Dispatches From the Edge:Mexico: Tales of Chrysler & Cocaine

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday April 29, 2010 - 07:55:00 PM

So what does being stranded in the middle of the high Mexican desert have to do with Chrysler and cocaine? Well, it was a Chrysler that got Anne and me into the mess—a model aptly named Attitude (“all attitude,” as one of my kids would say). But there was no cocaine or other assorted drugs in the tiny town of Bondojito Huichapan Hidalgo, just a hardware store, a minuscule tienda, and, of course, a church.  

For most Americans, however, Mexico is all about drugs and violence, and it is hard not to think about our southern neighbor without conjuring up the vocabulary of the Apocalypse: “With deadly Persistence, Mexican Drug Cartels Get Their Way” screams the New York Times; “Mexico’s drug war stirs fear in the U.S.” warns the San Francisco Chronicle; “Obama eyes troops for Mexico drug war,” headlines the Financial Times. Since 2006, according to Aljazeera, 22,743 people have been victims of the conflict, vastly more than the U.S. and its allies have lost in the Iraq and Afghan wars. 

So if you are a couple of Gringos dead in the water in the middle of nowhere these things come into your mind, particularly when the tow truck has not arrived and it’s starting to get dark.  

But as I said, we didn’t encounter any drugs or gangs, just helpful locals (I think somewhat bemused by our situation), a friendly tow truck driver, a solicitous guy from Hertz, a difficult taxi driver, and a very sympathetic hotel staff. In fact, the whole time we were in Mexico we didn’t see a shoot out or any bodies, although the journalist we were staying with—Martha Mendoza, one of Associated Press’s aces—told us about a recent gunfight in Monterrey.  

Martha is currently writing about the status of the “war on drugs” that Richard Nixon declared back in 1971, and that governments all over Latin America are starting to abandon. As wars go, it has been an unmitigated calamity.  

“How much misery can a policy cause before it is acknowledged as a failure and reversed? The U.S. ‘war on drugs’ suggests there is no upper limit,” writes Financial Times columnist Clive Crook. “The country’s implacable blend of prohibition and punitive criminal justice is wrong headed in every way: immoral in principle, since it prosecutes victimless crimes, and in practice a disaster of remarkable proportions.” 

A recent report by the 17-member Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, lead by three former heads of state, concluded, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Jose de Cordoba, that “US-style anti-drug strategy was putting the region’s fragile democratic institutions at risk and corrupting ‘judicial systems, governments, the political system and especially the police force.” 

It has also had virtually no effect on the movement of drugs. According to a Guardian (UK) investigation, more than 750 tons of cocaine is shipped from the Andes, a traffic that “has forced peasants off land, trigged gang wars and perverted state institutions.” As Col. Rene Sanabria, the head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotic police force, told the British newspaper, “The strategy of the U.S. here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked.” 

In the case of Colombia, the U.S. has poured $6 billion in mostly military aid into the country, plus poisoning almost 2.5 million acres of coca plants. Coco production is up by 16 percent. 

Member of the commission and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said, “The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war. We have to move from this approach to another,” and urged a rejection of the “U.S. prohibitionist policies.”  

A study by the Brookings Institute agrees, as does a study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron and endorsed by 500 economists. 

The Commission report has received widespread coverage in Latin America. “They’re saying enough is enough,” says John Walsh of the Andes and Drug Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. “There’s a real drug war weariness in Latin America and its bad enough to feel like a policy had been imposed and its worse when the policy doesn’t work.” 

Mexico, for instance, has deployed an estimated 35,000 soldiers in 14 states, only to see drug-related deaths increase, and more and more municipalities fall under the influence of drug cartels. 

There is also growing anger that the body count in Mexico is a direct result of U.S. weapons dealers selling everything from automatic weapons and 50-caliber sniper rifles, to grenades and rocket launchers to south of the border gangs. According to a Congressional study, more than 90 percent of the guns used by Mexican drug gangs come from dealers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. 

In Arizona last year, the state appellate court dismissed a case against a gun dealer who had sold some 700 weapons to intermediaries for Mexican drug gang smugglers. Several of the guns were used to kill eight police officers in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. It is estimated that this southbound flow of firepower generates about $25 billion a year for U.S. gun dealers. 

The “collateral” damage from the “war on drugs” is not just to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. According to Miron’s study, more than 500,000 people are in prison for drug crimes in the U.S.—the overwhelming percentage of them for possession—more than the total number of prisoners for all crimes in Great Britain, Germany, Spain, France and Italy combined. 

Changing those laws, however, will require coming up against a powerful coalition of law enforcement agencies and the prison industry that cost taxpayers about $100 billion a year. 

A number of Latin American countries have begun pulling away from the U.S. approach. Last summer, Mexico eliminated jail time for small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD and methamphetamine. Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay have also decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use, and Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that criminalization of marijuana possession was unconstitutional.  

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa pardoned some 2000 small-time drug couriers last year, telling the parliament, “They are single mothers or unemployed people who are desperate to feed their families.” 

The model everyone seems to be looking at these days is Portugal, which eliminated jail time for personal drug possession. A recent study on the decriminalization of drugs in that county found “While many drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many European Union states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurable improved with Portugal since 2001.” 

The Netherlands and Switzerland have also decriminalized possession.  

The Obama administration has taken a few tentative steps in the direction of redirecting the “war on drugs,” including lifting the ban on federal funding of needle exchange programs, and shifting some Latin American aid from the military to civilian law enforcement. But criminalization is still at the heart of the U.S. approach.  

A decade ago, the U.S. pressed the United Nations to adopt a “drug-free world” strategy, rather than focusing on addiction and treatment. The results have been a disaster. A European commission on the UN strategy concluded last year that this is “no evidence that the global drug problem was reduced” in the past 10 years, and “while the situation has improved in some of the richer countries…for others it has worsened, and for some it worsened sharply and substantially.” 

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the global drug policy program at the Open Society Institute in Warsaw told the Guardian, “Thanks to the global ‘war on drugs’ over the past decade, close to two million people living in the former Soviet Union are infected with HIV, half a million U.S. citizens languish in prison for non-violent, drug related crimes, and billions of dollars are spent on destructive military actions in Colombia while the production of cocaine continues to rise.” 

There is no question that the war on drugs makes parts of Mexico and Latin America dangerous. But the majority of people in those countries go through their lives having nothing to do with drug gangs or shootouts. Indeed, the thing that strikes one most about Mexicans—besides their politeness and sense of humor—is their common sense. No, you don’t have to take off your shoes to get on an airplane, and when your artificial hip sets off the alarm bells, they don’t take 20 minutes to go over every inch of your body with metal detectors.  

So while being marooned in the desert with a badly designed Chrysler is not a lot of fun, it eventually sorts itself out. Our misguided “war on drugs” will be a steeper hill to climb.