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Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda: Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism, and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy

The drug war among the Mexican state and drug cartels is still escalating. Some observers and analysts have even expressed doubts about the state stability and the Mexican government's a­bility to solve this crucial issue. According to some analysts the main cause of this inability lies in the lack of understanding of the roots of the conflict. Therefore every analysis of the causes and proposed solutions of drug war in Mexico is highly needed and welcome.

A new publication about the Mexican drug conflict called Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy was published by Zed Books in the beginning of the year 2012. The book was written by Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda who both have been interested in this issue for a long time. Watt´s research field covers Latin American politics and history with particular focus on the issue of human rights, political repression, etc. and Zepeda, who has been recently working directly in Mexico, focuses primarily on neoliberalism, globalisation, trade unions, Mexican economic policies and the political economy of narcotrafficking. Their particular research fields determine to great extent the character of the work which is written largely from historical and economic perspective.

Since the declaration of “war on drugs“ by former president Felipé Calderón in 2006 the violence, drug trade and even the number of deaths have increased. As it is obvious not only from the content book, the militarisation and escalation of armed struggle by the government have not been able to solve the problem, the effect was rather the opposite. It seems that the more the government invests in a military resolution of the conflict, the more the violence escalates. The current situation in Mexico is really critical and when discussing Mexico´s security even the concept of a failed state is sometimes brought up. However for now, Mexico is not a failed state yet (and the Mexican government also denies all these rumors), but the strong security failures have been observed over several years and it seems that in the near future the situation is not about to change significantly. A newly elected president Enrique Peña Nieto offers some hope for Mexico (he became president on 1st December 2012 after the book was published, therefore the authors did not take the fact into consideration). In his campaign he has primarily focused on the change of the strictly aggressive and violent strategy and on solving the deep-rooted causes of the conflict. Nevertheless, up to the date of this review (nearly one month after) it is still a question what concrete steps he will take to tackle the long-lasting problems. So far the president has only proposed some new policies regarding the police reform. Therefore it seems that the strategy still remains the same. Of course, it is really soon to make these conclusions, but it is also very clear that the government strategy needs to be changed. The book written by Watt and Zepeda offers some potential solutions and tries to understand the real nature of the drug war.

Despite the fact that many articles and books about drug violence in Mexico have already been written, the authors offer a fairly different look on the roots and causes of the conflict. As they say, the recent Mexican security crisis has hardly emerged from nowhere. Moreover, they believe that by understanding the past we can shape and influence the future. So the historical analysis of the Mexican conflict is a crucial part of their book and I can say that I have never read any work that would describe the historical causes of the Mexican conflict so precisely. The book also deals with economic analysis of the conflict. However, some parts of the text which were probably written by Zepeda and are focused on economy, neoliberalism, NAFTA etc. can sometimes seem too complex. Nevertheless, the content of the book taken general is coherent, clear and easy to read.

I have to admit that it is good to read a work by authors who do not follow the classical dichotomy of the state vs. drug cartels as of the good vs. evil like we can see in most of other topical publications. It is really important to understand that just because of the widespread corruption inside the Mexican state apparatus not only the drug cartels profit from drug trafficking but many others do too. Therefore this dichotomy is not acceptable and authors are correctly aware of it. On this count, authors are right also to doubt some areas of Mexico's demo­cratisation. As they say, democratisation is widely understood as a replacement of authoritarian government by one that has been democratically elected, but it also requires removal of authoritarian practices. Almost twenty years after the end of a long–lasting authoritarian rule of Partido Revolucionario Institucional, that has not been the case.

Authors seek the causes of the conflict in order to better understand it, therefore their analysis is pretty detailed and interwoven with their findings. But this approach brings also some problematic and in my opinion overrated factors, such the role of NAFTA, which is described in a fairly large part of the work. Watt and Zepeda assume that the rapid introduction of neoliberalism and free market opened up Mexico to drug trafficking and increased the social inequality in the society, which is reflected for example in the high unemployment rate, lack of qualified and educated people, etc. That leads to situations when the society must rely on the drug business, therefore its suppression is even more difficult. Hence fundamental social and economic reforms are a necessary precondition for resolution of the conflict, hand in hand with reforms of the justice and police, which are both corrupted. It is without doubts that profound change in the ways how to combat cartels is needed and I agree with the above mentioned approach to the conflict. But I also think that the authors could have elaborated more on their perspective of the solution since it is elaborated on in a quite thin chapter called Another Century of Drug War? The book also does not explain much about what is exactly happening in Mexico but instead it focuses on the reason why it is happening. Anyway, this is not a flaw, quite the contrary. I think that it is the strong side that distinguishes this work from the others which have a more descriptive character.

To conclude, some critics might argue that the work by the authors Watt and Zepeda is biased in putting too much weight on the role of economy, neoliberalism or NAFTA in this violent conflict and they would be right. But this bias provides a unique perspective of the whole issue. To sum up, this book represents a valuable and carefully documented analysis of causes and consequences of the security crisis in Mexico and it sheds a new light on this often misunderstood and brutal conflict.

Watt, P. – Zepeda, R. (2012): Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism, and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy. London, New York: Zed Books.

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Roman Pačka
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2nd January 2013