|This essay by Euan Wilson
Originally appeared in The Socionomist in July 2010.
Longtime subscribers will recall Euan Wilson’s landmark drug war study from a year ago, “The Coming Collapse of a Modern Prohibition” (The Socionomist, July 2009). When we published his report, Wilson’s forecasts looked downright radical. Now they appear merely prescient. And Wilson notes that the drug war has reached an important new violence milestone this month.
“The Coming Collapse” compared drug-related violence in Mexico to Chicago’s gang wars of the 1930s. Wilson predicted a dramatic escalation in bloodshed and, eventually, cries for legalization to end the killing, just as happened with the earlier prohibition.
Drug war violence esclates: A car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Wilson’s forecasts are unfolding in sequence. At press time, the Mexican border region is reeling from two shocking drug-related attacks. A particularly sinister car bomb incident, the country’s first in this drug war, occurred July 15. Gang members dressed a wounded man as a police officer and left him on the street in Ciudad Juarez. Then they called emergency services, luring real police to the scene. When the first responders arrived, the executors triggered the car bomb and killed four people—including two police officers—and wounded another 11. Mexican police blame La Linea, an armed wing of the Juarez cartel. The Christian Science Monitor said that with the attack, the “Columbianization” of Mexico is nearly complete.
Then on July 18, five SUVs full of what Reuters referred to as “hitmen” rolled up to a birthday party and opened fire. The killers murdered at least 17 people and wounded another 18, most of them in their 20s. The birthday boy, who was among the victims, has been identified only as Mota, Mexican slang for “marijuana.” The massacre took place in Torreón, a city about 200 miles from the Texas border.
Ciudad Juarez, the site of the car bomb, shares a border with El Paso, Texas.
Remarking on July’s violence, Wilson says, “Not only have more than an estimated 24,000 people died in the past three and half years in the drug war, but the tactics appear to be escalating. The first car bomb is a meaningful step up from the traditional kidnappings and executions. The cartels are all getting more creative with their businesses, selling pirated goods, tapping into oil pipelines to steal fuel and of course extorting families of kidnapped officials. The sheer size of the cartels already dwarfs anything we saw in Chicago in the early 1930s. But most of all, the cartels are becoming more and more organized by the day.”
The Drug War moves north: Torreón and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, were the scenes of particularly gruesome drug-war violence this month. Torreón lies about 200 miles south of U.S. territory; Ciudad Juarez is a border city. Fishermen in Falcon Lake, southeast of Laredo, have been attacked by Mexican gang members.
Violence in the region is reaching such extremes that Tony Payan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, told Bloomberg that residents in the border town of Ciudad Juarez are abandoning homes. The town was the location of another birthday party shoot-’em-up back in January. Some 2,600 murders were reported in Ciudad Juarez in 2009, an average of seven a day. Drug violence in Mexico claimed 9,000 lives nationwide in 2009, but it has already accounted for 7,000 deaths in the first six months of this year, according to the Mexican government.
“This is one of the bloodiest periods in Mexican history,” said Payan, who also teaches at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. As many as 90 percent of the victims in these altercations, he adds, are “closely tied” to the drug trade.
Like Prohibition-era bootleggers, the bad guys here are gangs of thugs competing for smuggling routes into lucrative markets. A year ago Wilson predicted that the violent battles would edge ever closer to U.S. borders and then spill over in a full-scale gangland turf war. Wilson predicted that California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas would see the kind of horrors then plaguing Mexican states. In late May, the AP reported that fishermen in Falcon Lake, on the Texas-Mexico border, have been robbed at gunpoint by “pirates.” The local sheriff called the attacks a byproduct of fighting between Mexican drug gangs. In early June, the U.S. and Mexico were engaged in a dispute over the death of a Mexican teen—allegedly shot for throwing rocks at U.S. border patrol agents.
On the U.S. side of the border, the call for legalization is growing. Oakland, Calif., has become the first U.S. city to impose a special tax on medical marijuana dispensaries. In July the Oakland city council voted to legalize large-scale marijuana cultivation for medical use and will issue up to four permits for “industrial” cultivation starting next year. According to Reuters, the strongest opposition to the vote came not from the anti-pot crowd, but from small-scale growers who fear they’ll be squeezed out of the marketplace. In Berkeley, the city council met in July to discuss adding a medical marijuana tax to the city’s November ballot.
Also up for vote in November: Proposition 19, which would make California the first U.S. state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and authorize cities to sell and tax it. Oakland resident Richard Lee, who owns two of the city’s four dispensaries and a trade school for the medical marijuana industry, is sponsoring the measure.
In fact, the Bay area is so supportive of legalizing marijuana that in late June the pot-friendly counterculture magazine High Times hosted its first Cannabis Cup on American soil, in San Francisco. The publication has held a similar event in Amsterdam for the past two decades. Prizes were awarded in several categories to medical marijuana growers. Although several states have legalized medical marijuana, selling and growing it remain illegal under U.S. federal law.
All of this is simply background for what’s to come, Wilson says. As drug violence progresses north of the border, he wrote a year ago, “the dialogue about marijuana decriminalization will cease to center on morality and instead will shift to stopping the … bloodshed.”
As to the drug war itself, “‘Mexican violence’ is becoming ‘Mexican violence on American soil,’” Wilson warns. “At first, the U.S. response will be to push back with force, perhaps even with the military. But later as the bear market continues, advocates will say it’s time to give up on trying to cut off the supply of drugs and go for what they believe is the root cause of the mayhem and deaths: drug ‘prohibition.’”
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