A Decade of Failure in the War on Drugs.
MEXICO CITY — In 2006, Felipe Calderón, then the incoming president of Mexico, vowed that change was coming to fix the problem of drug trafficking and drug-related violence. To fulfill this promise he sent the army into the streets and embarked on a full-on war against drug trafficking.
Things did indeed change.
The year before he took over, Mexico’s homicide rate was 9.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate soon doubled, prompting the government to deny there were any civilian victims: those dead in the war against drugs were either evildoers (drug traffickers) or heroes (the policemen and soldiers who fought them). A decade later, too many unknown victims have fallen in this war. The estimates are close to 150,000 dead and 28,000 missing. Mr. Calderón’s promise was epic; his strategy, simplistic. The war of drug traffickers against the government and among themselves has expanded. In places like Tamaulipas, along the border with the United States, to speak out is often a death sentence. In what’s known as the Golden Triangle (Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa), controlled by the Sinaloa drug cartel, threats by “sicarios” (the cartel’s hit men) force the inhabitants to flee their communities. Tourist resorts are no longer sanctuaries. Acapulco is now the country’s most violent city, and one of the world’s most violent. Even if Mexicans believed Mr. Calderón’s promise, the question to ask was and still is: Why would thousands of people work in drug trafficking?
Drugs and drug trafficking are a social, cultural, economic and health-related phenomenon; social violence and insecurity is just one of its many facets. Traveling through Mexico’s depressed areas makes anyone understand that organized crime is, in many of them, the only constant presence, the start and the end of everyday life. There, where the state does not reach, or does only to fight crime, illicit means are often the just source of employment.
For thousands of Mexicans, drug trafficking is a way to survive. The weakest links in the chain, like the growers or the drug mules, do not ponder whether it is right or wrong. They work only to subsist.
The war on drugs turned out to be a complete failure. Drugs continue to stream north to the United States, the great user, and firearms enter Mexico in return, where they kill thousands. The systematic hunting of drug traffickers has yielded a large number of detainees, even some big names like Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo. Jails are overflowing. But 41 percent of those jailed for drug crimes were arrested for possession of controlled substances worth less than 500 pesos (under $30).
Meanwhile, there are steady flows of cocaine, human trafficking and natural resources, and extortion and poppy growing are rampant. According to United States Drug Enforcement Administration data, Mexican heroin is the most commonly used type in America, surpassing the Colombian supply. In the state of Guerrero, the top producer of Mexican heroin, 50 criminal groups vie for control of the territory.
If Mr. Calderón was the father of this drug policy, his successor as president, Enrique Peña Nieto, seems to be playing the role of the teenager who, in trying to rebel, repeats what he saw his father do.
This past August and July were the most violent months of Mr. Peña Nieto’s presidency, with nearly 4,000 dead — similar to the record numbers of 2011, the bloodiest year of the Calderón administration.
Ten years is enough to get a clearer view and try different approaches. Decriminalizing possession of all drugs for personal use would be a sound first step: It would ease the burden on the collapsed judiciary system, reduce the incentives for the police to make arrests and focus their efforts on violence-prone traffickers who terrify citizens, and not on users.
The great shift in Mr. Peña Nieto’s policy was his backing of medicinal use of marijuana, a needed action, but not enough, particularly when it is compared with other similar efforts throughout the region.
In recent years, Colombia has stopped destroying the coca plantations and has sponsored a nationwide crop substitution program, while the country´s president, Juan Manuel Santos, issued a law allowing the medical use of marijuana. Costa Rica, a country without an army, has begun a drug-treatment program. In Jamaica, laws for the traditional and medicinal use of cannabis have been approved. In 2009, Argentina’s Supreme Court declared punishment for drug possession for personal consumption unconstitutional, and Uruguay has legalized the production, distribution and use of marijuana.
Mexico tabulates the amounts of a drug anyone can possess before being considered a trafficker. But this tabulation does not fit the reality of users. For example, it allows for only five grams or less than 0.18 ounces, of marijuana. While drug policies must address each country’s characteristics, decriminalizing drug use should be a shared premise.
More than 15 years ago, Portugal decriminalized drug possession for personal use and created a system for drug treatment and social reintegration; cannabis use has leveled, the number of heroin addicts is down 70 percent, and deaths by overdoses have also been reduced. In the Netherlands, a cafeteria-style system has created a legal work force around cannabis and, in part because users are not prosecuted, that country’s jails are virtually empty. Recently, a lack of business has led to the closing of a few Dutch prisons. Drug use — of all drugs — is a health issue, not a criminal one. And it should be dealt with as such.
In Mexico the war on drugs turned out to be a worse evil than the one it set out to fight. Ten years locked in a state of emergency and with an army insulated from any criminal investigation of its behavior have proven to be another failure.
For things to really change, the government should gradually return antidrug programs to the civil authorities. After this decade of mourning, of killings with impunity, of government corruption, Mexico needs to devise a comprehensive drug policy that understands drug trafficking beyond a clash between heroes and villains. Caught between these extremes, society has been forced to adapt to a state of permanent violence. Decriminalizing drug use will not fix a deeply rooted problem in this country, but it will allow Mexicans to differentiate between drugs and the war on drugs, between drug users and drug traffickers. This is the first step in acknowledging that a different approach is possible.