The high price of US 'war on drugs'

By Laura Carlsen, Mexico analyst

Appalling violence in Mexico has alarmed its northern neighbour [EPA]

The US press and government appear to have launched a public opinion campaign over the past few months focusing on the latest alleged threat to national security.

But what is the threat? Afghanistan? Pakistan? North Korea?

The answer is none of the above.

The country now in the sights of US threat-assessers and fear-mongerers is its southern neighbour and North American Free-Trade Agreement (Nafta) partner, Mexico.

Mexico, historically the target of US military offensives more often than it has been the aggressor, has been called a near-"failed state", bordering on civil war and on the verge of collapse.

And the appalling violence, the media and policy hawks warn, is spilling into the US like an evil tide.

'Spillover' claims

Calderon vehemently rejects US claims that
Mexico is a failed state [AFP]
In the past few weeks, US congress has held six hearings to address the new threat.

Shrill US voices portray drug-related violence as a contagion from Mexico and warn of "spillover" on the border, offering little or no evidence to support their claims.

Prominent officials, including Rick Perry, governor of the US state of Texas, have demanded that troops be sent to the border immediately to protect the "American way of life".

This sudden outburst of finger-pointing southwards has led to an unexpected and rapid deterioration in relations between the US and Mexico.

Felipe Calderon, Mexico's president, responded that his government was in control of all national territory and vehemently denied the "failed state" charge.

At every opportunity, he countered by accusing the US of being the root of the problem as the largest market for illegal drugs in the world and the source of the arms used by warring druglords.

A demanding market

All this is true.

The Mexican attorney general's office reports that more than 90 per cent of weapons confiscated in counter-narcotics operations in the country are from the US, many bearing US army serial numbers.

In depth

The north-south black market in arms makes US retailers, contraband smugglers and weapons manufacturers very rich, especially in border states.

The enormous US market for marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines has remained stable for years, seemingly impervious to prohibitionist policies.

Although it fluctuates - and the temporary fluctuations are held up as progress only to be hidden again when negative - no convincing evidence indicates a downturn.

The "zero tolerance" crackdown by the former US administration under George Bush contributed to the US having the highest imprisonment rate of any nation in the world - six times higher for black men than white.

More than 250,000 are currently held in US state prisons for drug offences.

This draconian approach has done nothing to reduce the market, while providing steady income for the lucrative private prison system.

A global commodity

At the same time, the most cost-effective way of dealing with demand - the treatment of addictions - has suffered cutbacks in budgets.

Although official statistics on the world's largest clandestine business are notoriously imprecise and politically manipulated, US failure to diminish demand is manifest.

So-called measures targeting supply, when applied militarily in developing countries, have proved ineffective in reducing drug flows.

lllicit drugs have become a global commodity that can be sourced and transited in many parts of the world and marijuana, the most widely consumed prohibited substance, is produced within the US.

This is why plans such as Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico will always be doomed to failure - one with devastating social implications for the societies they are implemented in.

Broken system

Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juarez
have been hit badly by violence [Reuters]
In Mexico, the explosion of drug-related murders - more than 7,000 since January 2008 - was triggered by the military offensive launched by Calderon.

Arrests of some kingpins set off turf wars along major trafficking routes, especially on the US-Mexico border.

With direct aid from the US government under the "Merida Initiative" (or Plan Mexico), the actions of crooked police and at times repressive soldiers has met violence with violence, corruption with corruption, creating a downward spiral that most Mexicans believe has no end in sight.

No-one can view the violence unleashed in cities like Ciudad Juarez by battling drug cartels, combined with the military response, without alarm.

Last year, this "co-operative" drug-war approach produced a decrease in confiscations of illicit substances, fewer meth lab busts than the previous year, and soaring figures in arrests and violence - results that mimic the US drug war effects.

The right-wing government's abandonment of social policies to create jobs for the jobless, horizons of hope for the youth or a decent living for farmers, has made for easy recruitment into organised crime.

With the crisis, that task could become even easier.

A broken justice system and corrupt government and security forces benefit an industry built on its ability to subvert institutional rule.

Placing blame

Can Obama forge a drugs policy that
works for both nations? [AFP]

So who is at fault?

The recent volley of mutual accusations between the two governments misses the point.

The bi-national blame game is a smokescreen for a fundamentally transnational phenomenon that feeds on misguided polices and social woes everywhere it operates.

In both Mexican and US societies, it has found fertile ground for expansion.

Transnational crime does not "spill-over" - it crosses borders with impunity where impunity exists.

Both nations must come to terms with their contradictions and policy failures and confront them within their own countries.

In the US, the combination of a stable multi-billion dollar market and inapplicable prohibitionist policies creates the conditions for the illegal drug trade. Diatribes against Mexico cannot hide that fact.

Back to basics

What is needed is a public health approach to drug consumption and addiction, a real investigation into US corruption and organised crime and open discussion of the pros and cons of marijuana legalisation and regulation should be top priority.

All the money and attention that the government is spending on "Mexico's problem" could be far better spent on an analysis of the US illicit drug trade and the development of new, more effective approaches.

Mexico and the US need to go back to the drawing board on drug policy, security policy and social reforms.

This should be done immediately to confront a transnational challenge where both the threat and the response are undermining democracy, safety and health.

Two neighbours so closely bound in so many ways cannot continue this blame game and march forward blindly in a failed "war on drugs".

The costs are way too high for both nations.

Laura Carlsen is project director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City at the International Relations Centre, a non-profit policy studies centre. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.