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If You Think Marijuana Legalization Helps Drug Cartels, Think Again

One of the most enduring disconnects in the legalization debate is the question of what will become of those nasty drug cartels when we end marijuana prohibition. Here's how Tim Rosales of the No on Prop 19 campaign framed it in a debate with Jane Hamsher on CNN:

You would just be giving the Mexican drug cartels a platform, a legal platform, to operate from here in the United States. I don't think that's a risk that a lot of Californians, or even Americans, want to take.

I think he's right insofar as people do worry about this, and stirring up those sorts of anxieties isn't a bad strategy for legalization's opponents to embrace (particularly given how little they have to work with). But the idea itself is about as brain-dead ridiculous as can be.

Here's the thing: criminal drug organizations don't want this "legal platform" you speak of. That's not how they do business. Their product is grown by day laborers and slaves, not master cultivators. Their business strategy is characterized by assassination and bribery, not Facebook fan pages and free massage Fridays. They have no intention of paying taxes or appearing before local zoning boards, and they can't compete with American entrepreneurs who are happy to do the paperwork and can explain where their investment capital came from.

We're going to legalize pot, not thuggery. The murderers in Mexico don't possess a single skill that would give them an advantage in a regulated market. Their only asset is a willingness to break the law, and in the unlikely event that they elected to run a legal business instead, they wouldn't be criminals anymore. We will control the regulatory process and there's nothing about marijuana that invites fraud or extortion to any greater extent than every other taxable commodity on the market.

If you're still not getting this, let me put it another way: Mexican drug cartels don't sell marijuana because they're passionate about cannabis culture or botany, or because they love stacking bricks of mid-grade in the back of a pick-up truck. Absolutely the only reason they're in the marijuana business is because we gave them a monopoly on it. When we take that away from them, they will make less money and their organizations will get smaller.

Those who still can't or won't accept this are entitled to their opinions. But please allow us the courtesy of giving it a try. You had your chance to crush the cartels. Now it's our turn.

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 28,000 people, the government reported this week. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

better late than never: Pres. Calderon now supports discussing legalization
Thursday, July 29

In Guadalajara, police killed one of the highest-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, 56, was the third-highest ranking member of the cartel, only behind cartel bosses "El Chapo" Guzman and "El Mayo" Zambada. Coronel was killed after resisting an army raid on his lavish Guadalajara home. A bodyguard was captured. Over $7 million in cash was discovered inside the residence, as well as large quantities of jewelry and weapons. Coronel was known as the "King of Ice" for his multi-million dollar methamphetamine business.

Saturday, July 31

In Coahuila, policemen rescued two journalists who had been kidnapped on Monday. A third reporter had been released by his kidnappers Thursday, and a fourth was released under unclear circumstances. The men had apparently been kidnapped by drug traffickers in an attempt to have Mexican media broadcast their messages to the Mexican public. The men had been kidnapped after covering the arrest last week of a prison director accused of letting out prisoners at night to commit killings. About 30 reporters have been killed in Mexico since 2006.

In Ciudad Juarez, 15 people were killed in different parts of the city, bringing the city's death toll for July to 291. This makes July the second deadliest month the city has had so far in 2010, only behind June's total of 313. As of August 1, there have been 1,701 murders in Ciudad Juarez this year.

Sunday, August 1

In Ciudad Juarez, a riot took place during visiting hours at the city's main prison. The clashes began when members of the Aztecas gang took 12 guards hostage and attacked members of their main rival, the AA (Artist Assassin) gang. The Aztecas are allied to the Juarez Cartel, and the AA fight for the Sinaloa Cartel. Two men were killed in the clashes. Some 150 visitors,including women and children, were present at the facility when the incident took place.

Tuesday, August 3

In Mexico City, Mexico's intelligence chief acknowledged that the death toll from drug-related violence is far higher than previously reported. Guillermo Valdes Castellanos, the head of the National Security and Investigation Center (CISEN) now estimates that just over 28,000 people have been killed since President Calderon took office. Last month, the office of Mexico's Attorney General estimated that some 25,000 had been killed.

Also in Mexico City, President Calderon said he was open to debate on the legalization  of drugs. Calderon went on to say that Mexican policy would likely be driven by California's decision on marijuana legalization, which is due to take place later this year.

Wednesday, August 4

In Ciudad Juarez, two police officers and two civilians were wounded after a group of armed men attacked the Continental Hotel, which houses many federal police officers. Additionally, a painted message from the Juarez Cartel threatened the lives of federal police officers.

Also in Ciudad Juarez, a bomb was discovered on one of the four international bridges connecting the city and El Paso. The bridge was closed for two hours, as were several main streets in the area, leading to massive traffic jams. Mexican police and security forces arrived and detonated the bomb. Many Juarez residents fear further bombings such as the one which killed four people on July 15.

Total Body Count for the Week: 177

Total Body Count for the Year: 6,848

Read the previous Mexico Drug War Update here.


Mexican President Calls for Drug Legalization Debate

After presiding for years over the bloodiest drug war escalation in history, Mexican President Felipe Calderon is finally ready to discuss legalization.

MEXICO CITY — President Felipe Calderon said he would consider a debate on legalizing drugs Tuesday as his government announced that more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug violence since he launched a crackdown against cartels in 2006.

"It's a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality (of opinions)," he said. "You have to analyze carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides." [AP]

It's just an earth-shattering concession from the man who staked his presidency on a desperate attempt to prove that aggressive enforcement could somehow restore peace and order. Now, with the streets stained in blood and corruption permeating the highest levels of government, Calderon appears poised to confront the crushing reality that there's just no upside to any of this. He needs room to maneuver, and after exhausting every traditional tactic in the drug prohibition playbook, there remains only one conversation left to be had.

Of course, Calderon was careful to clarify that he's acknowledging, rather than endorsing, the legalization argument:

But Calderon has long said he is opposed to the idea, and his office issued a statement hours after the meeting saying that while the president was open to debate on the issue, he remains "against the legalization of drugs."

Riiiight. He's a politician and surely realizes that paying lip service to a touchy subject like this serves only to give it momentum. Posturing aside, Calderon knows exactly what happens when you open this door. He can see it already in the American press, and I can only imagine that he's now perfectly willing to witness the emergence of a sizable movement for reform in Mexico. If he weren't, you can bet he'd never dare drop the "L" word with a microphone at his mouth.

Whether he intended to or not, Calderon has spent his presidency performing the most compelling imaginable exhibit in the failure of prohibition. After sacrificing so much, his only chance at redemption may depend on his willingness to take the lead in learning something from the smoldering nightmare that now surrounds him.

Juarez Grenade Attack Caught On Tape; Attack Comes 2 Weeks After Bomb Blast

Ciudad Juarez
United States
Drug prohibition violence continues in Ciudad Juarez where Mexican federal police officers were attacked with a grenade, nearly two weeks after Mexican federal police were attacked with a car bomb. 262 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in July -- that's about 8 per day.

"Murder City," by Border Cognoscenti Charles Bowden (BOOK REVIEW)

"Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields," by Charles Bowden (2010, Nation Books, 320 pp., $27.50 HB)

by Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

Last Saturday, Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, marked a grim milestone: its 6,000th murder victim since the beginning of 2008. The discovery of 10 bodies that day pushed the beleaguered city past that marker, but the week -- still only half-done as I write these words -- held more gore. On Wednesday, two headless bodies appeared propped up against the wall of building. The heads sat atop upended ice chests in front of them. Writing on the ice chests claimed that one of the men was a carjacker and the other a kidnapper and extortionist, and that both were members of the Aztecas, a street gang that peddles dope and acts as neighborhood enforcers for the Juarez Cartel.

Gruesome photographs of the death scene ran in the Mexican press -- there is a longstanding tabloid press there that positively revels in full-color photos of murder victims, car accident fatalities, burned bodies -- but, according to Charles Bowden, it is almost a certainty that we will never hear another word about them, that we will never know why they had to die so horribly, that no one will ever be arrested for their deaths, that we will never even learn their names.

And Charles Bowden should know. He's probably forgotten more about Ciudad Juarez than most journalists writing about the city ever knew. The poet laureate of the American Southwest, Bowden has been living and writing about the border for decades, and with "Murder City" he is at the peak of his powers.

"Murder City" is beautiful and horrifying, not just for the exemplary violence it chronicles, but even more so for the portrait it paints of Juarez as a community stunned and staggering, hit hard by the vicissitudes of the global economy, the corruption of the Mexican state, and the wealth and violence generated by the trade in prohibited drugs.  It is non-fiction, but reads like a surrealist fever dream.

We learn of Miss Sinaloa, an achingly gorgeous, white-skinned beauty queen, who turns up raving mad at "the crazy place," a desert shelter for the mentally ill, the homeless, the glue- or paint-destroyed kids. Turns out she had come to the city and been invited to a weeklong, whiskey- and cocaine-fueled party at a motel where she was gang-raped for days by eight Juarez policemen. Miss Sinaloa weighs on Bowden, a witness to the city's violence and depredations, its ugly degradation. She's gone now, taken back home by her Sinaloa family, but there's always another one, he writes.

We learn of reporters killed by the military. We learn about other reporters' poor salaries and about how their real pay comes in envelopes from shadowy men, and they know it means they will not write about certain things. We learn of one reporter who inadvertently crossed the military in 2005 and had to flee to the US border for his life when the military came looking for him three years later. He sought political asylum. What he got was imprisoned for seven months until a Tucson civil rights lawyer managed to spring him.

As Bowden notes:

"It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don't think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the US government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United States would be hard-pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight the war on drugs. But then the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels. There are two errors in these accounts. One is simple: The war in Mexico is for drugs and the enormous money to be made by supplying American habits, a torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government, and the cartels all lust for. Second, the Mexican army is a government-financed criminal organization, a fact most Mexicans learn as children."

Bowden writes about a Ciudad Juarez policewoman taken away by the military and raped for three days. Bowden writes about the military patrol sitting yards away from a drug treatment center where armed assailants shoot the place up for 15 minutes, leaving eight dead. Bowden writes about how the press describes convoys of killers as "armed commandos" dressed in uniforms and says that's code for military death squads.

Remember those two headless gentlemen in the first paragraph? This is why we will never learn anything more about them. The reporters are scared for their lives. Bowden writes about the "narco-tombs," safe houses where victims are tortured and killed, then buried on the grounds. The exhumation of the bodies takes place with great fanfare, but the forensic scientist doesn't want her name used or her face shown, and then the bodies just vanish. Poof! They are never identified, no one knows where they went, no one knows why they died, no one knows who killed them.

Bowden writes about El Sicario, the former state policeman/cartel assassin, who talks with professional pride about kidnapping, torturing, and killing hundreds of people. Now, El Sicario is afraid. The killers are after him, and he has fled his former hunting grounds. And what is even more disturbing for the reader is El Sicario's statement that he doesn't even know which cartel he was working for. In the cell-like structure in which he operated, he knew only his boss, not the boss's boss, or even who the boss's boss was. El Sicario killed for phantoms.

But what is really terrifying is that El Sicario is being chased by "a death machine with no apparent driver," a web of hidden complicities where the cartels are the military are the police are the government, nobody knows who anybody really is, and the dead become evil by virtue of having been killed.

We can blame the cartels (or, obversely, drug prohibition), we can blame street gangs, mass poverty, uprooted families migrating to the city for jobs that have now vanished, corrupt cops, corrupt governments, but the violence may now have escaped any good explanation, Bowden writes. As the Mexican state fails to suppress the violence (at least in part because it is committing a great part of it, the killings are establishing "not a new structure but rather a pattern, and this pattern functionally has no top or bottom, no center or edge, no boss or obedient servant. Think of something like the ocean, a fluid thing without king and court, boss and cartel... Violence courses through Juarez like a ceaseless wind, and we insist it is a battle between cartels, or between the state and the drug world, or between the army and the forces of darkness. But consider this possibility: Violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community, and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button."

Absolutely chilling stuff, and absolutely brilliant. Bowden turns prose into poetry, and he provides an understanding of Juarez and its woes that hits you at the visceral level. "Murder City" will give you nightmares, but it's worth it.

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed nearly 25,000 people (the Mexican attorney general put the death toll at 24,826 on earlier this month), with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 6,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

DEA 'wanted' poster with members of Arellano Felix cartel
Friday, July 23

In San Diego, Federal authorities announced criminal charges against 43 members of the Tijuana-based Arellano-Felix Organization. 31 of the 43 men are in custody, 27 of them having been arrested in the United States. Among the arrested men was Jesus Quinones Marques, the director of international liaison for the Baja California attorney general's office. He is accused of attempting to plant information about murders in local newspapers in an attempt to blame rival gangs.

Saturday, July 24

In Ciudad Juarez, the murder rate passed 6,000 since January 1st, 2008. As of Saturday, there had been 235 murders in July, and 1,645 so far in 2010. In 2009, there were 2,754 and 1,623 in 2008. On Saturday, 10 people were killed in several incidents in the city. Four of the dead were killed when gunmen attacked a barbershop, and another three were killed in an attack on a house.

Sunday, July 25

Mexicans officials now claim that gunmen who committed a massacre last week in Torreon were let out of the prison at night to carry out drug-related killings. The prisoners are thought to be involved in at least three mass shootings in Torreon this year, killing a total of 35 people. Ballistics testing has also indicated that the weapons were those of prison guards, who lent them to the hit men.

In Nuevo Leon, at least 51 bodies were discovered by authorities after a three-day excavation of a mass grave. The grave site spanned a 7-acre area, and most of the dead seem to be men between 20 and 50, many of them tattooed. Similar mass graves have been found in Tamaulipas, Guerrero and Quintana Roo in recent months.

Monday, July 26

In Guerrero, six men were found dead inside a car near the town of Chilpancingo. A sign reading, "This will happen to all rapists, extortionists and kidnappers. Attentively, the New Cartel of the Sierra," was left with the bodies. Authorities are now investigating this previously unheard of organization. The car was reportedly taken from its owner after he was stopped and hijacked on a road.

In Sinaloa, two men were ambushed and killed by gunmen in Culiacan. The men -- Jose Antonio and Luis Alberto Vega Heras -- were the son and nephew of a known high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel, known as El Gaucho. Additionally, two other men were killed in the city. Killings were also reported in Morelos, Jalisco, and Chihuahua, including at least five in Ciudad Juarez.

In the Laguna region of Durango and Coahuila, four journalists went missing after being kidnapped by an unknown group. Two were cameramen from Televisa, one was a reporter for Multimedios television, and one a reporter for El Vespertino. Three were kidnapped Monday at around noon and the fourth on Monday night.

Tuesday, July 27

In Durango, eight severed heads were found left in pairs along a highway. In Puebla, three federal agents were killed by gunmen during a firefight. A relative of the Governor-Elect was assassinated in Parral, Chihuaha. In Tamaulipas, the army claimed to have captured nine Guatemalan citizens during operations against drug gangs.

Wednesday, July 28

In Ciudad Juarez, two severed heads were discovered in coolers with the bodies left nearby. Along with the bodies were left notes which read "I'm a kidnapper and extortionist. I'm an Azteca" and "I do carjackings and work for La Linea and the Aztecas." The Aztecas are a street gang affiliated with the Juarez Cartel, and La Linea is the enforcement wing of the Juarez Cartel.

Total Body Count for the Week: 236

Total Body Count for the Year: 6,671

Read the previous Mexico Drug War Update here.


Mayhem Raises Fears of Wider Mexican Violence

Mexico's drug war, which has not ended the gang violence and killings or stopped the flow of drugs, is failing miserably. Now, some experts fear a new level of violence in the already brutal war among drug traffickers and the Mexican government -- one that could be cutting into foreign business investment and tourism, two staples of the nation's legal economy.
AOL News (US)

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed nearly 25,000 people (the Mexican attorney general put the death toll at 24,826 on Thursday), with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 6,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Ciudad Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Friday, July 16

In Ciudad Juárez, four people were killed when a car bomb blew up near federal police headquarters. The dead included two police officers, a doctor, and a paramedic. The Juárez cartel claimed responsibility and warned of more attacks if authorities do not crack down on the rival Sinaloa Cartel. This attack marks the first time such tactics have been used in Mexico's prohibition-related violence.

Sunday, July 18

In Torreon, Coahuila, 17 people were killed when gunmen opened fire in a crowded party without any warning after having blocked the exits. At least 18 people were also wounded in the attack, many of them seriously. Many of those in attendance at the event learned of it through Facebook. Torreon has seen several large-scale multiple homicides in recent months, especially after fighting began between the Zetas Organization and the Gulf Cartel. This battle has led to a drastic increase in violence in northern Mexico, including Coahuila.

Monday, July 19

In Guadalajara, Jalisco, three policemen were killed after being ambushed by gunmen in two separate incidents. In the first, two officers were shot dead in a car stereo shop. In the second incident, a police patrol car was attacked by armed men with rifles and grenades, leaving one officer dead.

Tuesday, July 20

In Ciudad Juárez, seven people were killed in several incidents across the city. Among the dead was a man found hanging from a bridge and a dismembered body which had to be pieced together from several locations.

Wednesday, July 21

In Nuevo Laredo, one person was killed and sixteen were wounded after a grenade attack on a sports complex.

Thursday, July 22

In a mountainous remote part of Chihuahua, eight gunmen were killed after a clash with soldiers near the town of Madera. Reports indicate that the incident occured after an army patrol came under fire from an unclear number of gunmen. It is unknown to which organization the gunmen belonged. The area is heavily used by marijuana and poppy growers under cartel control.

In Mazatlan, Sinaloa, two police officers were killed after being chased by gunmen. The chase ended when the two officers exited their vehicle and attempted unsuccessfully to escape on foot. In Guasave, a known drug-trafficking stronghold, a woman was shot dead by two gunmen as she held her baby. She was killed and the child was wounded. A police officer was killed in Nuevo Leon. In Colima, a man was shot dead after being ambushed as he drove on a highway.

In the city of Nuevo Laredo, the city government sent out a Facebook message warning residents to stay inside due to ferocious gun battles with cartel gunmen.

Total Body Count for the Week: 187

Total Body Count for the Year: 6,435

Read the previous Mexico Drug War Update here.

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed nearly 25,000 people (the Mexican attorney general put the death toll at 24,826 on Thursday), with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 6,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Friday, July 9

In Ciudad Juarez, sixteen people were killed in various incidents across the city. Among the dead was an 85-year old man, and another man who was apparently beaten to death with rocks.

Sunday, July 11

In Ciudad Juarez, three men were killed in an intense gun battle between police and suspected cartel members. The incident began after gunmen attacked a combined municipal and federal police patrol. Several of the gunmen were reportedly armed with grenades.

Monday, July 12

In Nayarit, nine men were arrested in connection with the Sunday killing of two police officers. Several vehicles, weapons and marijuana were seized in the raids, which took place in the cities of Xalisco and Tepic.

In Acapulco, marines captured Aguirre Tavira, who is thought to be head of the Villareal faction of the Beltran-Leyva organization in the city.

In Guerrero, five men were killed during a firefight with an army patrol. Drug-related killings were also reported in Nayarit, Chihuahua, and Nuevo Leon.

Tuesday, July 13

In Cuernavaca, three bodies were hung from an overpass. A note was left at the scene accusing the men of worker for Edgar Valdez Villareal, the leader of a breakaway faction of the Beltran-Leyva Organization. Cuernavaca has seen a drastic surge in violence in recent months as rivals battle for leadership positions in the organization, which was left leaderless after the death of its boss, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, at the hands of Mexican Marines in December. It was later revealed the men had all recently escaped from prison.

Thursday, July 15

In Ciudad Juarez, three people were killed after suspected gang members rammed an explosives-laden car into two police patrol trucks. Two of the dead were police officers and a third was a paramedic. Nine people were wounded in the incident, which occurred just hours after the arrest of a high-level boss in the Juarez Cartel's armed wing, La Linea.

In Chihuahua, the nephew of a governor-elect was killed after attempting to flee from kidnappers. Near Monterrey, four men were found shot dead after being bound with tape and blindfolded.

In a small town near Ciudad Juarez, eight houses were burned to the ground by a group of heavily armed men. Two of the properties attacked in the town of Guadalupe, Distrito Bravo, belonged to former mayors who were murdered in the last three years.

Total Body Count for the Week: 277

Total Body Count for the Year: 6,248

Read the previous Mexico Drug War Update here.

Chronicle Reviews: Two Books on Mexican Drug War, One on Border

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: Ruben Aguilar and Jorge Castaneda, "El Narco: La Guerra Fallida [The Failed War] (2009, Punto de lectura, 140 pp., $10.00 PB); George W. Grayson, "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" (2010, Transaction Publishers, 339 pp., $35.95 HB); Tim Grayson, "Midnight on the Line: The Secret Life of the US-Mexico Border (2010, St. Martin's Press, 304 pp., $25.95 HB)

On the streets of Mexican cities, a deadly, multi-sided war, complete with horrific exemplary violence -- among competing drug cartels, between the cartels and the Mexican state, and sometimes between different elements of the Mexican state -- rages on, the body count rising by the day, if not the hour. The cartels -- Frankenstein monsters birthed by drug prohibition, swollen with profits from supplying our insatiable demand for their forbidden goods -- not only fight the Mexican state, but also insinuate their way into it, and into Mexican society at large, buying with their immense wealth what they cannot command with their bullets.

This is commanding attention not only in Mexico, but also here north of the border, where the drugs are consumed and the cash handed over, where the fear looms that the violence will leak across the border. Despite the hyperventilating cries of some paranoid nativists, that has mostly not been the case, but if the violence hasn't arrived it's not because the cartels haven't extended their tentacles into Gringolandia. They are here, from San Antonio to Sacramento to Sioux Falls, doing business, and business is -- as always -- good.

Throw in some festering anti-immigrant (read: Mexican) sentiment, Congress's failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform, and some zealotry from the land of Sheriff Joe, and Mexico and the border are commanding a lot of attention. That's being reflected in the publishing world. Over the past two or three years, I've reviewed a handful of titles about Mexico and the border (and read more), and now we have three more contributions -- one an academic study of the cartels by a leading American Mexicanist; one a polemic against President Calderon's drug war by a Mexican journalist and a former Mexican foreign minister; and one a journalist's look at the world of smuggling, of both drugs and people, and counter-smuggling along the 1,700 mile border.

George Grayson's "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" is an extremely thorough and comprehensive history and analysis of the rise of the cartels in the context of the weaknesses of the Mexican state. If you can't tell your Carillo Fuentes from your Arellano Felix, if you're not sure if it's the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas, if you keep getting "La Barbie" mixed up with "El Chapo," Grayson will save you. He's got all the cartel players and all their nicknames -- and they all have them -- he's got all the busts and the shootouts, he's got what is so far the definitive history of the cartels and Mexico's response to them.

But Grayson is a political scientist, and that means we also get a history lesson on Mexican politics and culture, which for Grayson is largely a history of authoritarian institutions (the Catholic Church, the "perfect dictatorship" of the PRI), which the cartels imitate in their internal structures. Under the PRI, which ruled until Vicente Fox's PAN won the presidency in 2000, drug cartels existed, but in a modus vivendi with elements of the state. It was the political earthquake that shook loose the PRI that also unleashed the cartel wars, as old arrangements no longer served and new ones had to be forged. The ramping up of the drug war, first under Fox, and then under his successor, has only worsened the situation.

Grayson doesn't see any easy way out. It is "extremely difficult -- probably impossible," he writes, to eradicate the cartels, even with heightened law enforcement measures on both sides of the border. Raking in billions of dollars a year and employing nearly half a million Mexicans (and no doubt, some Americans, too), the cartels may just be, in a phrase, too big to fail. Just like the Mexican state, in Grayson's opinion. It may be corrupted, it may be suborned, but it goes on.

Although Grayson certainly plays it close to the vest, in the end he denounces the drug war. "Few public policies have compromised public health and undermined fundamental civil liberties for so long and to such a degree as the war on drugs," he writes.

One gets the feeling that Jorge Castaneda, coauthor along with Ruben Aguilar of "Narco: La Guerra Fallida" (sorry, it's only available in Spanish), would like to be part of that Mexican state again. The former foreign minister has for years publicly suggested that it is time to talk about drug legalization, and "Narco" feels like part of a campaign to position himself for a run at office in 2012 or a post in whatever government emerges after elections that year. It is a polemic aimed directly at President Calderon's drug policies.

Castaneda and Aguilar set out to systematically demolish the reasons cited for ramping up the drug war, and do a pretty thorough job of it. (Although not everyone agrees with them. I saw Castaneda roundly berated at a Mexico City conference earlier this year for arguing that drug use in Mexico was not a significant problem, one of the central claims in the book.) Guns coming into Mexico from the US are not the cause of the violence, they also argue, and a full-blown confrontation with the cartels is not the way to go.

Instead, they propose increasing public security and reducing the "collateral damage" from drug prohibition and the drug wars by concentrating police on street crime and selectively targeting the most egregious drug offenders. The others? Perhaps a modus vivendi can be reached, if not at the national level, perhaps at the state or local level, as long appeared to be the case in Sinaloa. Decriminalization is another response, although not without the US joining in at the same time, lest Mexico become a drug tourism destination. And harm reduction measures should be applied. But "Narco" is ultimately a call for ending drug prohibition -- and a marker for Castaneda in forthcoming political moves.

Of course, all those Mexican-controlled drugs have to get here somehow, which means they have to cross the US-Mexican border, and Reuters reporter Tim Gaynor's "Midnight on the Line" has got that covered. This is a fast-paced, entertaining, and insightful look at the contraband traffic -- both drugs and people -- across the border and the people who try to stop it. Gaynor works both sides of the border, talking to coyotes in Tijuana, showing up in a dusty Sonora border town and following the illegal immigrant's harrowing journey through the searing deserts of Arizona, and interviewing all kinds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol folks, as well as other officials on this side.

Gaynor demonstrates with some verve the continuous, perpetual struggle between contrabandistas and the US authorities (or, like the Minutemen he interviews, volunteers) who struggle to choke off that traffic. He tracks for sign with Indian scouts on an Arizona reservation that has in recent years become a smuggling hotspot, he rides horseback and in a Blackhawk helicopter with the Border Patrol and tags along with one of its SWAT teams, he learns about the drones patrolling high overhead and the tunnels being bored far beneath the ground. And he introduces us to the people involved on both sides.

Gaynor concludes arguing -- no doubt much to the consternation of the "secure the border" crowd -- that the border is tighter than ever, and that the steady increase in federal officers there this decade has had an impact. But, he notes, this success has perverse results. Tightening the border has been "a market maker for ruthless and profit-hungry coyotes and drug traffickers, for whom smuggling has never been more profitable," he writes. And so it goes.

Gaynor's book is no doubt the easiest read, Castaneda's is more a marker of a political position than anything, and Grayson's belongs in the library as a desk reference for anyone really serious about following the cartels and Mexican politics. Happy reading.

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