Think Tank Finds US ‘War on Drugs’ Is Actually Fueling Drug War

March 27th, 2011 - by admin

David Downs / East Bay Express & Council on Foreign Relations – 2011-03-27 00:46:22

Pot Is a National Security Issue
David Downs / East Bay Express

OAKLAND, CA (March 23, 2011) -Some lawmakers have spent decades saying it’s time to end the drug war, and they may have found new allies in an unlikely place — foreign policy wonks.The Council on Foreign Relations, the highly respected, independent think tank in Washington DC, has boldly come out in favor of state-level marijuana legalization.

In its new policy paper, “The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat,” the mainstream organization adopts longtime recommendations of “fringe” groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The council, for example, calls for an end to the drug war that it says isn’t stopping drug use and is empowering vicious drug trafficking organizations like Los Zetas — who assassinated US agent Jaime Zapata on February 15 outside the Mexican city of San Luis Potosi.

The paper also likely will become a key reference for the reform community, because it outlines, in clear language with sourced facts, the problems that the United States faces. “Half of adult Americans admit to having tried drugs in the past, and the United States remains the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs,” the paper noted. “Roughly 8 percent of US residents over the age of 12 — some 19.9 million people — had used drugs within the past month.

“A state-driven, supply-side, and penalty-based approach has failed to curb market production, distribution, and consumption of drugs,” the paper continued. “The assumption that punishing suppliers and users can effectively combat a large market for illicit drugs has proven to be utterly false. Rather, prohibition bestows enormous profits on traffickers, criminalizes otherwise law-abiding users and addicts, and imposes enormous costs on society. Meanwhile, there has been no real effect on the availability of drugs or their consumption, and three-quarters of US citizens believe the war on drugs has failed.”

The paper also outlined the exorbitant costs of the drug war and its dismal results. “After a three-decade effort to beef up security, the US-Mexico border is more heavily fortified than at any point since the US-Mexico War of 1846-48,” the paper noted.

“The United States has deployed more than 20,000 border patrol agents and built hundreds of miles of fencing equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment, all at an annual cost of billions of dollars — with $3 billion per year spent on border control alone. While this massive security build-up at the border has achieved maximum attainable levels of operational control, the damage to Mexico’s drug cartels caused by border interdiction has been inconsequential.”

Relaxed gun laws in the United States also have helped propel the international drug and weapons trade, the paper noted. “The US is also the world’s largest supplier of weapons, which fuel the drug war in a more direct way. Fully 10 percent of America’s gun dealers line the Mexican border, and the country’s permissive gun laws make it an inexpensive and convenient source of powerful guns, ammunition, and explosives.”

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on cartels has helped the country rack up 45,000 homicides since 2007. Traffickers make about $7 billion per year on American drugs, and an estimated 450,000 Mexicans rely on trafficking for income, representing 3 to 4 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product.

The cities of Ciudad Juarez and Culiacan are among “the deadliest places in the world,” the paper pointed out. Juarez had 2,000 homicides in 2009 and 2010 in a city of 1 million — “a number that exceeds the combined annual totals for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.”

In addition to the usual recommendations, such as better coordinating with Mexican law enforcement, the paper dared to recommend that “the federal government should permit states to legalize the production, sale, taxation, and consumption of marijuana.”

David Shirk, author of the paper and assistant professor and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told Legalization Nation that drugs are damaging to society, and we should all want reasonable controls on drug consumption, but we’re spending a fortune and not getting it. “When you keep doing the same thing over and over again and your results get worse,” he said, “you have to revisit your approach, reevaluate and try to identify alternative avenues and solutions.”

Washington DC is tone deaf to drug law reform, Shirk said, but Beltway officials will listen to respected voices on national security. Those voices have now begun to say that the negative externalities of America’s drug policy are coming home to roost. “You might be able to ignore a smaller, less relevant country many miles away, but when it’s your third major trading partner and it contains the largest number of foreign-born US citizens, you kind of have to listen,” Shirk said.

Keith Stroup, founder and legal counsel for NORML, believes that the council’s paper could have an impact: “When people whose specialty is military public safety … start saying there’s a risk to the security of our country from continued marijuana prohibition, that will get the attention of people who do not have the slightest interest in marijuana.”

The council does not recommend legalizing all drugs, just letting states experiment with pot legalization. Drug traffickers make about 30 percent of their drug money on weed, and the United States could cut them out of that market, instead applying those resources to interdicting the trafficking of highly toxic and addictive narcotics, such as cocaine and heroin.

It may take ten years, but the winds of change are blowing, Shirk said. “The burden of proof for the current policy is really on the policy makers,” he said. “Is what we’re doing worthwhile? What have we gained through the loss of so much blood, soil, and treasure?”

The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat
The Council on Foreign Relations


Since the 1970s, the cross-border trade in drugs and guns has brought both immense profits and terrible destruction to the United States and Mexico. Some estimates place the annual profits of Mexico’s drug trade at 3 percent to 4 percent of the country’s GDP — on the order of $30 billion per year — and around half a million people are said to earn a substantial portion of their income through the narcotics business. The business, however, is not without its risks and costs. Since Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, effectively declared war on the drug cartels in 2006, more than thirty-five thousand people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico.

Nor is the United States immune from the effects of the drug trade. The ruthlessness of drug trafficking organizations is already well known in this country, particularly, though not exclusively, in the inner cities, and the violence of Mexico’s drug war is now beginning to spill over the border. Border patrols are already costing the country more than $3 billion per year and obstructing billions more in legitimate trade. Yet the United States is hardly an innocent victim.

Nearly half of adult Americans admit to having tried drugs in the past, and the United States remains the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs. It is also the world’s largest supplier of weapons, which fuel the drug war in a more direct way. Fully 10 percent of America’s gun dealers line the Mexican border, and the country’s permissive gun laws make it an inexpensive and convenient source of powerful guns, ammunition, and explosives.

Speaking after his recent summit with President Calderon, US president Barack Obama acknowledged this reality. “We are very mindful,” he said, “that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle; it’s also ours. We have to take responsibility just as he’s taking responsibility.”

In this Council Special Report, David A. Shirk, director of the TransBorder Institute at the University of San Diego, analyzes the steps that


the United States and Mexico can take to more effectively combat drug violence. Though Calderon’s military-led effort has splintered the major drug cartels, it has not diminished their strength — or political influence — sufficiently to prosecute them in the courts rather than in the streets. Nor is Mexico’s criminal justice system robust enough to pose a real challenge to cartel leaders.

It remains seriously underfunded, riddled with corruption, and deeply mistrusted by the public. And while American efforts to support the military and shore up the justice system have been substantial, efforts to address the economic and social conditions that encourage people to join the drug trade are, as yet, insufficient.

To address these challenges, the author outlines a series of recommendations. In addition to improving cooperation between US, Mexican, and Central American security authorities, he writes, the United States must expand its aid to nonmilitary fronts in the long-running war on drugs.

Washington should, he argues, assist Mexico’s criminal justice system as it pursues a wide-ranging set of organizational, operational, and cultural reforms to improve its effectiveness, efficiency, and professionalism. Moreover, the United States should increase funding for job creation, microfinance, and other economic aid to expand opportunities outside the drug trade.

Finally, he recommends that the United States explore alternatives to its current drug laws; while legalization may not be the answer, he says, focusing exclusively on punishing suppliers and users has not proven a successful strategy.

The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat thus provides a fresh look at one of the most important security threats in the Western Hemisphere and suggests recommendations for policy in both Washington and Mexico City.

There can be little doubt that the social, economic, and political challenges posed by drug trafficking are grave for both countries. Purposeful and immediate action is warranted, and this report provides thoughtful and thought-provoking guidance for those looking to begin.

Richard N. Haass
Council on Foreign Relations March 2011


Mexico is in the midst of a worsening security crisis. Explosive clashes and territorial disputes among powerful drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have killed more than thirty-five thousand people since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

The geography of that violence is limited but continues to spread, and its targets include a growing number of government officials, police officers, journalists, and individuals unrelated to the drug trade. The Mexican government has made the war on drugs its top priority and has even called in the military to support the country’s weak police and judicial institutions. Even so, few Mexican citizens feel safer today than they did ten years ago, and most believe that their government is losing the fight.

Despite the most dismal assessments, the Mexican state has not failed, nor has it confronted a growing insurgent movement. Moreover, violence elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere is far worse than in Mexico.

Whereas 45,000 homicides (14 per 100,000) have occurred in Mexico since 2007, Brazil and Colombia saw more than 80,000 (20 per 100,000) and 50,000 (30 per 100,000) murders, respectively. Even so, the country’s violent organized crime groups represent a real and present danger to Mexico, the United States, and neighboring countries. The tactics they use often resemble those of terrorists and insurgents, even though their objectives are profit seeking rather than politically motivated.

Meanwhile, although the Mexican state retains democratic legitimacy and a firm grasp on the overwhelming majority of Mexican territory, some DTOs capitalize on antigovernment sentiments and have operational control of certain limited geographic areas.

DTOs have also corrupted officials at all levels of government, and they increasingly lash out against Mexican government officials and ordinary citizens. The February 2011 killing of a US immigration and customs agent signals that US law enforcement officials are now in the crosshairs. If current security trends continue to worsen, the emergence of a genuine insurgent movement, the proliferation of “ungoverned spaces,” and the deliberate and sustained targeting of US government personnel will become more likely.

The United States has much to gain by helping strengthen its southern neighbor and even more to lose if it does not. The cumulative effects of an embattled Mexican state harm the United States and a further reduction of Mexican state capacity is both unacceptable and a clear motivation for US preventive action.

First, the weaker the Mexican state, the greater difficulty the United States will have in controlling the nearly two-thousand-mile border. Spillover violence, in which DTOs bring their fight to US soil, is a remote worst-case scenario. Even so, lawlessness south of the border directly affects the United States.

A weak Mexican government increases the flow of both illegal immigrants and contraband (such as drugs, money, and weapons) into the United States. As the dominant wholesale distributors of illegal drugs to US consumers, Mexican traffickers are also the single greatest domestic organized crime threat within the United States, operating in every state and hundreds of cities, selling uncontrolled substances that directly endanger the health and safety of millions of ordinary citizens.

Second, economically, Mexico is an important market for the United States. As a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it is one of only seventeen states with which the United States has a free trade pact, outside the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The United States has placed nearly $100 billion of foreign direct investment in Mexico.

Mexico is also the United States’ third-largest trade partner, the third-largest source of US imports, and the second-largest exporter of US goods and services — with potential for further market growth as the country develops. Trade with Mexico benefits the US economy, and the market collapse that would likely accompany a deteriorated security situation could hamper US economic recovery.

Third, Mexican stability serves as an important anchor for the region. With networks stretching into Central America, the Caribbean, and the Andean countries, Mexican DTOs undermine the security and reliability of other US partners in the hemisphere, corrupting high-level officials, military operatives, and law enforcement personnel; undermining due process and human rights; reducing public support for counter-drug efforts; and even provoking hostility toward the United States. Given the fragility of some Central American and Caribbean states, expansion of DTO operations and violence into the region would have a gravely destabilizing effect.

Fourth, the unchecked power and violence of these Mexican DTOs present a substantial humanitarian concern and have contributed to forced migration and numerous US asylum requests. If the situation were to worsen, a humanitarian emergency might lead to an unmanageable flow of people into the United States. It would also adversely affect the many US citizens living in Mexico.

Solving the crisis is not only in the US national interest but also in part a US responsibility, given that US drug consumption, firearms, and cash have fueled much of Mexico’s recent violence. The United States should therefore take full advantage of the unprecedented resolve of Mexican authorities to work bilaterally to address a common threat.

The best hope for near-term progress is to bolster US domestic law enforcement efforts to curb illicit drug distribution, firearms smuggling, and money laundering. In the intermediate term, the United States should also both make an overall commitment to preventing and treating drug abuse and other societal ills caused by drugs and reevaluate the effectiveness of current US and international drug policies.

Additionally, with an eye to strengthening Mexico in the longer term, the United States should redouble rule of law and economic assistance to Mexico, with an emphasis on professionalizing the judicial sector and creating economic alternatives to a life of crime.

To prevent Mexico’s problems from spreading to Central America and the Caribbean, the United States should also work actively to reinvigorate and adapt regional security frameworks for the transnational challenges of the post–Cold War era.

A Shared Threat
On a day-to-day basis, no other country affects the United States as Mexico does. More than ever, Mexico and the United States are deeply interdependent: they are connected by more than $300 billion in annual cross-border trade, tens of millions of US and Mexican citizens in binational families, and the everyday interactions of more than 14 million people living along the nearly two-thousand-mile shared border.

Unfortunately, US-Mexico interdependence has also been marked by the proliferation of powerful transnational organized crime syndicates and extreme violence that has killed tens of thousands of Mexicans and hundreds of US citizens in recent years. The ability of organized crime to corrupt elected officials and law enforcement authorities has long compromised US-Mexico security cooperation, but now the Mexican government’s increased reliance on the military raises new dangers of institutional corruption and human rights abuses.

Moreover, growing public frustration has led to increased vigilantism and support for heavy-handed security measures that lack transparency and violate due process. All of these trends present grave challenges for Mexico and have already begun to spread to Central America.

Given the threat to US interests and stability in the region, the United States, Mexico, and several Central American countries have already embarked on an unprecedented security partnership known as the Mérida Initiative, a three-year, nearly $1.4 billion aid package to provide US equipment, training and technical assistance, counternarcotics intelligence sharing, and rule of law promotion programs in Mexico and Central America.

Despite these important efforts, the proliferation of violence and the relentless flow of drugs into the United States continue. Improving the US response to this shared threat demands a clear understanding of Mexico’s security crisis, counter-drug efforts in Mexico, and the role of the United States.