students has led to the discovery of more than ten other mass graves in the area.
There have been massive protests in Mexico in response to the disappearance of the 43 students, yet we have barely heard about the uprisings here in the United States. Recently, 43 cities in the United States organized actions in solidarity with the 43 Mexican students. These coordinated actions got limited media coverage. The lack of attention to this issue in the US media is even more shocking when we consider that the United States is sending billions of dollars in aid to Mexico.
Over the past six years the United States has given about $2.4 billion to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative – also known as Plan Mexico. Plan Mexico began with President Bush, and has continued under the Obama administration. The stated goal of Plan Mexico is to disrupt the flow of drugs through Mexico and dismantle drug trafficking. The Mexican government has used the funds to train and equip Mexican police – the same police force responsible for the disappearance of the 43 students.
Through Plan Mexico, the United States is funding the War on Drugs in Mexico. That should give us pause, because thirty years of the War on Drugs has been a massive failure in the United States.
On this side of the border, the War on Drugs has been an excuse to exercise extreme state repression in black and brown communities. Since the implementation of the War on Drugs, drug arrests and incarcerations have increased five-fold. In 1980, there were 41,000 people behind bars for a drug offense. In 2010, there were a half a million – over three-quarters of whom were incarcerated for drug possession.
Black men are sent to prison on drug charges at thirteen times the rate of white men, even though five times as many whites as blacks use illegal drugs. The mass incarceration of black and Latino men happened in the United States as the economy shifted from a manufacturing to a service base, and as inequality increased dramatically. Mass incarceration has been used as a solution to the economic crisis: prisons serve the dual purpose of providing employment to tens of thousands of prison workers and locking away a good proportion of the surplus labor force. The War on Drugs has been an excuse for mass incarceration, not a solution to the social problems associated with the illegalization of drugs.
A similar economic transition is happening in Mexico – as free trade and privatization of public services escalate. As Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arreui write: “the neoliberal capitalist transformation of the Mexican economy requires repression to prevent or quell resistance.” The disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa is one very clear example of the use of repression to quell resistance.
The students were on their way to a protest action. Their action, however, was going to interfere with a speech that the wife of Iguala’s mayor planned to give that evening. It appears that the mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered the police to attack the students to ensure that they did not disrupt his wife’s event. The wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, has very close ties to Guerreros Unidos: her brother, known as “El Molón,” is reputedly a leader of the cartel.
This particular instance of state repression appears to be a tipping point, and has led to massive protests across Mexico. These protests have been led by the family members of the 43 missing students. They have been joined by people from all segments of Mexican society – people who are tired of the never-ending violence. More than 20,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. 100,000 people have been murdered in violence related to the War on Drugs.
In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration and militarized policing. In Mexico, it has led to strengthened cartels and mass graves. One thing the War on Drugs has not led to is a decrease in drug use. In fact, overall drug use in the United States has increased since Plan Mexico began in 2007.
If the War on Drugs is being lost, why does it continue? Who is winning the War on Drugs? According to this provocative video, at least three groups are winning: the cartels, the banks, and arms manufacturers.
The cartels are clearly winning. They are raking in billions of dollars a year, due to the illegalization of drugs. If drugs were not illegal, the cartels would lose one of their primary cash flows. In fact, marijuana legalization in several states has already cut into their profits. The price of a kilogram of marijuana in Mexico plummeted from $90 in 2012 to $40 – cutting into cartel profits. The cartels are responsible for thousands of killings every year in Mexico and the funds they use to run their organizations come primarily from producing and selling illegal drugs to the United States.
Transnational banks are also winning. Prior to being discovered, Mexican drug traffickers were depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars every day into HSBC accounts. HSBC laundered billions of dollars in drug trafficking proceeds before being forced to pay $2 billion in fines. U.S. authorities decided the bank was too big to prosecute criminally. HSBC may no longer be laundering money, but it is likely that other banks are now profiting off of this billion-dollar business.
Weapons dealers are also winning. The majority of guns used to kill people in Mexico are made in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, over 90 percent of all weapons confiscated in Mexico came from the United States – bringing in tremendous profits for arms manufacturers and dealers.
Antonio Santana Maestro’s promising life was cut short because of this War on Drugs. It falls upon us in the United States to demand accountability from the U.S. government. It falls upon us to work towards the legalization of drugs, which is the only way to end this War on Drugs.
Legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has cut into the profits of cartels. Legalization of small quantities of all drugs in Portugal has cut drug abuse in half.
Ending the War on Drugs won’t save Antonio Santana Maestro or any of the other 42 students. It won’t save any of the hundreds of thousands of lives that have already been lost. But, it is the only way to bring a halt to this cycle of violence.
Tanya Golash-Boza is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced.