Dear Mexico,

I apologize. There are so many things I could apologize for, from the way the U.S. biotech corporation Monsanto has contaminated your corn to the way Arizona and Alabama are persecuting your citizens, but right now I’d like to apologize for the drug war, the ten thousand waking nightmares that make the news and the rest that don’t.

You’ve heard the stories about the five severed heads rolled onto the floor of a Michoacan nightclub in 2006, the three hundred bodies dissolved in acid by a servant of one drug lord, the forty-nine mutilated bodies found in plastic bags by the side of the road in Monterrey in May, the nine bodies found hanging from an overpass in Nuevo Laredo just last month, the Zeta Cartel’s videotaped beheadings just two weeks ago, the carnage that has taken tens of thousands of Mexican lives in the last decade and has terrorized a whole nation.  I’ve read them and so many more.  I am sorry fifty thousand times over.

The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness.

The drug war is fueled by many things, and maybe the worst drug of all is money, to which so many are so addicted that they can never get enough. It’s a drug for which they will kill, destroying communities and ecologies, even societies, whether for the sake of making drones, Wall Street profits, or massive heroin sales. Then there are the actual drugs, to which so many others turn for numbness.

There is variety in the range of drugs.  I know that marijuana mostly just makes you like patio furniture, while heroin renders you ethereally indifferent and a little reptilian, and cocaine pumps you up with your own imaginary fabulousness before throwing you down into your own trashiness. And then there’s meth, which seems to have the same general effect as rabies, except that the victims crave it desperately.

Whatever their differences, these drugs, when used consistently, constantly, destructively, are all anesthesia from pain. The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness. They sell unfeeling. We buy it. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year doing so, and by some estimates about a third to a half of that money goes back to Mexico.

The Price of Numbness

We want not to feel what’s happening to us, and then we do stuff that makes worse things happen–to us and others. We pay for it, too, in a million ways, from outright drug-overdose deaths (which now exceed traffic fatalities, and of which the United States has the highest rate of any nation except tiny Iceland, amounting to more than thirty-seven thousand deaths here in 2009 alone) to the violence of drug-dealing on the street, the violence of people on some of those drugs, and the violence inflicted on children who are neglected, abandoned, and abused because of them–and that’s just for starters.  The stuff people do for money when they’re desperate for drugs generates more violence and more crazy greed for the money to buy the next round. And drug use is connected to the spread of HIV and various strains of hepatitis.

Then there’s our futile “war on drugs” that has created so much pain of its own. It’s done so by locking up mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children for insanely long prison sentences and offering no treatment. It does so by costing so much it’s warping the economies of states that have huge numbers of nonviolent offenders in prison and not enough money for education or healthcare. It does so by branding as felons and pariahs those who have done time in the drug-war prison complex. It was always aimed most directly at African-Americans, and the toll it’s taken would require a week of telling.

No border divides the pain caused by drugs from the pain brought about in Latin America by the drug business and the narcotraficantes.  It’s one big continent of pain–and in the last several years the narcos have begun selling drugs in earnest in their own countries, creating new cultures of addiction and misery.  (And yes, Mexico, your extravagantly corrupt government, military, and police have everything to do with the drug war now, but file that under greed, as usual, about which your pretty new president is unlikely to do anything much.)

Imagine that the demand ceased tomorrow; the profitable business of supply would have to wither away as well. Many talk about legalizing drugs, and there’s something to be said for changing the economic arrangements. But what about reducing their use by developing and promoting more interesting and productive ways of dealing with suffering? Or even getting directly at the causes of that suffering?

I have been trying to imagine the export economy of pain… I think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside.

Some drug use is, of course, purely recreational, but even recreational drug use stimulates these economies of carnage. And then there are the overdoses of the famous and the unsung on prescription and illicit drugs. Tragic, but those dismembered and mutilated bodies the drug gangs deposit around Mexico are not just tragic, they’re terrifying.

GNP: Gross National Pain and the Pain Export Economy

Mexico, my near neighbor, I have been trying to imagine the export economy of pain. What does it look like? I think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside. You could say that air-conditioners don’t really cool things down so much as they relocate the heat. The way the transnational drug economy works is a little like that: people in the U.S. are not reducing the amount of pain in the world; they’re exporting it to Mexico and the rest of Latin America as surely as those places are exporting drugs to us.

In economics, we talk about “externalized costs”: this means the way that you and I pick up the real cost of oil production with local and global ecological degradation or wars fought on behalf of the oil corporations. Or the way Walmart turns its employees into paupers, and we pick up the tab for their food stamps and medical care.

With the drug economy, there are externalized traumas. I imagine them moving in a huge circulatory system, like the Gulf Stream, or old trade routes. We give you money and guns, lots and lots of money. You give us drugs. The guns destroy. The money destroys. The drugs destroy. The pain migrates, a phantom presence crossing the border the other way from the crossings we hear so much about.

The drugs are supposed to numb people out, but that momentary numbing effect causes so much pain elsewhere. There’s a pain economy, a suffering economy, a fear economy, and drugs fuel all of them rather than making them go away. Think of it as another kind of GNP–gross national pain–though I don’t know how you’d quantify it.

A friend of mine who’s lived in Latin America for large parts of the last decade says that she’s appalled to see people doing cocaine at parties she goes to in this country. I mentioned that to an anthropologist who was even bleaker in describing the cocaine migration routes out of the Andes and all the dead babies and exploited women she’d seen along the way.

We’ve had movements to get people to stop buying clothes and shoes made in sweatshops, grapes picked by exploited farmworkers, fish species that are endangered, but no one’s thought to start a similar movement to get people to stop consuming the drugs that cause so much destruction abroad.

Picture middle-class people here stuffing the blood of campesinos up their noses. Picture poor people injecting the tears of other poor people into their veins. Picture them all smoking children’s anguish. And imagine if we called it by name.

America, #1 in Pain

I don’t know why my country seems to produce so much misery and so much desire to cover it up under a haze of drugs, but I can imagine a million reasons. A lot of us just never put down roots or adapted to a society that’s changing fast under us or got downsized or evicted or foreclosed or rejected or just move around a lot. This country is a place where so many people don’t have a place, literally or psychologically. When you don’t have anywhere to go with your troubles, you can conveniently go nowhere–into, that is, the limbo of drugs and the dead-end that represents.

But there’s something else front and center to our particular brand of misery. We are a nation of miserable optimists. We believe everything is possible and if you don’t have it all, from the perfect body to profound wealth, the fault is yours. When people suffer in this country–from, say, foreclosures and bankruptcies due to the destruction of our economy by the forces of greed–the shame is overwhelming.  It’s seen as a personal failure, not the failure of our institutions. Taking drugs to numb your shame also keeps you from connecting the dots and opposing what’s taken you down.

So when you’re miserable here, you’re miserable twice: once because you actually lost your home/job/savings/spouse/girlish figure and all over again because it’s not supposed to be like that (and maybe thrice because our mainstream society doesn’t suggest any possibility of changing the circumstances that produced your misery or even how arbitrary those circumstances are). I suspect that all those drugs are particularly about numbing a deep American sense of failure or of smashed expectations.

Really, when you think of the rise of crack cocaine during the Reagan era, wasn’t it an exact corollary to the fall of African-American opportunity and the disintegration of the social safety net? The government produced failure and insecurity, and crack buffered the results (and proved a boon to a burgeoning prison-industrial complex). Likewise, the drug-taking that exploded in the 1960s helped undermine the radical movements of that era. Drugs aren’t a goad to action, but a deadening alternative to it. Maybe all those zombies everywhere in popular culture nowadays are trying to say something about that.

He believed that line about how “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Maybe it was fine when William Blake said it in the 1790s, since Blake wasn’t a crackhead.

Here in the United States, there’s no room for sadness, but there are plenty of drugs for it, and now when people feel sad, even many doctors think they should take drugs. We undergo losses and ordeals and live in circumstances that would make any sane person sad, and then we say: the fault was yours and if you feel sad, you’re crazy or sick and should be medicated. Of course, now ever more Americans are addicted to prescription drugs, and there’s always the old anesthetic of choice, alcohol, but there is one difference: the economics of those substances are not causing mass decapitations in Mexico.

Roads to Destruction and the Palace of the Dead

When I think about the drug wars and the drug culture here, I think about a young man I knew long ago. He was gay, from Texas, disconnected from his family, talented but not so good at finding a place in the world for that talent or for himself. He was also a fan of the beat novelist and intermittent junkie William Burroughs, and he believed that line about how “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Maybe it was fine when William Blake said it in the 1790s, since Blake wasn’t a crackhead. But my friend got from Burroughs–a man with family money and apparently an iron constitution–the idea that derangement of the senses was a great creative strategy.

This was all part of our youth in a culture that constantly reinforced how cool drugs were, though back then another beat writer, the poet David Meltzer, told me methamphetamine was a form of demonic possession. The young man became possessed in this way and lost his mind. He became homeless and deranged, gone to someplace he couldn’t find his way back from, and I would see him walking our boulevards barefoot and filthy, ranting to himself.

Then I heard he had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.  He wasn’t yet thirty; he was just a sweet boy. I could tell four or five more stories like his about people I knew who died young of drugs. The meth that helped him down his road of no return was probably a domestic product then, but now vast quantities of it are made in Mexico for us–fifteen tons of it were found earlier this year in Guadalajara, enough for 13 million doses, worth about $4 billion retail.

When I think about the drug wars, I also think about my visit to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in Mexico City in 2007. A young friend with me there insisted on going.  It was perilous for outsiders like us even to travel through Tepito, the black-marketeers’ barrio, let alone go to the shrine where imposing, somber men were praying and lighting candles to the skeleton goddess who is the narcotraficantes’ patron saint. They worship death; they’re intimate with her; they tattoo her on their flesh, and there she was in person–in bones without flesh, surrounded by candles, by gifts, by cigarettes and gold, an Aztec goddess gone commercial.

My companion wanted to take pictures. I wanted to live and managed to convince him that thugs’ devotional moments were not for our cameras. When it came time to leave, the warm patroness of the shrine locked up the stand in which she sold votive candles and medallions, took each of us by an arm–as if nothing less than bodily contact with death’s caretaker would keep us safe–and walked us to the subway. We survived that little moment of direct contact with the drug war. So many others have not.

Mexico, I am sorry.  I want to see it all change, for your sake and ours. I want to call pain by name and numbness by name and fear by name. I want people to connect the dots from the junk in their brain to the bullet holes in others’ heads. I want people to find better strategies for responding to pain and sadness. I want them to rebel against those parts of their unhappiness that are political, not metaphysical, and not run in fear from the metaphysical parts either.

I want the narcotraficantes to repent and give their billions to the poor. I want the fear to end. A hundred years ago, your dictatorial president Porfiro Díaz supposedly remarked, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” which nowadays could be revised to, “Painful Mexico, so far from peace and so close to the numbness of the United States.”

Yours sincerely,


Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of 17 books, including an expanded hardcover version of her paperback indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me and a newly released anthology of her essays about places from Detroit to Kyoto to the Arctic, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.

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6 Comments on “Apologies to Mexico

  1. “Imagine that the demand ceased tomorrow; the profitable business of supply would have to wither away as well.”

    That quote pretty much sums up the laughable naivete of this article. It’s obviously SOOOOOOO much easier to deal with the supply side of this problem than the demand side. Large numbers of Americans will always want and use drugs, just the same as any other national population on earth. Run all the DARE campaigns you want, but you’ll only ever make a dent in the overall number of Americans who are willing to pay for them. So why not, instead, try to remove the supply of drugs from the control of the cartels and instead license/regulate/tax American entrepreneurs who want to manufacture drugs in a nonviolent, federally supervised, economically beneficial way here at home?

    This isn’t the 1950s. People now realize that many illegal drugs, like weed, are completely harmless compared to many legal drugs, like oxycodone and alcohol. They understand how arbitrary the federal government’s scheduling policies are, and they are increasingly realizing that these policies are staunchly supported by certain special interests (anti-drug agencies, private prisons, gun manufacturers, etc) who profit massively off of the obviously ineffective war on drugs. The bottom line is that there is no effective way to significantly reduce demand for drugs in the national population (see the past 40 years of the drug war if you still don’t believe me), so the government needs to cut off the cartel’s monopoly on the drug supply if it wishes to actually mitigate the effect American drug demand has on Mexico.

    Also, you write as if Mexicans can’t help but engage in criminal enterprises – as if they have no choice but to turn into violent, illegal criminals simply because there’s lots of money to be made in doing it. That’s bullshit. The Mexicans who decide to engage in drug-running are every bit as responsible for their decision as Americans who ultimately buy what they produce at the retail end of the supply chain.

  2. Rather than blaming drug users you should blame the governmental policy that prohibits drugs and creates the black markets where violence and death thrives. Drug users DO NOT have blood on their hands. The US government DOES.

  3. The drug war is such a complicated and pervasive topic that it is almost impossible to understand the totality of it — much less form a sane policy change that Washington would actually implement.

    As someone who has been watching it closely for 20 years, the two developments that would be most encouraging are:

    1) Making marijuana schedule 2 — this would immediately make medical use legal nationwide and would allow objective scientific study.

    2) An NRA-like response to politicians who support the war on drugs. The only thing more important to politicians than money is votes.

    It is positive to see the states taking more action, of course, but remember that the drug reformers in the 1970’s stopped fighting when states like Ohio created decriminalization policies — thinking that they had won. Then Reagan came along with “civil asset forfeiture” and the game was over.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article for its information and its passion. I have an opinion of why Americans have become so attracted to drugs, but you may not buy it. Either way, I thought I would give it here. The American people have been distracted for a few generations now. I would say ever since World War II the attitude of people towards life in general has changed. The former censorship of illicit activity, its portrayal in film and television, or even in books or in speech, has faded since then, especially since the cultural revolution of the 60s. Also, life was no longer so stable seeing as at any moment a world leader could push a button and your entire city or even the whole world could be obliterated, and so people began to exhibit a lack of faith in the world, and in the existence of God as well. With such a monstrous possibility of apocalyptic destruction at hand many people throughout the world lost faith.

    This loss of faith is responsible for a spiraling indifference and a sense of depression and hopelessness hidden beneath every smiling face. In the art world, even, everyone wanted to break down representation and deface symbolism to find the essential relationships between color and space, zooming in to the point where the viewer was lost in abstractions. Not to say I don’t think abstraction is good. I love abstraction, but I’m only showing how suddenly a world that wanted art that made sense, that had a rich and traditional meaning, that told a story, that depicted the characters of fables and legends and, yes, religious themes and characters, suddenly rejected those things and wanted the other extreme, the objective, scientific treatment that lacked any style whatsoever, as if to be human and to have one’s own personality show in the work were evil.

    So I consider this a very subtle form of self-depreciation and self-flagellation, by attempting to subdue or destroy the self in favor of the scientific endeavors of a new age. Somehow because science triumphed over the religions of its day and gained favor in the eyes of the people for what it could do, atheism and existentialism became much more valid arguments and lifestyle choices, seeing as science had hard, verifiable evidence to show for its theories and assertions. This is also a form of guilt as a nation for what has happened to the citizens of two cities of another nation, their almost instantaneous destruction, because the two nations were involved in a worldwide war. The governments have a right to defend themselves from other nations, but to detonate a nuclear bomb on a city full of innocent civilians? This was too much. The psyche of the nation broke down.

    Combine this shift of power from the religious institutions of the world to the academic institutions with the threat of apocalypse-scale annihilation that was the Cold War and you have the necessary components to breed an insecure, despondent people who do not know what to do with themselves or how to find meaning in their lives. Add the general distraction from the real world, the here and now moment of awareness of oneself, that is television, its dawn and its quick breakthrough into the mainstream culture, and you have the perfect formula to create the all-consuming, ever-spiritually-lacking race of zombies that the majority of Americans today exemplify. The word boredom used to be a catalyst for inspiration, for imagination and change. Unfortunately, American minds are no longer given a chance to have time for themselves, unless they make the titanic effort to willingly isolate themselves from all forms of media. Otherwise they will always be rifled with bright, colorful, jingly shows and advertisements all vying for their attention and all making themselves more pleasantly artificial, more hysterically colorful, and more ridiculously loud and even schizophrenic to gain an edge over their countless competitors.

    All of these things have helped contribute to a warping of the American mind so that it may become the perfect consumer of goods, both working to create and sell these goods, and pumping as much money as possible back into the pockets of the many (yet very few overall) owners and investors. It all adds up perfectly, the lack of spirituality, thus the lack of meaning, the belief only in the physicality of the world and the rejection of any other possibilities not immediately verifiable by the five senses, which then leads to a focus on immediate, simple pleasures such as comfort, entertainment, and, yes, lewd, unashamed and animalistic sex. Free love had to happen, yet it also weakened or destroyed many important foundations, foundations like marriage, and it allowed an animalistic freedom that had once been hidden and looked down upon to be opened to the public, including the children of the public, so that every generation that followed abused and perverted the wonders of sexual contact more and more.

    For all we had to consume as Americans, all the products we were told were wonderful, brilliant, idyllic, and were presented as our shining dreams come true, it was never enough, and that was the aim of the experiment, to create an infinite lack, a void in every one of us that would eat everything it came in contact with. That’s why American families often fail and both the men and women have become such takers. The art of giving has become forgotten because of this void. The drugs are for those people who need the next hyperbolic experience to consume, for the consumers that can no longer sustain themselves with the natural states of pleasure easily available to them in this world, and who wish to quicken the decay of their minds and bodies in order to experience an exaggerated and volatile form of pleasure. Whether they actually have pain and suffering they need to cover with this pleasure or it is something as basic as exaggerated boredom due to excessive instant gratification should be taken case by case.

    Well, seeing as I have made this comment too long, I will have to post it in my own blog as well… Thank you for writing this, I enjoyed reading it, and I hope that its many concerns will be addressed by some form of power or other.

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