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Charles Bowden on Mexico’s Dirty War Against Drugs

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Last week Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy blocked the release of a State Department report affirming that Mexico has respected human rights in its fight against drug cartels. Leahy’s move holds up more than $100 million in US aid. The money has been delayed under a law linking 15 percent of US funding to Mexico under the Merida Initiative to Mexico’s record on human rights. On Monday, President Obama praised the Mexican government for its handling of the drug war. We speak with Charles Bowden, a reporter who has been extensively covering the human consequences of Mexico’s drug war. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re going to turn now to the issue of Mexico’s drug war. Last week, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy blocked the release of a State Department report affirming that Mexico has respected human rights in its fight against drug cartels. Leahy’s move holds up more than $100 million in US aid. The money has been delayed under a law linking fifteen percent of US funding to Mexico under the Merida Initiative to Mexico’s record on human rights.

On Monday, President Obama praised the Mexican government for its handling of the drug war.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have great confidence in President Calderon’s administration applying the law enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so in a way that’s consistent with human rights. And we discussed this in our bilateral meeting. And I am confident that as the national police are trained, as the coordination between the military and local police officials is improved, there is going to be increased transparency and accountability and that human rights will be observed.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Mexican President Felipe Calderon also defended his government’s human rights record in the drug war.

    PRESIDENT FELIPE CALDERON: [translated] We made a clear promise concerning human rights, and we’ve kept it and continue to keep it, not because of the money that may or may not come from the US and not because a Mexican congressman asks or doesn’t ask for it, but because we have a profound dedication to human rights, with which I’ve been involved for several decades and to which I feel personally involved.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re joined now by a reporter who’s been extensively covering the human consequences of Mexico’s drug war. Charles Bowden is an author and journalist based in Tucson, Arizona. He has recently published two articles on Mexico’s drug war. His latest is called “We Bring Fear,” appearing in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine. The piece chronicles the case of Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican reporter who’s seeking political asylum in the United Stated to escape threats from the Mexican military. Another article, a profile of a Mexican police commander who’s also worked as a paid assassin for drug cartels, appeared in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. Charles Bowden’s most recent book is Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future. He joins us now on the telephone from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Charles Bowden.

CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, thank you. Glad to be here.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Could you respond to Obama’s comments at the summit in Guadalajara talking about the Mexican government’s human rights record in the drug war?

CHARLES BOWDEN: Yes, utter nonsense. There have been hundreds of complaints in Chihuahua alone filed against the army on human rights grounds. Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, the reporter, is seeking political asylum, because the Mexican army is trying to kill him. And he has to keep moving in this country because of threats.

What the US government is doing is pretending the Mexican army is some partner in some war against drugs. In fact, what’s going on in Mexico is a war for drugs as the economy collapses. The army has moved in and taken over police departments all over the country. It’s moved into state governments. Since this war, this initiative by President Calderon started in December of 2006, 12,000 Mexicans have been slaughtered, but only seventy-two soldiers have died, which is a very strange thing to call a war against drugs.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the Merida Initiative that would fund the Mexican government $1.4 billion, I believe it is, that is funding the army. The army has been brought in very heavily into this war. You’ve been very critical of the Mexican army. Could you talk about their role in this?

CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah. Well, what they have done is moved in in a sort of silent coup. I’ll give you an example. They’ve moved into Ciudad Juarez, a city of a million and a half, and the murder rate’s exploded there. There’s 8,000 to 10,000 federal troops and federal police now in Juarez. In 2007, there were 300 murders, a record for the city. But in 2008, there were 1,600 people slaughtered. This year, there’s been over 1,200 people slaughtered. That’s the achievement of the Mexican army. Every place they go, they’ve terrified people. The soldiers run amok, do whatever they want.

And, of course, anybody that uses drugs in this country knows the shipments still arrive on time. We’re fated now or committed to giving them half a billion a year. And it’s pretty hard to tell — explain to anybody who’s sane what we’re getting for the money, except more gore and more drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Bowden, talk about the Mexican police commander that you profiled who’s also worked as a paid assassin for the drug cartels.

CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah, he operated out of Juarez. He’s killed hundreds of people. He was a commander in charge of the anti-kidnapping unit there. He was trained in the United States by the FBI. And for twenty years, he was a professional killer. He told me he could lead me —- he had personally dug 250 graves in Juarez. He could lead me to where 600 bodies were hidden in death houses. And what he is is almost a living model of the seamless web that’s operated in Mexico between the drug industry and the government. They’re co-dependent.

But what people have to understand is Mexico would collapse without drug money. Our agencies estimate Mexico earns $30 billion to $50 billion a year in foreign currency from selling drugs. Remittances from Mexican workers here is their number two official source of currency, and that’s about $20—$25 billion. But the drug industry is essential. It’s penetrated the whole culture, and it isn’t going away. And nobody is going to destroy it.

I’ll give you another statistic. The consumption of drugs in Mexico has exploded. Last week, a public health official in Juarez, a city of a million and a half, said there’s at least 150,000 addicts in the city. Think of it this way: trying to eradicate the drug industry in Mexico is like trying to eradicate gambling in Las Vegas. It is the economy. And it’s the unspoken part of the economy.

And there’s one final thing that has to be considered. Forty percent of the federal budget in Mexico comes from oil, from PEMEX. The oil fields are collapsing. The Mexican government, by its own statements, thinks they’ll be functionally gone in nine years. That makes drugs yet more important for the survival of the society.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Your latest piece in Mother Jones, “We Bring Fear,” chronicling the story of this Mexican journalist — talk about his story and what it’s like to be a reporter caught in the middle of this drug war and his trajectory from Mexico to the United States.

CHARLES BOWDEN: I’ll be happy to. Emilio Gutiérrez was a single father raising his son, trying to live a quiet life. In February of 2005, he published a tiny story in a daily in Chihuahua, reporting an incident where these drunken soldiers had gone into a third-rate hotel and robbed the patrons. For that, he was threatened by a Mexican general who’s in charge of the zone with death and told never to do it again. For the next three years, Emilio never wrote a story about the army. He just stayed below the radar.

When Calderon, the President, made this new surge, flooding the zone with soldiers in his war against drugs, they came to the community, Ascension, Chihuahua, where Emilio lived. First they ransacked his house. Then in June, he got warning from a friend of his, who was dating one of the soldiers, they were coming to kill him. He then fled to the United States, went legally to a port of entry, asked for political asylum, was promptly thrown into a detention center, a prison, separated from his son, who was thrown into a detention center. The son was in jail for two-and-a-half months, a fifteen-year-old. Emilio was in seven-and-a-half months.

Now, here’s his problem. We have never granted political asylum to a Mexican reporter, because that would be an admission about human rights violations in Mexico. As we speak, Emilio is in limbo. He can’t get a work permit. He’s out of prison. He can’t get his case settled. And it’s a very important case, because hundreds, if not thousands, of Mexicans are watching it, and if he actually could get political asylum, it could open the floodgate of people fleeing the terror down there.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Bowden, you’re holding a fundraiser for him now?

CHARLES BOWDEN: Yeah, we’re going to hold a fundraiser August 21st in Las Cruces. But I’d also, you know, appreciate it if you put on your website where to send money.

Emilio is a guy who comes from a — he comes from a poor family. He’s got a high school education. He’s not lazy, but he can’t work, because we won’t give him a work permit, even though he’s legally eligible. He’s got a son in high school. And frankly, we’re trying to — I’m trying to, and others are trying, to keep him alive until his case is settled, because if he wins, he’ll be the first Mexican reporter to ever get political asylum. And if he wins, it will make it possible for others to file. So this case is very important. We’re just trying to sustain him until it’s adjudicated.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of the weapons that come over the border, not from Mexico to the United States, but from the United States to Mexico?

CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, you know, our gun laws are different than theirs. Basically, you can buy guns here and take them there. And the reason they get there is Mexican customs lets them go through. But it’s like the contract killer I wrote about. He moved freely between both countries. Actually, he was trained by us. You’re never going to shut down the arms shipment from the United States to Mexico. And frankly, if you did, it would make very little difference. They’d buy them somewhere else. But they will arm themselves. I mean, the Mexican drug world isn’t going to depend on rubber bands.

But [inaudible] consider [inaudible] seem like somehow this is a problem, is that in this, quote, “war” with 12,000 people killed, it’s not like a bunch of major cartel figures have been killed. In fact, if you go over the dead in Juarez, it’s a bunch of poor people being killed. But this is a false issue, in my opinion.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And, Charles Bowden, you’ve been writing about this issue for years, both from within Mexico and the United States. What do you see as the solution to this problem?

CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, look, I disagree with my government, which is not unusual. You’re never going to stop the violence over drugs in Mexico until drugs are legalized here. That is, to major industry, they will supply it.

But I spent most of — I’ve lived all my life in the United States, and I’m still baffled why the government thinks you can tell people what they can consume. But drugs are actually junk. They’re worthless. The only thing that makes them valuable is illegal. So we’ve consciously made a decision to outlaw drugs. We’ve consciously said we’re going to ship $30 billion to $50 billion a year into Mexico to finance bloody criminals. And then we blame drug users here who have no interest in any of this. Apparently, they just want to sit down, roll a joint, and listen to music. This seems to me an insane policy.

It started, the big push, under President Nixon. We’ve been at it forty years. We’ve dropped hundreds of billions of dollars. We’ve created the highest prison rate in the world enforcing these laws. Anybody that’ll walk out of the house knows drugs are more prevalent now. They’re higher quality, and they’re cheaper than they’ve ever been. This is a failed policy.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And finally, you have been reporting on this issue from these towns in Mexico, and you write in one of your pieces how a Mexican federal cop wanted to kill you. What are the dangers of covering this issue as a reporter?

CHARLES BOWDEN: Well, look at, I have privilege with a passport. I mean, the reality is there’s another thing that’s in the US press about violence spilling over the border. That’s vastly exaggerated. Last year in Ciudad Juarez, there were 1,607 murders. Last year in El Paso, which meets it on the Rio Grande, there were eighteen murders.

I’ll tell you the real danger in this entire thing we’re financing in Mexico at half-a-billion dollars a year, is we’re slaughtering Mexican citizens. They’re the ones dying. Twelve thousand people have died since December 2006 in this initiative. That’s far more than we’ve lost in our — with our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. So what we should do is look at the blood on our hands from persisting on this preposterous initiative against drugs and realize the people that are paying on the border are average Mexicans, not rich people, not drug lords, just average Mexicans getting mowed down and slaughtered.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Bowden, we want to thank you for being with us. He is a journalist and author based in Tucson, Arizona, but speaking to us from Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he is holding a fundraiser for a fellow journalist, for the Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto on August 21st. Charles Bowden’s piece, “We Bring Fear,” is about Mexico’s drug cartels in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine, also wrote about Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, as well, chronicling his attempt to get political asylum here in the United States. Charles Bowden, thanks.

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