Press "Enter" to skip to content

Lessons from Mexico’s drug wars

The drug wars, or massacres, in Mexico seem interminable, and irresolvable. The subject of a recent (11 July) TIME magazine’s cover story, details about the nature and extent of the human cost accompanying this apparently ineradicable scourge of Mexican society are almost too horrific to register consciously. (I know what some readers will say: so are the violent crime statistics in South Africa — indeed.) In the past five years, according to Time, about 40 000 Mexicans have lost their lives through gang murders alone. In Time there is a poignant photograph of some 70 empty graves on the side of a Juárez graveyard, already dug in anticipation of the next victims of the drug wars — testament to the inability of humankind to break this violent cycle once and for all.

“The US helped create this beast …”, says Tim Padgett/Durango in Time, “… Americans consume $65-billion worth of illegal drugs annually, roughly what they spend on higher education, and most of those drugs are either produced in Mexico or transit through it. The US is also a primary source of the weapons the cartels use to unleash their mayhem … 70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years were smuggled from north of the border.”

It defies comprehension that a society can be so at war with itself that human life appears to have literally lost ALL value — even when a superficial take seems to explain it, simply, in terms of the colossal profits on the part of the druglords — until one turns to psychoanalysis for some understanding. At the recent International Society for Theoretical Psychology conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, David Cuéllar of the Michoacana de San Nicolás University in Mexico offered his audience just such a psychoanalytic interpretation of this utterly reprehensible socio-economic phenomenon.

Cuéllar spoke of Freud’s claim, that discontent is inherent in culture, no less so capitalist culture than any other, given the renunciation of the (life) drives that is required for work (and culture) to be accomplished. Reciprocally, culture — or language as the bearer of culture, which alienates humans from nature as the “real” — creates a “desire” on the part of humans that cannot, in principle, be satisfied, because humans have lost the unreflective fusion with being that their forebears (and they, as infants) presumably once had.

On the other hand, the “needs” that exist in culture may seem to be subject to satisfaction through food, sex and commodities, he further reminded his audience, but the latter are not satisfying in any enduring manner. And in capitalist culture, specifically, the commodities that are produced, ostensibly to satisfy these needs, are subject to a double “un-satisfaction”: because obsolescence is built into them, they are “designed” to create dissatisfaction almost as soon as they have been used, and the prospect of a “better” or “later” model (of cellphone, for instance) presents itself. It requires no genius to see how this need-satisfaction illusion applies to “hard” drugs, with their promise of oblivion, albeit short-lived, from the reality of the uncompromising workaday world.

Within capitalist culture, with its peculiar kinds of discontent, Cuéllar pointed out, drug-use occupies a special position as part of a drug sub-culture, given the impression, created by the availability of drugs, that they can appease the need to overcome the discontent inseparable from capitalist society. “This new discontent”, he intimated, [can be] “… analysed in the context of the subculture that has developed, in Mexico, in order to satisfy the need of drugs in the United States … this need of drugs can only be understood in the context of the capitalist culture and in relation to the subculture of drug dealing and trafficking. The Mexican discontent involved in this subculture might even be advantageously used by psychologists in order to elucidate the American discontent related to the need of drugs. So [he warned] this need must not be individualised, psychologised, abstracted from the system and considered independently from the other devices of the system. There is a deep and close connection between the violent devices of the capitalist system in Mexico and the reflexive need of escaping from this system in the United States.”

If I understood him correctly, what Cuéllar was getting at was that the interlocking, systematically connected “desire” for profit, on the part of competing Mexican drug cartels (and on the part of American crime-syndicates who supply these gangs with most of the weapons they need, like assault rifles), on the one hand, and the demonstrably colossal “need” for drugs in the US, on the other — is a strictly capitalist phenomenon. And from a psychoanalytic perspective, both — desire as well as need — can never be fulfilled, despite the necessarily constructed illusion that they can. To approach the matter as if each individual “case” of drug trafficking and of drug use can be understood or treated in isolation from the capitalist cultural system of which it forms a part, is sheer blindness. The system in its totality must be understood and critically addressed, but there is scant evidence that this is being done (except by a few intellectuals like David Cuéllar).

And so this insane business in, and between, Mexico and the United States carries on, like the repetition-compulsion which manifests Freud’s death-drive, running through its virtually daily cycle of weapons- and drug-supply, drug-use (with all its concomitant problems and destruction of lives), Mexican government and police attempts to arrest or eradicate the drug gangs, retaliation on the part of the latter, and violent deaths aplenty. There are signs that the Mexican people have had enough of this senseless slaughter, but whether their outrage, combined with the Mexican government’s commitment to put an end to it, can succeed in doing so while the deadly embrace between desire for money and need for drug-oblivion exists, is doubtful.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.