Drug decriminalisation in Mexico

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How does one defeat an enemy who is more prepared, more ruthless, and awash in the cash necessary to buy the best weapons, surveillance and people? This is the conundrum faced today by Mexico’s government and people as the bloody fight between and against the cartels has escalated into a gruesome war. In September and October, more people were murdered in Tijuana than in the same period in Baghdad (which, aside from the obvious factor of war, is also four times the size of Tijuana). This brings the total to more than 4,000 souls so far in 2008. Almost daily, the media reports the discovery of headless, tongue-less or liquefied corpses and high-profile assassinations are executed with audacity and impunity. What would have once been labeled paranoia or a conspiracy theory now seems more like common sense. The crash of the small plane carrying Interior Minister, Juan Camilo Mouriño, onto Mexico City’s elegant thoroughfare, Reforma, has been ruled an accident by the authorities, but this hasn’t tamed the suspicions running wild in the population at large. It would seem almost more incredible for human error to have been responsible for a death that cries murder to citizens accustomed to both drug-related assassinations and government cover-ups.

As this situation becomes more desperate, citizens and policymakers are left wondering where else to turn. The title of a recent column in the Mexico City daily, Milenio, seems to capture the nation’s weary and incredulous zeitgeist – ¿Cómo podemos vivir así? (How can we live like this?) The most recent novel by venerable 80 year-old Mexican intellectual and novelist, Carlos Fuentes, centers on a character who becomes the year’s 1,000th victim of decapitation (he wrote it just before decapitated corpses began turning up in the southern coastal state of Guerrero in 2006). Fuentes commented with his customary eloquence and flair for the foreboding: “We want to be writers, but we’ve been turned into prophets.”

President Calderón has deployed tens of thousands of Mexican soldiers to the most volatile areas of the country, and taken the unprecedented step, for a Mexican president, of accepting U.S. financial aid via the Mérida Initiative (though the funds are yet to be handed over to the Mexican government). Unfortunately, the stepped-up military presence has led to more violence rather than less, and also to the inevitable abuse of civilians at the hands of an army acting as a police force. On the positive side, there have also been many high-profile arrests and extraditions to the United States. The head of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas, was arrested in 2007 and is awaiting trial in Houston, and on October 23 of this year, the head of the Central Mexico operations of the Sinaloa Cartel was arrested after a shootout in Mexico City. Two days later, Eduardo Arellano Felix, a founding member of the eponymous cartel, was captured in Tijuana. Law enforcement in the U.S. had reportedly been offering up to $5 million dollars for information leading to Arellano Felix’s arrest.

How has Mexico displaced Colombia as the epicenter of violent drug cartels? In the 1980s, the dominant Colombian cartels began to use Mexican cartels to handle some of their transport and distribution to the United States. The Mexican cartels got a cut of the profits, but as they grew and Colombian cartels were weakened by a government crackdown, they demanded more control. They were in an excellent position to gain power – Mexico’s rule of law was, and is, ineffective, and its border with the United States became more porous as a result of NAFTA. The importance of fortifying the judicial system and rule of law has not been ignored by Calderón and his administration – the Congress passed an ambitious reform that requires the implementation of oral trials and presumption of innocence in every state of the Republic by 2016.

Despite winning some battles and skirmishes, the President and his country seem dismally behind their foe in winning the war. Mexico’s cartels earn an estimated $20 to $50 billion USD from drug sales every year (as much as the tourism industry and remittances from the north combined), and a significant portion of their profits goes into weaponry bought in the United States. Their arsenal rivals any modern army. The Mexican military and police have had to contend with grenade-launchers, bazookas, anti-aircraft machine guns, sub-machine guns with a 200 to 1,500 meter range, AK-47 assault rifles, and defensive Kevlar vests and armored cars. Often, the police are armed with only seven-bullet revolvers or at best a 9mm gun with twelve shots. The cartels’ transportation methods have also become more ingenious– in July, the Mexican Navy caught a makeshift “narco-submarine” off the coast of Oaxaca, carrying 5.8 tons of Colombian cocaine to its Mexican distributors beneath the waves of the Pacific.

Recently, the level of corruption in the highest echelons of law enforcement has laid bare the extent of the cartels’ advantage in the realm of intelligence. The removal, in some cases, arrest, of 35 officers in the most elite anti-drug squad in the country in early November, followed closely by the alleged connection of the head of Interpol in Mexico with the traffickers and the subsequent arrest of the former head of the Special Organized Crime Investigation Division (SIEDO) has left even cynical heads spinning with disbelief. One of the informants who helped bring down the corrupt officials claims to have been a mole in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City who passed on sensitive information from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to the Beltrán Leyva cartel. The “narcos” seem to be everywhere; even hiding behind the glasses of a punctilious bureaucrat who supplements her income by leaking information.

As the bad news continues to vanquish the good, it seems Calderón has taken a lesson from Sir Winston Churchill, and realized that “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” On October 2, he proposed an additional tactic, presenting a drug legalization scheme to the Mexican Congress, where various members of all three main political parties support its passage. Legalization is the term being used to describe this proposal, however, it would be more accurate to describe it as decriminalization – it would offer the alternative of treatment rather than prosecution for possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. The stated goal is to help unclog the judicial system - already sluggish from corruption and poor infrastructure – overloaded with cases against addicts, whom many believe should be treated as patients rather than criminals. This should also free up law enforcement to concentrate its efforts against dealers; the same proposal includes tougher penalties on those who sell drugs to minors, for example.

The Mexican Congress passed a similar legalization proposal presented by then-President Vicente Fox in 2006, but Fox himself vetoed it, raising suspicions that U.S. pressure had been applied. But the 2008 proposal has already been given a quiet nod of approval by the U.S. drug czar, John Walters, who also assured his country’s unwavering support for Calderón’s military crackdown. This about-face on legalization - which Walters has been vehemently opposed to in the U.S – is likely because it is seen as a local effort that can be encouraged, as long as the overall government strategy remains adamantly hawkish on the drug war. It also appears that the momentum towards at least partial decriminalization in the region may be overwhelming; as noted in a recent report from the Center on Hemispheric Affairs, Latin America is shifting towards a “more independent, region-centric approach to the issue of the economics of narcotics.”

A rising tide of similar legislation is being considered in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia, and in an October OAS (Organization of American States) meeting, the President of Honduras stated that “the trade of drugs, arms and people…are scourges on the international economy, and we are unable to provide effective responses” because of ongoing drug prohibition. The speaker of Mexico City’s legislative assembly, PRD Senator Victor Hugo Cirigo has even suggested the legalization of the sale of small amounts of marijuana in the capital city, citing the fact that marijuana is a “soft” drug, and that it is obvious that a new strategy is needed – he advised it is time to “hit criminals where it hurts: their finances.” Even the great Fuentes has lent his voice in support: “The only way to curb the violence of the drug cartels in Mexico is by legalizing drugs…If six or seven countries agreed with each other to legalize drug-taking, we would end it with the drug traffickers.” Fuentes's statement highlights the significance of an international consensus on legalization; without a doubt, the United States, as the most profitable drug market in the hemisphere, would need to participate in order to reduce the cartels' spoils of prohibition.

Legalization/decriminalization is certainly not the solution favored by everyone, including a very vocal and indignant Catholic Church, which criticized the legislators responsible for their “lack of moral values and ethics…thinking this makes them more modern.” Many fear a dramatic increase in the number of addicts, although they have been multiplying in Mexico for the past decade. Mexican drug use has spiked up 52% since 2000, with cocaine use alone increasing 100% in the past six years; women’s use has almost doubled in the same period. In a country where close to 50% of the population is under the age of 25 (the fastest growing demographic for drug addiction is the 12-17 year-old group), and rapid urbanization has created vast, destitute slums, it seems a sad truth that drug use will only increase, whether or not addicts are jailed.

In considering this issue, it should be remembered that even the few successes in the panorama of failures in the war on drugs have been mostly accidental. The end of the crack cocaine epidemic that gripped cities across the United States in the 1980s and early 90s was one of them. This triumph over a specific, highly potent drug and its users and dealers was credited with single-handedly reducing crime on city streets. How was this enviable feat accomplished? The truth is, no one knows.

The quick rise and fall of this extraordinarily addictive and dangerous drug is still debated. Some attribute its fall to an overall economic boost and the availability of more gainful employment, some to the falling price of crack which made it less appealing to drug dealers, and some even to an overall drop in crime which resulted from the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, which by 1990 had eliminated many unborn destined to become disenfranchised, low-income teens. There does seem to be a consensus that death in general had a lot to do with it - death of the users (whose propensity to combine crack with heroin led to many fatal overdoses), death of the dealers at the hands of the police, but mostly those of their rivals, and even death of the cops who waged the war against the drug.

It may be redundant to note how global a problem drug trafficking has become; however, its impact beyond the world of dealers, users and law enforcement has strengthened and become more sinister. On October 21st, U.S. and Colombian officials announced that they busted a Colombian drug ring linked to Hezbollah, the extremist Lebanese political party/milita. The LA Times called it an "unusual and alarming alliance". However, this symbiotic relationship among the globe's shadowy criminals and terrorists or guerrilla movements is a logical one; they are brought together by mutual need, if not always ideological unity.

This nexus is already apparent in the lawless nether regions of the world - the "frontiers of anarchy" as described by journalist Robert Kaplan. From Afghanistan to Myanmar to Somalia, the power vacuum left by weak states is often filled by political opportunists funded by black market profits. Sales of illicit drugs in Europe, Asia and North America provide cash for Taliban insurgents, Shining Path guerillas, FARC rebels, Burmese generals and even extremist Middle Eastern political parties. Of course, drugs aren't the only source of funds - bands of Somali pirates have raked in $150 million dollars this year, possibly some of it for funding Islamist rebellion in their forsaken failed state, by hijacking ships in the busy waters off the coast.

Mexico has become a microcosm, and perhaps a soothsayer, of the world in the 21st century. Inequality is at historically unprecendented levels, both within countries and globally. In 2005, the ratio between the average income received by the richest 5 per cent and the poorest 5 per cent of people in the world was 165 to 1. During the rapid growth of the 19th century, global income inequality was also rising, but was determined more by disproportion within countries rather than between them. In 1870, the average income per person of the ten richest countries was 6 times greater than the average income per person of the ten poorest countries. However, in 2002, this ratio was 42 to 1. (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Working Paper No. 26, Branko Milanovic).

Governments are losing the capacity to handle the consequences of this staggering disparity. As described in the National Ingelligence Council’s recent report in their column of “Relative Certainties” for the 2025 Global Landscape: “The relative power of non-state actors – businesses, tribes, religious organizations, and even criminal networks – will increase.” This world, dominated by the disorder and tension between states and uncontrollable, transnational groups, is already taking frightening shape in the embattled streets of Mexico.

The poorly understood victory over crack cocaine, the borderless connections among criminals and terrorists, the prospect of a new global disorder, can all offer us only one clear lesson – to be humble in our strategy-making. As is the case with most prickly, intractable and widespread problems, there is no grand solution waiting to be implemented; no law, operation, arrest, or sentence that will sweep away the tangled web of violence and destruction. Legalization may become the most effective weapon in the arsenal aimed at organized crime - more than 4,300 deaths into Mexico's war this year, it seems now is the perfect time to give it a try. 


Thank you to Alfredo Moreno and José Luís Camarillo (Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias) for the use of the first and third photographs in this article.