Narco Politics: the Political Economy of the Drug War

When it comes to Mexico, consumers of mainstream U.S. media are fed a steady diet of pablum which routinely sidesteps the U.S. role in our southern neighbor’s disastrous war against drugs. Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War offers a concise overview of the growth of Mexico’s major drug cartels and complements investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez’s earlier Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers in laying bare the complicity of Mexican government officials in cartel profiteering and Washington’s support for that horrific status quo.  Sean Penn should have studied these two books before Rolling Stone published his much-discussed non-exposé on the Mexican drug lord El Chapo in January of this year which implied that El Chapo was a somewhat sympathetic character who deserved a platform from which to address the Mexican people (Penn actually asked the cartel leader, “… what kind of message would you like to convey to the people of Mexico?”).

Boullosa, a Mexican poet and novelist, and Wallace, a professor of history at the City University of New York, make clear how terror and corruption have penetrated Mexican society:

“Mass murder (in one instance producing three hundred corpses); grisly torture (one victim’s face was skinned and sewn onto a soccer ball): collusion between mayors, governors, and militarized drug traffickers; rampant kidnapping and extortion; police on the payroll of cartels possessed of vast drug profits available for bribery; the wholesale arrest of police departments; a criminal justice system that all but guarantees criminals impunity from prosecution; the inefficiency of disinterest of higher political officials; and the eruption of protests from civil society—all these have been routine in the past dozen years.”

Boullosa and Wallace also provide historical context showing the origin of the current nightmarish situation arose from U.S. government actions in the early twentieth century. They argue that just as prohibition helped create organized crime syndicates in the U.S., by prohibiting all non-medicinal use of opiates and cocaine the 1914 Harrison Act helped narcohistory2create a Mexican drug trafficking industry. The higher elevations of the “Golden Triangle” in the western Sierra Madre mountains were perfect for opium cultivation, and once the trade started it only grew through the following years. The demand for product came largely from gringos across the northern border, a phenomenon that has continued to the present day.

From the 1930s on, corrupt Mexican authorities joined U.S. law enforcement in demonizing illicit drugs, including marijuana, the target of especially rabid propaganda on both sides of the border. Boullosa and Wallace cite this 1938 statement from Mexican Federal Narcotics Service director Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra: “It is impossible to break up the traffic in drugs because of the corruption of the police and special agents and because of the wealth and political influence of the traffickers.” As A Narco History makes clear, this analysis still remains correct given the well-documented corruption of Mexican police, military, and politicians.

Like his counterparts in Mexico, Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the stateside Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), oversaw an apparatus which aided and abetted the very forces he had declared war on. In 1968, six years after Anslinger’s retirement, an investigation concluded that the bureau was a major supplier of heroin. Although that report was quickly squelched, subsequently almost all of the agents in the organization’s New York branch were ousted; the FBN’s successor agency The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was found by CIA investigators to be “heavily infiltrated by dishonest and corrupt elements, who were believed to have ties with the narcotics smuggling industry.”

For years heroin smuggled from Europe dominated the U.S. drug market, but in the 1970s this situation shifted, due in part to arrests of French traffickers. By 1975 between 70 and 90 percent of the of the rapidly burgeoning U.S. heroin trade was supplied by Mexican networks. In the go-go ‘80s the cocaine market grew exponentially in the U.S. Colombian drug lords, frustrated by U.S. interdiction of cocaine shipments to Florida, shifted their smuggling routes through Mexico. Mexican gangsters in turn cut themselves in for increasingly large percentages of the resulting profits. Boullosa and Wallace write that by the early 1980s cartel leaders were responsible for 90 percent of the coke entering the U.S., and note that the Bank of America in San Diego handled twenty million dollars of that money in just one month. (Bankers in the U.S. and Mexico, a mostly overlooked link in the drug supply chain, have continued to reap massive profits from drug trafficking to the present day.)

The 1980s also saw the emergence of a CIA operation that made FBN involvement in the drug trade look small time in comparison. Though Ronald Reagan had declared a “war on drugs” which made inroads into some supply routes, the old CIA tradition of coddling murderous gangsters in the name of anti-communism took precedence when it came to Nicaragua policy. Reagan administration rightist ideologues including Oliver North and Elliott Abrams put their boss’s contempt for Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government into action by spearheading a CIA plot to destroy the Sandinistas. This operation financed brutal anti-Sandinista mercenaries with drug money from narcotics smuggling to the U.S.

Drug and arms running channels which North and company helped set up paved the way for contemporary drug trafficking operations. The network they developed involved drug kingpin Felix Gallardo sending planes, pilots, and shipments of cash and arms to anti-Sandinista mercenaries. At the same Gallardo was exporting four tons of cocaine into the U.S. per month. The operation was coordinated with the help of Mexico’s Federal Security Directorate (DFS), a sister operation to the the CIA, about which Boullosa and Wallace write, “The DFS provided bodyguards for the capos, ensured drug-laden trucks safe passage over the border by using the the Mexican police radio system to interdict U.S. police surveillance messages, and handed out DFS badges with abandon.” Later public scandals led to the disbanding of the DFS, but corrupt operatives merely moved to positions in other federal agencies, where the continued to aid and abet drug traffickers.

A Narco History does a commendable job of laying out the various players who came to power in the modern day Mexican drug cartels. Their brutality defies belief, typically involving random attacks on civilians and sidelines in kidnapping for extra profits. Among the cartels discussed are the stranger-than-fiction Mexican version of the Knights Templar, which, like the brutal trafficking cult La Familia before them, began with a commitment to social justice but soon devolved into perpetrating rape, torture, and murder of civilians.

As the modern day drug war, which commenced under George W. Bush’s pal Vincente Fox (president from 2002-2006) and then metastasized under Fox’s successor Felipe Calderon (head of state from 2006-2012), targeted cartel leaders, the arrest or assassination of big players left their underlings scrambling for turf, splintering the large drug organizations into nests of trigger-happy killers. The vast amounts of money to be made attracted grievously underpaid soldiers and police: between 2000 and 2006, two thirds of the Mexican military had deserted. (Though this was nothing new: in 1995 the Mexican Department of the Interior estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of the 100,000 members of the Federal Judicial Police (PJF) were on the payrolls of the cartels’ drug traffickers, who had also bought off hundreds of local municipal police departments.) Then in 2008, in Boullosa and Wallace’s words, “The cartels fissured into fragments, which came together in new alignments; allies became enemies, foes mutated into friends. Government forces fought one another as furiously as they did the narcos. The lines between combatants and civilians blurred, disappeared.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. government fanned the flames by continuing to send military assistance to the Mexico; government and military officials often delivered the U.S. weapons to drug traffickers. Then too, the Bush era jettisoning of an assault weapons ban made it easy for narco surrogates to buy heavy artillery from U.S. gun shops. The result: between 75 and 90 percent of cartel arms now come from the U.S.

The authors also argue that the U.S. shares responsibility for Mexico’s drug quagmire in other ways. The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allowed U.S. agribusiness to flood Mexico with corn. Two million rural Mexican farmers, unable to compete with U.S. imports, were driven off their land in the six years following NAFTA’s implementation. Increasing impoverishment of formerly self-sufficient Mexicans contributed to a surge in crime (though only partially — one study estimated that police committed 70 percent of kidnappings in 1995) and gave the cartels a new source of foot soldiers. No longer able to make a living growing corn, farmers also began shifting to cultivation of marijuana and poppies. NAFTA imports also required a huge number of freight cars and cargo trucks, which helped transport smuggled drugs into the U.S.

NAFTA still has its boosters, but the book emphasizes the growth of massive inequality in recent years as an obvious counterargument to rosy pictures of the trade agreement; the number of Mexican billionaires rose 23 percent between 2013 and 2014 while about 45% of the population was living in poverty.

To its credit, A Narco History offers no simple solutions for Mexico’s daunting problems. Boullosa and Wallace provide an overview of efforts to decriminalize marijuana in the U.S. and Mexico, which they support, but write that “Legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drugs) would not be a magic bullet. Believing it would end the drug wars overnight would be as delusional as was the fantasy of prohibitionists that banning alcohol would usher in ‘an era of clan thinking and clean living.’” The authors also outline grassroots Mexican organizing against both the drug lords and corrupt (and often, as in the case of the forty-three students activists disappeared in 2014, murderous) security forces. There are glimmers of hope, but the challenges to peace and justice outlined in this bracing book will continue to be extremely daunting, to say the least.

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: