The horrific toll of a failed war

Mexico's war on drugs has ensnared politicians, journalists and many others, without ever addressing the underlying cause of drug trafficking, explains Helen Redmond.

Demonstrators gather in Tijuana to call for an end to Mexico's drug war (Fronteras)Demonstrators gather in Tijuana to call for an end to Mexico's drug war (Fronteras)

IN 2006, Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico, snuck into the Mexican Senate at midnight, took the presidential oath and fled out the back door to avoid protesters. Then he traveled to his home state of Michoacán, donned a military uniform, declared war on the country's drug cartels and unleashed a hell on earth.

Six years later, the body count from this "war on drugs" is staggering: 71,000 dead.

It is a war that overwhelming kills young people. More than 75 percent of those murdered are under the age of 25. Calderón's war should go down in history as a crime against humanity, and he should be put on trial for war crimes against the Mexican people.

The president-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, plans to continue the war. During the campaign, Nieto made a vague pledge to reduce the violence, but gave no specifics. But his top security adviser, former Colombian police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo, has a plan. More of the same.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Naranjo said he wants to create elite units composed of the navy, army and police. The units would target low-level assassins while continuing to pursue major drug traffickers like Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

A continuation of the war on drugs guarantees that the gruesome violence and human rights abuses that are hallmarks of the war won't end. People don't just die in drug-related violence--they are beheaded, their hands and feet are chopped off, and they are stuffed in garbage bags left by the side of the road. Tortured bodies are hung from busy commuter bridges, duct tape wrapped around their eyes and mouths with banners boasting that drug cartel assassins can kill anyone.

Fleeing drug-war violence, more than 300,000 Mexicans have been internally displaced. Ten thousand people have disappeared. No one knows where they are, and no one is looking for them because it's too dangerous. Many of the corpses that are found cannot be identified because Mexican authorities don't have modern forensic technology.

No one is safe, not even government officials. In 2010, 11 mayors were killed. What would happen if 11 mayors were murdered as a consequence of the war on drugs in the United States?

In Ciudad Juárez, one of the epicenters of drug-war violence, a birthday party full of children was attacked, and 15 were killed. Calderón called the children "gangsters," but it turned out that they were honor students and athletes.

In a rare meeting by Calderón with families of drug-war casualties, Luz María Davila, whose two sons died, confronted Calderón. "Excuse me, Mr. President," she said. "I cannot welcome you here because you called my two murdered sons gangsters. That is a lie." At one point, she shouted, "Enough with your war!"

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CENTRAL TO justifying the drug war is the idea that those who are killed must have been involved in the drug trade. Their assumed "guilt by association" means that if they were kidnapped, tortured or murdered, they had only themselves to blame.

The demonization and criminalization of drug-war victims is the drug warrior's trump card. Who's going to defend the rights or investigate the murders of people who cultivate, manufacture, transport or use illegal drugs?

Throughout his presidency, Calderón said publicly that the escalating violence and murder rates were an indication of "success" in the war against the drug cartels. His attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, agreed, saying it was a "sign of their weakness, decomposition and deterioration."

But it's nothing short of delusional to believe that.

The drug cartels grew six-fold during Calderón's two terms. They control entire sections of the country and are recognized as having de facto authority in some areas. Roadblocks and checkpoints are visible symbols of their control. In the war zones, foot soldiers of the Sinaloa and Los Zetas gangs blow up cars and buildings, set public buses on fire, lob grenades at police, fire automatic weapons into crowds and assassinate government officials.

A series of bold attacks on prisons by the narcotraficantes have freed their members. Ninety-five percent of murders are never investigated, so those who carry out the slaughter face no consequences.

The drug lords have succeeded for decades in corrupting local and federal police, as well as the military--the very security forces that are supposed to be waging the war against drugs. A study published in La Jornada revealed that an estimated 62 percent of municipal, ministerial and federal agents are suspected of having links to the cartels. The illicit drug trade can only continue with the cooperation of government officials at all levels.

Heroin, cocaine and marijuana move with ease toward the U.S. border through the major drug-cultivating states of Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Jalisco and Sinaloa. The heavily fortified U.S.-Mexico border poses no serious obstacle to the drug traffickers. Millions in bribes buy off border police and customs inspectors on both sides. America, after all, is the largest consumer of illicit substances in the world, and the billions in profits that the cartels make ensure daily, on-time delivery.

Bribes or bullet-ridden bodies--it's not personal, it's about a highly desirable commodity getting to consumers in black markets. International banks launder drug money by the truckloads. The illegal drug trade is embedded in the legal economy and always has been.

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THE DRUG cartels have become so powerful that they control the media in certain parts of Mexico. Newspapers and other media outlets find themselves under a sustained and violent assault and have been effectively shut down in cities where drug traffickers control the government. Offices have been bombed with explosives, and television stations attacked by gunmen with automatic weapons. A grenade was tossed into the newsroom of the daily newspaper El Mañana.

Mexico is now one of the most dangerous countries in which to be a reporter. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 48 journalists have been murdered or disappeared since 2006. The narcotraficantes target journalists who cover the drug war. Reporters have been kidnapped, tortured and lived to write about it, while others have left the country and now file reports from cities that border Mexico.

Journalists covering the drug war have effectively become "war correspondents," working under the constant threat of death. Reporters hire bodyguards and wear bulletproof vests.

In 2010, El Diario, one of Mexico's leading newspapers, wrote a front-page editorial that asked the question, "What do you want from us?" It was directed at drug-cartel bosses who murdered two of its employees. The answer: don't investigate our crimes, or we will kill you.

A new documentary called Reportero by Bernardo Ruiz chronicles the grim toll that the war on drugs has taken on freedom of the press. The film asks, "How do you report on the crime of the century when you become the target of the killers?" Reportero follows veteran reporter Sergio Haro and his co-workers at the weekly newspaper Zeta as they risk their lives to cover the cartels and the carnage.

The Zeta staff has redefined investigative journalism in the face of violence from both the narcotraficantes and the Mexican government. The newspaper is owned by the employees, and therefore is independent from corporate, union and political interests. And to avoid censorship or physical attacks on a printing press facility, the paper is printed in the United States and then shipped back into Mexico. To safeguard journalist's lives, they introduced the collective byline "Zeta Collective."

The reporters and editors at Zeta are genuine heroes in a war that is full of political and media cowards. "If I didn't tell the story, I'd be an accomplice," said Haro.

The war on drugs in Mexico, in the words of poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered, "has been paid for with the blood of the Mexican people."

But there is a way to end it: Legalize all drugs. It is the only way to stop the violence.

Legalization of drugs is being openly discussed in Central and Latin America. The leaders of Belize, Colombia, Guatemala and Uruguay are pursuing the option. The Uruguayan government has taken the lead and is drafting legislation to create a state-controlled system to regulate, supply and sell marijuana.

But which country is the biggest threat to enacting this common sense, public health approach to drugs? The United States.

At the recent Summit of the Americas in Colombia, President Barack Obama said:

I personally and my administration's position is that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint, could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo.

Tell that to 71,000 dead Mexicans.