War in Juarez: anthropologist Howard Campbell on Mexico's increasingly violent drug war.
Ciudad Juarez, Chih - just over the border from El Paso, has suffered through wild spasms of drug-related violence during the last few years. While the federal government in Mexico City announces stronger crackdowns on the drug trade, dueling cartels are murdering each other--and unconnected bystanders--with increasing impunity.
These crimes are often preceded by hideous torture and followed by public displays meant to inspire terror, such as tossing a rival gangster's head into a crowded club.
Howard Campbell, a sociologist and anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, describes that frightening world in Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez.
While Campbell's introduction exudes academic chops, with talk of how the "drug war zone" is "a theoretical concept that refers not only to a historically contingent, constructed geographical location ... but also to a mental place and a symbolic domain--similar in Foucauldian terms to the dialectic between 'real society' and 'heterotopia,'" the heart of the book is human stories, compellingly told.
Drug War Zone is composed of more than a dozen personal testimonials of people whose lives touch the drug trade in different ways. The book's dealers run the spectrum from tough Mexican women to idealistic American anarchists; its drug warriors range from a Juarez cop trying to stay on the up and up to an undercover American narc.
Campbell also looks at those outside the cops/crooks conflict, giving voice to innocent witnesses and journalists taking risks to report on drug war violence.
The reader comes to know the sights and sounds of the bridges and tunnels, the sweat of smuggler and border guard alike. Their stories add up to a vivid, ground-level portrait of the futility inherent in trying to prevent people from selling and using drugs.
The Sinaloa cartel, run by "El Chapo" Guzman, tried to take over the border and that critical transit point for drugs into the U.S. The Sinaloa cartel tried to overpower the Gulf cartel in the state of Tamaulipas and city of Nuevo Laredo.
There was a drawn-out fight from 2004 to 2006, and the Sinaloa group lost that battle. The Gulf cartel maintained power and control, and that's really critical because that's the area that connects to the I-35 into the heartland of the U.S.
So Sinaloa switched its focus to Juarez in the middle of the Mexican border and again confronted a powerful, deeply entrenched cartel, the Juarez cartel. In 2008 a war started, really a civil war, with fighting like in Baghdad between two cartels, Sinaloa coming from outside trying to take over Juarez.
The violence increased by a magnitude of 10 to 20. Homicide rates had been 100 to 200 a year, but as of 2008 there were 1,600 homicides in Juarez, and so far this year more than 2,100. Now in Juarez every day there's at least one homicide--except on October 29. That was a rare day no one was murdered. "No One Killed Yesterday" was the rare headline. Juarez has become the most dangerous city in the world for murders and kidnappings, with war in the streets, back-and-forth massacres with as many as 20 murdered in one spot, lots of victims often decapitated or tortured.
A lot of kidnappings are by organized crime groups that may be part of a cartel or may be just policemen or former policemen; the kidnapping is mainly a business just to make money. With law and order broken down, opportunistic crimes like bank robbing have increased in Juarez. Consequently the federal government in Mexico sent up 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 federal policemen, a major force patrolling the city. That effort was effective for only one month, March 2008. After that, violence increased and has increased to the present, a steady acceleration of violence with no end in sight in spite of the massive militarization of the city.
Campbell: I suspect lots more than we realize. How else do Mexicans so easily bring in hundreds of tons of drugs each year? It's partly that they are good and creative at bringing drugs across, but surely there's more corruption than we know about. It's dangerous and scary to think agents of the U.S. are on the payroll of cartels.
reason: Your studies of this world have led you to believe the current war on drugs is futile and pointless. You interview Terry Nelson, a former U.S. Border Patrol man who now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who agrees. How many of the people on the drug supply side of your "drug war zone" agree that public policy regarding drugs should change?
Campbell: I suppose traffickers would scoff at the idea that the war on drugs is winnable, as they personally find it so easy to bring drugs into the U.S. I was surprised at the extent people who work for the U.S. government would tell me informally that they don't think it's winnable either, so I really do think we are at the point where there will be changes in drug policy if people look at the facts. I hope my book contributes to a more complicated way of thinking about the issue, to recognize we are not going to wipe out drug consumption and trafficking. So let's focus on the most harmful effects of these drugs of abuse, and the most harmful part is the violence, and second the harm done by addiction to heroin and cocaine.
We had a conference about a month ago in El Paso examining 40 years of the war on drugs. The second in command of the DEA, Anthony Placido, spoke, and his perspective was they are doing a great job. Of course they don't catch it all, but they are doing the best they can.
The anti-drug effort is internally contradictory. They have to justify big budgets, especially now that they are competing with terrorism, and they also have to show effectiveness, which is an incentive to produce busts in these huge quantities. I don't know how much you can trust DEA statistics on the size and value of big busts--I guess as much as you trust the CIA or any other branch of the federal government. As citizens we have to be very cautious and very critical of government. The main issue should not be "Do they grab big piles of drugs?" but "Does the policy work?" And that should mean whether our drug policy is having a positive impact on American society, and I would argue it is not.
.There does appear to be one case in which efforts to keep out illegal drugs has been effective, which is stopping small planes bringing huge loads of coke from northern Mexico to outside of El Paso. There may still be a few airplanes, but not too many. Apparently the main way coke comes through now is hiding it in 18-wheeler trucks, especially in Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Juarez. We have lines of hundreds, thousands of trucks crossing every day, and the U.S. can't inspect every one without destroying free trade. These things are sensitive: The trucks are getting parts to places on time so cars can be built; there are consequences to holding them up.
Mexico is much more deeply affected by all this. I was in Austin giving a talk over the weekend. It surprised me how few people even heard about the situation in Juarez. The United States as a whole remains insolated, even though it's right on the border.
But in Mexico this is the single most important issue. The country is in chaos. There's no safe place anymore, and there's a tremendous pressure on the president and the system to do something to lower violence. There was a decriminalization of certain possession of small amounts, but that won't change the larger international drug trafficking business at all. But when it comes to illegal drugs I guess I don't look for utopian answers. We need to start with incremental changes to improve, and surely decriminalization of possession is part of that.