Essay Reporting War on Drugs — 17 January 2012

Today The Washington Post worried out loud that drug money could affect the 2012 Mexican Presidential election.  They wondered whether tainted political contributions and outright threats could put the presidency back into the hands of the PRI political party, and take it away from President Felipe Calderon’s PAN party.  The article said some Mexicans look back to the days when the PRI were in power–and they were in power for an unbroken string of 70 years–and suggested that their system of corruption and patronage at least kept the criminals in check.  Better to take a bribe than a bullet.


Tossing Calderon out of office and replacing him with someone else would be the best thing for the Mexicans to do if they want to end their so-called “War on Drugs”.  People wage war on people–not chemicals nor plants–so this non sequitur, “War on Drugs”, is an effort to put a clear label on a policy whose goal and tactics are not at all clear (President Richard Nixon coined the phrase). Fifty-thousand Mexicans have died since Calderon decided to take on the drug dealers.  And to what avail?  Things are getting worse not better. Violence has been spreading, not receding both domestically and internationally to places that used to be secure. It is puzzling then, that some polls have said the majority of the Mexican people continue to support Calderon’s policy.


Not everyone agrees with Calderon. The former president of Mexico, Vincente Fox, has said the best way to end the “War on Drugs” is to legalize them.  But this ignores the political realities of the USA where the government cannot even agree on a budget. In the absence of leadership at the national level, the 50 American States one-by-one are changing the law to allow the sale of marijuana.  But that process could take decades, and does not address the flow of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.


The best way for the Mexicans to deal with the violence is to allow drugs to pass freely through their country. This de-facto legalization would put the problem at the US border which is where it belongs. The cartels would quit fighting the police and peace would ensue.


Latin Americans argue that the drug war is an American problem because American consumers are the source of demand that propels the trade. But if the American politicians cannot address this issue then the bureaucracies put in control to fight the problem are left without clear direction. Their own inertia propels them foreword even when it is no longer logical to do so.


Consider how many people are employed in the war on drugs. There are thousands of border guards, tens of thousands of DEA agents and support personnel plus government contractors. Then there are all the munitions manufacturers who provides weapons and helicopters to whatever Latin American government agrees to have them foisted upon them.  Then there is Monsanto the manufacturer of glysophate–better knows as “Roundup”–which is the chemical used in the eradication campaigns.  This enormous ship-of-state with all its cargo and accoutrements is difficult to change course.  With all these vested interests, including pensions, payroll, and profits, one wonders whether there is any desire to change anything.


Herein lies the problem. The war on drugs–we must use that term since it fits like no other–does not affect the Gringo since it does not occur in his backyard. It does not matter to the politician in Texas or Massachusetts that once sleepy and peaceful Belize is being threatened with drug violence. It does not matter to the congressman from California that farmers in Guatemala are given the choice to allow drug flights to land on their fields and accept payment or pay with their lives. There is no one there to worry about increased coca production in Peru and the increased crime which could arise as a result. In short there is no constituency for this issue that is a constituent of the United States.


So there is not much hope the USA will do anything about this problem since few in that nation are clamoring to do so.  The best hope is to return the PRI political party to power and see if the status quo ante policy can put an end to the violence.


Related article:


Could the Mexican War on Drugs Spread to Chile.


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(2) Readers Comments

  1. I agree with you to some extent, Walker. However, I would like to make a couple of comments. First of all, I’m not Mexican and do not know Mexico political and economic history well enough as to say that:

    «Tossing Calderon out of office and replacing him with someone else would be the best things for the Mexicans to do if they want to end their so-called “War on Drugs”. »

    even if that “someone else” is the PRI.

    Secondly, you say that legalising drugs, as Vicente Fox has suggested repeatedly,

    «…ignores the political realities of the USA where the broken government there cannot even agree on a budget.»

    which suggests, although is not clear to me why, that it is just a case of political bickering. By the way, Fox has also said that, and I quote, «it is the U.S.A. that has to stop the flow of drugs, not Mexico.», which takes me to the third and final point.

    Your assertion that:

    «The best way for the Mexicans to deal with the violence is to simply stand down the army and allow drugs to pass freely through their country»

    is a gross oversimplification, for it ignores the nature and modus operandi of organised crime.

    Since your recommendation is rather similar to the one made by John Ackerman, a Mexican analyst, I would like to attach the comment I made to an article he wrote in Spanish last December. A similar, early version in English appeared in The Guardian here:

    Here is the comment:

    I’ve just read your article ‘No Más Guerra’

    and I’m rather puzzled by your recommendation, that is, to pay little attention to the shipment of drugs to the US. I agree with your characterisation of the US anti drug policies and how hypocritical, complacent and self serving the US (and for that matter all major drug consuming countries in the world) have been when it comes to the consumption vis à vis the production of drugs.

    It reminds me of what Gary Becker, the 1992 Nobel Laureate in Economics, says in its article “The American War on Drugs is Not Only an American Disaster”:

    «No one has estimated the social cost of American drug policy on Mexico, Colombia, and other countries, but it has to be immense. Perhaps THESE COUNTRIES SHOULD JUST ALLOW DRUGS TO BE SHIPPED TO THE US, AND PUT THE FULL BURDEN OF STOPPING THESE SHIPMENTS ON AMERICAN ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES. The American government would protest, but such a result would provide a clearer picture to the American people of the full cost of current policy, including the major costs imposed on other countries. One can hope that then we will get a serious rethinking of the American war on drugs, and some real political movement toward decriminalization and legalization of various drugs.» (my emphasis)

    Leaving aside for a moment the expected and unavoidable retaliation of the “international community”, that is the US, should Mexico take alone such measure, it seems to me that your recommendation, please do not take it the wrong way, is a gross simplification. Despite what you say, it is equivalent to making a pact with the “narcos”. If past experiences are anything to go by, think of Colombia and the Medellín and Cali cartels, as long as the narcos continue having access (in this case almost free access) to the extraordinary revenues drug trafficking generates, such an agreement will only strengthen the narcos capacity to wreck havoc on the Mexican society via corruption, blackmail and violence.

    Assuming that your recommendation is viable, and I am not sure it is, a better strategy would be to legalise the distribution, and for that matter the production too, and regulate them and tax them.

    Gart Valenc
    twitter: @gartvalenc

  2. Gart,

    You might be interested in this. We are starting to translate some of the Spanish press on this topic for the English reader


    Walker Rowe

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