How the Latin American Drug War Will End

As the underlying rationale for the war on drugs falls apart, some may wonder whether Latin America is really prepared to push back against Washington’s militaristic approach toward marijuana trafficking. While such a prospect would have been unheard of just a few scant years ago, recent developments in the U.S. suggest that change could come fast at the hemispheric level. Indeed, successful pushes for marijuana legalization in Washington state and Colorado brought together some unusual political constituencies, and that is putting it mildly. 

As I discussed in a recent article, pro-legalization advocates managed to cultivate support from women and even mothers by stressing family-friendly values like public safety. As they looked north, Mexicans were probably surprised to find that a wide social spectrum supported marijuana legalization in Colorado, including the NAACP, labor unions, physicians and clergymen. Perhaps most surprisingly, Colorado campaigners also garnered significant support from the socially conservative Latino community, which voted 70 percent in favor of legalizing cannabis.    

In another development that raised eyebrows, 33 percent of Republican voters approved marijuana legalization in Washington. The Tea Party crowd, which opposes the encroachments of the federal government, might be persuaded to break ranks with the more establishment GOP in future. What is more, liberals might join forces with law enforcement no less. Recently, a former Baltimore cop remarked on the Rachel Maddow show that it was time for Obama to scrap the drug war. The policeman heads a group called Law Enforcement against Prohibition, which hails the Washington and Colorado decisions as beneficial for local cops. 

Mexican Poet Takes on the Drug War

While the Washington state and Colorado decisions garnered significant media attention in the U.S., Americans may be less aware of significant political and cultural changes afoot within Mexico --- changes which could also wind up undermining the war against marijuana. Indeed, if they are shrewd, civil society groups in Mexico might opt to cultivate unusual cross-border alliances in an effort to challenge the political establishment both at home and abroad.

Such coalitions have already begun to emerge: recently, a “Caravan for Peace” toured the U.S. in order to raise awareness about the devastation caused by the drug war on both sides of the border. Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was caught up and killed in senseless drug-related violence, organized the caravan which traveled through 25 cities. (To read about Sicilia’s moving story, click here.)

Though a previous movement, “No Más Sangre” (No More Blood) protested the growing spate of violence in Mexico, it is Sicilia who has given most visibility to the terrible toll unleashed by the drug war. Moreover, as he speaks to local audiences, Sicilia has become something of an irritant to the Mexican political establishment. 

Mexico: From Yo Soy 132 to the Zapatistas

The prospect that Sicilia might stir up student radicals is particularly worrisome to the likes of Mexico’s PRI (or Institutional Revolutionary Party) and President Enrique Peña Nieto.  Recently, the poet met with members of the Yo Soy 132 movement, or “I am 132.” The nascent civil society group, which is comprised of young student activists, leapt into the media spotlight when it staged protests against Peña Nieto, a politician who had been linked to earlier human rights abuses when he served as governor of Mexico state. 

During the campaign season, Yo Soy 132 mercilessly heckled Peña Nieto. Later, when the candidate’s supporters claimed that the hecklers had been planted by the rival PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party) and its candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 131 students went on YouTube to validate their identity and furthermore denied they had been paid by anyone to stage political protests. Soon enough, many Mexicans began to proclaim a new popular slogan, “I am 132,” as a way of showing that they, too, held legitimate political concerns. Through extensive use of Twitter, Yo Soy 132 has demonstrated a certain technological savvy. Moreover, the students have inspired many by shunning the notion of a central figurehead to lead their movement.

Whether Yo Soy 132, along with the likes of Sicilia, can really move the drug war issue to center stage and galvanize Mexico politically remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Peña Nieto and the PRI are on guard lest social protest get out of hand. If students begin to mobilize against the drug war, and cultivate sympathetic ties with the likes of the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas, the government would be hard pressed not to alter course on its counter-narcotics strategy. During the recent presidential election, the somewhat dormant Zapatistas chose to remain politically silent. However, the Zapatistas have been publicly supportive of Sicilia, and rebel spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos has called for an end to the drug war.

Civil Society Forces Cross-Border Debate

With so much on the line politically, economically and militarily, domestic elites in Washington and Mexico City have been reluctant to push for meaningful change in the drug war. Yet, even the Obama White House may be forced to bend somewhat. Encouraged by Colorado and Washington State, legalization advocates are preparing other referendums in northeastern states as well as the American west. And in Texas no less, campaigners may even seek to introduce a motion to legalize marijuana in the state legislature. Though Texan activists will no doubt face a steep uphill climb, local voters are horrified by drug-related violence in Mexico just across the border and are looking for alternative solutions. 

In Mexico, too, the PRI has been forced to reckon with shifting political realities. In the wake of the Colorado and Washington state referendums, incoming President Nieto stated that his country would have to rethink its drug war policies. Commenting on the shifting tides in the U.S., Nieto’s chief of staff implied that the drug war had suddenly become somewhat perverse. “Obviously,” he said, “we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status.”

Meanwhile, the marijuana issue has split opinion within Mexico’s three major parties. While the PRI is divided, there are some who argue that it is time to have an open and thorough discussion about the drug war. Take for example Cesar Duarte, the PRI governor in the state of Chihuahua bordering Texas. Shocking his peers, Duarte has openly come out for pot legalization and argues that the export of marijuana could represent a great business opportunity for his countrymen.  In addition to the PRI, there are also signs that the rightist PAN or National Action Party may be wavering: recently, former president Vicente Fox denounced the drug war as useless.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the status quo, however, emanates from the leftist PRD or Democratic Revolutionary Party. Fernando Belauzarán, a PRD congressman from liberal Mexico City, has introduced a bill similar to the one that passed in Colorado. Under Belauzarán’s plan, all Mexicans would be allowed to grow up to five marijuana plants for legal consumption. Though Belauzarán is aware that his bill might not pass, the legislator is determined to raise the discussion again and again in an effort to force a debate within Mexican society.     

Inertia of the Elites

Despite this political pressure in both the U.S. and in Mexico, the establishment has waffled on marijuana. Earlier this summer, Peña Nieto said he would welcome a debate on drug legalization in Mexico. However, the president has continued to deploy the military to the streets while battling the cartels. Nieto has avoided holding major press conferences about the drug war, hoping that perhaps he can buy time or at least distract the public. 

Over at the Nation magazine, Tom Hayden reports that the U.S. pressured Nieto to continue a military policy prior to the election. Fundamentally, writes AlterNet columnist Phillip Smith, “neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.”

Faced with such inertia at the top, legalization advocates may face a long slog ahead. Moreover, as they cultivate unusual cross-border alliances, activists may confront a significant obstacle in the counter-narcotics establishment. If the ban on marijuana is lifted, then certain agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration would lose a lot of their budget and overall legitimacy. Psychologically, it may be difficult for the counter-narcotics apparatus to admit defeat after investing literally billions of dollars repressing the marijuana trade as well as other drugs. 

Conveniently, the drug war has allowed Washington to maintain its military and political influence in Latin America, and at any given time 4,000 U.S. troops are deployed throughout the hemisphere while the Navy and Air Force patrol the wider region. The extent and scope of Washington’s political and financial investment in the marijuana wars is staggering. In late 2006, President Bush initiated so-called Plan Mexico to fight the drug war which employed state of the art technology such as Black Hawk helicopters, gamma ray scanners and telecommunications software. 

During the Bush years, Washington sent Mexico $1.6 billion in aid to fight drug trafficking, and the Obama White House has also expanded cross-border efforts. For the first time, the CIA and U.S. military are working side by side in Mexico and Obama has deployed aerial drones deep into Mexican airspace to track drug traffickers. Needless to say, such efforts have failed to halt the flow of drugs though the Obama counter-drug strategy has represented a bonanza for private contractors. Washington funnels billions of dollars each year to such companies as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, DynCorp and ITT which are tasked with fighting the drug war. 

Psychological House of Cards

For the defense industry and private contractors, it’s bad enough that civil society on both sides of the border is questioning the marijuana wars. What is even more worrisome for the military-industrial complex is the prospect that Latin American countries might start to question the underlying rationale behind the drug war and make even harder drugs legal to the public. To be sure, it is highly unlikely that cocaine will be made fully legal any time soon, though politically the entire region has grown increasingly restive and impatient with Washington’s hawkish policies. 

The risk for the political establishment is that other U.S. states will follow Washington and Colorado’s lead on marijuana, thereby creating a domino effect and eroding the overall legitimacy of the drug war. As the entire house of cards comes tumbling down, Latin Americans may be tempted to break free from traditional policies of strict prohibition. Already, three Central American countries and Mexico have called upon the Organization of American States to study the effect of the marijuana votes in Washington and Colorado, which could upend their own efforts to fight drugs. 

In South America, meanwhile, the state-wide marijuana decisions are reverberating politically. Already, Uruguay has proposed a measure to legalize the sale of marijuana while Colombia has decriminalized personal consumption of both cannabis and cocaine. Further south of Colombia in the Andean region, Bolivia’s foreign minister has mocked Washington, declaring that U.S. state-wide marijuana initiatives make Obama look like a laughingstock. The referendums, the diplomat declared, contrast starkly with the White House’s official position rejecting the chewing of coca leaf which is not even considered a drug in its natural state. “They [the U.S.] object to Bolivia and coca on the one hand,” the minister remarked, “and on the other hand do the opposite.” 

How the Drug War Will End

Given shifting political realities, it is easy enough to imagine that the drug war will one day come to an end. Yet, in light of the power and influence of the defense establishment, draconian policies may still prevail for some time at an enormous human cost. What, then, must happen in order for the entire militaristic approach to crumble and be dismantled?

When change comes, it will be brought about by grassroots civil society organizing both in the U.S. and Mexico. Forcing political elites in Washington to alter course will be difficult, but perhaps unconventional groups such as clergy, physicians, Latinos and even cops can help to move the debate forward. It is not inconceivable that many Democrats and even some wayward or Libertarian-leaning Republican can be brought around. In Mexico meanwhile, Javier Sicilia, students and indigenous peoples may find an ally in the PRD but face a more uphill struggle persuading the likes of the PRI. 

Fundamentally, ending the drug war will necessitate a hemispheric-wide effort and it is here where South America must play a more important role. To be sure, Bolivia and others have criticized draconian policies and in some cases even ceased participation in joint counter-drug efforts with the U.S. Yet, on a certain level it is surprising that leftist leaders have not launched a more concerted political attack on the drug war. Despite their anti-imperialist rhetoric, South American countries are still intimidated by the U.S. and internally divided. Mexican civil society, as well as the PRD -- which has been defrauded by the likes of the PRI and the PAN -- could use more moral support from the South American left. Hopefully, such support will be forthcoming sooner rather than later so that the drug war scourge will become a relic of the past.


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