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The Real Failures of Mexico’s War on Drugs

Posted on the 25 July 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
The real failures of Mexico’s war on drugs

A victim of the Mexican drug war. Photo credit: Federacion asaciaciones cannabicas

On a clear summer morning, relatives of the victims from drug related violence gathered around a long rectangular table set inside one of the chambers of the historic Castillo de Chapultepec in the heart of Mexico’s capital city, Mexico DF.

At the head of the table was President Felipe Calderon flanked by first lady, Margarita Zavala, and top cabinet officials. The purpose of the town hall was to allow family members directly affected by the violence to criticize the way the fight against drug cartels was conceived and is being fought. In the last five years, 40,000 people have died in the drug-related violence, more than all the casualties – civil and military – in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Some tried to contain their tears as they talked about the impunity enjoyed by criminals, but most couldn’t hide their frustration as they chronicled the unsolved kidnappings, extortions and murders that have the 15th largest economy in the world snarled in a major security crisis.

“The problem, Mr. President, is that you dived into this war with rotten institutions,” said activist-poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was kidnapped and brutally killed four months ago.

To understand what is happening in Mexico, first you have to try and navigate the dysfunctional waters of its justice system, polluted by opacity, corruption and incompetence. A system, for example, that just recently allowed the son of a crooked politician, who accumulated extraordinary wealth through years of “public service”, to walk out of jail after federal police found dozens of weapons inside his home, at least two of those directly tied to murders.

If you commit a crime in Mexico and you’re not detained within the next five minutes, there’s a big chance you’ll never set a foot in jail.

If you commit a crime in Mexico and you’re not detained within the next five minutes, there’s a big chance you’ll never set a foot in jail. According to figures published by the Associated Press, only about 15 percent of drug suspects detained between December 2006 and September 2009 have been convicted or acquitted. And that only applies to those who get caught. Moreover, according to Mexican think tank CIDE, 93 percent of those arrested in Mexico never come face to face with a judge and almost half of the prisoners in the country’s jails were tortured at some point.

The real problem for Mexico is not the armory in Phoenix or Dallas selling AK47’s like Big Macs, it’s the inability of the state to deal with this level of corruption. It’s a weak police force under the control of state and municipal governments, underpaid, under-trained and ill-equipped to confront some of the deadliest criminal organizations in the planet. It’s federal prosecutors who allow guilty men out on the street and place the innocent behind bars.

The real failures of Mexico’s war on drugs

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and US President Barack Obama, a North American family photo. Photo credit: Adrian Wyld

Despite what President Calderon says every time he sets foot in the US, the cause of the problem is located at the structure, not at the conjuncture. It’s not the guns that flow effortlessly across the border thanks to corruption on both sides of the line or the U.S.’s laxity on possession of automatic weapons, nor is it the demand for illicit substances that has remained at a historic high. The problem is the weakness of Mexico’s institutions.

At the same time, this is coupled with the fundamental problem of prohibition itself. It’s not working.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the cornerstone of the international drug control system, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. The mechanism was desigend to limit the  possession, use, trade, manufacture and production of illegal drugs and to address drug trafficking through international cooperation to deter and discourage drug traffickers. Quite simply, it has failed.

In Mexico, more than anywhere else, it has become apparent that the evils of a failed suppression far outweighed those of consumption. With every murder, beheading or public hanging, its becoming ever harder to ignore the consequences of  another failed collective policy. Even the Global Commission on Drug Policy conceded that the war on drugs has failed and cannot be won. A public health issue like drug consumption can’t  and won’t be solved with bullets. After 50 years of failed drug policy, I can think of no better time than now to acknowledge that failure and hope that Washington should prove more receptive when discussing legalization.

Mexico’s failed fight against the drug cartels is the bitter fruit of years of flawed policy, corrupted institutions, and almost willful blindness to those facts. And it’s evident that without some major fundamental changes, more people will die.

At the beginning of his government, Calderon’s communications team designed an ad campaign to highlight the administration’s “success” in the war against organized crime. The fanciful slogan “Working so the drugs don’t reach your children” closes each commercial. We know that’s never going to happen – so may I suggest a more realistic slogan? ”Working so your kids don’t want the drugs that sooner or later are going to reach them.”

More on Mexico’s failed drug war

  • Singing through the bullets: Kindergarten teacher leads children in song through firefight
  • Mexico’s drug war is a failure
  • Mexico’s deadly drug war rages on

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