Who are these “bad hombres”?

Mexico has been signaled by President Trump as incapable of dealing with the Mexican drug cartels. This is not new. From the USA official perspective, Mexico has always been the scapegoat in the lost war against drugs. It’s a convenient way of diverting attention from the real solutions. Let’s take a look at Mexico and see what has happened since 2007.

Homicide rate per 100,000 Mexico

The homicide rate in Mexico had been falling steadily from 18 homicides per 100,000 in 1995 to a historic low of 8 in 2007. In 2011 -just 3 years later after the war started- the rate peaked at 24 . In 2013 and 2014, the rate decreased slightly, just to bounce back up in 2015. In 2016, the rate closed at 17 of which, 58% were drug-market related homicides.

The Mérida Plan

So, what happened? In 2008, President Bush and President Calderón signed the Mérida Plan which intensified the war on drugs in Mexico.

The USA has always pressed Mexico to cooperate for a “safe border” (should I say from the USA´s perspective?), specifically against drug trafficking and illegal migration, and since 9/11, against terrorist threats. The Mérida Plan intensified this cooperation in exchange for intel, police and military training, and some equipment. No serious terrorist threat has ever crossed through the USA-Mexico border, and many immigrants from Central America are deported back to their countries before they reach the Rio Grande. So what did Mexico get in exchange? Corruption, violence and a slap in the hand.

President Calderón (2006- 2012) started an all-out war against the main drug cartels and the chaos he created has been continued by President Peña Nieto. Since 2008, most states and municipalities are now patrolled by the federal police or the military; the main drug lords have been extradited to the US (the latest one being “El Chapo”); military checkpoints are everywhere, but more visible near the Mexico-US border.

War creates violence, is that a surprise?

Let’s go back in time. Before 2007, a handfull of drug cartels in Mexico were mostly focused on the export market. Sporadically, violence would emerge in some border towns whenever two cartels would pick a fight over a trading route. Yet, export cartels tend not to be violent; violence is a cost and these guys are smart enough to minimize it as much as they can with bribes and negotiation.

After 2007 two new forces appeared. On one hand, the new strategy hit the cartels and imprisioned and extradited most their CEO’s. Cartels have multiplied and competition has increased amongst them. On the other, the domestic drug market has grown and there are multiple cartels competing for the plaza. Domestic market cartels are much more violent, they continually fight over territories and are less efficient at reaching agreements.

Extreme corruption is an effect, not a cause

All organized crime mafias team-up with authorities, in Mexico, in the US and all over the world. They have to in order to survive and thrive; they do so with two compelling arguments: money or bullets or as the saying goes in Mexico, with “plata o plomo”. The less developed the country, the lower the price on authorities and agreements.

Once a local authority collapses, mafias extend to other crimes like human trafficking, gasoline theft, car-theft and kidnapping, but their core business is still in the illegal-drug trade. Drug-market money it is the main income used to recruit young men in poverty-stricken areas and policemen. Both are lured into this “crimeless” business and then forced into other criminal activities. This is a new type of corruption and it is a direct effect from prohibition, not a cause. Prohibition and the war on drugs creates high-risk corruption when authorities become part of the mafia.

Not all police collapse and not all states are violent in Mexico. Low income, non drug-producing or monopoly-cartel controlled states tend to be much more peaceful than the rest. Interestingly enough, Mexico City shows one of the lowest percentages of drug-market related homicides with only 13%.

59% of all homicides in Mexico are drug-market related

In essence, Mexico took a very bad turn by following the US war on drugs enforced by Plan Mérida. As economists know, the illegal-drug market can be controlled with economic incentives not by trying to reduce supply with police force. The heroin prescription Swiss model is the best example: Free drugs for heroin users reduces consumption, overdose deaths, infectious diseases, corruption, prostitution and violence.

The war on drugs is a monumental failure all over the world. There are no rational or humane arguments that can be put forth to continue with prohibition. Drug consumption is not in the least reduced with police enforcement and the side-effects are very clear and very costly: corruption and violence. Emerging countries with less developed political systems suffer the most, specially if they neighbor the largest illegal-drug market in the world. The USA government knows this but it is always more confortable to have a scapegoat at hand to justify the policy failure. It is always convenient to signal some foreign “bad guys” than to deal with domestic bad policies.

Plan Mérida’s failure

Plan Mérida has failed. Illegal drugs are exported from Mexico to the USA, and illegal weapons and cash are exported from the USA to Mexico. The mafias have extended into other activities and have become more violent. Does this make the USA-Mexico border safer? Does the USA feel safer? No, and all this “build-a-wall” successful electoral campaign proves it. Does Mexico feel safer? No, crime, corruption and a negative security perception have increased since 2008.

So what can Mexico do?

We have to regulate drugs immediately in Mexico. Consumption has been decriminalized since 2009 but although this reduces violations on civil rights it is obvious it hasn’t made a dent on violence. The regulation of all drugs would be the best strategy, there are no arguments in allowing some and prohibiting others; we also know hard drugs tend to disappear once the softer ones are regulated or to put it mildly, hard drugs are a creation of prohibition.

Yet, the Mexican society is very conservative and does not fully understand a “harm-reduction” strategy, so we could start with medical and recreational marihuana; which constitutes about 60% or 70% of our domestic drug-market and a regulating tendency in the USA. There are several legislative initiatives from NGO’s in the Mexican Congress.

We could also regulate poppy cultivation (Papaver somniferum is the source of the crude drug opium used to produce morfine or codeine). Poppy is cultivated in many states in Mexico for the heroin USA market (Mexico doesn’t have a heroin comsumption problem) and the main cause of violence in states like Guerrero, Sinaloa and Morelos. This could be a great source of income for poor-striken areas, and Mexico, like Turkey, could become a major exporter of legal opioids. But, as Turkey, we will have to make our own decisions in spite of the WHO or the USA’s disapproval or skepticism.

If Mexico regulates it could dramatically reduce drug-market violence and high risk corruption which amounts to 60% nationwide, but as much as 90% in some states. Once this “gorilla” is out of the room, Mexico could have more resources and energy to spend on important issues like social and economical development. It would also and very significantly, delegitimize the war on drugs and prove that corruption is not in Mexico’s side of the border. It might even bring down the war on drugs in the USA.

It’s Mexico’s call

This is something that has to be adressed by the Mexicans since the conversation is full of corruption. USA or WHO officials are very prone to do a double condemnation on Mexico and other countries: We are posed as unable to fight the drug war and unable to regulate drugs since they say, our problem is corruption. So we are left adrift with a role of “bad hombres” that seems to be acquired by birth as an original sin.

In short, the “bad hombres” are not the drug lords, but those who impose a lost war on their own population and on a good neighbor.

So what about the wall?

It seems “the build that wall” has the right message: Each country should look after its own interests and territories. If Mexico regulates and the USA fails to do so there would still be a lucrative export market, but let’s not forget that violence and corruption were quite manageable on both sides of the border when this market was left in peace.

Who opposes regulation?

In Mexico, the mom and dad who still think regulation equals drug promotion; minor drug-lords; corrupt government officials; and probably a segment of the army or police who have benefited from increased budgets.

In the USA? Those who profit from the war. The DEA, the CIA, the FBI and other enforcement agencies, the armament industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the private prison business and the racist who knows this is a war on minorities. In short, all those who by maintaining a war can always have a scapegoat at hand to blame and a profit from the distraction.

Who would benefit by ending the war on drugs in Mexico?

In Mexico, mom and dad, the poor, the tourism industry, small businesses, those who are forced to migrate due to violence, drug users and most Mexicans who are tired of this distorted and imposed self-image. In the USA, border towns and states, pro-regulators, businesses that export or have integrated into a successful supply-chain with Mexico. In both countries, taxpayers that are financing the failed war.

If Mexico has more to lose from a NAFTA disruption since it is the weaker economy, it has the upper hand in a unilateral end to war.

Peace is a better business.

In essence, we would all benefit from peace in Mexico, a peaceful USA-Mexico border, and economic growth and social development for both countries. So who are these “bad hombres” that we haven’t been able -in spite of all the evidence- to end the war on drugs and create a succesful harm-reduction strategy? Why do they insist in corrupting the dialogue both at home and with our neighbors and why do we follow them?

Santiago Roel is an social activist in Mexico. Semáforo Delictivo (Crime Traffic Light) is a movement in favor of accountability, good governance, community activism and drug regulation for peace. He has more than 270,000 followers in Mexico.

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