Originally appeared in Feb/March 2013 Issue of SKUNK Magazine .
It is difficult to fully encapsulate the vast economic and human rights issues surrounding the United States’ longest war—The War on Drugs—because the issues are complex and inextricably interwoven. Pro-marijuana legalization groups often find success as they did in state elections last November, when defining marijuana prohibition within its complexities rather than in isolation– The War on Drugs is racist, violent, corrupt and an economic and social boondoggle.
Nowhere are these complexities more evident than along the Mexican-American border, where one of the War’s most famous victims, the Reverend Eddy Lepp, now resides in FCI La Tuna. The juxtaposition is eerily fitting. Lepp is serving a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years for challenging the Federal government’s policy on marijuana cultivation through massive domestic production and a truly philanthropic model of distribution. What is considered a gross injustice within the movement is drowned in loose and apathetic support from the people he helped the most. Just minutes south of Eddy’s Federal prison is one of the most perplexing microcosms of the modern American Drug War, the international metropolitan cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—the epicenter of the War on Drugs and a place also drowned in apathy amidst the damaging effects of globalization-fueled violence and corruption.
According to CQ Press, which uses a variety of data to annually rank the safety of American cities, El Paso has consistently ranked #1 or #2 in safety since 1997. It boasts a fast-growing population of over one million people sprawling out into the West Texas desert. Its city planners aim to, in their words, continue to revitalize the city to draw in tourism. Along Interstate 10, its main artery, are massive gun exchanges, hotels, bars, track homes, strip malls and Wal-Marts.
On the other side of Interstate 10 is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—the murder capital of the world. A gruesome war has been waged by drug cartels on its two million residents, claiming 11,000 lives since 2007 alone. It is a stark contrast from El Paso, its desert hills littered with shacks and “maquiladoras,” American-owned factories that sprung up after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s. The foreign investment has done little to improve the crumbling and dated infrastructure.
The paved trickle of the Rio Grande is all that separates these two cities, but they couldn’t be further apart. Lawmakers in both cities rely in earnest on the border dynamics at play in this microcosmic dichotomy of the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and all of their integrated issues: immigration, free trade, racism, corruption and the War on Drugs. Most evident in the international struggles are the apathy of Americans who believe these issues aren’t their own.
THE BUSINESS OF THE BORDER WAR
Since the 1970s, the Juarez Cartel, also known as the Carillo Fuentes Organization, has had a monopoly on much of the smuggling operations along the U.S. border in the Northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. It is estimated that marijuana sales have represented one-third of the cartel’s profits, although its primary product is cocaine. In 2007 it engaged in a territorial dispute with a rival cartel from the western coastal state of Sinaloa, the Guzman-Loera Organization. The Sinaloa Cartel is considered to be the most dangerous drug cartel in Mexico by the United States’ government.
The United States and Mexico are each other’s biggest markets—on both the legitimate and black markets. U.S. corporations rely on low wage labor on both sides of the border to remain competitive in domestic and international markets. Mexico’s tight gun laws and America’s tight drug laws all but ensure a profitable smuggling industry for cartels and corporations. Guns go south, drugs go north and money goes into American banks and out of the Mexican economy.
Drug cartels have been battling in the streets of Juarez for its valuable territory just feet from the United States. They murder with absolute impunity, the killings are bold, flagrant and never result in legitimate judicial prosecution. Severed heads and mutilated bodies are displayed publicly throughout the city to institutionalize fear among Juarez’s residents and journalists.
“Journalists tend to be threatened when they connect officials to the drug cartels,” says Diana Washington Valdez, a veteran reporter at the El Paso Times and investigative journalist who has documented the cartels and government corruption in Mexico. “I don’t cross anymore because of the specific death threats against me,” Valdez says. Valdez has gained international recognition as an expert on the border war and author of The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women: The truth about America’s bloody border legacy an investigative piece dissecting the brutal killing of women, Los Feminicidos, in Ciudad Juarez.
“Members of the cartel are, or were, members of the police force,” says Dr. Selfa Chew a lecturer in History, particularly Borderland politics, at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). “In my opinion, the cartels are the government, they are the Mexican State. It is difficult to separate their activities.” Dr. Chew has lost several relatives in Juarez to drug war violence. “The Mexican Government can stop [the war] anytime they want.
Just north of the border in El Paso, Chase Bank and Wells Fargo dominate the small cluster of skyscrapers downtown. In 2010, Wells Fargo was fined $140 million by the U.S. for laundering drug money, a small fee juxtaposed to profits estimated in the billions. In November 2012, the United States government filed charges against HSBC bank, which has also been accused of laundering drug money in the nine short years it has been operating within U.S. borders. HSBC is a Chinese and British enterprise, the first internationally owned bank the U.S. government has targeted for money laundering.
“What is the difference between the U.S. Government and the cartels? Really, the question is ‘what is the difference between U.S. companies and the cartels?’ If you look at American business interests that fund our political system, they are never going to let a Democrat or Republican deal with this issue [both legal and illegal trade across the border] in the way it really needs to be done,” says Patrick Rabb, a student at UTEP studying both Chicano Studies and Political Science. Rabb relocated from South Carolina to El Paso specifically to study the borderland dynamic. “The U.S. government is not going to really ever crack down on the banks [for laundering drug money] they can’t even crack down on them for mortgage fraud,” he says.
“All these issues are connected… we are dealing with an issue now where the federal government is at the mercy of the corporations that serve them, so if the corporations say we don’t want anything done in terms of banking, guns and money laundering, you can put a penalty here or there but its not really going to shut anybody down,” says Rabb.
While bodies continue to pile up on Juarez streets, El Paso only gets safer, and wealthier. “I don’t think [the danger/safety dynamic] is coincidental, especially when you have major drug cartels operating here [in El Paso].” Says Valdez. Mexican drug cartels openly operate legitimate businesses north of the border—everything from restaurants to hotels, which ensures their mutual interest with officials in El Paso to keep the city safe. “It is an informal agreement that someone has reached to keep the violence south of the border and not allow it to spill over here. We have seen 30 years of cartel upheaval across the border. Infighting within the cartels, cartel wars, in all of that, all of the violence has limited itself to south of the border. That cannot be a coincidence,” Valdez concludes.
Through The Merida Initiative, American legislation passed in 2007 as a cooperation between Presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon, the United States agreed to fund Mexican law enforcement to the tune of $400 million a year to crack down on the cartels, initiating an even bloodier and more complicated war in Mexico. Gun sales have continued to boom (attributed in part to the paranoia surrounding the election of President Obama) since 2008 and the flow of guns south of the border have risen in direct correlation. Many of the guns came from the U.S. government itself, exposed but not well-covered in American media through the botched Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) gun-walking scheme “Fast and Furious,” wherein the ATF allowed guns to be sold to cartels in an “attempt to track them.” They were unable to prosecute or find the source of the weapons.
“If the American government can find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Saddam Hussein in a hole in the ground in Iraq, or Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, they should be able to find [cartel leaders] living just five minutes south of the United States,” says Rabb, “The problem is, you can’t find what you aren’t looking for. The Mexican government is invested in the cartels’ success.”
The crackdown south of the border is a collaboration from Mexican presidents Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon and newly elected Enrique Pena Nieto as well as both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Over the last decade almost 50,000 lives have been lost in Mexico alone.
Under both the Bush and Obama Administrations the Drug War has ramped up on both sides of the border. American incarcerations for possession, sales and drug cultivation or manufacturing continue to account for almost 60% of the total inmate population. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate of 1 out of 100—the highest of any other industrialized nation.
In states like California, marijuana is legal for medical or recreational purposes because there are a few people willing to challenge state and federal law. The luxury of avoiding prison time in California for simple possession is almost completely lost on so many marijuana users today, but legal marijuana would not exist had not Dennis Peron, Ed Rosenthal, Eddy Lepp and a handful of others put their own freedom on the line to proactively challenge destructive prohibition laws.
In the early 2000s, The Reverend Eddy Lepp planted the now infamous Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens, thousands of marijuana plants cultivated alongside California Highway 20 in Lake County, with the explicit purpose of helping anyone and everyone in need. He donated money to local charities, he allowed strangers to live in his home and he preached love and respect to his Rastafarian congregation. Patients with cancer in particular were given free marijuana to help ease their symptoms and side effects of radiation.
Two years ago I visited the Reverend Eddy Lepp in FCI Lompoc, near Santa Barbara, CA. I was unsure which facility he was being housed in and ended up signing the logbooks as a visitor at the federal prison camp, the medium and low security facilities. I eventually was processed into the low security facility where I spent a foggy afternoon in the prison yard with Eddy; at that time he was a year into his ten-year mandatory minimum sentence. I documented the visit in an article for SKUNK Magazine. Later, when I tried to visit again I was asked to reapply for visitation. I was denied and the prison claimed to have no record of my visit. Not until he was moved to Texas was I approved to visit again.
In May of 2012 he was transferred to FCI La Tuna, in Anthony, Texas where his fellow inmates assemble “high-quality, mission-ready vehicles for Federal Law Enforcement Agencies,” particularly border patrol, through Unicor– a privately owned corporation contracted by the federal government that employs prisoners for a wide range of manufacturing tasks.
Prison reform advocates have criticized Unicor’s profit model as slave labor. According to AP Reporter Jay Reeves, Unicor produced revenues upwards of $900 million last year manufacturing apparel and other products contracted by the federal government. Inmates are paid $0.50-1.50 an hour assembling finished goods for sale. The low wage labor provided by federal prisoners allows Unicor to drastically widen their profit margin in comparison with other domestic manufacturers. Additionally, federal agencies are required to use Unicor as a supplier whenever possible.
Money prisoners earn is used to purchase everything from electronics, food, clothing and hygiene products in the prison commissary. At FCI La Tuna, the commissary is owned and facilitated by The Keefe Group, a St. Louis-based privately owned corporation and the largest operator of commissaries in the federal prison system. The Keefe group has a near monopoly on prison and jail commissaries at all levels of law enforcement.
Eddy relies on donation money from close friends and supporters to purchase what he needs in the commissary; he has declined to work for Unicor.
It was only four years ago that Eddy was surrounded by an entourage of fans and supporters in the wake of California’s booming industry and subsequent celebritization of members of the movement, hailed as ‘drug warriors.’ He took care of thousands of people directly and indirectly through his ministry. Now three and a half years into his prison sentence many of those supporters are nowhere to be found. While his celebrity and story have earned him respect in prison, sold magazines and raised thousands of dollars in his name (although Eddy has never seen the bulk of it) the apathy from the outside is not lost on him. “I can’t allow myself to be angry about those who have forgotten me inside or profited off of me or I would go crazy in here. They have incarcerated me physically but I am still free.” Eddy said. Eddy added that the only way to stay sane inside of federal prison walls is to shield his psyche from anything that could break down the mental walls he has built to protect himself.
Eddy has six and a half years left unless he is released early under the RDAP program, drug rehabilitation for prisoners, which is a serious possibility. If he gets RDAP he will be released in July of 2016. He is in the process of filing a 2255 in federal court challenging the fairness of his trial. If the 2255 produces no results his only other chance of freedom is a federal rescheduling of marijuana laws.
NAFTA, IMMIGRATION, RACISM & THE AMERICAN DREAM
The War on Drugs has boomed on both sides of the border through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and both countries have used drug laws to enslave large populations to provide cheap goods.
In January 1994 NAFTA went into effect. NAFTA is an international trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States allowing the free flow of goods across borders, usually subject to international tariffs. Many American corporations have factories on both sides of the border. In the U.S., production is usually automated and employs only a small amount of Americans. Raw materials flow south of the border to the maquiladoras where they are assembled for pennies on the dollar. The finished product is sold cheaply in the U.S. and abroad. Some goods travel across the border multiple times before they become a finished saleable good.
According to Harley Shaiken, the Chair at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, trade between the U.S. and Mexico has jumped four-fold growing from $80 billion in 1993 to $360 billion in 2010. The Economist magazine projects trade could nearly double again by 2016. Shaiken adds that 700,000 American jobs have been displaced due to NAFTA—a number far larger than the total number of American auto industry workers.
In American politics, there is a culture of disdain, mainly fueled by the Republican Party, toward Mexican immigrants and a simultaneous economic reliance on low wage work. Since the mid-1960s there has been an informal agreement that has established the border as a free trade zone. “NAFTA solidified foreign investment in Mexico,” says Tanya Legarda, a first-generation American and student at UTEP with familial ties in Juarez and Northern Chihuahua. “[After NAFTA] a huge population came to the North into cities like Juarez where the factories were established. It has increased the levels of poverty, the exact opposite of what was promised. There is more poverty, more violence,” Legarda says.
“It’s a sophisticated type of slavery,” says Patrick Rabb “rather than kidnapping the slave like [African Americans in the United States] they [American corporations] make the slave come to them.”
Both the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge are monuments to the American dream, the land of opportunity where the world’s most destitute immigrants could earn a decent living with a little hard work and ingenuity. Whether or not these border monuments accurately memorialize the reality of American immigration, they seem even more antiquated and ideological compared with the monument at our southern border. The U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso-Juarez is a vast cement trench dug and paved to prevent the flow of the Rio Grande from re-drawing the national boundaries. The northern side is lined by a barbed-wire fence and dedicated 24-hour surveillance by American border patrol using cameras and SUVs assembled at nearby FCI La Tuna by prisoners through the Unicor Corporation. Along the Southern side are murals splayed with anti-American messages like “La Globalizacion Mata/Globalization Kills,” and images memorializing the drug war’s victims. This monument to immigration, rather than using an inviting pretense is a blunt message from the citizens of both countries to one another- STAY OUT.
For the most part, however, the conflict created by NAFTA has been relegated to the Mexican-American border, with none of the violence spilling into Canada, the third partner in the agreement. “American corporations do not exploit the people or cause displacement in Canada. It is a completely different situation there because of racism,” says Dr. Chew. The British and French initially colonized Canada, as well as the northeastern United States in the 17th century. International trade fueled even greater profits leading up to the American Independence and as the new United States abolished slavery during the Civil War it expanded its territories into then-Mexico, land that in present day is part of the United States, from California to Texas. “There aren’t the same problems along the Canadian border because Canadian citizens are white,” asserts Dr. Chew.
“There is a long history of foreign corporations exploiting people and resources of [colored colonies] whether it is Mexico, Latin America or Africa. It is a history that continues today,” says Tanya Legarda “Except now with neo-liberalism, the colonization is through economic policies.”
Most Americans don’t assume any level of responsibility and so are easily isolated from the issues at the border. White Americans are more likely to identify with Canadians than Mexicans for an obvious and simplistic reason—they look the same. It is perhaps more convenient for the American public to tie the corruption and violence south of the border indirectly to racial inferiority rather than accept responsibility for it.
WAR IS OVER (IF YOU WANT IT)
International governments and drug cartels continue to profit from Drug War policies here and abroad with little opposition from the American public. Apathy is rampant nationally, particularly in places like El Paso, which profit handily in border wars.
Republican propaganda campaigns have directed the public to focus on the results of many international problems, instead of the cause of the issues– the failings of modern capitalism and the moral failings of racism, which have made the American people complicit in executions and slavery for financial subsistence. The gun lobby has grown more powerful, domestic law enforcement brings in billions annually in asset-seizure based revenues and the refusal to legitimize illegal immigrants. This denial of reality all but ensures the most vulnerable people will continue to work at low wages on both sides of the border to produce cheap products for sale internationally.
Americans are apathetic to political solutions because they aren’t defined in our media as interconnected. Both governments perpetuate the ingrained corruption because an apathetic and exhausted public chooses not to recognize it or fight it. In Eddy Lepp’s case, apathy amongst his once loyal supporters has mired him into a miserable prison obscurity—a reward for fighting against the terrible laws that affect us all, on both sides of the border.
As long as free trade laws continue to skew towards the benefit of the United States, Mexican nationals will continue to seek economic refuge north of the border.
It will take both formal governments realizing that the legalization of drugs doesn’t necessarily condone their use but instead accepts their use as a reality so that the condition of addiction can be treated medically in isolation from the criminal justice system.
So what will it take to end the war? “It will be the American people protesting in the streets,” concludes Rabb.
For more information on Eddy Lepp and how you can help please visit http://www.green-aid.com