A Mexican massacre and a war without end
There’s good news and bad news on the war on drugs in Mexico and the United States. The good news: cooperation between U.S. and Mexican security forces has rarely been closer. “Unprecedented,” President Barack Obama termed it in a message of sympathy for 52 people killed in an arson attack on a casino in northern Mexico.
The unprecedented cooperation he referred to ranges from the United States providing intelligence drawn from wiretaps and aerial surveillance by U.S. drones to taking part in planning operations to capture drug lords.
American agents, according to accounts from both sides of the border, had a role in hunting down 21 of the 37 men on Mexico’s list of most-wanted organized crime chiefs.
The bad news is that closer cooperation in taking out the CEOs of illicit business enterprises has done little to curb violence in Mexico or throttle the flow of drugs north and the smuggling of guns and cash south. One CEO goes, another one steps in his place. Real change would require an admission by political leaders that conventional drug war strategies have failed and, more importantly, that there’s a need for significant societal changes in both countries.
In the United States, millions of Americans would need to stop snorting, sniffing or injecting the drugs produced in Latin America and smuggled across the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. In Mexico, deeply-rooted traditions resistant to assistance from outside allow crime syndicates to flourish – acceptance of corruption as a way of life and “dreadfully little respect for the law,” in the words of former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda.
In an insightful new book — “Manana Forever – Mexico and the Mexicans” — he writes that “Mexico has no way out of its drug wars … unless it changes its attitudes towards the law. This is not occurring.”
Statistics tell the story of the drug wars’ failure on both sides of the border. In the United States, where President Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs” 40 years ago, they are at least as easily available now as they were then. The laws of supply and demand proved more powerful than progressively harsher enforcement. “The market forces of replacement and adaptation make the drug-dealing industry resilient even in the face of heavy enforcement,” Mark Kleiman, a widely respected drug policy expert, writes in a thoughtful essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
“The United States sends five times as many drug dealers to prison today as it did 30 years ago, but this has not prevented the 80-90 percent reductions in the prices of cocaine and heroin over that time, which came as a result of falling dealers’ wages and increased efficiency in trafficking.”
Numbers tell a similarly bleak story in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon formally declared war on his country’s drug traffickers and sent the military into action shortly after taking office in December 2006. That opened the bloodiest chapter in Mexico’s history since the 1910-1920 revolution. By the end of 2007, the body count stood at 4,300. It climbed steadily: 5,400 deaths in 2008, 9,600 in 2009, 15,000 in 2010 and around 7,000 so far this year.
GOVERNMENT SPIN AND COMMON CRIME
The government long insisted that criminals killing other criminals in often gruesome ways (beheadings became commonplace) accounted for around 90 percent of the dead, soldiers five percent and innocent civilians the rest. That account glossed over an enormous wave of common crime, from murder and kidnapping to the protection racket apparently behind the Monterrey casino attack.
The criminal-on-criminal story line died on August 25, when gunmen set fire to Monterrey’s Casino Royale. Of the 52 people who died, 42 were bingo-playing middle-class women, most of them asphyxiated when they found the emergency exits locked. The attack highlighted the scant respect for rules and regulations Castaneda complains about.
The casino had been ordered closed by the Monterrey mayor’s office for various code violations but a local judge reversed the move and ordered the place reopened. Like many of the casinos that sprouted during Calderon’s presidency — from 198 in 2006 to 790 now, according to the magazine Proceso — its functions are said to have included laundering dirty money.
As he has done frequently, Calderon took the casino attack as an opportunity to rebuke the United States for not doing enough to “drastically reduce” Americans’ consumption of drugs and curb the flow of cash and guns from the United States to Mexico. But in a speech on September 2, he also listed what he called the most important challenge facing his government: “Repair the fabric of society torn by lack of opportunity for the young, the disintegration of families and the loss of values.”
That will take time and meanwhile, the drug wars continue, with strategies that have a proven record of failure. Could the wars be waged more effectively? Yes, says Kleiman, in his Foreign Affairs essay headlined Surgical Strikes in the Drug Wars.
In the United States, shrinking the market could be done by reducing the use of hard drugs (i.e. non-cannabis) by what he estimates are around 3 million people. This small minority of drug users, according to Kleiman, accounts for around 80 percent of hard drug use and an even larger share of crime associated to their addiction, with about 75 percent having at least one felony arrest in the course of a typical year.
Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, offers an unorthodox idea for Mexico: rather than fight all criminal groups with equal force at the same time, publicly identify the most violent through a scoring system taking into account the overall number of its killings, its targets (dealers, enforcement agents, ordinary citizens, journalists, community leaders etc), and kidnappings.
Then, wipe out that group and start the process again, going after the next group. “The process could continue until none of the remaining groups was notably more violent than the rest. In effect, such a strategy would condition the traffickers’ ability to remain in business on their willingness to conduct their affairs in a relatively nonviolent fashion.”
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But so is the idea that there is a way to stop people from using drugs.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)