WAY: It is obvious that Mexican drug cartels market primarily to the U.S.; it is obvious that the U.S. war on drugs has few victories; it is obvious that Mexican cartel money buys political power; why does only one online newspaper explore these relationships as Mexicans, in increasing numbers, are demonstrating against their government?
In early October, I attended a rally outside the Mexican consulate in New York City to protest the disappearance of a group of students taken by police in the state of Guerrero two weeks earlier. On a busy midtown Manhattan street, a dozen people gathered to call attention to the missing students and demand their return. A passerby, puzzled by the commotion, stopped a protester to ask what they were shouting about. When he was told what had happened, he asked incredulously, “But they were Mexican students? Killed in Mexico? Why should we care here?”
Indeed, why should ordinary Americans care about the rampant corruption, extrajudicial violence and culture of impunity that has overtaken Mexico in the eight years since then-President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels? Why should they care about 100,000 dead and at least 20,000 disappeared, some of whose remains are being uncovered in a quickly metastasizing map of mass graves? Why should they care about the 43 teachers in training, rounded up by police and turned over to a gang of killers who, it is alleged, burned their bodies and dumped what remained in a local river? Why should they care about the surging protests, the tens of thousands marching in the streets of Mexico’s cities and towns, calling for the renunciation of President Enrique Peña Nieto and declaring “Fue el estado” (It was the state)?
Here’s why Americans should care: We are collectively funding this war. Our tax dollars, in the form of security aid, provide the equipment, weapons and training to state security forces responsible for an ever-lengthening rap sheet of human rights abuses. U.S. drug habits, in the form of an insatiable market for narcotics, marijuana and amphetamines, provide the liquid cash that has proved so corrosive when it has come into contact with every level of the Mexican state.
This is our war, on our drugs. We have created the Mexico from which we now distance ourselves — but we can’t afford to turn our backs any longer….
Since 2007, the U.S. government has spent roughly $3 billion on security aid to Mexico, through the George W. Bush–era Mérida Initiative, which was extended indefinitely by President Barack Obama, and through counternarcotics programs run by the Defense and Justice departments. Those funds served to militarize the war on drugs and contributed to the extraordinary increase in violence under Calderón. The Mexican government, using aircraft and equipment supplied by the United States, maintained that the mounting death toll was of little consequence — just criminals killing one another, the Mexican military argued. Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency quietly propped up the powerful Sinaloa cartel in exchange for information on its rivals, exacerbating the violence by picking off kingpins and splintering structures of power in the cartels.
Even before the tragic kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in late September, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto was already teetering on the brink. His neoliberal reform agenda, systematic repression of protests and iron-fisted control over the media had turned him into the most unpopular president in recent Mexican history.
The enormous unrest that has erupted in recent days is, therefore, not only about criminality and violence but also social power and democratic politics. And what is at stake in today’s battle for Mexico is not just the future of peace and prosperity for those living south of the Rio Grande but also democracy and justice north of the border.
Before taking office Dec. 1, 2012, Peña Nieto penned an op-ed for The Washington Post in which he tried to assuage concerns about his intimate connections with the most corrupt and backward old guard of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country from 1929 until 2000. He encouraged observers to forget about the party’s past and instead look at its “plan to open Mexico’s energy sector to national and foreign private investment.”
Writing on the eve of his first meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, Peña Nieto claimed that such reforms would “contribute to guaranteeing North American energy independence,” since “Mexico holds the fifth-largest shale gas reserve in the world, in addition to large deep-water oil reserves and a tremendous potential in renewable energy.”
Obama, the U.S. military and Congress eagerly accepted Peña Nieto’s Faustian bargain. They would blindly support his presidency in exchange for quick action on energy reform.
Over the last two years, both sides have loyally held up their ends of the deal. In December 2013, Peña Nieto pushed through historic reforms to Article 27 of the constitution that broke up the state monopoly over the oil industry and opened the floodgates to speculation and vast private investment by international oil giants. The majority of Mexicans adamantly rejected these reforms, but they were steamrolled through the National Congress and passed by a majority of the state legislatures in only 10 days without debate and in flagrant violation of the democratic process.
Such quick legal action authorizing the transfer of public oil rents to private hands fulfilled the wildest dreams of Washington. The U.S. has pushed for years without avail to achieve similar reforms in occupied Iraq without success. But in Mexico a loyal and corrupt president proved to be much more effective than direct military occupation.
Unsurprisingly, most of the international press vigorously applauded the oil reform. “As Venezuela’s economy implodes and Brazil’s growth stalls, Mexico is becoming the Latin oil producer to watch — and a model of how democracy can serve a developing country,” wrote the editorial board of The Washington Post. The Financial Times excitedly proclaimed that “Mexico’s historic vote to open its oil and gas sector to private investment after 75 years yoked to the state is a political coup for Enrique Peña Nieto.” And Forbes magazine argued that although previous President Felipe Calderón “may have pushed for real oil reforms, it’s Peña Nieto who will get the spot in the history books.”