“Killing Two Condors with One Stone: The War on Drugs, Counterinsurgency, and the State of Siege in Northwestern Mexico”

In this week’s LACIS lecture we had guest speaker Adela Cedillo, Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Adela spoke on the intersections between the Dirty War and the War on Drugs in Northwest Mexico during the 1970s.  

Cedillo began by introducing Operation Condor. Operation Condor represented the first war on drugs in Mexican history that was backed and urged by the United States. The operation launched in 1977 by Mexican government and focused on the internal enemy – the goal of this Operation was to wipe out the actors involved in the illegal drug industry. Operation condor didn’t end until 1988 in 2006 it was resurrected as the Mexican government launched a new war on drugs.

Mexican administration in the 70s embraced the United States anti-drug agenda as part of efforts to reconstruct the PRI’s hegemony in aftermath of 1968 massacre that shattered social Conesus on ruling party.

Operation Condor Low intensity war –with the true objective of securing social control over drug growers and traffickers to subdue them. Condor was the longest and most ambitious anti-drug campaign – first to be spearheaded by DEA in Mexico.

Scholarship on the war on drugs often classifies this operation as a failure, but upon closer analysis on its origins shows that it was a turning point in the militarization, modernization of the anti-drug policy.

The operation launched an attack on the golden triangle- the region where more than 20k highlanders produced 76% of illegal drugs. Except for US assistance which was accounted for through finance, human and technical resources, Condor lacked conditions to help them remove drugs entirely. The main obstacle was the generalized corruption of the Mexican state at all levels due to the PRI’s political party regime.

The first stage of Condor was the golden triangle – located in highlands of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua – in these regions there is minimal presence of the state and it is the largest producing region of marijuana of poppy nationwide. These dramatic efforts were aimed to enforce the social and military control of the population and eliminate independent local planters.

Operation Condor attacked national drug clans to advance the decentralization of the drug trade from the northwest – the government allowed military police and federal police to take over the drug trade networks to limit the power of the drug lords.

Violence mediated the relations between the Mexican state and organized crime in the 20th century. According to official documents, the white house new about the mafia groups and violations of laws by the Mexican government but never apprehended individuals for corruption or gross human rights abuses.

There was extreme US pressure against Mexico to intensify its antidrug policy which contradicted the states foreign drive to continue benefiting from the drug trade through the generalized practice of extortion. The Mexican government solved the contradiction in a cunning way – one that proved satisfactory for the US and allowed for the advancement of the PRI’s political agenda.

The drug production was so profitable that everyone in the PRI wanted to become a shareholder and this provoked constant clashes between different agencies and between the states of Sinaloa , Chihuahua, Durango,  and the federal government – domestic politics in Mexico became very complicated.

At the same time of the condor task force, there was extreme violence such as torture, extortion, rape, killings and disappearances. Violence displaced thousands of peasants to other regions as well as to the United states, and at the same time the government kept announcing that the sanction of drug traffickers and invited journalist to broadcast the alleged victory of good over evil.

As condor began the interweaving between the Sinaloa political establishment and Caciques made it impossible to strike one side without hurting the other. The federal government had to control both legal and illegal actors – furthermore operation Condor was not only intended against drug traffickers, but for its general tactics of population control which served to contain the varying gorilla and human rights movements taking place in Sinaloa during the time.

The media reported that the problem was nearly solved, the DEA reached the same conclusion. At first the mainstream public opinion backed condor, but after months of systematic abuses met by security forces, the civil society proved disappointed with the outcomes.

In Mexico Condor served to bring down social and revolutionary movements and established a stage of siege in the country side to prevent the emergence of independent actors both political and criminal. The Mexican government used the golden triangle as a showcase of the alleged success of the drug eradication campaign resulting in the destruction of hundreds of peasant communities.

The other long-lasting legacy is the practice by the Mexican authorities of allowing drug lords to become extremely wealthy in order to extort them. But when the political moment demands it, drug lords become disposable. Seeds of violence sown by condor influenced how the kids from the attacked communities became drug traffickers and hit men willing to exert extreme violence to preserve their criminal sovereignty.