America’s Next Bogeyman Is Real, And Confronting It Can End The Two Greatest Social Justice Crises Since Slavery
Saul Alinsky never panned out.
America is going to need a new bogeyman, and fast. You see, we just can’t get our act together without one.
China? Too easy to work with, and they don’t like rocking the boat. Intellectual property theft and currency manipulation are boring. Iranian Clerics? They’ll be toppled in a few years.
HA-HA-HA, right? We saw this plotline play out with John Candy and Alan Alda! It was called Canadian Bacon!
Not so fast. There really is a monster that lives under America’s bed. My bed. Your bed. All our damned beds. We’ve heard a few bumps and creaks in the night, curled up under the covers, and reminded ourselves that we’re adults and monsters aren’t real. But just when we peak our heads out for reassurance, there the sonofabitch is, popping his head out from behind the closet door like the alien peering at Christopher Walken in that scene from Communion. It will even tell you it’s name if you ask politely three times while you stare into a mirror with the lights turned off:
That’s right. It speaks Spanish (this will become important) and refers to itself in the plural. Terrified, you turn the lights back on and run a frantic Wikipedia search for “Los Zetas.” Now I will summarize what you find there, with chilling narrative flair, a number of seemingly unrelated tangents which will make sense later on, and suggested further reading from actual books.
You know how you always hear Reagan’s CIA created the Taliban and Al Qaida? As likely as that may seem given Iran-Contra and decades of other CIA debacles, it’s not really true. Unlike most of the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets who accepted American and Saudi money funnelled through Pakistani Intelligence, Bin Laden is believed to have never accepted dollars or equipment from the United States, and bankrolled his operations primarily though the fortune he inherited from his father (give the guy some credit, ok). That was kind of his “thing:” he had sh*tloads of money. Not to mention the fact that he showed up to the game late and didn’t have time to establish much of reputation, aside from “that new Saudi guy with sh*tloads of money.” The Taliban in turn developed as creatures of the civil war which followed the Soviet withdrawal. They initially earned a popular mandate from the people of Kandahar as something of a fundamentalist Pashtun incarnation of Seattle’s Phoenix Jones: vigilantes who would reclaim the streets from the ruthless and corrupt warlords who were the true legacy of the U.S., Saudi, and Pakistani-led effort to expel the Russians from Afghanistan. But even the Taliban, who seemed to have so much promise in those heady days, quickly became drunk with power, Pakistani assistance, and tacit support from a U.S. foreign policy guided by UNOCAL oil’s desire to build an oil/natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan down to the port of Karachi. Rebuild the Silk Road, right? It’d be great for the region!*
“So what does this have to do with Los Zetas? And who are they, anyway?”
Ah, yes. Los Zetas.
So let’s just pretend that America’s real powerbrokers, conspiring in a poorly lit room choked with cigar smoke and covered in maps, were trying to develop the ultimate national bogeyman. Just for kicks, they get out the cheat codes as a thought experiment and come up with this:
“Highly disciplined former members of an elite unit trained by Army Special Forces at Fort Bragg. Completely nihilistic and motivated only by money and power. Willing to massacre civilians by the hundreds for no reason other than to sow fear in the hearts of their opponents and establish their credentials as the most ruthless human beings on the planet. They’d actually BE the incarnation of pure evil, we wouldn’t even have to say it! And here’s the kicker: they’d be members of an ethnic group that already inspires fear, resentment, and xenophobia in Middle America!”
From the corner, Cancer Man from The X-Files speaks up. Yes, it turns out he’s real, too (what a weird day!).
“They’d have to be willing and able to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on behalf of the Iranians. We need to get as much play out of Tehran as we can before these kids in the streets topple the regime.”
Skeptical Reader: “Let’s not get carried away here!”
Oh yes, let’s. Just when you thought that pure evil was something that only existed in ancient mythology and G.I. Joe, here comes Los Zetas to remind you that evil is, indeed, real.
“Your mother’s in here with us, Karras.”
Shut up, Los Zetas, I’m trying to tell a story.
In the late 1990s, Osiel Guillen of the notorious Gulf Cartel launched a campaign to recruit the best and brightest of the Mexican security establishment into it’s ranks. Although he found some gems in the 21st Cavalry and 70th Infantry Regiments, it was a no-brainer where he had to go to get the cream of the crop. No, it wasn’t Top Gun school at Miramar. It was El Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales, los GAFES for short. A world-class, highly elite counternarcotics unit trained extensively by U.S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
If you’re close to the military, you’ve probably heard that the most elite American units (SEALs, Rangers, SF, Delta, etc) experience significant attrition to the allure of highly paid contracting gigs with outfits such as the Mercenary Corporation Formerly Known As Blackwater. Imagine if these dudes weren’t getting picked off by Blackwater, BUT RATHER BY AL QAIDA. Imagine if when the SEALs launched the raid in Abbottobad, they knew they would be going up against guys they used to work with who were now getting paid better by the now famous Saudi guy with sh*tloads of money. Because that’s exactly what happened with the GAFES: they found the offers the Gulf Cartel in late 90s was making hard to refuse after a while. Practically entire units started defecting.
2006. Enter Mexican President Felipe Calderon, elected partly on a pledge to end three decades of cozy relations between Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the cartels who had until now confined their violence primarily to those who were in “the game.”
It seemed that a Colombia-esque crackdown was on the horizon. The turf lines with rival cartels were going to start getting tight, real quick. This got the GAFES alumni to thinking. Their train of thought roughly resembled the talk found in Alaric the Visigoth’s army as they formulated their demands for Rome to start giving them more gold to fight the Huns, or else.
“Yeah, the Gulf Cartel may pay us well, but we all know we could take the whole thing over if we really wanted to. What are they gonna do, fight us?”
They say history repeats itself. And so, when the GAFES boys finally delivered their ultimatum to the leadership of the Gulf Cartel, they learned that they were going to have to call the Gulf Cartel’s bluff. Four years and about fifteen thousand human lives later, it seems that Alaric’s infamous one-liner could still bear fruit: woe to the vanquished.
A new cartel now dominated Mexico’s Gulf Coast, with a shiny headquarters office on the banks of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo:
I could talk about police officers being jammed into barrels full of diesel fuel that are sealed shut before they are ignited. I could talk about car bombs detonating within earshot of the Lonestar State. I could talk about assassinations, or even simple payoffs to judges and street cops. I could make comparisons with what Cormac McCarthy was really getting at with the character Chigurh in No Country For Old Men.
Instead, I will draw your attention to the Tamaulipas massacres. Both of them.
August 24, 2010. The bodies of 72 people are discovered in a hastily dug mass grave about 100 miles south of Brownsville, Texas. It is determined they are Mexicans and Central Americans who have paid subsidiaries of the Gulf Cartel to smuggle them across the U.S. border to obtain work. They were killed by Los Zetas.
Didn’t we travel across the world in the 90′s to stop this from happening in Bosnia and Kosovo?
April 6, 2011. A few miles up the road. 193 people who have paid to be smuggled into the U.S. by subsidiaries of the Gulf Cartel are massacred by Los Zetas and placed in hastily dug mass graves.
What would motivate a drug cartel to do something so heinous to people who were not directly involved in drug smuggling? It’s very simple. Cartels don’t gain revenue strictly from drug smuggling. They have broad, diversified portfolios that generally focus on anything that exploits other human beings. The Zetas were trying to send a message:
“Tamaulipas is our turf now. If you want to be trafficked into the U.S. from now on, you go through us.”
Oh yeah. And then there’s this:
No way, right? The Iranian Quds Force developing a plan with a Mexican drug cartel called “Los Zetas” to launch terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in exchange for cash and cheap heroin?
Yes, this really did happen. The only thing up for debate is whether this plot was the brainchild of a Quds rogue element or someone a little higher up. But make no mistake – the Iranian equivalent of the CIA has identified Los Zetas as their best option for carrying out terrorist attacks within the United States should they deem it necessary. And the unpleasant and bizarre truth is that it’s likely the only reason the United States is not at war with Iran, right now as you read this, is that the two Zetas the Iranians picked to do business with happened to be DEA informants.
Put that sh*t in your peace pipe and smoke it.
Oh yeah…my three-sentence truce with the DEA ends now.
I watched the GOP debate in Tampa on Tuesday, a forum supposedly focused on Latin American affairs. I was prepared with a pen and notepad, because I knew I was about to write this very essay. I was going to note how many times the word “Mexico” was mentioned, fully expecting Newt Gingrich to raise the specter of Narco-Iranians setting off carbombs in Georgetown to distract from his lunar colonization proposals – you see, I was ready to write the rebuttal. But nothing happened.
To my astonishment, Mexico was not mentioned once (I frequently walked outside to spout Bourbon mist from my mouth and scream “DO YOU SEE?” at the moon, so I might have missed it). And I realized that the tone has yet to be set for what I have no doubt will become the defining domestic/foreign policy/national security issue of the next decade: the specter of the drug war leading to a complete, apocalyptic, social collapse in the southernmost member of NAFTA. Kind of like what happened in Afghanistan after the Russians left. With de facto rule by the mother of all drug cartels, lead by commandos trained in North Carolina to be the paladins in the America’s crusade to tell people what they can do to themselves, sustained by America’s craving for a little escape to get through the week.
And by the way, they’re willing to set off car bombs north of the border for the right price.
So now I have the world’s undivided attention. The one, specific bogeyman always does it. Now I have to tell you the truth: while the Zetas are the most terrifying of Mexico’s many drug cartels - and appear to be inching towards a two-way final battle with the Sinaloa Cartel for narco-hegemony - the fact is that Mexico’s six year long drug war is much bigger than just one cartel. In addition to making border towns such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez the most dangerous cities in the world, it has claimed the lives of close to 50,000 people. The conflict which is tearing our southern neighbor to pieces has become significantly bloodier than our war in Afghanistan (at least if you trace it’s beginning to 2001). And it’s fueled entirely by two things: America’s insatiable appetite for drugs, as Secretary of State Clinton recently and courageously acknowledged, and of course by America’s very “War on Drugs” itself.
The consequences of the “War on Drugs” are peripheral to most Americans only because it’s effects are focused on the poor and inaudible. The tendrils of America’s Political-Law Enforcement-Concerned Parents Groups-Media-Corporate-Tactical Gear Website-Penal Complex are far too complex and terrifying to confront in one paragraph. We could start with the private prison industry, which has it’s very own lobbying firm called ALEC. We could talk Nixon’s coinage of the phrase itself, which portended a crackdown so harsh that it’s goal was to land every heroin addict in a methadone clinic (we’ve really drifted in forty years, haven’t we?). We could take a look at the fact that millions upon millions of young Americans, primarily people of color, are incarcerated and prisonized into becoming lifelong gang-members and perpetual criminals, for commiting non-violent crimes that did no harm to anyone other than possibly themselves.
At first, I thought it really came down to this question:
Me: “Why is using illegal drugs so egregious that it justifies the tremendous costs of incarceration, shown to be higher than the costs of rehabilitation by a factor of ten?”
Ignorant Fool: “Because using drugs is against the law.”
Thanks for your insight, pal. Did you get your law degree at University of Pyongyang? The obvious answer is that not only are the costs supremely unjustified, but that the War on Drugs and the associated rise of Prison-Industrial Complex have become the most egregious chapter in American social history since the abolition of slavery. Marijuana must be legalized and taxed at roughly the rate that smokeless tobacco (tabac non fumee) is taxed in Canada. The DEA must be abolished, it’s enforcement functions split between ICE, the FBI, state and local law enforcement, and the military. Addiction should be treated as a priority national health concern under the purview of the Surgeon General’s office. Drug use and possession should be decriminalized, dealing in harmfully addictive drugs of course remaining a criminal offense with serious consequences.
Billions, upon billions, saved from the costs associated with enforcing the un-enforceable and incarcerating the harmless. Billions, upon billions, generated from new tax revenue. Thousands, upon thousands, of newly employed people.
I used to think that’s where the debate ended. Don’t get me wrong – I still wholeheartedly believe all of that – but I’ve started to think it’s about something much bigger.
As I read in horror the blood-soaked history of Tamaupilas, I started to get somewhat protective to be honest.
“Los Zetas, you f*cks. Those people were honest people. They wanted to work harder and were prepared to take bigger risks than most Americans can dream of, to provide for the people they love and care about. People like that are what made America great. And they were just massacred trying to come into the United States by you f*cks, and you have the resources and desire to do it because of the idiocy which exists at the intersection of our drug and immigration policies. They have the right to come here – “
And then I remembered how much of a complete clusterf*ck America’s attitudes towards immigration are today. I remembered running convoys in Iraq with Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino truck drivers indentured to Kuwait’s cruel labor system. And thinking that as terrifying as it was to confront, the guest worker programs found in the Arab Gulf States were both more enlightened and more pragmatic than our system of simultaneous demonization and exploitation of unskilled workers. I remembered that for two years I lived with an Italian Physics PhD candidate while I was in college, who will soon likely put his world-class education to use at the behest of the European Space Agency because of the difficulties associated with becoming a U.S. citizen. I remembered attending ceremonies in which my Soldiers became U.S. citizens, seeing the pride on their faces, and thinking that they could have died fighting in a strange war for a country they weren’t even a citizen of.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
While that may have been inspiring in an age when people thought big words were cool, I think a new motto designed to reconjure the spirit of the phrase “Home of the Brave” may be in order:
“Welcome to America. We put a man on the f*cking moon. Right now, we need all the hard-working people hungry for new opportunities we can get because we’re having kind of an identity crisis.”
You see, the Drug War and the horrendous exploitation associated with illegal immigration are impossible to divorce from one another. Ending both of these crises is not just about doing what’s right: it truly is about making America a stronger, more secure, more fiscally sound nation. The solutions to both call for pragmatism and courage that has been hard to find in Washington of late. And if progressives don’t get out in front of this debate, I’m very confident Newt Gingrich will make it the centerpiece of his 2016 GOP nomination bid, only I don’t think we’ll like his policy proposals much.
Here’s three slogans, for a start:
1. Legalize It.
2. Welcome to America.
3. This last one is a little more verbose, a bone I’ll throw to Cancer Man to defend against charges of being “soft on terrorism”. A Monroe Doctrine for the 21st Century, if you will, dedicated to Danilo Blandon and Freeway Ricky Ross*:
“Henceforth, the drug cartels of the Western Hemisphere should not be considered subject to influence from any foreign powers, especially should those powers be Iranian.”
* Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars provides a masterful, Pullitzer Prize-winning account of the origins of both Al Qaida and the Taliban.
* George Grayson’s Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State is rather dry but offers a treatment of the Mexican drug war unparalleled in scope. As early as 2010 Grayson identified the potential for the Zetas to carry out terrorist attacks within the U.S. for the right price. Maybe the Iranians even read it?
* Joel Dyer’s The Perpetual Prisoner Machine is required reading for an understanding of the Prison-Industrial Complex. See also Pennsylvania’s recent “cash-for-kids” travesty.
* Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance. Read it.