Prohibition Is an Awful Flop; We Like It: The Mexican Edition

In my column today, I argue that last week's presidential election results in Mexico, where the candidate of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) finished a distant third, reflect growing disenchantment with the war on drugs. I did not have the space to discuss polling data that back up that claim, which are, I have to admit, mixed and somewhat puzzling. Last year, for instance, a Gallup poll found that Mexicans were less likely to feel safe walking alone at night than they had been in 2007, one year into Calderon's military crackdown on the drug cartels, even though they were also less likely to report gang activity or drug trafficking in their neighborhoods. The percentages expressing confidence in the national government, the military, and the police fell from 2007 to 2011, with the police seeing the biggest drop in confidence.

In the Citizenship, Democracy, and Drug-Related Violence Survey, also conducted last year, 54 percent of respondents "somewhat" or "entirely" approved of "the government's actions in fighting drug trafficking." At the same time, 53 percent said the government was not "winning the war on drugs," while an additional 18 percent said it was "neither winning nor losing," and 3 percent expressed no opinion. In other words, only a quarter of respondents thought "the government's actions in fighting drug trafficking" (of which a majority approved) were meeting with success. People living in states with higher levels of violence were more likely both to support the government's anti-drug efforts and to think they were working. That correlation is counterintuitive if you see prohibition and its enforcement as the main sources of the "drug-related" violence, which has claimed more than 50,000 lives since Calderon launched his crackdown in December 2006. But if you blame the violence on drug trafficking, overlooking the government-created environment in which it operates, you might welcome a bigger military presence and its promise of security.

Reassuringly, large majorities of respondents, no matter where they lived, rejected suggestions that "it is necessary to lose some rights and freedoms to fight drug traffic," that "government should use physical abuse to obtain information from people [suspected] of belonging to drug cartels," and that the government should "arrest people even if there is no evidence against them." But the respondents also overwhelmingly rejected the idea of electing candidates who would make peace with the cartels, with most preferring "candidates that fight drug cartels even if it generates more violence and insecurity."

That last finding makes the election of Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), even more striking, since drug warriors feared that he would revert to PRI tradition by turning a blind eye to trafficking in exchange for less violence. Then again, all three leading presidential candidates, including PAN's, promised that controlling violence, as opposed to catching traffickers or seizing drugs, would be their top law enforcement priority. All three also said they would take the army out of the fight, replacing it with specially trained police officers.

If everyone had not taken the latter position, it might be considered politically courageous, given that Mexican voters put more trust in the military than in politicians, the courts, or the notoriously corrupt and abusive police. In fact, a survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project a few months before the presidential election found that 80 percent of Mexicans supported "using the Mexican army to fight drug traffickers." That's not so surprising when you consider that 73 percent said the military was having a "very good" or "somewhat good" influence on "the way things are going in Mexico"; the corresponding rating was 65 percent for the national government, 60 percent for the media, 57 percent for Calderon, 44 percent for the court system, and 38 percent for the police.

While Calderon's continuing popularity could be interpreted to mean that most Mexicans do not blame him for the appalling violence that has accompanied his war against the cartels, other results from the same survey indicated that Mexicans were ready for a change, even if it meant returning to power the party that dictatorially dominated the country's politics for its first 71 years. Sixty-three percent of respondents were "dissatisfied with the way things are going," while 75 percent deemed "drug cartel-related violence in places like Ciudad Juarez" a "very big problem." Seventy-four percent said the same things about "human rights violations by the [highly trusted!] military and the police," while "crime" was rated a "very big problem" by 73 percent. None of the other issues mentioned in the survey broke 70 percent, although "corrupt political leaders" (69 percent), "illegal drugs" (68 percent), and "economic problems" (ditto) came close.

The most directly relevant part of the survey vis-à-vis the election, of course, was the section asking about respondents' opinions of the candidates. Fifty-seven percent had a "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" opinion of Pena Nieto (who was one percentage point less popular than Calderon), compared to 36 percent for PAN nominee Josefina Vazquez Mota and 34 percent for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. The election results were 38 percent for Pena Nieto, 32 percent for Lopez Obrador, and 25 percent for Vazquez Mota. In other words, 70 percent of voters rejected Calderon's party, even as 58 percent continued to take a favorable view of him personally. It seems to me that Calderon's bloody drug war, well-intentioned but disastrous, helps explain this apparent contradiction, given the survey respondents' strong concerns about prohibition-related violence (even if they did not identify it as such) and their overwhelming view that the current approach to drugs is not working.

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  • R C Dean||

    Mexicans were less likely to feel safe walking alone at night than they had been in 2007, one year into Calderon's military crackdown on the drug cartels, even though they were also less likely to report gang activity or drug trafficking in their neighborhoods.

    I think they are less likely to report because they are more afraid, so that "even though" might be more of a "so its not surprising". We're dealing with gangs, here, not random street crime, and gangs retaliate.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    And also either completely own, or have informants embedded in with the people you'd report it to.

    Based on my extensive research of watching Man on Fire, Get the Gringo, Desperado and From Dusk til Dawn.

  • ||

    well researched and well said

  • Keith3D||

    People are far more afraid of terrorists (the drug gangs in this case, beheading people etc) than common criminals, despite how statistically great the danger really is from each.

    I don't think Mexico's crime rate is particularly bad given its level of development, and should be on the way down as their economy is growing solidly.

  • John Thacker||

    The problem is that, from what I've seen, the PAN actually did best in the governors' races in the Mexican states with the worst drug violence, winning several of them.

    The opinions of the Mexican people (like the American people) seem confused and contradictory. They want to fight the drug war, and they don't want the civil liberties violations and violence.

    But that doesn't mean that they want to end the drug war. They want to choose something that cannot be achieved in reality. (Just like how Americans want spending without taxes, and want Obamacare benefits without mandates or paying for it.)

  • wareagle||

    They want to fight the drug war, and they don't want the civil liberties violations and violence.

    and they are not grasping that one is inherently tied to the other. Goes to show that any time govt declares war on anything, the public's best move is seeking CO status.

  • mybarber||

    Take thes people's beer,wine and spirits away at gun point and see how they feel.Then demand other countries [ like Mexico,France,Canada ,the Irish ect)stop making it and see how that works.Same thing

  • ||

    They've already done that (albeit with a Constitutional amendment) and saw how bad of an idea it was. This was only 90 years ago! Some of the people who lived then may still be alive, and yet the drug war prohibition continues along.

  • mybarber||

    Noi they didn't.They banned the production and sale of alcohol but it was not illegal to posses at home.Plus ,they never tried to stop other countries for making it or helping to prvent smuggling into the U.S..Canada ahd a booming industry making booze that ended up here.See it's not nearly the same.Imagine a world wide alcohol war like the war on drugs.

  • Roque Nuevo||

    How could Mexicans answer survey questions coherently if the drug war itself is incoherent?

    The drug war was not a campaign topic in 2006. Calderón won the election on conventional topics, like education, reforming the tax code, etc etc. Then, in his first month, he invaded his home state of Michoacán to eradicate drugs/drug gangs. The drug war here in Mexico is best thought of as an insurgency, with the drug gangs controlling vast expanses of Mexican territory and providing the development and justice system that the government never has.

    Calderón has taken, for example, the safest and most prosperous city in the nation, Monterrey, and made it a no-go zone. Safety and prosperity will not return there in our lifetimes.

    To understand the contradictions in the surveys you cite, maybe it would help to know that Mexico has a long tradition of drug use: marihuana, peyote, mushrooms, etc etc. This was never considered a "problem" before drug criminalization was enforced worldwide during the FDR administration. The US has succeeded in transplanting its Progressive-religious ideals to Mexico, which makes it hard for Mexicans to criticize the drug war. But they know that the drug war is tearing the nation apart.

  • ||

    Excellent points.

  • ||

    Excellent points.

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