Mexico’s drug war nightmare — As Calderón government spreads violence, support for legalization grows

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The war raging on the southern border of the United States has killed almost 40,000 people in just four years. Another 230,000 have been displaced from their homes. Thousands more, mostly Central Americans trying to immigrate to the U.S, are kidnapped for ransom or merely disappear each year in Mexico.

To the extent that the U.S. news media covers this conflict at all, it is characterized as a turf war between Mexican drug cartels.

The truth is more sinister, however. Since he took office, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa has unleashed a military onslaught on drug traffickers that has done nothing to slow the flow of drugs into — or arms from — the U.S. but is turning Mexico into a killing field. The U.S. government is funding this mayhem, giving millions in military “aid” and providing training conducted by private security firms already in the country.

But, resistance to Mexico’s anti-drug police state is growing as more and more people come forward to denounce the violence. They demand an end to the militarization of Mexican society and the loss of civil liberties that has accompanied it. With widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. war on drugs is a catastrophe, many are calling for legalization in order to strip the cartels of their money and influence.

A country on the brink. Mexico is an ideal place for drug trafficking because of its proximity to the United States. The border between the two countries is long and relatively open (regardless of border fences). There are still plenty of smuggling entry points.

Multiple drug cartels, some recruited from elite security forces in the Mexican army, account for much violence.

However, President Calderón’s decision to wage a shooting war against the cartels has resulted in an exponential explosion of bloodshed. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ciudad Juárez, a city of about 1.3 million across the border from El Paso, Texas. It holds the dubious distinction of being the most violent city in Mexico. Between 2007 and 2010, the murder rate there rose by 800 percent! The vast majority of victims are not gangsters or cops but ordinary civilians. And violence against women, including domestic violence is escalating dramatically.

But make no mistake; Mexico’s drug war is a direct extension of the U.S. anti-drug campaign.

Exporting a disastrous policy. Richard Nixon originated the war on drugs as an excuse to attack the Black Power and student Vietnam anti-war movements of the era.

Ronald Reagan greatly expanded the program, turning it into a massive dragnet imprisoning millions of people of color who were mere users, and sometimes completely innocent.

Today, the Obama Administration is extending the George W. Bush-era Mérida Initiative, a $1.6 billion military assistance package to the Mexican government, ostensibly to fight drug-traffickers and organized crime. Between 2007 and 2010, $204 million went to Mexico just for the purchase of helicopters and surveillance planes. The U.S. is also using predator drones, the same as used in Iraq and Afghanistan, to spy on Mexican civilians. It has trained 4,500 Mexican federal police agents in drug interdiction and suppression. But an uglier side of the story emerged when a 2008 video surfaced from León, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, that showed a U.S. security contractor teaching torture techniques to city police!

In 2009, the U.S. government launched “Operation Fast and Furious.” The feds thought it would be a good idea to allow illegal gun sales in the U.S. and then track the weapons once they hit the streets in Mexico. Predictably, only about a quarter of the guns were tracked and recovered while some were linked to more than 150 shootings.

Compounding this outrage, the Mexican government recently confirmed that the U.S. is deploying CIA operatives and retired military personnel inside Mexico. They have assisted the Mexican police and military in conducting wiretaps, working with informants and interrogating suspects. The Obama administration is also considering the use of “private security contractors” (mercenaries) to embed in the Mexican military, a move that is sure to bring a further escalation of the intolerable level of violence that has already overrun Mexico.

Mexican people fight back. Mexican civilians are calling for an end to the government military assault and U.S. interventionist policies that are undermining Mexican sovereignty. Last May, 90,000 people marched in Mexico City after a four-day march from Cuernavaca.

They called for: • An end to the “war strategy” in favor of a “citizen security” strategy, • Effective measures against rampant government corruption by cartels, • An end to impunity of killers, whose crimes are seldom even investigated • A focused attack on money laundering, • Defeating the proposed “National Security Law,” which mimics the U.S. Patriot Act, and would result in even more deaths and continued erosion of civil liberties, • Reorienting the budget to education, health, culture and unemployment.

Many Mexicans argue that the 40-year U.S. war on drugs has done nothing to stop the demand for illicit drugs, and been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Mexican and Central American bystanders. Among prominent individuals calling for an end to prohibition are the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, and former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia), and Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox (Mexico).

The best way for people in the U.S. to support Mexican brothers and sisters is to admit that prohibition doesn’t work and battle their own government to finally abandon its failed drug prohibition policies. It’s past time to call for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. This would do much to eliminate the black market, destroying the profits that feed cartels. Legalization must be accompanied with treatment for substance abuse on demand, a much more humane and effective means of treatment than imprisonment.

Sukey Wolf can be contacted at

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