The real drug war

In Mexico, the phrase “war on drugs” is not just a figure of speech. Since President Felipe Calderon took office, tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed to battle drug cartels, and corrupt officials have been ousted. The cartels, however, haven’t blinked. Almost 4,000 people have been killed in the last two years. Now the United States and Mexico have negotiated a major initiative that includes $1.4 billion worth of equipment and aid, most of it going to Mexico and a small portion to several Central American countries.

Mexico has been unflinching in this fight and deserves our support. Still, the few details to emerge about the plan are not heartening. There is much about strengthening security and law enforcement with equipment and advisors, and little about addressing factors behind the drug trade: gun trafficking, drug treatment and poverty-induced opium and marijuana farming.

It’s true that Mexico’s police agencies are plagued by corruption and need stronger structural mechanisms to prosecute it, such as internal affairs offices and witness protection programs. Furthermore, the military’s dominance has resulted in mounting allegations of assaults on innocent civilians, so the sooner its role can be reduced the better. But policing alone won’t halt the booming drug trade. We should have learned that much by now.

The U.S. spends more than $40 billion a year combating illicit drugs, yet neither the so-called war nor the “Just Say No” campaign has made a difference. We are the world’s top consumer of illicit drugs. So before Congress votes to beef up Mexico’s efforts -- from about $59 million this year to an initial installment of $550 million in nonmonetary aid next year -- it should require a review of this country’s policies.


For example, the United States supplies arms to the very cartels both countries are fighting; Mexican officials trace 90% of the weapons confiscated from drug traffickers to Texas, California and Arizona. U.S. gun laws permit buyers at gun shows to purchase unlimited assault weapons with no questions asked. As long as this loophole exists, AK-47s will travel south by the truckload. Also, we allow Mexicans to fight and die to reduce our supply, but will the U.S. control its own ravenous appetite for drugs? Will our government commit to greater investment in treatment, which might actually lessen demand?

A joint effort must go beyond giving Mexico the wherewithal to battle on our behalf. Otherwise, its drug war may one day look like ours: It will be perhaps less conspicuously violent, but no less futile.