Drug Policy

How Many Drug War Victories Can Mexico Take?

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On Wednesday the notorious Mexican drug trafficker Arturo Beltrán Leyva was killed during a shootout with troops in Cuernavaca. "Although President Felipe Calderón on Thursday called the operation 'a convincing blow' against the drug cartels," The New York Times reports, "his government also warned that drug-related violence might not abate and could even get worse." Take a few moments to digest that. The Mexican government is waging a literal war on drug traffickers, featuring extensive use of soldiers as policemen and predictable human rights abuses. The main justification for this U.S.-backed war is the ever-more-appalling level of violence associated with the illegal drug trade. Yet the man directing the war concedes it is apt to make the violence worse, and he's right: Prohibition creates a black market where disputes are resolved through violence, and stricter enforcement exacerbates the violence by creating unsettled conditions that invite further conflict. Leyva's death, for example, is likely to trigger a power struggle among his subordinates and embolden competitors to steal some of his cartel's market share. "Despite thousands of arrests and the capture of several gang leaders," the Times notes, "drug violence keeps increasing." As an unnamed "senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal in February (exaggerating slightly), "if the drug effort were failing there would be no violence." The more victories Mexico's drug warriors win, the more the Mexican people lose.

Last month Brian Doherty interviewed University of Texas at El Paso sociologist Howard Campbell about Mexico's escalating violence. I explained prohibition's role in a column last June.