In Mexico, Faltering, Not Failed

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Saturday, February 21, 2009

BOSTON -- Mexico is not a failing state, as it has become fashionable to say. What has failed is our "war on drugs." That failure and the drug-related violence wracking Mexico suggest it is time to open a national discussion on legalizing drugs.

About 6,600 Mexicans were killed in fighting involving drug gangs last year, and alarms are going off in this country. The U.S. Joint Forces Command, former drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and any number of analysts have speculated that Mexico is crumbling under pressure from drug gangs.

But "failed state" is the sort of shorthand that Washington has a way of turning into its own reality, the facts be damned. The Mexican government isn't on the verge of losing physical control of its territory, stopping public services or collapsing. But it is under tremendous pressure and has only nominal control in some places, including border cities such as Tijuana, near San Diego, and Juarez, which sits cheek-by-jowl with El Paso. Army troops patrol the streets, but the police, courts, journalists and citizenry are cowed by the less-visible but more-ruthless drug cartels.

As Luis Rubio wrote in a recent report for the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, "There are regions of the country where all vestiges of a functioning government have simply vanished," while in the rest, "the climate of impunity, extortion, protection money, kidnapping and, in general, crime has become pervasive."

The government of President Felipe Calderón bristles at Mexico's being called a "failed state" and notes that much of the violence is occurring between drug cartels, provoked by the government's own campaign against them. Tourists can still frolic safely on the beaches. But it is also true that the government has no hope of defeating the heavily armed and extraordinarily rich cartels, which earn between $15 billion and $25 billion a year in profits. Mexico's strategy, at a cost of all that blood, is merely to readjust the balance of power with the cartels.

What that means for us is sobering. The flow of drugs won't stop. And, as a report by the Joint Forces Command says, "Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

According to the U.S. National Drug Threat Assessment, the Mexican cartels already have operations in 230 U.S. cities. Their violence is close behind, in a rash of murders and kidnappings across the border states.

Some want to accuse the Mexicans of a pernicious lack of character, but that is throwing stones from a glass house. Much of Latin America faces similar threats, and at the root of the problem is financing provided by American consumers and the failure of the drug war we have been pursuing for 30 years.

American taxpayers currently spend about $21 billion on trying to reduce drug supplies and on domestic enforcement, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Of that, $14 billion is spent just on jailing drug offenders. The number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased an incredible tenfold to 500,000 in 2007, from 50,000 in 1980.

And all for nothing. Cocaine is still so readily available that its street price is a quarter of what it was in 1981. Heroin prices, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, have fallen as well, while coca leaf and cocaine production in the Andean region are at historic highs. Home producers of marijuana and illicit lab creations are equally thriving. Two of our past three presidents, and now our Olympic hero Michael Phelps, have tried drugs.

Latin Americans are increasingly angry over the cost they pay in lives and in the corruption of their democracies. A report released this month by a commission headed by three of Latin America's most respected and moderate former presidents -- Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of Colombia -- concludes: "Confronted with a situation that is growing worse by the day, it is imperative to rectify the 'war on drugs' strategy."

That report and a host of recent others by U.S. law enforcement groups and researchers call for treating drugs more as a health issue, as with cigarettes and alcohol, instead of a criminal one. Some call for legalizing marijuana, and possibly other drugs, altogether. We did the same to end Prohibition 75 years ago. Yet, even discussing the legalization of drugs is so taboo that U.S. policy is frozen. The darkening clouds across the United States and the rest of the hemisphere dictate a change.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

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