How our casual drug habits helped kill 28,228 Mexicans
Just over 12 months ago, when the death toll from the drug war in Mexico was about to hit 10,000, I wrote a column for our website quietly commending Australia’s casual coke-users for playing their own small role in contributing to the violence.
It was a simple bit of supply and demand economics and one which was met with scorn by some readers, who disputed any link between their decision to rack up at a Sydney nightclub and the fact that Mexicans are living (and dying) in servitude and terror at the hands of cartels.
It’s unclear how they came to be such authorities on the provenance of their drugs, but these readers asserted that the cocaine you get in Australia has got nothing to do with the cartels which have gone close to destroying Mexico.
They were already wrong then - the Mexicans moved in a couple of years ago on the distribution networks following the erosion of the power of Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cartels - but they are seriously wrong now.
It emerged this week that up to half of the cocaine consumed in Australia’s eastern states over the past two years has been directly imported from Mexico by the Sinaloa cartel.
This, the biggest and most feared of the cartels, is headed by Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo (“Shorty”), who was the cover story in The Weekend Australian Magazine last weekend in an extract from Mexican-based journalist Malcolm Beith’s new book The Last Narco.
I read the book this week. It is an extraordinary read but its contents are often so vile and distressing that you’re glad when it comes to an end. The scale and manner of the violence is truly incomprehensible. One of the more extraordinary episodes of this war involved a rival cartel stalking El Chapo to an airport carpark where they opened fire and presumed that they had shot him dead, discovering later that the person they had assassinated was the Cardinal of Guadalajara.
For all these magical-realist moments - which often seem to be the only reason this tragic continuing story ever makes the papers outside of Mexico - there is a mundane consistency to the violence documented in the book.
Such as the bleak fact that the network of cross-border tunnels used by the Sinaloa cartel to transport drugs into the US were largely built by co-opted peasants who were executed on El Chapo’s orders upon completion.
This book made me think about the moral distance which western drug consumers place between their lifestyle and the miserable lives of those people who make it possible.
Companies such as Nestle can face calls for a boycott over a product such as powdered breast milk, or a reputable firm such as Nike can be denounced for using sweatshop labour, yet when it comes to drugs there’s no thought given to the work practices and standover tactics of their manufacturers and suppliers.
In the 12 months since I wrote that column, the death toll has been revised and now stands at 28,228. The figures come from analysis prepared jointly by the University of San Diego and Mexico’s respected Reforma newspaper group.
If you go back to August 21 - that is, the same amount of time Australia has spent waiting for the three independents to show their hand - the following is just a sample of some of the bigger news stories in Mexico:
The nationalised oil company Pemex almost suspended operations after five of its workers were inadvertently kidnapped with 30 drug operatives (they have not been seen since); on September 3, 25 people died in a shoot-out in Tamaulipas; on September 11 the same number died in a shoot-out in Juarez; also in Tamaulipas, 72 bodies were found in a mass grave; on one day, 3200 police were sacked in Mexico City over corruption.
This is violence on a scale which, right now, is probably eclipsed only by Afghanistan, and beats it on a bad day. Again, those Australians who are doing their bit on the demand side should take a bow.
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