How vi­o­lence over­came Mex­ico

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Sam Quinones

To many Amer­i­cans, Mex­ico’s drugvi­o­lence of the last decade has been as mys­ti­fy­ing as our south­ern neigh­bor it­self.

In a once-peace­ful coun­try, news­pa­pers have run monthly tal­lies of de­cap­i­ta­tions. Amin­i­mumwage Ti­juana car­tel em­ployee know­nas the Soup maker dis­solves corpses in acid baths. Novelists have been ren­dered im­po­tent by head­lines more porno­graph­i­cally macabre than any­thing an artist could in­vent. Cor­ri­dos — tra­di­tional songs telling tales of doomed, brave men do­ing bat­tle with power — have be­come com­mer­cials for the most sav­age and ig­no­rant.

To­day, the car­tel wars con­tinue, with some ar­eas quiet (Ci­u­dad Juárez) while oth­ers (Mi­choacán, Ta­mauli­pas) con­tinue to roil.

In the United States, all this has mainly served to con­firm long-held ideas, many quite jus­ti­fied, of Mex­ico’s slim hold on the rule of law. That’s too bad, for it ought to have prompted a more in­tro­spec­tive re­sponse.

“A Narco His­tory: How the United States and Mex­ico Jointly Cre­ated the ‘Mex­i­can Drug War’ ” by Mex­i­can nov­el­ist Car­men Boul­losa and U.S. his­to­rian Mike Wallace makes a strong bid to change that.

The au­thors do a won­der­ful job ex­plain­ing how Mex­ico’s or­deal grew out of the seven-decade rule of the In­sti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party, or PRI, a na­tion­wide Tam­many Hall that suf­fo­cated the best in the coun­try while ex­alt­ing the most in­ert, be­fore Mex­i­cans voted it out of power in 2000. (It has since re­turned to the pres­i­dency but with­out the

po­lit­i­cal mo­nop­oly it once en­joyed.)

Boul­losa and Wallace con­nect the sav­agery as well to our war on drugs. Their bi­na­tional tale in­cludes U.S. drug pro­hi­bi­tions, Amer­i­cans’ ap­petite for il­le­gal dope and our child­like re­fusal todo any­thing se­ri­ous to limit the flow of arms south, even asthose guns and bul­lets have daily bathed Mex­ico in blood.

Their over­view — a cen­tury of his­tory in a few hun­dred pages — emerges or­nate in de­tail yet re­fresh­ingly con­cise.

I say this though I dis­agree with some of their most im­por­tant con­clu­sions.

The au­thors blame NAFTA for cre­at­ing large pools of un­der­em­ployed young Mex­i­can farm work­ers who be­came fod­der for the drug war.

NAFTA has both harmed and en­er­gized Mex­i­can agriculture— it all de­pends on what you grow and where you live. But the treaty did not bring mass un­em­ploy­ment nor mass mi­gra­tion to the United States. Both have been around for quite some time.

More­over, NAFTA hasn’t dam­aged Mex­i­can agriculture any more than PRI pa­ter­nal­ism, the ejido — com­mu­nal farms known for their in­er­tia and de­pen­dence on state benef­i­cence— or the roil­ing that the bank­ing sec­tor has taken since it was na­tion­al­ized in 1982, then pri­va­tized (badly) a decade later.

Boul­losa and Wallace re­serve their harsh­est cri­tiques for former Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Felipe Calderon (2006-12), re­peat­edly re­fer­ring to the drug­war as “hiswar.”

This is a com­mon view, but I don’t agree. Feud­ing psy­chopaths started this war and kept it go­ing, feed­ing on their own machismo and­abet­tedby decades ofMex­i­can govern­ment pro­tec­tion as well as America’s ap­petite for dope and an un­ceas­ing flow of weapons from the north.

Their Colom­bia-like sav­agery spread wildly across Mex­ico for two years — as the au­thors cor­rectly de­tail — be­fore Calderon took of­fice in De­cem­ber 2006. The vi­o­lence re­vealed how un­armed the coun­try was af­ter years of oneparty rule, par­tic­u­larly at the lo­cal level. Mu­nic­i­pal and state po­lice were com­pro­mised, un­funded and in­com­pe­tent. Fed­eral po­lice forces were thin and cor­rupt.

The au­thors in­voke Don­ald H. Rums­feld’s fa­mous phrase “you go to war with the Army you have” to sug­gest that Calderon, like Rums­feld, had op­tions. They’re silent on what Calderon should have done apart fromheed­ing calls to “re­turn to a so­cially re­spon­si­ble econ­omy” — some­thing Mex­ico has had in name only.

Calderon faced real furies over­run­ning do­mes­tic ter­ri­tory, not threats half a world away. What coun­try ca­nen­ter the global econ­omy with that on its streets?

Calderon, I be­lieve, emerged, more as the hero in a tragic Mex­i­can cor­rido. A pres­i­dent weak­ened by his coun­try’s turn to democ­racy, his fate was to go up against the one-party state’s worst spawn with the dull weapons he had been be­queathed — “the Army you have” in­deed. Hard to see how he could do any­thing else with a half-dozen re­gions aflame, heads on stakes and po­lice chiefs killed hours af­ter tak­ing of­fice. As in any cor­rido, his ac­tions were as pre­or­dained as they­were doomed.

The au­thors in­sist that “[h]ad Calderon not lifted a fin­ger, the mor­tal­ity count would al­most cer­tainly have been but a frac­tion of that gen­er­ated by his own in­ter­ven­tion.” That is a du­bi­ous claim. Would a coun­try used to im­pe­rial pres­i­dents have sup­ported a man who let the furies run wild? I think not.

Things did get much worse; an Army makes a poor and some­times abu­sive po­lice force. But the real sav­agery came from the nar­cos, who end­lessly formed al­liances, then turned on one another. In a par­tic­u­larly strong chap­ter, the au­thors ex­plain how the most fe­ro­cious vi­o­lence — tak­ing place roughly from2008 to 2010— fed on new ha­treds flow­ing from the rup­ture of the Si­naloa car­tel.

Calderon’s gravest mis­take was not to use the drug war to be­gin strength­en­ing lo­cal govern­ment, since its weak­ness, along with the cen­tral govern­ment’s bloated, in­ept power, al­lowed nar­cos to grow from hill­bil­lies into na­tional se­cu­rity threats.

He was, how­ever, the firstM ex­i­can pres­i­dent to face the coun­try’s can­cers: the nar­cos but more im­por­tantly the ab­sence of the rule of law. It seems un­char­i­ta­ble and I think less nu­anced than the rest of “A Narco His­tory” to­blame­him. He would de­serve his­tory’s greater im­pre­ca­tions had he done less.

That said, Boul­losa and Wallace pro­vide what all Amer­i­cans need these days: a primer on why our south­ern neigh­bor has ex­ploded and what we, and they, had to do with it. Quinones’ lat­est book of nar­ra­tive nonfiction is “Dream­land: The TrueTale of America’s Opi­ate Epi­demic.”

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

ARMY TROOPS in Ti­juana burn a large pot seizure in 2010. “A Narco His­tory” serves as a primer on drug vi­o­lence in Mex­ico.

Al­fredo Guer­rero As­so­ci­ated Press

FELIPE CALDERON, former pres­i­dent of Mex­ico, is harshly crit­i­cized by Car­men Boul­losa and MikeWal­lace in “A Narco His­tory.”

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