Drug War Money Brings Ever More Corruption

Eva Bertram, a policy analyst, and Kenneth Sharpe, professor of political science at Swarthmore College, are coauthors of "Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial."

Plata o plomo. Silver or lead. That is the choice drug traffickers in Mexico have given their allies and enemies for years: the bribe or the bullet.

The graves now being exhumed on the Mexican-U.S. border near Juarez are thought to contain the remains of antidrug agents, informers and rival gangsters who refused the silver offered by the Juarez drug cartel and their allies to join up or shut up during the last half decade. Hundreds of families of victims of violent crime in the area are now coming forward to see if the graves might contain their loved ones.

The magnitude of the past brutality in Juarez--the violence, the murders, the hundreds of disappearances--cries out for action by Mexican authorities. The mounting evidence of drug-related atrocities will almost certainly fuel calls by drug warriors in Washington for more military and police aid to help Mexico fight these criminals. President Bill Clinton has already declared that the evidence "reinforces the imperative" to "work with the Mexican authorities to try to combat these cartels."

But there is a troubling underside to the story that U.S. drug warriors refuse to confront honestly: Many of our drug-war allies have already chosen the silver, and the lead we provide them may serve to undermine rather than advance U.S. objectives. One of the perverse consequences of the U.S. war on drugs is that it drives corruption: giving traffickers both strong incentives and ample illicit profits to buy lax law enforcement. It is no surprise that this corruption is particularly visible on the border where the flow of drugs meets the lucrative U.S. market.

The Juarez cartel may be behind the killings, but there is evidence that the Mexican military and police have been deeply involved. Many of those who have disappeared in the Juarez area reportedly vanished after police officials, presumably in the pay of the traffickers, detained them, and local police have been excluded from current investigative activities. Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, attorney general for the state of Chihuahua, has publicly suggested a police role in disappearances of people feared buried in the mass graves.

Evidence of widespread official corruption in the drug war is an open secret. U.S. drug-enforcement agents say they knew of the mass graves in 1993 but did not act because Mexican drug traffickers and police were believed to control the secret cemeteries. Local U.S. counternarcotics agents widely share the view of former FBI agent Richard Schwein, who headed the El Paso office: "You don't share information with your counterparts across the river, because you don't know whom you can trust." In November, the former FBI boss for Mexico, Stanley Pimental, even accused some officials of Mexico's ruling party of using the police, the army and the legal system to extort money from drug traffickers, exchanging impunity for donations to party coffers.

Given the record of corruption, how can U.S. drug warriors possibly justify more aid? Their story is as simple as it is simple-minded: We'll tell Mexican officials to clean things up, or we'll cut off aid, and we'll provide training and assistance to help create cleaner forces. But there is a Catch-22 here: If the U.S. were really to cut the flow of aid to Mexico and other Latin nations, who would fight our drug war? Meanwhile, the internal logic of a war on the drug supply guarantees the corruption will get worse.

Look at the evidence: U.S.-backed cleanup schemes fail time and again. Take for example the recent corruption of the military. It was the widespread corruption of the police and top politicians under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari that led the U.S. to pressure President Ernesto Zedillo to turn the drug war over to the more professional and less corrupt military. In December 1996, he put generals in charge of the Federal Judicial Police and the top drug-control agencies, and moved military personnel into the top law-enforcement posts in two-thirds of Mexico's states. Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, highly respected by U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, was called in as Mexico's drug czar to clean up the national drug agency.

Gutierrez aggressively targeted major drug cartels--all except the Juarez cartel, which had him on the payroll to help knock off the competition. He was arrested in February 1997. A month later, another general was arrested after offering a $1-million bribe to a top Federal Justice official. In 1997, Defense Ministry files indicated that 10 generals and 22 other military officers were under investigation for ties to traffickers.

The U.S. response was to urge Mexico to create a new elite antidrug force scrupulously vetted to prevent ties to traffickers and carefully trained by the U.S. But in 1998 and 1999, these new units came under suspicion for ties to powerful drug gangs. The most heralded was the hand-picked, U.S.-trained Organized Crime Unit within the Mexican attorney general's office. The names of 15 officers from the unit were found in documents seized from drug traffickers in mid-1998; five were fired when they failed lie-detector tests. Last month, all 570 soldiers in the elite 96th Infantry Battalion were placed under suspicion for the disappearance of cocaine they had seized. This September, Robert A. Fiano, chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Agency, grimly concluded before a congressional subcommittee that the "investigative achievements" of Mexico's most elite antidrug units was "minimal."

The repeated failure to break the cycle of drug-war corruption is no accident. It is a product not of Mexico, but of our own drug-war strategy. As ironic as it seems, the U.S. strategy ensures that the very corruption we abhor will continue. The reason is that the drug warriors are not simply up against a particular cartel or drug lord--but an entire market system.

The lucrative black market in drugs, itself fueled by the U.S. war on supply, will keep generating traffickers and drug lords as fast as they are killed or arrested. That is because making war on this market aims to raise the price of drugs from their real cost (a few dollars a gram) to a high black-market price (hundreds of dollars a gram). But that artificial increase in price, a kind of drug-war subsidy, creates enormous profits, which entice new traffickers to replace those arrested. It is these high profits, in turn, which finance the criminal organizations, spur violent competition for market share among the cartels and ensure deepening corruption.

The logic is the same for drug-enforcement agents everywhere. U.S. agencies charged with fighting the drug war, from U.S. Customs and the armed forces to local police departments across the country, have struggled with their own drug-corruption problems. Latin American antidrug agencies, with fewer resources and less accountability, face a more serious problem. The Juarez cartel earns tens of millions of dollars a week. Enormous bribes to local police, officials and military officers are petty cash to the drug lords and an extraordinary temptation to underpaid enforcement agents. Retired FBI agent Schwein put the logic clearly: "If you're a Mexican police officer making $300 a month and the cartel pays you $10,000 a month, what are the odds? It's a matter of economics." Meanwhile, the more efficient Mexican security forces become, with the help of increased U.S. aid, the greater the incentives local drug lords face to buy them off. It is a self-defeating policy.

Drug warriors in Congress and the administration are right to want to address the drug problem here in the United States. But the evidence suggests that they are aiming their guns at the wrong target. U.S. drug-war leaders should stop hiding behind their ungrounded zealotry and blind faith and come clean: They need to give us evidence and argument that their strategy can work before we waste more money and lives on a fatally flawed policy. Given the logic of the drug market, there is no reason to believe that more police and military aid will solve rather than spur corruption. The more plomo we give to the Mexican security forces, the more plata will be extorted--and the more drug-war violence will escalate. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World