It's been almost a year since the son of poet Javier Sicilia was killed as collateral damage in the drug war, and Mexican citizens responded by organizing to condemn the violence with marches, articles, and rallies. The target of their ire seemed two-pronged—gang-sponsored violence on one hand and state-sponsored violence on the other. But it's worth remembering that, in this bloody dialectic, the two are actually one.
Even the word "cartel" is misleading because it implies an entity alien to the state (like the Bloods or Crips), but Mexico's narcos are thoroughly integrated into the government and have been since the U.S. first started down the road to drug prohibition. From an article The Stranger published last year as part of the "Mystery of the Tainted Cocaine" series:
Major Mexican landowners had been growing marijuana and opium poppies and selling them to the U.S. long before the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 (the first major federal drug prohibition—prior to that, even the Sears, Roebuck catalogue advertised a syringe and a dose of cocaine for $1.50). Those Mexican landowners were aligned with, or outright members of, the Mexican political establishment. One brief example: Colonel Esteban Cantú Jiménez, who had a personal army of 1,800 soldiers and political control of Baja California Norte, started taking a cut from Mexican opium traders as soon as the Harrison Act was passed. The Mexican army eventually flushed him out in 1920—with a force of 6,000—but Colonel Jiménez secured amnesty with the help of a former military colleague.
The overlap between Mexico's military officers, politicians, and drug barons goes all the way back to the beginning.
Mexico hit the big time as a destination for American vice on October 28, 1919, with the passage of the Volstead Act (alcohol prohibition—in the early 1900s, the U.S. was in a prohibiting mood). In 1919, only 14,130 American tourists formally requested to visit Mexico. The following year, after Prohibition set in, 30 times as many tourists—418,735—ran south of the border to visit its bars, brothels, and casinos. According to Mónica Serrano, a professor of politics at El Colegio de México and a research fellow at Oxford University, American celebrities Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, and Al Jolson first glamorized Tijuana by hanging around its famous racetrack. By this time, Mexico's marijuana- and opium-smuggling economy was booming. American officials, Serrano writes, "contended that drug trafficking was simply unstoppable. The unintended impact of tighter [domestic] drug-control policies on the rise of trafficking was not addressed."
The American refusal to acknowledge that illegal trafficking and its problems are a direct result of prohibitionist drug policy also goes all the way back to the beginning.
Eventually, over the course of years in the drug trade, the major landowners and marijuana and poppy growers of northern Mexico mutated into the so-called Sinaloa cartel. Their longtime political-establishment allies became the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which held power in Mexico for over 70 years. Their relationship, relative to today's narco-chaos, was mostly stable and calm. It is not entirely accidental that the PRI lost its political hegemony at roughly the same time (the late '90s) that the Sinaloa lost its narco-hegemony—nor is it accidental that "higher levels of violence connected with drug trafficking in the 1990s were observed mostly in those states where the political opposition [to the PRI] had gained power," as historian Luis Astorga notes.
As the Medellín and Cali cartels were being busted up in Colombia and the Mexican narco-political scene decentralized, political parties and narco-capitalists began seriously competing with each other—and killing each other in large numbers—for the first time. Meanwhile, other forces, especially the United States, inadvertently pushed cocaine smuggling from the Caribbean into Mexico.
The protest movement that has been building over the past year in Mexico has been smart in its target—it's after the violence itself, a condition that only exists because of the relationship between the narcos on one hand and the government's drug prohibition (and its concomitant state-sponsored violence) on the other.
And that relationship only exists—has always only existed—because of a economic/political contradiction in the United States that's worth billions of dollars. We'll pay big money for cocaine, marijuana, opiates, but we prohibit them. That contradiction is a market inefficiency worth barrels of money and dump trucks of gore. Nobody, not even the most powerful government the world, has ever been able to change that contradiction. It's just a fact.
So as we approach March 27, it's worth remembering the new activists in Mexico who decry the drug war, not because they embrace drug use, but because the evidence that it isn't working is as plain as corpses.
For more about Javier Sicilia and the groundswell in Mexico over the past year, see this post by Al Giordano of Narco News:
Before the night of March 27, 2011, when a group of young men from Cuernavaca were assassinated, there was no national movement in Mexico to prevent these acts of violence from occurring. Javier Sicilia was a poet, journalist, and editor of an obscure literary journal named Conspiratio, a soft-spoken student of liberation theology and nonviolence, respected within his professions and by the indigenous and other movements he had lifted his pen to support, but not a national public figure nor someone who had ever sought the tribune of a social leader. His country, for more than four years prior, had converted into the epicenter of drug war violence, ever since December of 2006 when a new president, Felipe Calderón, took the reins of the State under a cloud of accusations of electoral fraud. Changing the subject, Calderón immediately ordered the Armed Forces to wage a domestic war, purportedly against narco-traffickers.
The drug economy is here to stay. The problem isn't whether we can stop it—we can't—but the best way to deal with that reality instead of pretending it doesn't exist.