Noam Chomsky: Drug Cartels and the Growing Border War

August 15, 2011

In a new interview, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky discusses the drug cartels of Mexico, the government's error-proned response to the "War on Drugs," and what the U.S. education system could learn from Mexico.

By Luis Fernando Cardenas

Since 2008, the violence in Mexico and especially in Ciudad Juarez has risen to unprecedented levels. The number of dead in Mexico, mostly civilian, has surpassed 30,000 people, and of those homicides, about 9,000 occurred in Ciudad Juarez alone. The violence has become a normal way of life. I asked Professor Noam Chomsky about this war next door.

--Luis Fernando Cardenas for Guernica

Guernica: Journalists in Mexico live in constant danger. A photojournalist from the newspaper El Diario was recently murdered in Juarez. The newspaper responded by printing an op-ed piece addressed to the cartels titled, "What do you want from us?" Can you speculate who is responsible for these attacks against the media and why?

Noam Chomsky: While I was in Mexico this year and the year before, I met with journalists and editors from La Jornada, who I think are extremely good. They gave me off the record information that they had dug up about the drug cartels and about the U.S. tolerance of them, but they said they couldn't publish it because that 's a death sentence. The cartels have the power to kill anyone they want, so the media are intimidated. It's obvious why the criminal gangs don't want it published. I think El Diario knows exactly what the cartels want; they didn't need the editorial. [The cartels] want [newspapers] to stop publishing information about them.

They still do publish some. La Jornada had an article reporting the inquiries of a professor at one of the universities, a specialist on drugs, who works for the United Nations's drug enforcement agency, and it was quite an interesting article. It goes further into why you can't report [on the cartels]; he said that about 80% of the businesses in Mexico are involved in one manner or another with the drug racket. Now once you start publishing things like that and looking into it, you're getting to the power centers of Mexican society, and they're simply not going to want to be exposed. If they can use the drug assassins to stop it, they will.

Guernica: Things are so bad that I wonder: Do you think it's a good idea for the Mexican government to suspend certain guaranteed constitutional rights in Juarez or elsewhere in Mexico until order is restored?

Noam Chomsky: You first have to ask what the Mexican government is trying to do, and that's a little opaque. It looks to some extent as if they're supporting one of the cartels against the other. If that's what they are trying to do, then there is no justification. If they want to stop the drugs, the drug rackets, I think they know how to proceed, and it's not with military action. You have to get to the heart of the matter. Part of the answer was given by the declaration of the three ex-presidents, Zedillo, Cardoso, and Gaviria. They came out with a study about two years ago in which they simply said that criminalizing drugs is just creating the problem, and that in some fashion the drugs should be legalized, like alcohol, and regulated. Then you wouldn't get criminal syndicates. That's part of the issue, but a deeper part is right here in the United States.

The drug problem is in the United States, not in Mexico. It's a demand problem and that is to be dealt with here, and it is not being dealt with. It's been shown over and over that prevention and treatment are far more cost effective than police action, out-of-country action, border control, and so on. But the money goes in the other direction and never has an impact. When leaders carry out policies for decades that have no consequences for the stated goal and are very costly, you have to ask whether they are telling you the truth or whether the policies are for a different goal, because they are not reducing drug use. In fact, they are not even raising drug prices.

So why carry out these policies year after year at great cost if they're having essentially no impact on the stated goal, and if there are other policies which you know would have an impact and are much cheaper, like prevention and treatment? Only two plausible answers to that. All the leaders are collectively insane, which we can rule out, or else they are just pursuing different goals. Abroad, it's a counterinsurgency campaign, cover for counterinsurgency in Colombia. At home, it's a way of getting rid of a superfluous population. There is a very close race/class correlation--not perfect but close--and in fact, black males are being removed. If it were in Colombia, they'd call it limpieza social. Here they put them in jails.

Since the drug war started, there's been a very sharp increase in incarceration rates; the U.S.'s incarceration rate is way beyond maybe five, ten times as high as comparable countries, and its target is primarily black males, Hispanic males, some women, some whites--very disproportionately to the population. After all, think of the history of this country. After the Emancipation Proclamation, there were about 10 years in which blacks were formally sort of free, and then slavery was reintroduced by incarceration. By the 1870s the states had passed laws, and federal government approved them, in which essentially black life was criminalized. If a black man was found standing on a street corner, he could be arrested for vagrancy. If somebody claimed he looked the wrong way at a white woman, he'd be incarcerated for attempted rape. Pretty soon, you had the black male population mostly in jail, and they were a slave labor force. A lot of the American industrial revolution was based on slave labor from leased prisoners in U.S. steel, the mines.

This went on until the Second World War, when there was a need for labor. There was a post-war boom, and during that period black men could begin to integrate into the work force and get a job in an auto plant--a fairly decent job with wages--buy a house, send their kids to school, and so on. Well, by the '70s it was over. The economy was being financialized, production was being exported, there was a rust belt developing where the manufacturing jobs were essentially no longer available. So what do you do with the black population? Well, the answer was throw them back in jail under the pretext of the drug war. That's the consequence, and it's pretty well understood.

So we have policies that are carried out that have essentially no impact on the stated goal, there are measures available which could have an impact and are not used. The consequences of the policies happen to be significant for power centers--carry out counterinsurgency operations in Colombia and elsewhere, and you can carry out social cleansing in effect, in a traditional American way.

All this is staring right at you. Try to find it [mentioned] somewhere. I mean you can find bits and pieces. You can find books that talk about incarceration and others that talk about post-reconstruction periods, some others that talk about the drug war, but it's very rare to see them put together.

The other part is the arms. Where are the drug cartels getting their weapons? They are being provided by the United States. Cut off that flow of arms. It wouldn't end the violence but it would have a big effect. If the drug cartels in Mexico want assault rifles, they just get them from Arizona.

Guernica: Do you think NAFTA, signed almost 20 years ago, continues to be an obstacle?

Noam Chomsky: Yeah that's part of the problem. In fact, I was told by journalists who can't publish it that there are in Mexico, close to the U.S. border, big areas that used to be devoted to agriculture that are now devoted to poppies. They say you can't get in there because they're guarded, first by the cartels, but also by the army, which goes hand in hand with the cartels. Well, these are among the predicted consequences of NAFTA, and in fact, it's pretty clear that the Clinton administration understood it. Remember that the Mexican-U.S. border used to be an open border, people crossed to see their relatives and so on. It was militarized starting in 1994. That's when NAFTA was passed. Maybe it's another one of those coincidences. I doubt it.

Guernica: Given all those conditions, what can Mexico do to counteract all of this?

Noam Chomsky: While I was in Mexico in September, there was an article in La Jornada reporting a study by economists at UNAM. It said that during just the Calderon years, real incomes for working people dropped by some spectacular amount, like 60%, and people were basically reduced to survival. Those are results of particular economic policies. Mexico has limited alternatives because the mafia Don is right next door but probably some.

Guernica: Is it possible for the United States to help its citizens and make them prosper without adversely affecting citizens in some other country, in particular Mexico?

Noam Chomsky: I think these policies are harmful to the United States too. Governments are not in the business of catering to their citizens. It's as old as Adam Smith. The governments work for their main constituencies. When the Republicans come into office with plans to increase benefits for the wealthy--like making sure that the super wealthy get tax cuts, making sure that the insurance companies and the financial institutions are unconstrained in their operations--that's not for the benefit of U.S. citizens. That's for the benefit of their constituency. Same when Obama poured money into the banks. That's his constituency. In fact, that's the main source of his campaign funding. The things governments are doing here that have harmful effects abroad are not being done for the benefit of the citizens here. In fact, for over thirty years since the financialization and the hollowing out of the productive system, real incomes have pretty much stagnated for the majority of the population. It's had the same effects as neoliberalism in Mexico, less harsh but similar.

Guernica: You mentioned the Cardoso commission. Making currently illicit drugs legal has been a topic of debate for many years. California, one of the first states to approve marijuana for medical use back in 1996, today has over 100 stores selling marijuana. Do you envision a day when marijuana will be legalized in the United States? Wouldn't that still leave the problem of other illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin to contend with?

Noam Chomsky: Legalizing marijuana would make a lot of sense, I don't think there's a single case of marijuana overdose on record and tens of millions of users. It's much less dangerous than alcohol, for example. The worst drug of all by far is tobacco; the death toll from tobacco is just overwhelming.

Guernica: But what about cocaine and heroin? They would still be there.

Noam Chomsky: They would. The fact of the matter is that they are far less dangerous than tobacco. Everyone is in favor of regulation, but what about criminalization? It's a topic that has to be considered carefully. In Portugal, for example, I think they're all legal, and there's been no detectable increase in drug use as far as I know. In fact, when drugs are legalized, use sometimes goes down, it's been claimed. Part of the reason is that teenage kids use illicit drugs because they are illicit. They are thumbing their noses at society. If they were legal, they might not. I don't think it's a simple question, it has to be experimented with. But the point is the idea that criminalization is the only answer is almost surely wrong.

Take tobacco. It's not criminalized. It's by far the worst killer. There is a recent article in the New York Times about deaths from cancer. Lung cancer is out of sight, it's beyond all the others combined, and furthermore, it's so rarely detected that it is almost always lethal. But tobacco use has declined. Not through criminalization; it has declined on a class basis. If you walk around MIT, you won't see any students smoking unless they're foreign students. If you go down to the nearby McDonald's in a poor urban area, everybody is smoking. It wasn't criminalized; it was education, and that is a way to do things too. It works.

Guernica: Education may be effective in preventing drug addiction, but once someone is addicted, it is very difficult to make them stop...

Noam Chomsky: Then they need treatment, but putting them in jail doesn't help. In fact, putting them in jail just creates cartels, criminal cartels, and you know what they're like.

Guernica: Do you think it's wrong for a sovereign country like the United States to make every reasonable effort to stop and deport illegal immigrants from entering the country?

Noam Chomsky: It's an interesting question to ask about the United States, where everyone is an illegal immigrant--everyone except the people in Indian Reservations. This is an immigrant society. The native population didn't have the power to prevent them from coming in, so they came in. The place where we're sitting was the territory of the Wampanoag Indians a couple hundred years ago.

At a certain point, until the late nineteenth century, entry was free. Then restrictions started being put in because the people who had already taken the country wanted to keep it their way. Should there be border controls anywhere? It depends. Suppose you believe in a free market. Nobody does, but take the people who claim to believe in free markets--they should say that movement of labor should be free. You go back to their saint, Adam Smith; free markets are based on the free circulation of labor. If you don't have free circulation of labor, you don't have free markets. Nobody talks about that either. Should there be border controls all together, should people be free to live where they want to live? That gets to the notion of nation states.

Should a community, say, a suburb of Boston, be free to enact legislation to say they don't want blacks? Now that's illegal. Fifty years ago it was legal. Is that progress or is that regress? That's a subcase of the question you're asking, a question that has complex moral dimensions. I don't think you can give a simple answer.

Guernica: It seems degradation of education has happened in very different ways in Mexico and the United States.

Noam Chomsky: Take UNAM. It's a very high-quality university; it has a couple hundred thousand students. It's hard to get into, but it's free. In the United States, if you take the main public education systems, either you have to be rich or able to go deep into debt to go to school. In Mexico City, there is actually a college set up by Obrador that is not only free but open admission. Unheard of. So it's true that there are plenty of defects in the Mexican education system, but in some ways it is a lot better than here. You should have decent educational opportunities for everyone.

It makes sense for societies to make education compulsory for children. Children are vulnerable. They can't make decisions. But the decisions can't all be left in the hands of the parents. They can be irresponsible too. There is a social responsibility to take care of vulnerable people. It seems that a sensible social responsibility is obligatory education, but also decent education, and that is not happening. There is plenty more to say about it. So for example, the Boston Globe, which is a liberal newspaper, had a lead story recently describing the successes in education, and the main success was that they doubled the number of charter schools. Is that a success? From the point of view of business interest, that is a success. They would love to privatize the school system at public expense because it's [funded by] taxpayer money, but there is no evidence that charter schools are any good. In fact, the evidence is that they are more or less like public schools, even though they cherry pick their students. Why is that a success? It is a success if you accept the doctrines of private power. If you are concerned with the citizens, it's not a success. This is a liberal newspaper. It's an indication of how the ideology of the powerful has spread through society. We saw that in the last election. So I question phrases like "no child left behind" and charter school and so on.

Last year, I happened to go from Mexico to California directly. Mexico is a pretty poor country, but they are maintaining a free, high quality public education system, not for everyone of course but pretty substantial. California is maybe the richest place in the world. They're destroying the best public education system in the world. Tuitions are so high it's prohibitive. The main universities in the public system, Berkeley and UCLA, will probably be privatized and the rest reduced to vocational schools. In the richest part of the world, they are destroying the best public education system there was. In a poor part of the world, they are maintaining a free public education system.