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Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda on the Drug War, Legalization, Immigration and Free Trade

StorySeptember 23, 2010
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Jorge Castañeda, one of Mexico’s best known public intellectuals and the country’s former foreign minister, joins us to discuss Mexico’s drug war, the debate on legalization of drugs in Mexico, immigration, free trade and more. Castañeda was Mexico’s foreign minister between 2000 and 2003. He’s long supported the legalization of drugs in Mexico and has publicly called the so-called war on drugs a dead-end war and a war of choice. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Last week marked the 200th anniversary of the launching of Mexico’s war of independence against Spain. But even the bicentennial celebrations were somewhat muted, given the staggering death toll from the drug war.

As we continue today with developments in Mexico, we’re joined now in our New York studio by one of Mexico’s best-known public intellectuals and the country’s former foreign minister. Jorge Castañeda was foreign minister between 2000 and 2003. He’s long supported the legalization of drugs in Mexico and has publicly called the so-called war on drugs a dead-end war and a war of choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Jorge Castañeda is a regular columnist for the Mexican daily Reforma, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek International. He’s also the author of a number of books, including Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War, The Mexican Shock, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen, and his latest book is Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants. He’s also Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies here at New York University.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan. Pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, what has to happen, at least I would hope, is that Mexico realizes that this is a failed war, that the costs of this war have far outweighed any conceivable benefits to the country, and that we have to change strategies and find a way out of this mess. I think it’s going to be difficult for President Calderón, who has literally bet the store on this war to do that. But on the other hand, the costs continue to rise astronomically. I mean, every week we have a new disaster. We thought we had reached, you know, rock bottom, and then, the following week, something worse even happens.

And unfortunately, not enough emphasis, I think, has been placed in the United States or elsewhere, Amy, on this massacre of seventy-two Central and South American migrants that took place about a month ago in Tamaulipas on the eastern side of northeast of Mexico, about a hundred miles from the US border. This is the largest collective homicide in Mexico since the 1940s, more than Acteal in Chiapas, more than Aguas Blancas in Guerrero, more than Tlatelolco, the 1968 — the student — the famous student massacre. As of today, we know of sixty-eight students who were actually killed. This is now forty-two years later. This was seventy-two Central American and South American migrants gunned down with their hands tied behind their backs. The cost is just rising too much. It’s not worth it.

AMY GOODMAN: Who did it?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: We don’t know. Nobody knows. There’s absolutely no idea who was behind it. Some of the material killers were perhaps arrested, but we don’t know whether it was one gang or another gang, whether it was the drug trafficking people, whether it was the Mara Salvatrucha who want to control the routes from El Salvador. We have absolutely no idea, in the same way we don’t know who killed Santiago in Juárez four days ago.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned that President Felipe Calderón has bet the store in terms of this whole war against the cartels. And really, people tend to forget that he came out of a highly — he won a highly contested, bitter and controversial election for president and, shortly thereafter, begins this whole campaign. And now, suddenly, he’s even opening the door to a national debate as to — spurred, in many ways, by your former boss, President Vicente Fox, suddenly coming out and saying, a few weeks ago, we’ve got to legalize the drug trade, it’s costing Mexico too much. And now even Calderón is willing at least have a debate about it. Your sense of the political cost to him to, in essence, admit that the war he launched is not working?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, I think he probably knows this, but he also doesn’t see a way out. And he also knows that he really has gotten in too deep. I mean, this is going to be the signature issue, the only issue, of his six-year term. And so, the problem he has now, Juan, is that since it’s not working and so many people are skeptical about this in Mexico, you have a very contradictory attitude by people. On the one hand, they continue to support the President, support the army’s participation in this war; on the other hand, by overwhelming majorities, Mexicans say two things: one, the war is being lost; and two, it’s not my war, it’s his war. These very ambivalent sentiments cannot lead you to any type of victory when the costs are going up so much. So Calderón, I think, very intuitively, correctly, decided to try and open up this debate, although he backtracked a little bit by then saying that he was against it, this debate about legalization, at least of marijuana and perhaps other drugs in Mexico.

And if Proposition 19 in California is approved on November 2nd, this is going to place Mexico, on the one hand, in a terrible situation, because how can you go on killing — having people die by these numbers — 29,000 now in four years — and at the same time have California legalize it? So you’ve got people killing each other in Tijuana to stop marijuana from crossing the border, and across the border you’ve got 7-Eleven selling pot of different sorts, flavors, colors, what have you. I mean, it’s ridiculous. On the other hand, you know, what do we do with the legalization in Mexico? Do we legalize?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s take up that question after break. Jorge Castañeda is our guest, former foreign minister of Mexico, now teaches Latin American studies, politics at New York University here in New York. This is Democracy Now! We’re back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Jorge Castañeda, the former foreign minister of Mexico, teaches each semester a year — one semester a year at New York University, professor of politics and Latin American studies, has written a number of books.

Well, legalization, what would it look like?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, if California goes first, then it would be much easier for Mexico to do it. Those of us who have been always thinking that this war is a failed war, even before Calderón started it, and that this should happen, I think would be very happy to see California go in that direction, because then Mexico could basically say, “Look, guys” — I mean, I can see President Calderón telling President Obama, “Look, you know, these are the majority of the citizens of your largest, richest and most trendsetting state. This is what you guys decided. It’s impossible for us to continue a war, when you have basically declared that the war is over, or at least California has.” And that would allow Mexico to legalize at least marijuana. And according even to the United States, the DEA and people like that, 40, 50, maybe even 60 percent of the Mexican cartels’ profits come from marijuana. Marijuana production has increased in Mexico in the last few years. And consumption of marijuana in the United States has increased, according to a White House report issued last week. So, this would allow us to take a first step.

Is it sufficient? Is it a silver bullet that’s going to fix everything? No. Is it going to end — put an end to the violence in Mexico? No. But the minute we start removing some of the money that the cartels make, then they have less funds available to buy guns, to buy people, to recruit people, to do all sorts of things. And we can also concentrate the very scarce resources — police, military — that Mexico has on fighting the types of crime that really affect citizenship. You see, the drug trafficking doesn’t affect anybody in Mexico. It’s the collateral damage that affects people — kidnapping — what the two journalists were referring to — kidnappings, extortion, holdups, that sort of thing. If Americans are consuming cocaine coming from Colombia through Mexico, that affects nobody in Mexico. It is literally no skin off our backs. And so, then we could use those resources that we have, which are not enough, to fight the type of crime that does affect Mexicans. And, since the United States made the decision in California, that’s it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, but, as on of our prior guests was saying, there’s sometimes a difference between what happens at the state level and at the federal level. You have the same situation in the United States. You have first the Bush administration and then now the Obama administration with Plan Mérida, in essence, looking for — providing financial support for the drug war and insisting that this has to be carried out. How has US policy affected the way that Mexico fights its — deals with drugs?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, on this occasion, Juan, I think — I wasn’t in government anymore, but in early 2007, when President Bush visits President Calderón in Mérida, in Yucatán, it was Mexico who did the asking, as opposed to the United States who did the imposing. In the '70s and ’80s, and even in the ’90s, Washington would sort of tell Mexico, “You've got to do this. You’ve got to do that. We’ll help you, but you have to put your house in order, da-da-di, da-da-da.” This time it was Mexico, said, “Look, we have to declare war on these people, and we need your help.” President Bush and subsequently President Obama both said, “Fine. We’ll give you something. We can’t give you a whole lot, because you don’t want to accept the conditions that necessarily go with a lot of money and a lot of advisers and a lot of trainers and a lot of hardware,” which are very complicated conditions in the US. I think, correctly, there should be a lot of conditions. But this is Mexico is doing the asking.

So if Mexico all of a sudden says, you know, it’s over, I don’t think the Obama people would like it, but I think they would accept it, because, you know, they’re not gung-ho about this, either. Obama himself has made several decisions allowing states tacitly to pursue their own legislation on at least medical marijuana. A Veterans Administration’s hospital that he runs, he has to decide whether he vetoes a District of Columbia ordinance legalizing medical marijuana soon, because he’s the boss of the place, unlike other states. I think he’s got 'til December 1st to do that. His attitude has been, if this is what the states want, let them do it. Well, if that's what California wants, let California do it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the sunsetting that President Bush allowed of the assault weapons ban — much of the drug-related violence in Mexico fueled by the ability of drug cartels to get these AK-47 assault rifles and other arms from the United States? According to law enforcement officials, 90 percent of the guns picked up in Mexico from criminal activity are purchased in the United States.

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, that’s true. What’s not clear is, again, the cost of stopping that versus the benefits of doing so. First of all, that 90 percent number that everybody throws around actually is 90 percent of the traceable guns found in Mexico, that you can find a serial number, trace it back through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the US, and find a store somewhere where it was bought. We don’t know if that’s 90 percent of a hundred, 90 percent of ninety, or 90 percent of fifty.

Secondly, what we do know is that there is a world market for arms. It’s fungible. If it wasn’t the case, then only countries with border with the US would have guns. And, in fact, there are more guns per inhabitant in Colombia or in Brazil or in Sierra Leone or in Liberia, none of which have borders with the United States, or Central America, of course, than Mexico. Now, is it worth for Mexico and for the US to stop every car and every truck that flows from north to south, entering Mexico, to stop guns from entering Mexico? Is that something that makes sense? Is the cost of that payable? Affordable? When the United States does it the other way around, trying to stop drugs and stop people, we in Mexico say it’s not worth it — first of all, because the drugs get in anyway; secondly, because the people get in anyway. And you need the people, and you like the drugs. So why in the world spend all this money and make life miserable for everybody by stopping trucks, cars, people, going from south to north? Well, why doesn’t that argument work the same way from north to south? So — and it’s an easy way for people in Mexico, like myself and others, to say it’s the Americans’ fault. If the Americans stop sending guns to Mexico, there would be less violence. Then why in the world is practically every country in Latin America more violent than Mexico?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, let me ask you, in terms of the impact of this general war on the life, the day-to-day life, and the economy of the country, a question I asked some of the journalists. Mexico has placed a major emphasis in its economic future in the industrialization of the north and the development of maquiladoras. Now you’ve got a situation where I assume a lot of these US executives that go to these maquilas have to have armed guards every day when they go to work. I mean, what’s the — and also the impact on the managerial class in Mexico and on the workers there. What’s the economy of the country looking like?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, the first point, really, I should emphasize, Juan — and I know you’ve been making this point — is that Mexico is not Ciudad Juárez. When I was just there recently and did a book tour there with a friend of mine, we spent a day and a half there, went to all the universities, went to the papers, went — and, you know, they get very upset at us when we say that, but we tell them, “Look, you know, we understand what’s going on here, so to speak. We feel your pain. But you are a city of a million-point-two, -point-three inhabitants in a country of 110 million people. You are less than one percent of the country’s population.” And what’s — the tragedy that Juárez is going through is not occurring all over Mexico. I walk out for lunch or dinner or breakfast every day in Mexico City where I live, and everyone I know feels that Mexico City is an increasingly safe town. There are big cities, like Léon, like Mérida, even Puebla, cities of a million, million and a half, two million inhabitants. They’re very safe. So, first point is, Juárez is really an exception. It’s a tragic exception, but it’s an exception.

The other issue is, we don’t know what’s worse anymore — the drug wars because of the recession or the recession because of the drug wars? Last year, 80,000 maquiladora jobs were lost in Juárez, about 20 percent of the total. Nobody can take a hit like that and then not have the mess that we have in Juárez. If you have 80,000 people laid off with no more income, no more nothing, and nothing to do but just hang out on the streets — and these are young people, young men, young women — you’re going to have this sort of situation. I think it would make more sense to find ways to bring back those jobs than to send soldiers into Ciudad Juárez. And try and convince your American executive you were mentioning, look, this is a good thing, we’ve got soldiers in the streets. Yeah, sure, this is exactly where I want to live and work.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this whole debate about immigration, how you see it, as you live in this country and you live in Mexico? I mean, your book, Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants — what do you think has to be done?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, I’ve been a very strong supporter, since I was in government and before, of what is now called comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. I think President Bush made a huge mistake in not pushing for it even as early as 2003, as he had promised President Fox and myself he would do. Then he did try honestly and sincerely to push it in 2006 and '07, but he didn't have the political capital to get it anymore. He couldn’t deliver the Republicans. And now President Obama is making the same mistake, in my opinion, which was not to have done it his first year in office, when he had the capital, he had the votes in the Senate, he had a few Republicans on his side. Now he’s not going to get it done. And the worst part, Amy, is that people who have been saying here, “OK, if it’s not comprehensive, let’s do piecemeal,” here we go again with DREAM Act. It’s got stuck again two days ago, and I don’t see how they’re going to get it back out and vote on it again. And they just don’t have the votes. The votes are not there either for piecemeal or for comprehensive. So then at least fight for comprehensive. You know —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the reaction -—

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: — pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the reaction in — not only in Mexico, but in other countries in Latin America, to this increasing intolerance and frenzy in the United States, in some sectors of our population, about building a wall, about keeping immigrants out, about penalizing and criminalizing immigration, undocumented immigration? How does the rest of Latin America see what’s going on in the United States?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Well, I mean, obviously, people don’t like it, particularly the Arizona law. SB 1070 has been a real sort of flashpoint in relations, with emigration-sending countries. It’s not everybody in Latin America; it’s Mexico, it’s the Central Americans, it’s two or three South American countries. Brazil couldn’t give a damn either way; they’re not in this business. Chileans aren’t. The Argentines aren’t. But for others, it’s been a real, real issue. I think President Obama has been great on it, by challenging it in court. I hope the federal government wins the suit eventually. But the problem is that there’s going to be a whole lot of other states who are going to follow the same little route.

And this hurts the United States’ image and position in Latin America. When Obama was elected, everybody was tremendously optimistic and happy in Latin America, because we seemed to have somebody, first of all, who looked like us, and secondly — not like me, but like us — and who was understanding and sympathetic and sensitive to Latin America’s concerns. Now, despite himself, the United States is almost in a worse situation than it was with Bush, because at the end of the day, with Bush, you know, you had two real attempts, two real votes on immigration, which failed. Obama has not been able to send it up for a vote yet, except for this DREAM Act business attached to the military bill. And he lost that one, too. So, you know, something has to give there. It’s very difficult to figure out what.

The other problem, Juan — and you know this, because I know you talk about this on the show — is that the federal government’s deportations through ICE and other agencies have run up under Obama. They’re going after more people than even the Bush folks were doing. And that, he doesn’t have to do. And this notion that he’s going to get some Republican votes by doing these terribly nasty things to families, to children, to women, is a ridiculous notion. You’re not going to get any Republican votes with that, so why do it?

AMY GOODMAN: And the $600 million to deploy some 1,500 new Border Patrol agents and law enforcement on the border?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: It doesn’t help. Frankly, I prefer the Border Patrol to the military. The National Guard, I don’t like at all, because they don’t know what in the world they’re doing there. At least the Border Patrol people are more or less well trained, more or less follow, you know, basic rules, tend to respect human rights. The seams look terrible, but in fact, you’re in better hands when the Border Patrol catches you than if the National Guard is pursuing you and then hands you over to the Border Patrol.

AMY GOODMAN: But not comparing them against each other, but where the money, you think, would be best spent?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: I think the money would be best spent in trying to really do something to improve job creation in Mexico, on the one hand, and secondly, the money would be better spent trying to find ways to achieve citizenship for those people who are already in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, will you run for president of Mexico?

JORGE CASTAÑEDA: If there were an independent candidacy allowed. Independent candidates are not allowed in Mexico. If it were allowed, I would certainly consider it. I tried to run in 2006. I wasn’t allowed to because political parties have a lock on electoral representation in Mexico. I’d like to, but I don’t think that will change.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Jorge Castañeda, thank you so much for being with us, former foreign minister of Mexico.

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