Essay War on Drugs — 01 March 2012

By Morgan Fox


The Mexican election will certainly be an interesting one in terms of the drug war. While Calderon’s initial cry of all out war against the cartels was extremely popular when it began in 2006, one could easily argue that the tactics used to carry out this war are just as responsible for the horrific explosion of violence in Mexico as the cartels. It is very likely that Mexican voters will not look so favorably on this strategy after seeing that it is not crushing the cartels as promised, but creating violence and leading to human rights abuses by the federal soldiers sent to eradicate these criminal organizations.

Calderon realizes this and has entertained the idea of legalizing drugs, particularly marijuana, as a way to stem the violence of the drug trade. Guatemalan President Molina, and several other Latin American leaders are doing the same.

While it is laudable that these leaders are considering removing criminal penalties for drug users, such a strategy is incomplete and misses a couple of key factors. President Molina specifically mentions strengthening the fight against drug trafficking organizations using the usual methods, and President Calderon has not shown any signs that he plans to ease back either. And while decriminalizing personal drug use will allow more resources to be used against distributors, the market for drugs will not decrease. The users that are no longer being arrested still create a demand for drugs, and as long as the incentive for profit remains, someone will fill the supply role, no matter how risky it is for them to do so. This only leads to more bloodshed, as the cartels resort to greater violence to counter the authorities and any competitors that come along. Meanwhile, innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire.

The most important factor being ignored here is that the vast majority of markets that enrich these cartels are located in the United States. As long as that market remains underground, it remains a powerful incentive for criminal organizations in Latin America to continue what they are doing. Even if personal drug use were to be decriminalized throughout the Western Hemisphere, the prohibition on production and sales will ensure that criminal organizations continue to amass great wealth and employ violence to protect the source of that wealth.

Calderon signalled his recognition of this logic in an interview on September 20th of last year when he said, “I’m talking about market alternatives, market solutions. The point is the astronomical rentals that the criminals have coming from the consumption of the United States must be addressed. My point is either we reduce consumption, or we need more alternatives, more solutions, at least to analyze, and among them of course we need to include the market alternatives. ”

Unfortunately, he continues to bow before the political pressure of the United States and allow himself to be bought off with the promise of money and state-of-the-art military equipment through the Merida Initiative. Mexico has yet to see most of what was promised them in this deal.

Latin American presidents are starting to realize that drug prohibition is not working, but merely decriminalizing use is not enough. To continue the vain attempt to stamp out the criminal organization that control the drug trade is not only an exercise in futility, but also results in Latin American countries bearing the load of irrational U.S. policies. One does not see human heads being tossed into crowded nightclubs in Kansas or Colorado, yet Mexican authorities continue to bend to political pressure from the U.S. to “do something about the cartels” in a failed attempt to somehow decrease drug availability.

Until the U.S. drug market is brought above ground and placed in the hands of legitimate, licensed professionals and businesspeople in the United States, criminal organizations from La Paz to Juarez will continue to fight for their market share. And the task of stopping them will continue to fall on Latin American countries, turning them into war zones in the process.

Unfortunately, U.S. federal policy on this issue is unlikely to change soon without significant pressure to do so, both domestically and from its allies in the drug war. So far, it does not appear as if Calderon is ready to move beyond timid suggestions, and this could negatively impact him at the polls on July 1. If the mass protests against the drug war that took place throughout Mexico last year are any indicator, the voters are ready for a new approach.


Morgan Fox
Communications Manager
Marijuana Policy Project


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