Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mexico's Drugs War

Mexico City

An end-of-year drink at the house of some friends. Our hosts - Nacho and Sandra - are a young couple with two small children - Carla and Tomás. The telephone rings. Sandra picks up the receiver, listens for a moment, grimaces and hangs up. The caller, she tells us, said he was: “Colonel Roberto Ordoñez of the Zetas”. He claimed to have four-year-old Carla in his “possession” and wanted a million dollars for her return. Happily, both children were playing in the garden under their parents’ watchful eyes.
The Zetas are the most feared and violent criminal gang in Mexico, a drug cartel with a lucrative sideline in kidnapping for ransom.
“We’re used to the threats,” Sandra explained.
The couple, well-known artists, are back home only for the holidays. They now live in the United States which has an open-door policy for people of exceptional ability - their talents having made them targets in their own land. Even on this short visit - they are in town for just a few days - the criminals know they are here and have their local telephone number. Tomorrow the family leaves for the coast, and by the time anyone reads this, they will be safely back across the border.
Countless less well known Mexicans have also fled their homes, if not to the United States then elsewhere in the country so as to escape the seemingly ineluctable criminalisation of their town or neighbourhood.

The wave of violence currently sweeping Mexico reaches virtually every part of the Republic, but it is centred on the northern states - notably those sharing a frontier with the United States.

Proceso - Mexico’s premier investigative journal - runs regular in-depth reports on the drug cartels - or “narcos”. Its 26 September edition - largely dedicated to drug trafficking - includes a headline: “Where the Narco rules”. The place: Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua, a border town with a credible claim to be the world’s most dangerous city.
The story focuses on a press photographer from local newspaper El Diario sent to cover yet another murder, this time in a shopping centre two blocks from the newspaper office where he works. A grey car riddled with bullet holes stands in the parking lot, its wind-screen and side-windows shattered. Inside, slumped against the steering wheel, is 21-year-old Luis Carlos Santiago, an apprentice journalist from the same newspaper. He is the second reporter from El Diario to be murdered - the first being Armando Rodriguez who, a year earlier, was gunned down outside his house while taking his daughter to school.
Journalism is a risky business in northern Mexico - but then so is almost any other way of life: on the day of Santiago’s murder, twenty-four others were also slaughtered - including two whole families machine-gunned in their homes.
A three-way war is underway for control of Ciudad Juarez between the army and two rival drug cartels; and anyone who gets in the way is likely to be killed. The scale and bloodiness of the war are spine-chilling. Media reports are common of weddings, festivals and parties being interrupted by the arrival of hit-men carrying sacks of severed heads that they roll out onto the dance floor. In 2010 alone, Ciudad Juarez suffered over 3,000 drug-related murders. Almost a quarter of a million people are believed to have fled the city and its environs. Even the mayor, José Reyes Ferriz, lives in Texas. On Independence day (September 15th) only the police and the military showed up for the public ceremony; and the traditional cry of Viva Mexico rang out from the Town Hall into a space emptied by fear, and by threats from mobsters.
Violence in the eastern state of Tamaulipas receives less coverage than Chihuahua - but it may be even more lethal and widespread. Stories emerge of as many as 200 deaths in a single encounter, of stretches of road strewn with the corpses of men, women and children, of piles of bodies thrown into ditches. Most reports are unofficial and reach the outside world in the form of anonymous blogs, private letters, and verbal accounts made by people who have left. Few are willing to speak up publicly. No records are kept of murders. No one knows where many of the bodies of the slain end up, only that they are not in official graveyards. Politicians, police, journalists, and local bureaucrats are said to be in the pay of drug traffickers. Informers are everywhere, ready to report attempts to clean up or to dispute authority over the area. Government employees in rural ministries can work solely during daylight hours and via main highways. Travel on secondary roads is foolhardy. The local press has been silenced.
Abasolo , a small town 100 km north west of Ciudad Victoria, the State Capital, lost its mayor in August. He simply disappeared. So too the mayor of the little town of Cruillas. In Hidalgo the mayor was assassinated, his replacement has been warned against entering his office, and the Gulf Cartel has imposed a curfew on the inhabitants. A growing number of towns and villages lack a police force - the previous officers having all resigned or fled.
Tamaulipas has many of the characteristics of a criminal dictatorship, the difference being that control is disputed by the Zetas and their rivals the Gulf Cartel. In effect, no one is in charge, unless it be Thanatos the god of death.

Michoacan and Sinaloa are two “drug” states not adjacent to the US border. Drug-running in the former is in the hands of the Michoacán Family, La Familia. Cartel chief, Nazario Moreno González - El Chayo - was reportedly shot dead by troops in December 2010 after a street battle that for two days virtually closed down the state capital, Morelia. If El Chayo is truly dead, then he has undoubtedly already been replaced by another member of the gang. Like the Hydra of Lerna, decapitation merely produces more heads.
Perhaps more than any other figure of the Mexican underworld, El Chayo reflected the strange nether world of the drug barons - a world in which conventional values are reversed yet remain recognisably of the same order - like a photographic negative. He famously published a magazine - Pensamientos (Thoughts) - which he used as a vehicle to set out a personal credo in words that could be mistaken for those of a passionate evangelist. Here is an extract from one of his pieces:
Brothers in Christ, Mexicans, Michoacanos, fellow tropicals, we have so much in common: a humble birth, a harsh childhood, hard labour, little leisure, troubled dreams... Everything we do springs from this..... I dreamed of being someone, of fighting for my loved ones, so that everyone in future would enjoy all the things that I lacked in the days when injustice made me tremble with frustrated rage....thanks be to god that my dreams haven’t changed and now form part of my reality... - and from there I have come to an evangelistic, militant Christianity that the Crusaders would have recognised.
Easy though it may be to dismiss this as the self-justifying ramble of a criminal, the expression of outrage at the social and economic injustices of a deeply unequal country is something with which many Mexicans will sympathise.
Sinaloa is the home of the cartel of the same name, and headquarters of Mexico’s most famous drug baron - Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo. Since his escape from a federal prison in 2001, El Chapo has become something of a Robin Hood figure, a glamorous anti-hero with a reputation for daring and for generosity towards the poor. Countless articles have been written about him, as well as at least one book - Malcolm Beith’s The Last Narco. He is reputed to have a vast and complex network of legitimate as well as illegitimate business, with up to 150,000 people in his employ. In 2009, he made the Forbes list of world’s richest people - an accolade that drew a furious response from Mexican president Felipe Calderón who claimed that the magazine was glorifying criminality. Ever since El Chapo’s jail break, both the previous government and the present one claim to have devoted substantial resources to recapturing him. With the enormous wealth at his command, El Chapo can probably bribe his way out of trouble. He can also, without doubt, fight his way out: all the cartels are known to be equipped with modern weaponry imported - largely - from the United States, but also from other supposedly “respectable” countries like Germany.
Alone among the cartel leaders, El Chapo appears to have a significant section of the general public on his side, not least because many see him as an enemy of the feared Zetas and with a greater chance of bringing them to heel than the federal government.
He is not, however, the only cartel chief to capture the public imagination. Several are celebrated in popular songs - or corridos - composed, performed and recorded by professional groups. It is not uncommon for a drug lord to commission a corrido and, for obvious reasons, no one dares decline. Nor is it wise for local radio stations to refuse to broadcast such songs - despite official attempts to ban them from the airwaves.
There is sense in some quarters that the drug cartels - especially those able to project a social conscience (however distorted) - may be winning the battle for public opinion.
Almost immediately on taking office in December 2006, President Calderón launched a crackdown against the cartels, using the military rather than the police as the main instrument of attack. Part of the rationale for this offensive lay in the increasing bloodshed wrought by the gangs themselves as they fought each other for control over drug supplies and trade routes to the United States. Pressure is also likely to have come from the US administration for Mexico to clean up its act - though Mexicans point out that the US is the world’s largest market for illegal drugs and that a ‘clean-up’ will be unlikely to work unless something is done to restrict demand.
In any case, while Calderón’s anti-drugs war has claimed some successes, notably the capture or killing of several prominent narcos, the overall level of conflict has increased alarmingly. Since Calderón’s campaign began, over thirty-five thousand drug-related murders have been recorded - with the number of deaths steadily increasing. A further ten thousand people have been reported as missing - though the number of these is likely to be much larger. Reforma newspaper runs a macabre “Execution Metre” - an annual “organised crime” death count presented in graphic format. It shows a rise in “executions” every year since 2006, with steep increases over the last two years. Latest official figures for 2010 give a total of 15, 273 executions - making it the most violent year in the country’s peacetime history.
Many interpret these figures as evidence that the government’s war against the cartels is failing; and there are suspicions, too, that some of the leaders - El Chapo being one - are enjoying government protection.
Conspiracy theories abound, with some ministers such as Genaro García Luna, Minister of Public Security, suffering repeated press barrages for his alleged links with mobsters. The distrust of government, however, is not based on hard evidence. It stems from a failure of authority to deal with the savagery that prevails in so many Mexican states, from a sense of living in a country where criminality wins out over the law, from a feeling of powerlessness feeding a suspicion that the government itself is a participant in the lawlessness both through the corruption of ministers and its tactic of responding to violence with violence so that citizens can hardly tell the difference between the behaviour of the official and the unofficial armed forces.
If anything seems clear in this chaos of brutality, religiosity and perverse idealism, it is that President Calderon’s war against the cartels is about a lot more than the drug trade. Unlike the leaders of revolutionary groups such as the Zapatistas, or the kidnappers of national politician Diego Fernández de Cevallos who left a well-written if tortuous justification of their action, the narcos come from the poor and marginalised classes who - a century after the Mexican Revolution - continue to account for over half of the country’s 110 million people. For everyone, from top to bottom of the cartel hierarchies - the petty traders, couriers and hit-men, the marijuana and poppy growers, as well the bosses and their wives and mistresses - the drug trade provides a path out of poverty and access to a life-style unobtainable, indeed not even thinkable, in the world of so-called legitimate activity. Here lies the challenge not just to Mexico but to a wider world.
Capitalism has proved over time to be a prime force for the creation of wealth. By the same token, it has shown a tendency to concentrate that wealth in relatively few hands - particularly in the neo-liberal version that holds sway in a large part of the West. Extremes of inequality can produce in people who are marginalised by the economic or political system a belief that they no longer have a stake in “society”, that the prevailing order is one of injustice and cruelty from which they can expect nothing positive, and that their only recourse is to hold it in contempt. This effect may well lie at the heart of Mexico’s problem; and it also offers a warning that no country can afford to ignore.
In the words of Isaiah Berlin:
Men will suffer for centuries in societies whose structure is made stable by the accumulation and retention of all necessary power in the hands of some one class. Ferment begins only when this order breaks down for some reason...Lack of adequate status, humiliation of the parents, and the sense of injury and indignation of the children are what drives men to social and political extremism.
Mexico’s drug war represents a challenge not just to Mexico but to the West. The turmoil has already spilled into the United States and possibly also to the country’s southern neighbours - Guatemala and El Salvador. Europe, too, has recently become a target market for the Mexican cartels.
In the end, this is a war about fundamental human justice in almost every conceivable sense of that phrase. The solution, if there is one, will require an international response; solidarity with Mexico as the country struggles to find a path to peace, and maybe something more - recognition that neither peace nor justice can be achieved while so many millions of our fellow human beings lack the wherewithal to live a dignified life. Four hundred and fifty years ago, in 1562, the great French essayist Montaigne heard the message in Paris from the lips some of the first South Americans to cross the Atlantic.
....(the visitors) noted that though there were some men among us of great wealth, many were ragged, half-starved beggars; and they found it strange that people who suffered such injustice did not rise up and take the rich by the throat or set fire to their houses.
That may well be what the cartels are about.

Note: This piece was originally published in Open Democracy

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rethinking Labour - A Reply to Anthony Barnett

I agree with your analysis, Anthony, although I wouldn’t characterize the Cruddas et al. exposition as childish, merely suggest that it suffers - in common, I’m afraid, with most of this debate - from a failure to confront the obstacles that stand in the way of what Jonathan rightly calls the destructive effects of capitalist globalization.

It seems to me that there is a double confusion here.

The political/philosophical confusion is symbolized for me by the left’s obsession with Burke. We find it again in the Cruddas et al piece: England's radical traditions are rooted in the political struggle for the liberty that Edmund Burke describes as ‘social freedom'.” Really? The most casual reader of - say - Reflections on the Revolution in France - will not fail to note that Burke’s radicalism stopped at Magna Carta. He believed in inherited power and entrenched inequality, opposed any idea of political progress ...A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views...!!!, opposed democratic elections election (of a head of state) would be utterly destructive of the unity, peace, and tranquillity of this nation..., and did not deign to exclude anti-semitism from his personal Weltanschauung Jew brokers contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation....the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils.... (All quotations from Reflections.....).

Burke was not a democrat in any sense that Keir Hardie would have recognized, and the attempt by certain Labour party intellectuals to co-opt him strikes me as evidence of how threadbare are the philosophical underpinnings of modern (New Labour) thinking.

This is not a minor issue. It suggests that the Party lacks ideological grounding, and that its leading thinkers do not really know what it should stand for. Hence why the so-called “centre ground” that Labour likes to claim for itself (in common with the other two Parties), has shrunk to a tiny patch of earth about the size of a dinner plate, on which the main issues of dispute are confined to marginal differences in the speed but not the direction of shuffle: should we cut a bit faster or a bit slower...? The debate takes place at a numbingly trivial level and is voiced largely by politicians who have already bought wholesale the neo-liberal agenda that has so damaged the fabric of our society as well as that of more impoverished communities world wide.

There has been much hand-wringing since the onset of the financial crisis. Many have been the calls for radical change. Except at the margins, however the UK political landscape offers no alternative to what Saint-Simon called the “withering away of the state...”; the idea that where ends are agreed, the only issues that remain are of means and these can best be addressed not by politicians and philosophers, but by commercial entrepreneurs and technocrats. The process is exemplified in this country by the single-minded commitment of governments since Thatcher to dispose of every piece of public property and enterprise that can be sold, and to hand to the private sector responsibility for delivering social and economic welfare, and administering ancillary areas of national life.

One hopes that Anthony is correct and that Labour’s fresh young leader is, indeed, ahead of his party in rethinking its future trajectory. The task will not be easy - less because of the resistance Ed Miliband may meet within his own Party than because he will need to break out of the neo-liberal straight-jacket.

This is much easier said than done. Free market advocacy remains part of Labour’s contemporary discourse. Cruddas et al. certainly rail against neo-liberalism, but they offer nothing in its place beyond a vague call for transforming the political terrain... and a statement - more a pious hope - that the neo-liberal era is coming to an end... Anthony Painter’s comment in his post that the global free market is high risk with too many losers... is spot on, but it begs the question of what - in a “globalized world” - we can do about it.

We could do worse than begin by asking what is meant by “free and open markets” or “Free Trade”. In theory, the concept assumes that the playing field is level and that signed-up countries play the game by the same rules. Neither is true. Playing fields are never level and much tilting takes place below the visible horizon or in a form that is difficult to monitor: local subsidies, manipulation of exchange rates, differential tax regimes and regulatory environments, national economic development policies, the nods and winks of political leverage, and so on. Measuring these differences is nigh on impossible; and counteracting them, therefore, infeasible.

Even if the playing fields were level, however, the underlying absurdity of “free trade” would remain. Use of the word “free” in this context is, in itself, misleading. Once a government enters into a free trade accord, the transactions to which the arrangement refers cease to be free. Circumstances may change - as they do frequently - and what may once have seemed a beneficial agreement may come to seem onerous. Too bad. An agreement is an agreement; and in this case it is supported by theory. Ever since David Ricardo we have known that Free Trade medicine is good for us. In the UK, as Cruddas et al. point out, we no longer own our productive sector - a consequence of “free and open markets”. People are thrown out of work on the nod of a Chief Executive who lives thousands of miles away. That, too, is apparently good for us even if, as has been the case for some time, inequality has been rising along, with levels of personal indebtedness among the worst off.

Lest we suspect that the medicine in the bottle may be snake oil, political pundits of all three parties constantly remind us that “free” markets are essential to our prosperity. People thrown out of work by competitive closures are supposed to adopt a Panglossian view of matters, reassured that everything is as it should be in the best of all possible economic paradigms. Yet the most successful developing economies - those of Brazil, China and India, and the Asian Tigers, all operate managed trade regimes. The United States has always protected her own markets, and continues to do so in sectors such as agriculture and agro-industry, even while trumpeting the advantages of free trade in sectors where the country is clearly competitive.

What this means, among many other things, is that while free trade seems highly convincing on paper, in practice the world fails to conform to its cosy promise of rising general prosperity. Trade is undoubtedly fruitful and healthy; but if it is to be truly free, then it should be subject to the wishes of the people not bound to a piece of paper signed and sealed for all time and unchangeable regardless of circumstance. At present, no matter how deep the popular misgivings about open markets, and the agonizing of those who lament its effects, voters have nowhere else to go. No one is offering to tear up those pieces of paper and replace them with something that may in time help us to take back control of our economy.

That, in essence, is the political challenge. Is any Party both prepared to confront the current orthodoxy and able to offer a convincing alternative vision of how we should conduct our economic affairs? Unless, Labour rises to this challenge, the calls for a new, invigorated Party - one truly representative of the people and capable of addressing their fears and aspirations - will fall on barren soil.