As Mexican soldiers engage in battles with cartel gunmen south of the border and Congress considers the Bush administration's $1.4 billion pork barrel anti-drug aide package, it's worth stopping for a moment to consider how we got here. It wasn't that long ago that the big drug lords lived in Colombia, and the Mexican "cartels" were regional smuggling operations that may have corrupt contacts in local police, but did not compete openly with the government for power.
US policy, though, combined with international economic trends, have added several major new revenue streams to the cartels' business, enriching them beyond the imagination of the boldest observers at the turn of the century.
- NAFTA, combined with US corn and ag subsidies, eliminated millions of rural agricultural jobs in Mexico, driving workers into Mexican cities in droves, as well as north of the border into the United States.
- Meanwhile, expanded immigration enforcement shifted immigrant smuggling from informal systems to more expensive, cartel-run criminal smuggling organizations.
- Restrictions on pseudoephedrine over the counter in the United States eliminated most local self-suppliers and shifted the lucrative methamphetamine trade to the cartels' control.
- Lack of western US port access has meant more Asian imports coming in through Mexico. Smuggled goods of all types coming in from Asia are now just packed in the same trucks and vessels carrying immigrants and dope. Simultaneously, the resurgence of Afghan poppy production under US occupation adds new heroin supplies to this Asian mix.
- Marijuana remains the mainstay of cartel income, according to federal officials, but as with meth, US policy has targeted domestic production. The Department of Justice has been cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California, and domestic grow sites are a principal target of Byrne-grant funded drug task forces, tipping market share further in Mexico's direction.
It is difficult to gauge with hard statistics just how well these measures have worked. But local and federal law enforcement officials in Arizona and Texas, academics, activists and migrants themselves all agree that, in recent years, it is much harder to get into the United States illegally from Mexico.There are some who will inevitably read this (Hi, kaptinemo!) and immediately declare that the solution is drug legalization. For cocaine and heroin, in particular, I'm increasingly skeptical how well that would work. Look how poorly we do regulating legal drugs: tens of millions of people taking Prozac and other anti-depressants just found out the companies knew all along they didn't work. "Regulating" drugs may provide little real-world protection, or else continue a high-end black market. For the time being, my personal preference would be a harm reduction approach.
But an unintended consequence of these tighter controls has been the rapid criminalization of the border, according to these same people. The coyote business -- the trade of moving people across the border illegally -- has fallen into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, which are now using what were once human smuggling routes to run drugs into the United States. Essentially, human and drug smuggling operations have become one and the same.
"Human smugglers and drug cartels were [once] separate entities. A lot of the time the human smugglers were using the same corridors the drug runners were using," said Special Agent Joe Romero, a spokesman for Border Patrol, during a tour of El Paso's border with Juárez. "The routes that were being used by the human smugglers, they were burning those areas for the drug runners. So [drug cartels] decided to basically take control of those routes. Now they control all of these routes."
On immigration, though, and probably also for marijuana (which after all is safer for users than alcohol), the nation is cutting off its nose to spite our collective, increasingly brown face. Taking those funding streams away from the drug cartels through some manner of "legalization" - a regulated market for pot, and some form of amnesty and expanded quotas on immigration - would strike a crippling financial blow to the criminal gangs currently battling each other and President Calderon's army in Mexico.
Among presidential candidates, Obama's stated positions are closest to those policies, but all three candidates support immigration reform that should assist substantially, if it can make it through Congress. On the corn subsidies, I wonder if those can EVER be deleted so long as Iowa's presidential caucuses are first.
Perhaps after the next election, the US will take advantage of its historic opportunity to rethink foreign policy on our southern border in addition to overseas, before the violence in Mexico spills even further onto the American side.