Social Science in the Drug War Zone

Texas sociologist Howard Campbell on drug war failures at the Juarez/El Paso border

The Mexican city of Juarez, on the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, has been suffering from wild waves of drug war-related violence in the past few years. Howard Campbell, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, just realeased a book, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez, shedding light on the background of what he calls the "drug war zone" that binds Juarez and El Paso, Mexico and the United States.

The book is composed of a series of personal testimonials of sorts, stories told to Campbell in his field studies from over a dozen people involved in various areas of the drug trade. His characters include deal[ers ranging from tough Mexican women to anarchist American students, innocent witnesses of drug war violence and threatened journalists reporting on it, as well as assorted drug warriors, including a Juarez cop trying to stay on the up-and-up and an undercover American narc.

These detailed stories paint a vivid on-the-ground picture of the futilities and failures of the attempt to prevent people from legally selling and using certain drugs, and the personal and civic tragedies that result. Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Campbell by phone earlier this week.

reason: What inspired you as a sociologist and anthropologist to study the world of illegal drugs on the Juarez-El Paso border?

Howard Campbell: Two factors caused me to write this book. One was living in Mexico for many years and realizing that the drug business was so huge, and there was quite a bit of information publicly known in newspapers, yet the government didn’t seem to do much; the underworld lifestyle and control could go on undeterred. Then I moved to El Paso and began to realize as the drug war accelerated how damaging to local society it was—mainly because of the violence. Drug abuse can be a problem but the overarching problem was the violence associated with illegal drug trafficking. And it was easy to research and write because I knew so many people who knew the drug trade from the inside.

reason: Many of your subjects—particularly Francisco, who was murdered by the Carrillo cartel and Mexican investigative reporter Rafael Nunez—present a very dangerous world, one where saying too much to the wrong people can be fatal. Was this a frightening topic to research and write about?

Campbell: It is a dangerous world, but I was really more worried about the safety of my informants than myself. They have more at stake. So I disguised their identities as much as possible so they’d be protected. I found people surprisingly open to talking about these issues, maybe because the drug trade and drug war are such an everyday part of life in their communities. In El Paso and Juarez people are not as shocked at drug issues as people tend to be farther in the interior. Another factor is that many people I interviewed I have known for a very long time and had already established strong bonds of trust.

reason: Why has the drug war violence situation in Juarez gotten so insanely out of control in the past few years?

Campbell: The big Mexican cartels have been around roughly for 30 years, and for the first 20 years they operated freely and there was not really a high level of violence and public insecurity connected with drug trafficking. There were murders, but they were internal to the cartels; the people being killed tended to be part of the underworld.

Mexico had been controlled by PRI, a well-connected populist party well organized at every level of Mexican society, but very corrupt. It lost favor among the people and PRI lost power in 2000 to PAN, a more free-market American-style party, but PAN lacked the political skills to keep a lid on drug problem. The more corrupt government did more to manage the drug trade. Mexico might be a more democratic country now and booming in free trade to some degree, but all of that created more freedom for cartels to expand business. The old mechanisms used to keep cartels under control broke down when PRI was thrown out. There was more competition between drug organizations and hustling to create new alliances with people in government and the police.

So since 2000 the violence has really been heating up, and from 2006 onward it’s been a somewhat anarchic situation. With the old relations of patronage and corruption between the cartels and government, the cartels were kept under control to a degree. But those mechanisms broke down and they had a freewheeling situation in which big cartels tried to expand.

The Sinaloa cartel run by "El Chapo" Guzman tried to take over the border and that critical transit point for drugs into the U.S. The Sinoloa cartel tried to overpower the Gulf cartel in the state of Tamaulipas and city of Nuevo Laredo; there was a drawn out fight from 2004-06, and the Sinaloa group lost that battle. The Gulf cartel maintained power and control, and that’s really critical because that’s the area that connects to the I-35 into the heartland of the U.S.

So Sinaloa switched its focus to Juarez in the middle of the Mexican border and again confronted a powerful, deeply entrenched cartel, the Juarez cartel [run by Amado Carrillo Fuentes]. In 2008 a war started, really a civil war, with fighting like in Baghdad between two cartels, Sinaloa coming from outside trying to take over Juarez.

The violence increased a by magnitude of 10-20. Homicide rates had been 100-200 a year but as of 2008, there were 1,600 homicides in Juarez and so far this year more than 2,100. This war is ongoing daily; now in Juarez every day there’s at least one homicide except on October 29. That was a rare day no one was murdered; “no one killed yesterday” was the rare headline. Juarez has become the most dangerous city in the world for murders and kidnappings, with war in the streets, back and forth massacres with as many as 20 murdered in one spot; lots of victims often decapitated or tortured.

A lot of kidnappings are by organized crime groups that may be part of the cartel or may be policemen or former policemen; the kidnapping is mainly a business just to make money. With law and order broken down, opportunistic crimes like bank robbing or any crime has increased in Juarez. Consequently the federal government in Mexico sent up 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 federal policemen, a major force patrolling the city. That effort was effective for only one month, March 2008. After that violence increased and has increased to the present, a steady acceleration of violence with no end in sight in spite of the massive militarization of the city. This raises questions about what is the military doing? The average person in Juarez would say it’s making the problem worse because it’s very corrupt and lots of Mexicans think the military is allied essentially with the Sinaloa cartel.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Brian Doherty Interviews Sociologist Howard Campbell in the Juarez/El Paso Drug War Zone

    Now that would be something.

  • Rich||

    Do Juarez taxi drivers still take you to see the woman and the donkey?

    Seriously, the mess there now makes the ol' cholera outbreaks seem downright pleasant.

  • ||

    I guess you're just the type that looks like they would appreciate a good donkey.

  • ChronicGlass Jay||

    Haha, as long as they roll me up a nice doobie on the way to the show, I'm down for being disgusted by mexico for my vacation, lol.

  • Xeones||

    Preemptively shut the fuck up, LoneWacko.

  • Nipplemancer||

    4 hours later and it worked. fucking brilliant.

  • ||

    The old mechanisms used to keep cartels under control broke down when PRI was thrown out.

    BULLSHIT - what happened was an increase in the amount of money given by the US to the Mexican government to "curb" the drug trade, even before the P.A.N. ever took over the government.

  • Paul||

    New York City Democrats disagree. They believe the ban on flavored tobacco products will keep our precious teens from becoming hopelessly addicted to nicotine.

  • ||

    Just like banning fast food will keep our precious teens from becoming hopelessly addicted to obesity.

  • LarryA||

    Any chance of getting this on the Oprah book club?

    [sigh] Probably not. The subject came up recently and I got told off. The local liberal thinks we can fix things by shutting down gun shows, and the local conservative wants to stop immigration. Both wanted to do away with NAFTA. The Juarez war? “Oh, that’s Mexico’s problem.”

  • BakedPenguin||

    Seriously, the mess there now makes the ol' cholera outbreaks seem downright pleasant.

    Well, if cholera strikes again, it's obvious there's plenty of opiates there, so nobody has to die of dehydration.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The local liberal thinks we can fix things by shutting down gun shows, and the local conservative wants to stop immigration.

    Jesus H tap dancing Christ. I am so sick of these "one more law will fix it all" morons.

  • Isaac Bartram||

    And one of the biggest problems with the "one more law will fix it all" morons is that never think about the enforcement. Just passing the law is going to make the problem just disappear.

    Then they're the first with the "OMG America's such a police state, 'we' jail more people than anyone else in the world.

    Hint people, if you don't want cops breaking down doors and throwing people in jail so much, just quit with the new laws.

  • Paul||

    I'm a 'one less law' will fix it all kind of guy.

  • ||

    I respect this guy, even though I hate social science.

  • Kroneborge||

    Actually decriminization of possion won't do anything to stop the violence. To do that you need to legalize, and let it be sold through legal venues.

  • ||

    Campbell is dreaming if he really believes there is even a chance of re-thinking our current tactics.

    Politicians, police, judges, the prison companies and drug traffickers are getting far, far too much money and political power from the War on Some Drugs; they will never allow it to end.

  • christian||

    Seriously, the mess there now makes the ol' cholera outbreaks seem downright pleasant.
    http://www.christianlouboutinshoesmart.com

  • annonymous||

    Instead of wasting tax dollars on a bloated dea budget, or over crowded prisons that turn minor drug offenders into hardened criminals, or on sending millions of dollars to mexico to help fight the cartel, lets take a look at another option. As the dea's technolgy improves, and man power increases, the risk involved in importing these drugs is also increased. Any buisness man can tell you that if risk is increased, so is profit margin. If more shippments are lost, price will increase, the same thing will happen again as it gets passed down to the street dealers. The thing about addicts is that they are addicted, they will not quit using drugs unless THEY choose to, jail and prison usually accomplish the opposite of rehabilitation. And so what you have is a market that can't be destoyed. So how are these addicts supposed to support their habit now that uncle sam has insured sky high prices? Holding up convenience stores, burgalary, prostitution(the number one cause of prostitution is the high expense of drug use), the list goes on.

  • ||

    I agree with you that the current policy towards drugs in untenable. However, I would take exception to your assertion of the dea's effectiveness, the economics of the black market don't paint a picture of increased pressure and hardship on the cartels. Indeed, reality asserts quite the opposite.

    With the exception of marijuana and lsd
    I don't think a single targeted chemical is more expensive or harder to obtain than 30 years ago.
    A gram of cocaine in 1980 cost around $100, not adjusted for inflation. Now a purer gram costs between $60-80. The cartels have been extremely effective in adapting to law enforcement's efforts. Instead of worrying about cops they spend $millions on turf wars for control of $billions.

    Sorry I couldn't site anything but I'm busy, if you have different info I'd be willing to look into it.

  • annonymous||

    I think we should create clinics that supply all forms of narcotics that are cultivated and processed by a fda controlled program, and sold at non profit prices. This would insure no one could profit from these illicit drugs. We should also focus strongly on prevention programs. And rehabilitation programs that are made available and known through the clinics. Street dealers who promote their product (and to kids), would dissapear, unable to compete with uncle sams no profit prices. Methadone clinics of today only will sell so much to an individual per day, and reduce the amount each time that person visits. Addicts of course, will get what they can and go find the rest of their fix elsewhere. This is why these methadone clinics are so ineffective. We must find away to stop funding these cartels. Prohibition is an expensive failure.

  • annonymous||

    Oh yeah, capital l is absolutely right about the decrease in cocaines price since the early eighties. It could be that the increase in farm land in countries we cannot sufficiently police that is being used for the cultivation of cocaine has influenced the price drop, along with the realization that selling at a lower price makes it more accessible in ghettos, where street dealing has increased exponentualy since the early eighties. America now buys in bulk, in a way. There are far more people that actually do the smuggling, but per capita more are getting caught. The purity I doubt has really changed much though. But that prohibition does raise the cost of drugs cannot be argued with. And then again, maybe it can be. I have no record here and could be wrong. Any way I am done with work, and finished with comments and now must sleep, good morning.

  • ||

    No doubt, that prohibition rises the price of chemicals, a kilo of heroin's price increases by orders of magnitude from depot to depot to user. What could be argued,is that dea's efforts at supply side interdiction are an abject failure. Lower prices over time indicate more supply and more competition. I think the dea is barely treading water at this point, even with all the money, technology and manpower being thrown at the problem.

    I searched, but could not find, the doj fact sheets on confiscated drug purity and prices (awesome resource). These used to be available on-line, they indicated lower prices and higher quality. They probably hid them because the facts contradicted the rah-rah nature of doj web pages. So, no citation yet. Gotta go.

    Since this is a drug thread, have 'Nice Dreams'.

  • ||

    Read the book, "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez." It presents an interesting and in depth perspective on the drug culture. The book could benefit from some better editing. But it's definitely worth the read.

  • ||

    "Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."
    Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. 18 Dec. 1840

  • Dent Masters||

    I think you have a great site, I genuinely found it to be thought prevoking and I'm looking forward to coming back again to find what's new before I head down there on work for an extended session.

  • Tom||

    ?? drug war failures at the Juarez/El Paso border

    All drug enforcement fails.

    Let us be thankful for fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed. - Mark Twain 1835 - 1910

  • americana||

    Why doesn't Mexico send their army to this border towns and declare a martial law? Who wants to live there anyway?

  • Mark's cheap wine club||

    Certainly looks like it would an interesting read. Living in San Diego I think we feel both the positive and negatives from the border much more often then the rest of the country. Nice to find a book written by someone else that isn't writing from thousands of miles away.

  • middle school math teacher||

    Cartels have their own way of pinning up the authorities.
    Drugs plus money would always equate to corruption and eventually control would very much return to the cartels.
    A million dollars worth of investment for bribes could easily be pulled off and paid once these cartels take control of the tight situation.
    Drug trade is all about power and control. Being dominated by a cartel existent for more than 3 decades is just like breaking a diamond that stood through the test of time.
    I don't want to say this but, in my opinion I really think this is all a result of corruption.

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    When you look at a trade agreement like NAFTA, it’s about that thick (holds his hands about…

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  • Tommy||

    Although the activities of drug traffickers may appear marginal and separate from mainstream society, the Drug War Zone pervades modern life to such degree that it has become critical for social scientist to gauge its international impact.

  • Turning Roll Fan||

    Hopefully the tougher measures that the border patrol have taken in recent months will help slow down the drug trade. I just read on another news site that southwestern courts are getting overburdened due to the recent steep increase in prosecutions of illegal immigrants, so let's hope that improves the situation!

  • sexxiebebe23||

    A few of my friends are from el paso, and I meet loads in Phoenix. Its scary to think thats where theyre from.

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  • Sean Fyresite||

    Its funny how social science if affecting the drug war at all.The Drug War Zone pervades modern life to such degree that it has become critical for social scientist to gauge its international impact.

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  • Wine Clubs||

    Interesting piece, especially to someone who lives in another border city (San Diego). While we haven't seen anywhere near that level of violence, it's an ongoing concern given the cartels and their money/influence across the border.

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  • WDEVP||

    Good news

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  • HERBCYCLOPEDIA||

    If they thought 2009 Mexico was suffering violence they should have seen 2010!

  • HERBCYCLOPEDIA||

    Sorry I forgot to mention that as the author said living in Mexico has been a necessary experience to write the book, how can people write about countries they've never visited. I'm definitely going to read it.

  • Tree Pruners||

    This is a very interesting topic, I personally never thought that the Mexican underground organizations can be this huge, and that there is this kind of volume of violance around them. I think I'll definitely check out this book.

  • shannon steel||

    just think this is all being imported to the U.S. daily. We need an immigration SOLUTION now!

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  • شوق ليموزين||

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  • ||

    This book will surely open many eyes as to what is happening on the Juarez-El Paso border. The government should really do something about it. This book is like a documentary but of course minus the pictures of the subjects involved. I bet the names on it are not real to protect the interviewee.
    ----
    Charby,
    expert on Civil War Spies

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  • Dr Greg Nazvanov||

    It seems that according to Campbell it so easy to bring drugs into the U.S. Isn't there an easier way to manage the problem creating tougher legislation and security?

  • amit||

    Thank you, for this important topic .you have got a Great site and Great Article writing skill.

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