SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We turn now to Mexico, where spiraling drug violence appears to have hit US officials for the first time. In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, a US consular employee and her husband were shot dead on Saturday while driving in their SUV. Their one-year-old baby was found unharmed in the back seat. In a separate incident nearby, the husband of a Mexican employee at the US consulate was shot dead. The shootings are believed to be the first deadly attacks on US officials and their families by Mexico’s powerful drug organizations.
The State Department has authorized government employees at six US consulates in northern Mexico to send their family members out of the area because of concerns about rising drug-related violence. The FBI, meanwhile, has sent a team of agents to investigate the killings.
AMY GOODMAN: Overall, nearly fifty people died over the weekend in Mexico in drug-gang violence, the latest victims of a conflict that’s killed nearly 19,000 people since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006. The US has backed Calderon with hundreds of millions of dollars on military training and equipment. But critics say the increased militarization of the so-called drug war will only lead to more deaths.
Well, for more, we’re joined now by Charles Bowden. a reporter who has extensively covered the drug violence in Mexico, author of the forthcoming book Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. His latest article for High Country News is “The War Next Door”, available at hcn.org. Charles Bowden joins us now on the phone from Las Cruces, New Mexico, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Charles Bowden. What happened this weekend?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, thank you. It’s my pleasure.
What happened is what happens every weekend: death. What is different, or was the reason you’re calling me, is because US citizens were killed, who worked for the consulate.
It’s impossible to see this as, one, an accident or ignore that it’s a provocation. The actual thing to compare it to is the abduction of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in February 1985 from in front of the US consulate in Guadalajara, in which he was then tortured for thirty hours, slaughtered and secretly buried, and caused an explosion in the US government. Now, you have to ask yourself, given that experience, why anybody in the drug business would want to repeat it. And I don’t have an answer to that, nor do I know why these people were killed or who killed them.
What I do know is that on Friday twelve people were slaughtered in Juárez, and nobody in the US paid any attention. What I do know is, on Saturday, there were eleven people slaughtered; three of them worked for the embassy. What I do know is, on Sunday, there were eight slaughtered, that Juárez is the most violent city in the world. It’s breaking down for various reasons.
What our response will be, I suspect, is more of the same. We’ll try and shore up the Mexican military, which has been killing people in the city busily for a year now. There’s hundreds of official complaints filed with the human rights office in the government. And we will announce our rededication to the war on drugs, which has imprisoned—created the largest prison population in the world in our own country.
I think that what your listeners should realize is the President of Mexico has said repeatedly that there’s no part of Mexico he doesn’t control. We have proof positive of his claim today. He’s arriving in Juárez for a visit. When he arrives is a secret. Where he goes is a secret. Who he sees is now a secret. That’s how much control he has over his own country.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And President Obama, he denounced what he called the brutal murders of these people in Juárez. And what is the role of the US in all of this? They have funded the so-called war on drugs in Mexico to the tune of more than a billion dollars. Where does this money go? And what is the role of the Mexican military in all of this?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, where the money goes is mainly, if you look into it, we’re selling them our hardware. This is part of our beloved military-industrial complex. That’s what they get for the money. But the Mexico military has historically been involved in drugs, I mean, going back decades. This is no secret. They were supervising Rancho Bufalo in Chihuahua, a huge marijuana plantation in the ’70s.
What we’re doing is what the—you know, we have three policies that affect Mexico. One, we have the free trade agreement, which has bankrupted small farmers in the country and destroyed small industry in the country. Two, we have an immigration policy which means a Mexican would have to live 150 years to get a visa to move to the United States, which has unleashed the largest human migration on earth. And three, we have our war on drugs, which over the course of forty years has made drugs in our country of higher quality more available and enriched a bunch of criminals in Mexico and the United States. That’s our policy.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And can you paint a picture of Ciudad Juárez? How has it changed over the years?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, you know, what’s changed is—this is simple. Twenty-seven percent of the houses in the city are abandoned. That’s 116,000 units. This is in a city where people live in cardboard boxes sometimes. Ten thousand businesses have given up and closed in the last year. Thirty to sixty thousand people from Juárez, mainly the rich, have moved across the river to El Paso for safety, including the mayor of Juárez, who likes to bunk in El Paso. And the publisher of the newspaper there lives in El Paso. Somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 people simply left the city. A lot of the problem is economic, not simply violence. At least 100,000 jobs in the border factories have vanished during this recession because of the competition from Asia. There’s 500 to 900 gangs there, estimates vary.
So what you have is you have—and then you lay on top of it 10,000 federal troops and federal police agents all marauding. You have a city where no one goes out at night; where small businesses all pay extortion; where 20,000 cars were officially stolen last year; where 2,600-plus people were officially murdered last year; where nobody keeps track of the people who have been kidnapped and never come back; where nobody counts the people buried in secret burying grounds, and they, in an unseemly way, claw out of the earth from time to time. You’ve got a disaster. And you have a million people, too poor to leave, imprisoned in it. And they’re going to be the people that the Mexican army and the Mexican police will make sure the President never meets today when he descends on Juárez for his sort of official visit. That’s the city.
AMY GOODMAN: Charles Bowden, Hillary Clinton said last March, “We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States and that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States.” What is your response?
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, to start with, it’s—drugs are sold in the United States because we have customers. But Hillary Clinton doesn’t think American citizens can consume substances she doesn’t approve of.
As far as the guns, that’s an open question. What you’re referring to is an ATF report which tracked guns that have been seized in Mexico. In that report, somewhere between 20 and 40 percent came from the US. The reason we don’t know where the others came from is the Mexican army, who has seized them, won’t let ATF agents examine them. Now, what you have to understand is, in a six-year period, out of an army of 250,000, about 150,000 deserted. I suspect some of the boys and girls who fled the Mexican army took guns with them. But if you shut down every gun shop in the United States, criminals in Mexico would still be armed.
So what we’re facing is a failed drug policy, but we can never admit that. That’s a sacred cause here. We’re a twelve-pack nation that won’t let anybody have a joint.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In your latest article in High Country News, you write, “There is no serious War on Drugs. Rather, there is violence, nourished by the money to be made from drugs. And there are U.S. industries whose primary lifeblood comes from fighting a war on drugs.” Explain what you mean by that.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, certainly. We’re spending $30 to $40 billion a year on narcotics officers in this country. Every state in the union, if you get out of the house and drive, is now studded with little prisons, some private. They’re all dependent on the—on laws outlawing drugs. The income from drugs in Mexico exceeds all other sources of foreign currency, except possibly oil, and that’s debatable. In other words, if President Calderon succeeded in his claimed goal of eradicating the drug industry in Mexico, Mexico would collapse in a minute. That’s what I mean.
I mean, why don’t we face the fact that drugs are like alcohol? They’re part of our culture now. They’re not going away. If we want to make them illegal, we can continue to live the way we have: imprisoning our own people, creating a police state, having prisons everywhere. But no matter what we do, they’re going to be in the neighborhood, just as they are.
There was an interesting government study released a while ago that said 232 American cities now have the presence of Mexican drug organizations. Well, look, I’m a little older, possibly, than some of your listeners, but if you bought a joint in 1975, it wasn’t coming from Finland or some place. They’ve always been here. It’s a market. All we’ve got to decide is whether it’s legal or illegal. That’s it. It’s like gambling. It’s got a life of its own.
But we are destroying, or helping to destroy, a country next door by our policies. Although there are many explanations for the problems in Mexico, and most of them lie with Mexicans, but certainly our economic policy, NAFTA, our drug policies, the war on drugs, and our militarization of the country have proven to be nothing but a disaster for the Mexican people.
AMY GOODMAN: Charles Bowden, how does this relate to the hundreds of women who have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua over the last, oh, fifteen years? We’re talking nearly 500 or more.
CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, we’re talking nearly 500 in a fifteen-year period in a city that had a million and a half. Here’s how it relates. Essentially, none of those crimes have never been solved. During that same period, 95—between 90 and 95 percent of the murders have been males. None of those crimes have been solved. Last year, of those 2,600-plus murders in Juárez, there were thirty arrests. Not solutions, just arrests. The way they figure in is, if you’re a Mexican citizen, anybody can kill you, and nothing’s going to happen to them. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a child, a man or a woman, that their justice system is broken. I can understand, because of the sort of cause célèbre quality while people are focused on the dead women, but I think we ought to focus on the dead human beings. This city kills people, and nothing happens to the killers.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will continue to follow this. Charles Bowden, thank you for joining us. His latest piece, “The War Next Door.” His forthcoming book, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, speaking to us from Las Cruces, New Mexico, just near Ciudad Juárez on the other side of the border.