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The Drug War's Endgame?

With violence raging across Latin America, the region's leaders press President Obama at a major summit to end the War on Drugs. "El Narco" author Ioan Grillo reports from Mexico City.

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Veteran drug war reporter Ioan Grillo photo via

By Tony O'Neill

04/02/12

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Inside the heart of darkness that is the War on Drugs in Mexico and other Latin American nations—the routine beheadings, the mass graves, the bodies melted in acid baths and the AK-47-toting narco-armies running amok—there may finally be a glimmer of hope. Presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica have all recently taken the courageous stand of calling for alternative forms of drug regulation and prevention. Their voices have joined a growing chorus, which includes former Mexican president Vincente Fox and leading Latin American intellectuals, who are convinced that the US-led war on drugs is, after three decades, an abject failure. So far Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay have passed laws decriminalizing drug possession for personal consumption. (For a color-coded map showing each nation's position on legalization, click here.)

The unprecedented escalating violence south of the border has placed the long-taboo subject of regulating, decriminalizing and even legalizing the use of drugs firmly back on the agenda.

As Latin America shakes off decades of economic and political domination by the US, the nations are increasingly speaking in one defiant voice: No mas! 

To which an increasingly isolated America responds, No way!

The next flashpoint in this hemispheric standoff may occur this weekend, when President Barack Obama is due to attend the Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia. While not officially on the agenda, drug policy—and the US's intransigence—is on everyone's mind, so the an event promises to be uncomfortable for the president, especially in an election year as his administration firms up its anti-drugs bona fides by shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries with the kind of zeal that would make Harry J. Ainslinger weak with admiration.

In an effort—widely viewed outside the US as feeble—to mollify the "restive natives" in advance of the summit, last month Vice President Joe Biden visited Mexico and Honduras on a kind of listening tour. His famously tin ear was on full display, and his frosty reception does not bode well for this weekend's meeting.

Given this explosive dynamic, The Fix thought it wise to get the take of somebody “in the trenches." And no one is better equipped to talk about this than Ioan Grillo. 

Grillo is a British journalist and the author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Bloomsbury). He has covered the drug war from on the ground in Mexico for more than a decade and has held court with people on every side of the conflict. As a reporter for Time, CNN, PBS and the Sunday Times (among others), Grillo has discussed the drug war with everyone from presidents and diplomats to the men and women who kill for the cartels.

El Narco is an essential book for anyone hoping to unravel the mystery of why a modern, prosperous country like Mexico has been dragged into a new age of barbarism. It also goes some way to explaining why the response north of the border has been so hopelessly inadequate. Grillo is that rare writer willing to risk life and limb to tell the truth about a war raging right under the nose of a mostly oblivious American populace.

Grillo hails from Brighton, a gorgeous little town on the south coast of England famous for its pebble beaches. Brighton’s most famous outpouring of  “drug-fuelled violence” was back in the 1960s when mods and rockers, hopped up on purple hearts, would show up to beat the crap out of each other. So what on earth drove him to spend his days at the heart of one of the 21st century’s most explosive conflicts?

"The violence you used to see was gangbangers protecting their turf with pistols or handguns. Today you’re dealing with death squads. Groups of about 50 guys wearing bulletproof vests and armed with AK-47s, grenade launchers, even shoulder-carried rockets."

“I first came to Mexico before the drug war was really raging,” Grillo tells me from his cell phone as his cab careens through Mexico City traffic. “I had this romantic idea about being a foreign correspondent in Latin America. I was more inspired by the civil wars of the 1980s—think Salvador by Oliver Stone. But by the time I got here, supposedly the wars had all finished. They were now living in a golden age of democracy and free markets. And then the war started here over drugs.”

Having come of age in an England awash in drugs, Grillo found himself particularly drawn to this conflict. “There was a lot of heroin use back in the 1980s,” he says. “So many people from my social group did drugs, but nobody had any idea where they came from. So I followed the story until we reached the horrific stage of the last couple of years.”

There was a time when US drug users loved Mexico’s border towns. Many of us remember being able to cross the border freely, hit the local pharmacias, and then disappear back over the border loaded down with painkillers, sleepers and cheap tequila. Now crossing the border to buy drugs is as advisable as heading over to Afghanistan to procure some fresh opium.

How was the change from Grillo’s perspective?

“When I first arrived back in 2000, most of the violence stemmed from the gangbangers,” he says. “The guys with shaved head and tattoos. They were often from the US—Mexican migrants who’d been arrested and shipped back. The chollos. The violence you saw was the same stuff you’d see going on in Los Angeles or many other cities across the US—guys protecting their turf with pistols or handguns. By contrast, today you’re dealing with death squads. Groups of about 50 guys, often in military uniform. They’ll be wearing bulletproof vests and armed with AK-47s, grenade launchers, .50 caliber machine guns, and even shoulder-carried rockets.

“In the old days, you’d see people being shot, kidnapped, that kind of thing. But now? You’re more likely to hear about some mass grave with three hundred bodies, or 72 people being mown down by machine guns in a nightclub, stuff that’s comparable to various war zones around the world. It’s completely night and day—a transformation from mere gang violence to what can only be described as a low-intensity war."

This point is worth emphasizing. While the “war on drugs” has been in process for 31 years, it remains—at least on this side of the border—more of a metaphorical war than an actual armed conflict. But Mexicans are now living with a level of violence typically associated with places like Somalia or the Sudan. Is there any chance that cartel members are beginning to feel war fatigue?

“Sure. Some of the older people are weary. They realize that they’re trapped. But they see no way out. There’s no mechanism in the system to declare peace. You have to look at these killing machines not as individuals but as institutions. They systematically recruit assassins, train them, pay for them. As institutions, they’re in no danger of collapsing under the weight of the offensive. You can kill or arrest their members, but the cartel just goes out to recruit more soldiers.

War reporters like Grillo, who bear witness to the everyday bloody cost of policies and politics enacted in spic-and-span Washington, DC, tend to pull no punches when asked for their opinion.

“My analysis of the military strategy to break these cartels? On the one hand, you have the government claiming success. They point to the number of kingpins arrested, the amount of drugs seized, the organizations that have been forced to fragment. On the other hand, daily life is more violent than ever, there are more shootouts, it’s more and more unsafe. You weaken one cartel and another grows to take its place. The government’s approach has not decreased the reach of organized crime. In fact the cartels are more aggressive and pervasive than they were five years ago.”

Which is a thoroughly depressing analysis, of course, but patently obvious to anyone with reads the papers or watches the news.

Anyone, that is, apart from the vice president of the United States.

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