Will Enrique Peña Nieto, the new president of Mexico from the corrupt and authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), go easy on drug traffickers? Let’s hope so.
During his campaign, Mr. Peña Nieto vowed to battle murder, extortion, kidnapping, and other violent crimes but said little about going after drug traffickers. During its unrivaled 70-year reign that ended in 2000, the PRI was accused of cutting deals with crime syndicates to keep the peace. Although such agreements were corrupt, perhaps corruption is better than the militarized U.S.-backed anti-drug war of Felipe Calderón, the current Mexican president. Fatigue with that costly war, which has killed more than 50,000 Mexican civilians in recent years, played a significant role in Mexicans bringing back a venal and autocratic PRI that they had thrown out of office 12 years before.
But any president of Mexico must pay heed to the wishes of the colossus of the north, and Washington is already suspicious that Peña Nieto will ease the pressure on drug traffickers and stop taking down cartel chieftains.
Of course, most Mexicans would be happy if Peña Nieto did exactly that. At the behest of the United States, Calderón’s use of the Mexican military and its harsh tactics against the drug lords has merely led to the slaughter of Mexican civilians without putting much of a dent in the long-term flow of drugs into the United States.
This militarized bloodbath is causing some in the United States — even a few government officials — to privately reassess the failed U.S. war on drugs. As during alcohol prohibition from 1919 to 1933 in the United States, organized crime has been given a big boost; continued demand for the illegal product exists and so do huge profits to be made off excessively high prices that could be charged for the dangers of smuggling it to customers past government authorities.
Mexicans correctly believe that the root of the problem lies in the continued demand for illegal drugs in the United States. If the U.S. government did away with a victimless crime and allowed adults the right to put into their bodies what they wanted, demand for drugs would go up somewhat but the violence would plummet. No one would pay elevated prices to gangsters — Mexican, Colombian, American, or otherwise — to traffic legal substances. Society could then treat drug addiction as a medical problem instead of a crime, with education campaigns and treatment programs reducing the long-term demand for drugs. Finally, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but that’s because many of the people in prison are being held unnecessarily for drug-related crimes — that is, jailed for consuming or trafficking substances that shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. Legalizing drugs would eventually lower the U.S. prison population by getting rid of those faux crimes and also by reducing the robberies and violence associated with stealing money to pay inflated prices for what is now illegal contraband.
So until the United States adopts the enlightened policy of drug legalization — don’t hold your breath — the Mexican government is faced with the unpalatable options of knuckling under to U.S. pressure to continue the rising slaughter and instability of a militarized drug war or cutting a deal with cartel leaders to ensure peace. As bad as it seems, the latter alternative is better for Mexico and the United States. More drugs may get through into the United States, but the killing and instability just south of the U.S. border, which is coming north, would be reduced.
In short, corruption is better than slaughter. The U.S. government took this route in Iraq by paying off its enemies, the Sunni Awakening guerrillas, to stop attacking American forces and turn on their even more violent al-Qaeda brethren. Violence was reduced, and the U.S. military was able to extricate itself with honor from a bloody quagmire. Similarly, Peña Nieto may adopt the traditional way the PRI has dealt with drug lords in Mexico, reaching agreements with them to ensure the peace and extracting the Mexican military from an equally bloody and fruitless fight. If Peña Nieto pursues this course, the U.S. government will likely unfairly and hypocritically criticize him for doing so.