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Gabrielle D. Schneck

For Complete Article See: Gabrielle D. Schneck, A War on Civilians: Disaster Capitalism and the Drug War in Mexico , 10 Seattle Journal for Social Justice 927 (Spring, 2012)(Student Note)(355 Footnotes).


Within days of his inauguration in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on organized crime. In particular, Calderón aimed to confront the powerful cartels that control the drug trade and other illicit industries such as human trafficking. Following a highly contested election, Calderón entered office amid accusations of electoral fraud and months of mass protest. In a show of strength to gain political legitimacy, he immediately deployed over 20,000 federal troops under the banner of fighting the war on drugs. Calderón's militarized escalation of antinarcotics efforts represents a dramatic shift in the Mexican government's approach to the drug trade, a business in which it has long been involved and from which it has long benefitted. Notably, the military crackdown has not reduced the drug trade, nor has it eased crime-related violence in Mexico. Instead, the violence has intensified, and human rights violations have risen severely. As of January 2012, the Mexican government acknowledges that 47,515 people have died in the drug war within the span of five years, and some experts contend that the death toll is much higher than the official numbers reflect.

Calderón's war on drugs has had a profound and devastating impact on Mexico, generating a climate of fear and violence that has repercussions on nearly all levels of Mexican society. This article intends to critically examine the myths used to justify the militarized approach of Mexico's current antinarcotic efforts by looking at the interests of its US and Mexican supporters. My goal is to engage in a broad analysis of the drug war in the context of other political issues such as free trade, the illicit drug industry's corrupting influence on law enforcement, immigration, and anti-neoliberal social movements in Mexico in a way that is accessible to those with limited exposure to such issues. In doing so, my hope is to break some of the silence surrounding Mexico's drug war within the parameters of US political and legal discourse and to contribute to the advancement of meaningful social change. Broadly, the militarization of Mexico since 2006 under the umbrella of the US-led war on drugs is best understood as a product of neoliberalism, and, as such, its operations can be best understood through a critique of neoliberal socio-economic and security programs. I contend that the increasing militarization of Mexico's counternarcotics efforts represents a new theater of the disaster capitalism complex, a term coined by award-winning journalist and author Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. As such, the war on drugs approach is best understood by analyzing the connections between free-market trade policies, the privatization of the security industry, and the potential for state and economic elite actors to capitalize on disaster-induced collective trauma.

Section I begins by reviewing the current landscape of President Calderón's war on drugs, including the justifications for the war offered by the Mexican and US governments, the parameters of US drug aid, and some of the main critiques of the war. Section II provides a broad context for analyzing neoliberalism by looking at its characteristic economic and security programs and connecting them with the United States' domestic war on drugs and immigration enforcement policies. Section III discusses neoliberalism in Mexico, focusing on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and resistance within Mexico to free-market economic policies. Finally, Section IV draws connections between the militarization of Mexico's antinarcotics efforts, the collective trauma that has been produced by the war, and the economic elite interests that benefit from protecting neoliberal policies in Mexico.

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We're here to tell ourselves and them that we will not turn this pain in our souls, in our bodies, in[to] hate nor in[to] more violence, but in[to] a vehicle to help us restore love, peace, justice, dignity and the stuttering democracy that we're losing, [ ... ] that we still believe that it's possible to rescue and reconstruct the social fabric of our peoples, neighborhoods and cities.

--Javier Sicilia, speaking in Mexico City, May 2011

In May 2011, more than 100,000 people, led by Sicilia after his son was killed by gunmen, marched from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, demanding an end to the war on drugs in Mexico. These mobilization efforts are part of breaking the silence around US-led antidrug laws and policies, and it is time for our domestic legal and socio-political discourses to follow suit. [O] nce the mechanics of the shock doctrine are deeply and collectively understood, Klein writes, entire communities become shock resistant. Ultimately, this article aims to demonstrate the need to develop a deeper understanding of the war on drugs and, by extension, the need for broad demands in order to advance meaningful social change.

In sum, I suggest here that the political logic of Mexico's war on drugs is a product of neoliberalism--the grueling socio-economic stratification created and enforced through austerity measures, deregulation, privatization, and free-trade agreements--and the militarized control that represses dissent in the face of deepening disparities. In order to effect change, our critique must move beyond the parameters of the US and Mexican government's stated antidrug policy objectives. Criticizing the war on drugs for its failure to eradicate drug trafficking fails to account for the socio-economic and political contexts within which this program was developed and legitimated.

In writing about the human rights violations committed by Pinochet's government, Orlando Latelier, wrote that the system of institutionalized brutality, the drastic control and suppression of every form of meaningful dissent is discussed (and often condemned) as a phenomenon only indirectly linked, or indeed entirely unrelated, to the classical unrestrained free market policies that have been enforced by the military junta. The entirely unrelated ideology cleans the economic regime of its crimes--while the torture and human rights abuses are condemned, the economic free-market policies are applauded, operating on the presumption that the two constitute separate dynamics. This article represents a call for the need to depart from the entirely unrelated ideology.

The war on drugs in Mexico is not solely about human rights violations, nor is it just about narco-corruption or the arms trade. Instead, militarization allows the Mexican authorities to target groups that are working to develop alternatives to the predominant socio-economic channels under the pretext of antidrug actions. The profound levels of violence and the climate of fear produced by the war on drugs in Mexico act as mechanisms that thwart the democratic participation of civil society. The human rights abuses and widespread state-sanctioned violence committed via the war on drugs in Mexico can be seen as an effective and profitable method (for some) of protecting US-led neoliberalism.

The urgency of the situation points to the need for building an analysis that understands and challenges the complexities of neoliberalism, government antidrug policy, immigration enforcement, and state-sanctioned violence. Social Justice movements must continue seeking alternatives to free-market economic policies and neoliberal narratives and to demand an end to all forms of state-sanctioned violence--these arenas form part of our resistance to the war on drugs, both in the United States and in Mexico. An inquiry into the war on drugs that is devoid of a critique on these related matters risks sacrific [ing] the broad goals that might connect a new social movement strong and ambitious enough to take on inequalities that single-issue politics only ever ameliorate, but never reverse.