This article was last modified on August 16, 2010.


Empire Strikes First: Mexico

When you look at some of the hot political current events, you may see topics like marijuana legalization in California, drug use in general, violence along the Mexico-Arizona border, immigration tensions. These and more topics have become bigger issues due to the rise of the Mexican drug cartels over the last several years. In this short column, we will explore some of the causes and potential solutions to the cartel problem.

The name Pablo Escobar is the most familiar of the world’s drug kingpins, and despite his takedown decades ago, his shadow is at the root of today’s problems. Since the Colombian cartels collapsed in the 1990s, the drugs did not disappear but merely relocated to Mexico, where violence can now spill directly over our border rather than be quietly ignored as a South American problem.

During Mexican President Vicente Fox’s term, little was done to combat the drug lords, and they grew strong. But when Felipe Calderon took over, he sent 6500 troops to fight the drug lords in December 2006. Today, there are as many as 45,000 troops battling the crime syndicates, on top of the local police forces. A survey of 37 American cities in October 2007 showed cocaine prices had risen 50% in some places while the purity had dropped by 11%. The good news was this showed clearly that the cartels were being hurt. The bad news was that with escalating prices, the drug trade became a far more profitable risk for those involved. The higher risk may also be translating into increased violence, such as the assassination of a popular gubernatorial candidate in June, just days before the election.

The recent immigration law passed in Arizona may seem draconian or racist by some, but considering the escalating violence over the last few years, it is easy to understand why “desperate measures” had to be implemented. Whether or not the right measures were taken is another discussion.

What may not be apparent to some is that the drug cartel problem is not merely a border issue, but may be spreading throughout the country. Last September, a large-scale marijuana operation was discovered in Wisconsin’s Navarino Wildlife Preserve. Roughly 8000 plants were discovered, along with sleeping bags and propane stoves, indicating this was an on-site operation. After a thorough investigation, which remains ongoing, a dozen arrests were made on August 11. The DNR acknowledges that they believe there is a link, but will not elaborate.

Attorney General JB VanHollen suggested but would not confirm a Mexican connection at a recent press conference, saying, “Based on the names (of the suspects), there’s certainly an element of this that leads us to believe there’s a Hispanic connection, but where it goes, we can’t determine.” I contacted Kevin Conradt, the chairman of Navarino, and was told that he has “not been informed or updated on the matter from the law enforcement agencies.” One suspects that we will be hearing more about this in the coming months.

We know that the drug cartels exist, we know how they operate and we know they have become a problem and source of violence both in Mexico and in the border states. So, what do we do to help Mexico curb this violence? A few options exist, and most interestingly is how intricately interwoven American politics are with Mexican drugs when examined under the microscope.

Firearms are not sold in Mexico outside of the black market, so one way to help decrease violence could be to reduce guns. It happens that 90% of all traceable guns in Mexico originated in the United States, including 22,848 guns since 2005 alone. What is most interesting, perhaps, is that the majority of the military-grade weapons confiscated did not come from border trades, but actually from Central America. The Mexican drug cartels of today are using the very same guns Ronald Reagan shipped into Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. Four Republican congressmen pushed to have the Federal Assault Weapons ban reinstated in 2008, with support from Attorney General Eric Holder. This was opposed by Second Amendment advocates, as well as those who saw the ban as relatively ineffective the first time. In fact, there is no evidence that banning so-called assault weapons decreases crime.

A more practical solution may be to change American drug policy. California has on their November ballot the complete legalization of marijuana. While there are some drawbacks to this, such as the influx of marijuana into surrounding states where laws differ, and the measure will likely fail to pass, the studies support such a move. George Grayson, a professor of government at William and Mary College, sees legalization as a way to “hurt the cartels badly”, and it could reduce the drug’s price by 80 percent. If Newsweek is right, and marijuana makes up 20-50% of the cartels’ profits, this may be the Achilles heel that would topple the growing crime wave.

The RAND Corporation has been pushing such an idea since at least the mid-1990s, pointing out that the focus should be on treatment of drug abusers rather than law enforcement. After all, the source of supply is demand, and if demand is cut, the supply will subside. RAND estimated that treatment is seven times cheaper than law enforcement, and proper treatment would further reduce drug use by a third. President Clinton ignored such recommendations and law enforcement measures were maintained. President Bush went even further the wrong way and cut prevention programs by $73 million. President Obama, to his credit, has requested a 4% increase for treatment, but this may be too little too late.

In May, Obama deployed 1200 National Guard troops to the border to assist with protection. He has found himself in a no-win battle: conservatives think he has not sent enough troops, while liberals feel this only treats the symptoms while the root problems go on festering.

Gavin Schmitt (gavin6942@yahoo.com) doesn’t claim to know the right answers to drug violence, but he sure knows the wrong ones.

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or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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