The Cost of Prohibition
These blinged-out automatic weapons are a telling symbol of our current prohibition based approach to drugs. It gifts vast sums of money into the hands of a tiny circle of crime lords who perpetuate the most horrific crimes imaginable. These guns, with their intense juxtaposition of the fantasies of lunatic wealth and the all too real death they deal out, belonged to drug dealer Oscar Orlando Nave Valencia and were discovered when authorities searched his house after his arrest.
I was planning to post some photos here to show the violence of the drug war in Mexico, but, you’ll be happy to hear, I just can’t bring myself to do it. If you want to see for yourself what’s happening, check out Blog del Narco, perhaps the most astonishing blog on the web. Two young guys tell it exactly how it is, no holds barred, and have somehow stayed alive. Be warned – the images are graphic and disturbing.
The violence associated with the drug cartels of Mexico has spiraled out of control, with 29 000 dead since 2006 when President Calderón came to power on a strong anti-drugs platform. His heavy-handed, military based approach has resulted in major successes.
In November 2007, customs officials in Manzanillo, Colima state, seized 26 tons of cocaine from a Hong Kong-flagged ship that had sailed from Colombia. The seizure was the largest in Mexican history, more than double the previous record of 11 tons recovered that October in Tamaulipas state. In July 2007, the Mexican navy captured a self-propelled, semisubmersible vessel loaded with nearly 5 tons of cocaine off the coast of Oaxaca state, the first such capture by Mexican authorities. Also in July, federal police near Guadalajara, Jalisco state, uncovered the largest synthetic drug production facility ever found in the country, recovering some 8,000 barrels of ephedrine and acetone, two key ingredients in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine. Source
In addition, important members of nearly all the country’s drug trafficking organizations have been arrested over the last 12 months, although the highest-ranking kingpins continue to evade capture. Rising street prices of cocaine suggest that the policy has succeeded in restricting supply.
But the cartels are ever resilient, and have been actively responding, especially by shifting operations into other Central American countries such as Guatemala, with the result that its homicide rate has seen a steep climb to its current astonishing level of 52/100 000, a rate that is exceeded only by other nations in the region. The cartels have even become bold enough to directly launch violent attacks well over the US border.
The partial success of Calderón’s policy has not led to a decrease of violence in his country.
One apparent paradox for the Calderon administration has been that even while the government has clearly succeeded in damaging the cartels, the country’s security situation continues to deteriorate at what appears to be an unstoppable rate.
The most obvious sign of this deteriorating security situation is that the total number of drug-related homicides continues to climb dramatically. The nearly 2,700 killings that occurred in 2007 made it the deadliest year up to that point in the country’s drug war. However, 2007 has paled in comparison to 2008, when the 2007 total was surpassed in the first seven months. The death toll currently sits at more than 5,000. At this rate, the country may well finish 2008 with twice the number registered in 2007.
In addition to the rise in the number of killings, the violence has escalated in other important ways that are more difficult to measure. First, Mexican drug violence is just as brutal as ever. Beheadings have now become a regular occurrence, with the most noteworthy incident from this past year being the 12 decapitated bodies of alleged drug dealers found outside Merida, Yucatan state. In the past, most beheadings took place after the victim had been killed. Increasingly, however, authorities report that victims are beheaded alive. source
The situation in cities like Juárez has become so bad that analysts describe it as a state of ‘criminal anarchy’. Article after article after article detail the violence and chaos. In such an intractable situation even Calderón himself has called for talks on legalization. It has become painfully clear that the real victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ are the people of Mexico and other countries drawn into this sickening criminal spiral. As always, it is the poor and the ‘other‘ who bear the blame for the appetites of the rich.
I have focussed on the situation in Mexico only because it is easy, as it has received a lot of media coverage recently. But I have no doubt that similar problems, to a greater or lesser degree, will affect all countries that supply our appetite for drugs.
It is worth sparing a thought of compassion for those involved in the drug industry. It is a $5 billion industry in Mexico, employing half a million people. In poor countries, that’s a big deal and it must be hard to resist the attraction. People are drawn into this life, not because they are bad people, but because of the conditions and opportunities that they encounter. This is not to excuse it in any way, just to understand. Nobody starts life as a murderer. The violence takes its toll, not just on the bodies of the victims, but on the souls of the perpetrators.
All this is a direct result of criminalization. Make drugs legal, ensure that clean drugs from legitimate, legal sources are available at a reasonable price, and these problems will go away. Crime will always exist, but if you remove billions of dollars of profits, the extent of crime must fall. In a world where so many problems seem so intractable, it is surely a sign of hope that this is something that has a recognizable cause and an achievable solution.
It is ethically abhorrent for Western countries, or drug-consuming countries generally, to maintain domestic policies that have such a drastic, direct, and harmful effect on peoples in other lands. If we are genuinely concerned to manage and minimize the harm that drug consumption does, we must start with those harms that are real, not just hypothetical, and which can actually be eliminated. An ethical domestic policy must not just consider the situation at home, but should take into account the international implications.
See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.