About this Issue
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.
A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences
American drug policy has been a central component of U.S.–Mexican relations, and of Mexican drug policy, at least since 1969, when Richard Nixon unleashed Operation Intercept at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border, inspecting every vehicle that crossed the border with the hope, not of finding any drugs, but of pressuring the government of then-President Gustavo Díaz Ordáz to expand Mexican drug enforcement. Since that time at least, the United States has followed a policy of criminalization, interdiction, and de facto drug-consumption acceptance, given that American society has been reluctant to pay the price of a full-fledged attempt at zero tolerance. This has transferred a significant share of the burden of drug enforcement to the supply side of the equation, and in consequence, to the foreign policy domain.
Until very recently, an overwhelming proportion of the drugs consumed in the United States have come from abroad, and since the mid-1980s, from or through Mexico. The exception today begins to become marijuana, where U.S. production has probably now surpassed imports, though not by much. Drug traffickers and organized crime have reached the same conclusions as everyone else – i.e., the easiest way to enter the United States, for people, goods, services and money — is from Mexico. Thus a disproportionate concentration of U.S. drug enforcement efforts abroad have centered on Mexico. The only exception has perhaps been Plan Colombia since the late nineties, but many, including this writer, believe the Clinton-Bush initiative was as much a counterinsurgency effort as a drug enforcement program.
While every Mexican administration since the sixties has piously declared that it intended to intensify its drug enforcement efforts for domestic motivations — drug addiction, corruption, national security, etc — the fact is that the real reason, except possibly for the current president, Felipe Calderón, has always been American persuasion or pressure. It’s not that absent the U.S. factor Mexico would have no drug enforcement policy at all, but rather that the priority attached to it would be much lower.
This has always generated ambivalence in Mexico. From the outset of this period of U.S.-Mexican relations, there has usually been a feeling in Mexico that the United States, because of what Hillary Clinton recently called its “insatiable demand” for drugs, and because of its peculiar gun laws, has created a problem for Mexico that Mexico cannot solve. Mexico puts up the bodies, the boots on the ground, and the money, and Mexico lives with the violent consequences of an American dilemma, which Mexico believes the United States only addresses hypocritically.
This is why in general there is scant support for a tough drug enforcement stance in Mexico; most of the country’s inhabitants tend to think that in this field, at least, Mexico is doing the United States’ dirty work. The only way to get around this challenge has been to fabricate other explanations, which almost always are at best half-truths. This is what has taken place under President Calderón: he has provided several rationales for his crackdown — consumption in Mexico, violence, loss of state control in certain parts of the country, corruption — which, while not totally false, are at best ongoing plagues that the country has managed and lived with for decades. In the case of consumption, the rationale is simply false: Mexican drug use, according to the government’s own statistics, remains remarkably low, and has barely grown over the past decade. Initially, a justification like Calderón’s works well, because it casts the government’s policy as homegrown and domestic-driven; but after a while the weakness of the argument begins to surface, and public opinion starts noticing a substantial gap between the magnitude of the efforts deployed and the reasons for doing so.
It is worthwhile recalling that Mexico has traditionally produced marijuana and heroin, and more recently methamphetamines, but not the most attractive drug from a business perspective: cocaine. Heroin suffers from a ceiling on the number of addicts at any given time, in any given country, although it is a high-value, low-volume merchandise; marijuana is tremendously bulky given the profits it fetches, even if the universe of its consumers can and does expand; only cocaine brings together the business advantages of both drugs, without the inconveniences of either. But since coca leaf does not grow in Mexico, the country is exclusively a trans-shipper to the United States: if the latter did not exist, or did not use cocaine in any of its variations, Mexico’s drug “problem” would almost vanish or, more precisely, be reduced to the traditional use of marijuana and probably the consumption of synthetic drugs by affluent teenagers in night clubs. So again, even the economics of the drug trade make Mexican policy highly U.S.–driven: it is because of American demand that Mexico is “forced” to wage a war on drugs that otherwise it would not have to fight.
All of this serves to show why current U.S. drug policy — i.e., the one in place since the sixties — would have to change in order for the Mexican stance to change. It also explains why it is virtually impossible for Mexico to follow a different policy unilaterally. When in 2005 then-President Vicente Fox attempted to modify the country’s laws to decriminalize the possession of very small quantities of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine, essentially to eliminate the Mexican equivalent of the so-called Rockefeller laws and not imprison minor drug offenders, he met a ferocious resistance from the Bush administration, which in addition to direct pressure also argued that a supposedly imminent immigration reform would be jeopardized (it was never approved anyway). Fox backed down, basically having no choice.
Mexico cannot really hope to alter its drug-enforcement approach while the United States doesn’t act accordingly. We cannot legalize, decriminalize, or move to harm reduction if the United States doesn’t do the same, because we would become, like Zurich in the recent past, a sanctuary for U.S. consumers of one sort or another. We cannot successfully pursue a full-fledged direct onslaught against the cartels — like Calderón has chosen to do — without both failing and paying an enormous price. And while we might be able to return to the tacit modus vivendi of the past, it will not be easy, now that Mexico has asked for American support, and has at least partly received it. Washington will not willingly retract itself from the commitments and praise it has showered on Felipe Calderón if he were to draw back from his war on drugs and search for some type of accommodation (which he seems, by the way, totally opposed to doing). So where does that leave Mexican policy for the second half of the Calderón administration, and Barack Obama’s first term?
If current trends toward medical decriminalization continue, if the Webb Commission in the Senate concludes that some changes in U.S. drug laws are necessary and desirable, and if the Obama administration pursues a de facto harm reduction approach without explicitly stating it, there may be a way for Mexico to extricate itself from its current, tragic predicament. Otherwise, though, there does not seem to be any accessible, affordable, and acceptable exit strategy from the current war. And Mexico will continue to pay an exorbitant cost for having plunged, with U.S. support and encouragement, into a war with no ostensible victory in sight.
By taking on all of the cartels, all the time, throwing the Mexican military at them, and obviously not engaging with means to achieve his ends, Calderón has painted himself into a corner. The end is obviously not to eradicate drug production or trans-shipment in Mexico, but rather, to limit local processing and acreage, and to sufficiently raise the cost of using Mexican territory as an entryway to the United States to “push” the cartels away from Mexico toward other routes. The two aims require three ingredients: an effective police force for domestic law enforcement; an effective military to seal off land, sea, and air frontiers; and considerable U.S. support in training, equipment, intelligence, detection, and so forth. None of these are available at this time, not will they be at any time soon. We will now see why.
For all practical purposes, Mexico does not have a national police force. There are roughly 2,500 municipal police corps, thirty two state police forces, and since 1999, a Federal Police (PF) actually made of two army brigades, with about 18,000 operational troops. The country also has a federal investigative police, the AFI, modeled on the FBI, which was supposed to be merged with the PF, though this ultimately proved impossible. The roughly 350,000 members of the municipal and state police departments are basically useless as law enforcement agencies, and even more so as drug enforcement entities. The last three governments (Zedillo, Fox and Calderón) have known this, which is why they all tried, so far unsuccessfully, to build a national police, along the lines of Chile’s Carabineros, or Colombia’s Policía Nacional. Calderón founded a new police academy in 2007, but as of this writing, and in response to direct questions posed by Human Rights Watch, for example, his government has stated that not one single combat-ready “cop” has graduated from the six-month instruction (woefully insufficient, in any case) that the academy provides. The only graduates are “intelligence analysts,” which Mexico has anyway in its National Security and Intelligence Center (CISEN). As long as any Mexican president can use the army to do police work and drug-enforcement jobs, there is no reason to believe that he won’t do so. And the National Police Force will remain a work in progress.
The Mexican Army is one of the most respected institutions in the country, but the government makes too much of this. Firstly, poll questions can be formulated in many different ways, and depending on the poll, the army is more or less admired. Secondly, it is liked more where it isn’t stationed than where it is; and thirdly, Mexican society knows full well that the corruption scandals in the military do not just belong to the past (Zedillo’s drug czar, General Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested in 1998 for drug trafficking). Moreover, the modern Mexican military, founded after the Revolution in the twenties, has always been held on a short leash by the civilian leadership of the country. The non-military presidents, from 1946 onward, preferred to compress — or depress — the training, equipment, professionalism and overall combat readiness of the army, largely as a way of forestalling any temptations it might have had to intervene in politics. Unlike in much of the rest of Latin America, the Mexican military is not an aristocratic corps, nor have they staged any coups or pronunciamientos in nearly a century. But this, then, is deliberately an army, navy, and air force unready for sophisticated, complex, multifaceted, rapid deployment operations like sealing off the southern border by air, land, and sea.
Mexico’s aerospace effort began in the early nineties, with P-4 flights piloted by Mexicans but with an American advisor on board; aerostatic balloons, mini-AWACs, radars and swift boat pursuit groups were set up in the late nineties; more mini-AWACs were purchased from Brazil in 2001, but all of this has largely come to naught. Today, many experts believe that although according to some intelligence sources, small plane drug shipments from Colombia and Central America have already dropped significantly, Mexico, with massive U.S. support, could go further and create the equivalent of a no-fly zone in the south, where every unauthorized and unidentified aircraft would ipso facto be shot down without further notice. Maritime surveillance is more complex, because of the endless Mexican coastlines. Even if the navy only patrolled in the south, it would be spread across three seas: the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, and detecting all night time incursions, semi-submersible vessels, and other stealthy intruders would be virtually impossible. Again, the only way to do this is with the type of U.S. support that allowed Washington to cut off the South Florida routes in the mid-eighties. Finally, the land border, given the incredible porousness of the Mexico-Guatemala border, might best be sealed off at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, as the intelligence agency has contemplated since 2004, but again, this also would involve American cooperation, now in the Mexican hinterland, no longer just at the border.
Which brings us to the third issue, which we have in fact already touched upon repeatedly: U.S. cooperation. The Merida Initiative may have been, as both governments hailed it, a watershed in that on the one hand Washington accepted its responsibility in the drug quagmire (although it in fact has always acknowledged this since the sixties), and Mexico finally requested and received far greater sums of American aid than before (although in relative terms this is arguable: see Zedillo’s receipt and return of more than sixty Vietnam-vintage “Huey” helicopters in the nineties). But this is nowhere near significant enough for the challenges outlined above.
In addition to U.S. budgetary reasons, it is insufficient because Mexico does not want more, given the stringent conditions which generally accompany American aid. Most importantly, and in stark contrast to Plan Colombia, where nearly one thousand U.S. personnel (openly official, or “contractual”) have been operating for a decade, Mexico will not accept American “boots on the ground.” This is perfectly understandable, given the two countries’ history, but it is contradictory. The Pentagon and Congress will not readily provide sophisticated technology to Mexican forces if they subsequently switch sides, as the infamous “Zetas” did in the late nineties; they want to do the vetting themselves. Worse still, it costs immensely more to train Mexican forces in the United States, than to send U.S. trainers to Mexico. And lastly, in order for intelligence cooperation to function effectively, the level of trust, cooperation and real-time, on-the-ground collaboration in pursuit operations must reach levels unheard of until now. None of this is anywhere near the realm of the possible, and in all likelihood will not become feasible any time soon.
Hence the paradox U.S. drug policy has wrought. As long as criminalization, its hypocrisy, and serious discussions of the alternatives are banned from public discussion, U.S. drug policy will remain what it has been for the past forty years: a supply-side, foreign-policy, nickel-and-dime war waged beyond U.S. borders. In the case of Mexico, for a series of specific reasons, that policy, as well as domestic Mexican political considerations, have led to a war that cannot be won and should not be waged. Unless the United States is ready and able to provide much more support for Mexico, with a much longer-standing commitment, and with far greater “cultural” obstacles, than Plan Colombia. And in addition, Mexico has to let itself be helped if it wants to win the war of choice that President Calderón has embarked upon. It would have to accept conditions and terms of U.S. support that have always been anathema in the past, and that Mexican society is probably not yet ready to countenance.
There is no optimum solution to this conundrum. But the only conceivable alternative lies in a change in U.S. drug policy: not demand reduction, or supply interdiction, but decriminalization, harm reduction, adjusting laws to reality instead of uselessly attempting the opposite, and understanding that the last thing the United States needs is a fire next door.
Making “Hamsterdam” an Option
In season three of The Wire, the HBO series on drugs and politics in Baltimore, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin finds a way to decrease crime in his district and “clean up the corners.” His solution? A “free zone” of abandoned rowhouses where he tells neighborhood drug dealers they can peddle their wares without consequences, as long as there’s no violence. The dealers move in to what quickly becomes known as “Hamsterdam,” crime drops in the district, and Colvin allows public health researchers into his social experiment to work with drug users. After six weeks, the police commissioner gets wind of what’s going on in the Western District and reports it to the mayor, whose first instinct is to shut it down. But then he flips through a sheaf of letters from community members thanking Colvin for cleaning up their neighborhood. He tells the police commissioner to wait, calls in a panel of advisers, and says: “A 14 percent decline in felonies citywide and I might be untouchable on this. We need to see if there’s some way to keep this thing going without calling it what it is.” His closest adviser is appalled. “This is legalizing drugs,” he says. In the end, the mayor, who is worried about his reelection prospects, decides to shut down Hamsterdam. Colvin is demoted, the drug dealers return to their corners, and the Western District reverts to business as usual.
The idea of drug legalization, or its softer counterpart, decriminalization, is a political nightmare in the United States. For most of the decades-long war on drugs, the bulk of U.S. efforts, and funds, have focused on a fight waged outside the United States: curtailing supply. Reducing demand in the United States has largely been overlooked. Yet as Jorge Casteñeda writes, U.S. drug policy in Latin America is a failure. We eradicated coca crops in Colombia, and farmers in Peru upped their coca cultivation. We made it harder to move drugs through the Caribbean and Miami, and drug cartels started moving drugs across the Mexican border. We tightened regulations on the ingredients used to make methamphetamine, and the production of meth in Mexico soared. The United States has made it harder to move drugs through Latin America, without a doubt. But the Mexican drug cartels have adapted, growing more sophisticated and expanding their networks south into Central America and north into the United States. They now have operations in over two hundred U.S. cities — the Justice Department sees them as “the biggest organized crime threat to the United States.”
Ending the grip of the drug cartels and the corruption they’ve bred throughout Mexican institutions like the police and the judiciary will take drastic measures. Curtailing supply has been a resounding failure; we must turn to controlling demand. The United States should decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs, and it should seriously consider legalization, particularly for marijuana. This legislation should simultaneously up funding for government treatment and prevention programs. Creating a nationwide version of Hamsterdam would not come without risks. But like Major Colvin, who tried everything to curb crime in his district over his decades as a Baltimore policeman, we don’t have any appealing alternatives. As the Economist wrote earlier this year, legalization is the “least bad” option. Based on evidence from places like Portugal and Amsterdam, it’s unlikely that decriminalization would substantively increase the number of drug users. Legalization is another story. While it would eliminate the livelihood of drug traffickers (and the need for violent turf battles), it’s unclear how legalization would affect drug use. But public health researchers should have the opportunity to find out. Revenues from taxation could fund this research, as well as treatment for addicts and prevention programs for youth.
Hamsterdam functioned as long as it did because felonies went down in the Western District. Any new U.S. policy of decriminalization or legalization would need to be paired with efforts to help Mexico deal with its organized crime-fueled violence. Given Mexican resistance to U.S. interference and unwillingness to allow U.S. boots on the ground, the smartest and most cost-effective way the United States could help is by controlling the flow of guns across the border. Most of the guns confiscated in Mexico come from the United States; the Mexican ambassador estimates 2,000 guns a day cross into Mexico. Drug cartels hire “straws” to purchase guns for them, and then bribe or threaten truckers to transport them across the border. The United States needs to up its inspections of southbound vehicles and tighten up the monitoring of gun sales in Arizona and Texas.
Unlike current U.S. policy, legalization and efforts to control the movement of guns to Mexico would place the United States in a more favorable position with Mexico and other countries in Latin America. The latest U.S. effort to help reduce drug trafficking and violence in Mexico and Central America, the Merida Initiative, is hardly off the ground, and it is already widely considered a failure. Its funding levels are inadequate; beyond that, most of the money the United States is giving to Mexico is for equipment, not enhancing the capability of the Mexican police and judiciary. As Shannon O’Neil points out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the initiative focuses on supporting Mexican federal institutions, not state and local bodies. “It leaves out those on the frontlines who are most likely to face the ultimate Faustian bargain — money or death — from organized crime,” she writes.
Latin Americans have become increasingly vocal about what kind of assistance they would like from the United States. Earlier this year, three former Latin American presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, published a report in which they advocated a U.S. drug policy that decreases demand and consumption and gives careful consideration to decriminalization of marijuana. “We must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system,” they wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. In late April, the Mexican legislature passed a bill that effectively decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine (the bill awaits the signature of President Felipe Calderón to become law). The United States vocally opposed the same legislation in 2006, pressuring President Vicente Fox not to sign it. This time, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says he will adopt a “wait and see” attitude on the law. Kerlikowske should follow Mexico’s lead and push for the passage of parallel legislation in the United States. Such a move would increase trust between the two countries and decrease the Mexican perception that the United States isn’t shouldering its share of the burden in the drug war. It’s time for the United States to listen to the countries that have borne the brunt of the violence associated with drug trafficking. This may be politically unpalatable, but so is a failed state across our southern border.
The United States Must Help Mexico Defeat Narco-Insurgencies
With some artful sleight-of-hand, Professor Castañeda paints the United States into a corner politically and, as the elites in Mexico have done all too often in the past, points the finger of blame for Mexico’s drug-related violence squarely at the Yankees. He leaves open only the “easy” way out: legalization of psychotropic drugs in the United States. If we don’t, the professor warns, we will face “the fire next door.” Decriminalization or bust, so to speak. I beg to differ.
In fact, of all the potential solutions that Dr. Castañeda sets up and then knocks down, the decriminalization option is the least realistic politically and has the lowest probability of actually happening. Because notwithstanding the mixed signals the Obama Administration has sent about it since taking power, the American people know that legalization would be a disaster.
Mexican Elites — Part of the Problem
Unfortunately former Foreign Minister Castañeda and others in the elites have tended to blame Mexico’s domestic problems on the United States and then demand that the Americans fix them. When the “Mexican Miracle” fizzled out in the late 1970s, the elites should have reformed their outdated political and economic institutions. Instead, they exported their problem to the United States by encouraging massive out-migration and reaped a hard-currency windfall in remittances.
Professor Castañeda even finds a way to blame the current drug problem on Richard Nixon in 1969! Perhaps he forgets that was the watershed year when Baby Boomers virtually invented Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” who were alarmed as their children began toking up with “Proud Mary” from Mexico, rebelled against 200 years of the American Protestant Work Ethic, and trudged through the muddy fields of the socialist Woodstock Nation.
The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom details pervasive corruption and weak rule of law stunting economic growth and job creation in Mexico. A recent Transparency International report found that many political leaders are neck-deep in drug-related corruption and concludes that this stain upon the country’s honor cannot be seriously addressed until the elites reform themselves. President Calderón has been courageous in showing them the way.
Americans Will Never Permit the Legalization of Drugs
Dr. Castañeda’s facile assumption that the Yankees will come to Mexico’s rescue yet again by decriminalizing drugs, thereby putting the cartels out of business, minimizes the obstacles. Exactly how will U.S. politicians sell their constituents on this fundamental change — one that goes directly against the grain of American exceptionalism? As Clinton-era Drug Czar and retired General Barry McCaffrey stated emphatically in a talk at Heritage, decriminalization will never happen in the United States because the American people will oppose the legal sale of substances that can destroy healthy bodies and so easily degrade the human spirit while increasing crime.
Six months ago budget-busting nationalized Obamacare and ruinously expensive, non-transparent “Cap-and-Trade” legislation looked like sure bets to sail through the U.S. Congress. Not anymore. Decriminalization won’t, either, because the American people know that legalization in places like crime-infested Amsterdam has failed just as miserably as has the fiscally unsustainable European social welfare model.
Decriminalization Would Create New Problems and Not Solve the Old Ones
The Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson enumerates the many practical problems that decriminalization would create. Inevitably the government would control every aspect of legally available psychotropic drugs — their manufacture, importation, and sale. They would instantly become a magnet for corrupt officials.
Moreover, lawmakers faced with spiraling budget deficits would be sorely tempted to impose high “sin taxes” on these morally problematic products. Gray market incentives for criminals (viz. cigarette smuggling) would engender the very same Prohibition-style violence that decriminalization advocates decry. If taxes miraculously remained low and “street” prices for the drugs dropped (no risk premium), consumption would skyrocket and (more) violence and social dislocation would follow. We would end up right back where we started, but worse off.
International Anti-American Campaigns, Funded in Part by Narco-traffickers
The international drug cartels are increasingly shipping their products from Venezuela through rapidly destabilizing Central American countries and into Mexico for overland smuggling into the United States. From Taliban jihads funded with opium profits to the trouble Hugo Chavez is stirring up in Colombia (via drug-trafficking FARC guerillas) and elsewhere in the region, would-be totalitarian dictators bent on overthrowing democratic governments and undermining U.S. influence are working closely with narco-traffickers.
Gustavo Coronel, a Venezuelan expatriate and engineer who has studied the would-be president-for-Life for years, notes that Chavez has cut ties with U.S. drug enforcement officials and ordered Venezuelan government officials to cooperate with the drug cartels instead. Venezuela is now the principal conduit for Andean cocaine going to the United States and Europe.
Using the immense cash flow generated by oil sales and narco-trafficking, Chavez has provided financing for extreme left presidential candidacies in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Recent U.S. government reports tie another President-for-life wannabee, Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, to Chavez cocaine cash and trafficking. Chavez also
reportedly helped to bankroll the campaign of leftist Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, who nearly won the Mexican presidency in 2006. Dr. Castañeda makes no mention of any of these very significant aspects of the current threat.
The “Fire Next Door” Is Already Raging — in Both Countries
Rule of law and security are under siege in North America from criminal organizations. Understandably, President Calderón and the Mexican people feel they are bearing a heavy burden in their fight to dismantle drug cartels and stop the flow of tons of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines to the United States. Since 2006, more than 10,000 Mexicans have been murdered in drug-related killings, 600 of which were law enforcement and military personnel. Mexico’s internal security and future governability are threatened by lawlessness.
Americans also feel increasingly feel victimized and powerless, however, as they watch their government struggling to control the chaos wrought by drug trafficking along the southern border. Mexican drug cartels aggressively push their destructive products on American consumers. They operate in 230 U.S. cities and are America’s largest organized crime threat.
President Calderón has asked for and needs U.S. help. The Bush Administration’s
“Merida Initiative” was modeled on the successful “Plan Colombia.” But implementation has been slow and the current size of the program is inadequate to the task at hand, as Professor Castañeda rightfully points out. The roadblocks, however, have been set up by his former ideological soul-mates on the left. Some Democrats in Congress and leftist U.S. NGOs want to block the assistance, claiming the Mexican military commits serious human rights violations. They seem to forget the human rights of the thousands of victims of drug violence.
Dr. Castañeda complains that “Plan Colombia” was “as much a counter-insurgency effort as a drug-enforcement program.” Why is that a problem, professor? Where do you draw the line between the two threats? Why would we not want to see the same positive outcomes in Mexico through the Merida Initiative? His answer boils down to four words: “Boots on the Ground.”
Mexico’s Narco-insurgency Armies
Today two major cartels — Gulf and Sinaloa — battle each other for turf. William and Mary Political Science and renowned expert on Mexican affairs Professor George Grayson calls the violence of the cartels “grotesquely brutal”; beheadings are commonplace. He tallied up their arsenals, which include AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles (Chavez recently purchased 200,000 AK-47s from the Russians), MP5s and 50-mm machine guns, grenade launchers, ground-to-air missiles, dynamite, bazookas, and helicopters. None of these military-grade weapons could be obtained legally from the United States. Professor Castañeda repeats the media meme by alleging that, again, it’s America’s fault since the guns doing the killing in Mexico come from the United States.
Dr. Castañeda faults President Calderón for using the military to take on “all of the cartels, all the time.” The reality is that Calderón has no choice; the survival of the Mexican state is at risk. The Mexican government is fighting a series of drug-funded mini-insurgencies for control of huge chunks of the national territory. In a recent report, General McCaffrey explained that the local police are out-gunned and corrupted. Only the military can face the cartels and their platoon-sized units using night vision goggles, encrypted communications, sophisticated information operations, and sea-going submersibles. Professor Castañeda’s lament that Chile and Colombia have organized effective police forces while Mexico has not only serves to highlight another failure of the Mexican elites to lead.
Both Countries Are Threatened — the USA Must Defend Mexico’s Sovereignty
The Obama Administration has sent disquieting and confusing signals about the direction of its drug policy. White House Drug Czar Kerlikowske claims the “war on drugs” is over and that the Administration is now waging a vaguely defined “war on a product” that emphasizes new drug demand reduction and treatment options. Gone is the Bush Administration’s hard-line stance on enforcement, replaced by softer and more permissive policies that green-light “medical marijuana” and coddle users by promoting “needle exchanges.”
Instead of succumbing to the siren call of legalization from Professor Castañeda and others, President Obama must ramp up U.S. support for President Calderón’s fight against the cartels. Ironically, 160 years after the Mexican–American War, only the Americans have the capacity to help the Mexicans defeat the narco-terrorists and preserve their sovereignty. Active-duty, uniformed U.S. military help is not necessary — U.S. government civilians can give advice and training in addition to keeping track of sophisticated U.S. military equipment.
President Obama should also get personally involved in the U.S. demand reduction effort by loudly and clearly voicing his personal opposition to drug consumption and abuse, and by speaking directly on the harm done, not only by trafficking, but also by consumption of illegal substances, including marijuana. This would significantly boost the effectiveness of demand reduction messages at home and abroad and bring needed clarity to the president’s stance on the issue.
Take a Stand for Truth, Justice, and the Mexican Way
Jorge Castañeda should oppose the wealthy and powerful forces that would enslave millions in lives lost to drug addiction and violence. Such bravery could even help him realize his dream of winning Mexico’s presidency.
Dare to take a stand for the right thing in Mexico, professor, don’t take the “easy” way out. Don’t support the legal sanctioning of these physically and morally destructive drugs. Rally the center-left and leftist parties to support Calderón in his fight against the cartels. Be the one to finally say to the Mexican people and the elites, enough corruption!
Stand against the dark forces, professor, and prevail!
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.
Evaluating Plan Colombia
In his essay, James Roberts argues that Mexico blames the United States for its drug-related violence, when in reality the corruption of Mexican elites and narco-traffickers cooperating with the Venezuelan government are at fault. While corruption in the Mexican state has hindered a more robust response to drug-related violence, and the rise of Venezuela as a transit country for narcotics is concerning, neither is to blame for Mexico becoming the transit point for 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. For that, much of the blame lies with the United States — for both its failure to curb cocaine production in Colombia and its failure to curb demand for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and meth at home.
Roberts suggests that the United States should up its assistance to Mexico along the lines of the Merida Initiative, but with more funding. He seems to believe that such a policy would work, because, after all, the model for the Merida Initiative, the United States’ $6 billion counternarcotics program in Colombia, was “successful.” Plan Colombia may have increased security for some of Colombia’s citizens, but from a counternarcotics standpoint, it was a failure. It certainly didn’t decrease the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [pdf], Colombia produced 617 metric tons of cocaine in 2001, and 610 metric tons of cocaine in 2007. Plan Colombia’s stated goal was to reduce production by 50 percent in six years. The UN’s statistics are corroborated by the research of the International Crisis Group in its March 2008 report on drugs in Latin America, Losing the Fight [pdf], as well as reports [pdf] from think tanks such as the Center for International Policy and the Washington Office on Latin America. The United States is currently negotiating an expanded military presence in Colombia – a presence that wouldn’t be necessary if Plan Colombia had been a true success.
Given that the United States’ best attempt to curb cocaine production was a $6 billion failure, it seems highly unlikely that a similar approach would lead to success in Mexico. As drug traffickers have shown time and time again, when efforts are made to disrupt their business, they adapt-whether by shipping their product to Europe via West Africa, or to Mexico via ship instead of air. Trying to disrupt the supply or transit of drugs is, as Ted Galen Carpenter clearly outlines, a futile endeavor.
A Response to Roberts, Carpenter, and Hanson
The three reaction essays do not only reflect different points of view (logically enough) but they also address very different issues. I will very quickly respond to several points raised by James Roberts, because they involve a much broader set of questions than the central theme of my original essay, and then address some of the specific points raised by Ted Galen Carpenter and Stephanie Hanson.
Mr. Roberts perhaps too generously identifies the views of the “Mexican elites” with my own; I wish I were as representative as he seems to believe. In fact, I have tried over the past quarter century to avoid “blaming” anyone, much less the U.S. for Mexico’s challenges, other than to point out that most of Mexico’s challenges have an inevitable bilateral component, given the intensity of the relationship between the two countries. No one “blames” Richard Nixon for “the current drug problem”; I just made a statement of fact that, for those who might think that these matters are novel, the first major crisis in US-Mexican relations over drugs occurred in 1969, when then-President Nixon implemented Operation Intercept. Similarly, I have tried over the years to point out that while Mr. Roberts and others may sincerely believe that out-migration from Mexico began in the seventies or eighties when the “Mexican Miracle” fizzled out, in fact migration began in the late nineteenth century, passed through the Bracero Agreement in 1942-1964, and has continued ever since, having nothing to do with elites one way or another. Finally, I do not address the question of Chavez, Zelaya, etc, not because I do not think they are important, but because I was under the impression that the center of the debate was elsewhere.
The essential point on the current drug war in Mexico that I wanted to make, and that I will repeat here, is that there is an enormous imbalance between means and ends. If President Calderon wants to take on “all the cartels, all the time” and make it so expensive, difficult and dangerous for them to use Mexico as a route for introducing drugs to the U.S. market, given that there is no reason to believe that U.S. demand will drop any time soon, then he needs much more support from the U.S. for this effort than what he has asked for, or than what the U.S. (Bush and Obama) has offered. That support can only materialize, in a significant way, through a much greater U.S. physical presence in Mexico, not only in intelligence and DEA agents, but mainly in training, advising and accompanying Mexican forces. That is not going to happen, for reasons President Calderon himself has insisted upon; whether it would be effective or not — a point Ted Galen Carpenter rightly raises, is almost a moot question. The reason I point out that Plan Colombia is essentially a counter-insurgency program is that it has not reduced Colombian coca leaf acreage, production, or exports, but has permitted a major dismantling of the FARC guerrillas. This is a desirable outcome, but irrelevant to Mexico, and not the original purpose of the exercise.
I tend to agree with Carpenter that most of these efforts, even “sealing off” the southern Mexican border — which would not help the U.S., but, if successful, would help Mexico — probably would not work, but the case for legalization can probably only be made if such an attempt is seriously made and is shown to be futile. The main point on which I agree with Ted Galen Carpenter involves legalization as the only long-term solution, but I insist that without accompanying movement in the US, Mexico cannot go it alone. Neither politically nor from a security or public health perspective is this viable. I do increasingly believe that Mexico should lobby the U.S. in favor of decriminalization, and should make its stance known, but on the understanding that it cannot act unilaterally.
Finally, in relation to Stephanie Hanson’s point about gun traffic, I do have a bit of a quarrel with the figures she quotes. The Mexican Embassy’s numbers unfortunately are not reliable, nor is it a reliable source; if nearly one million weapons were entering Mexico yearly since 2004, there would be more guns in Mexico than in Brazil, for example, or Colombia. The fact is that we only know for sure that 90 percent of the traceable weapons actually traced in Mexico come from the US, most of them from the secondary market which is even more difficult to control than the gun store and gun show market. It is far more likely that a large majority of the weapons preferred by the cartels in Mexico — AK-47s or cuernos de chivo without serial numbers — come from the former Soviet Union, China etc., and from the Central American wars of the eighties and early nineties. So I do not think that enhanced weapon-flow control from north to south will make much difference, and it can wreak havoc with trade and tourism flows, which are already down and dropping.
We can return to these points in the next couple of days.
Jorge Castañeda suggests that “Mexico should lobby the U.S. in favor of decriminalization, and should make its stance known, but on the understanding that it cannot act unilaterally.” This is an idea I support, but I am wondering if we can explore some of the details of such a strategy. First, is there consensus among relevant Mexican politicians that decriminalization is a good policy in Mexico? What about the Mexican public — have the military abuses documented by Human Rights Watch turned public opinion against the drug war? Does the global recession offer an opportunity for forward movement on decriminalization, or is it more likely to hinder any progress? And finally, does the Mexican government have any sticks it could wield in talks with the United States, or it is stuck asking for money to support a military-based drug war? I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of the other essayists on any of these questions.
Don’t Fence Us Into Your Brave New World!
To varying degrees Professor Castañeda, Ms. Hanson, and Dr. Carpenter all make arguments against the “prohibition model” and for the abolition or substantial modification of U.S. laws against illegal drugs. This is their silver bullet to solve the narco-terror threat to the United States. and Mexico. To avoid muddying their reasoning and weakening their arguments, they indulge in the luxury of stipulating the success of their new models ceteris paribus. Unfortunately, in the real world legalization of drugs would be ugly and messy.
Instead focusing on the supposed futility of taking any action to protect ourselves, our children, and our nations from the predators that would destroy us from within with these debilitating and addictive psychotropic substances, I would encourage my colleagues to confront the real issue — the taking of the drugs themselves and what that has done and will do to our society and our culture. If this were a case of chemical and biological warfare being actively waged against the American and Mexican people, they would pay more attention. And that is what it is.
It is just not that easy for my colleagues to fence off average Mexicans and Americans and shield them from the destructive effects of their proposed changes. Legalization or decriminalization would have many huge repercussions for the peoples and social compacts of both Mexico and the United States. In his comment about my essay, Dr. Castañeda chastens me a bit for going beyond the imaginary boundary lines of this discussion to include related matters such as the role of narco-trafficking in financing the anti–U.S. political campaigns of Hugo Chavez and other populist leftist totalitarians as well as the age-old problem of corruption in Mexico.
Indeed we were all constrained by space limitations in our initial essays, but had I been able to expand my comments on corruption I would have assigned even greater culpability to American elites for their dishonest and slothful approach to southern border issues. As was the case with the Mexican elites, it served the purposes of many American political leaders to continue a de facto policy of laxity about the security of the U.S.–Mexico border so as to encourage the inflow of migrants. The unruly state of affairs along the border enticed not only migrants but also narco-traffickers and other nefarious characters, eager to exploit the situation.
Numerous studies have totaled up some of the costs to taxpayers and consumers from the current problems with drug addiction. These burdens on society — estimated at more than $180 billion a year — affect everyone. Just the economic costs of heroin addiction and methamphetamine abuse alone run into the tens of millions annually in the United States for health care, lost productivity, law enforcement, and welfare. These costs would not shrink — they would swell with any moves towards legalization — and gobble up any tax revenue windfalls produced by it along the way.
Regarding the applicability of Plan Colombia to the Mexican situation, I would argue that the success of that plan in saving Colombia’s market-based democratic governance — which Dr. Castañeda acknowledges to be a desirable outcome and one that has largely been achieved — is the necessary precursor to resuscitating state institutions so that they are powerful enough to take on and defeat the drug cartels. Already the Colombians have had enough success that the cartels have been forced to ship their toxic products through the jungles to Venezuela and over (and under) the Caribbean and Pacific to Mexico. The Mexican government needs to recover the same degree of vitality. Through a ramped-up Merida Initiative the United States and Mexico can accomplish that goal, and secure the border, for a fraction of the proposed $1 trillion additional cost of Obamacare or other less worthy spending plans.
Fifty years ago, Whittaker Chambers critiqued materialists — on the left and right — for their pursuit, not of happiness, but of pleasure. That was certainly not the American Founders’ vision of “Ordered Liberty.” In his excellent book examining how traditional Christian-Judeo values established the ideal moral foundation for the great American experiment in republican self-government, Michael Novak notes that the Founders were well aware that a successful democracy depends upon a collectively virtuous citizenry, continuously informed and inspired by those values, to create and maintain the conditions of liberty in which each individual citizen desires to live. Without this foundation of virtue there can be no real liberty or freedom, and it is liberty which was (and remains) the chief goal of the American Republic.
The Founders knew that the pursuit of materialistic pleasures — through drug taking, alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and in countless other ways — undermines virtue and leads to moral weakness, opening the door to the rule of tyrants who use “bread and circuses” to control and enslave the people. This is the horrific scenario painted by Huxley in Brave New World. It is no accident that the Directors of the World State use psychotropic drugs — soma — to anesthetize and pacify their hatchlings.
Among the many perils faced by our Republic today, legalized psychotropic drugs are among the most sinister and subversive. People around the world who hold to traditional moral values rightly see them as a threat. A conservative, Roman Catholic country such as Mexico would be even less likely than post-modern America to legalize drugs. That is why Professor Castañeda, ever the skillful politician, wants the United States to give him political cover by taking the first steps towards legalization.
At the risk of being scolded again for straying off topic, I would note a related issue in closing. It was the life-affirming conservative social values of Mexico (in part) that permitted the births of “excess workers” in the first place (for which they are no doubt grateful!). Until recently abortion was outlawed and unavailable in Mexico. Ironically, in the decades following the legalization of abortion in the U.S. (Roe v. Wade, 1973), labor shortages created the jobs magnet for the massive waves of workers who trekked across our chaotic southern border to fill them.
The Eroding Support for the Drug War
On Stephanie Hanson’s reflections, I think two points are in order.
First, today President Calderón signed into law a bill passed by Congress three months ago increasing the amounts of legally possessed drugs, from heroin, to meth, to cocaine. The allowed quantities are very small (smaller than in a similar bill passed in 2006 but vetoed by President Fox because of U.S. pressure), but larger than before. There is a three strikes you’re out provision, but it is a small step in the direction of decriminalization, and it was approved almost unanimously. There is not a consensus in Mexico on decriminalization, much less in public than in private, but there is a growing inclination.
Second, among Mexico’s levers with the United States would be the fact that if a growing number of U.S. states (fifteen at last count) continue to de facto decriminalize, through legalizing medical use and broadening the definition of medical use, we could soon see an absurd situation where the two federal governments spend billions and lose lives trying to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, where in many important states, those drugs are virtually legal. I take James Roberts’ point on this: it is going to be increasingly difficult to make the pitch for full-fledged penalization and a war on supply and demand, if in fact there are more and more loopholes for legal drug consumption. Mexico can use this as a lever to cajole Washington into at least studying the issue, as the Webb Commission has started to do.
On Mr. Roberts other related points, again, I would stress that the Colombia question is in my view more nuanced. I am sure Alvaro Uribe’s intentions are what Roberts suggests, namely taking on the guerrillas first, in order to strengthen the institutions to take on the drug cartelitos later. But I am not so sure that this will actually be the outcome of Uribe’s efforts. It may very well be that his two (or three) terms will have resulted in a significant curtailment of drug-related collateral damages (violence, kidnapping, guerrillas, paramilitaries, corruption), but not a decrease in the actual acreage of coca leaf, the production of powder cocaine, and its export to the United States, Europe, and Brazil, through old routes and new ones. This is not bad, but it could be seen as a de facto and involuntary but hard to deny legalization of drug production.
And finally, clearly a ramped-up Merida initiative would cost much less than health care reform, but I do not think there is any comparison between the benefits the American people seem to see in health care reform (after all, they did elect Obama), and in fighting a proxy drug war in Mexico. On the contrary, my impression is that, while support for the war in public opinion in Mexico, and in power circles in Washington, is still strong, it is ebbing as the costs for all involved grow, and the results are nowhere to be seen.
The Forty Years’ War
Both Jorge Castaneda and Stephanie Hanson make some compelling points. Dr. Castaneda is absolutely correct that Mexico cannot go it alone with regard to significant drug policy reforms. Despite its self-inflicted wounds (most notably the Iraq war and the domestic financial meltdown), the United States is still the 800-pound gorilla in the international system. Mexico and other countries will find it extraordinarily difficult to abandon the prohibition model as long as Washington clings to it — and browbeats foreign governments that show insufficient enthusiasm for that crusade. What the United States has done to its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere in the name of the war on drugs has been both destructive and shameful.
Stephanie Hanson effectively underscores the limited success of Plan Colombia, which was both a counter-insurgency measure and a counter-narcotics measure. It has achieved modest success with respect to the first goal, but it has failed rather spectacularly with respect to the second. Both U.S. and UN statistics confirm that the flow of drugs from Colombia remains robust. In her initial essay, Ms. Hanson also provides a concise illustration of the “push-down, pop-up” effect of supply-side campaigns in the war on drugs. The “successes” in the Andean region and the Caribbean merely shifted drug cultivation and transportation to other locations. It is a real-world example of the cliché about re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Her call to take measures to reduce the flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico, however, is misplaced. As Dr. Castaneda rightly points out, the Mexican government’s statistics are of dubious reliability. He is correct that many of those weapons probably come from the former Soviet Union and other sources in a very active international black market. Indeed, many of those weapons appear to come from the Mexican military itself. The bottom line is that we could close every gun shop and shut down every gun show in the United States without having a meaningful impact on the ability of the cartels to arm their enforcers.
James Roberts frequently wanders off topic to condemn virtually every social change (from legalized abortion to an intensified pursuit of personal “pleasure”) that has taken place in the United States and the world in the past 50 years. Even when his observations are correct, they tell us little about how to adopt effective policies. Psychotropic drugs tend to be bad for people. Stipulated. But a great many things are bad for the human body and raise health care costs — including tobacco and high-fat foods. Left-wing moral crusaders use the same arguments that Mr. Roberts does to wage their increasingly intrusive legal crusades against those “evils.” My Mormon friends insist that caffeine is an insidiously unhealthy substance. Are we to justify a war against coffee, tea, and sodas on that basis? We already tried to stamp out the use of alcohol — with ugly policy consequences. Our current war on drugs is equally misguided.
As a scholar at a conservative think tank, Mr. Roberts should understand how markets work, and how ham-handed efforts to interfere in those markets are always futile and often disastrous. Conservatives also rightly scorn liberals who cling to failed policies decade after decade. Yet that is precisely what he does with respect to drug prohibition. We have waged Richard Nixon’s “war” on drugs for nearly four decades. That is substantially longer than the Thirty Years’ War that devastated much of Europe in the seventeenth century. The principal results of our modern Forty Years’ War have been to fill our prisons, primarily with small-time drug pushers, and to create horrific problems of violence and corruption, both in the United States and abroad. When a policy has failed over a period of four decades, it is time to try something else. No advocate of legalization has ever contended that it is a panacea or a “silver bullet.” But it would be substantially better than the indisputable folly of prohibition. We’ve already exceeded the length of the Thirty Years’ War. Let’s not try to replicate the Hundred Years’ War.
To the Barricades — for Freedom!
When the ad hominem attacks begin, it is a cue to the reader that the debate opponent is finding himself on the losing end of the argument. I would expect the assaults if they were coming from the left, but it is disappointing to see them coming from an ally on the right. In good faith I have laid out legitimate philosophical, moral, economic, and political arguments against drug legalization. Why not engage in a civil dialogue?
Like gravity, market forces are constantly at work across the board, for good or ill, including in “industries” that conduct trade in human organs, child prostitution, and pornography. Market forces drove the slave trade, too. The difference in the case at hand is that with products that are addictive, the consumer at some point ceases to make rational choices. At what point would Dr. Carpenter draw the line and finally agree that society has a moral obligation to protect people from predatory and destructive behavior? Or would he not draw any line at all?
If by “wandering around” to place this issue into the proper context I have bumped into some inconvenient truths about the cause-and-effect relationships between legalization and the deeply difficult future problems it would create for Mexico and the United States — all the while not solving the existing ones — then I plead guilty.
Dr. Castañeda and Ms. Hanson — careful technocrats that they are — have confined themselves to narrower lines of argumentation but also have not answered the basic questions I have raised that expose the folly of the entire legalization proposal.
No one has rebutted my assertion that these drug cartels will not simply go away if legalization proceeds — and that the assortment of bad guys they support (e.g. Hugo Chavez) will continue their efforts to take down the U.S. capitalist system. (Hint: for a glimpse of that future, look at what the criminal gangs that ran Chicago did after Prohibition ended — they went into politics!)
Here are some other questions left unanswered by my worthy opponents:
• A handful of municipalities in the some of the bluest U.S. ZIP codes have recently enacted some narrow decriminalization measures, but (thankfully) there is not much relevant data or knowledge to be gained from studying the limited impact of those actions. The question remains: exactly how would full-scale legalization work in practice in the United States — where, how, and by whom would drugs be produced, packaged, marketed, and distributed? What entities would tax them? How high would those taxes be? How would gray markets and violence be prevented?
• How would there not be an increase in addiction rates? After all, these psychotropic chemical substances would be sold legally and openly, complete with the blessing and sanction of the almighty State — a god for far too many folks. The drugs differ greatly from alcohol, with which people have had centuries of experience. Indeed, beer and wine were drunk in European towns and elsewhere in the Middle Ages because the water back then gave people dysentery. So over hundreds of years, people built up a tolerance for alcohol and created social institutions that could deal with its consequences. Many even developed DNA resistance to alcoholism. However, the citizens, social organizations, and cultures of Mexico and the United States have no collective behavioral or physiological experience to draw upon in order to deal with the effects that psychotropic drugs will have on society, especially the young, if taken by masses of people on a routine basis.
• Moreover, while alcohol can damage one’s health in many ways, it is not likely to lead to lung cancer and emphysema. How will governments condone marijuana smoking while maintaining sanctimonious campaigns of opprobrium against the use of tobacco, which poses a far lesser threat to social order? If the THC ingredient in marijuana is so beneficial medically, Gen. McCaffrey jokingly asks, why not just isolate it and make it available for use in suppository form? That would at least avoid the lung damage.
• Why should taxpayers be asked to support the newly disabled and diseased drug addicts (and their broken families) that legalization will create, when governments could have exercised their most important duty by continuing to protect their citizens from the predators and parasites in the first place by resisting the siren call of legalization?
And here is a new question: did the Obama administration play a role in the recent Mexican decision to decriminalize small quantities? Why did President Calderón wait months before approving the law? It is interesting that the announcement occurred just days after the Obama–Calderón meeting at the August 9–10 North American Leaders Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico. As Professor Castañeda points out, Mexico put off decriminalization under the Bush 43 administration. Was U.S. pressure exerted this time in favor of decriminalization?
Dr. Carpenter wants to avoid a new Hundred Years War, yet he has gone to the wrong side of the barricades in a culture war that has been raging against western civilization with increasing intensity for decades. In fact, the entire 233-year history of the United States is a testament to the fight against the dark forces that would enslave humanity. Now is not the time to give into them.
Cracks in the Drug War Fortress
The allegation by James Roberts that he has been the victim of ad hominem attacks is bizarre and unhelpful. Until his latest post, the discussion on Cato Unbound has been both civil and substantive. Since I seem to be the principal target of his complaint, I want to point out that I criticized his use of logic and evidence, not his character.
One persistent, troubling feature of his essays is his tendency to counter arguments that no one has made. For example, in his first contribution he alleged that opponents of prohibition see legalization as a “silver bullet.” I have never encountered a serious advocate of drug legalization who has asserted that such a step would solve all drug-related problems, either domestically and internationally. To the contrary, we have stressed that legalization would not be a panacea. It would, however, ameliorate the numerous horrific problems in the United States and abroad that have been the fruits of prohibition.
In his last essay, Mr. Roberts stresses that the Mexican cartels “will not simply go away” if legalization were adopted. Again, I know of no credible analyst who has made that argument. But greatly reducing the amount of revenue available to those criminal enterprises would undermine their power. Mexico’s cartels now exploit a $30 billion to $60 billion-a-year industry. Eliminating the black-market profit that results from prohibition would change that into a $3 billion to $6 billion-a-year industry. That means far fewer enforcers they can hire and far fewer bribes they can offer to officials. While trafficking gangs might attempt to replace part of that lost revenue with intensified activities in such areas as kidnapping and prostitution, those sources are not nearly as lucrative. Some of the cartels would remain in business as criminal enterprises, but they would be substantially weakened, thereby posing far less of a threat to Mexico’s stability.
Indeed, the United States could strike a major blow against the cartels just by legalizing marijuana, while postponing a policy decision regarding harder drugs. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that Mexican trafficking organizations derive two-thirds of their income from marijuana sales. Other estimates are slightly lower (around 55 percent), but marijuana is clearly the primary source of revenue. Under a legalized regime, who would bother buying that product from the Mexican cartels when legitimate domestic producers could provide an ample supply — and probably at lower cost, given the transportation advantages? In fact, many consumers would likely just grow their own supply.
Mr. Roberts insists that opponents of prohibition fill in virtually every detail about how drug legalization would work. That is a discussion for a later day — once the United States and other societies have made the decision to terminate the failed prohibition model. One point is clear already, though. There is little evidence to support his fear that drug use would explode under legalization and create more problems than we have now. Glenn Greenwald’s excellent Cato Institute White Paper on Portugal’s drug policy reforms — the most sweeping decriminalization regime to date regarding personal possession and use — definitively debunks that argument.
One striking feature in all of the essays Mr. Roberts has written for Cato Unbound is his failure to offer evidence that the current policy is working. That reticence is not surprising, because it would be a very hard case for anyone to make. Aside from the examples already cited of the devastating unintended consequences that prohibition has caused, there is one other telling point. Authorities have been unable even to keep illegal drugs out of our prisons — including maximum-security facilities. What chance is there, then, to keep drugs out of the hands of free citizens in a vast, diverse, and open society?
Dr. Castañeda is correct that support for the drug war is declining. Two developments in the past week confirm his analysis. On the heels of Mexico’s new law decriminalizing the personal possession of small quantities of illegal drugs was a decision by Argentina’s Supreme Court leading to a similar result. Around the world, there is a growing willingness to break with Washington’s insistence on strict prohibition. Even in the United States, the proliferation of medical marijuana initiatives since the mid-1990s is a harbinger of change. The recent emergence of a serious proposal to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in America’s most populous state, California, is perhaps an even bigger signal of new thinking.
The drug war fortress is showing multiple cracks, as blows are administered both in the United States and other countries. One hopes that it will crumble entirely within the next decade or so. And just as bootleggers in the United States mourned the end of alcohol prohibition, the people who would be the most upset if drug prohibition comes to an end are the leaders of the Mexican cartels and other criminals who have benefited so much from the lucrative profits that drug warriors and their policies have made possible.
Legalization: Coddling the “Me Generation” and Putting the Country at Risk
Some final thoughts from me on what has been an interesting online conversation.
Ms. Hanson argued that attempts “to disrupt the supply or transit of drugs [would be] a futile endeavor.” In response, Dr. Castañeda pointed to “legalization as the only long-term solution.” Those sweeping statements made legalization sound like a “Silver Bullet” to me (a simple guaranteed solution for a difficult problem). I prefer the bullets used against drug smuggling predators to be the real ones carried by officers whose duty is to protect us and maintain rule of law.
Dr. Carpenter claimed that “Mexico’s cartels now exploit a $30 billion to $60 billion-a-year industry [and that ending] prohibition would change that into a $3 billion to $6 billion-a-year industry.” That prediction reminded me of the much-criticized media narrative that President Obama tried out a few months ago to defend his massive and wasteful $787 billion stimulus package by claiming that it had already “saved-or-created” hundreds of thousands of jobs. In both cases, the figures cited are impossible to verify.
Dr. Carpenter assured us that “Under a legalized regime, who would bother buying that product from the Mexican cartels when legitimate domestic producers could provide an ample supply — and probably at lower cost… . In fact, many consumers would likely just grow their own supply.” I would remind him of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The government proved then that it will always tax luxury goods such as mind-altering chemical substances taken for pleasure, as generations of moonshiners in Appalachia have learned to their sorrow in the last two centuries from Uncle Sam’s “revenuers.”
It is impossible to believe that the government will not tax, and tax heavily, any legalized drugs. Soon enough there would be plenty of incentives for a gray market to develop, yet others in this debate did not want to discuss that eventuality. Admittedly, within the confines of this debate it is difficult for either side to present exhaustive and accurate cost-benefit analyses of legalization versus continued prohibition. Dr. Carpenter included a link for his side. Here is one for mine.
I will not repeat the many points I made disputing the claim that legalization is the only answer to this problem. Clearly I do not think that it is and, in fact, I believe that legalization would create more problems that it would solve. What should not be forgotten are other facts and figures that are difficult to estimate but equally valid for consideration, e.g. through past and current expenditures on law enforcement efforts to enforce prohibition statutes, how much money is being saved in terms of lives not ruined and productivity not lost? I had no takers on that request.
In a recent article (“Whatever Happened to the Work Ethic?”), Steven Malanga cites Tocqueville, who worried
that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Avidly seeking personal gain, they could “lose sight of the close connection which exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all” and ultimately undermine both democracy and prosperity.”
Malanga notes that the break-down of the
300-year-old consensus on the [Protestant] work ethic began with the cultural protests of the 1960s, which questioned and discarded many traditional American virtues. The roots of this breakup lay in …the rejection of traditional bourgeois qualities by late-nineteenth-century European artists and intellectuals who sought “to substitute for religion or morality an aesthetic justification of life.” By the 1960s, that modernist tendency had evolved into a credo of self-fulfillment in which “nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored,” [Daniel] Bell wrote. Out went the Protestant ethic’s prudence, thrift, temperance, self-discipline, and deferral of gratification.
Malanga ties all of this into a brutally honest assessment of the factors leading to the 2008 financial meltdown. The point here is that the home-made crises we confront today in the United States, which are having such a negative impact on the people of Mexico and other countries around the world, are directly linked to the social policies of the last 40 years that produced the hedonistic and narcissistic “Me Generation.” Pandering to that generation, and to their children, through drug legalization will only compound the problems and further weaken our economic and national security.
It’s time to grow up, America, and put away childish things.
The Indefensible War on Drugs
In his latest post, James Roberts once again has an opportunity to defend the four-decade track record of the war on drugs. Once again, he neglects or declines to do so. Instead, he presents yet another installment in his entirely speculative case that ending prohibition would be a policy disaster. Presumably, he means that it would be a disaster in marked contrast to the impressive success of our current policy.
His failure or refusal to defend the performance record of the war on drugs leads to the suspicion that he is unable to present a credible defense. I sympathize with his plight, because he is being challenged to defend an indefensible policy.
The drug war has been a debacle both domestically and internationally. In the United States, it has overwhelmed our prisons (indeed, the entire criminal justice system) caused many urban neighborhoods to become combat zones, and eviscerated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the drug-source countries of South America, it has created a bonanza of corruption and helped bring to power such populist demagogues as Bolivia’s Evo Morales. In Afghanistan, the counter-narcotics mission has alienated tens of thousands of Afghan opium farmers and, even worse, tribal leaders and other important political players — key U.S. allies who rely on the drug trade to fund their power bases. The war on drugs there, in short, has undermined our far more crucial mission to defeat al Qaeda.
And Washington’s war on drugs has plunged our neighbor Mexico into agony. The soaring violence and corruption in that country now poses a threat to the stability and integrity of the Mexican state — and increasingly creates a troubling security problem for the United States as well.
The harsh reality that Mr. Roberts and other drug warriors refuse to face is that prohibition is a godsend to the criminal syndicates that now dominate the drug trade. Invoking the specter of horrible outcomes if legalization were adopted fails on two counts. First, the United States had a legalized regime regarding drugs before the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914 (one of the many authoritarian “achievements” of the Progressive Era). While that system was not without its flaws, American society did not descend into the abyss.
Second, and more important, proponents of legalization do not have to create ethereal specters about the tragic consequences of drug prohibition. The horrors of that policy are all too real and indisputable.