Thursday, December 18, 2008

The High Cost of Paying Hommage to Virtue

In Mexico, the bodies continue to pile up. By the count of Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Mora, over 8,100 people have died violent, drug trafficking-related deaths since Felipe Calderon became president in December 2006. The Brookings Institute recently published a Latin America report, "Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations," that includes a sizable section on drug trafficking- which they consider to be “at the core of organized crime in the hemisphere” – and which notes that, this year alone, the same number of people have died in Mexico as have died fighting for the United States in Iraq since the start of our war there almost six years ago. Increasingly, that seems like an understatement.

A quantitatively problematic turn of a long-simmering conflict has been accompanied by a qualitative one: bodies are now increasingly headless, pinned with narco-messages, or placed in very public places. Sometimes corpses are even physically arranged to form rough but explicit messages themselves.
Today, in a front page story accompanied by a grainy mugshot, the LA Times reported on corpses in Tijuana that were found arranged to spell out “3 L”. Tijuana drug kingpin Teodoro Garcia Simental goes by the three-letter moniker Teo, and the arrangement was supposedly a message, both threat and boast, of his domination of the city.

The catalyzing combination of a steadily rising body count and a new level of viscerally disturbing gore has led to the focus of a considerable amount of American media attention on Mexico’s drug trafficking industry. Mexico is the new Colombia. Often, as today, that coverage is transmitted in simple narrative form. The violent end product of a toxic mix of factors- including an insatiable American appetite for illicit drugs, the lack of viable alternative livelihoods for many well-intentioned, supply-side citizens, and cross-border policies that have the effect of increasing inequality and enmity- is boiled down to the story of a particularly ruthless or fascinating drug kingpin. Today, proclaimed the LA Times, that man is Teodoro Garcia. We always seem to learn fascinating personal details: Teo supposedly likes to arrange private horse races, at which he bets heavily, at ranches outside of Ensenada.

As a literary device, the biographical news sketch has the advantage of breaking a complex tangle of issues into a manageable chunk of digestible information, convenient and accessible to a casual news-follower. For the same reason, it brings with it the danger of oversimplifying a multi-faceted problem, of reducing to black and white, hero and villain, a tricky interplay of factors and characters, and in the process distorting the way things really work. So, while such devices are understandably used to convey mass media news, they are disastrous as a basis for policy formulation.

Nonetheless, since the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the first real drug super-villain, in the early 1990s, this has been America’s approach to counternarcotics work. Taking out the kingpin and his cartel, or the kingpins and their cartels, will eliminate the supply of drugs in America, or at least reduce them to a level where prices are unaffordably high, the theory goes. Accordingly, when Escobar was finally hunted down and killed in 1993, there was a sense, according to John Carnevale, then budget director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, that this military triumph was “a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs.”

History has not been kind to that vision. Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was merely replaced by the Cali Cartel (rumored to have colluded with Colombian security forces against him to eliminate their chief business competitor). The center of the drug trafficking world eventually shifted to the Caribbean, and then to Mexico, and drug kingpins continued to be killed, and their organizations dismantled, at an impressive rate. Still, new groupings of traffickers, ever more inventive and sophisticated, kept popping up.
Now, 15 years after Escobar’s demise, cocaine prices in the United States (according to Brookings calculations) are lower than ever, which suggests that the flood of drugs north remains unabated, and has maybe even increased.

Until Teo Garcia made the front page, the drug super-villain of the moment has been Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The story of "El Chapo", or "Shorty," and his rise in Culiacan, on Mexico’s Pacific coast 650 miles south of the border, formed the foundation for recent articles in New Yorker and Rolling Stone that explored the Mexican crisis, and political attention has lately been focused on his reigning Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman, 53 years old, married an 18 year old beauty queen last year; he also reportedly likes to stay up late drinking and dancing at his Sinaloa hill country hideouts. While El Chapo and his fellow 'capos' may have colorful personal lives that provide fodder for fascinating character studies, they don’t provide the key to efficient counternarcotic strategies, or ways to reduce the damage of drug use and abuse.

More focus and attention, it seems, needs to be directed to less flashy, though more substantively important, underlying factors. For instance, 2,000 guns cross the border from the United States, where they are legal, to Mexico, where they are not, on a daily basis. This becomes very significant when you consider that, according to the ATF and their Mexican counterparts, approximately 90% of the weapons that are the physical means of Mexican drug violence originate in the United States.

The Brookings report ends by recommending that the United States “undertake a comprehensive, cross-country evaluation of counternarcotics policies,” which it concludes are “failing by most objective measures.” America’s drug war is “more a balloon than a battlefield,” and it seems like the sooner U.S. policymakers realize that, and that every Pablo they kill is going to beget a Chapo or Teo, the sooner they can begin preparing an effective response.

No comments: