Drug War Tragedy in Mexico

by , March 03, 2009

Perhaps it has taken warnings to U.S. college students considering where to undertake the traditional undergraduate (and beyond) practices of drinking too much and looking for sex in a warm climate during spring break to bring the situation home to Americans. Various colleges and even the U.S. State Department have warned that something close to open warfare [.pdf] is occurring in Mexico, and it just isn’t a safe place for naive or fun-seeking college students, even those with little money who are not obvious candidates for kidnapping or extortion.

Even sadder, authorities both in Mexico and the United States are not only taking actions [.pdf] that are more likely to increase violence than to reduce it, but they can also be said to have been the impetus behind the violence.

For someone like me, who grew up in Southern California and has been visiting across the border – not much past Rosarito, but just crossing the border is enough to know you are in a different country – this feels especially tragic. There has long been a rough-and-ready quality to Mexico, but the country has attractions well beyond the fleeting pleasure of being able to buy a beer before you have reached legal age in the United States. There is nothing quite like sitting on a beach, whether at the old Rosarito Beach Hotel or the house my late aunt used to have just north of Rosarito, with a drink in hand and pleasant company watching the sun sink into the ocean and spread a remarkable variety of roseate colors in the sky.

Mexico has miles of not just uncrowded but virtually uninhabited beautiful beaches. I have always found the people pleasant, fun-loving, and eager to please, even after it was apparent that I was not one of those rich Americanos but a tourist of modest means. My wife and I especially treasure memories of eating excellent steak dinners for almost no money in dollars at a steakhouse in Rosarito Beach while being serenaded by roving mariachi musicians.

Tourism, once an important backbone of the economies of border towns like Tijuana, Rosarito, and Mexicali, which I know well, and Neuvo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez, which I don’t, is down as much as 90 percent in the last year or so. The violence in Mexico has been increasing steadily and growing in gruesomeness. In 2005 more than 1,300 people were killed in drug-gang-related violence. By 2007 the number had grown to 2,673. Some estimates put the deaths at 4,500 just through November of 2008. And many of the bodies discovered show signs of the victims having been tortured.

Beheadings are sadly not all that uncommon. Two years ago the heads of a murdered police strike force commander and one of his deputies were jammed onto a fence in front of the police station in Acapulco, which used to be a legendary tourist paradise of sorts. Not long after that, five severed heads were tossed across a dance floor in a nightclub in the state of Michoacán. Other heads have been left near schools, courthouses, and city halls.

The violence has spilled over into the United States, and not just into border towns. Phoenix, Ariz., 185 miles north of the border, has become the kidnapping-for-ransom capital of the United States, with 368 cases reported to police last year for a crime that it notoriously underreported because of fear. Not all these kidnappings are drug-war-related, of course, but the rash of crime began with drug-war crimes. Last June a group of heavily armed cartel gunmen dressed in Phoenix police uniforms fired more than 100 rounds into a house during the targeted assassination of a man reported to be a Jamaican drug dealer who had double-crossed a Mexican cartel.

The major reason for this tragic surge in violence, of course, is the fact that for the last few years the Mexican government, spurred on and subsidized by the U.S. government, has decided to get serious about cracking down on the many drug cartels that flourish in Mexico, profiting from the apparently quite steady demand for illicit drugs in the United States. Unfortunately, they have discovered, as authorities who have sought to win the ill-considered War on Drugs by main force have discovered time and time again, that the drug cartels are hydra-headed monsters. Kill or imprison the head of a particularly brutal cartel, as the authorities were able to do recently with the notorious Felix Arellano organization in Tijuana, and a half dozen contenders for leadership quickly emerge, all of them skilled to one extent or another in the dark arts of violence, concealment, intimidation, and cruelty.

The reasons for the ongoing failure of prohibitionism have to do with the economics of prohibition. It is impossible to know for sure, of course, until a non-prohibition market emerges, but a decent educated guess [.pdf] is that drugs for which there is an active demand see their prices rise at least tenfold under prohibition. Between cannabis or coca or opium plant and street buyer, then, are opportunities for markups that virtually no producer of a legal commodity in even a modestly competitive environment could hope to attain. There are people who are willing to lie, cheat, torture, and kill for the kind of money that can be made dealing in illicit drugs, and until end times or utopia, there always will be.

The vast amounts of cash that can flow through illicit drug networks also make official corruption not only possible but virtually inevitable. Mexican police at all levels have hardly been noted for their purity in the best of times, but when the drug war metaphor begins to be taken literally, corruption multiplies.

In ordinary commerce, disputes are often handled quietly, or as a last resort taken to court to be resolved by a judge. In illicit commerce, of course, there is no resort to courts, arbitration companies, or other peaceful methods, so the inevitable disagreements and disputes among people already self-identified as part of a criminal underworld and inclined to and experienced in violence tend to be handled violently, with gun battles and executions increasingly part of the landscape in Mexico. Unfortunately the violence often spills over to include innocent bystanders, including children. Just this year a little girl in Ciudad Juarez, six people standing in front of a recreation center in that city, a 14-year-old girl in Acapulco, and two small children in Tijuana found themselves in the wrong places at the wrong times and were killed.

So what has the United States government done about the violence that has wracked our neighbor to the south, that has already spread to this country, and that threatens to expand to other cities with notable Mexican-American populations, such as Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and perhaps even communities in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, and what do the supposedly prestigious organs of respectable opinion suggest we do about it? To torture a metaphor, the government provided the kindling for the fire, poured some gasoline on in it, and threw a handful of firecrackers into it just to make it a bit more spectacular and dangerous. Meanwhile, various commentators have broken out tired and bedraggled hobbyhorses and ridden them, hoping that the blaze of the bonfire will somehow make the faded paint and worn-out parts look shiny and attractive.

The U.S. government has cheered on the Mexican government as it took steps to turn the metaphorical "war on drugs" into a real war with human casualties and collateral damage among innocent civilians. It is almost impossible to confirm, but it seems likely that various U.S. enforcement agencies have worked closely with Mexico’s federales. And last June, just to make sure the violence intensified, Congress approved a $400 million subsidy for the Mexican government’s "anti-drug" efforts. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced more crackdowns.

As for quasi-respectable opinion, it is divided among several ineffective steps that won’t help and will probably make the situation worse but that give their proponents a warm feeling. The drug warrior ideologues, of course, recommend further escalation, despite decades of manifest failure, a recent example being $5 billion spent on Plan Colombia without reducing the flow of drugs to North America and Europe. The anti-immigration ideologues argue that we should get really serious about sealing the border this time, actually finishing that wall, and if necessary stationing the military on the border to prevent those pesky Mexicans from trying to hammer nails or rake leaves. And the anti-gun ideologues, with cheerleading from the New York Times, argue for tightening U.S. gun laws and stepping up enforcement, as if closing sporting goods stores in the Southwest will suddenly make it impossible for Mexican cartelistas to acquire weapons.

The most efficacious approach [.pdf] to stemming the violence in Mexico is to recognize that just as what most newspapers blithely call "drug-related crime" is actually drug-law-related crime or even drug-law-caused crime, the wave of violence in Mexico is not caused by the inherent viciousness of the Mexican underclass or the physiological properties of drugs deemed illicit, but by the set of perverse incentives that arise when governments treat adults like children and dictate what they can ingest, attempting to prohibit plants and substances that are easily grown and formulated and for which there is a steady demand. The violence in Mexico is not "drug-related" but "drug-law-related" or even caused directly and indirectly by the laws attempting to prohibit the use of some substances.

An increasing number of people in other countries have recognized this for some time, as a recent statement by three former Latin American presidents acknowledges [.pdf]. If the United States were to abandon or even pull back from its futile War on Drugs, then other countries would probably follow quickly, some of them eagerly, as it is U.S. pressure that keeps many prohibitionist laws in place in other countries. This step would have the added benefit of depriving politically oriented terrorist groups – think the Taliban in Afghanistan – of huge sources of money and experience in clandestine activity.

I wouldn’t bet on this war ending any time soon, however.

Read more by Alan Bock