How Legalizing Drugs Will End the Violence


Back in the early 1960s, I often sneaked into Mexico at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Too young to cross legally, I'd coil up in the trunk of Charlie Romero's '54 Merc. My buddies and I would head straight for the notorious Blue Fox to guzzle Carta Blancas, shoot Cuervo Gold and take in the "adult entertainment" acts. It wasn't something I'd necessarily want my kid doing, but there was a certain innocence to it: tasting freedom, partaking of forbidden adult pleasures. The frontera of Mexico was a fun, safe place to visit.

All that has changed.

From Tijuana to Matamoros, drug gang violence along the U.S.-Mexico border has taken the lives of thousands -- cops, soldiers, drug dealers, often their families, other innocent citizens from both sides of the border. Even a cardinal of the Catholic Church. Many others have gone missing and are presumed dead.

In the mid-'90s, the Arellano brothers' drug cartel ruled Tijuana, perched atop the hierarchy of Mexico's multibillion dollar illegal drug trafficking industry. Using cars, planes and trucks -- and an intimate knowledge of NAFTA -- the Arellanos transported hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into American cities.

They enlisted U.S. drug gangs. In 1993, in my last days as San Diego's assistant police chief, the local gang Calle Treinte was implicated in the Arellano-inspired killing of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. The Arellanos bribed officials on both sides of the border, spending over $75 million annually on the Mexican side alone, to grease their illicit trafficking.

And they enforced their rule not just with murder but with torture. If Steven Soderbergh's gritty 2000 film "Traffic" caused you to squirm in your seat, the real-life story of Mexican drug dealing is even more disquieting. The brothers once kidnapped a rival's wife and children. With videotape running, they tossed two of the kids off a bridge, then sent their competitor a copy of the tape, along with the severed head of his wife. Another double-crosser had his skull crushed in a compression vice. And who can forget the carne asada BBQs, where the Arellanos would roast entire families over flaming tires?

Just this week, the bodies of four men, three of them cops, were found wrapped in blankets in Rosarito Beach. Their heads showed up in Tijuana. Corruption of public officials, useful to sustain and grow illicit drug trafficking everywhere, has always run deep in Mexico. But with the country now having supplanted Colombia as the biggest supplier of illegal drugs to the United States, and with annual profits topping $65 billion a year, the numbers of federal, state and local cops on the take has never been greater.

Drug criminals have an unlimited supply of high-powered weapons at their disposal. Kingpins pay mules, usually impoverished, always expendable, to travel to the states to pick up a firearm or two at a gun show. Using the Brady Bill "loophole" (and congressional and presidential failure to extend the ban on assault rifles), all it takes is a phony stateside driver's license and a handful of cash to walk out with semi-automatic Uzis, AR-15s and AK-47s.

Last June in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas, Alejandro Dominguez was sworn in as the city's police chief. That same day, three dark Chevy Suburbans with tinted windows pulled up to his office. Moments later, Dominguez, a reluctant top cop who only took the job at the pleading of a terrified citizenry, was dead. Police recovered 35 to 40 casings from an AR-15 assault rifle.

Mexico's drug dealers, including the Zetas (elite military commandos assigned to fight drugs but who've gone over to the other side), are among the most organized, proficient and prolific killers in history.

The violence does not end with the capture or the killing of major players like the Arellano brothers. (Ramon was shot and killed by the federales in February of 2002; Benjamín was captured a month later. Francisco has been in prison for years.) As with the illicit drug scene in the United States, thousands of low-level drug-dealing wannabes are marking time -- waiting for today's kingpin to fall so they can move up.

And the violence grows, and grows.

Virtually every analysis of the Mexican "drug problem" points to the themes raised here: the inducements of big money and wide fame; the crushing poverty of those exploited by drug dealers; the entrepreneurial frenzy of expanding and protecting one's markets; the large, unquenchable American demand for drugs; and the complicity of many in law enforcement.

But something's missing from the analysis: the role of prohibition.

Illegal drugs are expensive precisely because they are illegal. The products themselves are worthless weeds -- cannabis (marijuana), poppies (heroin), coca (cocaine) -- or dirt-cheap pharmaceuticals and "precursors" used, for example, in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Yet today, marijuana is worth as much as gold, heroin more than uranium, cocaine somewhere in between. It is the U.S.'s prohibition of these drugs that has spawned an ever-expanding international industry of torture, murder and corruption. In other words, we are the source of Mexico's "drug problem."

The remedy is as obvious as it is urgent: legalization.

Regulated legalization of all drugs -- with stiffened penalties for driving impaired or furnishing to kids -- would bring an immediate halt to the violence. How? By (1) dramatically reducing the cost of these drugs, (2) shifting massive enforcement resources to prevention and treatment and (3) driving drug dealers out of business: no product, no profit, no incentive. In an ideal world, Mexico and the United States would move to repeal prohibition simultaneously (along with Canada). But even if we moved unilaterally, sweeping and lasting improvements to public safety (and public health) would be felt on both sides of the border. (Tragically and predictably, just as Mexico's parliament was about to reform its U.S.-modeled drug laws, the Bush administration stepped in, pressuring President Vicente Fox to abandon the enlightened position he'd championed for two years.)

With drugs stringently controlled and regulated by our own government, Mexico would once again become a safe, inviting place for American tourists -- and for its own citizens, who pay the steepest price of all for our insistence on waging an immoral, unwinnable war on drugs.

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