Review: “Dealing Death and Drugs, The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico,” by Beto O’Rourke and Susie Byrd

So this arrived this week, serendipitously with today’s proposal from Beto O’Rourke to legalize and tax marijuana, release and expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana possession, and help businesses that sell marijuana use banks.

Beto co-wrote it in 2011 during his last term on El Paso’s city council with a fellow council member, Susie Byrd.

It’s a fascinatingly well-researched piece of journalism that really digs into cartel economics and into the dynamics of violence that surround the drug trade. Per the back cover, a portion of the proceeds from the book goes to Centra Santa Catalina, a faith-based community in Ciudad Juarez, founded in 1996 by Dominican Sisters for the “spiritual, educational and economic empowerment of economically poor women and for the welfare of their families.”

Regarding cartel economics, I was intrigued to learn that marijuana was — and likely still is — the cartels’ most profitable line. I had assumed that cocaine, with its higher price points, ability to be diluted and tidier physical scale (a kilo of coke is roughly the size of a pound of weed, and can provide many times more doses), would be the profit center. And those are among the reasons why Mexican cartels assumed cocaine distribution for Columbian cartels in the 1990s, as documented in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico series.

But because Mexican cartels control each link of marijuana’s farm-to-market value chain, they capture pricing markups every step of the way, and so the unit economics favor marijuana over any other cartel offering. Thus, O’Rourke and Byrd argue, nationwide decriminalization poses an existential threat to Mexican cartels’ core business.

Regarding the violence: For the 15 years prior to 2008, the average annual murder rate in Juarez, long a sister city to El Paso, was 236. In 2008, it spiked nearly sevenfold to 1,623, sparked in part by a territory battle between Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel, and by the ensuing military response from then Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s government. Escalating along with the numbers was the gruesomeness of the murders — beheadings, torture, dismemberments, immolations, etc.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can hardly be shocked to read how a military response to violence could lead both to more violence and to more grotesque permutations of it, but I digress.

In response, the often fractious city council of El Paso — neither a liberal nor libertarian bastion — unanimously passed a resolution in 2008 that contained a Beto-penned amendment, to encourage “an honest, open, national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.” (Beto later admitted that the resolution’s wording was flawed, as marijuana is not a narcotic.)

Fearing blowback from Austin and D.C., El Paso Mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution. When it came time to summon the votes to override the veto, then-Congressman Silvestre Reyes, who’d served El Paso in the 16th district for over a decade and served as Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence between 2007 and 2011, threatened blackmail: Going forward with the resolution would result in withholding stimulus funds from El Paso, the United States’ third-poorest city.

Of the six council members needed to override the veto, two bailed. Both defectors cited Reyes’ threat.

Reyes’ threat came with an assurance: “This thing is going to break in the next six months,” a Reyes spokesman told the Council. “Believe me.”

Reyes’ prediction was spectacularly off: In 2010, Juarez mourned 3,111 murders to El Paso’s five, a per capita surge of 200 killings per 100,000 from 165 in 2009. The tidal wave of carnage heaved 230,000 Juarenses (including the mayor and police chief) into El Paso between 2010 and 2012.

Three years after his ill-fated prediction, and despite an endorsement from President Obama, the multi-term incumbent Reyes lost his congressional seat to Beto. Those claiming that Beto’s current gun proposal signals a desperate attempt to reboot his campaign clearly misapprehend the man’s historical readiness to step on political third rails on his way up the polls.

The tragedy of Juarez could no longer be fully explained by cartel violence. As Juarez spiraled into lawlessness, the value of life cheapened, and “crimes of opportunity” exploded:

The message became clear to the tens of thousands of ninis (ni trabajan, ni estudian — young men who had neither employment nor schooling) that violence was a means for advancement, for obtaining wealth, and for settling scores.

The mindlessness of that violence — spurred not by violent video games or movies, but by exposure to actual violence — made me think of what we’re dealing with on this side of the Rio Grande; most recently, for example, the teenaged girl who was arrested and charged with making terroristic threats, threatening “to shoot 400 people for fun.”

Regardless of your political leanings (and I am a Beto partisan), Dealing Death and Drugs remains a vital book. Obviously, it offers a window into the thinking of a candidate who is moving the Overton Window on two taboo issues — the ban and buyback of civilian-owned military weapons and marijuana decriminalization. But it also illustrates how these two issues intersect and metastasize.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store