La Pesadilla de Prohibición – Drug Policy and Violence in Mexico

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Two prevailing narratives have emerged in the American discourse over Mexico’s plague of drug violence. On the one hand, there are those who laud President Calderón’s hard-line anti-drug crusade while blaming Mexico’s plight entirely on Mexicans – on their “record of corrupt, weak and incompetent governance,” or on their “ineffective criminal justice system.” Then there is the more enlightened version of the tale, which similarly infantilizes Mexicans while at least conceding that the demand for drugs in the United States, along with private weapons sales in border states, are at least partly responsible for the country’s elevated level of drug violence.

Unfortunately, both of these archetypal accounts may miss the point. Commentators in the United States are almost uniformly unable or unwilling to discern the true underlying cause of Mexico’s drug-related violence, and instead settle for highlighting secondary symptoms. For example, the demand for drugs is not the issue; humankind’s desire to alter its consciousness has been a constant for virtually the totality of recorded history. The problem, rather, is their relegation to an underground market, which facilitates the growth of incredibly powerful criminal nexus – one of the lessons that alcohol prohibition should have taught us.

The root cause of Mexico’s woes is an ill-conceived and in part racially motivated drug prohibition network which slowly metastasized into a U.S.-led “war on drugs,” an endless global battle against a spectral enemy waged with little hope of victory. Much has been written about the damaging domestic effects of this so-called war, including how the U.S. now has ended up having by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, how an incredibly disproportionate number of those imprisoned are minorities, how the focus on law enforcement hamstrings more effective harm-reduction strategies, etc. These critiques are valid and important, but they will be left mostly to the side here. Rather, our effort will be to explore less traveled terrain: the history and impact of prohibition and the ways in which U.S. drug policy at least shares responsibility for the current drug-related crisis in Mexico.

“Loco Weed”

Today, marijuana accounts for more than 60% of Mexican cartels’ profits , bringing them tens of billions of dollars a year in black market profits. Because it’s been outlawed for most people’s entire lives, it is easy to forget that the plant has been illegal for less than 100 years (out of at least 10,000 years of human use). The story of marijuana prohibition is quite illuminating, and is emblematic of the general role played by racism in drug prohibition.

In the American colonies, growing the marijuana plant was generally encouraged and sometimes even mandated. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both ordered the cultivation of marijuana on their plantations because hemp fiber was so valuable at the time. Hemp is one of the most versatile crops in the world, and was used to make everything from sails and rope to paper. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, and Benjamin Franklin used hemp string for his famous kite experiment. However, the plant was mostly popular for its industrial applications: tobacco remained the dominant plant for recreational use. It was only in the early 20th century that Mexican immigrant farm workers in the South and West helped to popularize the smoking of marijuana in the U.S.

Marijuana was first outlawed in the United States at the state level. Almost all of the states that first passed anti-cannabis laws had significant Mexican-American populations, and it can be credibly argued that these state laws were designed specifically to target these migrants. California, ironically enough, was the first to pass a law against what its bill’s language called “loco weed.” When Montana first outlawed marijuana, a local legislator was quoted as saying “When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff… he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.” A Texas senator, on the floor of the Senate, testified that “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.”

In the 1930s, marijuana prohibition went federal. Harry J. Anslinger, former Assistant Prohibition Commissioner in the Bureau of Prohibition and newly chosen head of the Treasury Department’s new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a rabid racist. In addition to claiming that marijuana made people insane and homicidal with one toke (though paradoxically it somehow also promoted “pacifism and Communism”), he stated outright that “the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” by which he meant that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Such statements were sadly typical of the atmosphere surrounding drug prohibition at the time – cocaine was originally outlawed on similar grounds after newspaper headlines like “Negro Cocaine Fiends” caused a national panic about blacks raping white women while hyped up on cocaine.

Anslinger received support in his racist propagandizing from the likes of media mogul William Randolf Hearst, who made a fortune from sensationalizing the news. Hearst, who was the basis for Orson Welles’ role as Charles Kane of “Citizen Kane,” is widely known as one of the fathers of yellow journalism. . A sample from one of his papers read:

“Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles?… three-fourths of the crimes of violence in this country today are committed by dope slaves — that is a matter of cold record.”

And so, on the basis of outright fabrications and racist fear-mongering, and with a parsity of scientific evidence or rational argumentation of any sort, Anslinger convinced Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Although the U.S. pressured Mexico into prohibiting the trafficking of marijuana and other drugs, Mexico quickly became the dominant supplier of the now-illegal plant. Over the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. criminalization of marijuana, as well as opium and cocaine, created a dark criminal lair as well as a singularly lucrative black market for the illicit drugs. Mexico’s drug trafficking has now been taking place for nearly a century, its steady growth spurred by the enormously inflated profits which prohibition continues to provide.

The Drums of War

From its racist origins, drug prohibition became the “war on drugs,” a tool for criminalizing the actions of not only minorities like blacks and Hispanics, but social deviants and political dissidents as well. In Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (1997), former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum explains how Richard Nixon and his advisors devised the war on drugs in order to respond to an artificially created panic as a way to maintain and promote their vision of a proper social order.

Nixon and his allies were greatly disturbed by the anti-war and civil rights movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Many middle-class white Americans, particularly the conservative religious segment of the population, shared this view. Even today, their counterparts are increasingly fearful about the cultural ‘decline’ of the United States. “Newsweek identified the targets of this middle-class-driven resentment in this way: ‘The incendiary black militant and the welfare mother, the hedonistic hippie and the campus revolutionary.’ Nixon could not make it illegal fast enough to be any of these things, but he could crack down hard on the illegal drug identified with the counterculture,” namely, marijuana. The drug war became a vicious proxy for the culture war, a device for targeting social aberrants in general.

White House Shenanigans

President Nixon was aided in his quest to inflate the perceived threat of drugs by the media which happily conflated heroin and marijuana use, treating them as basically the same phenomenon and thereby “making the country’s ‘drug problem’ appear infinitely more threatening than it was.” When Nixon took office, “drugs were so tiny a public health problem that they were statistically insignificant: far more Americans choked to death or died falling down stairs than died from illegal drugs.” But he was able to successfully convince Americans that these illegal substances were a terrible threat to the nation, claiming that they were “decimating a generation of Americans” and declaring them “public enemy number one.” By 1971, 23% of Americans believed drugs to be the country’s biggest problem, up from 3% in 1969, though there was no notable change in the volume of drug use in the interim.

This was a deliberate strategy – The White House very well knew that marijuana was not dangerous. President Nixon himself created a commission to study the dangers of marijuana, cherry-picking the entire staff to consist of drug hawks and conservative doctors who he assumed would reinforce his position. However, Nixon said that “even if the commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation.” In fact, that is exactly what happened. The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s report recommended that marijuana be legalized, concluding that “Health effects are minimal. The ‘gateway drug’ theory has no basis. If anything, smoking marijuana inhibits criminal behavior.”

Clearly, Nixon knew the real effects of marijuana. Yet, he continued to escalate the drug war. Why? As his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, wrote in his diary, the President “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to do so.” His commission’s report found that marijuana was seen as a problem in the public mind not because of its pharmacological properties, but because “many see the drug as fostering a counter-culture which conflicts with basic moral precepts as well as with the operating functions of our society….rejection of the established value system is viewed with alarm. Marijuana becomes more than a drug; it becomes a symbol of the rejection of cherished values.”

In an interview in 1972, the White House drug enforcer Myles Ambrose was asked what he thought of a survey reporting a trend among youth away from marijuana and back to using alcohol. He chuckled and said, “It recalls a happier time in which those of us who had the good fortune of going to college indulged in booze on more than one occasion, as I recall.” In response to this comment, Baum points out that in 1972, “55,000 Americans died in highway accidents, most of them believed to be alcohol-related. Another 33,000 died from alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver. No death from marijuana has ever been reported.”

Nonetheless, the war metaphor took hold, and with it, a Manichean outlook on all illegal drug use. Because of their privileged position in white American culture, alcohol and tobacco were spared, while all non-sanctioned drugs (and their users) became the “enemy.” As is often the case in war, the fight entered a pattern of relentless (and bipartisan) escalation – adjusted for inflation, the budget for the war on drugs today is 31 times what it was under Nixon. The institution of the war model made it next to impossible to publicly question the fatally flawed logic of drug prohibition. Over the last 40 years, the “war on drugs” has grown far beyond its strategic origins to become a self-supporting ideological entity. It is now a kind of “prohibition-industrial complex” whose false dichotomies many otherwise rational people accept, despite the fact that it clearly does not stand up to reflection. As a public policy, it has been a colossal failure, but in securing funding for itself, it has been a spectacular success.

A Doomed Double-Down

The U.S. bears the bulk of the responsibility for Mexico’s current situation. Under President Clinton, crackdowns on drug-smuggling routes running through the Caribbean and on U.S. methamphetamine production (along with NAFTA’s opening of transportation routes) helped to greatly expand Mexico’s role in the trafficking of cocaine and methamphetamine and thereby increased the cartels’ power. U.S. lawmakers’ refusal to ban the sale of assault weapons certainly has helped the cartels as well. But most vitally, Mexico does not have the ability to end the drug war on its own. As the chief manufacturer and ‘pusher’ of drug prohibition, the U.S. has largely set the agenda on world drug policy in the last century, and this is particularly true in Mexico. As our southern neighbor, it would be almost unthinkable for Mexico to fully legalize drugs –such an action would be tantamount to a declaration of war against the U.S.

Yet although it is virtually powerless to end drug prohibition, Mexican authorities do bear some of the blame for the recent explosion of drug-related violence. Immediately after conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa assumed office in 2006 following a close election in which he won fewer than 36% of the vote, he began a militarized crackdown on border drug traffickers. This ramping up of the drug war in Mexico received unwavering public support from the Bush Administration, support that the Obama administration continues to offer even as the ensuing carnage is spiraling out of control. Last month, Secretary Clinton and other top officials traveled to Mexico to express their resolve to back Mexico’s efforts and to discuss the second round of the Mérida Initiative, through which the U.S. provides extensive military, logistical, and technological support to the tune of $1.6 billion in the first phase alone (which includes 100 million for Central American anti-drug efforts).

Incidentally, my fellow COHA research colleague, Mr. Roberto Valencia, considers this a “token dosage of funds.” He is not alone – commentators, both liberal and conservative, often express similar views. Given that the U.S. already squanders between 25 and 45 billion dollars every year on the drug war, in which lost tax revenue is included , one wonders how much more money Washington will have to pour down the endlessly deep hole of prohibition in order to satisfy these commentators’ demands.

What have been the results of this joint U.S.-Mexico initiative? The gruesome, pervasive violence is what receives the bulk of media attention, and with good reason (though in the U.S., it’s usually discussed in the context of anxiety over potential “spill over” onto our own soil). Cuidad Juárez, which has already been overrun by drug violence, has become the most violent city in the world, with a murder rate more than quadruple that of Baghdad’s. In Mexico as a whole, there have been between 18,000 and 23,000 drug war related deaths over a three-year period. This figure is several times more than the total of American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. President Calderón’s decision to escalate the drug war was somewhat understandable, considering the corrupting influence drug money has had in Mexico’s political and economic processes. Yet Calderón’s miscalculation has had awesome consequences, and from these, he should not be entirely absolved.

Other results of Calderón’s crusade are less publicized. The increasing militarization of the fight has led to an escalation of the violence and intimidation on the part of the cartels, as well as an increase in human rights violations by the Mexican military. As the nation’s human rights organizations have testified to their Congress in 2008, “the number of complaints for human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces registered by the National Human Rights Commission has increased six-fold during the last two years [since the inception of Calderón’s anti-drug campaign].”

Furthermore, it seems that not all of the training, funding, and supplying that the United States is doing in Mexico goes toward fighting cartels – it also is allocated toward fighting political dissidents as well as labor unions. As blogger and journalist Kristin Bricker recently reported, “the Mexican government is taking advantage of the increased resources going for its military and federal police to crack down on dissidents. The military, for example, has repeatedly used the pretext of ‘looking for marijuana’ to raid Zapatista strongholds in Chiapas, even though it has never found any drugs in rebel – held territory.” Reports of torture by the military continue to surface. Parallels with the School of the Americas begin to come to mind, particularly considering that many individuals from the last group of U.S.-trained Mexican paramilitaries, Los Zetas, switched sides in mass and now constitute major players in the Gulf Cartel.

The drug war also has taken a heavy toll on Mexico’s economy. In addition to affecting the always-skittish investment community, the drug violence has cut into tourism, which is the third-largest (legitimate) industry in Mexico. As the violence spreads from places like Juárez to upscale areas like Cuernavaca and Cancun, the U.S. and other countries continue to issue increasingly alarming travel warnings; it seems that the situation is not likely to improve any time soon. Andres Remis, club owner and president of the Cuernevacan Nightclubs and Bars Association, put it this way: “This is a city that depends on tourism and what violence has done is collapse our economy…[t]he only thing that we can do is to wait for one of the groups to win or for the army to win.”

Mexico’s economy was already in a serious recession. The increased economic strain imposed by the drug war and the ensuing violence caused many Mexicans to flee to the United States in search of safety and improved living standards. According to the New York Times, “in El Paso alone, the police estimate that at least 30,000 Mexicans have moved across the border in the past two years because of the violence in Juárez and the river towns to the southeast.” Here in the U.S., the focus is usually on how illegal immigration affects our economy and society, as well as on some Americans’ reactions to undocumented immigrants in their midst. However, one often forgets that illegal migrants normally emigrate only as a result of considerable duress – few would be keen to experience the trauma of leaving their country and often their family behind for a land where they are viewed as outsiders and, at times, criminals. The United States’ and Mexico’s misguided drug policies has been some of the chief factors driving illegal immigration, which is as good an indicator as any of the raw human desperation that is involved.

¡Ya basta!

Although the Calderón and Obama administrations have stubbornly refused to rethink their fundamentally flawed approach to drug policy and its attendant violence, other leaders, when called upon, have acted with greater fortitude. In 2008, the ousted President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, called for ending the drug war in order to free countries of the great financial burdens of prohibition. In 2009, the former Presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil also called for a new approach, involving decriminalization and a greater focus on education and the demand flowing from abatement. Latin America, long entangled in the counter-narcotic nightmare of the North, knows that a fundamental change of course is desperately needed.

Decriminalization of personal possession is certainly a step in the right direction, as it reduces the number of nonviolent drug users being incarcerated and instead treats drug use more like a public health issue. However, decriminalization alone would do nothing to curb the cartels, or solve the underlying issues driving the violence. In fact, Calderón himself recently signed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs to free up resources to tackle the big game of trafficking. The failure of that effort shows that decriminalization is necessary but is likely not sufficient. So long as users are forced to go to illicit sources, the violence of the black market will remain. As Harvard economist Jeffery Miron explains, “Violence was common in the alcohol industry when it was banned during Prohibition, but not before or after. Violence is the norm in illicit gambling markets but not in legal ones. Violence is routine when prostitution is banned but not when it’s permitted. Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question.” As risky as it may be to conclude that full legalization and regulation of all drugs is the sole sane policy to follow, it still may be the only way to end Mexico’s horrific violence.

Certain aspects of this may be harder for some people to accept than others. Legalizing marijuana should be entirely uncontroversial – cannabis is qualitatively far safer, both individually and for society, than drugs like tobacco and alcohol. Among other benefits, legalizing marijuana would immediately reduce the cartels’ profits by more than half. There is simply no legitimate rational argument against the legalization of marijuana. Luckily, the U.S. is finally beginning to come around on this point, as recent public opinion polls and a new ballot initiative in California to legalize cannabis indicate.

Many who support legalizing marijuana still struggle with the concept of legalizing drugs like methamphetamine and heroin, which are often highly addictive and physically damaging (much like tobacco and alcohol). However, the damage being done by prohibition – in Mexico, in the United States and elsewhere around the world – may be far worse. Drug violence is just one of many ways that prohibition ruins lives. Using illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine did not destroy the lives of Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and President Obama, but if they had been arrested as they should have been, the laws on the books would have kept them from getting anywhere close to the White House (or even being able to vote, in many states). Their unblinking support for the status quo of the drug war in the face of this fact is the absolute height of hypocrisy.

Furthermore, there is no evidence at all that legalization would encourage the use of hard drugs – and plenty of evidence that it would help with treatment. Countries that have decriminalized some or all drugs, like Portugal and the Netherlands, have actually seen drug use (particularly of hard drugs) go down, and instituting basic common-sense health programs like needle exchanges greatly cuts down on the harms associated with those drugs, without encouraging their use in any way.

People may disapprove of drug use and see it as immoral. However, although COHA research fellow Robert Valencia and those embracing his position may believe that “it is a long and treacherous road ahead to end the war on drugs,” the plain truth is that no victory is possible. We are all accustomed to the logic of the drug war, yet when we pause to consider, it is quite unclear what “victory” would even mean in this context. Would it mean stopping all illegal drug use, forever, worldwide? Or will it lead to the jailing of all drug dealers and users? Even if it were a coherent concept and somehow both possible and incontrovertibly desirable, such a victory would probably be a pyrrhic one, coming at far too high a human, social, and financial cost.

Robert Valencia gets it right when he insists on emphasizing the senseless tragedy of the violence happening in Mexico, but he reaches precisely the wrong conclusions about how to halt it. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. More money and more militarization will only reap more of what they sow, as the history of the drug war has graphically demonstrated. Enough already.