Gwynne Dyer: War on drugs is tearing Mexico apart

Something remarkable happened in Mexico last Wednesday (April 6). 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 Zocalo, in the heart of Mexico City, they chanted “no more blood”, and many called for the resignation of President Felipe Calderon, 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, 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 in the United States have become cheaper, stronger and more easily available in the United States 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 shouldn’t 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 legalizing the production, sale and distribution of drugs. Legalization 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 Cesar 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 United States 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 legalization of drugs, Mexico can only escape from its current agony by refusing any further cooperation 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 United States. But just ending the army’s involvement would greatly lower the level of violence, and legalizing 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 Calderon 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.



Susan Weiss

Apr 8, 2011 at 10:40am

Gwynne Dyer:

You should be in the middle of this "war on drugs", right here and now, in Mexico.

How dare you say!: "The current wave of demonstrations against the drug war is only a start".

Do you have any idea the level of fear the Mexican people suffer, EVERYDAY? I think not.

And, how each and every Mexican shares this fear; each in his/her own way? I think not.

So get your "butt" down into the crisis zones and see and feel this fear for yourself before you make a statement like: "The current wave of demonstrations against the drug war is only a start. The policy won’t change so long as Calderon 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."

Each and every Mexican is and has been saying “NO Más!” for quite a long time.

Perhaps this is new "news" to you!

"One of these days, Mexico will just say no" is insulting to all Mexicans and you should apologize.

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Apr 8, 2011 at 12:54pm

Susan, I think you've really missed the point. As near as I can tell, the article is exactly representing your point of view.

He has even explained why Mexican elected officials have not acted according to the will or best interests of the Mexican people (but rather in the best interests of the United States). I'm really confused as to what is angering you.

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Jillian Galloway

Apr 8, 2011 at 2:26pm

Banning stores from selling marijuana to adults is as ridiculous as banning stores from selling alcohol to adults! These laws do NOTHING to help our country and they make marijuana more accessible to children than alcohol is.

The federal marijuana prohibition empowers drug dealers and the Mexican drug cartels by preventing any form of legal competition to their activities. Instead of protecting children from marijuana, these laws create an environment of zero legal supply amidst massive and unrelenting demand, which effectively serves to make our children LESS safe.

Just like with alcohol, we need marijuana to be legally sold to adults in supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies in order to undercut local drug dealer prices and drive them out of our communities and away from our children.

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cranky mom

Apr 8, 2011 at 4:03pm

Dear Susan, you should direct your anger at the biggest dealers and manipulators around. The CIA. They do not want to see drugs decriminalized or legal, it would cut in on their markets too much! They certainly do not care about the Mexicans or South & Central Americans.

And we must not forget that giant wall they are building along the mexican american border. For sure that is going to stop the drugs and bad people from coming into the States.

The war on drugs will not be won, and the flow of drugs will not stop. The demand is too high.

It is a very sad state of affairs. Both sides loose.

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diana schroeder

Apr 8, 2011 at 8:18pm

It is the corruption in both the U.S. and Mexico that is creating so much suffering. You have to look at the whole picture, including the smuggling of arms and ammunition into Mexico and the laundering of drug money in the U.S. (Wachovia). Even when the bank (Wells Fargo) is caught red-handed, they only get a slap on the wrist. The U.S. also goes out of its way to cloak the cartel bosses with respectability. In fact, in the U.S., they are philanthropists! Rich geezers with banking backgrounds who support ecological foundations, art and education. The Mexicans know the degree of deception at play but the media doesn't bother to investigate or connect the dots. Those ruthless cartels who are killing each other and innocent bystanders are very low down on the totem pole. The real bosses do not use AK47's, they wouldn't dirty their hands.

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Apr 8, 2011 at 10:00pm

Are you stupid hippies that naive to think that legalizing drugs will break the backs of the drug gangs? You don't think the cartels will infiltrate state run drug producers and distributers? You want fake studies showing that drugs aren't harmful by fake lobby groups so people take more substances?

The war on drugs sucks, but your ideas are retarded.

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Rick H

Apr 8, 2011 at 11:46pm

1: It will, despite your knee-jerk reactions to the contrary. Do some research.

2: It won't, if there are some actual toothy regs in place (wait, what am I thinking?)

3: Fake studies? You mean like from the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute and the Fraser Institute? Riiiight.

The war on drugs sucks, and your ideas are retarded.

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Apr 9, 2011 at 1:58am

Yet another failed war that the US cannot afford. Unfortunately common sense is not likely to rear its head when your country (unfortunately including the Harpo government) is so ideologically driven.

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Susan Weiss

Apr 9, 2011 at 6:28am

Gwynne Dye:

Read this and weep, as this Mexican father, poet and journalist, Javier Sicilia is weeping.

We, ALL, here in Mexico, weep and are left speechless – BUT, Javier’s call for a “popular uprising against violence”, is the real reason for the organization of the “Something remarkable happened in Mexico last Wednesday (April 6)."

To all of you who think that journalist’s are not to be railed at – think again, after you read the words of Javier Sicilia, it is not the “start” of protests, it is not the middle and it will not be the end.

I happen to agree with “mi amigo Vicente Fox, ex-Presidente de Mexico” – legalize the drugs and the sales will go elsewhere.

Then we will have no more really sad fathers’, mothers’, sons’, daughters’, sisters’, brothers’, aunts’, uncles’, and citizenry of Mexico.

A Javier Sicilia y tu familia – que te vaya bien, y que tu hijo descanse en paz, respetosamente,

Susan Weiss

PS: Here is an excerpt of Javier Sicilia’s open letter to politicians’ and criminals: “The brutal assassination of my son, Juan Francisco, of Julio César Romero Jaime, of Luis Antonio Romero Jaime, and of Gabriel Anejo Escalera, is added to so many other boys and girls who have been assassinated just the same throughout the country, not only because of the war unleashed by the government of Calderón against organized crime, but also the rotting of the heart that has been wrought by the poorly labeled political class and the criminal class, which has broken its own codes of honor”¦.”

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