Monday, May 18, 2015

A Stand Against the Criminalization of Drugs by Claudio Lomnitz and Valentina Glockner

Guest Columnists: Claudio Lomnitz and Valentina Glockner
Media Notes
December 10, 2011


In Mexico there is a saying, of recent vintage: “If it doesn’t sound logical, it sounds metallic.”

What does it mean? Well, if the way an institution works doesn’t seem to make any sense, then someone is cashing in on it. Americans would be well-advised to learn this Sancho Panza-esque formula of vigilance.

Take drug policy, for instance. Drugs are a public health issue. Everybody knows that. And yet, they have been turned into a criminal matter. Three strikes, and rather than going to the hospital, you go to jail. Does that sound logical? Or can we make out the clear ring of silver behind the bumptious drug-crime hysteria?

Since the days when Ronald Reagan started the crusade against drugs, American prison populations have more than quadrupled, to approximately 2.3 million inmates. More than 3 percent of the American adult population is either in jail, on probation or out on bail . The bulk of these men and women have been convicted for drug-related offenses, and they are disproportionately African Americans and Latinos. Does that sound logical? Today, the State of California spends considerably more on prisons than on higher education. Does that?

There’s a ‘clinking, clanking, clunking sound,’ that makes that drug policy go’ round, and it comes from the business of security and prisons (clink!), the business of immigration control (clinkety-clink!), and with the business of selling arms (ca-ching!). All of these growing industries in a depressed economy.

Of course, decrying the corruption of public interest for the benefit of the few is not the job of the AAA, thank God.

Please scratch that.

Thank the fetish of your choice.

But there are institutionalized abuses that do come into the purview of this professional association. These include practices that promote ethnic, racial or national discrimination, human rights violations, and institutional arrangements that hinder the ability to practice ethnography. American drug policy does all three of those.

The connection between the criminalization of drugs and race relations within the United States is well-known , and we will not revisit it here, but the relationship between the criminalization of drugs and border inequalities deserves close attention.

Since Mexico began its—Washington supported—War on Drugs in 2006, there have been more than 40,000 drug-related violent deaths there. Mexico’s Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad claims 50,000. Back in 2006, Mexico’s homicide rate was around 9 per hundred thousand, which was only a little higher than that of the United States, and about a third of Brazil’s. Now, barely four years later, Mexico’s homicide rate is about that of Brazil. There has been no corresponding upsurge in drug killings in the United States in that period, despite the fact that most of the Mexican drug trade is geared to the US market. Is that logical? (Faint clink in the background).

The city of Ciudad Juárez is one of the most dangerous cities in the world – Bagdad is safer. But follow the drugs from Juárez to El Paso (if you can get across the fence without the help of a drug cartel), and you will find the second safest city in the United States. Is that logical? Buying, selling, and carrying guns is illegal in Mexico, but the business is protected in Texas and Arizona. Given America’s criminalization of drugs, is that logical? Then follow the money.

American drug policy has direct effects on discrimination against Mexicans and Central Americans. We do not know how much Mexico’s drug war has cost. It is not a simple calculus, as many of the expenses are incurred at the state and local levels, and indirect costs are many. At the federal level, though, budgetary expenditures in security increased from 4.8% of the budget in 2005 to 6.6% in 2010. It is safe to say that, with an official increase of 3.2 million people living in poverty in the 2008-2010 period, US drug policy stimulates Mexican migration to the United States, even as it contributes to the criminalization of the migrant. Human rights violations stemming from immigration policies in places like Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia are a legitimate concern for the AAA; so is the violation of human rights exposed by the recent Human Rights Watch’s report on the Mexican Drug War.

Finally, there is the direct implication of drug policy for the practice of anthropology.

Concerned with the implications of the drug war for the practice of anthropology within Mexico, we held a small focus-group meeting with 6 anthropology students from various Mexican institutions. Each author also had numerous private and a few collective discussions of these issues. Here are some of the points that were raised in these conversations.

American anthropologists who are familiar with Mexican anthropology know that field research has been central to the practice of the discipline there. Indeed, Mexico’s undergraduate programs have traditionally included a rigorous fieldwork component in the curriculum. Some of those field projects have either been cancelled or seriously stymied by lack of support and confusion as to how best to face the current situation of insecurity. Mexican students’ ability to do field research is seriously in jeopardy.

Several schools have taken informal measures to discourage field research in specific regions; others have eliminated individual fieldwork, and tried to substitute it with brief group expeditions. Teachers are often unsure of how to act in the face of rumors and press reports on insecurity in significant numbers in rural and urban communities. Curricular innovation is cautious and slow by design in Mexican universities, so there has not yet been an adequate general response to the new situation in the teaching of anthropological methods. Because safety conditions have deteriorated rapidly, most of these measures that teachers and students have taken are ad hoc, and have not yet been streamlined into formal policies. But safety concerns are there, and they are very real.

Mexico’s Colegio de Antropólogos y Etnólogos does not have an emergency hotline or publish tallies of anthropologists who have been killed, raped or kidnapped during fieldwork. It should; and so should the AAA. We do not yet have an organization that collects and denounces these facts, the way journalists do.

Protection against the new risks connected to fieldwork is a subject that came up insistently in our conversations. In Mexico, like everywhere else, students carry out the bulk of anthropological field-research. But they have no health and life insurance coverage to cover fieldwork risks. They are receiving little support, or even recognition of the need of support. Most publicly funded field research in Mexico is done by way of grants, with senior researchers hiring undergraduate and graduate student field researchers. These assistant positions generally carry no health and life insurance attached to fieldwork risks. Universities that foster student field research rarely provide health or life insurance coverage. Fieldworkers are unprotected.

It is time for American anthropologists to get actively involved in the movement for the decriminalization of drugs in the United States, and in the support of their colleagues south of the border. Currently, US drug-policy runs against American public interest, it has failed to reduce drug consumption, and its favorite remedy – prison – is worse than the sickness that it is meant to cure. American drug policy is ravishing Mexico, increasing immigration to the United States, and justifying discrimination against immigrants.

If these reasons prove to be insufficient to mobilize our association, we should add one final consideration: American drug policy is making the practice of anthropology in Mexico hazardous, at precisely the time when our research is most sorely needed.


Claudio Lomnitz, author of  Death and the Idea of Mexico, is professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.  He is currently completing a book on the Flores Magón brothers.

Valentina Glockner is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa (Mexico) who has worked on immigrant and working children. Her doctoral dissertation is about the objectification and protection of “vulnerable children” by NGOs and the state in Mexico and India.

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