Newsreal: Stop Demonizing Mexico

The U.S. Congress is shocked -- shocked! -- to find (gasp!) corruption in Mexico. Maybe it ought to remember that the U.S. is largely responsible for it.

Published March 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

this week, the annual congressional hand-wringing about Mexican corruption reaches a whole new level, when -- as appears almost certain -- the House of Representatives votes to decertify Mexico as a drug-fighting partner in good standing. If decertification is supported by the Senate and survives a possible Presidential veto, Clinton could still waive mandated economic sanctions in the "national interest." Still, the message from Congress would be clear: America's neighbor to the south and fellow member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is no better than pariah states like Iran, Afghanistan and Burma.

Mexico, according to Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., the measure's sponsor, represents America's "greatest threat," because it "stands idly by while drugs flow into our nation and into the hands of our children." In a Senate debate Thursday, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., seemed to be calling for the overthrow of the Mexican government: "The only way that I know of having the correct friends is to provoke a crisis there, because until you get rid of the PRI (the ruling party), until you get democracy, you'll never get rid of the corruption."

Well, duh. To say the Mexican regime is corrupt is like saying grass is green. Corruption has been the basis on which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has governed Mexico for 68 straight years. But the righteous indignation emanating from Washington is consummately hypocritical. It ignores the role the U.S. has played in propping up a corrupt regime -- not to mention the fact that the Mexican drug trade exists to fill America's needs.

Successive Mexican governments have enjoyed the unblinking support of both the U.S. president and Congress despite their lack of basic democracy. These were governments based less on popular will than on purchased loyalties. That mattered less to the U.S. than the fact that the PRI ensured stability -- even when it used violence, as in 1968. Beyond that, no one in the U.S. government paid too much attention to what happened down here.

Now Mexico is harvesting the fruits of that tolerance. In the middle of a frightening drug war, Mexico finds itself both institutionally and economically unarmed. Thanks to a willful neglect of basic governmental structures, Mexico has neither a military nor a federal police force willing or able to match the power of the drug traffickers. Decades of purchasing loyalties have left the government bankrupt. It's the narco barons, not the PRI, who have the money to buy people.

Indeed, a true "narcoculture" has developed, especially in parts of northern Mexico, where smugglers are revered as macho free-traders, satisfying the gringos' unquenchable demand for dope, while the government is scorned as corrupt, capricious and unjust.

The U.S. caused itself further grief by making marijuana -- a substance of debatable danger -- such a central target in its "war on drugs." It was marijuana, not cocaine or heroin, that gave the Mexican drug cartels their start in the 1960s -- in much the same way that Prohibition spurred the growth of America's Mafia in the 1920s. Most narcotrafficantes got their first leg up with marijuana -- so plentiful and easy to grow here. They took over whole villages in Sinaloa, Sonora and Chihuahua, often making life miserable for the local residents.

With the money and connections from the marijuana trade, they moved on to heroin, cocaine and, lately, methamphetamine. Their networks have become vast. In some regions, they have formed a shadow government; in others, a shadow economy. Their reach and power has further crippled already weak Mexican government institutions, from the smallest town government in Durango to the attorney general's office in Mexico City. They have perverted legitimate businesses, from border truck dealerships to nationwide banks.

And it is well to remember how the traffickers bought off their first cops -- with the profits from a plant that American states like California and Arizona now recognize may do as much good as harm. It would also help, as Mexicans point out, if Americans took a long, hard look at themselves and went on a drug-reduced diet.

But given which way the finger is pointing in Washington, that day looks a long way off.

By Sam Quinones

Sam Quinones is a reporter in Mexico City.

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