Fri, Jun 24, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Ciudad Juarez is the future

Mexico’s drug cartels are global economic pioneers in terms of their business logic and modus operandi

By Ed Vulliamy  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

War, as I came to report it, was something fought between people with causes, however crazy or honorable — like between the US and British occupiers of Iraq and the insurgents who opposed them. Then I stumbled across Mexico’s drug war — which has claimed nearly 40,000 lives, mostly civilians — and all the rules changed. This is warfare for the 21st century and another creature altogether.

Mexico’s war is inextricable from everyday life. In Ciudad Juarez, the most murderous city in the world, street markets and malls remain open — Sarah Brightman sang a concert there recently. When I was back there last month, people had reappeared at night to eat dinner and socialize, out of devil-may-care recklessness and exhaustion with years of self-imposed curfew. Before, there had been an eerie quiet at night, now there is an even eerier semblance of normality — punctuated by gunfire.

On the surface, the combatants have the veneer of a cause — control of smuggling routes into the US — but even if this were the full explanation, the cause of drugs places Mexico’s war firmly in our new post-ideological, post-moral, post-political world. The only causes are profits from the chemicals that get the US and Europe high.

Interestingly, in a highly politicized society there is no right-wing or Mussolinian “law and order” mass movement against the cartels, or any significant left-wing or union opposition. The grassroots movement against the post-political cartel warriors, the National Movement for Peace, is famously led by the poet Javier Sicilia, who organized a week-long peace march after the murder of his son in the spring. This very male war is opposed by women, in the workplaces and barrios, and in the home.

However, this is not just a war between narco-cartels. Juarez has imploded into a state of criminal anarchy — the cartels, acting like any corporation, have outsourced violence to gangs affiliated or unaffiliated with them, who compete for tenders with corrupt police officers. The army plays its own mercurial role.

“Cartel war” does not explain the story my friend Juarez journalist Sandra Rodriguez told me over dinner last month — two children killed their parents “because,” they explained to her, “they could.” The culture of impunity, she said, “goes from boys like that, right to the top — the whole city is a criminal enterprise.”

Not by coincidence, Juarez is also a model for the capitalist economy. Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora — bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill US supermarket shelves or become US automobiles, imported duty-free. Now, the corporations can do it cheaper in Asia, casually shedding their Mexican workers, and Juarez has become a teeming recruitment pool for the cartels and killers. It is a city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market.

“It’s a city based on markets and on trash,” said Julian Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the implosion. “Killing and drug addiction are activities in the economy and the economy is based on what happens when you treat people like trash.”

Very much, then, a war for the 21st century.

Cardona told me how many times he had been asked for his view on the Javier Sicilia peace march — “I replied: ‘How can you march against the market?’”

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