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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 5th February 2012

I’ve just finished reading ‘El Narco’ and I was intending to have a shot at writing a review of it. Grillo is a journalist who has covered Latin America since 2001 and is based in Mexico City. His book draws on his extensive experience of reporting on the activities of drug cartels and his attempts to understand why what is happening is happening.

A couple of websites I’ve seen in the last couple of days, however, make me think I shall get diverted into focussing on one aspect of the current situation in Mexico. That is the difficulty of really understanding what is going on.

Grillo does an excellent job of setting out the historical background to the drug trade in Mexico and uses individual stories intermixed with the broader picture to try and convey a sense of the situation but, perhaps because that situation is so extreme, I still found it hard to comprehend what is happening.

To give one example, I’ve written with outrage about the 1,300 guns from ‘Operation Fast and Furious’ that were ‘lost’ during the attempt to identify smuggling routes. But Grillo, who makes no mention of ‘Fast and Furious’, which must have broken shortly after his book was finished, writes that in the sixteen months to April 2010, ATF figures show that 63,700 firearms were recovered in Mexico having been sold from legal gun shops in the USA.

One point that stands out from Grillo’s book is that those who say that Mexico’s troubles started when President Felipe Calderon, who became president on 1st December 2006, and almost immediately ordered the deployment of troops to fight the drug cartels are taking too simplistic a view. I must put my own hands up here as I have written about what I thought was the 5th anniversary of the war based on the general perception that the 11th December announcement was the start of things.

Grillo offers a number of, possibly, pivotal events during the presidency of Vicente Fox who preceded Calderon. In his first interview on American TV, after his election, Fox promised ‘the mother of all battles against organized crime’. He also reversed his previous position and agreed to keep the military involved in combating cartels.

A second key event was in January 2001 when Chapo Guzman escaped from prison in Guadalajara. Guzman remains at large as the head of the Sinaloan cartel, one of the largest cartels, to this day. Yet a third concerns another Guzman, this time Arturo Guzman, a professional special forces soldier who walked out of his barracks one day and joined the Zetas, at that time thought of more as a small insignificant gang than a major drug cartel. Guzman introduced the barbarity of total war into the Zetas’ operations and Grillo says this led the other cartels to become increasingly militarised and willing to operate with absolutely no scruples.

It was this point, that the ‘war on drug cartels’ had been underway before December 2006, that led my attention to get diverted to details of how many homicides have taken place in Mexico. Starting the count from December 2006 is one way of quantifying how bad things have become but it risks giving the notion that there were no deaths before that date.

A fascinating interactive graphic dispels that notion. It shows that, in each of 2004 and 2005, Mexico counted nearly 10,000 homicides. That number has grown to 25,000 in 2010 but the additional 15,000 seem to be all drug war related. Mexico has a population of around 114 million, just less than twice that of the UK. It seems appalling that the country appears to have a ‘normal’ level of 10,000 homicides a year when the UK has around 600+. Mexico’s per capita homicide rate is over four times higher than the USA’s. ‘El Narco’ is, therefore, right to point out that the drug war deaths are built onto an exceptionally violent past.

I noticed an oddity about the interactive map (in some, mostly smaller, places the number of ‘Drug War Homicides’ exceeds the ‘Total Homicides’) and contacted Diego Valle to ask how this came to be. He kindly responded very quickly and explained that the two data sets come from different sources. ‘Total Homicides’ were supplied by the health authorities based on certificated deaths whereas ‘Drug War Homicides’ are collected by the police and vetted by a group of government officials before being classified as such. This may introduce timing differences that will show up with smaller areas.

It demonstrates the difficulty of getting reliable figures for what is happening in Mexico. Ioan Grillo points out that the drug cartels have moved into other areas of organised crime, especially kidnapping for ransom, and you have to wonder how the government officials classify murders suspected of being committed by members of a drug cartel if they arise, for example, from a kidnapping. Saying ‘suspected of being committed’ is significant because it must be remembered that around 90% of all homicides in Mexico are unsolved.

Looking further into the statistics for homicides over time, I came across a recent report from the El Paso Times that compared the total homicides in the first five years of Mexico’s last five presidents going back to 1982. This suggests that the murder rate was unusually low under President Vicente Fox and the growth since December 2006 is really just a return to the long-term trend. The same article has a table of homicide rates for a selection of years back to 1931 showing that the per capita rate is actually lower now than it was in parts of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Grillo points out that the cartels have not pursued such murderous tactics in the USA, though they are reaching further into the distribution chains for the drugs they produce and transport, and thinks this may be the result of the USA’s greater commitment to investigating murder but he fears that if the cartels internationalise their operations to countries with less robust policing their approach could be as violent as it is in Mexico.

What’s clear, and well understood by most of those calling for reform to drug policy, is that if every substance that is presently illegal became legal tomorrow it would not bring an end to the high rate of homicides in Mexico. It would, however, remove an enormous obstacle to the cultural changes that have to happen if Mexico is ever to see the sort of per capita homicide rates that its neighbour to the north finds unacceptably high.