Mexico: just say no

2011-04-12 00:00

SOMETHING remarkable happened in Mexico last Wednesday. Tens of thousands of Mexicans gathered in the main squares of cities across the country to demand an end to the "war on drugs". In the Zócalo, in the heart of Mexico City, they chanted "no more blood", and many called for the resignation of President Felipe Calderón, who launched the current war by deploying the army against the drug cartels in late 2006.

Some 35 000 people in Mexico have been killed in drug-related violence since then. Even as the crowds chanted, news came in of another 59 bodies discovered in mass graves in Tamaulipas state. In the words of poet-journalist Javier Sicilia, who inspired the demonstrations after his own son was killed last week, the war is "tearing apart the fabric of the nation".

But what does he know? In fact, the United States and Mexico are on the brink of winning the war on drugs. We know that because Michele Leonhart, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said so on the very same day, at an international conference in Cancun. "It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs," she said.

She presumably means that all the Mexican drug traffickers will be dead soon, and that nobody else will be tempted by the easy money to take the place of those who are killed. Americans will then stop using drugs because they simply aren't available, or, at worst, they will be so scarce and expensive that only the very rich can afford them. And we'll all live happily ever after (except the very rich, of course).

True, drugs have become cheaper, stronger and more easily available in the U.S. over the past 40 years, despite annual claims by the DEA that victory is at hand. To go on doing the same thing every year for 40 years, while expecting that next time will have a different outcome, is sometimes seen as evidence of insanity, but we should not be judgmental. We could, however, try to be rational.

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox has been doing well on the rationality front recently. Last August he wrote in his blog: "We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs. Legalisation does not mean that drugs are good. But we have to see it as a strategy to weaken and break the economic system that allows cartels to make huge profits, which in turn increases their power and capacity to corrupt."

This would mean that Mexican drug users could get any drugs they want, of course. Just like now. The only differences would be that the drugs, being state regulated and taxed, might cost slightly more, and that there would be fewer deaths from impurities and overdoses. But it wouldn't actually break the power of the cartels so long as drugs remain illegal in the huge U.S. market.

Former Colombian president César Gaviria addressed this issue head-on in a recent interview with Time magazine: "U.S. drug policy has failed. So please, change it. Don't force us to sacrifice thousands of lives for a strategy that doesn't work simply because American politicians lack the courage to change course." Well said, but why did these men not act when they had the power?

Because they were afraid of the American reaction. The U.S. has repeatedly made it clear that it will inflict grievous economic pain on any Latin American country that defects from its war against drugs. That is becoming an empty threat, however, for U.S. economic power is nothing like it used to be, even in Latin America.

That's partly due to the recent near-collapse of the U.S. economy, but it's also the result of the rapid growth of the Latin American countries. Mexico, for example, is a rising industrial power with tens of millions of educated middle-class people and an economy that's growing at seven percent a year. It can now say no to Washington without being crushed.

It is the American refusal to allow its consumers legal access to the drugs they want that creates the demand, and American weapons that arm the Mexican gangs that compete for that market. Since no American politician will commit political suicide by advocating gun control or the legalisation of drugs, Mexico can only escape from its current agony by refusing any further co-operation with the DEA.

Ending the war on drugs in Mexico would not instantly stop the killing, most of which is between cartels competing for control of the routes by which drugs transit Mexico on their way to the U.S. But just ending the army's involvement would greatly lower the level of violence, and legalising drugs in Mexico would diminish the epidemic of corruption, too. You don't need to bribe officials if the drug trade is legal.

The current wave of demonstrations against the drug war is only a start. The policy won't change so long as Calderón is president, for too many people have been killed for him to repudiate it now. But by the end of 2012 he will be gone, and his successor, from whichever party, will be free to change the policy. One of these days, Mexico will just say "No".

• Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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