Professor Grayson On Mexico’s Drug War – Interview


Dr. George W. Grayson, the Class of 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary, and an expert on Mexican affairs, was interviewed by COHA on November 22, 2011 on the drug wars ravaging that country. Among Professor Grayson’s published works are Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? Transaction Press will publish his forthcoming book , co-authored with Sam Logan, entitled The Executioners’ Men: Los Zetas, Rogue soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs.

1.     In view of the beginning of the “spill over” effect of the Mexican drug war into the U.S., do grounds exist for a review of NAFTA, including its clauses banning unfettered ground transportation?

That’s been decided—the trucks are now moving. The first truck entered the country about a month ago, and so, after 17 years, that particularly contentious clause in NAFTA has been satisfied. The trade agreement in general has been a boon for the Mexican economy, at least its macroeconomy. It means, however, that there are many more truck, rail, air, and water crossings and, as a result, an increased northward flow of drugs and a southbound stream of arms.

2.     Do you favor a debate on the decriminalization of the use of marijuana, and possibly further in the future, the decriminalization of cocaine and heroin?

Yes. There certainly should be a debate. It’s impossible to win a drug war; at best, you can hope to manage such a conflict.  The U.S. must do more in terms of education and the treatment of addicts.  It is counterproductive to throw people in jail for the possession or the sale of a small amount of drugs; all too often, they enter the penal system as amateurs and emerge as professionals.  Prohibition demonstrated that when robust demand exists for a banned product the consumer will pay dearly to acquire, and that the market that develops will be run by violent criminals, not the Little Sisters of Mercy. Although no panacea, decriminalization and state regulation of sales would strike an economic blow to the underworld.  It should definitely be discussed.

3.     Has the time come to demilitarize the drug war, to be replaced by a much more specialized police force that is well paid and effectively trained?

That’s certainly what outgoing Mexico State governor Enrique Peña Nieto, the front-runner in his country’s July 1, 2011 presidential contest, said when he was in Washington last month. He advocated developing a specialized anti-drug police force. Regrettably, Mexico never in its history has had an honest, effective, professional law enforcement capability. Dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-2011) deployed a Praetorian Guard, Los Rurales, against his opponents; the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI1929-2000) used various police agencies to advance its economic, political, and social interests. It’s a Sisyphean challenge to convince decent citizens to undertake a law enforcement career.  Even if the government offers them thorough training, state of the art armaments, and decent salaries, new recruits will enter a police headquarters where corruption thrives. Efforts to modernize law-enforcement personnel have been notably unsuccessful. Perhaps the FBI, which is opening a new academy in Puebla, will make headway.  In view of the abominable reputation of Mexico’s law-enforcement agencies, it’s extremely difficult to recruit members  of the middle class into police work.

The local, municipal police forces are the most tarnished. They are paid at best USD 400 a month and, by cooperating with cartels, they can triple or quadruple their income by not patrolling a certain street or not entering a certain house. They do not necessarily have to be proactively corrupt, but they can just close their eyes to illegal transactions going on at specific locations. Unfortunately, the same thing is now going on with the army, especially when it comes to enlisted personnel and officers who staff roadblocks.

In the absence of a professional, reliable police force, President Felipe Calderón began to rely on the armed forces.  The army has been trained to pursue, capture, and kill, and the pattern has produced hundreds of accusations of human rights violations. The navy, which encompasses the marines, has a much better record. Peña Nieto has indicated his intention to reduce the armed forces’ role in combating the cartels; however, given the problems with the police, it is difficult to see how he can send the military back to their barracks and hope to have any chance to neutralize or even to limit the activities of the cartels. You cannot recruit middle class people today into the police. Law enforcement has acquired an unqualified disreputable reputation.

4.     Would enhancing the security of the Mexican-U.S. border be advanced by stepped-up patrols or by easing regulations affecting migration?

There’s a chasm between the attitudes of the elite and that of the man in the street toward immigration in the United States. Surveys indicate that the average citizen—be that person African-American, Anglo-American, or Hispanic-American—not only wants current laws enforced but would like to see them strengthened.  For various reasons, though elites in Washington are for a more flexible immigration policy, including variants of amnesty, this is far from true of the outline immigrants module. The current makeup of Congress obviates opening the door and wider to immigrants.  In the future, we may see the increased deployment of the US Border Patrol, National Guard units, and regular troops on the border. As for the latter category, it is estimated that 900 of the 1200 U.S. National Guard troops stationed on the border will be withdrawn and replaced by surveillance helicopters.

5.      Can the U.S. effectively limit the illicit flow of arms from the U.S. into Mexico without risking antagonizing the NRA’s predominance on the gun issue in this country? Is it possible to halt such shipments?

I served in the Virginia state legislature for 27 years. The National Rifle Association and its allies have a hammer-lock on lawmakers.  The upshot is there will be no tough gun laws passed in this country, especially in the Southwest. It’s one of our inflexible dogmas. Mexico has its own dogmas: For example, it forbids Pemex, the state oil monopoly, from entering into risk contracts, even though the nation’s reserves are rapidly declining. Truth be told, while it would be inconvenient if we stanched the flow of guns going south, Mexican criminal organizations would simply buy more weapons on the international arms market. The Chinese make quite good knock-offs of AK-47s or AR-15s; and Central America is virtually sinking from all of the arms leftover from the guerrilla wars of the 1980s. I think it would be much wiser for our leaders to speak frankly to their Mexican counterparts, and tell them that political constraints prevent curbing weapons purchases on the U.S. side of the border. The gun lobby is a business, a big one. Two-thirds of Americans want to have greater control over handguns. But the one third and its allies have a markedly much more intense voice in the debate remaining, and they will give much more money to elect the like-minded friends and defeat their foes.  The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens’ United case has opened the sluice gates to campaign contributions, and the National Rifle Association and its entourage will be able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to advance their cause.

What we forget is that the United States exudes hubris. I talk to a lot of military groups, and they always seem to say that if there is a war, we’re going to win it. That’s the American way. Truth be told, there is little we can do in foreign countries apart from sending in the 82nd Airborne or a couple of Marine detachments. Mexico has every natural resource imaginable—gold, silver, oil, gas, beaches, resorts, archeological sites, specialty fruits and vegetables, fisheries, and it possesses the thirteenth largest industrial sector in the world. If Singapore could lease Mexico for twenty years, we would be talking about the “Colossus of the South.” But the elites who live outside of Monterrey, which has been afflicted by Los Zetas and their foes, are largely cocooned from the violence. They have state-of-the-art home security, trained drivers, and private guards.  Many affluent families send their children abroad and may even operate their businesses from Texas. They don’t give a tired rat’s derriere about the 40 percent of the Mexican population that ekes out a living in urban slums or rural plots of land. The well-to-do live like princes, pay little taxes, and preside over an economic system riddled with monopolies and oligopolies.

Affluent Colombians also could escape much of the cartel violence besetting their country.  Yet once Pablo Escobar moved from criminal ventures to killing politicians, bombing shopping centers, and burning movie houses, the power structure realized that it, too, had a stake in fighting organized crime.

Most of the Mexican elites have not had such an epiphany. Uncle Sam can do a little bit at the margins; he can provide technical assistance; furnish equipment; and engage in training.  But the local drug and crime Mafias will continue their notorious initiatives until Mexico’s elite commits itself to battling them.  I once suggested to a group of prosperous businesspeople that they encourage at least one of their children to enter law enforcement. Of course that was not politically correct; no wonder that they laughed me out of the room.

6.     Do you think the Mexican presidential campaign will affect policies toward Mexico and the drug war to any degree?

Enrique Peña Nieto wants continuity and cooperation with the U.S. He’s also concerned about the Guatemalan situation because there is really no effective border between Mexico and its southern neighbor; rather, it’s a surveyor’s line with at least 200 illegal crossing places between the two countries.  The Mexican drug cartels, especially Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, brazenly operate in Guatemala, which is a failed state. The incoming Mexican president will be concerned about Central America and the impact that the existing violence against a backdrop of poverty will have on driving people from the area northward.  I think we will see continuity in bilateral collaboration should Peña Nieto win the July 1, 2012 election.

7.     Do you think the elections in the U.S. will have any impact on its Mexican policies?

Should a Republican defeat President Obama, there will be a greater effort to control illegal migration. Obama has tried through executive acts to “regularize” migrants who have entered the country unlawfully. I do not think that a Republican president will exhibit the same flexibility with respect to lawbreakers that this White House has exhibited since 2009.

8.     What strategies would you recommend to both Obama and Calderón to limit the influence of the Mexican cartels as well as to combat the spread of drugs and weapons over the respective borders of both countries?

I would urge President Obama to stop patronizing the Mexicans and practice tough love. The future of U.S.-Mexican relations largely depends on the actions of this generation of Mexican leaders and the direction in which they take their country. They should make a full-faith offer to increase tax collections and focus on education, health care, job-training, and regional development. To Calderón, I would say if he wants to leave a positive legacy, he should reform public education, beginning by taking legal action against the National Education Workers Union–(Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación – SNTE) and its leader Elba Esther “La Maestra” Gordillo. She is an absolute scourge on the country in terms of nepotism, the sale of teaching jobs, her obdurate opposition to teacher evaluations, and the mishandling of public funds. The result is that Mexico finishes last in the triennial assessment of public school systems conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Unless young people can obtain a decent education, the number of “Ni-Nis”—the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who neither study nor work—will grow. They will also respond to the siren call of criminal syndicates.  If he were to act to revamp public education during the eleven months remaining in office, he would give historians something positive to write about his sexenio.


Interview conducted by Zac Deibel, Research Associate for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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