Journalist paints an ugly picture of Mexican cartel violence in ‘In the Shadow of Saint Death’

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.”

Q: What parts of U.S. policy are most problematic in your view?

A: The kingpin strategy, taking out the leaders, makes no difference in terms of movement of narcotics to the United States. There are 100 people in line to take their places. … The idea that somehow we have this secure fence act, that we’re going to have a 12-foot wall at the border, and the cartels are going to say, “We’re going to stop trafficking drugs,” is just ridiculous. The idea that corruption stops at the border in Mexico is false. … I really, truly believe that decriminalization is the only way the violence will end.

Q: What prevents the United States from making policy changes?

A: Our economic system is intrinsically dependent on the drug war. Look at the billions of dollars that have been traced to drug profits laundered by banks like Bank of America and Wachovia. That’s all part of the public record. Look at the growth of the private prison industry in the last 15 years, with multimillion-dollar companies dependent on having strict enforcement of drug laws and harsh mandatory minimums.

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.

Q: Do you think the recent decriminalization of marijuana in a handful of states could lead to significant policy changes?

A: I think change will come from the states themselves. There’s even talk of medical marijuana being approved in Florida. I hope that happens. I don’t know how long it will take, but there will be a critical mass of states saying enough is enough. On the federal level, politicians are too cowardly. Look at Portugal and the Netherlands that have more permissive drug laws. When Portugal decriminalized small amounts of cocaine and heroin, people didn’t run out and start sticking needles into their arms.

Q: Journalists covering this story haven’t fared well in Mexico. Did you fear for your life while researching this story?

A: I never felt safe for a moment. … I was stopped at a Gulf Cartel roadblock where people were getting pulled out of their cars. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and they’re able to set up a heavily armed roadblock in the middle of a city. … I’ve done reporting over the years in Haiti or the Congo or Brazil, and I’ve had a lot of experiences where people have pointed guns at me. When you’re younger you have this idea you’re indestructible. But I’ve seen people killed in front of me, and that brings home the idea you’re not. The older you get, that weighs on you a bit. I’ll be 41 this summer. … I’m thinking this may be the last hurrah for the kind of reporting that I do. Very strange that on my last day of research I get stopped outside Reynosa at that roadblock. It just brought home again the idea that despite all this rhetoric in Washington that these guys have no fear.

Q: What’s it like for the people who live amid all this violence?

A: I interviewed people who had to deal with this every day — businessmen, school kids, prosecutors, journalists — to see what it’s like to live in this reality. … I think there’s a kind of collective PTSD people have. They’re living under circumstances no one should have to live under. Imagine sending your kids to school not knowing if there will be a gun battle or not. In Tamaulipas, there’s a general breakdown in law and order, increases in extortion and kidnapping. People say they’re from the Gulf Cartel to extort money even if they’re not, because people are so scared they’ll pay. I was talking to someone in Ciudad Juárez in 2010, which was one of the worst years for the city, and he said, “Can you believe it — it used to be no one would go into Mexico City because they said it was too dangerous.”

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.