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Mexico's failed and futile war on drugs

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22 April 2010 10:53

Dr Alex Wodak is Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. his 2009 Lowy Institute speech about the war on drugs can be heard here.

Mexico illustrates that, like drug use itself, waging a war on drugs can produce early euphoria and a distorted sense of reality.

But the longer Mexico keep digging a deeper hole, the longer it will take and the harder it will be to extricate itself. Mexico and Pakistan represent growing national security problems for the US. In both cases, an unrealistic drug policy has contributed substantially to the slow but inexorable national unravelling.

In an impressive article in 'Foreign Policy' in January-February 2010, Jorge Castenada argues that Mexico's War Against Drugs is based on myths and doomed to fail. 

Castenada, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2003, argues that the origin of the war was the need for Felipe Calderón to establish his credentials as President 10 days after an inconclusive national election in 2006. While this bold initiative may have gathered support from the public at home and governments abroad, it did not go down as well with domestic elites. Three years and 15,000 deaths later, Mexico is now trapped in an unwinnable war with ill defined aims. 

The Mexican Government argued that a war against drugs was needed to protect the country's children from the scourge of drugs. But based on available survey data, the levels of drug use in Mexico are lower than in North America, Western Europe and many Latin American countries, and only rising slowly.

Calderón also justified the war on the grounds that Mexico was being swamped by a rising tide of violence. However, the rates of homicide and other violent crimes have been falling. The War Against Drugs has resulted in an increasing number of gruesome and highly publicised murders intended to intimidate the people, but the actual number of these horrific murders is small.

Calderón's third argument was that Mexico was losing control of its own territory to the drug traffickers. At the same time, Calderón and the USA were adamant that Mexico was not a failed state. But these arguments seem contradictory.

Castenada also argues that, for several decades, Mexico had been extensively infiltrated to high levels (including the 'Drug Czar', in 1998). Calderón said it was necessary to take on the traffickers lest they weaken the state. But Castenada maintains that prosecuting a futile war has only strengthened the drug traffickers. Castenada also argues that the Mexican Government's claims that the traffickers rely heavily on weapons coming from the USA is at least exaggerated, if not bogus.

Mexico's problems stem from the insatiable demand for illicit drugs in the USA. While there is a demand, there will always be a supply and in recent years most of the illicit drugs reaching the US have originated in or transited through Mexico. With US demand far from waning, there is a growing acceptance in the US that more realistic attitudes to drugs and drug policy are urgently required.

Photo by Flickr user nathangibbs, used under a Creative Commons license.

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