Only a Drastic Change in U.S. Drug Policy Will Ease the Carnage in Mexico

Jorge Castañeda provides a sobering indictment of the counterproductive impact of Washington’s “supply side” campaign against illegal drugs. For four decades, the United States has bribed and bullied the governments of drug-source or drug-transiting countries to wage war against their own populations. That strategy has produced tragic effects, especially on societies in the Western Hemisphere. During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia and Peru bore the brunt of Washington’s misguided approach. More recently, Mexico has become the primary victim.

As Castañeda suggests, it is possible that even without U.S. support and prodding, President Felipe Calderón might have made the fateful decision in December 2006 to launch a full-blown offensive against the drug cartels, using the army for the first time as the lead agency. Nevertheless, Washington has clearly supported Calderón’s approach, rewarding his administration with the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative. Whatever the origin of Calderón’s military-based strategy, it was a disastrous miscalculation. The principal outcome of the offensive to date is a spike in the violence and the fragmentation of the more established cartels — enabling newer and even more ruthless factions to become major players.

Although one should not overstate matters, as some U.S. experts have done, and contend that Mexico is on the brink of becoming a “failed state,” the situation is bad enough. More than 5,300 people perished in drug-related violence in 2008, and the killings during the first half of 2009 are occurring at an even faster pace. Some 700 people died during June alone. Although most of the victims are themselves involved in the illegal drug trade, that too is changing. An increasing number of casualties are police or military personnel — or even innocent bystanders.

Likewise, the geographic pattern is shifting. Even before the Calderón offensive, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juarez and other cities along Mexico’s border with the United States were cockpits of drug-related fighting. That is still true, but other parts of the country that used to be largely immune from that violence, such as Monterrey, Cancun, and Acapulco, are now experiencing serious problems, as the cartels battle each other and the Mexican authorities.

Mexico’s violence is also beginning to have an impact on the United States. The FBI estimates that the Mexican drug cartels have formed ties with criminal gangs in at least 250 U.S. cities, including all of the 50 largest cities. That is an ominous development. Linkages to the cartels may give those gangs a degree of funding, training, and firepower greater than they have ever had before. Such “professionalization” could make them far more dangerous opponents for local law enforcement agencies.

Unfortunately, while Castañeda’s indictment of U.S. drug policy is painfully accurate, his policy prescriptions tend to be a vague laundry list of alternatives. He seems to toy with the idea that joint Mexico-U.S. efforts could “seal” the border and substantially reduce the flow of drugs coming through Mexico to the United States. He even seems to toy with the notion that Calderón might yet win his war against the cartels, if sufficient U.S. backing was forthcoming.

Those options are dangerous illusions. Given the robust demand for illegal drugs, not just in the United States but globally, there is no way to shut off the supply. Efforts to do so defy the most basic laws of economics. Indeed, the Calderón government faces a fundamental choice. It can continue the hopeless effort to stem both the tide of illegal drugs and the rising tide of violence, or it can return to the model that existed during earlier decades — a tacit acceptance of the illegal drug trade as long as the traffickers kept the violence at tolerable levels. Even if Calderón adopts the latter model, however, it will be little more than a precarious, band-aid solution.

The only way to ease the violence on a long-term basis is to de-fund the drug cartels. And that means that Washington must take the lead and abandon its disastrously flawed prohibition strategy. It is the drug trade’s black market status that creates a multi-billion-dollar profit to the trafficking organizations

The global trade in illegal drugs is a vast enterprise estimated at $320 billion a year or more, with Mexico’s share thought to be anywhere from $25 billion to $60 billion. Such vast financial resources enable the cartels to bribe law enforcement officials and political leaders. Late last year, several high-ranking officials in Mexico’s attorney general’s office were arrested and accused of being informers for a leading cartel. The payments allegedly given to those individuals were truly staggering — some $150,000 to $450,000 per month.

Perhaps even worse than the sums that the drug traffickers have at their disposal for bribery is their ability to pay for armed enforcers. According to the Washington Times, a high-level Pentagon official estimates that the two leading cartels, the Sinaloa and Gulf organizations, now field some 100,000 “foot soldiers.” If one adds in the probable armed personnel of the lesser cartels, including the fast-rising La Familia, the total is likely between 150,000 and 175,000. That level of firepower enables the cartels to pose a serious threat to the stability of the Mexican state.

Although the United States is the largest single retail market, U.S. demand is not the only relevant factor. Indeed, the main areas of growth are in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and some portions of the Middle East and Latin America. The bottom line is that global demand for illegal drugs is robust and likely to remain so.

There is more than enough consumption to attract and sustain traffickers. Since the trade’s illegality creates a huge black market premium (depending on the drug, 90 percent or more of the retail price), the potential profits are enormous. Supply-side anti-drug campaigns are not only a futile effort to defy the basic laws of economics, they cause serious problems of corruption and violence for Mexico and other drug-source countries. The brutal reality is that prohibition simply drives commerce in a product underground and allows the most violence-prone elements to dominate the trade.

Governments around the world finally seem to be awakening to the problems caused by a prohibition strategy. Countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal have adopted decriminalization policies for possession and use of small quantities of drugs. Sentiment for similar liberalization seems to be growing in the Western Hemisphere as well.

But such reforms, while desirable, do not get to the causal root of the violence that accompanies the drug trade. Unless the production and sale of drugs is also legalized, the black-market premium will still exist and law-abiding businesses will still avoid the trade. In other words, drug commerce will remain in the hands of criminal elements that do not shrink from bribery, intimidation, and murder.

Because of its proximity to the huge U.S. market, Mexico will continue to be a cockpit for drug-related violence. Continued adherence to prohibition means that the United States is creating the risk that the drug cartels may become powerful enough to destabilize its neighbor. Their impact on Mexico’s government and society has already reached worrisome levels. Worst of all from the standpoint of American interests, there is certainly no guarantee that the carnage will stop at Mexico’s northern border.

When the United States and other countries ponder whether to continue drug prohibition, they need to consider all of the potential societal costs, both domestically and internationally. Drug abuse is certainly a major public health problem, and its societal costs are considerable. But banning the drug trade creates economic distortions and an opportunity for the most unsavory elements to gain dominant positions. Prohibition leads inevitably to an orgy of corruption and violence. Those are even worse societal costs, and that reality is now all too evident in Mexico.

Abandoning the prohibition model is the most effective way to stem the violence in Mexico and its spillover into the United States. Other proposed solutions, including preventing the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico, establishing tighter control over the border, and (somehow) winning the war on drugs are utterly unworkable. Ending drug prohibition would de-fund the criminal trafficking organizations while enabling honest enterprises to enter the business and be content with normal profit margins. The alternative is to risk Mexico becoming a chaotic narco-state, with all the alarming implications that that development would have for America’s own security.

One would hope that Jorge Castañeda, a respected voice in both Mexico and the United States, will sharpen his arguments and take the lead in advocating the one policy that will truly make a beneficial difference on both sides of the border.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences by Jorge Castañeda

    In his lead essay, Jorge Castañeda observes that the consequences of the U.S. drug war fall unevenly on Mexico. The U.S. taste for drugs – and for prohibition – are the chief causes of drug-related crime in Mexico, he asserts. This creates a problem that Mexico cannot solve on its own. U.S. assistance has been insufficient, and Mexican resources are too few to take on the drug cartels effectively. Even if the resources were available, the militarization of life in Mexico would be politically unacceptable to most Mexicans, who have enjoyed a relatively tranquil military in contrast to many other Latin American countries. Another approach to the war on drugs would simply be decriminalization, but again, Mexico cannot unilaterally decriminalize, because it would face severe diplomatic consequences from the United States and possibly become a refuge for addicts. The United States must lead the way toward solving this problem, which is of its own making.

Response Essays

  • Making “Hamsterdam” an Option by Stephanie Hanson

    Stephanie Hanson suggests that decriminalizing drugs, and possibly legalizing marijuana, is a promising strategy for reducing drug-related violence. Yet she acknowledges that coordination problems exist between the United States and Mexico on this issue, and she suggests that a second-best option may be to enforce stricter controls on guns leaving the United States and heading to Mexico.

  • The United States Must Help Mexico Defeat Narco-Insurgencies by James Roberts

    James Roberts faults Prof. Castañeda for taking the easy way out: Drug legalization might not be much work for the elites, but it will ruin lives and degrade regional democracies. It won’t stop violence and may even increase it. The United States and Mexico should work together to fight Mexican drug cartels because the survival of the Mexican state is at stake, along with American lives and American morals. Mexico in particular needs to step forward, reform its corrupt government and enforcement agencies, and get its own house in order, rather than seeking U.S.-based solutions.

The Conversation