Review of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico
From "Drugs, Violence, and Corruption: Perspectives from Mexico and Central America" By Sonja Wolf in Latin American Politics and Society, Vol 58, Issue 1
(Read the original here)
In the Shadow of Saint Death, the third book from independent journalist Michael Deibert, is a superb piece of reporting on U.S. drug policy and its devastating effects on drug-producing and transit countries in the Western Hemisphere. Ambitious in scope, the volume touches on themes such as violence and sleaze, media censorship, and the survival and resistance of local heroes. With rich descriptions, the author effortlessly recreates the atmosphere in villages and towns across Mexico and Central America that are reeling under the impact of the drug war. The narrative is constructed around the history of the Gulf Cartel and events in its home state of Tamaulipas. But the book is really addressed to a U.S. audience, to whom Deibert aspires to convey the bloody consequences of an insatiable drug demand and a futile prohibitionist approach to drug control.
In his biting critique of U.S. policy, Deibert shows how historically the prohibition of certain substances and the criminalization of their consumers have created corruption and illegal markets. Successive administrations—from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama—have pursued the drug war both at home and abroad, costing the country more than one trillion dollars without ever making significant inroads into this public health issue. In a brief but fascinating section on the Reagan years, the journalist reminds readers how political goals even prompted the United States to collude with known drug traffickers. If the drug war has not yielded the expected results, why does the United States insist on fighting it, and how has it been successfully exporting it around the world for so long? Deibert does not concern himself with the second question and answers the first puzzle by pointing to business interests— notably the private prison industry—and the electoral interests of politicians.
The author is adamant that current drug policies must change and alternatives to drug control and addiction be explored. In the epilogue, the most reflective part of the book, he predicts more violence for Mexico and its southern neighbors unless a fundamental shift in strategy occurs. The terms of the debate have altered, although the fight for drug policy reform is bound to be a long one. Sounding a hopeful note, Deibert cites a 2009 report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy—which pronounced the failure of the eradication and interdiction approach—and a 2011 document by the Global Commission on Drug Policy that urges experimentation with government regulation of drugs.
In the Shadow of Saint Death went to press before the publication of the GCDP’s successor report (2014), which set out a roadmap for the creation of more effective and humane drug policies. Deibert identifies Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina as an example of leadership on drug decriminalization, even as he recognizes that the unexpected espousal of a progressive standpoint may mask other agendas. The book certainly makes a strong case for drug policy alternatives, but scientific research will need to demonstrate the viability of unconventional approaches.