The Narco-State to the North

Christy Thornton

The astronomical levels of drug violence and corruption in Mexico can be directly attributed to the policies of the United States.

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and US president Donald Trump on July 7, 2017. Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

For Trump, Mexico symbolizes the source of many of the problems in the United States. Trump has suggested that the Mexican government has outsmarted the US by purposefully sending criminals across the border.

His racist absurdities, however, draw from a long history of American ignorance about and bigotries toward Mexico and Mexicans, who become blank canvasses upon which all manner of nightmares, insecurities, and dreads about jobs, drugs, security, and cultural identity are painted. These stories told about Mexico in the US aren’t just wrong, they also obscure the source of our shared problems, which, more often than not, are the two countries’ ruling classes.

That’s the case when it comes to blaming Mexican workers for the scarcity of well-paying work. It’s also true of the violent drug war that has enveloped Mexico in recent years, which the US government has funded and, by driving drug trafficking routes away from the Caribbean and into Mexico, played a major role in creating. In reality, it is the US that exports violence to Mexico, including the guns used by cartels that are easily purchased here and then exported south illegally.

Jacobin’s Daniel Denvir sat down with Christy Thornton, who teaches Latin American history and international studies at Rowan University, to discuss the situation in Mexico as it faces the Trump presidency. This interview was for the Dig, a Jacobin podcast which you can support here.

Daniel Denvir

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has found himself consumed by crises in recent years, from the disappearance of student protesters and persistent drug war violence throughout the country to corruption scandals and, most recently, revelations that the government appears to be hacking into activists’ phones to surveil them. What is the current political situation in Mexico?

Christy Thornton

Peña Nieto is from the party that ruled Mexico for almost eighty years, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). He brought the PRI back to power with the idea that he was going to lead Mexico forward. For him, that meant implementing neoliberal economic reforms to complete the Mexico’s market turn. But upon taking office, and even before that, he was beset by scandals.

When he was campaigning, he was confronted by students at an elite private college called the Ibero. They confronted him over an attack that had happened when he was the governor of the state of Mexico years prior. In response, he called them outside agitators, saying they couldn’t possibly be college students. It became one of the defining moments of his late candidacy and early presidency.

A social movement sprung up called #YoSoy132, I am 132. One hundred thirty-one students at this university went on social media to prove that they were students and were against Nieto’s return to power and what he had done as governor of the state of Mexico.

So, the scandals began before Peña Nieto even took office, which has culminated in a president who is incredibly unpopular. The most recent opinion poll shows that his approval rating is 12 percent.

Daniel Denvir

The PRI, whose name — the Party of the Institutional Revolution — encapsulates these historical contradictions well, governed the country from the revolution until Vicente Fox from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won in 2000. What is the PRI? How did it stay in power for so long? Why did it lose and why is it back now?

Christy Thornton

As you mentioned, the PRI was in power for an incredibly long time. They made themselves into the entire government, so there was single-party rule. The first iteration of the party was founded in 1929, and they maintained power until 2000, when Vicente Fox, the opposition party leader from the PAN, the center-right business party, won.

Theorists use the idea of soft authoritarianism. It wasn’t a military dictatorship the way that we saw, for instance, in the Southern Cone. People call it the leviathan on the Zócalo — the Zócalo is the central square in Mexico City. It really was a leviathan state, with centralized control over political life in Mexico during that whole period.

Daniel Denvir

Fast forwarding to today, there’s the PAN, the PRI, and the PRD. The PRD was a left splinter from the PRI in the late 1980s. Today there’s a left splinter from the PRD, Morena, which has eclipsed the PRD in many ways, and is led by, at least on the national level and in Mexico state, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who used to be a PRD leader. He has run for president, came close to winning, and staged mass mobilizations in 2006. Can you explain who AMLO is, his history in left-wing electoral politics, and Morena, his party?

Christy Thornton

AMLO is an original founder of the PRD, along with others. AMLO stood for the presidency in 2006, against the PAN candidate. AMLO had been the mayor of Mexico City, which is a position more akin to a governor because Mexico City, like our Washington DC, is a federal district. It’s the seat of the federal government.

So after six years of Vicente Fox of the PAN, Felipe Calderón, another PAN leader, was standing for the presidency from that party, and there was a PRI candidate as well, and then AMLO from the Left, from the PRD. The vote was incredibly close between Calderón, who ended up winning, and AMLO. I think the difference was something less than one percent between them.

AMLO staged a massive protest in the middle of Mexico City. He took over the central square, the Zócalo, where the seat of government is, and declared a parallel government. He had what Mexicans call a plantón, an occupation, and it went on for months. The center of Mexico City’s governmental life, in many ways, was shut down by this occupation. In the end, AMLO was arguing for the nullification of that election, for a recount, and he was unsuccessful.

It’s in the aftermath of the Ayotzinapa crisis that PRD leaders, including AMLO, left the party. That’s because the state governor in Guerrero, the state where that attack happened, and the local mayor in Iguala, the town where it happened, were both PRD. The government responsible for the attack and disappearance of these forty-three students was from the nominally left party.

In 2014, AMLO decides to found his own political movement, called the Movement for National Regeneration, Morena. Now there is a presidential election in 2018, and there were just these important state elections in the state of Mexico, which I went to observe. Morena, under AMLO’s tutelage, has become a real political force, seen by many as trying to move away from the political corruption and the old ways of doing politics.

We’re a year out from the election, but AMLO’s Morena is a real force for the 2018 elections. The polling is very sparse, but many people believe he’s the frontrunner in those elections. The bellwether was the election I just witnessed in the state of Mexico, Mexico’s most populous state that surrounds Mexico City, where the Morena candidate came very close to winning.

Daniel Denvir

How has Morena, in such a short amount of time, managed to establish itself as a party? What does its organization look like? How has it organized bases around the country?

Christy Thornton

Until these elections in the State of Mexico, Morena was built around the figure of AMLO himself. That causes people to question it, to ask if there is a broader platform to Morena than just supporting AMLO until his election.

Which is why it’s so important that these elections happened. Delfina Gómez, the candidate from Morena, was not at all a traditional politician. She had come up through some local politics, but had also been a working-class school teacher. She campaigned very closely with AMLO but was the first visible representative of Morena as a political movement that people saw on the national stage besides AMLO.

The representatives of Morena that I met included a lot of young people. It’s not dissimilar to the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. There are a lot of young people who believe that breaking out of the traditional party structure in Mexico is the only way to move away from the entrenched and endemic corruption that has been so massive, and gotten worse since the onslaught of the “war on drugs” and organized crime that began under Felipe Calderón.

Morena’s strongholds are in the center of Mexico, but they’re building more nationally, so there is Morena representation in the south, but it’s a very new party. It’ll be interesting to see what happens over this next year as they build the structure for the national elections and we see what it looks like beyond the personality of AMLO.

Daniel Denvir

One source of cynicism in Mexico is the drug war, which has over the last decade or so inflicted brutal violence across the country at the hands of both cartels and government forces. Can you lay out what the government strategy has been to purportedly combat the cartels under Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Calderón, and what the result has been? The government celebrated the recapture of El Chapo Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, but it’s unclear if this has brought any more security to Mexico or fewer drugs to the United States.

Christy Thornton

The drug war is an abject failure on its own terms, and in Mexico, it’s been particularly devastating over the last decade. After having wreaked havoc in Colombia under the US-directed Plan Colombia, which was the eradication strategy and militarization of the war on drugs there, much of the production and sale of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and later, methamphetamines, shifted to Mexico.

People who study the drug war call it the balloon theory. As the US squeezed Colombia to try and eradicate production there, the production and distribution moved to Mexico.

Felipe Calderón of the PAN, elected in 2006, decided his priority was going to be what he called the “war on drugs and organized crime.” He was going to go after these criminal organizations by heavily militarizing the combat there. They negotiated with the US the Mérida Initiative, what people called Plan Mexico because it’s so similar to Plan Colombia as it was carried out previously in the 1990s into the early 2000s.

Daniel Denvir

It worked so well in Colombia that it brought the drug war to Mexico.

Christy Thornton

Exactly — if we continue with this pattern, eventually we’ll just have the militarized drug war to an even greater extent than we do here in the United States.

They signed the Mérida Initiative with the Bush administration in 2007. What this did was provide almost $3 billion in security aid to the Mexican armed forces and police. Now, anyone who studies overseas military aid knows that most of that money stays in the US. It goes to pay Sikorsky helicopter and General Dynamics for drones, to have training programs here at places like Fort Benning, Georgia. This $3 billion was appropriated to militarizing the drug war in Mexico.

Calderón sent the military into the streets. First in the north, in the cities that were experiencing the greatest cartel fracturing, where the Sinaloa, Juárez, and Gulf Cartels were having power struggles.

The result was, as we could have predicted, an escalation in the violence. Conservative numbers now put the number of dead since 2006 or 2007, when this began, at more than 125,000 people. Something like 30,000 people have been forcibly disappeared. Their families don’t know where they are. The result is massive levels of violence and destruction in places where drug trafficking had been centered: in the north, in Sinaloa, in what we call the Tierra Caliente, where much of the marijuana and opium poppies are grown, in Veracruz, which is a port city on the eastern side of Mexico.

When Peña Nieto came to power in 2012, his focus was to change the narrative, as he put it, about Mexico. He wasn’t interested in solving the problems, but he wanted people, especially international investors, to talk about Mexico differently. He focused on his economic reforms and tried not to talk about the drug war. He was on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Saving Mexico,” but he continued the same policies that Calderón had been pursuing, just without putting so much political emphasis on them.

That meant the kingpin strategy, taking out the heads of the cartels. But what that does is exacerbate power struggles. That’s why we see a proliferation of cartel activity since the early 2000s. In the early 2000s, there were something like six major drug cartels in Mexico, with distinct territories. There were some conflicts, but today we have upwards of sixteen major cartels and massive fighting between them, creating incredible levels of violence.

The recapture of Chapo Guzmán was a publicity coup for the Peña Nieto administration after his prior escape. Then he was extradited to the United States, which was in some ways a defeat for Mexico, because it wasn’t clear that Mexico could actually hold and prosecute Chapo Guzmán.

Daniel Denvir

The Mexican state has exacerbated this not only by attempting to repress and fight the cartels, but also by being a protagonist at various levels in the fight among cartels, correct?

Christy Thornton

Absolutely. Last year or the year before, a major Mexican newspaper published documents that showed the US DEA had closely collaborated with members of the Sinaloa cartel in an attempt to try to wipe out a rival. In order to be able to go after rival cartels, they allowed Sinaloa cartel members to continue their drug trafficking and extortion, their buying and selling of illegal guns. The corruption goes incredibly high.

There’s a famous case in the late 1990s, or early 2000s, where the person appointed as the Mexican government’s drug czar was on the payroll of one of the cartels. The level of corruption, this drug money, is so corrosive. It’s no longer just the single party, it’s no longer just the PRI; it has corroded power structures in all three of the major parties.

The state is deeply implicated in this and the massacres that we have seen: the disappearance of these students at Ayotzinapa, the killing of twenty innocent civilians at Tlatlaya, another massacre in a town called Apatzingán. There have been multiple places where innocent civilians were killed at the hands of security forces in execution-style killings. We see the Mexican security forces implicated in this violence, in these killings and disappearances.

This is important when it comes to the independence of the press and journalists. There have been a number of high-profile assassinations of Mexican journalists recently. When I’ve spoken to Mexican investigative journalists, people like Anabel Hernández, what they is that they fear the state, not the cartels, particularly in the state of Veracruz, under the previous governor. Then, more recently, the violence is spreading in the north as well. A journalist was murdered in Mexico City in 2015.

The idea that the state and security forces are implicated in what we think of as drug violence has been a driving force of this. After Ayotzinapa, one of the main revelations was that these students were not killed by random drug traffickers. They were taken — I don’t say killed because we don’t have the definitive story — by members of the security forces. The state and the drug cartels, in many places, are inextricable.

Daniel Denvir

I also want to highlight how the US government is implicated in this on a variety of levels, including when it comes to the question of the border, in the way that border militarization has led to drug trafficking and bringing the drug war to Mexico in the first place by squeezing the trafficking route through the Caribbean.

Christy Thornton

Right, there’s also a third aspect to this subject, the involvement of the US government, and that’s with respect to the militarization of Mexico’s southern border. We talk a lot about the militarization of Mexico’s border with the US, but actually one of the main places where the US government is involved is Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. It’s there that the US offers technology and training and puts pressure on the Mexican government to keep Central American migrants from crossing Mexican territory to get into the US.

These Central American migrants are themselves fleeing violence having to do with the destabilization of their societies, which goes back to the US-backed wars in Central America in the 1980s and more recently the overthrow of the Honduran government in 2009. The role of the US in creating the conditions of violence in Central America and then militarizing the southern border has created incredible opportunities for the criminal organizations, particularly a ferocious group known as Los Zetas who emerged from the Mexican special forces and recruited Guatemalan Kaibiles, Guatemalan special forces, and are deadly killers.

For example, there was an attack a few years ago. There is a famous train that runs through Mexico called La Bestia; migrants sit on this train in an attempt to go north. Seventy-two migrants were found killed: murdered in an attempt to try and extort them and their families, by people who are trying to move them for money.

The migrants who are blockaded on both ends of the Mexican border, with the support of the US government, become easy prey for criminal activity. Increasingly, drug organizations do not just move drugs: they also move guns, they’re involved in the illegal tapping of oil and gas pipelines and reselling of oil and gas, illegal logging and mining, and especially extortion and kidnapping.

Daniel Denvir

Obviously the demonization of Mexico and Mexicans in the US is nothing new, but it’s reached a height under Donald Trump. Why do you think that Mexico has become an icon for US ills, and how do the Mexicans you speak to react to that?

Christy Thornton

That’s one of the other things that has put Peña Nieto in such a difficult position. As I said, he has a 12 percent approval rating; no one in Mexico approves of what he’s doing. Then he’s faced with the onslaught from Trump. He did a number of stupid things during the campaign, such as inviting Trump and Hillary Clinton to Mexico. Only Trump accepted his invitation: he went to Mexico, made nice with Peña Nieto, and then flew to Arizona and gave a viciously xenophobic, anti-Mexican speech as soon as he touched down in the US.

People are offended by it. They want the government to stand up to him. And one of the things that is a major disconnect for many Mexicans is the rhetoric about NAFTA here in the US.

Daniel Denvir

You anticipated my next question very well.

Christy Thornton

Trump was anti-NAFTA. He said it’s a terrible agreement, he wants to rewrite it, and that somehow, in Trump’s mind and in the mind of xenophobic supporters here in the US, NAFTA means Mexico is winning at the expense of the US. That narrative becomes convenient for people who are out of work in the US, who see the makeup of their communities changing. They point to NAFTA and say, “Mexico’s killing us. Trump says Mexico’s killing us.”

Whereas in Mexico, people on the Left — economists, analysts — point to NAFTA as bringing about the economic changes that have made life so miserable for so many people. For instance, economists have shown that something like two million small farmers were immediately displaced by NAFTA because subsidized corn from the US suddenly became much less expensive than corn grown in these small farms in Mexico.

What economists and activists point out is that it is these large transnational businesses win out with NAFTA, and working people on both sides of the border see the consequences.

Daniel Denvir

Just to backtrack a little bit: in the United States, is there is a lack of understanding of the way economic relationships between these two countries structure migration patterns from Mexico to the US?

Christy Thornton

Definitely. One of the things that we saw after NAFTA was US multinationals having the opportunity to invest in and buy up, for instance, the pork industry, the meat packing industry, which meant large-scale ranching of livestock in particular states in Mexico, states like Veracruz, where most of Mexican pork is produced. After NAFTA, those places are taken over by large US-based multinational companies.

Once US multinational companies own these ranches and meatpacking plants in Mexico, they consolidate by laying off tons of workers. Those same workers then move to the US to work in meatpacking plants. You see mass migration.

That’s just one small example. Obviously, the displacement of small farmers is another. NAFTA strengthened the maquila industry, the light manufacturing industry in the north, in the border zones. This creates a population who move to the border to take these jobs. So NAFTA has restructured where and how people live and who their bosses are.

Daniel Denvir

What’s the prognosis for economic justice and an end to the violence in Mexico? The Left certainly faces difficult challenges there.

Christy Thornton

There are a number of areas where there is cause for hope, but one of the important things about Mexico’s future, particularly with respect to the drug war, is that a great deal depends on the mobilization of teachers and indigenous groups.

There are communities that have autonomy now and are self-governed, especially in the south of Mexico, but in terms of changing the Mexican political structure, some put their faith in Morena, thinking that AMLO will be able to reverse these problems. I think that that’s true. If AMLO wins the election, he’ll orient the state in a fundamentally different way than someone from the PRI or the PAN, but the question of the drug war and the corruption it has engendered is a massive one.

One of the biggest problems in Mexico is impunity. Something like over 95 percent of crimes aren’t investigated. People don’t call the police because often the police are corrupt and on the payroll of cartel members. When a family member disappears, for instance, it’s difficult to know who can help you because often the security forces are on the payroll of the people you suspect may have disappeared your loved one.

The rampant impunity is corrosive to Mexican democracy and, in many ways, Peña Nieto has made this worse. For instance, he has tried to make access to information more difficult.

One of the few things that the Fox administration managed to get done at the behest of activists was opening up the records and processes of the Mexican state to the populace. Peña Nieto has clamped down on that. The scandal that you mentioned, about spying on activists and opposition politicians, is part of that, is part of the attempt to restrict access to what’s going on in government.

A new government could decide to overhaul those structures, but the corrosive effect of drug trafficking and the violence that has gone along with the militarization of the fight against it puts a lot of responsibility in our hands in the US. The vast majority of the drugs that are produced and brought through Mexico are for sale in the US; drug use levels in Mexico are incredibly low.

This is all destined for a US market, and it’s a market that is so profitable because of prohibition. The mark-up of how much these drugs cost is because of the danger and prohibition of getting them to and selling them in the US.

Daniel Denvir

Including border militarization.

Christy Thornton

Exactly. Everything from the militarization and the militarization of the fight against the producing communities all the way up to the level of the criminalization of drug users here in the US. Militarization and prohibition is what makes it so profitable; it’s what gives cartels their money. That money is what corrupts Mexican politics. In that way, the US market here is so important.

A corollary market to that is the US government’s addiction to defense spending. The Merida Initiative’s $3 billion, as I mentioned, doesn’t involve a US president showing up at Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential residence, with a $1 billion check. All of this money goes into US defense contracting, into drones, helicopters. Defense contractors lobby heavily for jobs in the districts of vulnerable politicians, so these politicians want to see that drug war continue because it’s what keeps high-level manufacturing and engineering jobs in their districts.

Daniel Denvir

So we have to flip the dominant narrative on its head. That narrative says Mexico is the source of these problems that come to the US, when the reality is that Mexico’s in the unfortunate situation of sharing a border with the largest drug market in the world, which has made it a critical transit point for drugs into the US.

It is also because it shares a border with the US that guns, which are difficult to obtain in Mexico, are easily purchased in the US and illicitly trafficked south. Mexico has a lot more to complain about in terms of this binational relationship, which is not how most Americans think about it.

Christy Thornton

That’s something that has been pointed out by observers across the political spectrum to Donald Trump. Mexico could stop agreeing to cooperate with the US. They could decide that they do not want to be the proxy militarization of the southern border, for instance. They could decide they no longer want to prosecute a militarized drug war. They could stop cooperating with the US in any number of ways, and that would have incredible consequences for the US, particularly the opposite of what it is that Donald Trump thinks that he is here to do.

There is a sense in which Mexico’s cooperation with the US holds a great deal of power. For those of us who are US activists, we should be not only focusing on drug consumption here, treating this as a public health problem instead of a militarized problem that requires mass incarceration and the militarization of war overseas.

We should be focusing on our government’s addiction to defense spending, but we should also be thinking about, as you said, a narrative that makes it as though Mexico is the source of the problem when, in many ways, the Trump administration needs Mexico to continue doing what it has done. The longer he antagonizes them, it’s not clear that they will continue to be willing to do so.