Following the science? Obviously not
The war on drugs in Mexico is viewed very differently from elsewhere, as Peter Kelly discovered when he visited the country…
In January this year, the son of a notorious drug cartel leader, El Chapo, was arrested in a gun fight in a small town north of the city Culiacán in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Some reports suggested 25 cartel members and 10 members of the Mexican armed forces were killed in the shoot-out. The cartel hijacked around 60 trucks, set them on fire and used them to try and block the roads leading to airports in the state in the hope of preventing the army from flying the captured man out of the state.
Three weeks later I flew into Culiacán. The UK government advises against all but essential travel to the state of Sinaloa except for the cities of Los Mochis and Mazatlan, so I was obviously a little apprehensive but intrigued to be going Culiacán. I was flying to meet my girlfriend - she lives in London but had gone home for Christmas to visit her mother and brother who both live in the city.
My first impression of Culiacán was that it seemed prosperous. As we drove through the city, I could plenty of hotels, restaurants, shopping centres, car dealerships and banks. Starbucks seemed to be everywhere.
I thought it interesting that their banks looked new and modern, considering that bank branches are constantly closing down back here. HSBC was over there. Sinaloa is known as the breadbasket of Mexico and my girlfriend’s family is involved in the shrimp farming, processing and storage business.
I got a tour of the shrimp processing factory and the refrigeration facility they have for storing the shrimp. They also store food on behalf of other food businesses in the area. The locals are quick to stress there is more to Sinaloa than the cartel and there are more good people in the state than bad.
What I found remarkable about the place was that it felt safe and peaceful. It seemed to me like a family friendly city. We went into the town centre on a Saturday afternoon and there was a live band playing and lots of elderly people dancing away in the main square beside the church.
I travel all around the UK and Ireland performing comedy, and some cities have a slight edge to them. You can feel it in how people walk around with nervous energy moving quickly and cautiously. There was none of that in Culiacán. Everyone seemed very relaxed. I was informed that there was little to no petty crime.
The restaurants are top notch. Given its location, it is not surprising that the sea food is out of this world. The shrimp I had there was the best I have ever had - and I’m not just saying that to curry favour with my girlfriend’s family! There is clearly wealth in the city.
I am not naïve – some of it is definitely coming from the international drug trade, but when you see people driving big cars and eating in nice restaurants with their families, unless you know them, it is impossible to tell if their money comes from organised crime or the successful food businesses of the area. I saw factories and farms, and they are vast and impressive.
The war on drugs is viewed very differently in Mexico to elsewhere. Richard Nixon started the ‘war on drugs’ in the 1970s after the Vietnam war. In Mexico, it is seen as continuing evidence of America’s addiction to war.
The Vietnam war had gone badly and public appetite for invading another country war was low, so the Nixon administration instead opted for a war on drugs that allowed money to keep pouring into some kind of war effort.
It is estimated that America has spent over a trillion dollars on the war on drugs over the last 50 years, during which time drug use in America has increased. The people of Sinaloa told me that life there is very peaceful except when the Mexican and American presidents meet, when there will be a shoot-out and a token attempt to arrest someone by the Mexican authorities to try to please their more powerful neighbour.
The Mexican and American presidents were due to meet a week after El Chapo’s son was arrested. You have a problem when you use a public health concern such as drug addiction as a smoke-and-mirrors front to pursue political objectives.
When you then have a public health crisis to deal with like a pandemic and you tell people you are following the science to decide on policy, lots of people will not believe you because that is not your normal modus operandi.
The war on drugs has been a disaster but shows no signs of ending. Meanwhile, the British government is banning laughing gas against the advice of its own scientists, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
I guess we are back to the business, as usual, of not following the science.
Peter Kelly is a community pharmacist based in London and stand-up comedian.