Flourishing drug demand in the U.S. and Canada has combined with the destruction of Mexico’s traditional economy to increase the power of the Mexican drug cartels. At the same time, the cartels are at war over the drug market in Mexico, with drastic results including the recent massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in Northern Mexico.
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: The discovery of 72 murdered migrants on a ranch in northern Mexico last week has brought more attention to the violence in a country in the grips of a war between competing drug cartels. I spoke with investigative journalist Bruce Livesey, who recently returned from Ciudad Juárez on Mexico’s northern border, where he produced reports for NPR and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
FREESTON: I think, Bruce, a lot of people are aware of the violence in Mexico, but not all of us really understand it and what’s at the roots of it. And sort of that was what compelled your journey there. Could you tell us a little bit about what you found?
BRUCE LIVESEY, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: It’s a somewhat complicated story, in the sense that it’s very much rooted in the history of Mexico, in sort of the past and recent times. And, essentially, in a nutshell, up until about 2000 the arrangement in Mexico was that the Mexican state and government and the political party at the time, which was the PRI, and the cartels sort of worked all in this kind of tango of corruption together. And so drugs could pass through Mexico, and everybody got a bit of money out of it, and the role of the state was to sort of manage and be a referee among the cartels. And what changed was in 2000 the PRI fell from power, and essentially PAN came to power on an anticorruption platform. So they essentially didn’t want to be the referee among the cartels any longer. And what that led to was that in this sort of vacuum of power, the cartels began to compete with each other openly for each other’s marketplace. Really it was through, I’d say, from about 2000 to 2006, the violence among the cartels began to grow as they began to sort of jostle for market share. I think the other thing that was very critical in this was NAFTA, and NAFTA played a role in two ways. In the early 1990s, the Americans were very successful in preventing, stopping sort of the flow of drugs to Florida from Colombia, especially cocaine. And what this did was that it forced the Colombians to think of another route of the drugs into the North American market, and they essentially cut a deal with the Mexican drug cartels to start transporting the drugs through Mexico. And when NAFTA came into effect in the early ’90s, this made it much easier, ’cause the flow of trucks across the border increased enormously. And they began throwing shipments of heroin, crystal meth, and marijuana in with these shipments of cocaine, and it made them suddenly much more wealthier. Their portion of controlling the American market place grew enormously. So most of the drugs now entering the United States come through Mexico. So you had this combination of where the Mexican drug cartels got wealthier, the government stopped playing this role of being the referee. And what always happens in the world of organized crime, when you have no sort of regulation, is that—and it’s generally a world that attracts the most ruthless aspect of the population—is you end up with a lot of people killing each other. And that’s really sort of at—in an overview, what’s been happening.
FREESTON: It hasn’t just brought in maybe the most ruthless aspects as well. It’s also brought in normal people who’ve sort of been left between a rock and a hard place. And maybe talk about NAFTA and some of the other aspects of the transformation of the Mexican economy.
LIVESEY: One thing that occurred with NAFTA was it allowed American produce, you know, especially, you know, agricultural produce, into the Mexican market. And essentially the Americans, their produce was cheaper and better than the Mexicans’. So essentially what that did is it wiped out the Mexican agricultural sector to a great extent. So a lot of the small farmers in central Mexico who were just, you know, barely getting by suddenly were out of work, and they essentially migrated north to cities like Juárez, where factories had been set up, in the maquiladoras, and to take advantage of, you know, free trade, essentially to exploit Mexican workers and produce goods for the American market. And so you saw Juárez in the sort of late ’90s, early 2000s actually become a prosperous city—you know, a lot more investment there and a large growth in population. Well, then a couple of things happened. One is that a lot of those jobs vanished when suddenly China and India became the place to be, to send your manufacturing. So you had now this displaced population in northern Mexico who couldn’t go back to the land to make a living because they couldn’t compete with American produce, and increasingly their only economic opportunity was the drug trade. This was essentially dealing in narcotics. So they became employees of the drug cartels. And that—so now you have a significant portion of the Mexican population that is involved somehow, either directly or indirectly involved, in the drug trade. It is now considered the second biggest export and industry in Mexico is the drug trade, after oil production.
FREESTON: So 2006, Felipe Calderón comes to power in what could best be described as a controversial election. Then what happens?
LIVESEY: Many believe that in order to sort of put a stamp of legitimacy on his government that, as you say, got elected under questionable circumstances, he decides to act like the macho man and send the army into—primarily in northern Mexico, into the towns and villages and cities, in order to ostensibly take on the drug cartels. And they will say, we’re taking on all the drug cartels. So the problem was that Calderón doesn’t really control the state. He doesn’t—the state has become so corrupted over the decades that it’s easily manipulated by other forces in Mexico. He also—he failed to recognize—or perhaps he did know this, but the upshot was the Mexican army has long played a role in the drug trade, going back 100 years. In the mid-’90s, one of the most famous arrests was the drug czar in Mexico who was also a Mexican military general. And he was in bed with the Juárez cartel, so that the Mexican army has this long history of corruption with the drug trade. So, essentially, Calderón was sending in a force that he didn’t really control. And what essentially has happened is the Mexican army got easily corrupted and manipulated by the drug trade, and especially by the drug cartels. So now what’s happened is that the army has taken sides in the war among the cartels.
FREESTON: I’m just going to—we’re going to end this segment here. And in the next segment we’ll talk about specifically how that relationship plays out and what you saw in Ciudad Juárez, if you join us for part two of our interview with Bruce Livesey.
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