A couple of months ago, the publicity folks at ZedBooks emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in reading and writing a review for Drug War Mexico prior to its publication. Well, never one to turn down a free book, and especially one on my subject of choice, I agreed.
Before I started reading Drug War Mexico, I thought it would be like a lot of other books that have come out in this genre of “narcobooks.” Parts of it are, but make no mistake – this is designed to be a textbook for a college class (as its hardcover $116.95 sticker price makes clear). That doesn’t mean there aren’t several stretches from which the casual reader could benefit, but before dropping even the $24.95 for the paperback version (it doesn’t come in eBook), you should know what you’re getting yourself into.
The authors are both professors at the University of Sheffield, and certainly know what they’re talking about. However, it’s very clear that the two have VERY different writing styles, and of course specialize in different things. I had no trouble at all picking out which parts of the book were written by which author: Watt, the historian, has a more casual, readable style that explains sometimes convoluted histories and incidents in a manner that’s clear and minimally confusing. Zepeda, the political economist….well, let’s just say that wading through several sections of discussions on Mexico’s political economy, neoliberalism, NAFTA, etc. made me want to poke my eyeballs with a fork. Needless to say, I skipped a few of these parts to get back to the drug war “meat,” which was more Watt’s territory.
Despite the book’s stuttering nature between fascinating narcohistory and economic drudgery, there’s a good bit to be learned. For me, the part of greatest value was contained in the first three chapters, where the history of the relationship between Mexican drug trafficking families and the PRI is explained in detail I’ve never seen before. It’s incredibly interesting, and goes so much more into the relationships and interdependency between those two than other narcobooks I’ve read, which have mostly glossed over this issue.
I’m sure there’s plenty of good information to be gleaned from the political economy sections as well, and especially if you’re a student or researcher specifically looking for this kind of information. However, be forewarned that a good chunk of it is biased and accusatory. By now, I’m used to hearing that everything bad in Mexico and Latin America is the fault of the United States. Honestly, some of it is. But I have to draw the line when Zepeda pretty much claims that today’s drug war in Mexico is largely a result of NAFTA and a change to neoliberal policies. I get it; increased unemployment and population displacement make for a great operating environment for TCOs. However, drug trafficking and associated violence in Mexico existed before NAFTA, and the increased violence is more a result of evolving TCO tactics and Mexican government strategies to fight them. Blame us for drug demand and drug prohibition; fine. But NAFTA? It was just too much of a stretch for me.
Bottom line, if you ask me if you should read this book, my answer is going to be, “It depends.” If you’re a casual reader looking for an easy-to-read overview of the drug war, no. If you’re a student and want well-researched information on this specific aspect of the drug war (if largely biased, but what isn’t these days?), then you should consider it. I do think this book will do better as required reading for college courses rather than a weekend or airplane page-turner.
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If you look for it, you might find find a buried headline about how a Caravan organized by Mexicans impacted by drug violence is making its way from the U.S. Mexico border to Washington DC, calling for justice and peace in Mexico. Hundreds of people are gathering at each of the stops along the way to remember the dead and disappeared, and to denounce the ongoing atrocities being committed in the name of the War on Drugs.
It goes without saying that coverage of the Caravan pales in comparison to reports of new atrocities in Mexico, which, stripped of any context, make headlines around the world. Even so, coverage of the violence can hide more than it reveals. By way of example, there is no reliable number of the total number of dead in the war. Most media figures tend closer to the lower estimate of 60,000, while some peg it at over 200,000.
For people looking for a more careful analysis on what is taking place in Mexico, Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda’s new book, Drug War Mexico, is a good place to start. The authors begin by acknowledging the problematic role the mainstream media play in the conflict in Mexico.“Reports from media organizations like Televisa in Mexico, CNN in the US, and the BBC in the UK tend to present the ‘drug war’ in Mexico as a mysterious and inexplicable conflict in which the government (with the help of its ally, the United States) and the army attempt to defeat the evil tactics and poisonous influence of organized crime,” write Watt and Zepeda in the introduction. “Within this narrow and misleading representation of the drug war, state actors who perpetrate violence and abuse human rights are rarely ascribed agency, and thus are afforded complete immunity by influential mainstream media organizations. Consequently, the drug war is seldom given the historico-political context and analysis it surely merits.”
What follows in Drug War Mexico is Watt and Zepeda’s attempt to map how the intensification of violence in Mexico “did not arrive out of the blue.”
A brief history of drug cultivation, use, and state power in Mexico opens the book, which then delves into anti-drugs initiatives in Mexico from the 1970s onwards. By the time of the presidency of Luis Echeverría (1970-1976), write Watt and Zepeda, the government of Mexico was already associating “all types of political activism with criminality and frequently with drug trafficking.” Watt and Zepeda set up the national and international context at the time, painting in broad strokes the Mexico where the CIA and the DEA began to set up a “permanent drug war.”
The book describes in some detail Operation Condor, a US backed anti- drug plan that involved the militarization of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua, as well as aerial spraying of crops with Agent Orange. Drug War Mexico argues these processes made heroin and marijuana prices spike and encouraged the “cartelisation” of the drug trade. “For the producers and traffickers with the best political contacts, the largest networks, and sufficient resources, and for those who had adapted to survive the initial years of this new phase of anti-drug policy, this sharp and sudden rise in the price of their exports was both rewarding and tantalising,” write Watt and Zepeda.
The false notion that the state and drug traffickers are oppositional forces is firmly dispelled in Drug WarMexico, which draws on numerous examples to prove cooperation and at the very least complicity between the political and business class and the so-called underworld. The authors argue that the 1982 election of Miguel de Madrid and the changes heralded in during his term were more significant than the break from the PRI in 2000.
They go on to document how narcotics trafficking must be understood as an “integral component” in Mexico’s economic transformation towards neoliberalism. This economic restructuring took place just as the US led war on drugs was at its most active in the Caribbean, pushing cocaine smugglers into Mexico. Watt and Zepeda carefully document the connections between CIA-linked secret police in Mexico and high level traffickers, relationships which unfolded at the same time as the Iran-Contra debacle came to light in the US.
Later, the book discusses how the North America Free Trade Agreement “provided both the infrastructure and the labour pool to facilitate smuggling…” further developing the idea of a narcotics industry intertwined with neoliberal transformation.
“Proponents of NAFTA thus bear no small responsibility for the growth of drug production in Mexico and, ironically, are often the same individuals behind the ‘war on drugs,’” they write. Drug War Mexico goes a long way towards explaining the notion that the militarization of…
I was given the opportunity to review this book and was pleased by the way it explains the Drug War in Mexico.
More than a book telling what’s happening in Mexico, it’s a book of why.
Watt and Zepeda not not only analyze the situation from the criminal perspective, it’s also seen with historical, economic, and political points of view.
What was going on twenty, fifty, and one hundred years ago and how it evolved to the present situation?
How the economic situation fuels violence, where money laundering takes place, and how multinational projects promote trafficking?
How political change, corrupt politicians, and corrupt security officials have been related to traffickers for decades?
The first step to fix a problem is to know what the problem is, and this book is the best start.
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