Legalise It

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It came as no surprise last month that the United States Joint Forces Command named Pakistan as one of two states most likely to fail. What was surprising was that the other one was Mexico.

General Barry McCaffrey, drug tsar of the Clinton administration, said prior to the release of the report that "the dangerous and worsening problems in Mexico … fundamentally threaten US national security," and that, "we cannot afford to have a narco-state as a neighbour".

The failure of "The War on Drugs" has exploded in Mexico and for the last year the Mexican Government has been in a battle with drug cartels for control over the country.

Liberal conspiracy explains the current situation in the country:

"A few days ago the President of Mexico was forced to deny that he was presiding over a failed state. As his country prepared to send two thousand more troops into the troubled city of Ciudad Juarez, Felipe Calderon insisted that he wasn’t losing control of his country …Since assuming office in December 2006 and immediately escalating the doomed ‘war on drugs’, there have been over 8,000 drug-related executions."

The violence in parts of Mexico, including the former tourist city of Tijuana, has reached levels similar to that of a war zone. The Economist reports that "Troops and police have fought pitched battles against gangsters armed with rocket-launchers, grenades, machine guns and armour-piercing sniper rifles," while, "just before Christmas the severed heads of eight soldiers were found dumped in plastic bags near a shopping centre". Recently, one man — nicknamed "The Stewmaker" — confessed to dissolving more than 300 people in caustic soda.

The level of violence isn’t surprising when, as ISN reports, some of the cartels are made up of "Special Forces soldiers…[who]abandoned the Mexican military … the Mexican Defense Department separated out [drug gang]Los Zetas as the most formidable death squad to have worked for organised crime in Mexican history."

This has led to cartels across the country opening their wallets to tempt soldiers into becoming hit men so they could compete. Police and military corruption has reached staggering levels —  around 150,000 members of the armed forces have deserted in the last six years. One deserter who has become a bodyguard for drug traffickers said:

"A lot of people go where the pay is greatest, they see a better opportunity in going with the narcotrafficker, they see a better opportunity in leaving, in the best of cases, to serve as bodyguards. It’s a way of making a living from what they learned in the military."

But how did it get this bad?

Before the war on terror there was the war on drugs. It was a term first used by US president Richard Nixon in 1969 and has served as a justification ever since for the spending of billions of dollars, and the deaths and imprisonment of countless people in the US (especially among the African-American population) Latin America, and across the world.

Bloggers everywhere are pointing out the obvious connection between the West’s US-led prohibition of certain drugs and the often violent criminal organisations that have consequently developed to meet and expand demand for these drugs. Critics make a strong case that the war is detrimental to foreign relations, human and civil rights, health and morality, and argue that it’s time for it to end.

For decades, the US war on drugs has conveniently coincided with American interventions in central America. Eurektiva recalls that at various points, "Not only was the CIA aiding … cocaine traffickers and money-launderers but Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council also turned a blind eye towards [them]despite the fact that later these very drug traffickers brought cocaine to the mainland US".

According to a CIA inspector general’s report, published on The Consortium, it was Reagan’s National Security Council which cleared proven drug traffickers. The report also confirms agency connections to the drug trade.

In any event, the war on drugs gave a justification for the billions of dollars the US would give to the state security forces of countries like Colombia and El Salvador, and helped the US in its attempts to justify military actions like its 1989 invasion of Panama.

But the war has spectacularly failed to reduce the production capacity of most Central American countries, or the demand for these products in their major markets, the US and Europe. Apparently its main achievement was closing the shipping route through the Caribbean and onto the US.

This forced trafficking overland across the Mexican border. For the big Colombian cartels it was usually easier and cheaper to move cocaine than money, so they began paying the Mexican smugglers in product. With access to large stash of their own during the 90s and early 2000s, the Mexican gangs transformed from smugglers and enforcers into major pushers themselves, supplying domestically as well as their own product for the US.

But how do the blogs see all this ending? Mexican president Felipe Calderon claims that the surge in violence is the death throes of the cartels that have had their revenue streams cut and are now squabbling for turf. That’s an argument for staying the course, but it’s an unpopular one in the blogoshpere.

Mexican tourism may be in a hole, but from the point of view of US politics, it’s only Mexico and wouldn’t matter much if the surge in violence hadn’t begun to reach over the border. Southern towns like Phoenix have seen a huge number of executions and kidnappings in the last year, and local law enforcement agencies are becoming concerned that they will be outgunned.

A group of former law enforcement officers in the US have started an organisation promoting drug legalisation, and their blog is calling for an end to the war on drugs.

The Bleeding Heart Show blog points to one major new addition to the debate.

"Earlier this month a commission led by three former Latin American heads of state called prohibition the failure it is and suggested that the continent should treat narcotics as a public health problem, rather than a problem for law enforcement.

"But even if Mexico, Columbia and Brazil were to legalise drugs overnight, it still wouldn’t diminish the power of cartels to erode civil society, as they would still have to break national & international laws to trade their products to overseas markets. The only way we could effectively end this cycle of violence, corruption and exploitation would be for the drug cartels’ biggest export markets — the US and Europe — to agree to some kind of controlled legalisation. The drugs trade is only filled with such violence because it’s illegal, and whilst decriminalising wouldn’t exactly bring immediate peace, it would at least make it possible for that peace to emerge."

Currently, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is meeting in Vienna and is expected to extend "the war on drugs" for another 10 years. Human Rights Watch has cited reasons why the UN’s approach to curtailing drug use should be rejected.

Meanwhile President Obama has appointed former Seattle police chief, Gil Kerlikowske as his new "drug tsar". The reaction from anti-prohibitionist bloggers has been tentatively positive, as Kerlikowske "demonstrated compassion" in medical marijuana cases in Seattle. They also claim that his son has a long record of drug charges.

As a country bailing out the corporate world and watching tax revenues disappear, the economic case for the US to change its drug policies is very strong. Alternet recently tried to find out if the current financial crisis could help lead to the legalisation of marijuana.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance Nadelman said that the financial incentives for a policy change are "the single most important factor" in the current push to end prohibition. As well as the attraction of taxing marijuana, the US could save billions in law enforcement, prisons and military expenses.

Nadelman also says that "incidents like then-candidate Barack Obama’s early admission of pot use or the flap over Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s bong-smoking may lead to initial public hand-wringing, but in the end they tend to legitimise pot use. So does the growing recognition of medical marijuana.

"There is momentum of the sort I haven’t seen since I’ve been involved in this," he says.

On the other hand, in El Paso, a town suffering seriously from this policy failure with a growing violence problem, the city council recently passed a resolution calling for a debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics. But as Sito Negron points out on Huffpo, the way political heavyweights moved immediately to shut that debate down is a perfect example of why, despite all the reasons to end it, the war on drug rolls on.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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