Friday, March 07, 2008

Stop Digging: US policies enriching Mexican drug cartels

When you find yourself in a hole, the saying goes, the first thing to do is stop digging. But when fighting Mexican drug cartels, US policy over the last several years has been to buy more shovels and hire laborers to make the hole deeper and wider.

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.
These trends have combined to enrich Mexican cartels unimaginably, even financing military-grade weapons purchases, most of which is smuggled in from the United States through the checkpoints, and a great deal of it from weapons purchased at gun shows in Dallas and Houston, according to Mexican and US officials. An excellent article in Word Politics Review ("As violence grows along border, Congress debates funding for fighting Mexican drug cartels," March 7) sums up what's happened, blaming most of the impact (certainly the volume) on boosted immigration enforcement:
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.

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."
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope you don't think my reasoning processes are as simplistic as that statement implies.

At the risk of seeming heartless, I have other motivations besides the obvious ones of reducing the societal strains caused by the DrugWar. Some are personal. And some many of your readers may find somewhat shocking...but I would be willing to wager that a great many people would silently and grimly nod their heads in assent.

Ever play the computer game "Lemmings"? The goal is patently impossible: trying to keep the lemmings from suiciding. (The real animal isn't that crazy; they were observed to be attempting to escape a forest fire and had no other means to do so but attempt to swim a deep river, and so many drowned, because they were desperate, not addled.)

The addictive nature of opiates have been public knowledge in the West for about 300 years. The addictive nature of cocaine for about 100. The addictive nature of meth for only about 75 years...but modern communication methods have made up for the differences between that knowledge base and the other substances.

So...they're known poisons. You'd have to be crazy to use them, knowing their ultimate costs, right? And yet...

And yet, like the fictional lemmings, every generation produces a certain number of (there's no kind, gentle way to say this) self-destructive idiots. They are Hell-bent on self-elimination. The Darwin Awards serve to showcase their efforts.

And so, I must ask: Is it worth it to society, the estimated trillion we've spent so far, and risking the lives (or corruption) of good law enforcement personnel, to try to stop some fool from stuffing the chemical equivalent of watered-down stomach acid up their nose, or a needle in their arms? Given my tone, it should be obvious what my answer is.

And so I repeat a question I've been asking a lot in other forums: why do illicit drug users rate so highly that we've spent so much treasure and blood trying to keep them from their headlong rush to shake hands with the Grim Reaper? We don't expend that much effort on drunks; they can and often do drink themselves to death. Making highly toxic, addictive substances as available and controlled as alcohol presently is was not and never was intended to be a panacea.

But tolerating alcohol production and sales vastly curtailed the operations of organized crime...until they began using the 'seed money' that Prohibition provided them to enter the narcotics trade in force, thanks to the laws regarding the prohibition of those substances remaining on the books. WRT extra-legal sales of re-legalized drugs, I have only this to offer:

Some folks still make 'shine' and sell it; in my not-so-misspent youth I could tell you a few places in the hill country of Western Maryland where you can get slash so potent you could probably run a car engine on it (until it broke down all the plastic parts). But such enterprising folk are a vanishingly small minority, and not worth the efforts of tracking them down. The same would be true of non-licensed purveyors of the 'hard stuff'; most addicts would be glad to get their (cheap) fix from a plastic bottle kept locked behind a pharmacist's counter instead of a 'brown paper bag'...and would. Just like they used to before the laws.

Contrary to what many who read my comments may think, at all times, I am concerned about the effect that drug prohibition has upon the non-using society. If the price of ending the madness is that a few more fools verify their congenital condition by removing themselves from the gene pool, then I submit that it's no different than the juicer doing the same. The damage caused to society by drug prohibition vastly outweighs the cost to the individual user, and sadly, those around them.

But not one more tax dollar spent to try to stop idiots from being idiots. Not one more wrong-house drug raid based upon 'false witness' by a lying informant causing another innocent citizen's death. Not one more good cop getting shot likewise. Not one more violation of civil liberties carried out in the process.

Cruel as it seems, that is the same kind of balance that was struck when alcohol Prohibition was ended; a mean and vicious calculus that we all nevertheless engage in daily, it's just we're not used to thinking of it in those terms, when we think of it at all. But the cartels depend upon us not thinking that way, and thus they keep winning.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"I sincerely hope you don't think my reasoning processes are as simplistic as that statement implies."

Not at all, kaptinemo. I actually think you're one of the most thoughtful commenters on the web, not just here but on other sites where I see you writing. I just know your position on the topic, and was ribbing you a little bit.

Anonymous said...

I figured it was ribbing. But I also figured that many here were also of the opinion that I have laid out (admittedly, rather tersely) and that it would serve as a means of eliciting response from all sides.

I obviously don't live close to the border, but my own State and county are serving as what might be the incubator of a very unpleasent future, as several counties in Virginia have instigated what may be a national trend: local police serving as de facto low-level ICE employees by being empowered to check arrested suspects for immigration violations.

It's caused an exodus of the 'undocumented' from these counties...and the increased fear and mistrust of local police by those American Hispanics living there. I expect to hear 'walking while Hispanic' to be added to 'driving while Black' very soon. The problems are truly continental in nature; it's just so much more noticeable and impact much greater on the border.

Anonymous said...

Well, Scott, you certainly pushed Kaptinemo's button.


His posts are enlightening and enjoyable to read.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Anon, I'm just a grouchy old fart...who nonetheless, jaded as I am, still gives a d**n about this great country.

As a young teen, I was introduced to the works of Robert Heinlein. A lot of his ideas about society, about voluntary service to that society, etc. caused me to join a rough-and-tumble Civil Air Patrol Search and Rescue Squadron (kids...occasionally being taught close-order drill by visiting Marines from nearby Camp David and trained by a 2-tour Viet Nam Army Special Forces vet in field craft and survival...which got a lot of use, as we were a 'line' outfit, and saw plenty of missions looking for downed civilian pilots, lost kids and hunters, providing material and manpower in disaster relief ops, etc.; how hard-core can ya get?) and later service in the Army and a few groups I still can't say much about.

But his philosophy - and a large part of mine - can be summed up in his posthumously published This I Beleive.

Despite everything that has happened since 9/11, I am still proud to be an American, for the same d**n reasons he gave, so long ago. I think many of here would do well to reflect upon his words, and strive to recall that no matter how dark things can get, there's still that light that shines only here in this country, and why people still risk their lives to get here and become Americans.

Anonymous said...

For the first time ever there is a Mexican president that is willing to use his army against the drug cartels. Why isn't the entire Texas state legislature clamoring to assist this effort with combined operations that hit both sides of the border simultaneously? Now is the time for every law enforcement officer in Texas--federal, state and local--to be working in tandem with what Mexico is trying to do, otherwise shortsighted Texas gets to fight this war later on their own, and at a much higher cost.