In Mexico, ‘The Cartels Do Not Exist’: A Q&A With Oswaldo Zavala

In Mexico, ‘The Cartels Do Not Exist’: A Q&A With Oswaldo Zavala

In Mexico, ‘The Cartels Do Not Exist’: A Q&A With Oswaldo Zavala

The CUNY professor’s new book about drug trafficking has sparked controversy in Mexico, but he says the US isn’t yet ready for the discussion.


Thanks in part to documentaries like Cartel Land and hit shows like Narcos, Mexico has garnered a reputation as a narco-state, a country whose government and police forces are terrorized or even controlled by drug cartels. Last year, Oswaldo Zavala, a Mexican journalist turned professor of Latin American literature at the City University of New York, set off a debate in his home country when he challenged that idea with his book Los Cárteles No Existen (The Cartels Do Not Exist), which argues that violence and trafficking do not threaten the state but rather are central to its operations. While his thesis is controversial, many believe it offers a plausible account of how drug policy is used to make Mexico subservient to US foreign policy.

Jessica Loudis

JL: How did you come up with the idea that evolved into Los Cárteles No Existen?

OZ: I’m a professor of literature, so I started thinking about the literature of drug trafficking, narconovelas. I noticed that all these novels and short stories had the same narratives. Whether the book was written by Élmer Mendoza, a very famous Sinaloan writer of detective fiction, or Yuri Herrera, a younger Mexican author who wrote a more mythological novel about drug trafficking, it didn’t matter. They all reflect the same story: A drug organization defies and ends up controlling the state and the media. Traffickers come across as very empowered in these novels, especially those published after 2000, when Vincente Fox was elected. I argue that these books are reproducing the narrative that the state was putting forward, which explained what was going to be the strategy against the drug trade—militarization. 

JL: Is your title just a provocation? Do you really believe that cartels don’t exist?

OZ: I really do believe that. That’s not to say that drug traffickers aren’t real or that the violence isn’t real—of course they are—but that our understanding of all that has been filtered through what UNAM [National Autonomous University of Mexico] sociologist Luis Astorga calls the “narco matrix.” This is the idea that drug traffickers are a separate entity from the government and that they’ve amassed so much power that they pose a threat to the state. That’s completely wrong.

Traffickers have never really had any say in political life in Mexico because they’ve always been subordinate to the state. Take the ’70s, after US and Mexican authorities destroyed marijuana and poppy crops in Sinaloa through Operation Condor and created a national drug network out of the city of Guadalajara. Officials didn’t just cut deals back then; they dominated traffickers.

The best-known traffickers in the ’70s—Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carillo, Rafael Caro Quintero—had intimate relationships with government officials. Félix Gallardo was always dining with Mexican authorities in famous restaurants. These guys weren’t outlaws; they were part of the system.

The common perception we have of them, and especially after a [Netflix] series like Narcos, is that they were very powerful and at some point started overwhelming the state itself. That was never the case in Mexico. Traffickers were cops who functioned as drug lords and had a very organic relationship with power. For example, Caro Quintero and Félix Gallardo participated in Cold War efforts on Mexican soil. They facilitated CIA training of contras, who were then sent to Nicaragua. They contributed money and weapons in direct coordination with the CIA. I know this sounds very conspiratorial, but it’s not—there’s a famous book written by scholars Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall called Cocaine Politics that makes this point. It’s strange that even though there’s clear documentation, this has never become widely known, because the official narrative—that these traffickers are out of control, that they’re independent of official institutions, and that they can challenge the Mexican government—is very powerful.

JL: Was there a moment when the cozy relations between the traffickers and the Mexican state started to change?

OZ: I’m working on a new book in which I argue that the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was the catalyst that forced Mexico to turn drug trafficking into a “national-security threat.”

What happened was that Camarena found out about the US illegally funding the contra project in Nicaragua through drug trafficking in Mexico. Héctor Berrellez, the agent who headed the Camarena investigation at the DEA, said in 2013 that he believed the CIA coordinated with the Mexican government to kidnap Camarena because he had been feeding reports to the DEA saying that the CIA was working with traffickers to fund the contras, and also because the DEA had seized money destined for the contras. Berrellez thought the CIA ordered the hit. He didn’t just know about the link between drug traffickers and the Mexican government—everybody knew about that—but also about the CIA connection with them. That same conclusion was also drawn by Phil Jordan, the former head of the DEA in El Paso, Texas, and Tosh Plumbee, a retired CIA pilot.

Even though this information is out there, it never sticks. I keep thinking about how my book started a conversation in Mexico, because people are ready to hear about these things. In the US, we’re still not ready. When I talk about it in these terms, people are like, “Conspiracy theory!” That’s why I start Los Cárteles No Existen with this quote from journalist Gary Webb: “I do not believe in fucking conspiracy theories. I believe in fucking conspiracies.”

Anyway, Camarena’s death was a win-win for the CIA: They got rid of him; they used it as an opportunity to blame the Guadalajara cartel; and they forced the Mexican government into accepting the new national-security agenda. A year after Camarena was killed, Reagan declared drug trafficking to be a national-security threat.

JL: So when did the idea of the cartel begin to crystallize?

OZ: When you look at the first iterations of the word cartel in Mexico, it comes into use only in the late 1980s in relation to the Juárez organization. Then in 1995, President Ernesto Zedillo declares that, yes, drug traffickers are a national-security threat, even though traffickers at that moment were largely under the control of the military. Around that time, Amado Carrillo, the head of the Juarez organization, starts to show up in the media as “the boss of bosses,” and The New York Times runs a huge investigative piece about him, though it also reports that the DEA would not call Mexican cartels “cartels,” because, as opposed to their Colombian counterparts, they did not pose any real challenge to the state.

JL: You mentioned earlier that at least in literature, traffickers seemed more empowered after 2000. What happened at that point?

OZ: Right at the beginning of Vicente Fox’s presidency, his transition team had a meeting with Barry McCaffrey, the US drug-policy director. Before the meeting, the Mexican government was still talking about drug trafficking as a matter of public health, of domestic policing—not of national security. Right after the meeting, the Fox administration changed the narrative and started talking about efforts to militarize the fight against drugs. It never becomes a war on drugs, but they do double spending on the army and federal police.

Then in 2006, the US sees an opening with Felipe Calderón, the incoming president, who is embattled because of accusations of fraud surrounding his election. They sell him on the idea that the country has been taken over by mafias, which is partly true. By the time Calderón came in, many Mexican states had become quasi-independent. The governors of states like Chihuahua, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas had amassed a lot of power and developed shady connections with the business class. Calderón had this idea to initiate this war on drugs to loosen the ties between political and business forces.

What happened is that traffickers began working for the state and municipal police and, of course, the government. The gangs that operate on the outskirts of cities were allowed to work so long as they respected certain conventions, like not attacking tourists or going to the richest areas. The famous Juárez organization was called La Línea, or “the line,” and friends who reported on them claim that this name came about because state police drew a metaphorical line between following the rules and being allowed to work. So if you were alineado with the state police, then they would let you be. It’s not that the traffickers control the city. The police control what goes on.

JL: Why would the Mexican government accept this idea that they were at war with the cartels if, as you say, that wasn’t really true?

OZ: At first the Mexican government didn’t want to. But in the ’80s, the US began to push the Mexican government toward neoliberalism, toward the logic of war. Neoliberal societies need a constant state of war to open up markets, to facilitate the circulation of capital, and here the government needed a strong military to depopulate and secure resource-rich areas.

If you follow the violence in Mexico, it usually coincides with extractive projects. In the state of Tamaulipas, for example, the Zetas will depopulate communal land to open it up for transnational companies. A lot of projects take place on ejidos, communal lands owned by farmers who do not want to give them up. So one easy way to handle that is just to flush people out. Scholars like George Mason University professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera have said the Zetas are a paramilitary force that do black ops to facilitate the arrival of the army, which then allows the engineers to begin exploration and extraction. This extractive model can be applied to other states in Mexico: You can see it in Guerrero, where mining companies have been linked to violence; or in Baja California, where water resources are under dispute and violence has skyrocketed. Energy or natural resources are always in the mix.

JL: Speaking of resource extraction, one of the biggest issues in Mexico now is huachicol, the theft of oil and gas from national Pemex refineries. Since taking office last December, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador [widely known as AMLO] has vowed to put an end to the robberies, which are thought to cost the government more than $3 billion a year. What do you make of all this?

OZ: The war against huachicol erupted on January 30, the day that AMLO called off the war on drugs. In that same conference, the secretary of the navy started talking about how Santa Rosa de Lima, a new hydrocarbon “cartel” in Guanajuato, was becoming a threat. We had talked about huachicoleros before, but the narrative presented at that conference was profoundly different because they made it sound like huachicoleros were not poor people with very few options but members of highly organized armed groups. This is the same thing that happened with drug trafficking.

There are competing narratives about oil theft within the government. On one side, you have AMLO saying that this is mainly about systemic theft inside the refineries and naval bases—according to most journalists, 80 percent of gas theft happens within Pemex—and on the other side, the navy and Energy Secretariat talking about huachicol. I’m concerned that the war against the huachicol is a new attempt to continue the national-security agenda.

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