Drugs and Violence on the Border: Reflections on a Panel Discussion

Last Wednesday, three guest speakers came to Sarah Lawrence to share their viewpoints on narco-capitalist violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The multi-media testimonial and panel discussion featured Bernardo Ruiz, a documentary filmmaker, Macrina Cardenas Alarcon, a community activist, and former legislative coordinator for the Mexico Solidarity Network in Washington, D.C., Guillermo Cervantes.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence, Bernardo Ruiz started off the talk with a short screening of his latest documentary, Repertero. Repertero captures the challenges facing a veteran reporter and his colleagues as they expose the violence and wrongdoings of drug cartels and corrupt officials. Drug cartels are increasingly engaging in violent turf battles, a large number of kidnappings and executions and shocking forms of violence. The competition and fighting among powerful cartels, as well as shootouts between cartel members and law enforcement agents, have left thousands dead, paralyzed whole cities with fear and spawned a culture of corruption. Risking abuse and execution, journalists have been highly discouraged to publish narco-related stories. Yet, as the hero of Ruiz’ documentary, Sergio Haro, contends, “Journalism must reflect that reality.”

The paper in question is Sermanario Zeta, a hard-hitting investigative weekly newspaper covering organized crimes, massacre and violence. Each 96 page volume is published under precarious threat, especially considering the 74 killings of past reporters. Not wanting to risk the paper’s freedom to publish, Zeta prints and imports its papers from California. Every Thursday trucks would bring out the freshly printed newspaper to be distributed among the smaller carriers in Mexico. Indeed, this act of defiance reflects the life of the founder of the paper who was ousted from Mexico and yet continued to write from the United States. Zeta was founded in 1980 when the government was authoritarian, repressive and intolerant of criticisms.

Bernardo’s screening was followed by a pictorial by Guillermo Cervantes that testifies the prevalence of violence in narco-related states. Severed heads. Dismembered bodies. Blown up cars. These are among the images haunting the daily lives of people in the violence-racked border town, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Fraught with mounting atrocities and frustrations, Cervantes’ pictorial captured the shocking acts of violence plaguing the city. Except for the four thematic sections, the pictures were not labeled or given any order to depict the events contained as a reality that persists, repeats itself, and becomes part of a daily life. Since 2008, cases of homicide skyrocketed from 300 to 3,000. Extortion and kidnapping have grown at an unprecedented rate. More than 10,000 businesses have closed down. More than 100,000 homes were abandoned. A sense of powerlessness grew as the screen displayed more and more devastating images.

More shocking than the gory depictions of violence is that many of the crimes were committed by the Mexican military. Since taking office, President Felipe Calderón has relied heavily on the armed forces  intended to fight serious drug-related violence and organized crime. A tenet of the Reagan doctrine, Calderón codified the militarized approach to combat drug cartels and increase public security. More than 40,000 military and police officers have been deployed throughout the country. In violent cities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, local governments appointed high-ranking military officers to head the police forces.

But while engaging in law enforcement activities, Mexico’s armed forces have committed serious human rights violations, the victims of which too often have no connection to the drug trade or insurgencies. Security forces systematically use torture to obtain forced confessions from detainees or information about drug cartels. Soldiers and police carry out “disappearances”, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions, and in many cases have taken steps to conceal their crimes. They conduct house search like shooting practice. “It doesn’t make sense,” Cervantes remarked.

The Mexican military court system is failing miserably to provide justice in cases involving military abuses against civilians.  Politicians stimulate blank interest and do little to remedy the situation. Abuses have gone unpunished insofar as the cases were investigated and prosecuted by the military itself. Military officers involved in law enforcement activities increasingly commit egregious violence with impunity and create a climate of intimidation that deters people from denouncing abuses. “Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

This grave malfunction of law enforcement has led civilians to commit copycat crimes, perpetuating the lawlessness of military officers. Equally, the same disillusioned population will find appeal to work for the narco-related industry. A society that endorses crime and oppresses the victim will only reinforce more violence and lawlessness. Those who want to avoid abuse must become the abuser. “We live in constant fear. We cannot trust each other,” Cervantes said. Investigations, if any, are half-hearted and fail to provide useful explanation. In such cases, the mothers and families of victims are the ones who take initiative to gather evidence and carry out investigations.

In similar vein, Macrina Cardenas de Alarcon talked about femicides in the state of Chihuahua. De Alarcon has spent over ten years organizing to end femicides in Ciudad Juárez, both with the Mexico-US Solidarity Network and with various organizations led by families of femicide victims. As Macrina Cardenas de Alarcon explained, violence does not happen by itself in vacuum. She argues that the socioeconomic situation resulted from the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 stages a situation in which the drug industry blooms uninhibited. Since 1993, the frequency of femicide in Chihuahua increased from once every 12-14 days to once every 20 hours in 2010.

By all accounts, the efficacy of counterdrug efforts in Mexico is not unrelated to its socioeconomic conditions. Much of the violence recorded was concentrated in the economically dynamic narco-related regions: 10,000 out of the 50,000 people who were murdered were in Ciudad Juarez, this including 69% of the femicide cases. In this area, drug trafficking and the maquilla industry generate the most significant portion of the employment. Receiving little income and no rights whatsoever, the workers are among the most vulnerable populations in Mexico. The women who constitute the maquilla labors of this category are often subject to torture, sexual abuse and rape. Clearly, the willingness of these narco-laborers to assume risk of criminalization and abuse is symptomatic of a widespread socioeconomic marginalization.

A significant part of the Mexican government’s failure to contain violence is the extraordinary influence of the drug industry. Drug-related corruption is prevalent and institutionalized in all layers of the society, making it next to impossible to convict crime since the perpetrators work alongside the prosecutors. Then again, corruption is just another way to supplement low wages where there is widespread poverty and chronic income shortages, hence the lack of political will to take decisive action. Responding to the increasing number of femicides in Chihuahua, the State Attorney General deemed 93% of the victims as victims of domestic violence.

De Alarcon argues that the drug problem is thus more than just a criminal problem: it is a social problem. Both she and Cervantes later stressed that the absence of social programs for education and employment in a declining economy strengthens the appeal to work for the drug industry. Without easing the socioeconomic demand for the drug industry, any counternarcotic effort will only heighten initiatives by the drug cartels to gain control of their operations. Fronting increased pressure from law enforcement, drug cartels have unsurprisingly increased stake in Mexican politics using bribes and violence. In another instance, Mexican drug traffickers facing tightened security stepped up efforts to corrupt border agents.

At the end of the day, a meaningful discussion of Mexico’s drug problem cannot be divorced from a discussion of the drug problem in the United States. While in recent years, the United States has expanded its role in Mexico to control violence through a $1.4 billion anticrime aid and support in law enforcement and intelligence, such benign efforts are unlikely to solve the multifaceted challenge of the ‘War on Drugs’. The violence continues, as does the northward flow of illegal drugs. Incisive examination of Mexico’s drug industry reveals an axiomatic relationship between the producer and the consumer. Ruiz humbly reminded that the United States remains Mexico’s largest market for drugs – a market that demands supply. He argues that there are more to be done in the United States, such as monitoring banks and restricting sales of weapons and automated guns. De Alarcon ultimately suggests that stronger community organization in both sides of the border is needed. By having public dialogues and increasing awareness, we can spur collective action able to redress this complex issue.

Image source: Google Images

Priscilla Liu is a multifaceted writer who complains and criticizes because deep down she believes in the good of mankind and the world can do better. She reads voraciously because she did not fit in well in high school nor was she particularly good at math. A sentient being who enjoys traveling and eating, Priscilla is from Jakarta, Indonesia, and continues to be an observant outsider in New York City. She is studying Economics to figure out why writers can’t do their jobs and afford housing at the same time.

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