With much of our foreign policy focus on the Middle East these days, we haven’t been looking that much at what’s been happening closer to home:
Alarmed by rising threats to Mexican law and order from ever-more-brazen drug lords, the Bush administration is quietly negotiating a counternarcotics aid package with the Mexican government that would increase US involvement in a drug war south of the border.
The fact that Mexico – which has historically been averse to any assistance from the US that could be construed as a breach of its sovereignty – is seeking the increased aid shows how serious a threat President Felipe Calderón sees drug gangs posing to his country.
When Calderón took office last year, he immediately sent troops into areas where drug trafficking was common and attempted to disrupt the organizations that control the pipeline of drugs that make their way into the United States. The effort was so successful that the country’s powerful drug cartels are now trying to figure out whether or not they will work together or fight each other for the massive profits. The reality in Mexico is the same as it always has been. The drug cartels are too powerful to take down. They will always have the money to buy out law enforcement officials in both Mexico and the United States. The $40 million dollars we’ve been giving them annually in aid is a drop in the bucket compared to the money that the cartels have to spend on weapons and bribes.
Mexico already appears to be laying the groundwork to frame the plan not so much as an aid package but as the United States facing up to problems that are a consequence of American drug consumption. Calderón, often a cautious public speaker, has sternly called for the United States to pay more to combat the cartels.
“The language that they’re using is that the U.S. has a large responsibility for this problem,” said Ana María Salazar, a former high-ranking Clinton administration drug official who was involved in implementing the U.S.-funded program for Bogota, known as Plan Colombia.
There’s no question that American drug consumption is driving this problem. For years, we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the drug trade is the case of a foreign enemy trying to “poison” us with their dangerous wares. But that’s never been an accurate picture of what’s happening. Millions of Americans choose to use illegal drugs. They’re not being coerced by shifty foreigners trying to get us hooked. Only a small percentage of them are addicts. And as domestic drug law enforcement has driven many of the supply networks south of the border, the cartels have generated the kind of wealth and power than make Al Capone and his gang of bootleggers look like a Girl Scout troop.
The Nixon and Reagan Administrations laid the foundation for this disaster, but the Clinton Administration followed right in their footsteps. They launched Plan Colombia in 2000, the multi-billion dollar initiative in South America’s most prolific coca growing nation that failed to decrease cocaine production, increased corruption in the Colombian government, and actually lowered the price of cocaine in the United States. It’s often jokingly said that the Bush Administration’s policies were determined by looking at Clinton Administration policy and doing the opposite, but I only think that applied to the things that Clinton was doing that were actually smart.
Colombia’s problems have been around for decades, even before we started throwing money and weapons at them to fix them. Leftist guerrillas have waged a bloody civil war for over 40 years, in part because cocaine profits have kept their movement afloat while similar ideological movements in other countries have become an ignored fringe. Today, though, the Uribe government has been winning the military battle against these rebel groups, but finding that more and more of the drug trafficking is just occurring within its own ranks.
Another aspect of the damage being done in Colombia is their current emigration problem:
In the last decade, large-scale emigration has marked Colombian society, with roughly one of every 10 Colombians now living abroad. Internally, the country has been confronted with a major humanitarian crisis, as forced displacement has reached alarming proportions during the same period. Political, social, and economic problems, coupled with widespread insecurity, have fueled both voluntary and forced migration, while the same factors have acted as powerful deterrents for immigration to the country.
Considering that Plan Colombia gave money to American companies who sprayed dangerous chemicals across vast coca growing regions, killing all crops, not just coca; introduced more sophisticated weaponry into the already brutal civil war; and essentially thumbed their noses at any civilian concerns; the fact that millions of people have been fleeing the country shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. What should be a surprise is why anyone thinks that this is a good thing to try in Mexico right now.
Granted, there would be some major differences between Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia. Mexico is more of a transit point for drugs, rather than a source. No aerial eradication is going to happen in Mexico. However, there will certainly be an investment in high-tech weaponry that is sure to escalate the violence that has already been sending millions of people north in search of opportunity and relative peace. Mexico’s (and other Central American) drug cartels haven’t been tied to the country’s leftist guerrilla movements in the same way that exists in Colombia. What seems likely to happen is that the extra weaponry will be used to squash Calderón’s leftist political opponents, while he remains in a permanent stalemate with the drug lords. Corruption will be inevitable, and the drug smugglers will end up having some amount of Plan Mexico’s weapons bounty to maintain control of border towns like Laredo and Juarez where much of the country’s drug shipments enter the United States.
Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Mainly because we don’t allow ourselves to see the alternatives. American drug consumption is not going to go away, no matter what we do. Three decades of trying to scare Americans out of doing drugs by filling our prisons to record levels hasn’t worked. In the process, we’ve wasted over a trillion dollars in taxpayer money and accomplished nothing. Now, as we look out at the massive drug war failures in Afghanistan, in Colombia, and even here at home in our ravaged and violent inner cities and meth-addled small towns, can we finally get past our fear of what a bunch of plants grown in foreign countries can do to us and start doing something that actually makes sense? Can we finally accept the fact that a certain percentage of America’s population can and does use illegal drugs without the kinds of negative repercussions that require us to lay waste to the rest of the world to prevent it? Can we start distinguishing between drug use and drug abuse and stop thinking that a person who uses marijuana or even does a line of cocaine on the weekends is not a danger to himself and others?
These questions are ones that politicians fear having to answer. Many of them know the right answers, but can’t say them out loud. The paranoia over drugs has been built up over the years to the point where moderate, reasonable ideas are portrayed as the rantings of a radical fringe and still get political figures labeled as crackpots. But we’re nearing the point where we’ll no longer be able to afford the charade. Plan Mexico is expected to cost over $1 billion. That would just be another billion dollars that could have been spent more wisely on other things. A mistake that this country has made more than a thousand times over.