Mexico’s Youth Under Siege

By  |  22 / November / 2014

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Since the beginning of the war on drugs, launched by former president Felipe Calderon in December of 2006, an alarming number of young Mexicans have been killed in a context of almost total impunity.

The massacres of Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya, which together represent the death or disappearance of 70 youth at the hands of security forces in just two incidents, are evidence of the national emergency that affects youth throughout the country

The War on Drugs, a Strategy of Social Control

The war on drugs, designed in the seventies by then-president Richard Nixon and intensified by Ronald Reagan, from its beginning sought to repress rebellious youth. Nixon came to power with serious challenges. There were massive socal protests in the streets, especially in the cities. The war in Viet Nam had generated a strong and radical student movement, a counterculture flourished among young people that rejected the dominant culture, the African-American population had risen up in defense of civil rights and revolutionary movements were growing–as was happening in Mexico and other parts of the world in this period of global history that’s identified with the year 1968.

The war on drugs launched in 1971 aimed at putting down the youth rebellion by criminalizing young people, especially those who most challenged the system–black youth, Latinos and the poor in general. Unemployment was up, social inequality was rising, along with the desire for change. The drug war was an attempt to divert attention from internal problems and present the use and trafficking of prohibited substances as “public enemy number one”.
Four decades later, the strategy has been alarmingly successful. From 1980 to 2008, the prison population quadrupled to 2.3 million people. One million African-Americans are behind bars, and–along with Latinos–they make up 58% of the prison population. The majority are in prison for drug-related offenses; among young people this by far the main cause. The war on drugs and the incarceration of young people has been an effective way to prevent social unrest in a society today where 1% of the population owns 40% of the national wealth. The target of the strategy of preventive repression has clearly been youth.

On the other hand, the drug war has been a dismal failure in the goal set by the authorities, which is to reduce the trafficking and use of prohibited substances. Annual reports show that U.S. drug consumption fluctuates, but has not dropped–in the case of some drugs, it has increased. There is no evidence of success in reducing supply, despite multimillion dollar counternarcotics programs such as Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico (the Merida Initiative).

The other “achievement” of the war on drugs in the U.S. has been to stigmatize poor youth. Suggesting that an individual has ties to illegal drugs, whether proved or not, is sufficient to socially isolate and undermine credibility and block social sympathy with the just demands of jobs, justice and human rights of whole groups of young people. The mass media have used the drug war to strengthen racism and ageism, creating fear of young people and especially the poor and minorities.

The War in Mexico
Mexico does not have the prison infrastructure or judicial system to incarcerate its young rebels in the same way the United States does, so in Mexico the drug war has been imposed in different ways but with the same objective of social control. Since 2006, the deployment of armed forces in Mexico has been an indispensable element in the strategy of the drug war. The use of the armed forces in public safety is prohibited or highly restricted in many countries, including the United States, due to the likelihood of abuse of power.

The militarization of the country has brought the sad consequences that are now visible: over 100,000 dead, some 30,000 missing, human rights violations, an increase in gender-based crimes, forced displacement, abuse of migrants, corruption and collusion and deterioration of the rule of law. Because of the disastrous results of the drug war in Mexico, as a candidate Pena Nieto disavowed the strategy. As president, Peña Nieto has done everything possible not to mention the violence and with the assistance of the media, has even sought to control the suppress news of incidents of violence, change the discourse and hide the reality.

If we start with the premise that the war on drugs is a mechanism of social control and not a strategy for fighting crime, it becomes clearer why Peña Nieto has maintained the strategy unchanged despite the social and political costs for his presidency and Mexican society, and why the US government will not allow the Mexican government to abandon the model. Militarization–whether by the Army, the Navy, the new gendarmerie, or militarized police–assures there is a repressive force in critical areas of the country. The drug war has cemented new relationships between the state and shadow powers, with complex alliances between security forces, a greater number of criminal groups and economic interests.

The result is rampant bloodshed.

For youth, one of the first red flags was the case of the two college students in Monterrey, killed by the army and -post mortem- accused of being members of organized crime. Now this pattern has been repeated dozens of times. According to photos and testimonies, the 102nd Army Battalion executed a group of young men and women in Tlatlaya. Weapons appear to have been placed on the corpses in totally implausible positions to simulate a battle. At first, the Army claimed that the 22 young people were killed in a “confrontation”. A witness stepped up to describe that only one died in the initial confrontation and 21 were executed after surrendering. As if haggling with the truth, Attorney General Murillo Karam now says only 8 were killed by soldiers acting on their own and all the others died in a shootout.

Despite the lack of serious investigations, circumstances reported by independent organizations indicate that many of the murders of young people in the contextof the drug war are due to a settling of accounts between criminal groups.This type of violence has increased due to the fragmentation of the cartels and the “kingpin strategy” of taking out capos, which leads to turf wars.

Even if they are murders among members of organized crime, this does not exonerate the state. First, because it has the obligation to ensure peace and security and second, the Mexican state is responsible for the violence unleashed by its drug war strategy, and third the lack of life opportunities -access to education and employment– puts youth at risk of enticement and forced recruitment by organized crime, or of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. More than 7.5 million young Mexicans do not find opportunities for study or formal employment, a structural situation that restricts their life prospects, their hopes and their development. In recognition of this fact, among the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions made a formal recommendation to Mexico to “introduce effective public policies to prevent the recruitment of teenagers to organized crime.”

Currently there are various forms of state violence against young people and all have grown significantly in the context of the war on drugs. The main forms are: extrajudicial executions (killings by state forces without legal process), repression (murder, assault and/or disappearances that have features of persecution for political reasons) and “social cleansing” (attacks, disappearances and murders of individuals and marginalized groups occupying public spaces such as street people, prostitutes, street vendors and according to reports from Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere youth, just because they are young). Moreover, torture has risen as an instrument of a justice system that has nothing to do with justice.

All these forms of violence involve serious human rights violations and are directed against youth. The Rapporteur reports documented cases of the death of 994 children in the drug war, just between the years 2007-2010. The psychological trauma, injury and destruction of family have high social costs that affect generations.

The U.S. role
Prohibition laws in the United States created a huge black market estimated at $38 billion dollars, only between Mexico and the United States. This underground market allows the flow of resources to organized crime, with no possibility of regulation, control or social benefits.

In the capitalist system, the existence of an underground economy has financial and political advantages. On one hand, the criminalization of drugs creates a situation of vulnerability and ongoing harassment of youth by the repressive forces of the state, and assures that many of them will spend time behind bars. In foreign policy, the drug war justifies U.S. intervention.

The amount of money flowing without transparency or control was a factor, according to economists, in saving the global financial system in the 2008 crisis by providing liquidity to banks and financing speculation at a high level. Transnational banks not only accept drug money, but promote new and more sophisticated ways to launder money and ensure that illegal cash flows into the “legitimate” financial system.

Access to dirty money provides a way to finance illegal political activities and even secret or prohibited wars. The best known example is the funding of the Nicaraguan Contras with drug sales in U.S. neighborhoods by the CIA.

Forms of U.S. foreign intervention have changed with the globalization of corporations and international elites (think of the Slim business model, all the former Mexican presidents trained in U.S. universities and now chairing the boards of large corporations, etc.) Normally it is no longer necessary to pay the economic and political cost of sending troops to Latin America. Governments like Peña Nieto’s do the dirty work of U.S. “national security” and its secure access to natural resources and labor for international companies. The phrase “national security” is put in quotation marks because this model does not assure the security of U.S. citizens or even the state, but rather is oriented to secure the profits of major economic powers.

Mexico, the global laboratory of free trade, has become the laboratory of these new forms of intervention with the pretext of the war on drugs in 2007. Less than a year after Felipe Calderon launched the war here, then-President George W. Bush announced the Merida Initiative, which remains the focus of U.S. policy in the country seven years later. The Merida Initiative, according to the original description, covers counterterrorism, counternarcotics and border security, but is best known for the drug war.

The roots of the strategy are in NAFTA. The regional economic integration of Mexico, the United States and Canada is not so much the integration of three nations and economies, as a plan corresponding to the interests of the super-power in guaranteeing access to resources for the transnational private sector. This explains the euphoria in the United States after Peña Nieto’s reforms that threaten the sovereignty and the public good of Mexico. The reforms have been Wall Street’s goal since the beginning of the NAFTA negotiations and represent everything the U.S. could not get at the initial stage, starting with the privatization of PEMEX.

The FTA created new conditions for investment in the country, even though the name emphasizes trade. With these new highly favorable conditions, the transnationals have bought huge tracts of land in Mexico, have taken control of entire production processes, and with the latest expansion in extractive industries, especially mining and petroleum, have gained land-use concessions throughout the country.

With the expansion of investment opportunites, new and prospective investors and the governments that promote investments had a problem: How to protect new investments in Mexico–not from drug cartels because in 2006 the cartels didn’t pose much of a threat to business–but from the resistance of the people? The first response was the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The second was the militarization and creation of a police state in the name of the war on drugs with the support of the Merida Initiative.

The profound changes in land use and control of income and resources brought about by the structural reforms and NAFTA have not been easy. Across the country, commited have resisted changes that strip them of land and resources they lived off of for generations. As the changes intensify, resistance grows among indigenous peoples who refuse to be displaced from their sacred lands, farmers who want to continue to be farmers, urban neighborhoods that reject becoming mega-malls.

Territorial conflicts generated by the drug war models appear as turf battles between cartels, but this explanation hides a deeper conflict between the interests of the Mexican people as enshrined in the Constitution and the interests of big capital (including drug dealers) . In Colombia, conflict displacement has led to the invasion of transnational investors on indigenous and peasant lands with palm plantations, mining operations, and other megaprojects. Honduras is on the same path under the post-coup government following the rupture of the institutional order in 2009. In Mexico, the correlation between the presence of the armed forces and an increase in violence leads to the conclusion that there are areas where the state is interested in promoting violence and the displacement of the local population.

So far the U.S. government has sent more than $2 billion in equipment, training and services to Mexico under the Merida Initiative. The amount, not insignificant, shows a fundamental change in the bilateral relationship, in which U.S. security interests are primary and intervention, except direct military, has deepened. Althought the objective was supposedly to strengthen the rule of law and dismantle organized crime, the results have been the opposite.

The drug war in Mexico has allowed a degree of U.S. government intervention in Mexican national security and in the daily lives of its citizens that is unprecedented in recent history. The Calderon adminstration, to bolster its own strength, allowed a flood of U.S. intelligence, espionage, police and counternarcotics agents and a unknown number of private security companies under government contracts, Blackwater style.

Lately both the U.S. and Mexican governments have modified the language of the “war on drugs”, even prohibiting the phrase among government officials. In the United States, the contradiction between the moralistic “zero-tolerance” stance on drugs, and the failure, repressive nature and hypocrisy of prohibition laws has become evident. The social consensus around the war ond drugs model has broken down. Four states have legalized marijuana and 19 allow it for medicinal use. In Latin America, national leaders are questioning the model of the militarized drug war that makes thier countries do the dirty work of enforcing U.S. prohibitionist laws abroad when they are breaking down at home.
In response, the government, notably the Pentagon, has introduced terms like “narco-insurgency” and “narco-terrorism” to convince people of the continued need for repressive policies and the militarization of the continent even as the drug pretext wears thin. Although there is no evidence of an international terrorist threat from the region, the military-industrial complex seeks to justify the Bush Doctrine of U.S. hegemony in the region.

We’re experiencing a hazardous period in Mexico. We need to gather information about what’s happening above and below, discuss issues and share forums.

In this national emergency, the country’s future is at stake, and this future is the responsibility and heritage of youth. The war on drugs is a war against young people; nation’s resources and life itself are at stake.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program in Mexico City. This text is a version of testimony presented for the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal/Mexico Chapter “Destruction of Youth” hearing and has been presented at various universities. Spanish original here.