Forget War With Syria, There's a Massacre Much Closer to Home

Americans have demonstrated as lazy an outrage over the thousands of deaths in Syria, as they have for the thousands slaughtered in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The arbitrary distinction over the use of chemical weapons seems laughable, considering the brutal and sadistic violence we’ve thus far tolerated in both conflicts. While our political machine redirects focus towards another Middle Eastern conflict with no end in sight, it might behoove us to admit that we’re far more responsible, obligated to, and better suited to deal with the war just south of our border.

The rise of the cartels in Mexico can wholly be attributed to their main customer base: America. Much in the same way that our oil consumption affects geopolitical landscapes in oil producing nations around the world, our drug consumption has financed and empowered an endless array of brutal, international drug syndicates. But whereas even the worst dictators in oil producing nations can be held accountable to international standards, the criminal enterprises we support with our misguided drug policies actively mock the notion of accountability — while corrupting the very governments we try to form working partnerships with.

On the domestic front, Americans are starting to wake up to the misinformation they’ve been fed regarding the War on Drugs — which is often compared to the last century’s failed prohibition on alcohol. Advocacy for the scientific research and health benefits of certain drugs has grown. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta has released video documentaries explaining his new found appreciation for Marijuana medical research, including a feature on a strain of Colorado weed that has helped children’s brains grow and recover from traumatizing head injuries. Sam Harris, a famous neurologist, has often written about the virtues and merits of scientific research into psychedelics like LSD and Mushrooms. The Justice Department recently buckled, and promised not to pursue legal action against marijuana-related crimes in states that have legalized its use. Several police departments and advocacy groups have come out against current drug policies, claiming they are to blame for our nation’s overcrowded prisons and violent crime rates. Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca, who runs the nation’s largest jail system, recently advocated investing in pre-schools rather than prisons. These voices count among many portions of our society that believe the legalization and regulation of drugs is a necessary step towards securing a more stable Republic. Meanwhile, alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies enjoy control over the market, and have death rates that dwarf anything related to illegal substances.


Intelligent debate and incredibly relevant sample studies in other countries like Portugal (which has decriminalized drugs for the last 12 years) are usually ignored in our public discourse. But beyond improving the quality of life for our own citizenry, a reformed drug policy would go a long way to stabilize and reduce the endless violence in Mexico, one of only two nations that shares our border.

Anabel Hernandez is a journalist in Mexico who has courageously exposed the rising power of Mexican cartels, as well as the complicity of governments that support them. After her father’s death was mishandled by indifferent police officers, Hernandez spent years investigating the corruption in her country. She exposed the influence of the Sinaloa Cartel — the biggest criminal organization in the world — and in turn, the massive lie that is the "War on Drugs."

Hernández said, "So many Mexicans do not believe the official version of this war. They do not believe the government are good guys, fighting the cartels. They know the government is lying, they don't carry their heads in the clouds."

In her books and articles, Hernandez illustrates a blurred line between modern mafias and modern capitalism — both executing a stranglehold of control over the citizenry they manipulate for profit. Anyone who has a combination of guns (cartel arms or government funded police), power (cartel territorial control or corrupt politicians), and influence over the press (murdering journalists or outright corporate ownership) can exercise massive influence over a nation’s citizenry. Hernandez shines a light on the absurd level of corruption the cartels can enact in Mexico, due to the billions of dollars they rake in selling drugs to the American market. Cartel heads have run the prisons they’ve been sentenced to, holding orgies, parties, and forcing female inmates and guards to be their sex slaves. When they feel like leaving, they simply orchestrate a fake "escape" or have a corrupt judge release them.

The recent capture of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of the vicious "Zeta" cartel, has been heralded as a victory in the war on drugs. But much in the same way we trained jihadists to fight Russians in Cold War era Afghanistan — only to have them turn around and create the Taliban nightmare we fight today — the modern day cartels are very much a by-products of our failed policies. The Zeta cartel will not be stifled by the loss of its leader, if anything it will only grow more emboldened, motivated by a massive drug-selling financial incentive that still exists regardless of who is in charge of the operation. The Zetas were originally a faction of the Mexican military, trained by American and Israeli soldiers to create an elite Special Forces unit that would take on the direst situations in Mexico. Instead, they saw a more profitable avenue in becoming mercenaries for the cartels, eventually forming their own.

Using their special training, they hunted down their competition, kidnapped engineers and forced them to build a vast and secure communication network, and used military precision to construct a distribution chain. The Zetas don’t limit themselves to selling drugs. They kidnap for ransom, extort businesses and politicians, and traffic people and arms. They have no discernible moral limitations, brutalizing their opposition with ghastly displays of public violence: beheadings, mutilations, gang-rapes, murdering journalists, killing politicians, massacring entire busloads of people and often forcing victims to fight to the death in gladiatorial matches.

All this violence, unsolved bloodshed, corruption and suffering, is made possible because America refuses to recognize a market that needs regulation and legalization. With only two countries sharing our borders, America’s foreign policy reputation suffers no greater embarrassment, than its inability to stabilize its neighbor to the south. Our prohibition approach to drug culture would be an easy mistake to amend, and would accomplish so much more to end violence, than anything we could ever hope to do in Syria.

 

By comparison to Mexico, it’s almost impossible to explain the complexity and anarchy of Syria in one or two paragraphs. The country is a multifaceted and diverse mix of political, religious and cultural interests. The civil war has been raging for two years now, and the window to affect a timely and pragmatic solution has long since passed. The revolt was sparked by President Assad’s violent response to the “Arab Spring” peaceful protests in April 2011. Assad mimicked the brutality his father used to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood opposition of 1982, which included devastating entire sections of the city of Hama. In the early months of the Arab Spring, Assad’s army kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed activists, their friends and their families.

When mutilated bodies were dumped in the streets (including those of children) and soldiers began firing on protesters with live ammunition, the peaceful revolt morphed into outright civil war. The war has now become an excuse for old rivalries between sectarian and religious tribes to blood-let over longstanding feuds, for foreign interests like Russia to maintain its naval stronghold and buffer American “interventionist” interests, for jihadists to enter a power vacuum like they did in Iraq and Egypt, and for Iran to support Assad’s regime so that it won’t be isolated in the region, maintaining a distribution avenue to weaponize Hamas/Hezbollah against Israel.

This is as close to political chaos as we can get, and there is no clear end in sight for Syria. Even in victory against the protesters, Syria would remain isolated from the world — a North Korea in the Middle East. America has no practical solutions to consider, and the “red line” notion that chemical weapon use is unacceptable, still won’t sell the American public on another bloody ground invasion. Arming rebels would only empower jihadists in the long run. Airstrikes and "no fly zones" restrictions could pull us into a years of conflict, with no guarantee of a ground victory. Chemical weapons do stir a unique reaction in people looking to avoid the full scale horrors of past World Wars, but that doesn’t change the list of bleak options available to us.

If America is to lead by bold example, it must be prepared to do more than simply rain missiles down from the sky. Cutting off the cartels’ monetary supply through legalization would be a massively transformative act for both the U.S. and Mexico. Instead of punishing the few Mexican immigrants who choose to flee across our border, we could be making long-term investments in stabilizing their domestic economy. We only stand to benefit by having all the nations in our continental neighborhood flourish. We have long since moved past the era of isolationism, but our foreign policy strategy might benefit from extending beyond cruise missiles and drones.

Many historians have argued that exporting our culture played a significant contributing force in ending the Cold War: Beatles albums, American movies and Blue Jeans went a long way to win over Russian citizens. Why not inspire other nations to follow our lead, by reforming our own domestic policy and cultivating the most impressive economy, educational system, and quality of life enjoyed by any citizen on Earth? 

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Roy Klabin

Graduate student at Columbia University School of Journalism. I cover crime & corruption, social injustice and cartoon politics.

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