The War on Drugs and the Mexican Movement to End It
“It's a Welcome Escape From the Seemingly Insurmountable Sectarianism that Has Plagued Social Movements for Centuries”
By Quincy Saul
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
August 6, 2011
The forty year anniversary of the war on drugs came and went this summer without any mention of the most significant movement to end it.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report in June with a clear and succinct conclusion: “The global war on drugs has failed.” The US government has now spent about a trillion dollars on this war, but drug consumption has increased and drug-related violence and incarceration have spiraled ever further out of control. Signed by a wide diversity of prominent names such as Paul Volcker, Ernesto Zedillo, Carlos Fuentes and Kofi Annan, the report went on to accuse the United States of “drug control imperialism.”
More than any other country, Mexico is dying from the sins of the war on drugs. As the bottleneck of the drug trade for all of the Americas, almost 50,000 have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the last six years alone, with the numbers of dispossessed and disappeared mounting ever higher.
It is not entirely surprising then, that the first mass movement to end the drug war has arisen in Mexico. More surprising is the almost total boycott in the United States and international media of this movement.
Seen from the outside, the current movement to end the war on drugs in Mexico began suddenly. The brutal murder of the son of a prominent poet named Javier Sicilia prompted him to write a call to action urging all Mexicans to take to the streets to end the drug war. His voice reached and touched millions. Within days, tens of thousands had filled the centers of forty major cities, calling for the legalization of drugs and the demilitarization of their country.
Popular mobilization has been sustained since then through two major actions involving all demographics of Mexican society. Led by Sicilia, a week-long march to end the drug war from the city of Cuernavaca to the nation’s capital culminated on May 8th when 100,000 people filled the central square of Mexico City. That same weekend, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation led a silent march of tens of thousands out of the mountains, occupying the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Several weeks later, the mobilization continued with a “caravan of solace,” in which tens of thousands more participated. The caravan traveled from Cuernavaca through a dozen major cities, for the first time sharing and organizing the pain which until now most Mexicans have suffered in fear and isolation. The caravan culminated in the infamous Ciudad Juárez. Renowned as the most violent city in the world, the caravan inscribed a fresh, new and indelible chapter in the city’s history. In the words of Antonio Cervantes, a participant in the caravan, on the eve of its arrival, “we are going to occupy Ciudad Juárez peacefully… We are going to fill the most violent city on earth with humanity and desire for life.” The nonviolent occupation of Juarez concluded peacefully with the reading of drafts of a pact which includes demands and a program of action.
By any measure, this movement is a game changer. Calling itself the “Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity,” it is the first nonviolent mass movement in the history of Mexico. Javier Sicilia is doing what all previous leaders in Mexico have failed to do—unite all sectors of society into a sustained movement in which all groups see their interests reflected. “We have to return to the era of Gandhi, to the era of Luther King,” said Sicilia, who on numerous occasions has promoted the legacy and tradition of civil disobedience. Slowly but surely, this movement is standing up, preparing itself to end this war, with or without the agreement of the government. A placard in the city of Chihuahua urged the caravan, “If Crime is Organized, then Why Not Us?”
With a few isolated exceptions, there has been a complete boycott by the US media of this movement. International press has been barely better. For the English speaking world, only a few small online news sources like Narco News are paying any attention.
Reporting on the horrific violence of the drug war in Mexico is abundant and detailed both in mainstream and alternative media. So why the silence about a movement to end it? After all, the development and consequences of this movement are guaranteed to have effects in the United States and around the world. Is it that the abundance of popular uprisings this year have newsrooms swamped, and that this one is just slipping through the cracks? Months into the movement, such arguments are no longer adequate. When a story of this magnitude consistently fails to break headlines for such a long period, we must ask if there are other reasons, other interests behind the silence.
The Drug Trade and the Global Economy
The ugly but undeniable truth is that the drug trade plays a pivotal role in the global economy. By nature there are no detailed statistics about the exact size of the black market, but even the most conservative estimates are in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Add to this the arms trade that is an integral part of the drug war and we arrive at a number that is a hefty percentage of the global GDP.
Where does all this money go? Again, the nature of the data is that it’s secret, but that doesn’t leave us completely in the dark. We know that this money isn’t going into mattresses and suitcases. This is the modern era! It’s going into banks.
The important question is not which banks are laundering drug money. If we’ve learned anything about finance since 2008, it’s that everything is interconnected—the savings in your local bank are intimately connected to all kinds of institutions and markets all over the world. So it’s not a question of who is connected to the drug trade—we all are. That’s how “globalization” works. A few banks have been exposed for laundering, and pointing fingers is important, but it doesn’t get us any closer to an alternative. The question we need to ask is, how deep does drug money go?
James Petras alleges that “every major bank in the United States has served as an active financial partner of the murderous drug cartels—including Bank of America, Citibank, and JP Morgan, as well as overseas banks operating out of New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and London.” To give only one example, in May of this year, The Guardian printed an article citing US Department of Justice records to the effect that Wachovia Bank alone (now owned by Wells Fargo) laundered $378 billion dollars of drug money between 2004 and 2007. Court cases involving these allegations are usually settled for miniscule fractions of the bank’s quarterly profits.
Where does the global economy begin and where does the drug trade end? Dare we wonder if the global economy can survive without drugs? An answer to this question became unavoidable in the US financial crisis at the end of 2008. In January of 2009, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime, was quoted by Reuters: “In many instances, drug money [was]... currently the only liquid investment capital… In the second half of 2008, liquidity was the banking system’s main problem, and hence, liquid capital became an important factor… interbank loans were funded by money that originated from the drug trade and other illegal activities… [there were] signs that some banks were rescued in that way.” If the terminology is obscure, the message is clear: the global economy and the drug trade are one. And yet that is only half the story….
The Guns Behind the Drugs
You can’t separate drug money from blood money any more than you can filter drugs out of blood. To understand the drug trade, we have to understand the drug war. Like an ocean, the arms market is impartial, accepting all tributaries, from governments to security contractors to major cartels to small-time gangs.
The matrix of the black market and the arms trade was clarified this year on the fortieth anniversary of the war on drugs. While representatives from dozens of civil society organizations met in Washington DC to discuss the failures of the drug war, and while a caravan in Mexico led by Javier Sicilia began to organize a movement to end it, politicians met in Guatemala to extend and expand the war. At a meeting in Antigua in late June, representatives from more than fifty countries met and pledged over $2 billion towards bringing the drug war to Central America.
This initiative was led by the United States. The principal representative of the United States at the Guatemala meeting, Hillary Clinton, seemed confident that the war on drugs is not in vain. “We know from the work that the United States has supported in Colombia, and now in Mexico, that good leadership, proactive investments, and committed partnerships can turn the tide,” she said.
In a fitting complement to this meeting, also in June, the United States led a massive special forces exercise in El Salvador, including troops from 25 different nations. This is only the latest event in a trend over the last several years of increasing US military presence in Latin America. In the last two years alone, the construction of bases by the US military in South and Central America has doubled, all under the name of the war on drugs.
The US militarization of Latin America comes in at least four different forms. Firstly, through the direct operation of US military bases on foreign soil. Secondly, through security partnerships in which US military personnel operate, train and gather intelligence on foreign military bases. Thirdly, through the increasing covert deployment of US special operations troops throughout Latin America, and finally, through the simple sale of weapons. In Mexico, 90 percent of the weapons recovered in drug-related violence are manufactured in the United States.
The evidence is piling up, but how you read it depends on which side of the fence you’re on. In the eyes of a growing global movement, the drug war is more indefensible every day. But in the eyes of others, it is every day in more need of defense. Investigative journalist Bill Conroy has described the escalating violence of the drug war in Latin America as “a situation not unlike a Chinese finger puzzle, with one finger, representing militarization and the other prohibition, each pulling against the other as more pressure is exerted and all to no avail in escaping the trap.”
A movement in Mexico is gaining momentum which has an answer to this Chinese finger puzzle, to this Gordian knot of drugs and guns which is like a tumor on the heart of the global economy. The answer? Legalize drugs. It is, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, “the simplest thing so hard to achieve.”
Behind and Beyond the Movement
In the time of a few months, this young movement is already historic. Javier Sicilia has been able to catalyze and sustain it with a poetic inclusiveness that no previous social movement in Mexico has been able to articulate. While radical ideas may be at the heart of the movement, it is organized in terms that completely eclipse the ideological divides which traditionally paralyze mass movements.“The pain caused by the sinking of this nation is so great that it surpasses any ideology,” Sicilia has said on numerous occasions. “We cannot lose sight of the moral of the story nor of the victims.” In response to many who have tried in different ways to co-opt the movement for a different cause, Sicilia has been politely blunt: “We cannot lose sight of the heart. Ideological and political speeches impose themselves over human dignity.”
The ability of Sicilia to articulate this radical unity in non-ideological terms may be largely responsible for the mobilization of thousands of Mexicans who have never before taken part in political activity of any kind. Moreover, it indicates a welcome escape from the seemingly insurmountable sectarianism that has plagued social movements for centuries. It is not to be taken for granted.
However, if the success of the movement depends on its continued ability to transcend ideological opportunism, this does not mean that the movement can avoid ideological questions. The movement’s demands—the legalization of drugs and the demilitarization of the country—may seem at first glance to be relatively technical political questions. But haunting the Chinese finger puzzle of prohibition and militarization is the specter of the global economy. More specifically, behind the war on drugs is the United States.
The movement to end the war on drugs doesn’t have to—and perhaps shouldn’t—articulate itself in these terms. But behind and beyond the movement is a global economy that depends on the drug war, and an empire, centered in the United States, which depends on the continued subordination of the Mexican government and people. Ultimately, the goals of the movement cannot be realized without confronting and overcoming these realities. The path towards these confrontations has begun and is inexorable. As Jose Martinez Cruz, head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights of Morelos, recognized, “the movement can’t drop its guard now.”
Some fear the future and denounce the movement, trying to silence its depth and significance. Others hope to channel it into a reformist course. Still others are struggling, for better or worse, to radicalize it. We would all do well to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backwards.”
Whatever the causes of this media silence—laziness, fear, money, politics or some combination of these—it is a silence of epic and historic proportions. Even among all the unprecedented social movements that have emerged this year, the movement in Mexico, due to its unique position as a bottleneck of the US empire and the global economy, may prove to be the most significant of them all. In spite of the media silence and also because of it, we must stay tuned.
A Movement Against Empire?
Pancho Villa, leader in the Northern front of the 1910 Mexican revolution, not long before his betrayal and murder at the orders of Mexico President Venustiano Carranza, wrote a letter to his counterpart in the South, Emiliano Zapata. In this letter, Villa invited Zapata to embark on a new and different course of struggle. Instead of continuing their bloody struggle for land reform, in which many hundreds of thousands of Mexicans had already perished, Villa suggested, they should unite against the common enemy to the North. “We have decided not to burn another cartridge on Mexicans,” he wrote. “And to prepare and organize ourselves properly to attack the Americans in their own lair.” He went on to prophetically warn that Mexico would never be free until this battle was fought once and for all.
A century has come and gone since Villa and Zapata fought for land and liberty. Today, the movement to end the war on drugs is struggling in the same shadow that Pancho Villa discerned so long ago. The fate of both Mexico and the United States will depend on the will of both peoples to see, behind and beyond the drug war and the growing movement to end it, a shared history and future. In Chihuahua rancher Julián LeBarón’s words, “The clock ticks as the hand of crime holds the heart of our country in a bloody fist.”
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