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The US War on Drug Cartels in Mexico Is a Deadly Failure

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Mark Karlin: Approximately 50,000 or more Mexicans have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a so-called war on drug cartels.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In the presidential election campaign, immigration is certainly going to be one of the important issues—and most people mean immigration from Mexico and Latin America when they talk about the issue.

Now joining us is Mark Karlin from and BuzzFlash at Truthout. He’s just finished a ten-part series looking at the whole question of Mexico and United States and the war on drugs. Thanks very much for joining us, Mark.


JAY: So, as I said, this is a ten-part series, and we can’t go through all the main points of the ten parts—a very rich series. But after doing all this work, Mark, what are you left with as sort of the most important points that you learnt through doing this?

KARLIN: My takeaway is the war on drugs is really for, one, domestic consumption, and two, a lot of people are dying. Molly Molloy, who is a librarian at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces has been someone who’s actually tallied the people that died as a result of the drug war as best she can. And she has a wide following. She can be found on She also has a listserv. And just the other day, she compiled new statistics put out by the Mexican government that more than 80,000 people have died since Calderón, Felipe Calderón, who is the outgoing president, started the U.S.-led, reinvigorated war on drugs in 2006. Another 160,000 or 180,000 have been displaced in Mexico, and 10,000 to 20,000 have disappeared.

Nothing has been accomplished. The price of heroin is the same now as it was in 1972. Cocaine is generally considered up. The selling of coca leaves in Colombia has not dissipated at all; it’s just been rerouted through Mexico. The reason Mexico became a corridor was because the U.S. clamped down on shipments to Miami. But none of this is reducing the consumption in the United States. Actually, the quality of heroine and the quality of cocaine and the potency of marijuana are generally conceded to have gone up over the past few years, and prices have fallen. So that is a complete failure if you look at any sort of market analysis of drug trafficking and drug sales.

What the U.S. is basically doing—and the undersecretary for drugs for Hillary Clinton testified to this in Congress, although he didn’t call at this—is basically a Whac-A-Mole. They stopped the shipments from Colombia directly to Miami, so now they’re going through Mexico. Now they say they’re going to stop them from Mexico and then hit them in Central America. Then they say it will be in the Caribbean. But there’s no endgame as far as reducing the trafficking and drugs and the volume, because the consumption in the United States continues to go up and U.S. simply won’t address its domestic consumption problem.

JAY: Well, you really are led to the conclusion—at least I am—that the status quo is the objective. The objective isn’t to end drugs. The objective is to have ongoing, continuous low-scale warfare throughout Latin America. And under the rubric of the war on drugs, you accomplish all kinds of things. And the United States, there doesn’t seem to be a serious effort to get rid of drugs, ’cause, I mean, every professional in the field says if you’re really serious about limiting demand on the American side of the border, you actually go not maybe to full legalization, but you treat it as a medical problem and you attack it from that angle. And the policy seems so clear, which leads you to, then, why is the war on drugs still the primary policy, when every professional in the field essentially says it’s failing.

KARLIN: Militarization is an important point. The war on drugs allows the U.S., now that there is not a lot of leftist political activity in the Americas south of the border, except in Colombia, where there’s FARC—but FARC has been pretty much stabilized, and probably there’s a number of tacit agreements between the Colombian government and FARC, so that it controls a swath of Colombian territory but is not really threatening the Colombian government anymore. So there’s not really many leftist guerrilla movements.

So what did the U.S. need? It needed something in order to continue militarization within the Americas. And militarization allows for a free economy, particularly with the new NAFTA neoliberal trade agreements. And you have a Colombian trade agreement and so forth.

In Mexico, one can argue that the war on drugs has actually helped transnational corporations. The Mexican gross domestic product is growing particularly because of transnational activity. It’s moving from what was a monopolistic oligarchy to a transnational sort of vehicle into the United States, meaning that companies set up maquiladoras, which are the cheap-labor assembly manufacturing plants south of the American border where they pay maybe $7.50 a day instead of $12 an hour, $14 an hour for work.

And then these entryways in the United States are being built over the Rio Grande, if they don’t already exist, to allow for shipping into the United States. And what’s happened is countries from around the world have set up shop there, not just United States companies that have outsourced to Mexico and therefore eliminated jobs in the U.S.

And so the war on drugs, some would contend, is sort of a shock doctrine in Mexico being applied. The citizens don’t really have a chance to politically protest, because they fear for their lives. And many people who are killed in Mexico—and there’s no question about that; this is just factual—are killed by the military there or the local police. There is so much corruption within the ranks of Mexican law enforcement and the military that people who are in a city that’s besieged, like Juárez, really don’t know who they can trust. They don’t report crime to the police because the police may be behind it, the military may be behind it. There were, I think, five or six generals just two weeks ago who were arrested and indicted in Mexico because of their cooperation in payoffs by the drug cartels. This is fairly common. There was a director of what was the Mexican department of drug enforcement under Calderón who for two years was getting paid $450,000 a month by the drug cartels to essentially run the Mexican drug enforcement [crosstalk]

JAY: Now, at the recent meetings of the OAS, the majority of Latin American countries, I believe, favored legalization of some sort. At least, they all declared the war on drugs a failure. Is there any resonance in Washington at all? Both parties’ leadership seem completely committed to this whether or not there’s any results.

KARLIN: The U.S. has a very close alliance with the militaries in most Latin American countries, with a few exceptions. And the U.S. basically doesn’t care about the governments as long as they don’t give the U.S. a hard time economically. And they play to the military through what was formerly known as the School of Americas, through ongoing aid, through the U.S. Southern Command, and so forth. And so, therefore, in a country like Honduras, where you had a coup just after Obama took office, the U.S. supported the coup, which was basically military-backed. And the reason there was a coup in Honduras was the—what you would call a moderately liberal leader was starting to institute land reform, and the oligarchy in Honduras was very upset by this, and the U.S. backs the oligarchy in almost any country.

I put a challenge in my series of ten articles for anyone to name me any populist democracy south of the border that the U.S. has ever supported, and I haven’t received a response. And I think that pretty much explains the situation and goals of the United States.

But I would say, if you just give me one second, after doing the whole series of ten articles, that the ultimate objective of the U.S. in the war on drugs, the U.S. government, is economic domination of the Americas. And the U.S. military involvement in the war on drugs, whether it’s through the DEA or actually through the military, allows the U.S. a role in shaping the government and the economic agendas of governments in Mexico and in South America. And that’s why, as I say, you see Mexico now transitioning into a transnational nation. And there’s really no one to protest, because everyone’s fearing for their lives because of the drug war.

But the drugs themselves, in terms of trafficking in Mexico, have not diminished one iota. If anything, they’ve increased. All you see is redistribution of the pie, and that includes to people in the military, local police, and people who are paid off very high up in the Mexican government.

JAY: Right. And then I guess it’s a topic for another conversation, but I don’t think one could minimize the importance to those that look at these questions from the point of view of the American elite to what drugs does to inner-American city—the inner cities across the country, especially the big urban centers, where amongst the poor the drug business is roaring and the political protest movement more or less is not roaring. And it’s not a leap to say there’s a connection between those two things.

KARLIN: I would absolutely agree with you. We’re basically drugging the poor to appease them, in a way, and to keep them quiet in the absence of providing economic opportunity.

I would also point out that we had an installment—I had an installment that pointed out that the arrests, particularly of minority males in American cities on minor drug charges, is very important to profitability of the prison-industrial complex. And people may think that’s some sort of radical term, but it’s not. We have an increasing number of for-profit prisons in the United States, and the Corrections Corporation of America, for instance, which is, I think, the biggest, signs contracts, and they have to have a guarantee, basically, that 90 percent of the prison beds will be filled.

So you have Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow and I interviewed for Truthout, is very eloquent about this. But you have so many black males who have gone to prison for nonviolent drug offenses at this point that they come out, they have a felony record, there’s no jobs in their neighborhood except drugs to begin with, and it’s almost impossible for them to find a job, let alone find a job with a felony record. But in essence their value to the American corporate structure, to the prison guards unions, to the criminal justice system is actually monetized in terms of their going to prison on a drug charge. So they have a monetary value to many people’s livelihoods because they are convicted for minor [crosstalk]

JAY: Right. And it should be noted that the police officers across the country, many, many of them have declared the war on drugs a complete failure, including the outgoing police commissioner of Baltimore. At any rate, thanks very much for joining us, Mark.

KARLIN: Thank you. And thank you once again for helping to contribute to the real news.

JAY: Okay. And we’ll put a link to Mark’s series of articles under the video player. And so thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

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