There’s not a clean, pleasant capitalism in one place –— glitzy, high-tech, full of good food and happy people — and a separable, unfortunate area of poverty, unemployment and misery. The whole system contains both.
Capitalism’s scientists create fantastic drugs that are then denied to people who haven’t enough money to pay for them; amazing electronic gadgets are made by people paid pennies; shiny new products are produced, as rivers and skies are polluted and the planet heads for meltdown.
Jammed up against the 3,200km US-Mexican border, on the Mexican side, is an area which appears to contradict that general observation. Here we have: the most naked sweatshop production in maquila factories; drug wars which have left 28,228 dead (LA Times) since 2007; torture and almost unbelievable cruelty; arms trafficking; whole towns under gang control; vast people-smuggling operations; the systematic mass murder of women (“femicide”); extraordinary levels of corruption and a merging of drug gangs with the state; widespread abuse of human rights by state forces.
And yet part of the point of Ed Vulliamy’s book — starting with the title, Amexica — is that America and Mexico are intimately bound together, and increasingly so. Capitalism ties them and draws them closer: the sweatshops and drugs suppliers are meeting US demand; US arms dealers send weaponry south. More than that: what seems to stop at the US’s border, doesn’t. The Mexican drug cartels have a lot in common with normal capitalist companies, and their middle management can often be found living just over the border; they often sub-contract jobs, and killers or distributors may be unsure of which cartel they are working for. And, like other big capitalists, they buy political power and media (using extreme violence where necessary, too).
The drug cartels ship hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines to 20 million regular drug-users in America. Organisations such as the Sinaloa cartel and the Gulf cartel have sophisticated networks which operate in more than 200 US cities. According to the US Justice Department, drug sales are worth $39bn annually. Drug money is often laundered by US banks; the US state estimates $29bn goes back to Mexico each year — that is the equivalent of 319 tonnes of $100 bills.
Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president since December 2006, vowed to crush the drugs gangs. The Mexican government has now deployed 45,000 troops along the border, supplementing heavily compromised police forces, to try to counter the cartels — and they are failing.
Vulliamy dates the latest phase of narco-violence to the defeat of the Mexican PRI in the elections of 2000. The PRI, corrupt and “corporatist”, had run Mexico for 72 years. The victory of Vicente Fox and Calderon’s PAN party broke the relationship between the existing smuggling gangs and the local state machines. It created a “free market” scramble among the criminals and a spiral of violence. “The narco-cartels are not a criminal pastiche of contemporary, multinational late capitalism — they are part of it and operate according to its ruthless values — or, rather, lack of values.”