Guest Article – History Lessons in Narcotráfico: A Rebuttal to “War on All Fronts”

It is difficult to rebut a piece of expository writing. It is even more difficult to concisely rebut several at once, and this is exactly the challenge that responding to Andrew Ferguson’s article “War on All Fronts” poses. Throughout his narrative, he jumps from a misguided history of the relationship between the Mexican government and cartels to skimming governmental tactics against increased cartel violence to presenting a thin summary of the international reach of drugs trafficked from Mexico. He concludes that “if the drug cartels are not recognized and dealt with on an international level, Mexico will continue to be a war zone,” – a statement wholly incongruent with the information he presents throughout his article, which is itself characterized by a shocking disregard for nuance.[1]

Image courtesy of Gobierno Federal, © 2012, some rights reserved.

I will first correct the most glaring of the factual errors Mr. Ferguson commits in his narrative before briefly addressing what I contend is a lazy conclusion that falls all too quickly into the hegemonic “narco boogeyman” discourse: that at the heart of this “war on all fronts” are the blood-drenched tribal wars of barbaric Sinaloan gangsters and disregarding, as it were, the insatiable American nose.

It is above all presumptuous to make predictions about Mexico’s future as a “war zone” without taking into account the country’s recent political history. In stating the following, Mr. Ferguson does just this:

“However, with the loss of the 2000 presidential election to the Democratic Party, drug cartels no longer see the need to maintain the status quo and have begun jostling more publicly for drug routes and territorial hegemony.”

It was not, as Mr. Ferguson writes, “the Democratic Party” that came to power in 2000 (no such political party exists in Mexico), but the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). The significance of the PAN’s rise to power in 2000 lies in the symbolism of having trounced the well-oiled political machine of the centrist Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI), thus ending 71 years of what Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa famously called “the world’s perfect dictatorship.”[2] The victory of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) signified the dawn of a multi-party democratic system in Mexican politics and an end to the corrupt but effective cartel policy espoused by the PRI: take out the big names among the traffickers, and tax the rest.

It was because of the PRI’s policies toward cartels that drug trafficking in Mexico remained relatively quiet throughout the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. It was not simply the PAN’s rise to power at the turn of the century which caused, as Mr. Ferguson claims, drug traffickers to take their territorial feuds to the streets of Mexico, but rather a response to current president Felipe Calderón’s policies.

It was when Calderón (2006-2012) took office and declared war on the cartels in 2006 that Mexico’s drug war began to take the shape we recognize today. Still new to the game the PRI had played for nearly three quarters of a century, the PAN was simply unable to control the cartels. Calderón and his administration turned to more militarized tactics. Mexican academics agree that the resulting explosion of violence that has changed the face of Mexico’s political landscape is inextricably linked to the PAN’s discontinuation of the PRI’s corrupt policies, and thus to the democratic transition.[3]

I therefore find it remarkable that Mr. Ferguson chose to exclude the results of the July 2012 election in his article, in which PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto prevailed over both the PAN candidate and the candidate of the socialist Paritido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), who was runner up in 2006’s highly-contested elections. Analysts agree that the return of the PRI to power signals a massive shift not only in public opinion towards the PAN and PRD parties, but in the future formation of government policy toward cartels. It is expected that Peña Nieto’s policies will focus on curbing violent crime, kidnapping, and robbery, all issues that are of more concern to the Mexican public than combating drug trafficking.[4] In their fourth quarter cartel forecast, STRATFOR analysts place great weight on how the president elect’s changing policies will affect cartel behavior and security in the region when he takes office 1 December.[5]

Perhaps most problematic is how Mr. Ferguson’s argument fits snugly into the hegemonic discourse of the “narco boogeyman.” This discourse is endemic in American and international literature concerning drug trafficking throughout Latin America, where it is rarely mentioned that Mexico has joined Brazil as one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies,[6] or that Mexico City is less murderous than Chicago, Detroit, or New Orleans.[7] The five o’clock news north of the border prefers to fixate on bloodthirsty brown men with catchy nicknames like “the Executioner” and “El Lucky” and their piles of nameless, decapitated corpses rather than to confront what is unquestionably the alpha and the omega of El Narco: a tremendous demand for illegally-trafficked substances from the global North.

If the purpose of Mr. Ferguson’s narrative was to give the reader as broad a picture of the current state of Mexico’s “war on all fronts” as possible, I can only fault him for the factual errors that mar his narrative. However, if he sought to engage with the Mexican political and economic present and future on a deeper analytical level, he defeats himself by neglecting to address the significance and repercussions of the 2012 presidential elections. It takes more than name-dropping El Chapo and femicide in Ciudad Juaréz to validate commentary on the political and economic wellbeing of Mexico.

Mr. Ferguson’s article attempts a paint-by-numbers of one of the world’s most complicated, multifaceted, and emotionally fraught insurgencies. This article’s analysis is unfortunately misguided, plays fast and loose with historical realities, and subscribes to the hegemonic discourse that blames violence in Mexico solely on those who traffic marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, and fails to take into account those who create the market for them.

Maria Isabel Lachenauer is a fourth-year student of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of St Andrews. She is an aspiring journalist whose interest in the geopolitics of Mexico stems from her family ties to the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León.

[1] Throughout this article I will use the term “drug traffickers” to denote the members of cartels, as Mr. Ferguson’s heavy-handed use of the term “drug cartels” conflates the members of the organizations with the organizations themselves, which will henceforth be referred to simply as “cartels”. For further reading on the origin and evolution of the term “cartel” and the problems associated with its usage, see El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011). Grillo’s book is widely regarded as essential reading for those seeking to educate themselves on the realities of the drug war in Mexico and its implications for the United States.

[2] “Mario Vargas Llosa: México me abre los brazos en vez de censurarme.” CNN México. N.p., 4 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.

[3] Grillo. Electronic edition.

[4] Carrell, Rory. “US concerned Mexico’s new president may go easy on drug cartels.” The Guardian. N.p., 2 July 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.

[5] “Mexican Drug War Update: Fourth Quarter Forecast.” STRATFOR. N.p., 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

[6] Eland, Ivan. “The US Should Take Lessons From Mexico.” N.p., 20 June 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.

[7] Grillo, Ioan, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Bloomsbury, New York: 2011). Electronic edition.

2 Replies to “Guest Article – History Lessons in Narcotráfico: A Rebuttal to “War on All Fronts””

  1. While I agree with your assertion that much of the discourse surrounding narcotrafficking in Mexico—and indeed much of the discourse surrounding ‘Mexican’ political, socioeconomic and identity issues more generally—is ahistorical, ill-informed and, quite simply, highly problematic, I must say that I believe that you are setting up something of a straw man in referencing Andrew’s article, which I found not only completely unobjectionable, but also well written, well argued and rather enjoyable.

    Specifically, it appears to me that your primary criticisms of Andrew’s article, despite the forcefulness with they were presented, were either unfounded or rather underdeveloped. For instance, PAN’s rise to power, and specifically Calderón’s militarization of the conflict from 2006, obviously played a central role in defining the violence that has since affected the country. Andrew seems to address this point, however, and your claims seem to merely elaborate on this. I can find few other “factual errors that mar his narrative”; indeed, beyond pointing out his misuse of the phrase “the Democratic Party”, you leave them unaddressed yourself. Similarly, the extent to which the conflict—or, to a greater extent, the state of Mexico as a whole—is depicted and securitized in the United States is a serious issue, and obviously any viable solution to the current conflict must include the demand side of the equation. I was sad to see that you did not develop this point further, but I must say that I read Andrew’s statement about the need for an international response a very similar way.

    I furthermore found your point about the PRI’s victory in this year’s elections to be rather curious, as although it obviously represents a significant shift in Mexico’s political landscape, claiming that “[a]nalysts agree” about what sort of effects it will have on the country’s drug-related violence seems, at best, misguided. As you criticized Andrew’s article for its apparent “shocking disregard for nuance”, this struck me as a rather heavy handed claim.

    Again, your article raises a number of important issues that clearly must be included in any serious discussion of Mexico’s tragic drug violence. A misapplication of its criticisms does their otherwise valid claims an unfortunate disservice.

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