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The Official Narrative About Mexico’s Drug War Is All Wrong

Again this is part of the drug war narrative. Mexican protection of the drug trade is evidence of endemic or institutional corruption. Any cases of US authorities protecting drug traffickers is just a few bad apples. But corruption extends north of the border. I found multiple accounts of it during the 1970s and 1980s among local sheriffs, local customs officers drug agents, and even US senators.

In fact, the first American drug agency, the FBN, was disbanded in 1968 in the wake of a huge corruption scandal. Investigators estimated that around a third of the agents were on the take. The next drug agency, the BNDD [Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs], was also closed down just five years later amid similar accusations of corruption and incompetence.

I would hazard a guess that during the counterculture drug boom, there was just as much corruption north as south of the border. It was the reason that so many narcotics got through. It wasn’t the five hundred–odd Mexican PJF agents on the take but the thousands of DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], customs, and local police officers doing the same in the United States.

Why do we know more about the Mexican corruption than the American? This is not a terribly popular opinion, but I think the US and Mexico differed in two ways.

First, Mexico has declassified a lot of its secret service and judicial documents, so we have a lot more evidence of this corruption; in contrast, US Grand Jury transcripts and spy files remain classified to this day. The only way that I could get at corruption on the US side was through unofficial leaks and this extraordinary investigation into Arizona corruption performed by journalists in the wake of the mafia killing one of their number.

Second, Mexico had — and still has in some regions — a much more gung-ho, aggressive local news network than the United States. Mexico journalists were — and still are — prepared to point the finger at corrupt officials.

What has changed in the last three or so decades is that US police forces — unlike Mexican ones — have been given the mandate to effectively shake down drug dealers legally. When they arrest traffickers north of the border, they can impound their houses, cars, and other properties, and use them to float their own police forces.

There is now no need for the kind of covert protection rackets that are still running south of the border. This is similar to something that came out during the investigations of the Ferguson racial justice protests a few years ago. The Ferguson police force wasn’t simply racist — it was systematically shaking down the local population for cash.

The second question about what drives US anti-narcotics initiatives south of the border is a trickier one. It depends on the timing and the policy. But in general, it’s been a question of institution-building. Time and time again, American drug authorities have pushed initiatives in Mexico to generate bigger budgets or maintain their relevance to cover up for failings at home.

Why did Harry Anslinger and the FBN stop Mexico’s experiment with drug legalization in 1940? Because he was attempting to challenge rivals in the Customs Department and extend his department’s remit to foreign policy.

Why did the DEA push Operation Condor, Mexico’s huge militarized anti-drug campaign, in 1975? Because successive scandals and escalating heroin use generated the need for easy scapegoats.

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