by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur
The following story, filed October 4 by the independent news service Frontera NorteSur, is a report on the US War on Drugs conference held in El Paso, Texas, on September 21 and 22 of this year. The event was initiated by faculty from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and supported by a host of local organizations and agencies.
The struggling corn fields of northern Chihuahua and the shuttered textile plants of North Philadelphia might seem worlds apart. Although nationhood, language and culture separate the two places, a history of globalization, deindustrialization and drug culture shape both entities.
As part of the landmark US War on Drugs Conference held in El Paso late last month, speakers examined the complex political economy that underlies the production, distribution and use of illegal drugs.
In a presentation at the University of Texas at El Paso, Chihuahua state lawmaker Victor Quintana delved into the socio-economic backdrop to the extreme violence raging away in northwestern Chihuahua, where rival cartels have turned entire zones into battlefields. Quintana took the audience back to 1982, when Mexico‚s ruling PRI party began instituting what later became known as a neo-liberal, or free market, economic policy.
In line with the project popularized by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, as well as the International Monetary Fund, state subsidies and supports for farmers were steadily eliminated, pressuring small growers off the land and into the migrant stream stirred up by the North American Free Trade Agreement and (NAFTA) and Mexico’s 1994-95 economic crisis.
An economic vacuum in the countryside was then filled by an illegal and profitable drug economy, which was marked by three stages, Quintana said. First, migrants returning from the US helped implant a drug culture that was initially controlled by locals who were well-known in their own communities and shared the proceeds of their illicit trade.
Later, outsiders with an eye on northwestern Chihuahua’s fertile lands and strategic highways leading to the US border moved in and replaced the “community narcos.” The result was the bloody orgy of violence that now destabilizes Chihuahua, Quintana said, adding that drug gangs have consolidated so much control that local police warn only air operations can penetrate certain zones.
The Philadelphia Story
Though the particulars were different, urban historian Dr. Eric Schneider separately told a similar story about North Philadelphia, a place he described as “the badlands” of the City of Brotherly Love. For Schneider, the closing of Philadelphia‚s Stetson Hat Company, which once produced the emblematic hat of the American West, was a watershed for a community with a once-thriving industrial base.
A University of Pennsylvania professor interested in globalization, Schneider recounted how he asked his students to examine the labels where their clothing was made, and then took the pupils on a tour of largely African-American North Philadelphia.
As in Chihuahua, an illegal business filled an economic void in de-industrialized Philadelphia, according to Schneider. High unemployment, marginalization of communities of color, a landscape of abandoned homes and plants and easy highway access all create a “perfect place” for a drug market, he said.
In the post-industrial US, North Philadelphia represents the prototype of an urban drug market. Such urban markets, or “drug enterprise zones,” in the words of Schneider, acquire a life of their own, providing employment not only for marginalized youths but for police, other agencies of the criminal justice system and even rehabilitation centers charged with suppressing or controlling illegal activities. Urban drug markets are conducive to graft, Schneider insisted, citing the case of the infamous “Gold Coast” of Harlem during the 1970s which inspired corruption within the ranks of the New York Police Department.
With the official US unemployment rate nudging 10%, and with some economists predicting a long, jobless “recovery” from the 2008 economic crash, the type of urban drug markets chronicled by Schneider could have new, urgent meaning.
Schneider later told Frontera NorteSur that he hadn’t studied the specific links between drug trafficking and free trade agreements like NAFTA, but he observed how both legal and illegal commodities often follow the same trade routes. “The pathways are the same and frequently the entrepreneurs are the same-at least on the underground side,” Schneider said.
Institutionalizing the Drug Culture
Dr. Michael Agar, researcher for the Santa Fe-based Ethknoworks, detailed how the popularity of imported drugs like opium and heroin have waxed and waned over the decades, infiltrating different social classes and groups—from middle-class white women at the turn of the 20th century to working class immigrants in the 1940s and to suburban white youth at the end of the last century.
Despite decades of the drug war, the US market remains brisk. Even though some reductions in cocaine and methamphetamine use have been reported in recent years, large numbers of people still consume old drugs of fashion as well as newer ones like Ecstasy.
Also appearing at the El Paso conference, Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the US Health and Human Services‚ Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, the Center told a session at the historic Fox Theater in downtown El Paso that the 2008 National Drug Survey reported that there were at least 23 million US residents who needed treatment for alcohol and illicit drugs abuse. The huge population grouping, more or less the equivalent of the number of people residing in greater Mexico City, represents about 7% of the US population, Clark said. In the United States, eight million children lived with a drug dependent parent last year, he stressed.
Carolyn Esparza, director of Community Solutions of El Paso, a border non-profit that helps children of imprisoned adults, expanded on Clark’s points. A six-year-old organization, Esparza‚s organization has assisted 7,000 children of prisoners in El Paso. “We are just the tip of the iceberg,” Esparza said. The child advocate blamed much of the problem of families divided by the correctional system on lawbreakers who commit crimes due to drug and drinking habits but don’t receive treatment while incarcerated. One in seven school children in the US have a parent on probation, on parole or in jail, she said.
Mexico, meanwhile, is headed down the same path. Quoting sources from the federal attorney general’s office who participated in a national meeting at the beginning of October, Mexico‚s La Jornada newspaper reported that drug consumption among youths has risen 127 percent since December 2006, with addictions beginning at 10 years of age instead of 12 years of age as was previously the case.
In Mexico, the number of people addicted to illegal drugs is variously estimated between 600,000-900,000 individuals, though the country’s 2008 National Drug Addiction Survey reported that an estimated 4.5 million Mexicans used some kind of illegal drug that year.
A Cross-Border Laboratory for Substance Abuse
Straddling a common border, the binational metroplex of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez was an early laboratory where the multiple ingredients of war, trade, violence, drugs and vice were mixed together in a potent combination. An invited speaker at the El Paso conference, Dr. Oscar Martinez of the University of Arizona has written a classic book on the history of Ciudad Juárez.
“The destiny of Ciudad Juárez is tied to the destiny of the US,” Martinez said. “And it’s been that way for a long time.”
While much of the US media acts as if it has just discovered Mexico and its long-simmering social problems, Martinez‚s research documents how contraband smuggling, vice, drugs, corruption and arms trafficking emerged as significant issues in El Paso-Ciudad Juarez and other border cities more than a century ago.
A careful reading of Martinez shows how much of the underworld activity moved from north to south, especially but not exclusively during the Prohibition Era, in contrast to the contemporary media stories of violence and mayhem threatening to spill across the US border from Mexico.
For example, the ABW company founded by North Americans was at the center of the liquor and gaming industries in Baja California, financing the Tijuana race track on property owned by US rail and sugar businessman John D. Spreckel in the early part of the 20th century. In a prelude to the runaway textile and electronics plants of latter years, two Kentucky distilleries as well as sectors of US bar business simply relocated to Ciudad Juárez during Prohibition.
Conversely, El Paso and other US border cities have benefited from turmoil south of the border then and now. For more than 100 years, the US city has served as the recipient of migrant waves and capital infusions during economic and political upheavals across the Rio Grande, Martinez’s research reveals. Today, a new group of middle-class migrants is fleeing the carnage of Ciudad Juarez and putting its resources to work in El Paso.
“El Paso is benefiting tremendously from all this,” Martinez maintained, “and it reminds me of what happened during the Mexican Revolution.”
Antidotes to Crisis
The presenters of the El Paso conference expressed different opinions on how best to address the drug issue: many tended to agree that it is a complicated, multi-faceted phenomenon which eludes simple, one-size-fits all answers, whether it is blanket prohibition or outright legalization.
“I think people are beginning to see that we need to come up with some kind of complex balance and approach that takes all these things into consideration,” said Dr. Joe Heyman, UTEP professor of anthropology and conference co-organizer.
A fair bit of talk focused on community outreach and treatment programs. Federal official Clark insisted that the Obama administration is pursuing a different strategy than the “war on drugs” approach of the last 40 years, favoring instead a combination of strong public safety and strong treatment.
Ethnographer Agar spoke about grassroots-oriented, semi-spontaneous recovery movements in which communities discover the harm drugs do and begin breaking away from addiction cycles on their with little government-encouragement. An example of this has been witnessed with heroin in certain US communities, Agar said.
“We need to learn a lot more about when that happens and how to stimulate that, how to stimulate positive feedback processes in communities,” Agar added.
Both Quintana and Schneider contended that the state and society have to re-examine and change the economic roots of the drug crisis. Quintana advocated a new development policy for the Mexican countryside, which includes removing highly vulnerable basic grain crops from NAFTA, while Schneider proposed a new US urban economic policy as an alternative to the drug economy.
Without bigger changes, Schneider insisted, drug reform policies are practically “irrelevant.” Conceding that it’s difficult to reopen long-closed plants, Schneider nonetheless said, “We need to think about an economy of the 21st century that will employ people.”
UTEP Professor Heyman said that he hoped the intellectual sparks flying at the conference would ignite broader interest in the drug reform issue. For borderlands historian Oscar Martinez, El Paso represented an opportunity to consider the formation of a new organization that could take th conference on the road to other cities.
Addressing a crowd, Martinez called on people to show more empathy for the residents of Ciudad Juárez, reiterating that the city’s inhabitants are bound together with our own lives in myriad ways. Martinez received hardy applause when he urged people to take a stand. “We need to reach into our hearts and say: I too am from Juárez.”
This article first appeared Oct. 4 on Frontera NorteSur.
War on Drugs Conference, UTEP
Community Solutions of El Paso
From our Daily Report:
Mexico: massacre in Juárez, assassination in Michoacán
World War 4 Report, Sept. 3, 2009
“OPERATION CHIHUAHUA PLUS”
A Textbook Case in Drug War Failure
from Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, July 2009
Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution