August 2009

There’s a side to the war on drugs that most Americans never see. Although drug use is often discussed as a local or a national issue, it’s also an international one. The American taste for heroin, marijuana, and cocaine creates a black market that stretches around the globe.

Although they aren’t always in the American public eye, drug interdiction programs that go after international trafficking can promise much greater payoffs than street-level enforcement at home. Stop the drugs before they ever reach the United States, and there will be fewer drug dealers on American streets. So the thinking goes.

Yet this strategy comes at a price. The demands of American drug interdiction can strain the law enforcement and military resources of countries that aren’t always willing or eager to support our drugs-and-prohibition habit. Standing up to the United States isn’t easy, either, and even America’s friends can’t necessarily persuade it to change policies.

In the international war on drugs, Mexico has been particularly hard-hit. A good deal of drug trafficking proceeds through Mexico, and the United States has frequently pressured its southern neighbor to adopt more stringent interdiction policies. Often, says lead essayist Jorge Castañeda, these policies are politically unpopular, expensive, and ineffective. They strain U.S.-Mexican relations while failing to deliver on their promises. Worse, they sow corruption and violence in Mexico.

To discuss Castañeda’s provocative thesis, we’ve invited a panel of three experts on international affairs: Stephanie Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations, Jim Roberts of the Heritage Foundation, and Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute.

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Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ted Galen Carpenter commends Jorge Castañeda for recognizing the nature of the problem that besets his country, but he suggests a more radical solution: As long as U.S. prohibition remains in place, he writes, violent criminals will dominate the trade in narcotics. Only ending prohibition can solve the international problems of the drug trade. Militarization of enforcement simply escalates the violence and corruption, because the cartels have enough money to bribe and/or fight their way through any escalation we’d be prepared to mount.