By ZACH ROSENBERG
Mexicans have some interesting views on drugs and drug violence. On one hand, 95 percent believe that illegal drugs are a big problem, with 73 percent naming them as a very big problem. On the other hand, Mexico leads the recent Latin American trend towards going easy on drug users, having recently legalized the possession and use of small amounts of drugs. However, small-time dealers will still go to jail, and 83 percent support using the military to fight drug traffickers. It will be interesting to contrast the results of this approach to the U.S. predilection for force against both users and dealers.
A vast majority of Mexicans surveyed would welcome U.S. assistance in fighting drug smugglers, mostly in the form of training for Mexico’s military and law enforcement personnel. A lesser but significant majority would support using American money and guns in the fight. The 2008 Merida Initiative fulfills some of these wishes with a grant of $400 million from the U.S. for training and equipment. Though the equipment does not include guns, much of it has been spent on military-grade helicopters and radios. Incidentally, 30 percent of respondents would support U.S. troop deployments to Mexico.
American officials routinely trumpet the level of cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies. To what degree this cooperation actually extends is difficult to establish. Given the level of corruption in Mexican institutions, ranging from local police (some of whom are not allowed to carry guns; too much freelancing) to the president’s office (where an official alerted cartel leaders to presidential movements so their motorcades wouldn’t cross paths) it may be unwise to blindly funnel them guns, money and intelligence. A common criticism is that American counter-narcotics infringe on the sovereignty of other nations or otherwise weigh heavily on what are essentially domestic issues. Let’s leave those allegations for another time and focus on a related question:
What domestic approaches can the U.S. take to reduce violence in northern Mexico?
1) Stop drugs from coming in through increased border enforcement, raising entry costs to the cartels to prohibitive levels. This is the least effective option, but the most popular one. Fence off the border, deploy thousands of drones, make the Border Patrol the largest organ of government, shoot illegal crossers on sight — frankly, this is no solution. The Colombians have proven this time and time again — we deploy boats, they buy faster boats; we deploy helicopters, they send aircraft; we deploy aircraft, they build submarines and hire someone at the airfield bar to report takeoffs. The U.S. managed to put enough pressure on Colombian smugglers to force new routes — through Mexico — but the product still gets through. Illegal cartels are not bound by such quaint things as law and regulation; their business model is fluid, thus innovators in their business are likely to stay ahead of enforcement agents. Mexican cartels have employed very clever and difficult-to-counter tactics such as tunnels, signals interception equipment and massive bribery.
2) Tighten restrictions on weapon purchases through new restrictions or better enforcement (PDF). Of course, the cartels can — and do — obtain weaponry elsewhere, but the quality, quantity, and ease of obtaining high-grade weaponry here makes the U.S. a natural arms market.* Denying them the opportunity to use American weapons may substantially raise the risk, and thereby the cost, of purchasing weapons. However, as any politician knows, legislating anything to do with guns invokes the wrath of constituents like little else. Politicians in the American Southwest, who have the greatest interest in stopping violence in Mexico, also have the constituencies least likely to agree with restrictions on weapons. Better enforcement is certainly a possibility, but many of the weapons going to Mexico are legal until they actually cross the border.
3) Tighten restrictions on money to deny cartels their profits. The same principles above apply to this idea. Americans generally do not appreciate restrictions to the free flow of cash, and there are easy ways around the restrictions in place.
4) Allow the shipments of the least violent organizations through while cracking down on the most violent, allowing the more peaceful smugglers a crucial competitive edge. Frankly, I don’t know if this ideal organization exists, but by clearly favoring organizations that do the least damage to the extent that it creates a major price disparity, other groups are given an incentive to do less harm. Alternately, as a certain amount of violence in Mexico is due to smuggling groups fighting each other, allowing one group a monopoly on the best smuggling routes could lead to much less competition.
5) Bankrupt Mexican smugglers by encouraging alternate smuggling routes or production from less harmful places. Take radars down from Caribbean routes; stop patrolling the Canadian border; let more Asian cargoes through without inspection. Allow the competition easier access to American markets, thus denying Mexican cartels a competitive edge. Canadian institutions are likely to be less susceptible to corrupting influences than Mexican institutions; violence in northern Cambodia would not affect as many Americans as in northern Mexico. Will coca grow in Asian climates?
6) Reduce demand for drugs among Americans. The U.S. approach to drug demand has been primarily one of raising prices through interdiction of supply and reduction of use by punishment and deterrence (imprisonment). These approaches have not proven particularly effective, and have in many ways been severely detrimental. A comprehensive demand-based approach to drug use has not been consistently applied on a national scale — nor, to the best of my knowledge, on any scale. What this means is diverting law enforcement resources to treatment and counseling.
7) Put smuggling organizations in a position where the costs of violence are far outweighed by the benefits of nonviolence. As enforcement has thus far been unable to put them in this position, this means toleration or even legalization. Allowing smuggling organizations to function openly severely reduces the advantages of corrupting local institutions, which might — might — allow them to settle their differences in a similarly legal way. Just putting it out there.
These are the options as I see them, regardless of likelihood.
*A discussion has begun in the comments section of part one as to how many of these guns actually come from the U.S. Keep an eye on it, I’ll start listing sources.
(Photo: KCBS Radio)