Sunday, June 22, 2014

An Inside Look at Mexico's Drug War

An Inside Look at Mexico's Drug War

The Takeaway 

(Please listen to the full interview with The Takeaway's John Hockenberry here)

As a country, we've become accustomed to the gruesome headlines out of Mexico. Things like "26,121 Missing During Mexico's Drug War" or "Mass Beheading Rocks Mexico City" regularly flash across screens and are printed across newspapers in bold fonts. We're in close proximity to a raging drug war, yet most of us couldn't be more removed from the realities occurring just over the border.

In his new book, "In The Shadow of Saint Death," author Michael Deibert chronicles the history and evolution of the warring cartels. Their influence, fueled by America's own drug policies and addictions, now permeates nearly every part of society, from the government to business owners to the military.

"What had been somewhat isolated now is violence that's affecting everywhere in Mexico practically, including places like Acapulco and places like Cuernavaca, which is very close to the capital," says Deibert. "So there has been, I'd say, a general disintegration of law and order in the country as a whole."

Beheadings are a preferred form of cruelty used by drug cartels. They are frequently video taped and are designed as a symbol used to instill terror in the hearts of Mexican citizens.

"They learned that basically by watching insurgent videos from Iraq," says Deibert. "The mass graves are a great testimony to the complete absence of the state in huge parts of Mexico."

Deibert says that is important to be very skeptical of about the number of people dead and wounded in the drug war.

"The number of people that we have dead now, which including the missing is somewhere around 70,000 to 75,000, but I think it could be much, much more than that," Deibert continues. "And that makes the drug war in Mexico since 2006 the most deadly conflict in Latin America aside from Guatemala's civil war, which was 30 years long and killed 200,000 people. But in the modern era, that's the most deadly."

Since the violence began there has also been a cultural shift in Mexico, says Deibert, spurring a controversial folk-music genre called narcocorridos, which romanticize drugs, guns, and violence.
The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto are unable to get the situation under control, though they often project a contradictory image.

"They have a great PR machine and they're trying to project this image that the country is turning the corner, when in fact in Tamaulipas last year the murder rate went up 90 percent," he says. "If you talk to your average Mexican, they don't feel any safer now than they did four years ago."

Deibert says that Americans must accept responsibility for some of the conflict in Mexico. In 2012, an estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older—or 9.2 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (such as a pain reliever, stimulant, or tranquilizer) in the past month.

"Felipe Calderón, who was Peña Nieto's predecessor, had something interesting to say once: 'It's not easy living next door to the world's biggest and richest drug addict,' which is the United States," says Deibert. "I think that's accurate, and something for us to ponder for us as Americans."

But it's not just America's demand for drugs that is fueling the Mexican drug war. Guns flow in the opposite direction from the United States and south of the border.

"So many of these guns come from the United States, and that's something that people have to understand," says Deibert. "There was one guy that I write about in the book who, over the period of a couple months, bought over 100 assault rifles in Houston, many of which were found in different crime scenes around Mexico, including an attack on the state prosecutor's office in Acapulco that killed seven people."

While most of the drug cartel violence is contained to Mexico, the U.S. is not impervious.

"There's piles of dead bodies in Chicago, in New Orleans, in Baltimore, and in Miami," says Deibert.
"The death and destruction that has been caused by the criminalization of narcotics in the United States, and the perfect market environment that's been created for criminals by that criminalization, is really what has to end, along with a more restrictive gun policy."

Deibert suggests that the United States adopt a model that is similar to that of Portugal. In the year 2000, he says that Portugal decriminalized small amounts of drugs. He says that in 14 years there hasn't been an increase in drug use or abuse—in fact, among usage among those age 13 to 19 actually decreased.

"I don't think Americans can eternally watch Mexico go up in flames and claim they don't have a responsibility for it," he says.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Journalist paints an ugly picture of Mexican cartel violence in 'In the Shadow of Saint Death'

Posted on Fri, Jun. 06, 2014

Journalist paints an ugly picture of Mexican cartel violence in 'In the Shadow of Saint Death'

By Connie Ogle

(Read the original article here)

Journalist Michael Deibert doesn't believe America's war on drugs is a battle that can be won.

"I think if most Americans saw the cost that the prohibition of narcotics exacts in places like Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia," he says, "the idea of decriminalizing drugs might not seem so far

That's why Deibert has written In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons, $24.95), about which he'll talk Tuesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. In the book, he examines the history and legacy of the drug war, which he
traces back to President Richard Nixon, through the prism of the Gulf Cartel, a ruthless trafficking organization operating across the border from East Texas. In terms of the drug wars, Ciudad Juárez gets all the notoriety, but Deibert writes that this area has seen just as much violence as its sister city to the west.

Embroiled in a brutal battle with its former allies Los Zetas -- made up of "military special forces who became the enforcement wing and changed the dynamic of drug trafficking in Mexico," Deibert says -- the cartel has been around so long its founding members got started during Prohibition.

"Another great success that immediately made people stop drinking and undercut the criminal element," Deibert says wryly. "The U.S. had this 13-year experiment that was a total disaster. So I thought I'd look at the strategy that has been a more deadly disaster in my view."

Deibert is no stranger to dangerous territory. For his book The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, he traveled through the killing fields of central Africa. He's also the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, an account of the events leading up to the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But talking to ordinary people trying to
conduct their lives amid the cartel violence was eye-opening.

"People are living under a siege and have been for many years," he says. "It's amazing what the human spirit can adjust to."

Q: What parts of U.S. policy are most problematic in your view?

A: The kingpin strategy, taking out the leaders, makes no difference in terms of movement of narcotics to the United States. There are 100 people in line to take their places. ... The idea that somehow we have this secure fence act, that we're going to have a 12-foot wall at the
border, and the cartels are going to say, "We're going to stop trafficking drugs," is just ridiculous. The idea that corruption stops at the border in Mexico is false. ... I really, truly believe that decriminalization is the only way the violence will end.

Q: What prevents the United States from making policy changes?

A: Our economic system is intrinsically dependent on the drug war. Look at the billions of dollars that have been traced to drug profits laundered by banks like Bank of America and Wachovia. That's all part of the public record. Look at the growth of the private prison industry in the last 15 years, with multimillion-dollar companies dependent on having strict enforcement of drug laws and harsh
mandatory minimums.

We're in a unique situation in America. There's supply and demand, and we're demand. We consume more cocaine than western Europe. ... There's a narrative in the U.S. that we're being invaded by Mexican drug cartels, but I would say our need for drugs, our addiction, is being fought in Mexico along with places like Miami Gardens and Chicago and New Orleans.

Q: Do you think the recent decriminalization of marijuana in a handful of states could lead to significant policy changes?

A: I think change will come from the states themselves. There's even talk of medical marijuana being approved in Florida. I hope that happens. I don't know how long it will take, but there will be a
critical mass of states saying enough is enough. On the federal level, politicians are too cowardly. Look at Portugal and the Netherlands that have more permissive drug laws. When Portugal decriminalized small amounts of cocaine and heroin, people didn't run out and start sticking needles into their arms.

Q: Journalists covering this story haven't fared well in Mexico. Did you fear for your life while researching this story?

A: I never felt safe for a moment. ... I was stopped at a Gulf Cartel roadblock where people were getting pulled out of their cars. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and they're able to set up a heavily armed roadblock in the middle of a city. ... I've done reporting over the years in Haiti or the Congo or Brazil, and I've had a lot of experiences where people have pointed guns at me. When you're younger you have this idea you're indestructible. But I've seen people killed in front of me, and that brings home the idea you're not. The older you get, that weighs on you a bit. I'll be 41 this summer...I'm
thinking this may be the last hurrah for the kind of reporting that I do. Very strange that on my last day of research I get stopped outside Reynosa at that roadblock. It just brought home again the idea that despite all this rhetoric in Washington that these guys have no fear.

Q: What's it like for the people who live amid all this violence?

A: I interviewed people who had to deal with this every day -- businessmen, school kids, prosecutors, journalists -- to see what it's like to live in this reality. ... I think there's a kind of collective PTSD people have. They're living under circumstances no one should have to live under. Imagine sending your kids to school not knowing if there will be a gun battle or not. In Tamaulipas, there's a general
breakdown in law and order, increases in extortion and kidnapping. People say they're from the Gulf Cartel to extort money even if they're not, because people are so scared they'll pay. I was talking
to someone in Ciudad Juárez in 2010, which was one of the worst years for the city, and he said, "Can you believe it -- it used to be no one would go into Mexico City because they said it was too dangerous."

What's sad is you feel Mexican society has been shredded over the past 10 years because of this. There's a great restaurant in Matamoros, Garcia's, across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas. Everybody from Brownsville would go over there, there was great food and a great atmosphere, Mexican music. You go there now, and it's empty. The last time I was there, we were one of two tables in the restaurant.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald's book editor.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Inside Mexico’s Drug War on on KERA Dallas

You can listen to my hour-long discussion on the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas and Mexico's (and America's) drug war on KERA Dallas here.