The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America by Ted Galen Carpenter (2012, Cato Institute, 307 pp., $24.95 HB)
Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism, and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy by Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda (2012, Zed Press, 260 pp., $24.95 PB)
As of this month, Felipe Calderon has finished his term as president of Mexico, and while history may prove kinder in the long run, he leaves office known as the man who plunged his country into a drug war. Some 50,000 people, or is it 60,000 or 70,000? -- nobody seems to know for sure -- have been killed in the multi-sided conflict since Calderon, in almost the opening act of his administration, deployed the army against the so-called cartels six years ago.
Calderon's throwing the military into the fray and his strategy of attempting to decapitate the cartels by going after their top leadership have produced some results -- the government proudly says 25 of 37 top capos have been captured or killed -- but have clearly failed to destroy the cartels, stop the traffic of drugs into the US, or reduce the horrendous levels of violence. He -- and the country -- have also paid a disastrous price, not just in terms of lives lost, but in public cynicism and insecurity, loss of confidence, international dismay and disgust, and domestic political capital.
Indeed, only a dozen years after "the perfect dictatorship" of the PRI fell in disgrace at the hands of Vicente Fox and the PAN, Calderon and the PAN are out, and the PRI is back. Calderon's disaster of a drug war and steady increase in violent crime in general while he was preoccupied fighting the cartels certainly deserve credit, if that is the word, for the return of the rejected.
Now, Calderon's successor, the PRIista Enrique Pena Nieto, has a chance to change course, and his administration has made no secret it wants to. Just this week, Pena Nieto's secretary of the interior, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, bitterly attacked Calderon's US-backed strategy for causing violence to increase, saying its decapitation strategy had only fractured the cartels, making them "more violent and much more dangerous." The new government will abandon that strategy and instead concentrate on reducing violent crime affecting ordinary civilians, Osorio Chong and Pena Nieto have said.
But having a smarter drug war is not going to get the job done, argues libertarian-leaning Cato Institute senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter in The Fire Next Door. He rather convincingly makes the case that there is no solution to the Mexican drug war short of ending drug prohibition and sucking the money out the multi-billion dollar black market business in the substances we love to consume north of the border. Only then will the cartels be weakened enough to recede as a threat to Mexico and to the US, which as his subtitle indicates, is the real focus of his concern.
British academics Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda are Carpenter's polar opposites in terms of ideological orientation, but in Drug War Mexico, they arrive at some similar policy prescriptions, at least when it comes to drug prohibition itself. "If the illegal narcotics were decriminalized and stringently controlled, it is likely cartel profits would be severely constrained," they write.
But even that would not suffice, they argue. Legalization is probably a pipe dream for now, and even were it to occur, "it would not necessarily on its own present a long-term answer to the institutional corruption and the eruption of violence in the last few years," they write, noting that drug revenues now make up only about half of cartel earnings, and that legalization does nothing in itself to address the broader economic and political problems that allow the illicit drug business to flourish in the first place.
And that's where they part ways with Carpenter. For Watt and Zepeda, Mexico's "narcoeconomy" is a manifestation of its insertion into the global capitalist economic order, which is the main problem. For Carpenter, global capitalism, the free market, neo-liberalism, whatever you want to call it, is just the status quo.
Thus the differences. Carpenter sees legalization as a market-based solution to the problem of Mexico's drug violence, while Watt and Zepeda see the free market as the problem, legalization as no better than a partial solution to Mexico's drug violence, and fundamental social and economic reform as the necessary precondition.
Differences notwithstanding, both Carpenter and Watt and Zepeda provide histories of drug trafficking in Mexico, the complicity of the state and other actors, and the ins and outs of the cartel wars, and both cast a leery eye on US policies toward Mexico and its drug wars. The US has backed Calderon's militaristic approach with hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly military and law enforcement aid under Plan Merida. Carpenter views this as dangerously empowering the military against civilian institutions, while Watt and Zepeda see it as backing a Mexican ruling class strategy of using the military to repress and intimidate political opposition in the guise of the drug war.
Both are valuable contributions to the ever-growing bibliography of Mexico's prohibition-induced dance of death. Carpenter's primary concern is from a US national security perspective, and his examination of the dangers of the violence left unchecked for the US is sobering. His concentration on the US also leads him to focus like a laser on calling for ending prohibition in the US, after which surely others will follow.
Watt and Zepeda do especially well in unraveling the networks of complicity that embed the Mexican drug trade squarely within the larger economy and polity, and make an especially strong case that the Sinaloa Cartel has received favorable treatment from various state actors. They also deserve kudos for clarifying just how exhaustively and effectively the former PRI-state did not so much repress as manage the drug trade during its tenure.
Those "good old days" of Mexican drug trafficking, where the violence was kept within limits, where the occasional exemplary bust of drug lord kept the Americans at bay, where the drugs flowed quietly and the money accumulated in the pockets of policemen, politicians, and army officers, doesn't look so bad now. That's one strong reason we're starting to hear a lot of talk about reaching an accommodation with the cartels or, more pejoratively, appeasement.
Will Pena Nieto and the PRI cut a deal with the cartels? As Carpenter notes, things have changed. The unitary PRI-state is no more; the number of parties and players who would have to be cut in has grown, and whatever deals are done could be undone in the next election. And the US certainly wouldn't approve. Still, Pena Nieto seems to be signaling to the cartels at least a truce of sorts: "You don't mess with us (by killing, kidnapping, and extorting the good people) and we won’t mess with you (by trying to decapitate your leadership).
That would be a very uncomfortable accommodation, but short of ending drug prohibition, it may be the best Mexico can hope for, at least in the short run. Let's see if the crime rate starts to drop, the grisly killings grow less frequent, the "neutralization" of drug bosses less frequent. There will certainly be no public pronouncement.
But that's a bargain with the devil. Perhaps Mexico can live with the tamed cartels and their insidious corruption, but if it's going to get serious about eliminating their wealth and power, the only answer is increasingly clear, whether you're on the left ,the right, or in the middle.