On July 2, Mexico will elect a new president, and the race is expected to be one of the closest in Mexican history. One of the two leading candidates is Francisco Labastida of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). An economist by training, Labastida is a longtime party functionary who has served as the governor of the state of Sinaloa and, most recently, as the minister of gobernacion, or government, the country’s second most powerful post. The gobernacion minister is responsible, among other things, for internal security and intelligence, and Labastida—gray-haired, poker-faced, reserved in manner—seems to fit the part.
His main opponent, Vicente Fox of the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), is a swaggering former Coca-Cola executive whose cowboy boots make him look even taller than his six-feet-six-inch frame. Fox is given to brash, dramatic pronouncements that have won him much time on Mexico’s TV stations, which have traditionally favored the PRI. (The third major candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrático (PRD), lags far behind.) Fox has hammered away at what he considers the costs of seventy years of unbroken PRI rule: pervasive corruption, economic mismanagement, and connivance with the drug traffickers who move huge amounts of cocaine into the United States.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), about 60 percent of all the cocaine consumed in the United States enters through Mexico. Mexico is also a major supplier of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine—speed. The revenues from this trade have made the big drug traffickers, the “narcos,” a powerful force in Mexico. President Ernesto Zedillo has said they are the nation’s most urgent national security concern.
To Vicente Fox, however, the Zedillo government is itself heavily implicated in the drug trade. “The narcos took over the PRI long ago,” he has said. “No president from the PRI can solve this because their governments have participated in the drug trade.” If elected, Fox says, he will “clean up the place and straighten up government.”
Labastida has angrily denied Fox’s charges, promising, if elected, to declare “all-out war” on drugs. But he has been dogged by rumors about his complicity with drug traffickers. On April 30, for instance, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article headlined “PRI CANDIDATE’S DRUG STANCE STIRS DOUBTS.” In its account of Labastida’s record as governor of Sinaloa, the Times said that, while there was “no solid evidence” that Labastida had made deals with the powerful traffickers there, interviews with “nearly two dozen” officials and analysts “suggest that Labastida was less than the heroic crusader he has portrayed in his ads.” For “American authorities,” the paper added, “Labastida’s experience is of keen interest. Would it inspire him, if elected, to go after narcotics gangs? The candidate says it would. But others believe that Labastida’s experience illustrates why it has been so difficult for the Mexican authorities to make progress against drug cartels.”
In recent years similar stories about Mexican drug trafficking have regularly appeared in the US press. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have assigned special correspondents to cover the drug trade in Latin America, with a particular emphasis on Mexico. (In 1998, the Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports on drug corruption in Mexico.1 ) For the most part, the articles convey a sense of alarm about the flow of drugs through the country, and of frustration at the Mexicans’ failure to do anything about it. “MEXICO CLEARS A TOP OFFICIAL OF GRAFT, BUT DOESN’T CONVINCE THE US,” a Times headline said in June 1999. In November 1999, according to a Washington Post headline, “DRUGS FLOOD IN FROM MEXICO; INCREASE IN TRAFFIC ON LAND AND SEA ALARMS US OFFICIALS.”
In describing the corrosive effects drugs have had on Mexico, US press coverage has often been exaggerated and misleading. A good example occurred last fall, when US and Mexican investigators descended on the border town of Ciudad Juárez to search for the bodies of people who had disappeared at the hands of drug traffickers or of police officers linked to them. On November 29, the CBS Evening News was the first to report that an FBI task force had moved into the border area “to begin recovering an estimated 100 bodies at two grave sites just inside the Mexican border.” The next day, the story appeared in newspapers across the country, with most putting the number of bodies at “more than 100.” Those figures seemed plausible; an association of relatives of victims claimed that nearly two hundred people had disappeared around Juárez. After days of digging, however, the forensic team found the remains of just nine bodies and two dogs, and the investigation was widely viewed as a fiasco.
The exaggeration could be traced back to the FBI. According to officials I talked to in Juárez and Mexico City, the Mexican informant who told the FBI about the grave sites said he personally knew of only a handful of bodies buried there. But a senior FBI official—engaging in creative extrapolation—had leaked the larger number to CBS and other news organizations, which dutifully made a story of it.
This was not an isolated case. Pronouncements by US officials about Mexican drug trafficking have often been exaggerated, and so has the reporting in the US press. Mexico has been portrayed as a “narco-state,” with the traffickers penetrating every institution. Drug trafficking certainly poses a threat to Mexico, but the American press coverage has often inflated expectations about what can be done about it, and misled Americans about the real source of the drug problem.
Across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Juárez seems in many ways a Texas town. The city’s broad avenues are lined with fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and shopping malls. On weekends, its many nightclubs, restaurants, and bars lure crowds of students from across the border. Juárez also has Mexico’s largest concentration of maquiladoras, or assembly plants. Parts arrive here from companies in the United States, Europe, and Japan to be assembled by workers making $30 to $40 a week. Finished goods bound for the United States are loaded onto trailer trucks and sent over one of the three bridges that connect Juárez to El Paso.
The bridges are also a major conduit for illegal drugs. In a raw display of the logic of the global economy, the same qualities that make Juárez a haven for maquiladoras—cheap labor, lax regulation, and proximity to the United States—also make it ideal for drug trafficking.
The drug traders naturally try to conceal their business from outsiders, but US and Mexican drug enforcement officials—relying on raids, wiretaps, informants, and trial testimony—have gathered much information about how it works. The industry is currently dominated by four large organizations. (The commonly used term “cartel” is a misnomer, for these organizations do not collude to fix prices—the defining characteristic of a cartel.) One organization, based in the northwestern state of Sonora and led by Miguel Caro Quintero, cultivates marijuana throughout Mexico and also deals in heroin and cocaine. Another, based in Guadalajara and led—until their recent arrest—by the Amezcua Contreras brothers, specializes in methamphetamine, which is particularly popular in the US West and Midwest.
A third, much larger organization is based in Tijuana. It is led by the Arellano Felix brothers, one of whom, Ramón, is on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list. The organization, which recruits gang members from the streets of San Diego and from among Tijuana’s relatively well-off young people, is widely viewed as the country’s most violent. Over the years it has killed many police officers.
Rivaling the Tijuana organization in size, if not in its violence, is the Juárez organization. Since the death of its top capo, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, in 1997, the group has been led by Carrillo Fuentes’s brother Vicente. While the organization deals in heroin and marijuana, the main source of its wealth is cocaine. Produced in Colombia, the cocaine is sent to Mexico in commercial ships or “go-fast” boats, then unloaded in ports or coves. At that point, members of the Juárez organization take over, transferring the cocaine to trucks and driving it to Juárez and other cities along the border, where it is stored in warehouses. When the time is right, the cocaine is driven across the border for delivery to organization members in such cities as Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and New York. They sell the cocaine to wholesalers, who break it into smaller quantities for distribution to local gangs, who then sell it on the street. The cash collected from the wholesalers is either laundered through banks and other businesses in the United States or sent back to Mexico to be laundered there.
Meanwhile the drugs are having devastating effects in Juárez. Five years ago drug addiction was virtually unknown there. Since then, the price of a dose of heroin has dropped from $100 to $3, and today thousands have become addicted. Hundreds of picaderos, or shooting galleries, have sprung up to sell drugs. The picaderos are run by the city’s five hundred or so pandillas, or gangs, many of which are modeled on American gangs like the Bloods and Crips. The gang members often engage in bloody fights, and addicts rob and steal to support their habit. The traffickers themselves, however, use violence more selectively, usually to discipline people inside the organization. But the narcos, with their beefy bodyguards, expensive cars, and fancy houses, keep the city on edge.
I visited Esther Chavez Cano, a longtime resident who in recent years has led a tenacious campaign to publicize the violence against women in the city. Since 1995, more than two hundred women have been killed, often by men they have been involved with. Chavez, who lives in a comfortable house in a middle-class section of town, told me that on her street five of the houses are occupied by narcos. How could she tell? “You just know,” she said—by their looks, by the hours they keep, by the parties they frequently give. “Everybody knows where they are,” she said. “But they have very good lawyers. And there’s a lot of corruption.”
Ignacio Alvarado, a Juárez journalist who covered the drug trade for many years, told me that during the entire 1990s, as tons of cocaine were passing through the city, the police “made only one seizure, and that was by mistake. The police are completely corrupted. They never investigate any murder by narco traffickers. They only talk to the family of the victims, and they do that only so that they can say they did it. The police know exactly who the traffickers are, but they’re either bought or threatened, so nothing happens.”
To learn more about the police, I talked with Juárez’s mayor, Gustavo Elizondo. A member of PAN, Elizondo has a reputation for being an honest, hard-working official, and when we met he described the efforts he’d made to do something about the city’s drug trade. He had, he said, fired more than three hundred corrupt policemen and raised the salaries of those who remained. To crack down on the street-level trade, he had instructed the police to raid the city’s picaderos and arrest the men who ran them. Just a few days earlier, the mayor had announced a program to offer cash rewards for tips leading to the arrest of drug traffickers.
As Elizondo was quick to point out, though, there is a limit to what a mayor can do. In Mexico, the state and local police have no legal authority to fight traffickers; only the federal government does. (The rationale for this being that drug trafficking is a national problem.)And Elizondo was doing everything in his power to prod the federal authorities. Two days after our talk, President Zedillo was scheduled to visit Juárez, and Elizondo said he planned to ask him to move more forcefully against the narcos.
The man leading the Zedillo government’s fight against drugs is Jorge Madrazo, Mexico’s attorney general. Most of the knowledgeable observers I talked to—American as well as Mexican—described him as honest and well-intentioned. By training, Madrazo is a professor of constitutional law; when Zedillo appointed him, in December 1996, he was president of the National Human Rights Commission, charged with investigating abuses by the police and army. Madrazo was the seventh man to be named attorney general in seven years, a sign of the turmoil in the office.
Madrazo rules over an enormous bureaucracy. The Procuraduría General de la República (PGR), as it is known, employs 18,000 prosecutors, police officers, officials, and administrators. The PGR is responsible for everything from investigating kidnappings to prosecuting car-theft rings, but Madrazo has assigned over 60 percent of his staff to stopping the drug trade. Some of his most powerful enemies have been discovered within his own office. Just two months after he took office, Mexico’s top anti-drug officer, Jesús Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested by Mexican police for being on the take. A balding general in his sixties, Gutierrez Rebollo was actually living in a Mexico City apartment provided rent-free by the Juárez organization. Madrazo helped prosecute the case against him, and he is now serving thirty years in prison.
After Gutierrez Rebollo’s arrest, Madrazo, declaring Mexico’s justice system to be in its “worst crisis” ever, set up a Confidence Control Center to screen all police officers involved in anti-drug work. Since then, current and potential officers have been subject to psychological tests, urine tests, and polygraph tests. Investigators interview families and friends and visit homes in search of undeclared assets. So far, Madrazo told me, 40 percent of those tested have been dismissed. To instill professional standards in those who remain, Madrazo has brought in police instructors from France and Israel and sent officers to study at the FBI training center in Quantico, Virginia. Madrazo has also raised the salaries of his police, so that a rookie now earns $1,000 a month, when the average income of a Mexican worker is $350 a month.
Even that salary is paltry, however, especially when compared to the enormous sums paid out by the traffickers. According to a study by Mexico’s National University, they spend an estimated $500 million a year on bribes. A senior official in Madrazo’s office told me of one PGR attorney in Tijuana who was offered a million dollars a month by the traffickers just to ignore their activities. He refused the bribe and prosecuted the man who offered it, but not many police and prosecutors are so honest. Indeed, what is striking about the corruption in Mexico is the extent to which law enforcement has become an arm of the traffickers and of organized crime in general.
That the corruption extends into the upper reaches of the PGR is apparent from the suicide in March of Juan Manual Izabal, a top aide to Madrazo. Investigators found he had $700,000 in unexplained cash squirreled away in a safe deposit box at a local Citibank branch. A US official who has dealt with Madrazo told me, “The corruption starts right outside his door, and I don’t mean the door of his building, but the door of his own office.” Despite all Madrazo’s good intentions, he remains ineffectual.
That ineffectuality was nowhere more evident than in the case of Mario Villanueva, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo, on the Yucatán Peninsula. During Villanueva’s six years in office the state became a center of narco activities. Its thick tropical cover and rugged coastline were ideal for smugglers, and members of the Juárez organization turned the region into its main importation point for Colombian cocaine. To launder their proceeds, the traffickers bought up hotels and restaurants in the resort city of Cancún. Making little effort to hide their presence, they traveled around the town in convoys of SUVs with tinted windows. Villanueva did nothing to intervene.
In its investigation, Madrazo’s office documented not only the smuggling activities of the Juárez syndicate but also the complicity of dozens of local and state officials, Villanueva included, and it prepared indictments against them. As governor, however, Villanueva had immunity against prosecution, and to arrest him Madrazo had to wait until April 1999, when his term ended. Ten days before the appointed day, however, Villanueva vanished into the jungle. The PGR has not yet found him.
In one important respect, however, the investigation was unprecedented: Villanueva was a senior member of the PRI, and never before had the government planned to move so decisively against one of its own. Yet even here its motives were questionable. Several governors in Mexico have been suspected of working with the traffickers, but only Villanueva has been indicted. And, as it happens, he had been feuding with some of the PRI’s leaders. So the PGR’s actions smacked of political retribution.
All of which points to a fundamental weakness in the PGR’s activities: it is basically an arm of the PRI. And so it’s unlikely that Madrazo would ever take action against anyone his superiors didn’t want him to pursue. “The attorney general can’t go further than the president will allow,” says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a member of Mexico’s Senate with no party affiliation. Aguilar believes that Mexico needs an independent body capable of investigating the executive branch. “Nobody can penetrate the government—not even the United States,” Aguilar told me. The only thing that could really make a difference, he said, “would be a change of government. Then maybe we could put an end to the impunity here.”
Whatever one thinks of the PAN candidate Vicente Fox’s politics, the very fact of a change of government in Mexico could provide a shock to its political system. If elected—and we can expect a fierce effort by the PRI to stop him—Fox would probably begin a long, laborious process of exposing the many dark secrets that have accumulated over the seven decades of PRI rule.
Even if Fox does win, however, there are sharp limits to what he—or anyone else—can do to control Mexico’s drug trade. Consider the seemingly straightforward matter of arresting traffickers. The DEA has made this its principal standard for measuring Mexico’s “resolve” in fighting drugs. Last fall, for instance, when the story about the bodies in Juárez broke, Thomas Constantine, the former head of the DEA, said on Nightline, “We know the top 20 or 30 traffickers. We’ve indicted them in the United States, yet they’re never to be found, never to be arrested. I’ve always said that would be the test of full cooperation.”
Most US news organizations have adopted the same standard. In February 1999, for instance, The Washington Post reported that Mexico had “made no significant progress” in the previous year on “several critical measures that are considered the true gauge of its resolve to combat the illegal drug trade.” Mexico’s “two main illegal drug organizations—the Tijuana and Juárez cartels—still operate with few restraints,” the Post said, adding that “even when kingpins were arrested, they often evaded justice.”
The premise underlying such accounts is clear: if only Mexico would nab the drug lords, their organizations would collapse and the flow of drugs into the United States would stop. Yet, over the years, the killing and arrest of many top traffickers have had little effect. During the mid-1980s, for instance, the most wanted trafficker in Mexico was Rafael Caro Quintero, a leader of an organization in Guadalajara. Caro Quintero had made a fortune running marijuana and cocaine into the United States. This caught the attention of the DEA, which began pressing the Mexican government to act. In a colossal miscalculation, Caro Quintero arranged for the kidnapping and murder of a DEA agent, Enrique Camarena. The DEA tracked Caro Quintero down to San Jose, Costa Rica, and had him arrested. Deported to Mexico, Caro Quintero was sentenced to life in prison. His organization, however, was quickly taken over by his brother, Miguel, and the DEA still regards it as one of Mexico’s four leading drug groups.2
In the early 1990s, the DEA turned its attention to Juan García Abrego, the head of the so-called Gulf cartel, based in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. Through generous bribery and much killing of rivals, García Abrego built an organization that, according to US and Mexican officials, controlled up to one third of the cocaine smuggled from Mexico into the United States. In 1993, he was indicted in Houston, and in early 1996 the Mexicans arrested him. García Abrego was expelled to the United States, where he was tried and sentenced to life in prison. His organization began to crumble.
That simply opened up opportunities for other traffickers, however, Amado Carrillo Fuentes among them. An enterprising trafficker from Sinaloa, Carrillo Fuentes had set up his base in Juárez. Until the early 1990s, his organization, like the others in Mexico, received a fee of $1,500 to $2,000 for every kilogram it moved into the US. With the Colombian traffickers growing weaker, however, Carrillo Fuentes—along with other major traffickers—reportedly negotiated a new deal in which he would be paid in kind, with half of each shipment smuggled from Colombia going to his organization for distribution in the United States. Soon, Carrillo Fuentes was flying cocaine into Mexico aboard privately owned Boeing 727s, a tactic that earned him the nickname “Lord of the Heavens.”
But it also brought him to the attention of the Mexican government, and in January 1997 Mexican troops—hoping to seize him—stormed a wedding reception for his sister. Word leaked out, however, and Carrillo Fuentes narrowly escaped. In July 1997 he secretly checked into a Mexico City hospital for surgery to alter his appearance. For eight hours four plastic surgeons worked on him, performing liposuction and reconstructing his face. At the end of the operation, Carrillo Fuentes was injected with a lethal combination of sedatives and anesthesia, and he died on the operating table. Just how this happened remains mysterious; Mexican drug officials believe he may have been killed by his rivals.
Instead of destroying his organization, Carrillo Fuentes’s death set off a vicious power struggle for control of it. Eventually, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Amado’s brother, took over, and business has more or less continued as usual. Thomas Constantine, while still head of the DEA, testified before the US Congress in March 1999 that “despite the death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes in July 1997, his organization has continued to flourish. This organization’s drug shipments to the US continue unabated under the leadership of his brother….”
And so it goes: every time one trafficker is eliminated, another quickly takes his place. In light of this, I called Constantine—who now teaches at the State University of New York in Albany—to ask why he attached so much importance to arresting traffickers. Aren’t their places simply taken by others? Yes, he told me, “but then you arrest their replacements, and then their replacements.” And as a result, he said, the traffickers become increasingly inept: “Take any institution—IBM, say. If the top two or three hundred of its executives are somehow incapacitated for five years, IBM is going to have a problem. The same with the traffickers. They can’t hold a middle-management training program. So when you take one structure out, the next structure becomes easier to deal with.”
In the case of drug traffickers, however, this does not seem to be true. “The new generation is more intelligent than the one before it,” José Trinidad Larrieta, the head of Mexico’s Organized Crime Unit, told me. “They take advantage of all the significant advances in technology.” Today’s traffickers use cell phones, faxes, pagers, and the Internet; encryption techniques keep their messages secret. And, realizing that flamboyant behavior can attract unwelcome attention, the narcos have become far more discreet, making it all the harder to track them.
If arresting individual traffickers seems futile, what about a full frontal assault? Why not send the army into Juárez and Tijuana to arrest the kingpins and restore order? Such a strategy has already been tried—in Colombia—with instructive results. In 1984, after the country’s justice minister was assassinated, President Belisario Betancur declared war on the leaders of the Medellín cartel, mobilizing both the police and the army against them. By way of response, the cartel set off car bombs, killed journalists, and shot a presidential candidate. The government kept up the pressure, however, and by the end of 1993, when Pablo Escobar was killed, the cartel lay in ruins.
Immediately, though, its place was taken by the Cali cartel. And so the government attacked it. By 1996 it, too, had been dismantled. Its place, however, was quickly filled by scores of smaller but no less violent syndicates. Highly dispersed and skilled in advanced communications, these mini-cartels are in many respects more elusive than their flashy predecessors. Moreover, the government, in destroying the Medellín and Cali cartels, created opportunities in the drug trade for the FARC guerrillas, who extracted high taxes from local producers. Meanwhile, the production of both cocaine and heroin soared.3
According to Bruce Bagley, an expert on Colombia who teaches at the University of Miami, the war against the cartels, far from achieving its goals, was “actually counterproductive,” resulting in an explosion in drug production, the spread of organized crime, and the “intensification of political violence and guerrilla warfare in the country.” Declaring all-out war on Mexico’s traffickers could produce similar results. “You’ll only have more corruption, more deaths,” says Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking who lives in Mexico City. In the end, Chabat told me, launching a frontal assault on the drug trade could prove even more “destabilizing” than the activities of the traffickers themselves.
Mexico’s narcos have much less capacity to threaten the state than do their Colombian counterparts. The revenues from Mexico’s drug trade have been estimated at between $10 billion and $30 billion, but even the lower figure may be too high. According to US officials, Americans consume about three hundred tons of cocaine a year. About sixty percent of that total—one hundred and eighty tons—is thought to pass through Mexico. (Most of the rest goes through the Caribbean.) Under their fifty-fifty arrangement with the Colombians, the Mexicans would control ninety of those tons. Currently, cocaine sells wholesale in the United States for about $15,000 a kilogram, or $15 million a ton. Ninety tons would thus yield $1.35 billion. The traffickers also profit from heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine, but it’s hard to imagine that any of these drugs are much more lucrative than cocaine. If so, then the total revenues from drug trafficking in Mexico would amount to less than 2 percent of the country’s $400 billion GNP. This is enough to qualify drugs as a major industry, but not enough to make Mexico a “narco-state.”
In Colombia the drug trade pervades the entire country. In Mexico its activities are limited to specific regions—border cities like Juárez and Tijuana; Guadalajara, an important trafficking hub in central Mexico; and coastal states like Quintana Roo that become temporary trafficking havens. Most drug-related violence is limited to these regions. In the rest of the country, what most concerns residents is street crime, which has greatly increased in recent years. This is attributable not to drug trafficking but to the economic crisis that has afflicted the country since 1995. In that year, Mexico’s GNP dropped by 7 percent, and, though the economy has recovered some, the purchasing power of Mexico’s minimum wage remains at its lowest level in decades, and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
The newspaper Reforma periodically asks 1,500 Mexicans to name the most important problem facing the country. In the most recent survey, published in March, drug trafficking was cited by only one percent. Coming in first, with 21 percent, was inseguridad pública—ordinary crime—followed by the economic crisis (17 percent), poverty (11 percent), and government corruption (9 percent). Corruption, of course, is tied to drug trafficking, but it is part of a much broader Mexican pattern that includes the government’s links with organized crime, including drug traffickers, and its routine plundering of public resources. The anger so many Mexicans feel toward former president Carlos Salinas and his brother Raúl, for instance, derives not from their ties to the drug trade but from their rigging of the economic system so that a handful of plutocrats made fortunes while a million ordinary Mexicans got laid off.
Nonetheless, US officials and journalists seem concerned only with drug corruption. This helps to explain why Ernesto Zedillo has declared drugs Mexico’s top security concern, and why Jorge Madrazo has devoted so much of his energy to fighting them. “Drugs are the priority of the PGR because it wants to show the United States that it is working hard in that area,” says Cesar Romero, who writes about drugs for Reforma. “Of course, drugs are a national security concern, but it’s very clear that in a country like Mexico, there are many other priorities. Ordinary crime is what most people think about.”
Unable to attack the drug trade head on, but still suffering its effects—what is Mexico to do? In recent months, the Zedillo administration has introduced a new strategy that, it hopes, will offer some relief. It was designed by Francisco Labastida when he was at gobernacion and gives some idea of the policy he might pursue if elected president. The new approach arose from a growing sense that Mexico’s traditional combination of programs—seizing drugs at the US border, eradicating marijuana and opium poppy fields, arresting traffickers—was failing. Once cocaine entered Mexico, the damage, in corruption, violence, and addiction, was done. Unfortunately, it was easy for smugglers to cross Mexico’s 760-mile southern border, and its long coastlines were barely patrolled. If the government could fortify them, Labastida concluded, perhaps the smugglers would go elsewhere.
And so, in 1999, the government launched Operación Sellamiento de la Frontera—Seal the Border—with the border in question being not only the northern frontier with the United States but Mexico’s entire perimeter. To finance this program, the government has committed itself to spending between $400 million and $500 million over two years. Most of that money is to go for high-tech hardware—X-ray machines to inspect the interior of trucks, high-speed boats to pursue traffickers, and small surveillance planes to spot suspicious craft. About 20,000 additional men—mostly from the military—are being thrown into the drug fight. Many have already been deployed on Mexico’s southern border and at choke points along the coasts.
Can such an approach work? Drug traffickers in Latin America have always sought the path of least resistance, and, if Mexico makes use of its territory sufficiently risky, they might go elsewhere. Even so, Operación Sellami-ento’s impact is likely to be modest. In view of the United States’ lack of success in sealing its own borders, it’s hard to believe the Mexicans will do much better. What’s more, the strategy poses many risks. One is even greater corruption. The more military officers participate in drug enforcement, the more temptations they will face. Already, the Mexican and US press have featured stories about high-ranking officers on the take. Human rights advocates, meanwhile, fear that the military’s growing involvement in antidrug work will result in more ordinary Mexicans being arrested and treated brutally.
As for the United States, Operación Sellamiento promises no relief at all. Even if the traffickers do begin to avoid Mexico, they will no doubt find other routes into the United States. US drug agents have already detected a sharp increase in the amount of Colombian cocaine being smuggled through the Caribbean—a sign that some of the traffickers may be moving there. US officials profess to be encouraged by this. “We’re going to be chasing the drugs somewhere,” one military official told me. “And we’ve got a lot at stake in a stable Mexico. So it’s better for us to help get the drugs out of Mexico and into the Caribbean and fight it there.”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Caribbean was the main smuggling zone for Colombian cocaine. Typically, the drug was flown to the Bahamas or other island nations and from there into southern Florida. As a result, the murder rate in Dade County sharply increased, and the Reagan administration, under pressure to act, set up the South Florida Task Force. Hundreds of federal agents were assigned to the region, and surveillance planes were sent over the Caribbean. The Colombians began looking for routes elsewhere. And, eventually, they found a good one—overland through Mexico. The resulting tide of cocaine running through that country has helped turn its traffickers into the threat they are today.
To a large degree, then, Mexico’s current drug woes are an unanticipated side effect of the US government’s “successful” interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. This, it seems, is the inevitable result of drug enforcement: it simply pushes the traffickers from one region to another. Now Mexico is attempting to push them back to the Caribbean. Even if it succeeds, at huge cost, what will the unanticipated consequences be this time? New instability in the West Indies? Surging violence in Miami?
No one can say for sure. What does seem certain, though, is that none of this activity will reduce the flow of drugs into the United States. The cocaine market is so glutted, in fact, that the Colombian producers are desperately trying to develop new markets in Europe. Even the DEA is candid about this. “There’s three times as much cocaine produced as could ever be used in the United States,” Thomas Constantine told me. “So our ability to slash that amount to get it down to where it’s going to affect the price is unrealistic. The idea that law enforcement can raise the price of drugs—it’s an impossible goal.” If so, then the USwar on drugs in Latin America seems futile.
Nonetheless, the United States is preparing to send $1.6 billion to Colombia for anti-narcotics programs, with most of the money going to the military and police. Few expect it to do much good. In the end, there’s simply no getting around the fundamental fact that governments don’t want to confront: the drug crisis in Latin America is driven by the United States’ enormous demand for drugs, and until we succeed in reducing that demand, we will simply push the drugs around, helping to visit misery upon one country or another, with no end in sight.
—May 17, 2000
June 15, 2000