Drug War

Violence Is Not Victory

Mexico's election results are the latest sign of Latin American dissent from the drug war.


Early last year, when the death toll from Mexican President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on the cartels stood at 35,000 or so, Michele Leonhart, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told reporters in Cancun "the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs." The results of last week's presidential election, in which the candidate of Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) finished a distant third, suggest Mexican voters are no longer buying that counterintuitive argument, if they ever did.

Even if "the fight against drugs" were winnable, it would be an outrageous imposition. Why should Mexicans tolerate murder and mayhem on an appalling scale (more than 50,000 deaths since Calderon launched his assault in December 2006), not to mention the rampant corruption associated with prohibition, all in the name of stopping Americans from obtaining psychoactive substances that their government has arbitrarily decreed they should not consume? That sort of arrogant expectation is becoming increasingly untenable.

Mexico's incoming president, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has promised continued cooperation with U.S. drug warriors. But during the campaign, he and the other two leading candidates all said controlling violence, as opposed to seizing drugs or arresting traffickers, would be their top law enforcement priority. Pena Nieto has reiterated that commitment since the election, saying his success should be measured by the homicide rate.

At the same time, Pena Nieto has declared the current approach to drugs a failure and called for a "broad debate," including the possibility of legalization, while emphasizing that he personally opposes that option. The president-elect's mixed signals of continuity and change were reflected in a whipsawing Bloomberg headline: "Pena Nieto to Expand Drug War, Debate Drug Legalization."

Pena Nieto's lip service to reform might not amount to much on its own, but it takes on added significance in the context of recent rumblings from other politicians. Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, who as president supported decriminalizing simple possession of drugs (a policy approved under Calderon), three years ago declared that "it's time to open the debate over legalizing drugs," adding that "it can't be that the only way is for the state to use force."

Last year Calderon himself expressed a similar frustration. "If [the Americans] are determined and resigned to consume drugs," he said in an eyebrow-raising speech, "then they should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the criminals' stratospheric profits, or establish clear points of access [to drugs]. But this situation can't go on."

In recent years that sentiment has been expressed by a growing number of Latin American leaders, beginning with Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2008. The following year, a commission convened by three former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—concluded that "prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results."

Furthermore, Cardoso et al. observed, the war on drugs has been accompanied by "a rise in organized crime," "a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence," "the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime," and "the corruption of public servants." They called for a "paradigm shift," including marijuana decriminalization. Since then we have heard similar talk from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, and Uruguayan President José Mujica.

Is America listening? At last April's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, President Barack Obama, who as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2004 called the war on drugs "an utter failure," said "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation" about whether the drug laws "are doing more harm than good in certain places." But he immediately added that "legalization is not the answer." In other words, even if prohibition does more harm than good, Obama is determined to stick with it.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. It's simple: more violence = success.

    All we need is a Mexican Holocaust and we can win this damn war!

    1. Something something desert, something peace.

  2. Is it just me, or is Mexico's new president one handsome devil? He reminds me of that suave lead actor in Samson vs. The Vampire Women, which as far as I remember is the only Mexican movie I've ever seen.

    Yours heterosexually,

    1. Ah - you mean he looks presidential?

      We've got one in office and one gunning for that seat that both look presidential. We need someone who'll act presidential.

      I'll take an dog-ass-shaved-faced ugly MFer who'll actually honor his oath to uphold the Constitution over 10 super babe bikini models every time.

      1. Well, maybe not all the time

      2. Were Rosanne Barr a libertarian, I'd vote for her. Seriously, if you vote for someone based on looks, you deserve to have your franchise revoked.

        1. Wasn't this how we got stuck with Woodrow Wilson; he looked presidential? That in itself should make anyone leery of voting for someone based on looks.

    2. Didn't he play "Monseigneur Martinez" on King of the Hill?

    3. I think political candidates should be required to wear burkhas when campaigning. Or Guy Fawkes masks, if you prefer the lulz.

      I mean, as much as I'll mock Henry Moleman Waxman's hideous visage, at least I can be sure that people chose him based on political reasons rather than hotness.

    4. Is it just me, or is Mexico's new president one handsome devil?

      And he's got the hot wife to match. On the whole, I think trading Carla Bruni for her was a net gain on the hot political wives market.

  3. Oh. And legalize it. Legalize all of it.

  4. "Is America listening?"

    Not to any corrupt Mexican drug owned politicians, that's for sure. Now, Nieto, you gotta ask yourself. Did I flush 3 trillion dollars down the toilet? Or was it just 2.2?

    Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being this is very nearly an A+++ debt rating, the most powerful country in the world, and would blow your country clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well do ya, punk?

    1. Nicely played WG, but I'm pretty sure America's gun is still loaded.

      1. Shhh! Don't tell THEM that!

  5. I'm all for legalizing drugs everywhere but just to play devil's advocate, how can one state that a government "crackdown" on drugs led to 35k deaths? Are we to assume drug cartels would not be killing each over turf if there were no crackdown?

    1. I'm all for legalizing drugs everywhere but just to play devil's advocate, how can one state that a government "crackdown" on drugs led to 35k deaths? Are we to assume drug cartels would not be killing each over turf if there were no crackdown?

      When is the last time you saw a Coors driver shooting at a Budweiser driver? If a person can go down to their local store and buy drugs, there is no "turf" to fight over. So it is perfectly logical to state that prohibition leads to deaths.

      1. +, but they did during prohibition. Remember Al Capone?

    2. A large part of the violence has reportedly been related to power struggles within cartels after their leadership has been taken down by the gov't. I'd like to see a breakdown of who's doing the killing. It doesn't change the fact that this violence is a result of prohibition. There's no magical quality about drugs that make people trading in them more lilely to kill over their trade. It is the effects of prohibition that raise the stakes of the drug trade to that level. Combine price supports with removing all legal protections for those involved in the trade, and you carve out an exceptio to the state's monopoly on violence.

      1. The way we are enforcing these stupid laws makes the violence inevitable, even in the absence of power struggles. When the cops find people with drugs, they offer them less jail time in exchange for information on who sold it to them. With the amount of jail time involved, that offer becomes very tempting if there is a doubt about how violent and vindictive their suppliers are. This makes is very lucrative to be violent and vindictive in the most dramatic way possible, because if you aren't, you are likely to get put out of business and if you are the authorities will kindly put your competition out of business.

  6. Funny how those who want to keep drugs illegal speak of the "externalities" with regards to drug use, but absolutely refuse to consider the "externalities" of prohibition.

    It's all about intentions.

    1. The head of the DEA said that what we would call "externalities" is actually a sign of success. I think she got that idea from the rhetoric on the war in Iraq.

  7. Remember Prohibition back in the early 1920's, with its Organized Crime Syndicates and its liquor smuggling at the US-Canadian border, as well as turf wars between rival Mafia families? Well, that absurdity didn't last long - less than 15 years, to be exact. Alcohol prohibition was repealed in the early 1930's on FDR's watch. What happened since? State and Federal Governments were able to raise more revenues through liquor sales taxes and institute minimum age requirements.

    The same can be done with drugs. Look at Portugal; that nation requires drug addicts to obtain therapy and provides the centers to provide it.

    By taxing and regulating drugs the way alcohol is handled, both states and the Federal Government can raise plenty of revenues and empty prisons of non-violent drug addicts; rehabilitate them and provide them with better prospects for the future.

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