Friday, May 27, 2011

Mexico -- gunfights, drug money and the future

A gun battle raged for three days in Michoacan, forcing about eight hundred people to flee their homes, raising "fresh fears that another major Mexican state has become all but ungovernable," report David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba in The Wall Street Journal on May 27. In March a new cartel was announced, "The Knights of Templar," with dozens of banners pinned up across Michoacan. This new cartel "are thought to be remnants of La Familia," a particularly violent cartel, whose leader, Nazario Moreno, was killed last December.

One measure of the futility of the government's anti-cartel strategy is reported by William Booth and Mary Beth Sheridan in The Washington Post on May 27, "Teamwork on drug kingpins yields little." Money laundering investigations are "inflicting only fleeting damage on trafficking organizations," they write. "During the past 11 years, only $16 million tied to suspected Mexican traffickers has been blocked in the United States, or one dollar for every $20,000 estimated by the Congressional Research Service to flow southward from the United States..." That is $29 billion per year, $320 billion over 11 years - untaxed. (It is also likely to be an exaggeration.) A key fact is that the prosecution system in Mexico is a "black hole," according to Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a major think tank monitoring drug trafficking in Latin America.

The justice system, aside from the notorious corruption of the police, is feeble and desperately needs reform, training, and resources.

A very thoughtful, 14-page paper has just been published, "A War Without 'Principals': Narco-Violence in Mexico," by Dr. Prem Mahadevan, a research associate at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) in Athens, Greece. This is a very good paper to read. Mahadevan does an excellent job describing some of the history of the cartel violence, and the outlining the current situation. He sees it very much as the struggle for succession of leadership.

Mahadevan sees the current crisis as primarily the conflict between the Sinaloa organization and Los Zetas. The Mexican government has been battling one cartel or the other, depending upon which is seen as the most violent. This constantly reactive approach has not been effective.

Some observers believe that the Mexican government's current efforts have favored the Sinaloa cartel. (In the 1990s, the government's efforts had the effect of supporting the Juarez cartel. Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the Mexican drug czar (who U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey said had a "bulletproof" reputation) was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to prison for 31 years for collaborating with the Juarez cartel.))

Mahadevan suggests that the Mexican government should attempt to exploit the inherent conflict between the predominant cartels -- Sinaloa and Los Zetas -- and their weaker allies.

"There is a strong possibility that these weaker trafficking organizations might become amenable to helping the state eliminate top Sinaloa and Zeta leaders, purely out of self-interest. By anticipating the prospects of yet another principal-agent problem emerging within the drug industry, the Mexican government can pre-empt further escalations of narco-violence instead of just responding to them."
This may be a strategy to weaken the leading cartels, the struggle around which the current violence arguably is centered. But what does Mahadevan predict will happen next? He doesn't.

With demand in the United States largely undiminished, there will remain a illicit drug industry to run. To prevent the continuation of violence, his recipe of "anticipation" and "pre-emption" requires the Mexican government to identify and support new cartel leadership, this time with a promise to stop the violence. At its core, this is the operational recipe for the strategy of "accommodation" that concludes that peace for Mexico in the "drug war" only comes with a deal that manages the leadership of the cartels by the Mexican government.

As I see it, Mexico has five options:

(1) Continue the Calderon approach. Keep throwing the military at the cartels. Take U.S. aid and intelligence, and fight on. There is no reason to believe this will produce a different result than we have seen.

(2) Intensify the Calderon approach. Raise the stakes somehow. Bring in more U.S. technology, advisers, money. Extradite more Mexican traffickers to the U.S. for trial and effective imprisonment. But there is no reason to believe that this will any more effectively reduce violence. Higher stakes usually mean higher profits.

(3) Go back to "accommodation" with the traffickers that characterized many years of the rule by the PRI governments, exemplified by Pres. Carlos Salinas and his brother Raul.

(4) Force the United States to curb demand. What would this take? Perhaps a boycott of U.S. trade, mobilization of a global anti-American economic effort to force a crisis in the U.S. to increase drug treatment, to reform largely ineffective drug prevention programs, and perhaps force the U.S. to legalize marijuana to reduce demand for Mexican marijuana.

(5) Full scale legalization and regulation. Again, Mexico would have to break with the U.S., and lead a global effort to revise the United Nations anti-narcotics treaties to allow the use of narcotics for non-medical purposes.

Drug users would no longer be outlaws. Heroin could to be used for maintenance and stabilization of addiction, and could be used experimentally or socially at high risk, like other high risk behaviors that are regulated -- sky diving, scuba diving, skiing, etc. Make harm reduction the operational approach to help drug users minimize the inherent risks they take with the drug use. Develop programs to held addicts manage their addiction, even to hard to manage drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

And take legal control of all aspects of cultivation, production, and distribution of drugs. Law enforcement would have more resources work with the community to fight kidnapping, extortion and other crimes the gangs are using.

In thinking about the humanity of the drug laws, the population the laws should be designed to protect are drug users. Help them get drugs of known potency and purity without going to criminals. Guide drug users, as best we can, in the least dangerous ways of using them. Minimize the costs to everyone else of violence and crime.

Our culture must recognize that liberty comes with the price making catastrophic choices. A population can vote for an idiot for Congress or even for President. That's a risk of democracy. An individual can make choices that lead to bankruptcy, divorce, and death. That's a risk of liberty.

In thinking about the costs and benefits of drug use, minimize the costs to the innocent, and help users realize the benefits. Help minimize but concentrate the costs on those who choose to use so that they can weigh their choices. There is a market for drugs. Shouldn't it be a legally regulated market?

Prohibition doesn't give any party much control, but it increases the rewards for criminals, and hurts everyone else.

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