In Mexican Drug War, A Desperate Measure

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 30, 2006

MEXICO CITY -- Sixteen months after President Vicente Fox declared "the mother of all battles" against drug trafficking, Mexico is increasingly awash in drug violence and is now turning to a new, and controversial, approach: decriminalization.

Fox is expected to sign a bill passed by the Mexican legislature last week that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of some of the most popular illegal drugs.

Under the law, penalties would be erased for possessing 500 milligrams of cocaine, 5 grams of marijuana, 5 grams of raw opium and 25 milligrams of heroin, among other drugs. The measure, which has surprised and angered anti-drug groups in the United States, is intended to further shift the focus of Mexico's sputtering drug battle from users to traffickers.

In an interview Saturday, Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego, the largest U.S. border city, said the timing of the measure could imperil efforts to reform immigration law in the United States: "This really stirs things up," he said. Sanders, a former San Diego Police chief, called the law "appallingly stupid, reckless and incredibly dangerous" and predicted that it would lead to a flood of teenagers trying to sneak into his city from Mexico with illegal drugs.

U.S. government reaction was more measured, with State Department spokesman Janelle Hironimus citing cooperation between the two nations in the battle against drugs.

"Preliminary information from Mexican legislative sources indicates that the intent of the draft legislation is to clarify the meaning of 'small amounts' of drugs for personal use as stated in current Mexican law," Hironimus said.

Some advocates of drug law reform in the United States applauded Mexico's decision.

"Mexico is trying to make the right choices. . . . The Mexican legislation will go a long way toward reducing opportunities for police corruption and harassment in their interactions with ordinary citizens," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. The group advocates ending the war on drugs.

Fox's anti-drug efforts, undertaken with the enthusiastic support of the United States, have led to a series of highly publicized arrests. But the drug cartels have responded brazenly.

Almost every week another assault by drug gangs, each more audacious than the last, generates headlines. Grenades have been launched at law-enforcement offices. Four undercover drug agents were shot to death last month in Nuevo Laredo. Two police officers were decapitated 10 days ago in the resort city of Acapulco, not long after they took part in an operation against a drug gang. Their heads were dumped beneath a sign that warned: "So that you learn to respect."

The escalating conflict has claimed more than 1,500 lives -- including police, rival drug traffickers and civilians -- in the past year, more than double the number in the previous year, according to Mexican researchers. The death toll has risen despite increased enforcement efforts in Mexico and by U.S. authorities across the border. The police killings, in particular, are believed to be retribution for a crackdown on cartels in Mexico undertaken at the urging of U.S. officials, said Jorge Chabat, an expert in Mexican criminal justice.

The violence also coincides with the remarkable growth of Mexican cartels, which have seized a greater share of the drug market as some of Colombia's drug kingpins have been arrested.

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