News from last month’s Cartagena leadership summit attended by President Obama and other hemispheric leaders was almost completely overshadowed by the ensuing Secret Service prostitute scandal. Unfortunately, almost no news emerged about the substantive content of the talks. This included a major focus on the “war on drugs” and the need seen by many to reevaluate our strategies for dealing with the drug cartels and subsequent violence associated with them. In those discussions numerous Latin American leaders spoke frankly that the US- orchestrated war is failing and sweeping changes need to be considered. Among those calling for change included the Presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
“There’s probably been no person who has fought the drug cartels and drug trafficking as I have,” Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, said in an interview. “But at the same time, we must be frank. After 40 years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes you look to your left, you look to your right and you’re almost in the same position. And you have to ask yourself, are we doing the correct thing?”
Guatemala’s President Otto Perez was more blunt: “The strategy we have followed these 30 or 40 years has practically failed and we have to recognize it.”
Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon with strong urging from the US has directly taken on the drug cartels with limited (some would say no) success. More than 50,000 people have died over the past five years due to the drug cartel violence, violence that shows little signs of slowing. Many hope that the upcoming Presidential elections will bring in a new perspective with a new government that might be more “tolerant” of the cartels and bring a measure of relief to the public.
That same violence is now spilling over into Mexico’s southern neighbors, with northern Guatemala reportedly now largely controlled by the notoriously violent Zetas drug cartel and Honduras now so violent that the Peace Corps pulled out. San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second largest city, reportedly now surpasses Cd. Juarez as the world’s most dangerous city. It would seem that the cartels simply follow the path of least resistance–when it gets too difficult in one region they refocus their attention in other regions/countries.
During his recent visit to Washington following the Cartagena summit, President Calderon spoke with candor to a group of US-Mexico business men and women. He pointed to his public position made the year before in a speech before the UN where he emphasized the need for a “market alternative” to the “war on drugs.”. He noted that this was not their “war” as such but that Mexico (and the other Latin American countries) were caught between the producers of these drugs and the insatiable appetite of consumers in the US. Mexico was simply the conduit between them, albeit a very profitable conduit. It was the continuing demand for drugs by a growing consumer populace that drives the market. “If we can’t reduce the demand, we must look for a way to reduce the profit.” He said that is best done through regulation, using legal market forces, his referral to a “market alternative.”
The dominance of the drug market and its impact on our neighbors to the south should not be underestimated nor simply considered as “their” problem. The numbers alone should give one pause for thought. Illegal drug trade between the US and Mexican/Colombian cartels has been estimated to be as high $39 B annually with more than half of that from Mexico alone. When compared to legitimate trade it amounts to roughly 2% of Mexico’s GDP, 20% of their oil revenues, 100% of remittances from Mexicans abroad and some 400%of Mexico’s military budget(!).
Such a sea of cash cannot be taken too lightly in terms of its impact on corruption and the impunity with which such thugs as Los Zetas operate throughout the country. The phrase “oro o plomo” (“gold or lead”) referring to the infamous offers made by the cartels to officials to either take their bribes or be shot leaves little choice to those faced with these alternatives.
Our own self interests are also at stake here. Looking only at the commercial side of the equation as we have noted in other posts to this blog, Mexico is our second most important trading partner after Canada with more than $390 B in trade in 2010. A full 40% of the content of goods imported from Mexico is actually produced in the United States. Because of our close economic relationship 1 in 24 US jobs are directly dependent on trade with Mexico (some 6 million jobs!). Mexico’s economic interests are the US’s interests and visa versa.
Finally, our own national security interests are being seriously compromised and must be considered. As already noted, the drug cartels have destabilized entire towns, cities, states and regions. The idea of “failed nation states” is not outside the realm of possibilities when the bad guys have five times the amount of resources for arms and people as the police or military. In many regions the drug cartels are the defacto governing bodies, determining the rules of “trade” (through kidnapping, extortion and murder), undermining if not replacing the rule of “law,” and dictating who shall or shall not control these regions. It is certainly not in the interest of the United States to have a neighboring state (or states) whose government and institutions are in part or wholly corrupted by individuals and organizations such as the drug cartels. It is time to seriously explore alternatives, including decriminalization and market regulation of the use of drugs, to our failed attempts of stemming the violence to the south through a now seriously questioned “war on drugs”.—Paul Maxwell