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The war we gave Mexico

The drugs, guns and culture that fuel the violence all are linked to the U.S.

February 28, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

Early in the last century, near the end of his 34 bloody years in power, the aging Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz mused that his country's great misfortune was to be located "so far from God and so near the United States."

The shrewd old thief's observation came to mind this week when U.S. officials announced they'd joined with Mexican authorities in arresting more than 730 people allegedly linked to the Sinaloa drug cartel. That gang is the most powerful of the numerous criminal organizations smuggling drugs into the United States. Their intramural quarrels and resistance to a government crackdown have plunged Mexico into a round of violence unseen since the Cristero Wars in the 1920s. Over the last year, about 6,000 Mexicans have been killed.

Many fear that Mexico could be sliding into civil instability because of the cartels' increasing willingness to use violence and bribery to protect their business. It's an old story in other parts of Latin America, and for that reason, three of the region's former heads of state -- including onetime Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo -- recently issued a report urging the U.S. to consider legalizing at least marijuana. Fat chance.

Similarly, at a news conference this week, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. set off a firestorm when he mentioned in passing that the U.S. should consider restoring its ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons. That prohibition, adopted in 1994, contained a clause requiring Congress to renew the ban after 10 years. To nobody's surprise, Congress didn't, and now assault weapons, semiautomatic pistols and .50-caliber rifles that are illegal in Mexico flow into the hands of the drug traffickers there from an estimated 6,000 American gun dealers in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Thus, America's political decisions to treat drug addiction as a crime rather than a public health problem, and to legalize AK-47s but not pot, fuel an incipient civil war in Mexico.

Mexico is a complex country with a resourceful and creative people. It also is -- like other Latin American nations ravaged by the drug trade -- burdened with a stunted civil society, chronic maldistribution of wealth, ingrained corruption and endemic political violence. These pathologies have made it painfully susceptible to the social and economic distortions created by America's seemingly insatiable desire for drugs.

For a country as proud of its cultural autonomy as Mexico traditionally has been, one of the bitter ironies must be the way in which the pseudo-romantic culture of drug trafficking has commandeered so much of the nation's popular imagination. In the cities of Mexico's northern and western states, traffickers and wannabe narcos mimic the dress and tattoos of Los Angeles' street gangs.

One of Mexico's most ubiquitous popular music genres is the narco- corrido, ballads built on traditional norteno dance music but with lyrics that romanticize the drug trade. It's a brand of music born in the cantinas, dance clubs and swap meets of L.A. and the Coachella Valley, in large part because of a gifted young composer named Rosalino "Chalino" Sanchez.

He was born on a ranch in Sinaloa, an epicenter of Mexico's drug trade, and had to flee as an illegal immigrant to California after killing a local drug trafficker who had raped his sister. Initially, he worked the Coachella fields, but soon found a place in Southern California's thriving underground Mexican music scene.

Sometimes, Sanchez simply set down the stories he heard from the dealers and smugglers in the bars and at the swap meets; sometimes, he worked on commissions from the narcos themselves, minor criminals who saw a chance for cassette-based immortality. In 1992, he returned to Sinaloa for a concert and was murdered execution-style. His killers never were found, but his narcocorridos spawned an army of imitators.

Sanchez's strange and tragic story is a metaphor for the destructive symbiosis in which the U.S. and Mexico find themselves. As Times reporter Sam Quinones, who profiled Sanchez for his book, "True Tales From Another Mexico," puts it, "Los Angeles is Mexico's culture factory."

Mexico's drug war could escalate into widespread civil strife with incalculable consequences for the U.S. -- and, particularly, the Southwest. And we're kidding ourselves if we insist that this is a problem that can be wholly solved south of the border, or quarantined there if events spiral out of control. It's impossible to know how close either the United States or Mexico is to God, but geographically, culturally and economically, they've never been closer to one another.

If Americans really are concerned about the horrific toll inflicted by Mexico's narco-gangsters, we need to ask some tough questions about our own cultural and political delusions.

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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