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Missed Opportunity: Obama and Calderon Fail to Discuss Alternatives to Drug War

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama ignored the elephant in the room in their meeting -- drug prohibition is the cause of prohibition.

 

During their meeting on March 3, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama ignored the elephant in the room: that the real cause of the violence devastating Mexico today is drug prohibition.

Disappointingly, Calderon’s visit was another missed chance for the U.S. and Mexico to acknowledge that prohibition has failed to decrease drug use or diminish the power of drug traffickers, and another squandered opportunity to seriously debate more effective alternatives, including legalization. 

We can ill afford such silence.  The ongoing tragedy in Mexico is a painful reminder of prohibition’s disastrous consequences.  In the past four years, 35,000 people have been murdered in Mexico, including more than 1,000 children - part of what UNICEF recently called a "new type of violence" against children throughout the region.  Last year alone, over 15,000 people were killed, making it the deadliest since Calderon unleashed the army against drug traffickers.  According to the Trans-Border Institute, 14 mayors and 11 journalists were assassinated in 2010 - clear evidence that prohibition is not only claiming Mexican lives, but also destroying Mexico's democracy. 

And the violence is spreading. No longer confined to northern Mexico, it has reached formerly peaceful places like Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest city, and even the country's capital.  Violence is spreading regionally, too.  Cartels have increased their presence in many Central American countries, notably Guatemala and El Salvador.

Despite massive drug seizures, and the capture or killing of a few notorious traffickers, most cartels remain extremely powerful, and drugs continue to flow inexorably onto U.S. streets.  Meanwhile, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last December revealed that U.S. officials don't even believe the drug war can succeed.  The leaked cables – a sore subject aired at yesterday’s meeting – show no clear strategy for the over $1.4 billion the U.S. has pledged in military aid to Mexico, as well as rampant official corruption in Mexico-another byproduct of prohibition.

In the face of such glaring and costly failure, several prominent figures across Latin America - including former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico - have called for an end to prohibition and the consideration of all viable options.  Last month, conservative Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said, "If the world decides to legalize and thinks that that is how we reduce violence and crime, I could go along with that." 

But none have been as vocal as another former Mexican president, Vicente Fox, who has repeatedly called for legalizing all drugs, beginning with marijuana, as the only way to put violent traffickers out of business.  Apparently, though, Fox’s outspoken statements recently ran afoul of the taboo that still exists in the U.S. about truthfully debating drug policy, prompting a private college in San Diego to outrageously withdraw an invitation to Fox to speak on campus because of his support for legalization. 

Sadly, Calderon and Obama are stubbornly moored to the same irrational taboo. Though each has said that legalization is a legitimate topic of debate, they refuse to actually debate its merits.  Their heads remain buried in the sand, too afraid and too wedded to the failed drug war to consider other, better policy options. 

Both presidents – and the citizens of both countries -- need to muster the courage to move beyond mere lip service and address the true causes of, and solutions to, the deepening crisis in Mexico.  What's needed more than anything else is a bilateral commitment to openly and honestly debate alternatives to the failed policy of prohibition. Too many have died to miss another opportunity.

Daniel Robelo is a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance in Berkeley, California.
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