Journalist Michael Deibert doesn’t believe America’s war on drugs is a battle that can be won.
“I think if most Americans saw the cost that the prohibition of narcotics exacts in places like Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia,” he says, “the idea of decriminalizing drugs might not seem so far fetched.”
That’s why Deibert has written In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico (Lyons, $24.95), about which he’ll talk Tuesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. In the book, he examines the history and legacy of the drug war, which he traces back to President Richard Nixon, through the prism of the Gulf Cartel, a ruthless trafficking organization operating across the border from East Texas. In terms of the drug wars, Ciudad Juárez gets all the notoriety, but Deibert writes that this area has seen just as much violence as its sister city to the west.
Embroiled in a brutal battle with its former allies Los Zetas — made up of “military special forces who became the enforcement wing and changed the dynamic of drug trafficking in Mexico,” Deibert says — the cartel has been around so long its founding members got started during Prohibition.
“Another great success that immediately made people stop drinking and undercut the criminal element,” Deibert says wryly. “The U.S. had this 13-year experiment that was a total disaster. So I thought I’d look at the strategy that has been a more deadly disaster in my view.”
Deibert is no stranger to dangerous territory. For his book The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, he traveled through the killing fields of central Africa. He’s also the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, an account of the events leading up to the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But talking to ordinary people trying to conduct their lives amid the cartel violence was eye-opening.
“People are living under a siege and have been for many years,” he says. “It’s amazing what the human spirit can adjust to.”
We’re in a unique situation in America. There’s supply and demand, and we’re demand. We consume more cocaine than western Europe. … There’s a narrative in the U.S. that we’re being invaded by Mexican drug cartels, but I would say our need for drugs, our addiction, is being fought in Mexico along with places like Miami Gardens and Chicago and New Orleans.
What’s sad is you feel Mexican society has been shredded over the past 10 years because of this. There’s a great restaurant in Matamoros, Garcia’s, across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas. Everybody from Brownsville would go over there, there was great food and a great atmosphere, Mexican music. You go there now, and it’s empty. The last time I was there, we were one of two tables in the restaurant.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.