Death in Juarez

The bloody consequences of America's pharmacological intolerance


In March I debated drug policy with Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers Association, on John Stossel's Fox Business show. When Stossel asked Brooks about the violence fostered by drug prohibition, he replied, "Well, there certainly is some of that." Then he quickly moved on to another topic.

I thought of Brooks' blithe response as I read about one March weekend's horrific violence in Mexico, which included the murders of three people tied to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez: a pregnant consular employee and her husband, both U.S. citizens, and the Mexican husband of another consulate worker. All were shot dead in their cars shortly after leaving a birthday party with their children.

The motive for the attacks remains unclear, but Mexican police believe they were carried out by a gang linked to the Juarez drug cartel, which has been fighting the Sinaloa cartel for control of the city. The murders, which elicited outraged responses from Washington, were just a small part of the bloody ordeal that our government is inflicting on Mexico by insisting that it stop drugs destined for American lungs, noses, and veins.

The same weekend those three people were killed in their cars as their children screamed in the back seat, nearly 50 more died in Mexico from violence related to the drug trade. In Ciudad Juarez, which is important to traffickers because it sits right across the border from El Paso, more than 2,000 people were killed last year, giving the city one of the world's highest homicide rates.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a literal war against the country's drug cartels in December 2006, Reuters reports, some 19,000 people have died. Mexican and American drug warriors are unfazed, saying the staggering death toll is a sign of their success.

"Mexico lives with the violent consequences of an American dilemma," writes former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. "It is because of American demand that Mexico is 'forced' to wage a war on drugs that otherwise it would not have to fight." It is not simply American demand for drugs that creates this situation; it is our government's refusal to let legal businesses meet that demand. Just as it did during alcohol prohibition, that refusal creates a black market in which suppliers violently contend for territory instead of peacefully competing for customers.

"As long as criminalization, its hypocrisy, and serious discussions of the alternatives are banned from public discussion," says Castaneda, "U.S. drug policy will remain…a supply-side, foreign-policy, nickel-and-dime war waged beyond U.S. borders.…The only conceivable alternative lies in a change in U.S. drug policy: not demand reduction, or supply interdiction, but decriminalization, harm reduction, adjusting laws to reality instead of uselessly attempting the opposite."

To address the violence, decriminalization has to encompass not just possession for personal use (a policy that Mexico and several U.S. states have adopted in limited ways) but production and distribution as well. During alcohol prohibition—when the U.S. homicide rate rose by 43 percent, peaking the year of repeal—there were no criminal penalties for drinking. Yet by making it illegal to manufacture and sell alcohol, the government invited the likes of Al Capone to vie for control of a lucrative black market, with predictably violent results. Once alcohol was legalized, the business was no longer run by criminals, and liquor suppliers stopped shooting at each other.

"We will continue to work with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his government to break the power of the drug trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent," the White House declared after the headline-grabbing murders in Ciudad Juarez. If the U.S. government were serious about breaking the power of the brutal gangs that profit from prohibition, it would rethink its war on drugs. 

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 Creators Syndicate Inc.