Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mexico and Colombia

Adam Isacson observes that the U.S. delegation visiting Colombia today is not talking about drugs.

Meanwhile, the rivers of blood in Mexico's drug trafficking plazas continue to flood.

Some people ask what lessons, if any, Colombia's experience fighting drug trafficking violence has for Mexico.

In my view, first, the big problem is not drugs, per se, but the desire and ability of powerful criminal organizations to use extraordinary volumes of violence, and bribery, to create impunity from the criminal justice system. It happens that their big source of funds to finance the violence and bribery is the mountain of cash obtained from selling drugs to the United States and Europe. That certainly suggests the limits of prohibition as a drug regulation and control strategy. But the danger to a society that the justice system is made impotent by the society's worst criminals is a subversion of an essential characteristic of a state. The state is supposed to protect against "traditional," predatory crime at least, and if such crimes take place, to investigate, prosecute and punish such offenders without favor.

Sadly, throughout history there have been instances in which some criminals escape investigation and punishment, often for years. I was thinking of the Tweed Ring in New York City in the 19th century when the city government was captured by the criminals who controlled the Tammany Hall Democratic organization. In many cases, society finally responds.

But I can't think of any instance in which the attack on the justice system has been so open and intense in the effort to neutralize it, as we are witnessing in Mexico. In Italy, there were times when various organized crime groups attacked investigating magistrates, prosecutors, police and judges. And in Colombia, there were similar attacks on Attorneys General, judges, journalists, etc. But the situation in Mexico is worse, with much worse bloodshed.

But the lesson of Colombia, I think, is that civil society was disgusted and horrified by the bombings and kidnapping, and got behind a government that would fight back.

In Mexico today, the government is fighting back, but their effort lacks broad public support. This is because, in part, the police have historically been utterly corrupt and utterly inept, and the public is not sympathetic to the police.

In Mexico, almost anyone with any property can be kidnapped. and the victim's often suspect that the police may be complicit. In any event, the family of victims's have little desire to call the police for help -- indeed they often urge the police to stay out of the case.

I fear that we may be at a tipping point in Mexico in which organized crime is about to acquire complete impunity. At El Diario (the principal newspaper in Ciudad Juarez), after the local DTO power killed one of their young photographers, the editors appealed to the criminals for guidance on what they could print, noting that the criminals were now the "authority" in the city.

Ciudad Juarez is a city of 1.5 million persons, about the population of Phoenix or Philadelphia! Another words, it is a big city.

Mexico's civil society -- its businesses, churches, educators, etc. -- needs to come together to demand that the institutions of the police, prosecutors, courts and prisons be strengthened. They need to commit themselves to getting the government mobilized.

The U.S. has a direct interest in this fight. Mexico is not merely a nation on our border. Mexico's people and our people are linked, our cities are linked, and our futures are linked. The triumph of Mexican criminals over their justice system gives those criminal organizations a base for supporting crime in hundreds of American cities.

This is not something that can be addressed by building a bigger fence, or "hardening" the border. Every day a million people cross the border, and countless trucks filled with goods.

Legalizing and regulating drugs in one important tool for taking power away from the Mexican criminals. But it will not cause them to evaporate. Mexico and the U.S. must become partners in strengthening the integrity of Mexican police, and improving their investigation sophistication. For decades they have relied on torture which is absurd. Training in investigation, paying adequate salaries, and having a society that demands public safety are the necessary building blocks.

Amazingly, Colombia was able to transform itself in many respects, and as bad as our drug policy is, we were able to help.

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