Shades of Green: The Drug War and Free-Market Capitalism


Ciudad Juarez, a city on Mexico’s border with the US state of Texas, is described by Ed Vulliamy as “the most murderous city in the world” (Guardian Weekly , July 1/11). The 40,000 homicides claimed so far by Mexico’s recent drug war didn’t all occur in Ciudad Juarez. But enough were committed there to make the city a focus of attention and a symbol of socio-economic failure, a glimpse into a future in which the quest for profit is pursued to its logical extreme. Put simply, a demand for drugs exists in America and Europe, a supply is available, and competing entrepreneurs are eager to meet need of the market place.

The drug cartels don’t dirty themselves with messy killing. Like a corporation that hires an advertising or public relations agency to promote a product or project, they hire gangs to do their work. Shootings, beheadings, mutilations and torture are increasing in frequency and brutality. The killers proudly post their atrocities on YouTube, linking their identity to their own gruesome method of killing. In the marketplace of illegal drugs and murder, they brand themselves with their particular form of violence. Morality is irrelevant. The system is fed by market share, profit and pride of service. In Vulliamy’s language, it is “capitalism gone mad”.

The residents of Ciudad Juarez have adapted to the war occurring among them. Malls are open for shopping. Restaurants serve meals throughout the day. In the cool evenings, people gather to eat, drink and socialize. The only difference, Vulliamy reports, is that the eery “semblance of normality” is “punctuated by gunfire”. The bloodshed, torture and violence has become so normal that ordinary people barely notice it.

But other people have noticed Ciudad Juarez. Like a flash of light in the dark, it illuminates and reveals. The co-existence of chaos and order in this Mexican city can be related to an event at a New York Wal-Mart in November, 2008, when a security guard, unable to climb to safety on nearby vending machines, was trampled to death by a mob of 2,000 “frenzied shoppers” who pushed in the doors and stampeded to the bargain specials (Ibid. July 8/11).

And events in Ciudad Juarez can also be related to brutal international trade and monetary forces that are undermining the autonomy of individual nations, thereby rendering democracies less and less able to determine their own policies and futures. In another Guardian Weekly article, Democracy is No Match for Market Power, Gary Younge asks, “How can we render democratic engagement viable at the national level within the context of globalization?” (Ibid.). If market forces predetermine economic and social policy, why bother to vote – which is Younge’s explanation for declining voting rates in most modern democracies.

In another event that echoes the morality of the drug war in Ciudad Juarez, Younge describes a law passed unanimously by the Haitian parliament in June, 2009, which raised the daily minimum wage to $5.00 per day. The US corporate interests that make high-end brand apparel in Haiti protested the increased wages. According to a WikiLeaks document, a senior US embassy official argued that the law “did not take economic reality into account” (Ibid.). Political pressure and intensive lobbying forced a special concession on Haiti’s garment industry – the minimum wage would be $3.00 per day.

A related force in the capitalist free-market economy, Vulliamy argues, is fuelling the slaughter in Ciudad Juarez. “Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora…”. These “bonded assembly plants” that once payed “rock bottom wages” to fill America’s supermarkets are now being closed because labour is cheaper in Asia. In a “city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market” (Ibid., July 7/11), the unemployed are being hired by the drug cartels to secure territory and market share. “It’s a city based on markets and on trash,” notes a local photographer. “Killing and drug addiction are activities in the economy, and the economy is based on what happens when you treat people like trash” (Ibid.).

What happens to people and to societies when everything they do is measured by economic value? What happens to morals and ethics when the market transposes key social structures into materialism and consumerism? What then happens to the bounds that keep societies civil? If people are treated like “trash” by free-market capitalism, do they eventually adopt these same values and abandon the civilizing bounds of decency and humanity? And to those who want to protest this degenerating process, Vulliamy poignantly as, “How can you march against the market?”

Vulliamy argues that Mexico’s drug war is different than other wars because it is simply the struggle for market share gone amok. “It belongs to the world of belligerent hyper-materialism, in which the only ideology left… is greed.” The Mexican drug cartels are merely the logical extension of a free-market economy. They have been living the “North American free-trade agreement long before it was dreamed up”, merely practicing what multinational corporations practice – albeit with somewhat less restraint and subtlety.

But not necessarily. The compounding environmental crisis presently facing our planet is another outcome of this same “belligerent hyper-materialism”, a system that is eminently successful at making profit while inflicting murderous ecological ruin in the process. Like the people of Ciudad Juarez, we too have become accustomed to an eery “semblance of normality” that is “punctuated by gunfire”. We shop and eat and socialize amid environmental mayhem, making the best of a situation that seems beyond our ability to change – hoping, all the while, that the stray bullets don’t hit us.

Post Script: The present “Occupy Wall Street” movement that has spread to cities around the world is an attempt to “march against the market” and correct some of the political, economic and social problems created by abject greed.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

4 thoughts on “Shades of Green: The Drug War and Free-Market Capitalism

  1. There is no such thing as a drug war, it is a prohibition, and we must use this proper term so we can start a conversation about this 100 year old failed federal policy. Mexico is getting beaten up so badly because NAFTA created a direct conduit from producers to consumers.

  2. There is no such thing as a drug war. Drugs do not fight each other. It is a prohibition, a term which must be used so we can start a conversation about this 100 year old failed federal policy. Mexico is being beaten up so badly because NAFTA provided a conduit from producers to consumers. In the 1920s, people talked of the prohibition, or prohib even, not alcohol wars

  3. In BC, prohibition is vital to maintain drugs as BC’s biggest industrial sector. It is a government subsidized economic sector, and the subsidy is the vast public monies spent to main tain prohibition maintaining prohibitively high prices for the BC Liberal government’s biggest economic sector.

    Under ‘capitalism’, no government will do anything to stymy a given jurisdiction’s biggest economic sector, and so neither levels of government will end lucrative prohibition here, where the drug-sourced billions get re-circulated in real estate, tourism, construction, and financial sectors, where they are then taxed. This is BC’s ‘Liberal’ legacy.

  4. The only thing that separates Cuidad Juarez from Anytown Canada or USA is the level of affluence enjoyed by the majority. Visit any poverty stricken community in Canada or the USA and you will find the same adaptation and acceptance of drug driven murder and mayhem.

    But the market place for drugs isn’t found in impoverished communities, it’s found in affluent communities like Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton. And it’s not the homeless street people that are supporting the drug cartels … they don’t have billions to spend on drugs.

    The Occupy Movement may be an effort to correct some of our problems. But the march against the market and laying the blame on greed, whether abject or despicable, admirable or respectable avoids identifying underlying causes.

    We aren’t born greedy … which is different from self-interest … we are taught to be greedy. If we’re not prepared to ask the right questions about the factors that instill a belief in profit making while “inflicting murderous ecological ruin” we will become the people of Cuidad Juarez.

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