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The Drug Trade and the Reason of State

The accounts of the Mexican and U.S. governments are plagued with contradictions regarding the events of July 15 in the community of San Simon, in the municipality of Choix, Mexico, which ended with the capture of fugitive drug trafficker, Rafael Caro Quintero, and a helicopter crash that took the lives of fourteen people. This allows us to explore the argument that behind all this variegated fabric there are “reasons of state” that seek to make a virtue out of contradiction.

The meaning of reason of state is generally associated with Niccolo Machiavelli, but there are other scholars who attribute it to the political thought of Cardinal Richelieu extensively during the 15th and 16th centuries, who would, therefore, have been the first to use it. It is a guiding principle that states that a government’s actions should be done to guarantee the survival of a certain political order, disregarding the legality or costs of the action(s). Thus, it can be deployed to justify a wide range of decisions and action while only ever vaguely explaining the motivation behind them to the public. Of course, the real interests or suspicions that guide these actions are never made public. Indeed, the ethical nature of the means employed are rarely considered.

Is drug trafficking, or, more specifically, the arrest of Caro Quintero, a matter of reason of state? Yes. Drug trafficking has sharp edges, and it is enough to know that much of what happens in that world is unknown to the common people, even to the journalists who are dedicated to investigating it and, thus, end up making conjectures about the facts that aren’t obvious. 

The Caro Quintero case has had a decades-long history since he was arrested in Costa Rica and taken to Mexico to be held accountable for drug trafficking and the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. After that, he would spend 28 years in Mexican prisons despite the extradition request of the United States government.

Journalist Anabel Hernandez has dedicated herself to explaining that the Guadalajara Cartel, of which Caro was one of its leaders, had a secret pact with the DEA where the Cartel received facilities for the transfer of drugs to the other side of the border in exchange for financing the “Contras” in Nicaragua. This has never been refuted or debated publicly.

Sociologist Luis Astorga has put forth another argument that borders the limits of our sui generis “reason of State” and has to do with the long tradition of narco-politics in Mexico. A tradition that dates back to 1914 when in the United States hard drugs were no longer sold in pharmacies as aspirin.

It is clear that the operation of the Mexican drug-trafficking cartel would not have been possible without the corresponding “permits” from the authorities at the time. Could the cultivation of marijuana on hundreds of hectares with hundreds of people working at the Chihuahua ranch, El Búfalo, have been carried out without the consent of the political authorities?

Even Manuel Bartlett, then the Secretary of the Interior, responsible for domestic policy and today director of the Federal Electricity Commission, would have a file with the DEA because he was allegedly present at the interrogation that ended with the murder of Kiki Camarena as noted and ratified in 2014 by two protected witnesses before a U.S. federal judge.

Both explanations may not necessarily be mutually exclusive, as they obey the same powerful economic logic. On the one hand, the Mexican government is the beneficiary, to date, of a good part of the remittances from these types of illegal transactions, and, on the other hand, the U.S. government not only receives the drugs for its consumers, but also a good part of the money. In other words, we would be dealing with a multinational enterprise of “white collar” crime.

So, according to this theory, the decisions made on both sides of the border would easily lead us to conclude that, behind the discourse about the arrest of Caro Quintero, there is an order that has remained in place over time, and that will continue to be sustained by an interest that goes beyond the reputation of a single U.S. agency.

This would explain why the day after the DEA director, Anne Milgram, reported that Caro Quintero had been arrested and congratulated the agents involved, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, publicly denied his country’s participation and recognized the Mexican marines as responsible for the arrest. In this way, the U.S. government’s story coincided with what President Andres Lopez Obrador said.

In addition to these contradictions, the names and identities of those who died in the helicopter crash are also unknown. This fuels the suspicion that U.S. agents may have been in the aircraft and that, for reasons of state, their identities have not been made public.

Another curiosity of the episode is that the DEA itself had the U.S. flag at half-mast at its headquarters when the news of the crash of the Mexican aircraft came out. This theory took new life after The Washington Post published a story stating that there were DEA agents in the farmhouse where Caro Quintero was captured.

In short, after the information blackout about what happened that day, facts on both sides of the border that could be seen as a reason of state are beginning to be brought to light. 

In short, the Caro Quintero affair is out in the open, but it also has its opaque zones, which in this case gives strength to the hypothesis that from its origin there are components of a reason of state for both countries.

Translated from Spanish by Alek Langford


Otros artículos del autor

Profesor de la Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa. Doctor en Ciencia Política y Sociología por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Miembro del Sistema Nacional de Investigadores de México


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