Pubdate: Thu, 15 Jun 2000
Source: New York Review of Books, The (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Review of Books, Inc.
Issue: June 15, 2000
Contact:  1755 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10019-3780
Fax: (212) 333-5374
Page: 24-29
Author: Michael Massing


On July 2, Mexico will elect a new president, and the race is expected
to be one of the closest in Mexican history.

One of the two leading candidates is Francisco Labastida of the ruling
Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). An economist by training,
Labastida is a longtime party functionary who has served as the
governor of the state of Sinaloa and, most recently, as the minister
of gobernacion, or government, the country's second most powerful
post. The gobernacion minister is responsible, among other things, for
internal security and intelligence, and Labastida--gray-haired,
poker-faced, reserved in manner--seems to fit the part.

His main opponent, Vicente Fox of the conservative Partido de AcciF3n
Nacional (PAN), is a swaggering former Coca-Cola executive whose
cowboy boots make him look even taller than his six-feet-six-inch frame.

Fox is given to brash, dramatic pronouncements that have won him much
time on Mexico's TV stations, which have traditionally favored the
PRI. (The third major candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist
Partido de la RevoluciF3n Democratico (PRD), lags far behind.) Fox
has hammered away at what he considers the costs of seventy years of
unbroken PRI rule: pervasive corruption, economic mismanagement, and
connivance with the drug traffickers who move huge amounts of cocaine
into the United States.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), about 60
percent of all the cocaine consumed in the United States enters
through Mexico. Mexico is also a major supplier of heroin, marijuana,
and methamphetamine--speed. The revenues from this trade have made the
big drug traffickers, the "narcos," a powerful force in Mexico.
President Ernesto Zedillo has said they are the nation's most urgent
national security concern.

To Vicente Fox, however, the Zedillo government is itself heavily
implicated in the drug trade. "The narcos took over the PRI long ago,"
he has said. "No president from the PRI can solve this because their
governments have participated in the drug trade." If elected, Fox
says, he will "clean up the place and straighten up

Labastida has angrily denied Fox's charges, promising, if elected, to
declare "all-out war" on drugs.

But he has been dogged by rumors about his complicity with drug
traffickers. On April 30, for instance, the Los Angeles Times ran a
front-page article headlined "PRI CANDIDATE'S DRUG STANCE STIRS
DOUBTS." In its account of Labastida's record as governor of Sinaloa,
the Times said that, while there was "no solid evidence" that
Labastida had made deals with the powerful traffickers there,
interviews with "nearly two dozen" officials and analysts "suggest
that Labastida was less than the heroic crusader he has portrayed in
his ads." For "American authorities," the paper added, "Labastida's
experience is of keen interest.

Would it inspire him, if elected, to go after narcotics

The candidate says it would. But others believe that Labastida's
experience illustrates why it has been so difficult for the Mexican
authorities to make progress against drug cartels."

In recent years similar stories about Mexican drug trafficking have
regularly appeared in the US press.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have assigned special
correspondents to cover the drug trade in Latin America, with a
particular emphasis on Mexico. (In 1998, the Times won a Pulitzer
Prize for a series of reports on drug corruption in Mexico.1 ) For the
most part, the articles convey a sense of alarm about the flow of
drugs through the country, and of frustration at the Mexicans' failure
to do anything about it. "MEXICO CLEARS A TOP OFFICIAL OF GRAFT, BUT
DOESN'T CONVINCE THE US," a Times headline said in June 1999. In
November 1999, according to a Washington Post headline, "DRUGS FLOOD

In describing the corrosive effects drugs have had on Mexico, US press
coverage has often been exaggerated and misleading. A good example
occurred last fall, when US and Mexican investigators descended on the
border town of Ciudad Juarez to search for the bodies of people who
had disappeared at the hands of drug traffickers or of police officers
linked to them. On November 29, the CBS Evening News was the first to
report that an FBI task force had moved into the border area "to begin
recovering an estimated 100 bodies at two grave sites just inside the
Mexican border." The next day, the story appeared in newspapers across
the country, with most putting the number of bodies at "more than
100." Those figures seemed plausible; an association of relatives of
victims claimed that nearly two hundred people had disappeared around
Juarez. After days of digging, however, the forensic team found the
remains of just nine bodies and two dogs, and the investigation was
widely viewed as a fiasco.

The exaggeration could be traced back to the FBI. According to
officials I talked to in Juarez and Mexico City, the Mexican informant
who told the FBI about the grave sites said he personally knew of only
a handful of bodies buried there.

But a senior FBI official--engaging in creative extrapolation--had
leaked the larger number to CBS and other news organizations, which
dutifully made a story of it.

This was not an isolated case. Pronouncements by US officials about
Mexican drug trafficking have often been exaggerated, and so has the
reporting in the US press.

Mexico has been portrayed as a "narco-state," with the traffickers
penetrating every institution. Drug trafficking certainly poses a
threat to Mexico, but the American press coverage has often inflated
expectations about what can be done about it, and misled Americans
about the real source of the drug problem.

Across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Juarez seems in many ways a
Texas town. The city's broad avenues are lined with fast-food
restaurants, gas stations, and shopping malls.

On weekends, its many nightclubs, restaurants, and bars lure crowds of
students from across the border.

Juarez also has Mexico's largest concentration of maquiladoras, or
assembly plants.

Parts arrive here from companies in the United States, Europe, and
Japan to be assembled by workers making $30 to $40 a week. Finished
goods bound for the United States are loaded onto trailer trucks and
sent over one of the three bridges that connect Juarez to El Paso.

The bridges are also a major conduit for illegal drugs.

In a raw display of the logic of the global economy, the same
qualities that make Juarez a haven for maquiladoras--cheap labor, lax
regulation, and proximity to the United States--also make it ideal for
drug trafficking.

The drug traders naturally try to conceal their business from
outsiders, but US and Mexican drug enforcement officials--relying on
raids, wiretaps, informants, and trial testimony--have gathered much
information about how it works. The industry is currently dominated by
four large organizations. (The commonly used term "cartel" is a
misnomer, for these organizations do not collude to fix prices--the
defining characteristic of a cartel.) One organization, based in the
northwestern state of Sonora and led by Miguel Caro Quintero,
cultivates marijuana throughout Mexico and also deals in heroin and
cocaine. Another, based in Guadalajara and led--until their recent
arrest--by the Amezcua Contreras brothers, specializes in
methamphetamine, which is particularly popular in the US West and Midwest.

A third, much larger organization is based in Tijuana. It is led by
the Arellano Felix brothers, one of whom, RamF3n, is on the FBI's
ten-most-wanted list. The organization, which recruits gang members
from the streets of San Diego and from among Tijuana's relatively
well-off young people, is widely viewed as the country's most violent.

Over the years it has killed many police officers.

Rivaling the Tijuana organization in size, if not in its violence, is
the Juarez organization. Since the death of its top capo, Amado
Carrillo Fuentes, in 1997, the group has been led by Carrillo
Fuentes's brother Vicente. While the organization deals in heroin and
marijuana, the main source of its wealth is cocaine. Produced in
Colombia, the cocaine is sent to Mexico in commercial ships or
"go-fast" boats, then unloaded in ports or coves.

At that point, members of the Juarez organization take over,
transferring the cocaine to trucks and driving it to Juarez and other
cities along the border, where it is stored in warehouses. When the
time is right, the cocaine is driven across the border for delivery to
organization members in such cities as Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago,
and New York. They sell the cocaine to wholesalers, who break it into
smaller quantities for distribution to local gangs, who then sell it
on the street.

The cash collected from the wholesalers is either laundered through
banks and other businesses in the United States or sent back to Mexico
to be laundered there.

Meanwhile the drugs are having devastating effects in Juarez. Five
years ago drug addiction was virtually unknown there.

Since then, the price of a dose of heroin has dropped from $100 to $3,
and today thousands have become addicted. Hundreds of picaderos, or
shooting galleries, have sprung up to sell drugs. The picaderos are
run by the city's five hundred or so pandillas, or gangs, many of
which are modeled on American gangs like the Bloods and Crips. The
gang members often engage in bloody fights, and addicts rob and steal
to support their habit.

The traffickers themselves, however, use violence more selectively,
usually to discipline people inside the organization. But the narcos,
with their beefy bodyguards, expensive cars, and fancy houses, keep
the city on edge.

I visited Esther Chavez Cano, a longtime resident who in recent years
has led a tenacious campaign to publicize the violence against women
in the city. Since 1995, more than two hundred women have been killed,
often by men they have been involved with. Chavez, who lives in a
comfortable house in a middle-class section of town, told me that on
her street five of the houses are occupied by narcos.

How could she tell? "You just know," she said--by their looks, by the
hours they keep, by the parties they frequently give. "Everybody knows
where they are," she said. "But they have very good lawyers.

And there's a lot of corruption."

Ignacio Alvarado, a Juarez journalist who covered the drug trade for
many years, told me that during the entire 1990s, as tons of cocaine
were passing through the city, the police "made only one seizure, and
that was by mistake. The police are completely corrupted.

They never investigate any murder by narco traffickers. They only talk
to the family of the victims, and they do that only so that they can
say they did it. The police know exactly who the traffickers are, but
they're either bought or threatened, so nothing happens."

To learn more about the police, I talked with Juarez's mayor, Gustavo
Elizondo. A member of PAN, Elizondo has a reputation for being an
honest, hard-working official, and when we met he described the
efforts he'd made to do something about the city's drug trade.

He had, he said, fired more than three hundred corrupt policemen and
raised the salaries of those who remained. To crack down on the
street-level trade, he had instructed the police to raid the city's
picaderos and arrest the men who ran them. Just a few days earlier,
the mayor had announced a program to offer cash rewards for tips
leading to the arrest of drug traffickers.

As Elizondo was quick to point out, though, there is a limit to what a
mayor can do. In Mexico, the state and local police have no legal
authority to fight traffickers; only the federal government does. (The
rationale for this being that drug trafficking is a national
problem.)And Elizondo was doing everything in his power to prod the
federal authorities. Two days after our talk, President Zedillo was
scheduled to visit Juarez, and Elizondo said he planned to ask him to
move more forcefully against the narcos.

The man leading the Zedillo government's fight against drugs is Jorge
Madrazo, Mexico's attorney general.

Most of the knowledgeable observers I talked to--American as well as
Mexican--described him as honest and well-intentioned. By training,
Madrazo is a professor of constitutional law; when Zedillo appointed
him, in December 1996, he was president of the National Human Rights
Commission, charged with investigating abuses by the police and army.
Madrazo was the seventh man to be named attorney general in seven
years, a sign of the turmoil in the office.

Madrazo rules over an enormous bureaucracy. The Procuraduria General
de la RepFAblica (PGR), as it is known, employs 18,000 prosecutors,
police officers, officials, and administrators. The PGR is responsible
for everything from investigating kidnappings to prosecuting car-theft
rings, but Madrazo has assigned over 60 percent of his staff to
stopping the drug trade.

Some of his most powerful enemies have been discovered within his own

Just two months after he took office, Mexico's top anti-drug officer,
JesFAs Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested by Mexican police for being on
the take. A balding general in his sixties, Gutierrez Rebollo was
actually living in a Mexico City apartment provided rent-free by the
Juarez organization. Madrazo helped prosecute the case against him,
and he is now serving thirty years in prison.

After Gutierrez Rebollo's arrest, Madrazo, declaring Mexico's justice
system to be in its "worst crisis" ever, set up a Confidence Control
Center to screen all police officers involved in anti-drug work. Since
then, current and potential officers have been subject to
psychological tests, urine tests, and polygraph tests.

Investigators interview families and friends and visit homes in search
of undeclared assets.

So far, Madrazo told me, 40 percent of those tested have been

To instill professional standards in those who remain, Madrazo has
brought in police instructors from France and Israel and sent officers
to study at the FBI training center in Quantico, Virginia. Madrazo has
also raised the salaries of his police, so that a rookie now earns
$1,000 a month, when the average income of a Mexican worker is $350 a

Even that salary is paltry, however, especially when compared to the
enormous sums paid out by the traffickers. According to a study by
Mexico's National University, they spend an estimated $500 million a
year on bribes.

A senior official in Madrazo's office told me of one PGR attorney in
Tijuana who was offered a million dollars a month by the traffickers
just to ignore their activities. He refused the bribe and prosecuted
the man who offered it, but not many police and prosecutors are so

Indeed, what is striking about the corruption in Mexico is the extent
to which law enforcement has become an arm of the traffickers and of
organized crime in general.

That the corruption extends into the upper reaches of the PGR is
apparent from the suicide in March of Juan Manual Izabal, a top aide
to Madrazo. Investigators found he had $700,000 in unexplained cash
squirreled away in a safe deposit box at a local Citibank branch.

A US official who has dealt with Madrazo told me, "The corruption
starts right outside his door, and I don't mean the door of his
building, but the door of his own office." Despite all Madrazo's good
intentions, he remains ineffectual.

That ineffectuality was nowhere more evident than in the case of Mario
Villanueva, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan
Peninsula. During Villanueva's six years in office the state became a
center of narco activities. Its thick tropical cover and rugged
coastline were ideal for smugglers, and members of the Juarez
organization turned the region into its main importation point for
Colombian cocaine.

To launder their proceeds, the traffickers bought up hotels and
restaurants in the resort city of CancFAn. Making little effort to
hide their presence, they traveled around the town in convoys of SUVs
with tinted windows.

Villanueva did nothing to intervene.

In its investigation, Madrazo's office documented not only the
smuggling activities of the Juarez syndicate but also the complicity
of dozens of local and state officials, Villanueva included, and it
prepared indictments against them. As governor, however, Villanueva
had immunity against prosecution, and to arrest him Madrazo had to
wait until April 1999, when his term ended.

Ten days before the appointed day, however, Villanueva vanished into
the jungle.

The PGR has not yet found him.

In one important respect, however, the investigation was
unprecedented: Villanueva was a senior member of the PRI, and never
before had the government planned to move so decisively against one of
its own. Yet even here its motives were questionable. Several
governors in Mexico have been suspected of working with the
traffickers, but only Villanueva has been indicted.

And, as it happens, he had been feuding with some of the PRI's

So the PGR's actions smacked of political retribution.

All of which points to a fundamental weakness in the PGR's activities:
it is basically an arm of the PRI. And so it's unlikely that Madrazo
would ever take action against anyone his superiors didn't want him to
pursue. "The attorney general can't go further than the president will
allow," says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a member of Mexico's Senate with
no party affiliation. Aguilar believes that Mexico needs an
independent body capable of investigating the executive branch.
"Nobody can penetrate the government--not even the United States,"
Aguilar told me. The only thing that could really make a difference,
he said, "would be a change of government. Then maybe we could put an
end to the impunity here."

Whatever one thinks of the PAN candidate Vicente Fox's politics, the
very fact of a change of government in Mexico could provide a shock to
its political system.

If elected--and we can expect a fierce effort by the PRI to stop
him--Fox would probably begin a long, laborious process of exposing
the many dark secrets that have accumulated over the seven decades of
PRI rule.

Even if Fox does win, however, there are sharp limits to what he--or
anyone else--can do to control Mexico's drug trade.

Consider the seemingly straightforward matter of arresting
traffickers. The DEA has made this its principal standard for
measuring Mexico's "resolve" in fighting drugs.

Last fall, for instance, when the story about the bodies in Juarez
broke, Thomas Constantine, the former head of the DEA, said on
Nightline, "We know the top 20 or 30 traffickers. We've indicted them
in the United States, yet they're never to be found, never to be arrested.

I've always said that would be the test of full cooperation."

Most US news organizations have adopted the same standard.

In February 1999, for instance, The Washington Post reported that
Mexico had "made no significant progress" in the previous year on
"several critical measures that are considered the true gauge of its
resolve to combat the illegal drug trade." Mexico's "two main illegal
drug organizations--the Tijuana and Juarez cartels--still operate with
few restraints," the Post said, adding that "even when kingpins were
arrested, they often evaded justice."

The premise underlying such accounts is clear: if only Mexico would
nab the drug lords, their organizations would collapse and the flow of
drugs into the United States would stop. Yet, over the years, the
killing and arrest of many top traffickers have had little effect.

During the mid-1980s, for instance, the most wanted trafficker in
Mexico was Rafael Caro Quintero, a leader of an organization in
Guadalajara. Caro Quintero had made a fortune running marijuana and
cocaine into the United States. This caught the attention of the DEA,
which began pressing the Mexican government to act. In a colossal
miscalculation, Caro Quintero arranged for the kidnapping and murder
of a DEA agent, Enrique Camarena. The DEA tracked Caro Quintero down
to San Jose, Costa Rica, and had him arrested.

Deported to Mexico, Caro Quintero was sentenced to life in

His organization, however, was quickly taken over by his brother,
Miguel, and the DEA still regards it as one of Mexico's four leading
drug groups.2

In the early 1990s, the DEA turned its attention to Juan Garcia
Abrego, the head of the so-called Gulf cartel, based in Matamoros,
across from Brownsville, Texas. Through generous bribery and much
killing of rivals, Garcia Abrego built an organization that, according
to US and Mexican officials, controlled up to one third of the cocaine
smuggled from Mexico into the United States. In 1993, he was indicted
in Houston, and in early 1996 the Mexicans arrested him. Garcia Abrego
was expelled to the United States, where he was tried and sentenced to
life in prison.

His organization began to crumble.

That simply opened up opportunities for other traffickers, however,
Amado Carrillo Fuentes among them. An enterprising trafficker from
Sinaloa, Carrillo Fuentes had set up his base in Juarez. Until the
early 1990s, his organization, like the others in Mexico, received a
fee of $1,500 to $2,000 for every kilogram it moved into the US. With
the Colombian traffickers growing weaker, however, Carrillo
Fuentes--along with other major traffickers--reportedly negotiated a
new deal in which he would be paid in kind, with half of each shipment
smuggled from Colombia going to his organization for distribution in
the United States. Soon, Carrillo Fuentes was flying cocaine into
Mexico aboard privately owned Boeing 727s, a tactic that earned him
the nickname "Lord of the Heavens."

But it also brought him to the attention of the Mexican government,
and in January 1997 Mexican troops--hoping to seize him--stormed a
wedding reception for his sister.

Word leaked out, however, and Carrillo Fuentes narrowly

In July 1997 he secretly checked into a Mexico City hospital for
surgery to alter his appearance. For eight hours four plastic surgeons
worked on him, performing liposuction and reconstructing his face. At
the end of the operation, Carrillo Fuentes was injected with a lethal
combination of sedatives and anesthesia, and he died on the operating
table. Just how this happened remains mysterious; Mexican drug
officials believe he may have been killed by his rivals.

Instead of destroying his organization, Carrillo Fuentes's death set
off a vicious power struggle for control of it. Eventually, Vicente
Carrillo Fuentes, Amado's brother, took over, and business has more or
less continued as usual. Thomas Constantine, while still head of the
DEA, testified before the US Congress in March 1999 that "despite the
death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes in July 1997, his organization has
continued to flourish.

This organization's drug shipments to the US continue unabated under
the leadership of his brother...."

And so it goes: every time one trafficker is eliminated, another
quickly takes his place.

In light of this, I called Constantine--who now teaches at the State
University of New York in Albany--to ask why he attached so much
importance to arresting traffickers. Aren't their places simply taken
by others? Yes, he told me, "but then you arrest their replacements,
and then their replacements." And as a result, he said, the
traffickers become increasingly inept: "Take any institution--IBM,
say. If the top two or three hundred of its executives are somehow
incapacitated for five years, IBM is going to have a problem.

The same with the traffickers. They can't hold a middle-management
training program.

So when you take one structure out, the next structure becomes easier
to deal with."

In the case of drug traffickers, however, this does not seem to be
true. "The new generation is more intelligent than the one before it,"
Jose Trinidad Larrieta, the head of Mexico's Organized Crime Unit,
told me. "They take advantage of all the significant advances in
technology." Today's traffickers use cell phones, faxes, pagers, and
the Internet; encryption techniques keep their messages secret.

And, realizing that flamboyant behavior can attract unwelcome
attention, the narcos have become far more discreet, making it all the
harder to track them.

If arresting individual traffickers seems futile, what about a full
frontal assault? Why not send the army into Juarez and Tijuana to
arrest the kingpins and restore order?

Such a strategy has already been tried--in Colombia--with instructive

In 1984, after the country's justice minister was assassinated,
President Belisario Betancur declared war on the leaders of the
Medellin cartel, mobilizing both the police and the army against them.
By way of response, the cartel set off car bombs, killed journalists,
and shot a presidential candidate.

The government kept up the pressure, however, and by the end of 1993,
when Pablo Escobar was killed, the cartel lay in ruins. Immediately,
though, its place was taken by the Cali cartel.

And so the government attacked it. By 1996 it, too, had been
dismantled. Its place, however, was quickly filled by scores of
smaller but no less violent syndicates. Highly dispersed and skilled
in advanced communications, these mini-cartels are in many respects
more elusive than their flashy predecessors. Moreover, the government,
in destroying the Medellin and Cali cartels, created opportunities in
the drug trade for the FARC guerrillas, who extracted high taxes from
local producers.

Meanwhile, the production of both cocaine and heroin

According to Bruce Bagley, an expert on Colombia who teaches at the
University of Miami, the war against the cartels, far from achieving
its goals, was "actually counterproductive," resulting in an explosion
in drug production, the spread of organized crime, and the
"intensification of political violence and guerrilla warfare in the
country." Declaring all-out war on Mexico's traffickers could produce
similar results. "You'll only have more corruption, more deaths," says
Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking who lives in Mexico City.
In the end, Chabat told me, launching a frontal assault on the drug
trade could prove even more "destabilizing" than the activities of the
traffickers themselves.

Mexico's narcos have much less capacity to threaten the state than do
their Colombian counterparts. The revenues from Mexico's drug trade
have been estimated at between $10 billion and $30 billion, but even
the lower figure may be too high. According to US officials, Americans
consume about three hundred tons of cocaine a year. About sixty
percent of that total--one hundred and eighty tons--is thought to pass
through Mexico. (Most of the rest goes through the Caribbean.) Under
their fifty-fifty arrangement with the Colombians, the Mexicans would
control ninety of those tons. Currently, cocaine sells wholesale in
the United States for about $15,000 a kilogram, or $15 million a ton.
Ninety tons would thus yield $1.35 billion.

The traffickers also profit from heroin, marijuana, and
methamphetamine, but it's hard to imagine that any of these drugs are
much more lucrative than cocaine.

If so, then the total revenues from drug trafficking in Mexico would
amount to less than 2 percent of the country's $400 billion GNP. This
is enough to qualify drugs as a major industry, but not enough to make
Mexico a "narco-state." In Colombia the drug trade pervades the entire

In Mexico its activities are limited to specific regions--border
cities like Juarez and Tijuana; Guadalajara, an important trafficking
hub in central Mexico; and coastal states like Quintana Roo that
become temporary trafficking havens.

Most drug-related violence is limited to these regions.

In the rest of the country, what most concerns residents is street
crime, which has greatly increased in recent years.

This is attributable not to drug trafficking but to the economic
crisis that has afflicted the country since 1995. In that year,
Mexico's GNP dropped by 7 percent, and, though the economy has
recovered some, the purchasing power of Mexico's minimum wage remains
at its lowest level in decades, and a quarter of the population lives
below the poverty line.

The newspaper Reforma periodically asks 1,500 Mexicans to name the
most important problem facing the country.

In the most recent survey, published in March, drug trafficking was
cited by only one percent.

Coming in first, with 21 percent, was inseguridad pFAblica--ordinary
crime--followed by the economic crisis (17 percent), poverty (11
percent), and government corruption (9 percent). Corruption, of
course, is tied to drug trafficking, but it is part of a much broader
Mexican pattern that includes the government's links with organized
crime, including drug traffickers, and its routine plundering of
public resources.

The anger so many Mexicans feel toward former president Carlos Salinas
and his brother RaFAl, for instance, derives not from their ties to
the drug trade but from their rigging of the economic system so that a
handful of plutocrats made fortunes while a million ordinary Mexicans
got laid off.

Nonetheless, US officials and journalists seem concerned only with
drug corruption. This helps to explain why Ernesto Zedillo has
declared drugs Mexico's top security concern, and why Jorge Madrazo
has devoted so much of his energy to fighting them. "Drugs are the
priority of the PGR because it wants to show the United States that it
is working hard in that area," says Cesar Romero, who writes about
drugs for Reforma. "Of course, drugs are a national security concern,
but it's very clear that in a country like Mexico, there are many
other priorities. Ordinary crime is what most people think about."

Unable to attack the drug trade head on, but still suffering its
effects--what is Mexico to do? In recent months, the Zedillo
administration has introduced a new strategy that, it hopes, will
offer some relief.

It was designed by Francisco Labastida when he was at gobernacion and
gives some idea of the policy he might pursue if elected president.

The new approach arose from a growing sense that Mexico's traditional
combination of programs--seizing drugs at the US border, eradicating
marijuana and opium poppy fields, arresting traffickers--was failing.
Once cocaine entered Mexico, the damage, in corruption, violence, and
addiction, was done. Unfortunately, it was easy for smugglers to cross
Mexico's 760-mile southern border, and its long coastlines were barely
patrolled. If the government could fortify them, Labastida concluded,
perhaps the smugglers would go elsewhere.

And so, in 1999, the government launched OperaciF3n Sellamiento de la
Frontera--Seal the Border--with the border in question being not only
the northern frontier with the United States but Mexico's entire perimeter.

To finance this program, the government has committed itself to
spending between $400 million and $500 million over two years.

Most of that money is to go for high-tech hardware--X-ray machines to
inspect the interior of trucks, high-speed boats to pursue
traffickers, and small surveillance planes to spot suspicious craft.
About 20,000 additional men--mostly from the military--are being
thrown into the drug fight.

Many have already been deployed on Mexico's southern border and at
choke points along the coasts.

Can such an approach work? Drug traffickers in Latin America have
always sought the path of least resistance, and, if Mexico makes use
of its territory sufficiently risky, they might go elsewhere.

Even so, OperaciF3n Sellamiento's impact is likely to be

In view of the United States' lack of success in sealing its own
borders, it's hard to believe the Mexicans will do much better. What's
more, the strategy poses many risks.

One is even greater corruption. The more military officers participate
in drug enforcement, the more temptations they will face. Already, the
Mexican and US press have featured stories about high-ranking officers
on the take. Human rights advocates, meanwhile, fear that the
military's growing involvement in antidrug work will result in more
ordinary Mexicans being arrested and treated brutally.

As for the United States, OperaciF3n Sellamiento promises no relief
at all. Even if the traffickers do begin to avoid Mexico, they will no
doubt find other routes into the United States. US drug agents have
already detected a sharp increase in the amount of Colombian cocaine
being smuggled through the Caribbean--a sign that some of the
traffickers may be moving there.

US officials profess to be encouraged by this. "We're going to be
chasing the drugs somewhere," one military official told me. "And
we've got a lot at stake in a stable Mexico. So it's better for us to
help get the drugs out of Mexico and into the Caribbean and fight it

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Caribbean was the main
smuggling zone for Colombian cocaine.

Typically, the drug was flown to the Bahamas or other island nations
and from there into southern Florida. As a result, the murder rate in
Dade County sharply increased, and the Reagan administration, under
pressure to act, set up the South Florida Task Force. Hundreds of
federal agents were assigned to the region, and surveillance planes
were sent over the Caribbean. The Colombians began looking for routes

And, eventually, they found a good one--overland through Mexico. The
resulting tide of cocaine running through that country has helped turn
its traffickers into the threat they are today.

To a large degree, then, Mexico's current drug woes are an
unanticipated side effect of the US government's "successful"
interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. This, it seems, is the
inevitable result of drug enforcement: it simply pushes the
traffickers from one region to another.

Now Mexico is attempting to push them back to the Caribbean. Even if
it succeeds, at huge cost, what will the unanticipated consequences be
this time? New instability in the West Indies? Surging violence in

No one can say for sure. What does seem certain, though, is that none
of this activity will reduce the flow of drugs into the United States.
The cocaine market is so glutted, in fact, that the Colombian
producers are desperately trying to develop new markets in Europe.
Even the DEA is candid about this. "There's three times as much
cocaine produced as could ever be used in the United States," Thomas
Constantine told me. "So our ability to slash that amount to get it
down to where it's going to affect the price is unrealistic. The idea
that law enforcement can raise the price of drugs--it's an impossible
goal." If so, then the USwar on drugs in Latin America seems futile.

Nonetheless, the United States is preparing to send $1.6 billion to
Colombia for anti-narcotics programs, with most of the money going to
the military and police. Few expect it to do much good. In the end,
there's simply no getting around the fundamental fact that governments
don't want to confront: the drug crisis in Latin America is driven by
the United States' enormous demand for drugs, and until we succeed in
reducing that demand, we will simply push the drugs around, helping to
visit misery upon one country or another, with no end in sight.

- --May 17, 2000


1 The reporters on the series were Sam Dillon, Julia Preston, Tim
Golden, and Craig Pyes.

2 It's listed on the DEA's website, www.
3 See the recent articles in these pages by Alma Guillermoprieto,
April 13, April 27, and May 11, 2000.
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MAP posted-by: Allan Wilkinson