The War on Drugs–Societal Costs

This is the third of a multi-part series on illegal drugs and their impact on our society with a special emphasis on the US-Mexico border region, exploring how we got here, what are the economic and social impacts of our policies, and exploring alternatives to our current policies going forward.

Unlike federal budgets and other statistical economic data, trying to measure the societal costs of illicit drugs is not as objective or always easily demonstrated.  It is however no less real and in many senses far more important given the broad impact these costs have on entire regions and even nations, e.g. the current drug cartel war being waged in Mexico today.  Entire books and volumes of  literature have been written on social costs of illicit drugs and it is not the purview of this writer to try to cover all of the possible issues but simply point to a couple of areas that seem particularly relevant to our border region and our relation with Mexico.

Drugs  and the illicit drug trade have been a way of life in the US-Mexico border region for many generations but it has been only in the past five years or so that it has raised its ugly head in such a way as to suggest the drug cartels could threaten not only individuals or border towns or even states but entire nation states.  The recent book by Congressman-elect Beto O’Rourke, co-authored with El Paso City Council Representative Susie Byrd, “Dealing Death and Drugs–the Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico”1–highlights a number of key issues related to drugs, drug cartels and their impact on our border region with a particular focus on marijuana.

Drug related violence in Mexico

Estimates of drug cartel related deaths in Mexico today are well over 50,000, with more than 10,000 occurring Juarez during the President Calderon’s administration and his policy to eradicate the drug cartels.  In addition new official numbers have been published showing more than 25,000 have disappeared during this same period, presumably most related to Mexico’s drug war.  Unfortunately, many of these deaths and “desaparecidos” had nothing to do with the drug cartels and were merely innocent victims caught in the cross-fire of an internecine drug war waged at many levels.  O’Rourke and Byrd describe the case of seven year old Raul Xazziel Ramirez-Ramirez cold bloodedly killed in Juarez trying to flee after he witnessed the death of his father as they were returning home one Friday night.  Raul, like many in the border land was coming home for the weekend while living with his aunt and attending elementary school in El Paso, hardly the actions of a hardened criminal.  Dismissal by authorities that Raul’s death (and many like him) was unavoidable given the presumed involvement by his father (or other relatives) in the drug trade rang hollow on the public’s ears when hundreds, thousands of brutal deaths of men, women and children with absolutely no ties to the cartels continued as the drug war raged.

Today, at least in Juarez the number of weekly murders has declined sharply and Juarenses have begun to re-emerge and reopen stores and markets closed during the worst of the violence.  However, this is not because the military or Calderon’s policies against the cartels was successful.  Rather the violence has subsided because the Juarez Cartel led by Amado Fuente lost to the more powerful Sinaloan cartel under Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.  The drugs continue to flow because the profits are so lucrative and for now the control of the Juarez “plaza” has stabilized.

US Drug use drives Mexico’s drug cartels

These inexorable costs in lives is driven by the inexorable pressure of profits from the drug trade.  Marijuana grown in Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madres mountains, for example, net the farmers $23 per pound according to authorities but thousands per pound when retailed in Chicago or elsewhere.  O’Rourke and Byrd  do an excellent job of tracing the costs of moving the marijuana from the farmer to a final market in Chicago.  They show the value per pound of marijuana increasing from its initial value ($23/lb) to $73/lb in Juarez (accounting for relatively easy shipping through the “plaza”) to $240/lb in El Paso (at much higher risk, often requiring bribes at various levels with the customs agents, border officials and others or looking for other methods, including unsuspecting travelers acting as “mules” for the cartels) to $550/lb wholesale value in Chicago.  At retail this would increase to over $2700 per pound, an increase from the original $23/lb of almost 12,000%!  Deducting the operational costs for the cartels (bribes, freight shipping “fees”, courier costs, etc) the estimated return on investment amounts to between 190%-240%!

From a broader perspective illicit drugs in Mexico provide an estimated $24 billion in profits annually to the drug cartels.

Drug cash floods Mexico’s markets

As noted in an earlier post on this blog 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(!).  It is no wonder such a sea of cash has such a negative impact on our neighbor to the south, subverting the rule of law, openly supporting corruption from the lowest to the highest levels of government and allowing the drug cartels to operate with impunity to  destabilized entire towns, cities, states and regions.  Again as previously noted, 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.

On the US side of the border, as noted in an earlier post in this series, we are incarcerating between 500,000 to one million non-violent drug violators annually, the majority for simple drug possession.   Such incarcerations have a number of consequences, none positive.  For instance:

  • Racism still continues in our justice system: Statistically, Blacks and Hispanics overall comprise 61% of the those incarcerated  while representing only 29% of the total population.  Thus, nationally, if you are Black or Hispanic you are twice as likely to be jailed as whites.  Regionally, these numbers are even higher with up to seven Hispanics being incarcerated in Maine for every white.  In over twenty states , the percent of Blacks incarcerated is at least five times greater than their share of resident population
  • Recidivism is rampant in our justice system– Our jails have become institutions of “higher education” for criminality where non-violent, first time drug offenders are introduced into the gang hierarchy in prison and often “graduate” as hardened criminals with little likelihood of successful  reintroduction to society.
  • Prison gangs have strong connectivity to street gangs and violence in our border cities–case in point is the violent Barrio Azteca street gang with roots in Texas prisons.  The Aztecas have been implicated in numerous criminal activities in the border region, including the murder of a US consulate employee and her husband in Juarez.  It builds its membership by enticing, coercing and even forcing vulnerable El Paso youths to join and help carry out criminal activities — drugs, murder, kidnapping, extortion.
  • Congress voted to make inmates ineligible for Pell Grants to pursue higher education studies as a symbolic distinction between criminals and “law abiding citizens” in spite of overwhelming evidence that participation in prison education programs drastically reduces recidivism
  • Researchers have found the boom in prison populations has led to unintended effects including: reduced fertility, increase rates of involuntary migration to rural areas and morbidity that is marked by greater exposure and risk to tuberculosis, HIV and/or AIDS.
  • A CNN report showed that during the past two decades that states’ spending on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.  For example in 2011 California spent $9.6 billion on prisons versus $5.6 billion on higher education!

It would seem that we need to re-order our priorities and our policies if we are to gain any kind of success in dealing with drugs and drug use in our society.  The economic and social costs to us and our international neighbors is simply too high to continue to wage the same failed “War on Drugs” and pursue the related drug policies.  That is not to say we are advocating use of drugs per se.  There are numerous studies and data to underscore the potential problems in abusing illicit (and even licit!) drugs in our society.   However, just as we deal with alcohol use and abuse through social and, generally, non-criminal means we need to emphasize the same in addressing illicit drug use and abuse.  As pointed out by O’Rourke and Byrd at the very least we need to begin the dialogue to examine alternative pathways to address these issues.–Paul Maxwell

1. “Dealing Death and Drugs–The Big Business of Dope in the U.S.  and Mexico”, Beto O’Rourke and Susie Byrd, Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, TX, 2011  ISBN 978-1-933693-94-1


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