If there was one success that South American anti-drug efforts had in the past two decades, it was to dismantle some of the larger drug trafficking networks that were operating there. Since the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, there have been no comparable figures in Colombian society in terms of wealth, influence, and criminality. But the drug trafficking organizations that supplied American drug users didn’t disappear. They moved to Mexico, demonstrating one fundamental rule about the drug war – as long as demand exists, you can never end the trade, you can only hope to relocate it.
Before the 1980s, Mexican drug gangs were little more than nuisances in Mexican society. They’d profit from smuggling marijuana into the United States, and could sometimes subvert institutions through corruption or violence. But today, Mexican drug gangs control much of northern Mexico and, according to Stratfor, an organization of current and retired intelligence officials, they now pose a significant threat to the federal government in Mexico City.
Taking over control of the cocaine trade from South American cartels was only part of how these criminal organizations became so powerful. The long-running and increasingly high-tech crackdown on marijuana-growing across the United States limited the amount of small-time domestic suppliers and gave Mexican importers a larger share of the massive market for American marijuana use. After 9/11, when smuggling across the border became a riskier proposition, Mexican drug gangs began to set up large-scale grow operations inside America, often within National Parks and National Forests.
Additionally, as many states moved to combat homegrown meth labs with legislation making it difficult to purchase large amounts of the cold medicines that are used to manufacture it, Mexican drug labs simply stepped up their output to meet the demand. Mexican-made methamphetamine is often at such a high purity level that addiction problems across the United States are far worse than they ever were when amphetamines were prescribed by doctors or used by Air Force pilots to maintain alertness. Once again, prohibition led not to the reduction of drug use, but to far more dangerous drug use instead.
The result is that much of the tens of billions of dollars that Americans spend on illegal drugs every year goes into the pockets of Mexican drug lords. The same phenomenon that once allowed mobsters like Al Capone to subvert major American cities during alcohol prohibition is happening now in Mexico, but on a scale unlike anything we’ve previously seen. It was recently revealed that Mexico’s former drug czar was being paid nearly half a million dollars a month by drug cartels in exchange for inside information on law enforcement activities. In cities along the border between Mexico and the United States, journalists and public officials either defer to the power of the cartels or end up tortured, dead, or both. Drug cartels not only hire current and former members of the Mexican military to join their ranks, but they also feel untouchable enough to advertise these job openings on billboards within a short drive of the U.S. border. While Americans debate whether or not to put a wall on the Mexican border, sophisticated tunnels with elevators, rail, and electricity have been discovered underneath the divide between Tijuana and San Diego.
Unlike the nations of South America, Mexico is not so comfortable with the idea of an American military presence on their own soil. Our war against these cartels is fought entirely as a proxy war, and it’s one that the Mexican government no longer has a prayer of winning. The cartels can easily subvert law enforcement and government officials by paying them higher salaries, and with the powerful weapons they’re able to obtain from illegal arms smuggling from the United States, they’re never outgunned. The only real military threats to the cartels are the other cartels.
Despite the grim situation, American anti-drug officials have continued to expect miracles from the Mexican government. The Mexican government’s response has tended to follow the same pattern. They declare a crackdown on the drug trade and put more money into law enforcement. A show of force nets a few cartel leaders and disrupts a few trade routes. The remaining cartels then battle it out in the vacuum. Over time, law enforcement officials are subverted by the larger sums they can make from the traffickers, and the Mexican government is forced to make deals with the cartel leaders in desperate attempts to limit the horrific violence.
Eventually, in 2006, after seeing this full cycle take its course, Mexican President Vicente Fox decided to try something different. He followed the lead of close allies Spain and Portugal and helped introduce a bill to decriminalize drug use in his country. He correctly believed that treating low-level personal drug use as a crime was deterring from his ability to combat those who controlled the drug trade. As soon as this news was announced, though, American anti-drug officials quickly flew to Mexico City to pressure Fox to change his mind. They succeeded. Vicente Fox killed the bill that he had previously supported.
Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, came into office after a very close and hotly disputed election later that year where the growing influence of the cartels was the primary issue for the voters. Calderon’s outlook was in line with the Drug Czar’s. As soon as he took office, he announced a major crackdown on the drug traffickers, sending thousands of Mexican troops into his home state of Michoacan and other areas controlled by the cartels.
The result was no different than before; a few high-level targets were apprehended, some drug distribution networks were disrupted, but the flow of drugs into the United States continued. As the surviving cartels and other aspiring drug lords fought for control of newly opened opportunities, killings skyrocketed across Mexico. In 2008, over 5000 people were killed in the violence. The tales of violence have been nothing short of horrific, with decapitations, stories of tortured civilians, and entire regions where law enforcement actively works for the cartels.
The solution from the U.S. Congress to address this problem was the Merida Initiative, a $1.3 billion aid package to assist the Mexican government in defeating the drug cartels. Considering that cartels control an industry that nets them somewhere between $40 billion and $100 billion per year, it’s hard to see how exactly this money could tip the scales. And even worse, if we decided to give the Mexican government far more than that (for example, as much money as we just gave to our financial institutions), new drug trafficking organizations would just pop up elsewhere to supply the American demand for illegal drugs.
In the meantime, the effect of the cartels is already reaching well into the United States. According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, Mexican drug cartels have a presence in nearly every American state. In Atlanta, a recent series of murders and kidnappings shocked local residents. In Las Vegas, a six-year old named Cole Puffinberger was abducted by members of a drug gang and held for several days before being released. The boy’s grandfather owed money to a Mexican drug dealer. Throughout central Washington this past summer, law enforcement officials were discovering that old wineries had been turned into marijuana growing operations by groups affiliated with Mexican cartels. The drug trade is now estimated to be between 5-10% of Mexico’s entire GDP.
The roots of this disaster can be traced back to the end of alcohol prohibition. Back in the early 1930s, a man named Harry J. Anslinger was in charge of the Treasury Department’s National Bureau of Narcotics. In order to preserve jobs that were no longer needed after the end of alcohol prohibition, he began a propaganda campaign to highlight the dangers of the cannabis plant, which he intentionally referred to by its Mexican name “marihuana” to play upon American fears of foreign influence. The claims made by Anslinger were utterly absurd, claiming that marijuana was “the most violence-causing drug of all time,” and that it could make people psychotic. Medical professionals who came to Congress to rebut this misinformation were marginalized. And despite the prominent role that hemp farming played in the early history of colonial America, even that completely benign plant (hemp is marijuana without the large concentrations of the psychoactive compound THC) ended up being banned along with marijuana in 1937.
Today, roughly 100 million Americans have used marijuana at least once, including our last three Presidents. Yet the myths around the drug invented by Anslinger and others has never really died out in the halls of Congress. The Federal government still considers it a dangerous drug with no potential medical properties, even though 13 states have legalized its use as a medicine, and hundreds of thousands of people use it with a doctor’s recommendation. Millions of Americans use the drug regularly for recreational purposes, fully able to lead successful and fulfilling lives. Marijuana is far less addictive than many legal drugs and it’s impossible to die from an overdose when using it. Yet the mandate of the Drug Czar stipulates that it’s his office’s legal imperative to convince us that this drug is simply too dangerous to consider decriminalizing.
Not only have we implemented this ban on marijuana domestically, but the United States has been using its powerful position within the global community to force other countries to similarly ban this relatively benign drug. Despite that, though, not every country agrees with our no-tolerance approach. In Holland, the sale and use of marijuana in coffeeshops has been allowed for over 30 years now. The result? Holland now has far lower percentages of marijuana users than every country surrounding it, especially among teenagers. The percentage of Dutch teens who have used marijuana is roughly half the percentage of American teens. Of course, these facts don’t stop American anti-drug officials from regularly assailing their very successful policy.
In the past few months, the Mexican government tried once again to decriminalize drug possession. Unlike last time, however, the American Drug Czar was in support. The reason was because this bill required those found in possession of drugs to still be arrested and forced to enter rehabilitation. It should be obvious to most people that being caught in possession of drugs does not automatically prove that one is an addict. But the Drug Czar’s office makes no distinction between the casual use of marijuana or club drugs and someone with a heroin addiction, and they demand that the governments of other nations similarly bury their heads in the sand.
Sadly, this long-running effort in willful ignorance has led to a situation where the country at our southern border is in real danger of becoming a narco-state. The drug cartels already wield enough power to subvert high ranking officials in Mexico City and carry out brazen assassinations. The original $200 million that was proposed in 1982 by the Reagan Administration to defeat the world’s drug trafficking networks is now roughly what the Mexican cartels collectively earn every couple of days. Yet during a speech in November of 2006 in South Carolina, Joe Biden blamed the problem in Mexico on “Mexican corruption,” rather than on himself and his fellow clueless politicians who chose to believe in fairy tales over facts for two decades, leaving us with this crisis at the border.
The damage being done to the Mexican economy through all of this is hard to measure. With so much of the Mexican economy tied up in this illegal industry, the Mexican government is hamstrung from being able to make the kinds of investments in schools, health care, and infrastructure to keep up with other emerging nations like China and India. Millions of Mexicans still find that their job prospects at home don’t measure up to the kinds of opportunities available to them in America, even though those opportunities require them to violate American immigration laws, accept miniscule wages and endure terrible working conditions.
The only real consolation in this mess is that the cartel leaders in Mexico aren’t also groups who have an ideological fervor to see the United States destroyed.