Staff Reviews

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.

reason: Has all the violence spilled over significantly to El Paso?

Campbell: You hear a lot of discussion in the U.S. about the spillover of Mexican drug violence but El Paso is amazingly safe when it comes to violent crimes, like 10 for Juarez's 2,100. And if it wasn't for the international border, they'd be one city, they are absolutely back to back; it's a river and border dividing one city.

I have two theories why: El Paso is heavily militarized and fortified, we have Fort Bliss, the El Paso Intelligence Center, the DEA, border patrol, various police agencies. A second factor is that El Paso is a city of immigrants from Mexico, and people learned to avoid trouble; it's almost a way of life for these immigrants to keep their head down and stay out of trouble so people here tend to be very law abiding. I should add, at least 50 American citizens have been murdered recently in the drug war in Juarez that happened to be born in El Paso and maybe lived in Mexico; quite a few people from El Paso end up murdered in Juarez.

reason: How much of that sort of official corruption you write about on the Mexican side is in effect on the U.S. side?

Campbell: I suspect lots more on the U.S. side than we realize. How else do Mexicans so easily bring in hundreds of tons of drugs each year? It's partly that they are good and creative at bringing drugs across, but surely there's more corruption than we know about. It's dangerous and scary to think agents of the U.S. feds are bought off and on the payroll of cartels and we can't say how many, but one can surely suspect more than we realize.

reason: Your studies of this world have led you to believe the current war on drugs is futile and pointless. You interview in your book Terry Nelson, a former Border Patrol man who now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who agrees. How many of the people on the drug supply side of your "drug war zone" do you find agree that public policy regarding drugs should change?

Campbell: I suppose traffickers would scoff at the idea that the war on drugs is winnable as they personally find it so easy to bring drugs into the U.S. I was surprised at the extent people who work for the U.S. government informally would tell me they don't think it's winnable either, so I really do think we are at the point where there will be changes in drug policy if people look at the facts. I hope my book contributes to a more complicated way of thinking about the issue, to recognize we are not going to wipe out drug consumption and trafficking. So let's focus on the most harmful effects of these drugs of abuse, and the most harmful part is the violence, and second the harm done by addiction to heroin and cocaine. We have so many people locked up in prison for drug crimes and they become criminals for life.

We had a conference about a month ago in El Paso examining 40 years of the war on drugs. The second in command of the DEA Anthony Placido spoke, and his perspective was, they are doing a great job. Of course they don't catch it all, but they are doing the best they can. The anti-drug effort is internally contradictory; they have to justify big budgets, especially now that they are competing with terrorism problem [which impels them to hype the problem], and they also have to show effectiveness, which is an incentive to produce busts in these huge quantities. I don't know how much you trust DEA statistics on the size and value of big busts—I guess as much as you trust the CIA or any other branch of the federal government. As citizens we have to be very cautious and very critical of government, and the main issue should be, not do they grab big piles of drugs, but does the policy work? And that should mean whether our drug policy is having a positive impact on American society, and I would argue it is not.

reason: Any fresh efforts to combat or innovate in the elaborate system of drug smuggling tricks that your interview subjects detail?

Campbell: Apparently the main way coke comes through now is hiding it in 18-wheeler trucks, especially in Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Juarez. We have lines of hundreds, thousands of trucks crossing every day and the U.S. can't inspect every one without destroying free trade; these things are sensitive, the trucks are getting parts to places on time so cars can be built, so there are consequences to holding them up.

Mexico is much more deeply affected by all this. I was in Austin giving a talk over the weekend. It surprised me how few people even heard about the situation in Juarez. The United States as a whole remains insolated, even though it's right on the border. But in Mexico this is the single most important issue. The country is in chaos; there's no safe place anymore and there's a tremendous pressure on the president and the system to do something to lower violence. There was a decriminalization of certain possession of small amounts but that won't change the larger international drug trafficking business at all. But when it comes to illegal drugs I guess I don't look for utopian answers. We need to start with incremental changes to improve, and surely decriminalization of possession is part of that.