Mexico: The Real War on Drugs

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In 1969, President Richard Nixon first used the term “War on Drugs” to define the efforts of the United States government and other allied nations to combat the production and distribution of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine as well as legal drugs if they had been obtained illegally for non-medical purposes. Since that time, all succeeding American presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, have signed on to the basic premise of a coordinated campaign at home and abroad in effort to limit supply, diminish demand and combat the various deadly enterprises that traffic drugs.

But since as early as the 1970’s, critics of the “War on Drugs” have cited a lack of return on investment, the loss of potential tax revenues and an increased consumption of drugs in the developing world as a rationale for significantly altering U.S. prohibitive policies on drugs. In some cases, they have even proposed legalizing the trade altogether. The most paranoid of these voices suggest that authoritarian forces within the United States government purposefully manufacture and manipulate public fears on the subject of illegal drugs in order to generate support for the maintenance of a police state.

I hope to lend some perspective to this subject. What is happening on the ground in Mexico—this very moment, in fact—is instructive and should help to cast the argument of the “War on Drugs” in a new light. In that country, narco-terrorists not only produce and distribute cocaine but are also savagely brutalizing the population and those standing to defend the Mexican state. Over 6,000 people have been murdered in Mexico in this battle in the last twelve months.

Mexican narco-terrorists are essentially doing what all large criminal enterprises ultimately do: challenge civil society and the state. Such organizations seek to enrich and empower themselves by pursuing activities that feed the darker side of human nature. Without a doubt, the killers that make up the current Mexican cartels would have had equally large and dangerous American-led counterparts in the U.S. had America not invested in the “War on Drugs” and empowered local police and the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat such organizations.

Fortunately, the DEA today is fighting back harder than ever. Leading a broad coalition of federal, state, and local law enforcement organizations, the DEA spearheaded Operation Xcellerator which launched in early March 2008 and has netted hundreds of members of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel deep inside the United States. The Mexican cartels may certainly swing a big bat in Mexico but they remain wary of the DEA on U.S. soil. A DEA Task Force Team leader, and friend of this writer, describes his recent work against the Mexican cartels in the U.S. as akin to “hunting at a zoo.”

The Mexican cartels may have come into America with the same aim of enriching themselves while imposing their violence upon us, but Operation Xcellerator is evidence that the DEA has taken off the gloves. Congress and the American public need to support the DEA and encourage the Obama Administration to act decisively in this ongoing fight. That may very well involve ramping up U.S. capability on the border including a redeployment of the National Guard in greater numbers and with the authority to act with force against those Mexican cartels that cross the border in force and are armed for confrontation. It will also require supporting Mexico and other nations in the defeat of drug cartels under the Mérida Initiative—a security cooperation partnership created to combat transnational narcotics trafficking and organized crime in Mexico, Central America and Caribbean.

Though this fight is no less than a national security imperative, the “War on Drugs” also contains important social dimensions. One of the most compelling rationales for recalibrating aspects of our drug policy is the effect drugs have on our poor. Many of those most vulnerable in our society fall victim to drugs—and high rates of incarceration as well as subsequent barriers to employment exacerbate the plight of many in poverty.

Greater efforts in terms of education, prevention and rehabilitation make up the solution and must be encouraged. Arguments that we should pursue across-the-board legalization do not address the fact that such policy would bring on a health care catastrophe among the poor in America. And although there are valid arguments for the expansion of controlled use of marijuana among those suffering from cancer, AIDS and other debilitating diseases, the watchword on this particular matter must be “controlled.” Marijuana bars where patrons buy marijuana and then sell to our children on the streets are unacceptable.

Given human fallibility, we are unlikely to ever stem the drug trade in its entirety. Demand in the U.S. will continue. So long as it is profitable, creative criminals will always find ways to defeat the defenses of open and free societies. However, any achievements they make in breaking through our defenses in this difficult struggle should not be the sole measure of success or failure in the “War on Drugs” as a whole.

Our success will be the sustainment of civil society where the populace and those whom we elect to public office, guided by the Constitution and the rule of law, determine the course of our lives—and not the criminal enterprises determined to impose their violent will upon us.

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