Can President Lopez Obrador End Mexico’s Drug War?

Members of the self-defense group Pueblos Unidos carry out guard duties in protection of avocado…

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador entered office in 2018 promising to break with the corruption and crony capitalism associated with his predecessors. Referring to his administration as a “transformation” he promised to implement new programs that would tackle poverty and social problems from the ground up and clean up the government from the top to bottom. Mid-way through his six-year presidency, Lopez Obrador continues to engage in a scathing rhetorical assault against his political enemies, but as a policy-maker his record has been disappointing. While campaigning, he promised to end the militarized war against drug trafficking groups. As president, he has instead embraced the armed forces and built a new military police force, the National Guard, while wholly neglecting to reform or fund struggling local police forces. He has turned his back against efforts to legalize marijuana, reform the judicial system, or build strong independent corruption-fighting agencies. The first two years of Lopez Obrador’s administration have been far more violent than the first two years of any of his recent predecessors. Mexico recorded 34,515 murders in 2020. In order to ask about Mexico’s current problems with violent crime and organized crime activity and also talk about the historical context of relations between politics and organized crime in Mexico, I reached out to historian Benjamin Smith, author of an ambitious and enthralling new book, The Dope: The Real History Of The Mexican Drug Trade.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery: What was the most interesting thing you learned while writing this book?

Benjamin Smith: My colleagues and I spent nearly a decade in dusty archives, reading declassified documents, court records, spy files and speaking to traffickers, drug producers and drug agents on both sides of the border. And it gradually dawned on me that so much of what we think about the US-Mexican drug trade and the war against it is just a set of easy-to-sell myths. Furthermore, these myths are extremely deeply embedded, engraved by years of media hysteria, crime shows and well-meaning hectoring. They are similar to the myths that underly the drug war and mass incarceration in the United States. And for at least five years they shaped the way I read these documents and the way I approached my interviewees.

These myths tell simple stories of a war between north and south, between white and brown, between noble and well-intentioned cops and a threatening cabal of vicious kingpins, corrupt Mexican politicians, and shadowy, powerful cartels. Clearly, such myths serve a purpose. They demonize the drug traffickers and cement the narrative of the drug war as a struggle between good and evil. They legitimize official violence. Drug cops carry guns because they must fight well-armed traffickers; they shoot but only when shot at.

But it slowly dawned on me that what these myths really do is sell the drug war as a viable solution and disguise what is really going on. In fact, the drug trade is just a trade like any others. Those involved, especially on the Mexican side, are not morally or psychologically different from the rest of us. The nuts and bolts of drug trafficking doesn’t involve murder or terror or huge amounts of violence. It involves growing crops, selling those crops to intermediaries, processing these crops into drugs, transporting these crops north, and then smuggling them over the border. It is a market system that involves links, trust, and connections. These were, and often, still are reinforced by bonds of marriage and friendship.

In short then, there is nothing intrinsically violent about the trafficking of drugs. For about a decade British Colombia in Canada was the U.S. West Coast’s main source of weed. But the place didn’t turn into Ciudad Juárez. Here in Europe most of our cocaine arrives on the coast of Spain, but Spain doesn’t have a higher murder rate than other European country.

So, what generates the violence in Mexico? As I discovered the causes are twofold. First, the Mexican authorities always sought to tax the drug trade like it would any other valuable export product. This does take force and it functions like a protection racket. The Mexican police were  and still are, not dissimilar to the Sicilian mafia. You need to effectively extort the traffickers, through threats, or short imprisonments, or torture to incentivize them to pay up. And you need a monopoly over these protection rackets. No trafficker will pay you today if he or she knows they have to pay another tier of government tomorrow.

The other cause is the war on drugs itself. Even now we read about murders in Mexico and we simplify the causes down to one kingpin attempting to wrestle control of the industry from another kingpin. There are also hundreds of unreadable political science papers which back this up. They use data modelling to show that – for example – the bloodshed in 2011 to 2012 was because El Chapo was fighting with the Beltran Leyva gang for monopoly over the Sinaloa cartel. In reality these aren’t about monopoly control over a cartel. You don’t need monopoly control over drugs to make money, you need connections. So, what are the conflicts about? I discovered that they were and they still are generated quite deliberately by the US and Mexican authorities; these groups infiltrate groups of traffickers, threaten them or their families with extreme forms of violence, and then get these traffickers to rat or squeal on their former business partners. This process breaks down trust between the traffickers and generates conflicts as different groups attempt to discover the rat or in Spanish the soplón.

The DEA even have a term for it – it is the essential building block of the war on drugs. They call it divide and conquer. But it is the drug wars dirty little secret. It is the “good guys” are really deliberately stoking the divisions and then wedging open the subsequent conflicts between the groups.

Something else I’d really like to add is that while working on this book I re-learned how to write. I think that so much important academic literature, from history to sociology to political science, is written in a high baroque style and in impenetrable to the uninitiated. I think you spend your Ph.D. and most of the first decade of your career aping this. Even most pop history is written in what I term Oxbridge English, a style readers in the U.S. you might call Ivy League or New Yorker style, all thesaurus adjectives and forced metaphors. I remember reading These Truths by Jill Lepore and finding it a pretty grueling endeavor. The stylistic tics seemed to be highlighted in neon and the writing seemed to take away from what she was trying to say. So, anyway for The Dope I read a lot of James Ellroy, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler and I attempted to strip away all the extraneous stuff and tell the story of the Mexican drug trade using techniques drawn from detective literature – short vignettes to introduce the characters, a deliberately staccato beat, action scenes interspersed with background description and a tone of world-weary cynicism. My editor at Norton, Tom Mayer, was particularly helpful with this. I tried to write noir history.

Parish Flannery: What’s the number one thing you want readers to take away from reading your book?

Smith: If I want the readers to come home with anything it is that the relationship between the Mexican state and the drug traffickers functioned and still functions like a protection racket,. What do I mean by this? Essentially the Mexican state since the prohibition of narcotics by the United States in 1914 has attempted to extort traffickers in return for protecting them from persecution. This is often described in very normative terms as corruption. This governor took money from the Cartel Jalisco and shielded them from arrest. Sometimes it is; no doubt a lot of Mexican governors have put away millions of dollars into private bank accounts with this process.

But, historically, it is also the way that the Mexican state has been built. These bribes have historically functioned as forms of taxation. And governors and mayors have used this cash to build schools and roads, arm and pay police forces, and also allow regular Mexicans to pay some of the lowest per capita taxes on earth. All then the war on drugs has done, by prohibiting narcotics, is to make them very valuable sources of administrative revenue.

A good example of how this was done is the first real drug-funded governor, a revolutionary general called Esteban Cantú. In 1915 he introduced a set of decrees which openly taxed Baja California’s smoking opium trade. But, the Americans got annoyed and forced him to cancel the decrees and ban the smoking opium trade instead.

Cantú, however, was unwilling to give up the rewards from the trade, so he secretly introduced an off-the-books taxation scheme. He protected the traffickers from prosecution and they paid him $11,000 a month in return. This didn’t into his private bank account. It went on schools and roads, policemen and soldiers. It made 1910s Baja California the safest and richest state in revolutionary Mexico. At the same time, it had some of the lowest per capita taxes in the whole country.

I think Cantú was a pretty remarkable man. He lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity in a modest house in Mexicali. He used to make ends meet by taking on lowly administrative jobs in the subsequent administrations. But there were other governors who did the same, like Leopoldo Sánchez Celis, who was governor of the opium-growing state of Sinaloa in the 1960s. He built a relatively wealthy and safe state on the back of charging traffickers for protection as well.

No doubt a lot of governors are still involved in these kinds of dealings. I think at least five governors are currently in prison in Mexico. Another couple are on the run. But now other institutions play a role, especially the federal government’s police force. For example, in the early 1990s, the head of the Mexican federal police, Guillermo González Calderoni fled to the United States. He admitted that he had taken money from the traffickers; but he said that he had to. He did this extraordinary interview with PBS. They asked him why so many Mexican cops were corrupt. He gave the following, really telling response. He said that Mexico’s government never gives police sufficient funding, weapons and training to be able to do their jobs. Gonzalez explains that the government “sent them off to take money from drug traffickers” and admits that poorly paid officers “take the money from some of the traffickers to fight the other traffickers. Gonzelez sees the under-funded officers’ behavior as rational. “I understand them. If they don’t have this money, they can’t live. They don’t make enough,” he explains.

Parish Flannery: Mexican President Lopez Obrador promises that his administration represents a change from the corruption and criminal activity that have hampered past leaders. Overall, do you see Lopez Obrador’s government as representing a clear change from past policies or do you think he is mostly re-packaging old strategies under new names?

Smith: A very good question. Honestly, at the moment I think we don’t really know. I think it is pretty clear that President Lopez Obrador is attempting to restore the old protection rackets of the mid-twentieth century, where traffickers pay for protection, and government politicians and bureaucrats use at least some of this money to bolster the state. Halfway through 2021, Lopez Obrador visited Badiraguato, the capital of Mexican opium production for the third time in three years. He was allegedly there to inspect a big infrastructure project, but many of Mexico’s more gossipy newspapers as well as the twittersphere was full of rumors that he had gone there to meet up with members of the Sinaloa cartel to firm up a pact or a deal.

In 2019 there was a similar outcry when the Mexican military captured El Chapo’s son probably at the behest of the DEA. El Chapo’s son threatened to turn Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, into a warzone. So Lopez Obrador and the military stood down; they released El Chapo’s son.

These kinds of moves seem to indicate that Lopez Obrador is not prepared to engage in the kind of bloody cycle of kingpin arrests and bloodshed that marked the presidential terms of his predecessors. From 2012 to 2018 former President Enrique Peña Nieto captured an extraordinary amount of the country’s major drug traffickers – 120 or so out of 135 Mexican capos. Yet these captures did not disrupt or reduce either the violence or the drug trade. Murders per capita continued to rise. They hit a whopping 29 per 100,000 in 2018, up from 22 per 100,000 from 2012. And, if anything drugs in the U.S. got cheaper. The price of cocaine dipped by about 10% in the United States; the price of heroin decreased by about double that, and what was worse it was even stronger, now mixed with the synthetic opiate fentanyl.

In many ways, Lopez Obrador’s approach has some historical precedent and he is clearly attempting not to make the same mistakes as his predecessors. But there are also certain problems with this approach.

First, now Mexico has a real drug use problem. As a result, there are struggles between small street gangs for the control of street sales. Places like Tijuana – with their corner murders and drive byes -resemble New York in the late 80s or Baltimore in the mid 90s. Murders per 100,000 in Tijuana are a staggering 134; murders in Ciudad Juárez are up over 100 again. The dynamics may be different from the early 2010s but the violence is not. These new conflicts over drug sales are keeping the national homicide rate over 27 per 100,000. And they don’t seem to be going away.

Second, there are multiple groups now offering protection rackets. It’s not just Lopez Obrador’s party Morena (in league with the army and the National Guard), it’s also state governors from the PAN, the PRI and the PRD together with their trafficking allies and state cops. In fact, the last local elections in July this year were basically a big and bloody fight for control of these protection rackets. Parties and organized crime groups joined together to try to monopolize kickbacks in certain drug-rich regions. In the six months running up to the voting, nearly 100 politicians were killed; 30 of them were candidates for local mayors.

Finally, these protection rackets now aren’t simply about drugs. The authorities and their allies in organized crime protect all sorts of high-value crime in return for bribes, from kidnapping and extorting avocado farmers, to sex trafficking and illegal logging. These, unlike the old drug trade which really only affected the United States, have really awful social effects in Mexico. The old drug trade may have killed U.S. addicts but it didn’t really affect Mexicans, who were not involved in the narcotics business. These new crimes plague civilians and businessmen, housewives and farmers. In some states this type of locally-focused crime is pretty generalized. Take Guanajuato, for example. There is no drug production there; there are no ports to import cocaine or meth chemicals; and there are plenty of other routes north to the border. But it is currently Mexico’s bloodiest state. Between 2013 and 2018 the amount of murders climbed from 700 to 3412. Why? It’s not drug trafficking. It’s fights over street drug sales, it’s fights over who runs the petrol stealing, kidnapping, extortion and sex trafficking markets.