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Witness to Mexico's Drug War Escalation: 'Legalizing Marijuana Would Have a Huge Impact'

Witness to the everyday bloody cost of policies and politics, author Ioan Grillo explains the drug war from Mexico's perspective.

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Inside the heart of darkness that is the War on Drugs in Mexico and other Latin American nations—the routine beheadings, the mass graves, the bodies melted in acid baths and the AK-47-toting narco-armies running amok—there may finally be a glimmer of hope. Presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica have all recently taken the courageous stand of calling for alternative forms of drug regulation and prevention. Their voices have joined a growing chorus, which includes former Mexican president Vincente Fox and leading Latin American intellectuals, who are convinced that the US-led war on drugs is, after three decades, an abject failure. So far Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay have passed laws decriminalizing drug possession for personal consumption. (For a color-coded map showing each nation's position on legalization, click  here.)

The unprecedented escalating violence south of the border has placed the long-taboo subject of regulating, decriminalizing and even legalizing the use of drugs firmly back on the agenda.

As Latin America shakes off decades of economic and political domination by the US, the nations are increasingly speaking in one defiant voice: No mas! 

To which an increasingly isolated America responds, No way!

The next flashpoint in this hemispheric standoff may occur this weekend, when President Barack Obama is due to attend the Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia. While not officially on the agenda, drug policy—and the US's intransigence—is on everyone's mind, so the an event promises to be uncomfortable for the president, especially in an election year as his administration firms up its anti-drugs bona fides by shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries with the kind of zeal that would make Harry J. Ainslinger weak with admiration.

In an effort—widely viewed outside the US as feeble—to mollify the "restive natives" in advance of the summit, last month Vice President Joe Biden visited Mexico and Honduras on a kind of listening tour. His famously tin ear was on full display, and his frosty reception does not bode well for this weekend's meeting.

Given this explosive dynamic, The Fix thought it wise to get the take of somebody “in the trenches." And no one is better equipped to talk about this than Ioan Grillo. 

Grillo is a British journalist and the author of  El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Bloomsbury). He has covered the drug war from on the ground in Mexico for more than a decade and has held court with people on every side of the conflict. As a reporter for Time, CNN, PBS and theSunday Times (among others), Grillo has discussed the drug war with everyone from presidents and diplomats to the men and women who kill for the cartels.

El Narco is an essential book for anyone hoping to unravel the mystery of why a modern, prosperous country like Mexico has been dragged into a new age of barbarism. It also goes some way to explaining why the response north of the border has been so hopelessly inadequate. Grillo is that rare writer willing to risk life and limb to tell the truth about a war raging right under the nose of a mostly oblivious American populace.

Grillo hails from Brighton, a gorgeous little town on the south coast of England famous for its pebble beaches. Brighton’s most famous outpouring of  “drug-fuelled violence” was back in the 1960s when mods and rockers, hopped up on purple hearts, would show up to beat the crap out of each other. So what on earth drove him to spend his days at the heart of one of the 21st century’s most explosive conflicts?