Death, Drugs and Legalisation: How Mexico is getting desperate

Conor O’ Donovan writes about the increasing level of drug problems in Mexico.

Conor O’ Donovan 

Staff Writer

On New Year’s day, six bodies were found in different parts of Mexico, a relatively peaceful day, if Mexican newspaper La Reformas usually more metronomic ‘Ejecutometro’ (execution meter) is considered. Revered Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, a man noted for coy narrative (‘to be interpreted by the reader with no endorsement from the teller’, according to the New York Times), recently addressed the issue of drugs. He was, for once, quite forward.

‘Sometimes we win, sometimes they win’, stated the former diplomat. While there have been slight improvements in infamous areas such as Ciudad Juarez, the corpses hanging from bridges, a cartel signature, are spreading into other areas. Areas near Mexico City, once thought to be an oasis for diplomats, corporations and the wealthy, such as Acapulco and Cuernavaca, have suffered recently. A burned out vehicle containing two decapitated bodies was discovered at the entrance to an expensive Mexico City shopping centre.

As the carnage looks set to infiltrate the capital, Mexico must reevaluate its handling of drug crime. Thus far the authorities have targeted the linchpins of cartels. This has yielded some limited success, as the Gulf Cartel has struggled since leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén’s arrest in 2004. Turf wars with Los Zetos, who split from the Gulf Cartel in 2010, have also influenced the situation, however. In 2010, the army managed to kill Ignacio Coronel, leader of the Sinaloa Federation. Joaquin Guzman stepped in swiftly.

Overall, the strategy of targeting the top has left weak municipalities unable to cope with those carrying out operations. The cartels have almost free reign in many areas with, perhaps, the exception of a few bribes. During the past 6 years, there has been an estimated 50,000 drug related deaths, with three in every four murders linked to drugs.

The only way to alleviate Mexico’s now chronic drug crime problem, according to many and affirmed by Fuentes, is to legalise drugs. This November, Mexico will hold its general elections which have assumed particular significance. They mark six years since Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs and his deployment of the Mexican army against cartels. Now, at the end of his tenure, only 18% of Mexicans believe the government is winning this war amid speculation that the Sinaloa Federation is involved with the ruling National Action Party.

Some believe legalisation would have a similar outcome to the repeal of prohibition in America. Prohibition in America was a politically driven movement involving groups ranging from industrialists hoping to damage the German brewing economy during WWI to the Ku Klux Klan. The drugs industry in Mexico is not a political movement, but a group of coordinated and violent factions. Though there was an unprecedented rise in organised crime during prohibition, the key difference is that Mexico’s problem is an ingrained social issue, rather than a result of its own misinformation.

The idealised notion that united legalisation would lower crime rates both sides of the border is an equally flawed concept. The collapse of the mobs post-prohibition was due to the existence of established, potentially legal, tenders and distributors of alcohol. The cartels will not recede in the same way. For one thing, where are ethical, licensed, marijuana wholesalers going to come from? Also where is the murderous competition between cartels going to go? Furthermore, the cartels have survived thus far despite their illegality and the attention of the Mexican army. Their ingenuity cannot be underestimated.

A recent scheme saw rigorously vetted holders of the hard sought SENTRI pass turning up with rucksacks of marijuana at the Mexican border. A network of spies, established by Texan citizens Jesus Chavez and Carlos Gomez, observed the models, colours and registration of cars crossing the border, and the driver’s routines. The two men then had keys cut for their targets by a contact in Texas. What the plan lacked in subtlety, it made up for in originality. It took a Supreme Court judge to spot the pattern of models, colours and bewilderment on the part of innocent drivers.

Another issue with the proposed legalisation is that produce will almost certainly still be illegal in the US, the market’s chief consumer. The US accounts for the consumption of 90% of Mexico’s cocaine. Methamphetamine, the latest commodity in a market whose staples are marijuana, cocaine and heroin, also makes its way North in significant quantities. Many of the cartels have a significant presence in the US with a 120-hectare Sinaloa marijuana growing operation being uncovered in California.

This is hardly surprising, as California is the main champion of drug legalisation in the US and therefore a key market. It came to light in October, however, that , leader of the prominent pro-drug group , is a target for Federal officials. Regardless of possibly questionable motives behind such targets, it illuminates the attitude of Federal Government towards marijuana and the low likelihood of a joint legalization with Mexico.

Unfortunately for Mexico, there are few other options available to them. This is part of the reasoning behind drastic measures. Even if the strategy of targeting perpetrators rather than leaders is employed, the death toll will rise before it falls. Those affected by drug related murders (which is a broad dynamic) will not care how encouraging the new approach is. Also there are always countless disaffected youths marginalized by Mexico’s school system waiting to replenish the ranks of cartels.

Indeed, addressing education could be more plausible as a starting point. The constant presence of the drug trade and crime on the political agenda highlights how cartels have ingrained themselves in Mexican society. Brutalised corpses left behind by cartels are horrifying, but they also make violence, as well as drugs, a part of everyday life for impressionable youths in disadvantaged areas. Claiming this effect is intended would be slightly far fetched. However, if the government can reach these youths before they are indirectly indoctrinated, they may have a realistic chance of denting the death toll.

Negotiation with cartels is another option that has been explored. However, the split between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas illustrates their fickle and volatile nature. The Beltran Leyva Organisation was head of security for Sinaloa until joining Los Zetas in 2006. La Familiar Michoacana, a former anti-drugs group, announced their entry into the fray in no uncertain terms, tossing five disembodied heads onto a crowded dance floor. Entry into any sort of dialogue would be very dangerous. It would also acknowledge and legitimize even the illegal presence of the cartels in Mexico.

Many of Fuentes’ narratives concern the Mexican revolution. Francisco Madero liberated Mexico from long time autocrat Porfirio Díaz. Ten years later, Álvaro Obregón was inaugurated as President. Today, Mexico is in the grips of a similarly complex struggle. Its oppressor is not one entity, but the violent, self-destructive hydra, the cartels, much like the factions of the decade between Madero and Díaz. While Mexico craves peace once again, legalisation is no more than surrender to the Northern American peninsula’s destructive drug habit.

  • KOGORO

    yeah instead of legalizing the most widely used substance that is less harmful than alcohol lets just make friends with the criminals and murderers and negotiate with them. seriously f my country when im able im moving to amsterdam or maybe japan (where i also wont be able to use pot but at least id live in a country that’s less rtarted.

    • Fionn

      Unless you get yourself a Dutch passport, you won’t be having any weed in Amsterdam from next year on. Not legally anyway.

  • Wayne Reiss

    “The idealised notion that united legalisation would lower crime rates both sides of the border is an equally flawed concept.”

    Almost every reputable economist disagrees with this comment, like Harvard Professor and specialist in underground markets, Jeffrey Miron, Ph.D. Mexican cartels would be deprived of 60% of their income if cannabis was sold in a regulated market in the US. That means 60% less capital to buy guns and 60% less capital to invest in other violent enterprises.

    “where are ethical, licensed, marijuana wholesalers going to come from?”

    From US licensed businesses similar to Coors and Budweiser. Where are the illegal alcohol distributors in Mexico murdering people in the street?

  • joe

    The author is an idiot.

  • xXxBigRonxXx

    Meth and marijuana might be bad, but creatine is a chemical.

  • http://druglibrary.org/schaffer Clifford Schaffer

    OK, Conor, it is time you took Drug Policy 1A.

    First, let’s start with why we have drug laws in the first place. You can read the short history of the marijuana laws in the US at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm

    In short, it was absolute lunacy from Day One.

    Then read Licit and Illicit Drugs at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/cumenu.htm This is the best overall review of the problem ever written. If you ever take a class in the subject, it will be required reading.

    But those items are about the situation in the US. You probably thought that your local laws were different. If so, read the Drug Hang-Up at http://druglibrary.org/special/king/dhu/dhumenu.htm Read the chapter titled “Proselytizing the World.” It tells the story of how the rest of the world acquired US drug laws. In short, if you don’t go along with US policy, we will break your legs.

    Then, if you want a more international view, you can read the full text of every major government commission on drugs from around the world over the last 100 years at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy.

    Let me give you a hint about those commission reports — not one agrees with you.

    Now be a good student and go do some homework before you try this again.

  • http://druglibrary.org/schaffer Clifford Schaffer

    “For one thing, where are ethical, licensed, marijuana wholesalers going to come from?”

    The farmers in the Central Valley of California would pretty much own the market overnight. It is, quite literally, the best place in the world to grow anything and the technical expertise is already there. If you believe the Government estimates of the value of the crop, it would boost the current 36 billion dollar annual value by about 15 billion dollars or so. In short, it would be a bigger bonanza for California than the California Gold Rush of 1849.

    These are the same people, of course, who grow the biggest chunk of the wine grape production. That’s another one of the reasons that alcohol prohibition ended. The grape farmers in California figured out that prohibition was no good for them. Therefore, in 1932, California passed a voter initiative repealing California prohibition laws. When that happened, it was over. National prohibition was repealed one year later.

    ” Also where is the murderous competition between cartels going to go?”

    The same place it went after alcohol prohibition. You can find a chart of the homicide rates in the US at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/graphs/29.htm Note that homicides fell dramatically at the end of alcohol prohibition.

    ” Furthermore, the cartels have survived thus far despite their illegality and the attention of the Mexican army. Their ingenuity cannot be underestimated.”

    Like alcohol, the drug trade is measured in the hundreds of billions. There are only three choices for who will control the trade, make all the rules for production, enforce age limits and purity standards — and collect all the tens of billions in profit. The choices are:

    1) Government, with proper regulations and taxes to address social problems

    2) Private business, with proper regulations and taxes to address social problems.

    3) Organized crime, with no regulations or taxes to address social problems.

    Please explain why organized crime gives us the most control over related problems. Please explain why organized crime is the best choice to spend those tens of billions in profit.

    You know, explain why Al Capone is a better choice to run this business than the people who currently make that fine Irish whiskey.

  • http://druglibrary.org/schaffer Clifford Schaffer

    Conor,

    I know you must be a history buff so you were probably asking yourself “How did this whole drug-gang thing get started in the first place?”

    I am glad you asked. You see, there wasn’t any of this gang violence stuff before 1914. There were drugs (literally all over the place) but there weren’t any drug gangs. There were drug addicts, but they typically didn’t commit crimes because of their addiction.

    That drug-gang violence stuff didn’t start until 1914. This link at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/cu8.html tells the story.

    The effects of this policy were almost immediately visible. On May 15, 1915, just six weeks after the effective date of the Harrison Act, an editorial in the New York Medical Journal declared:

    As was expected … the immediate effects of the Harrison antinarcotic law were seen in the flocking of drug habitues to hospitals and sanatoriums. Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usual1y to desperate efforts by addicts to obtain drugs, but occasionally to a delirious state induced by sudden withdrawal….

    The really serious results of this legislation, however, will only appear gradually and will not always be recognized as such. These will be the failures of promising careers, the disrupting of happy families, the commission of crimes which will never be traced to their real cause, and the influx into hospitals to the mentally disordered of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives. 8

    Six months later an editorial in American Medicine reported:

    Narcotic drug addiction is one of the gravest and most important questions confronting the medical profession today. Instead of improving conditions the laws recently passed have made the problem more complex. Honest medical men have found such handicaps and dangers to themselves and their reputations in these laws . . . that they have simply decided to have as little to do as possible with drug addicts or their needs. . . . The druggists are in the same position and for similar reasons many of them have discontinued entirely the sale of narcotic drugs. [The addict] is denied the medical care he urgently needs, open, above-board sources from which he formerly obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to the underworld where lie can get his drug, but of course, surreptitiously and in violation of the law….

    Abuses in the sale of narcotic drugs are increasing. . . . A particular sinister sequence . . . is the character of the places to which [addicts] are forced to go to get their drugs and the type of people with whom they are obliged to mix. The most depraved criminals are often the dispensers of these habit-forming drugs. The moral dangers, as well as the effect on the self-respect of the addict, call for no comment. One has only to think of the stress under which the addict lives, and to recall his lack of funds, to realize the extent to which these . . . afflicted individuals are under the control of the worst elements of society. In respect to female habitues the conditions are worse, if possible. Houses of ill fame are usually their sources of supply, and one has only to think of what repeated visitations to such places mean to countless good women and girls unblemished in most instances except for an unfortunate addiction to some narcotic drug-to appreciate the terrible menace. 9

    In 1918, after three years of the Harrison Act and its devastating effects, the secretary of the treasury appointed a committee to look into the problem. The chairman of the committee was Congressman Homer T. Rainey; members included a professor of pharmacology from Harvard, a former deputy commissioner of internal revenue responsible for law enforcement, and Dr. A. G. Du Mez, Secretary of the United States Public Health Service. This was the first of a long line of such committees appointed through the years. Among its findings 10 were the following:

    Opium and other narcotic drugs (including cocaine, which Congress had erroneously labeled as a narcotic in 1914) were being used by about a million people. (This was almost certainly an overestimate; see Chapter 9.)

    The “underground” traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to the legitimate medical traffic.

    The “dope peddlers” appeared to have established a national organization, smuggling the drugs in through seaports or across the Canadian or Mexican borders-especially the Canadian border.

    The wrongful use of narcotic drugs had increased since passage of the Harrison Act. Twenty cities, including New York and San Francisco, had reported such increases. (The increase no doubt resulted from the migration of addicts into cities where black markets flourished.)

    To stem this apparently rising tide, the 1918 committee, like countless committees since, called for sterner law enforcement. it also recommended more state laws patterned after the Harrison Act. 11

    Congress responded by tightening up the Harrison Act. In 1924, for example, a law was enacted prohibiting the importation of heroin altogether, even for medicinal use. This legislation grew out of the widespread misapprehension that, because of the deteriorating health, behavior, and status of addicts following passage of the Harrison Act and the subsequent conversion of addicts from morphine to heroin, heroin must be a much more damaging drug than opium or morphine. In 1925, Dr. Lawrence Kolb reported on a study of both morphine and heroin addiction: “If there is any difference in the deteriorating effects of morphine and heroin on addicts, it is too slight to be determined clinically.” 12 President Johnson’s Committee on Law Enforcement and Administration of justice came to the same conclusion in 1967: “While it is somewhat more rapid in its action, heroin does not differ in any significant pharmacological effect from morphine.” 13

    The 1924 ban on heroin did not deter the conversion of morphine addicts to heroin. On the contrary, heroin ousted morphine almost completely from the black market after the law was passed.

    An editorial in the Illinois Medical Journal for June 1926, after eleven years of federal law enforcement, concluded:

    The Harrison Narcotic law should never have been placed upon the Statute books of the United States. It is to be granted that the well-meaning blunderers who put it there had in mind only the idea of making it impossible for addicts to secure their supply of “dope” and to prevent unprincipled people from making fortunes, and fattening upon the infirmities of their fellow men.

    As is the case with most prohibitive laws, however, this one fell far short of the mark. So far, in fact, that instead of stopping the traffic, those who deal in dope now make double their money from the poor unfortunates upon whom they prey. . . .

    The doctor who needs narcotics used in reason to cure and allay human misery finds himself in a pit of trouble. The lawbreaker is in clover. . . . It is costing the United States more to support bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books.

    As to the Harrison Narcotic law, it is as with prohibition [of alcohol] legislation. People are beginning to ask, “Who did that, anyway?”

    The lesson of this story is that the problem you are complaining about was caused by the prohibition you support. It is as simple as that.