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Ceasefire in the War on Drugs?

18 November 2011

Ceasefire in the War on Drugs?

By Gwynne Dyer

Like those generals who used to discover that nuclear weapons were not a good thing about twenty minutes after they took off their uniforms and started collecting their pensions, we have had a parade of former presidents who knew that the war on drugs was a bad thing – but only mentioned it after they were already ex-presidents. Now, at last, we have one who is saying it out loud while he is still in office.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, the country that has suffered even more than Mexico from the drug wars, is an honest and serious man. He is also very brave, because any political leader who advocates the legalisation of narcotic drugs will become a prime target of the prohibition industry. He has chosen to do it anyway.

We are basically still thinking within the same framework as we have done for the past forty years,” he told “The Observer” in a recent interview in Bogota. “A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking….If that means legalising [drugs]…then I will welcome it.”

Santos has no intention of becoming a kamikaze politician: “What I won’t do is become the vanguard of that movement [to legalise drugs] because then I will be crucified. But I would gladly participate in those discussions, because we are the country that’s still suffering most…from the high consumption in the US, the UK and Europe in general.”

There are no such discussions, of course. Santos is being disingenuous about this; he is really trying to start a serious international debate on drug legalisation, not to join one. But the time may be ripe for such a debate, because it is now almost universally acknowledged (outside of political circles) that the “war on drugs” has been an extremely bloody failure.

Twenty years ago Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, the most influential economist of the 20th century, and an icon of the right, said: “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.” It is only because the government makes the drugs illegal that the criminal cartel has a highly profitable monopoly on meeting the demand.

Milton Friedman also said: “Government never has any right to interfere with an individual for that individual’s own good. The case for prohibiting drugs is exactly as strong and as weak as the case for prohibiting people from over-eating. We all know that over-eating causes more deaths than drugs do.” But there are a quarter-million Americans in jail for possessing or selling drugs. Nobody is in jail for producing, marketing or eating junk food.

Friedman was right, of course, but forty years of the war on drugs have also shown that arguments based on logic, natural justice, or history (the obvious parallel with alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920s and early 30s) have very little effect on policy in the main drug-importing nations. Many politicians there know that the war on drugs is futile and stupid, but the political cost of leaving the herd and saying so out loud is too high.

The political leaders who are starting to say that it’s time to end the war and legalise the drugs are almost all in the producer nations, where the damage has been far graver than in the drug-importing countries. In practice, therefore, they are almost all Latin American leaders – but even there they have waited until they left office to make their views known.

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox supported the US-led war on drugs when he was in office in 2000-2006, but more recently he has condemned it as an unmitigated disaster. “We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs,” he wrote on his blog. “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.”

“Legalisation does not mean that drugs are good,” Fox added, “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.”

Naturally, Fox only said all that when he was no longer president, because otherwise the United States would have punished Mexico severely for stepping out of line. In the same spirit, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico made a joint public statement that drug prohibition had failed in 2009 – after they had all left office.

But gradually Latin American leaders are losing their fear of Washington. Last year Mexican President Felipe Calderon called for a debate on the legalisation of the drug trade, although he carefully stressed that he himself was against the idea. (Then why did you bring it up, Felipe?) And now President Santos of Colombia has come out, still cautiously, to say that he would consider legalising not only marijuana but cocaine.

The international discussion on legalisation that Santos wants will not start tomorrow, or even next year, but common sense on drugs is finally getting the upper hand over ignorance, fear and dogmatism. And cash-strapped governments will eventually realise how much the balance sheet could be improved by taxing legalised drug consumption rather than wasting hundreds of billions in a futile attempt to reduce consumption.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Milton…high”)

 

Mexico: Just Say No

7 April 2011

Mexico: Just Say No

By Gwynne Dyer

Something remarkable happened in Mexico last Wednesday. 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 US 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 forty years, despite annual claims by the DEA that victory is at hand. To go on doing the same thing every year for forty 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 legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs. Legalisation 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 US 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 US economic power is nothing like it used to be, even in Latin America.

That’s partly due to the recent near-collapse of the US 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 legalisation 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 legalising 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’.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“She…course”; and “It is…DEA”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Poor Mexico and the Wicked Americans

27 April 2010

Poor Mexico and the Wicked Americans

By Gwynne Dyer

The president of Mexico was furious. “Criminalising immigration, which is a social and economic phenomena, opens the door to intolerance, hate, and discrimination,” Felipe Calderon told a meeting of Mexican immigrant groups. The state of Arizona had gone too far.

Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organisation of American States, was equally angry. “We consider the bill clearly discriminatory against immigrants, and especially against immigrants from Latin America,” he told the Associated Press news agency. His point seemed to be that by treating illegal Mexican immigrants as a police matter, the new Arizona law is attacking their human rights..

The new law that is causing such outrage requires Arizona police to question people about their immigration status if they suspect they are there illegally. Day labourers face arrest for soliciting work if they are in the US illegally, and police departments can be sued if they fail to enforce the law. Illegal immigrants will face jail sentences of up to six months and fines of up to $2,500 before being expelled from the United States.

Harsh measures, certainly, but suppose I went to Mexico as a tourist and then stayed there illegally, taking work that might otherwise have gone to some deserving Mexican citizen. That does not figure prominently in my current plans, but if I did it, I would not be treated more gently by the Mexican authorities. Why does Mexico believe that its own citizens who are illegally in the United States deserve better treatment?

The flow of illegal migrants to the United States is important for Mexico. It provides a vital safety valve for the Mexican state, which would otherwise face the discontent of millions of Mexicans who cannot find decent jobs at home, and their remittances are a great help to the Mexican balance of payments. But the widely held Mexican belief that illegal immigrants have RIGHTS in the United States is most peculiar.

It arises from the fact that for a long time the United States has deliberately kept the border with Mexico porous, so that large numbers of Mexican illegals can enter the United States to provide cheap stoop labour for American agribusiness. In the cities along the American side of the frontier the border defences are quite impressive, but out in the desert they are frequently no more than three strands of barbed wire and a dirt patrol track.

Out in the desert, of course, some hundreds of the Mexican border-crossers get lost and die of thirst each year, but that is necessary in order to maintain the fiction that the United States is doing all it can to stop the flow. It is also assumed that most of the illegals will go home again after the harvest, but of course each year some choose to stay permanently.

Each year the number of permanently resident illegal immigrants grows: even in Arizona, where there is not a huge demand for agricultural labour, there are now an estimated 460,000 illegal Mexican immigrants. That is about 7 percent of Arizona’s total population. Some argue that they are doing jobs nobody else wants, but that is only a possible reason for letting them stay. It certainly does not give them the right to stay.

Yet the Mexican government reacts with outraged indignation whenever the US government, or in this case an American state, talks about enforcing the law against illegal immigrants. It has come to think of the nod-and-a-wink arrangement that allows large numbers of illegal immigrants to cross the border each year as the natural state of things.

Arizona is calling time on that system, and actually intends to seek out and send home people who are in the state illegally. In most parts of the world, that would not be regarded as unreasonable. What is different in Arizona’s case?

The implicit charge is racism. The assumption is that American citizens of Mexican origin, and legitimate Mexican visitors, will also be stopped and asked to prove that they are legally in the United States – and that they will be chosen for questioning on the grounds that they simply look “Mexican”.

President Calderon himself would never be inconvenienced by such a policy, because he does not look “Mexican”. He looks like your average white American, as does a large majority of the Mexican upper class. But it is true that most poorer Mexicans, including both legal and illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States, are mestizos of mixed white and Indian ancestry.

They look “Mexican”, in other words, and the concern is that they will face constant demands from the police to prove they are legally in the United States. But the solution for this is simple. Simply enforce the same rules that apply in airport security queues to ensure that nobody feels they are being “profiled” because of their ethnicity.

In the airports, they make sure that heavily bearded young men who look “Middle Eastern” face no greater risk of being selected for special examination than paraplegic grandmothers. The Arizona police should be instructed to stop thirteen white, black and Asian people and check that they are legally in the state for every person they stop who looks “Mexican”.

Then nobody will have anything to complain about.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Harsh…treatment”; and “Out…permanently”)

The Longest War

4 September 2009

The Longest War

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s too early to say that there is a general revolt against the “war on drugs” that the United States has been waging for the past 39 years, but something significant is happening. European countries have been quietly defecting from the war for years, decriminalising personal consumption of some or all of the banned drugs in order to minimise harm to their own people, but it’s different when countries like Argentina and Mexico do it.

Latin American countries are much more in the firing line. The United States can hurt them a lot if it is angered by their actions, and it has a long history of doing just that. But from Argentina to Mexico, they are fed up to the back teeth with the violent and dogmatic US policy on drugs, and they are starting to do something about it.

In mid-August, the Mexican government declared that it will no longer be a punishable offence to possess up to half a gramme of cocaine (about four lines), 5 grammes of marijuana (around four joints), 50 mg of heroin or 40 mg of methamphetamine.

At the end of August, Argentina’s supreme court did something even bolder: it ruled that, under the Argentine constitution, “Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state, and dismissed a case against youths who had been arrested for possessing a few joints.

In an ideal world, this ruling would have a powerful resonance in the United States, whose constitution also restricts the right of the federal government to meddle in citizens’ private affairs. It took a constitutional amendment to enable the US Congress to prohibit alcohol in 1919 (and another amendment to end alcohol Prohibition in 1933), so who gave Congress the right to criminalise other recreational drugs nationwide by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970? Nobody – and the US Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue.

A million Americans a year go to jail for “crimes” that hurt nobody but themselves. A vast criminal empire has grown up to service the American demand for drugs. Over the decades hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the turf wars between the gangs, the police-dealer shoot-outs, and the daily thousands of muggings and burglaries committed by addicts trying to raise money to pay the hugely inflated prices that prohibition makes possible.

Most users of illegal drugs are not addicts, let alone dangerous criminals. Legalisation and regulation, on the pattern of alcohol and tobacco, would avoid thousands of violent deaths each month and millions of needlessly ruined lives each year, although psychoactive drug use would still take its toll from the vulnerable and the unlucky, just as alcohol and tobacco do.

But there is little chance that American voters will choose to end this longest of all American wars any time soon, even though its casualties far exceed those on any other American war since 1945. The “War on Drugs” will not end in the United States until a very different generation comes to power.

Elsewhere, however, it is coming to an end much sooner, and one can imagine a time when the job of the history books will be to explain how this berserk aberration ever came about. A large part of the explanation will then focus on the man who started the war, Richard Nixon so let us get ahead of the mob and focus on him now.

We can do that because of the famous Nixon tapes that recorded almost every word of his presidency. It turns out that he started the war on drugs because he believed that they were a Jewish plot. We know this because researcher Doug McVay from Common Sense on Drug Policy, a Washington-based NGO, went through the last batch of tapes when they became available in 2002 and found Nixon speaking to his aides as follows:

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them ? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Nixon had much more to say about this, but one should not conclude that he was a single-minded anti-Semite. He was an equal-opportunity paranoid who believed that homosexuals, Communists and Catholics were also plotting to undermine America by pushing drugs at it.

“Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags….You know what happened to the popes? It’s all right that popes were laying the nuns, that’s been going on for years, centuries. But when the popes, when the Catholic Church went to hell in, I don’t know, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual….

“Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no….You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us.”

The reason for this 39-year war, in other words, is that President Richard Nixon believed that he was facing a “Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope” conspiracy, as Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten put it in a gloriously deadpan article in 2002. But that is just plain wrong. As subsequent developments have shown, it is actually a Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope-LATINO conspiracy.

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To shorten to 20725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A million…tobacco do”)