Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not My Job

by Libby Hellmann

You remember the expression “Not My Job?” I do. I even remember using it -- sometimes in a dismissive, patronizing way; sometimes to challenge anyone nervy enough to burden me with extra responsibilities.

I get the sense that’s what’s happening today – in a larger sense – when the topic turns to Mexico and the drug cartels. From the administration to Congress to federal and local law enforcement, the efforts to deal with the issues are half-assed and weak. It seems as if everyone is passing the buck… Not my job. Meanwhile, the situation becomes more desperate.

First, I want to make a distinction between the issues of illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Yes, they’re related, sometimes inextricably, but they’re not the same -- something few politicians who raise the issue point out. Indeed, many of the Mexicans trying to cross the borders, including Mexican police officials, are fleeing the anarchy, lack of jobs, and danger caused by the cartels. The problem is that “securing our borders,” the political catch phrase for dealing with illegals, does nothing to address the more fundamental problem.

Which is that our southern neighbor is in trouble. Law and order have broken down. The drug cartels – four major ones and all sorts of offshoot gangs – have become the prime supplier of heroin, meth, grass, and cocaine for the U.S. The cartels have infiltrated the local police, the Federales, and have wreaked such havoc through kidnappings, extortion, and murders that one journalist says Mexico hasn’t faced such danger since the Mexican Revolution. By a 2 to 1 margin, even most Mexicans think the cartels are winning the “war against drugs.”

And now the carnage is seeping across the border. Attacks on U.S. border agents are up. Over three dozen kidnapping cases of US citizens are on the books. In Phoenix we’re seeing tragic evidence of human smuggling rings that purport to finance the drug trade.

Whose job is it to deal with all of this? Well, the Bush administration has sent millions of dollars money to Mexico to equip their police. And they’ve beefed up the number of border patrol agents. And we’re supposedly building a fence from California to Texas to keep undesirables out.

Except it’s not working.

See, at the same time it’s supposedly protecting our borders, the administration, in true Nafta spirit, is encouraging open highways for transit back and forth from Mexico to the US. The money sent to equip the Mexican police, if it even gets to them, has been as effective as bailing the Titanic with a sieve. Reports come in about the bribing of US border agents. And now we learn that building the fence has been too expensive and cumbersome, and construction may stop.

The result? Little has happened to stem the drug trade or protect citizens. Indeed, as Paul Begala said on the Today Show Thursday, the Bush administration cant even protect us from jalapeño peppers.


Even more worrisome, there’s concern that the corruption is leaking into our civil institutions. Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo claims that Mexican drug cartels are buying legitimate US businesses to launder money and using some of the proceeds to help elect local politicians who hold sway over their police force. Admittedly, Tancredo is probably the most right wing politician in the country. Rolling Stone calls him one of the 10 worst Congressman, and the National Review calls him an “idiot.” But his claims, if at all true, are unsettling.

So if the Mexican government can’t control the cartels, and our government is reduced to building partial fences, hiring border agents who themselves are corruptible, and Customs, DEA, the FBI, and local police aren’t making a lot of progress, whose job is it?

Well, apparently we are outsourcing.

Eric Prince, the head of Blackwater, has said the next challenge for his paramilitary organization will be
fighting narco-terrorism. And guess what? The government has responded with some heavy duty contracts.

Excuse me, but isn’t this the same company that’s under investigation for alleged arms smuggling and for killing Iraqi civilians?

And while we’re on the subject, let's not forget the Zetas, a homegrown Mexican paramilitary group, who were once hired to fight the drug cartels. Ten years later they themselves are one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico and are now reportedly making inroads into the U.S.

Blackwater aside, what do we do when the Zetas decide to protect their routes all the way to end-user cities like Chicago and New York? (Some say they’re already doing that). Does Blackwater face off against the Zetas? Do they throw down their arms and join them? How about the rest of us who are caught in the middle?

Don’t get me wrong… this is great fodder for crime fiction, and the book I’m working on deals with this. But when I realize that it’s really not fiction at all, I get concerned. And not a little scared. It's just getting too close.

What do you think? Whose job is it? Is it even possible to contain the cartels? And why aren’t we hearing more about this from the candidates? Isn’t this worthier of discussion than lipstick?

29 comments:

Libby Hellmann said...

This is a comment from Jeff Marriotte, who, with his wife Maryelizabeth Hart, (yes of Mysterious Galaxy fame) moved their family from San Diego to Douglas, Arizona. Douglas is a border town, and knows the drug problems well. In fact, Tom Tancredo claims that Douglas's mayor's brother had a drug tunnel running under one of his properties. I was going to edit Jeff's comments into the blog itself, but thought they were so interesting they should be posted in full.

My take on the overall situation is this: There are definitely too many drugs coming across the border. It's an easy way to move them into the country (although I've also heard of them coming in through Alaska, then sent by air to the rest of the US, since from there packages don't have to go through international customs...). And the drug trade is a HUGE part of Mexico's economy, which is why nothing serious is done about it. The three biggest elements of their economy are oil, drugs, and remittances from family in the US. If you take away any of the three, then the Mexican economy tanks more than it already has, and the flood of people coming north in search of decent wages increases.

So taking out a smuggler here and there is doing next to nothing. If you could take out a cartel, you could put a crimp in supply--until the next cartel figures out some new routes. And if you could stop the drug trade altogether, you would only be ensuring yet more illegal immigration. This is the same reason that the idea of sending all illegals back doesn't work--you kill the remittances, you increase the number of people coming in the next wave. The only long-term way to deal with it is to work with Mexico to diversify their economy so it isn't so dependent on those two sources of income. Then the rest of it works itself out naturally (although at that point you'd still want to move against the cartels).

The drug trade has little to no daily impact on our lives, close to the border. The smugglers want to get away from here as quickly as they can, moving the product immediately to the big cities where the markets are. While they're in the border area, they're too vulnerable to too many law enforcement agencies--Border Patrol, ICE, DEA, local police and sheriffs, so they don't stick around. And as long as those cities create demand, there'll be people working to fill that demand.

Anonymous said...

You write all this as if it's new news. This has been going on for 25 years. They've even made movies about it, and there's been numerous TV news specials.

The Zetas? New? A little research will show people have been talking about them since the early 90's.

I guess no one cared until it could be used as fodder for this bitter election.

Dana King said...

Ever notice how many of the snide comments are anonymous? I have a theory on why that is, but it's snarky, and protocol demands I'd have to post anonymously, and I don't do anonymous posts. I stand in front of what I say.

Current conservative strategy seems to be to prove government is the problem by making it incompetant. It's time we as a nation understood that the alternative to government s anarchy. (See current financial situation for proof.) There are things individuals and small groups can't do for themselves; government HAS to do those things. It might as well do them right.

Just once, I'd like to hear a conservative discuss a solution to the drug problem that includes arresting suburban white people for "recreational" drug use. (Full disclosure: I am a suburban white person.)

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks, Dana. I appreciate the response. I wasn't thinking politics when I wrote the post.

Btw, I forgot to mention above that Jeff Marriotte is a author. He's published over two dozen novels that are a mix of crime fiction, horror, and paranormal. (How is he so prolific?) I just read MISSING WHITE GIRL, which takes place in the Douglas, AZ area. It's really good -- check him out.

Maryelizabeth said...

You sure you don't want to come visit and check things out yourself? :)

Thanks for recognizing that this is an issue with a lot of questions, and no simple answers.

Leonard said...

"Suburban white people" who use drugs get arrested all the time. (I should know---they make good clients.) Illegal immigration and federal drug policy are much more complicated topics than can be discussed on a mystery writers blog. This is all old hat. I'd much rather hear about the craft of writing, something that isn't talked about nearly enough on author blogs.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, this may be old hat, but it was news to me--thanks for writing about it. And Dana, I'm with you, on snarkiness and fronting for comments. Re mystery writing--all crimes are good news for mystery writers blogs. I took a class this summer in commercial fraud investigation just to get a new angle on crime stories. And I came up with this really neat story line: people in charge of selling leases for offshore drilling hold sex-and-drug parties with the purchasers, and then some whistleblower gets killed and then they all...but let me not give away the ending here.

Maryann Mercer said...

Whose job is it? Everyone's. You're naive, you say...but I don't believe I am. I've come a long way from believing that elected official have more than their own interests at heart...the optimism of youth in the early sixties. It is up to the American people to start at the local level. Let your reps and senators at the state level know they're not there to play golf, but to get past the segregation of the middle aisle and start putting some of the 'pork' to use by funding local drug task forces. Vote in every damned election and put people in Washington who care more about the citizens of this country than lipstick colors. Tell the candidates NOW that they need to focus more attention to the people of the United States, their protection, and their quality of life than on protecting Big Money interests. Is this easy to do? Of course not. If it took little effort, everyone would hop on the bandwagon. It takes getting involved however you can. If you can write letters, write. If you can lobby a local rep, do so. Don't sit back and let other people 'handle it'. Whatever anonymous thinks or says, we're all in this together. If we sit by and let it happen, we have only ourselves to blame.
Ah ha, you say, but you come from a small college town in central Illinois...and things are different there than they are in Phoenix or Chicago or LA. Nope. We have gangs. We're an exit off I-57, one of the most used drug highways in this part of America. People die here because of the cartels and the encroachment of the Chicago gangs as well. The news just doesn't reach the big city as much.
Is it safer here than Chicago or Phoenix? So far maybe, but we deal with the undereducated illegal or not, uneducated and homeless whites and blacks, and the yearly influx of new U of I attendees from the world over; all of whom add to the insecurity of this community. Like every other city, we need to step up. Again, is it easy? No. Is it necessary? Yes. Is it do-ible? Only if we try.
Just my humble opinion, of course.
(And locally we have been fortunate enough to get a grant for extended patrols in target areas...not enough, perhaps, but a start).
Thanks, Libby. You got my brain cells, and determination to do 'something' going on this Friday afternoon.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Is it time again to talk about decriminalizing drugs and treating drug addiction as a medical problem? The War on Drugs has failed, and we are into another Prohibition with all of its horrible consequences, only worse. Why do we want to criminalize victimless behavior and put money in the hands of yukky people? We could do well to punish only dangerous behavior, like flying a plane stoned. Driving under the influence. That sort of thing.

Or--oh, gee. You got me started.

edired said...

I'm on the front edge of the baby boom and if drug laws have done anything about the drug culture except make suppliers and expediters wealthy and violent I must have missed it . I worked for thirty years in a town full of mexican immigrants . The only thing a tight bourder does is encourage them to bring their families with them . Can't say that I see any long term harm in that .

Chapman said...

I'm afraid I'm with Barb D'Amato on this one. I worked in the drug (chemistry) unit of the CPD and ISP crime labs for 5 years and the vast (really, vast) majority of the cases I testified on were users. We're filling our prisons with our neighbors and our children when we should be getting them help. I'm not opposed to interdiction or cracking down on pushers but the comparison to prohibition is apt. We need to try something different.

Robert Sakamoto said...

Wow, this is such an interesting blog. You people are so smart, and you discuss such interesting topics.

I would think a dinner party with all of you would be such an amazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz............................

Sorry, I nodded off.

Michael Dymmoch said...

I'm also with Barb. Prohibition didn't work the first time either.

A very wise Chicagoan named John said, "A weapon of mass destruction is an eighteen-year-old without an education." If we put half the war on drugs budget into decent schools and mental health funding we'd dry up the demand.

Xavier said...

I haven't read Rep. Tom Tancreado's book yet, but I understand that he says a drug tunnel ran underneath the mayor's brother's home. This is a factual error. I know this because I live in Douglas, Ariz., home of the drug tunnel that Tancreado mentions, and I was here when it was shut down by U.S. Customs–before it became ICE. I am also a crime, immigration, and a general assignment print reporter, and have interviewed many of the agents involved with discovering the tunnel. But anyone who would have done research on this––fact checking?–would have known that the tunnel didn't run underneath the mayor's brother's home. The tunnel was connected–on the American side– to a warehouse more than 100 feet from the US/Mexico international boundary. The mayor's brother once owned the property, but sold it. Later a major drug lord bought the property and built the tunnel, a very elaborate drug tunnel, if I may say.

Drugs and people smuggling is a complex issue here on the border, one with no immediate solution. More ICE and Border Patrol agents won't help because smugglers will always find a way to get around those inconveniences. Bribing agents, either on the border or at the port of entry, is the easiest and most common way to smuggle it in, especially when cartels are paying $1,000 a kilo of cocaine to wave a truckload through the port. And I'm talking about waving through a ton, no exageration, of cocaine or marijuana. In fact, a ton is quite typical. The marijuana harvest season is quickly approaching here and soon there will be enormous warehouses stacked to the rafters with marijuana, usually in 20 to 30 pound bundles. And of the many honest and hard-working agents and customs inspectors on the border, all it takes is a handful of corrupt agents to make it happen. And it's true, there isn't anything new about all this, that is, about drug and people smuggling. What has changed, though, is the level of violence. In the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, which borders with Douglas, the escalating violence has alarmed even those living there, many of whom have become inured to the fallout from cartels fighting for one of the best narco corridors along the border. Civillians, journalists, cops, a chief of police––some of whom I've been acquainted with––all gunned down in broad daylight as a result of the turf wars and, some say, failure to comply with cartels––take the bride or take the bullet, "plata o plomo," as they say in Spanish.

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