The Drug Policy Conundrum

By Carin Zissis

As violence related to organized crime takes its toll in Mexico, the debate deepens over hemispheric drug policy. Proposals on the table range from stepped-up security cooperation to drug decriminalization. Meanwhile, Washington announced widespread arrests of suspects linked to Mexican cartels.

As the body count mounts in Mexico, debate deepens across the Americas about ways to control drug-related violence and crime. During a meeting last month on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the leaders of Colombia and Mexico together pledged to fight organized crime. More recently, a commission co-chaired by former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico published a report that suggested exploring options to drug prohibition. A UN-backed probe focused on Guatemalan courts called for bolstering the rule of law in that Central American country to achieve results in cases involving drug cartel members. Meanwhile, drug enforcement agencies continue to coordinate efforts and tally up arrests and drug seizures.

While leaders seek ways to forge a solution, drug-related violence shows few signs of subsiding in Mexico. Despite the deployment of some 40,000 Mexican troops to rein in the drug cartels, homicides related to organized crime claimed roughly 6,000 lives last year. In the first six weeks of 2009, the death toll hit 1,000. High-level officials have fallen victim to the carnage, with an army general tortured and killed recently near Cancun and a February 22 attack on the convoy of the governor of Chihuahua state. Ciudad Juarez’s police chief resigned two days earlier after drug gangs promised to kill a police officer every two days until he resigned; he made the decision after four policemen under his command lost their lives.

Washington has taken steps to support the efforts of the Mexican government in its fight against the drug violence, awarding $1.6 billion over a 3-year period through a cooperative security agreement known as the Merida Initiative between the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Still, the bloodletting in Mexico is causing concern in the United States that the violence could spill across the border. In December, the U.S. Joint Forces Command released a report cautioning that Mexico may face “rapid and sudden collapse.” The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert on February 20 to Americans planning trips to Mexico, particularly to border areas, and warning about “large firefights” across the country.

As the violence grows in Mexico, so do comparisons to Colombia’s own violent struggle with organized crime, which reached its nadir in the early 1990s. Likewise, policy proposals arise for ways to resolve Latin America’s security problem.

A UN Commission investigating organized crime in Guatemala discussed efforts to root out corruption and recommended the need for "high impact" courts to try cases involving transnational criminals. Earlier this month, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy released its report calling for a “paradigm shift” on drug policy that would involve “a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the diverse alternatives to the prohibitionist strategy” as well as marijuana decriminalization. In a follow-up to the report, Cardoso, Gaviria, and Zedillo argue in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the “war on drugs has failed” and urge “changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system.” But the conclusion has met some official resistance. The government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe rejected the commission’s proposal, with Minister of the Interior and Justice Fabio Valencia Cossio saying it would “never be sufficient to overcome the complexity of the problem.”

Despite the report's criticism of current policy, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) counts signs of progress. On February 25, the DEA announced the arrest of about 50 individuals it says are linked with the Sinaloa Cartel. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the arrests were among 755 carried out under the 21-month-old Operation Xcellorator, which involves coordinated efforts with Mexican and Canadian authorities and has resulted in the seizure of 23 tons of narcotics in the United States.

A New York Times article discusses moves in Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico to decriminalize some drugs for personal use, as well as the growing debate in Argentina over drug policy. The Washington Post’s Edward Schumacher-Matos says the Cardoso-Gaviria-Zedillo report is not the first to call for approaching drugs as a health issue and he draws a comparison with the end of Prohibition 75 years ago. “Yet, even discussing the legalization of drugs is so taboo that U.S. policy is frozen,” he writes. In a new analysis, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Shannon O’Neil urges Washington to focus its efforts on slowing the massive flow of illegal arms smuggling and strengthening local and state law enforcement in Mexico.

Updated February 25, 2009.