#3. For Many Mexicans, Cartels Are the Government
The most successful cartels don't rule through fear alone. Cartels have been known to hand out presents at Christmas, like Santa Claus (if his beard was white from all the cocaine). Also, they give out money. Just straight up money.
All of Santa Cartel's reindeer have red noses.
Since the Mexican government is nonexistent in some parts of the country, cartels have taken to establishing schools and hospitals. But it's not out of the goodness of their hearts -- they recruit from these schools. We're talking poor kids in rural areas with not much else in the way of opportunity. Imagine if your dad worked his ass off all week for 20 bucks, and then the cool kid in school with an iPad and designer jeans starts saying, "You know what, you could earn $800 or $900 a month, I know some people ..."
That kid is going to listen real intently to what his "friend" has to say. It's not even a matter of greed; most of us would do the same if faced with a choice between "starvation wages" and "smuggling." It's the same with the police; you might earn as little as $11,000 per year as a local cop. If you go crooked, you can make three times that much. Integrity disappears fast when it's standing between you and things like antibiotics for your kids or plain ol' liquor money.
And for those who don't join ...
#2. It's Worse Than a Dictatorship
The cartels have their own checkpoints, just like the government. While those government checkpoints are looking for drugs and weapons, the cartel checkpoints are looking for anyone who might work with a rival cartel.
Stratfor, via Geo-Mexico
And you thought Games of Thrones was complicated.
Let's say some guy born near the Gulf decides to travel across the country to the Pacific side. The real cops aren't going to care, because that's perfectly normal. But the cartels might suspect he's working with their foes from the other coast, and they don't take chances with stuff like that. There's no burden of proof to meet, no due process -- if they're suspicious, they'll just murder you and take your stuff.
Likewise, living under the cartels changes everything about what you can say in mixed company. With a dictatorship, as long as you stay out of politics, you're safe. But in a cartel-dominated area? If a drug dealer likes your girlfriend, he'll kill you. You have no right to exist. If you're a woman and he wants to "date" you, there's no right to refuse. Make the mistake of blogging and complaining about the cartels? Good luck living to see your next birthday.
Felix Marquez/Associated Press
I'm not even remotely exaggerating about the journalist thing being a big deal (graphic images).
Two people I know were at a restaurant (in another town I will not name) when two gunmen entered the restaurant, grabbed a guy in front of his family, and took him out to the street. One gunman said to the rest of the customers, "Don't report it, don't say anything, or we'll bomb this place and kill you all." They never found the guy they took away, and they never will.
If you're asking yourself what it is about Mexico that makes it so screwed up, well, there's one thing to keep in mind ...
#1. The Money and Guns Come From America
It really bugs me to see things like cocaine use made light of in American movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, because 90 percent of the coke you buy passes through Mexico on the way to your nose. Depending on who you ask, the cartels make between $20 billion and $64 billion a year selling their drugs stateside. Pot legalization in Colorado and Washington might have cut as much as $3 billion in cartel profits, but that's a drop in the bucket -- coke and meth are the money-makers, and no one's about to lobby for their legalization.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Almost no one.
In an upside for the corporate persons Smith & Wesson and a downside to capable-of-bleeding persons across Central America, all that drug money doesn't stay in Mexico. A shitload of it runs right back across the border, to the 6,700 American firearms dealers who operate near the border. Nearly half of all gun dealers in the United States are at least somewhat dependent on the Mexican gun trade for their livelihood. Huh, you never hear about that in the NRA commercials, do you? And when you hear people complain that you need bigger walls along the border to keep the drugs and immigrants out, they don't seem nearly as concerned about the river of lethal iron flowing south.
See, in Mexico, it's illegal to buy weapons -- there's one legal gun store in all of Mexico City, and you can only buy with permission from the military. So while the USA is fighting over what to do with assault weapons, guns of every kind are flowing into Mexico and killing us. But approximately 0 percent of the American gun control debate by either side has anything to do with Mexico, because who cares, right?
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Well, no one except arms manufacturers, who have 127.2 million reasons to care.
For example, in political circles, there was all kinds of outrage over the ATF's "Fast and Furious" program (aka "selling guns straight to cartels to see what happens"). The scandal was focused on the Border Patrol agent who was killed by those smuggled guns, but there was nary a word about how many Mexican civilians died by those weapons. But hey, their names were hard to spell, and they weren't pale enough for their pictures to share well on Facebook.
And can you imagine the rhetoric from politicians if, say, seven people in Arizona were murdered by a cartel ambush? But move that crime less than one mile south, and it barely makes a blip. That's the magic of a border -- it lets everyone believe that what happens on the other side will never, ever be their problem. In reality, you can't build a wall big enough to make that true.
Related Reading: For another side of the drug war, why not read about the experiences of an undercover agent fighting the cartels? If you're more interested in the dealing side of the drug war, we've got that story too. Have a tale of your own to tell Cracked? Reach us here.