Dec 27, 2011

MexicoBlog Editorial: The U.S. Feeds Violence, Corruption and Impunity in Mexico

In the past few weeks a number of Mexican activists have been brazenly killed, attacked or kidnapped. Twelve journalists have been killed in Mexico in 2011. Local and state government officials are all too frequently assassinated. Human Rights groups have collected evidence that the Mexican army is systematically engaging in torture, forced disappearances and murder.

The cartels continue to engage in grisly tortures and murders of all who oppose them. Drug war deaths in Mexico over the past five years now exceed 45,000. Possibly 10,000 people have disappeared. The federal government has stopped issuing any accounting. Very few of these deaths and disappearances have been investigated, and only a miniscule number of investigations have resulted in convictions.

Meanwhile, large numbers of local, state and federal police are accused of corruption--of working for the drug cartels. Most recently, the entire local police force of the city of Veracruz was dismissed and replaced by the Mexian army.

Violence, corruption and impunity continue to overwhelm the rule of law in Mexico. Eleven years ago, with the election of Vicente Fox, the first president in seventy years who was not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), it was thought that Mexico was moving from an authoritarian government, rife with corruption, to a democratic government that would cleanse itself and live under the rule of law. President Fox made a campaign against corruption a centerpiece of his administration.

But Fox's campaign and the campaign of his successor, Felipe Calderón, against the drug cartels have evidently come to naught. The violence of the drug war continues, as does that against human rights and other activists, journalists and innocent Mexicans. Violence, corruption and impunity reign.

Origins of Mexican corruption

A number of scholars and students of Mexican history have pointed out that corruption, violence and impunity have been forces running throughout Mexican history from the Spanish Conquest up to today. Spanish viceroys and other officials in New Spain frequently bought their positions and were expected to extort money from Mexicans to pay their way. Public position was a means to private gain.

Claudio Lomnitz, professor of history at Columbia University (Understanding the history of corruption in Mexico) describes corruption as an intricate system of exchanges in which support for public officials is given in return for certain privileges. Payments of money to ensure that routine services are rendered are also part of the mix.

The New York Times journalist and one-time Mexico bureau chief, Anthony DePalma once asserted, “Corruption is not a characteristic of the system in Mexico . . . it is the system.” It is estimated that the drug cartels spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year paying off officials at all levels of Mexican government, who in turn use the system of bribes to play off one cartel against another. (see: The Political Economy of Narco-Corruption in Mexico, by Peter Andreas)

History of violence

After independence was won from Spain in 1821, but lacking preparation for democratic self-rule, Mexico spent most of a century in coup d'etats, civil wars and political assassinations. While the coups and civil wars ended with the rise of PRI to power in the 1920s, assassinations of political leaders at the national level have occurred as recently as that of Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. Assassinations of state and local officials are still a regular occurrence.

Lack of rule of law

Stephen D. Morris, in an article published in the Mexican Law Journal,  Mexico’s Political Culture: the Unrule of Law and Corruption as a Form of Resistance, points out that Mexico has never functioned under the rule of law. Mexicans, he says, have never given any government legitimacy. They do not trust the law, government institutions or politicians. There is a pervasive, underlying assumption that all political acts are self-serving and corrupt.

Mexicans then use this belief to justify their own evasion of the law when it is to their benefit and they do not think they will be caught, as in avoiding paying taxes. This is expressed in the dicho or saying, "Obedezco pero no cumplo," "I obey but I don't fulfill." Because political leaders are perceived as ignoring or using the law for personal ends, a citizen's manipulating or getting around the law is seen as a legitimized form of protest. Impunity begets impunity.

Ongoing impunity

Furthermore, Morris points out, the lack of a functioning justice system--police, courts and prisons--leads to the conclusion that, as there is no justice, no rule of law, it is legitimate to use extra-legal  means to seek justice. Demonstrations that block streets and highways, the commandeering of buses and radio stations, even vigilante killing of apparent criminals and corrupt police are justified. Beyond that, for those who enter the explicit criminal realm, there are no limits to the uses of violence. 

The U.S. inserts itself 

And where does the the U.S. stand in relation to all of this violence, corruption and impunity? Throughout the past year, the US law enforcement role in Mexico drug war has grown significantly. The Merida Initiative, administered by the State Department, has gone beyond providing miltary and police equipment to seeking to promote the rule of law by training Mexican police, attorneys, prosecutors and judges and funding NGOs to undertake projects to develop the "rule of law" in Mexico. The U.S. Army Northern Command trains Mexican soldiers. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has hired former Mexican police and government officials to act as undercover spies of the cartels.

However, as Morris points out, "without addressing the critical issue of legitimacy, more enforcement tools, a stronger state and more laws will be insufficient. If government and society are unable to control the police, then more police will not solve the problem; it will exacerbate it." There is ample evidence that U.S. trained military personnel have gone on to become paramiltary and criminal forces in Guatemala. The infamous Zetas are possibly an example in Mexico.

Then there was the revelation that the DEA has been actively laundering millions of dollars for the drug cartels.  As the New York Times put it, "The high-risk activities raise delicate questions about the agency’s effectiveness in bringing down drug kingpins, underscore diplomatic concerns about Mexican sovereignty, and blur the line between surveillance and facilitating crime." This came after the revelation that the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency (ATF) was letting guns "walk" across the border in Operation Fast and Furious. At what point do law enforcement tactics become facilitation of crime and corruption?

But overriding all is the fact that the drug market in the U.S. provides billions of dollars a year to the Mexican cartels and that it is for control of these billions that the cartels are so violently fighting. This fact was presented recently by the presidents of Mexico and all the Central American countries, when they stated that "a significant reduction in the demand for illegal drugs" in the United States and other drug consuming countries would be desirable.

They then diplomatically but pointedly added, "Nevertheless, if that is not possible, as recent experience demonstrates, the authorities of the consuming countries ought then to explore the possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end. Thus, the transit of substances that continue provoking high levels of crime and violence in Latin American and Caribbean nations will be avoided."

Undermining the fragile rule of law

Democracy and the rule of law are new and fragile processes in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Violence, corruption and impunity have been the rule for centuries and remain major threats to the stability of these nations and the well-being of their peoples. The U.S.'s continuing insistence on drug prohibition, while requiring and funding a war in Latin America against drug suppliers, only serves to create dynamics and provide the money that fuels that violence, corruption and impunity. Against this, democracy and the rule of law stand little chance. 

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