LA FRONTERA SANGROSA: Time to reconsider U.S. drug policy?


Although the Calderon government in Mexico claims that 28,000 individuals have died during the four years that Mexico has waged war against the drug cartels, keen observers along the border feel that the number should be adjusted considerably higher.  Whatever the true numbers might be, do they actually mean anything to the millions of Americans whose insatiable cravings for illegal drugs fuel the bloody drug wars in Mexico?  From all appearances, drug-obsessed Americans attach little significance to the gory statistics that underline the seriousness of the struggle.  And, in the meantime, the annual bonanza for the cartels approaches US 145 billion, which represents a 1,000 % mark-up from source.

The US, in turn, spends up to US 20 billion each year in direct expenditures endeavoring to shut down the drug pipeline.  This figure does not include indirect costs, such as adjudication, incarceration and lost work time.

Once viewed as the “mules” for the Colombian cartels, Mexico’s drug bosses today are indisputably “numero uno” in the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere.  And, with their dominance, violence along the border has escalated.  The cartels are more determined than ever, of course, to hold onto their business ventures in cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other illegal drugs.  That determination, in effect, promotes a veritable war in Mexico, and this is especially true along the US-Mexican border.

Many south of the border are asking these days why Mexico should be held accountable for fighting a battle that has come about by virtue of the American government’s inability to control its pagan society’s craving for drugs.  And, why is it, they ask, that the US is not reluctant to interfere in the affairs of other nations, but is unwilling or unable to stem drug use at home?  Unfortunately, such questions have gone unanswered by a succession of American administrations.

All along the border there are towns like Matamoros, Reynosa and Rio Bravo where showdowns and shootouts have become commonplace and where, in some locales, local police forces have all but disappeared, owing to the likelihood of a relatively short lifespan for any law enforcement officer brave enough to resist the allure of drug money.  In many instances, mayors and other local officials have simply been gunned down, and the only growth industry in many small towns is the funeral business.

Border culture, long derided by Mexicans in the Bajio and the Federal District as shallow and characterized by people called “pochos,” who speak neither good Spanish nor good English, is even more fragile, owing to the drug wars.  In cantinas  and cafes in small towns like Piedras Negras and Nogales, the most-played tunes on jukeboxes are the “narco-corridas,” which capture the imagination of young people and romanticize the daring exploits of those whose specialty is the is the cross-border movement of drugs.

Journalists on the south side of the border are reluctant to publish stories on the drug trade, owing to the proclivity of the cartels to punish reporters who are so bold as to expose the prime movers of the industry.  For example, after an AK-47 and grenade attack on a newspaper office in Nuevo Laredo, journalists by the score abandoned “la frontera.”  And, it is telling that last year, Mexico had the dubious distinction of having the third most attacks on journalists in the world, occupying the 3rd slot behind Iraq and Iran.

Crossing the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros, one quickly notices the sizable presence of military personnel, who have been deployed to do battle with the cartels.  Of Mexico’s 200,000 members of the military, more than 46,000 have been committed to the drug wars.

On the other side of the border, the US Border Patrol has reported increasing attacks on Border Patrol officers, who have come under automatic weapons fire from drug smugglers and, on several occasions, have had to dodge Molotov cocktails.  And, even in Brownsville, cartel henchmen bearing such dramatic appellations as “el Apache” have been apprehended.

Beheadings, bombings, mass shootings and the intimidation of legitimate authority, it all sounds like Iraq.  But it is happening on the border between the US and Mexico.  In fact, it is a full-scale war that rivals Iraq in terms of deaths and casualties.

Culpable parties for the drug mess abound on both sides of the border.  However, if we begin to consider what has failed at home, we need look no further than the ill-considered policies of the US government, which have done little to nothing to dry up the domestic consumption of illegal drugs.  Obviously, using the old adage defining success, the Mexican cartels have found a need and are actively filling it.  If the American drug czars charged with halting the flow of drugs were half as innovative as the drug bosses, the story might be much different.

As it now stands, there are only two courses of action that could possibly replace failed policies phased-in legalization or hard-nosed enforcement.  If we are straightforward in our analysis of this sad state of affairs, we must admit that what exists now is simply failed strategy that has unwisely attempted to apply old solutions to new challenges from forces that have shown themselves to be far more sophisticated than the self-perpetuating and wasteful bureaucrats who operate the domestic industry that euphemistically goes under the monikers of the DEA and the ONDCP.

Clearly, until the need is no longer present, enterprising individuals and organizations will continue to satisfy the never-ending demand in the US, and the death toll in Mexico and along “la frontera” will continue to rise.  Inflexible and time-worn policies are palpably inadequate.  Isn’t it time for some innovation and originality with US drug policies?

John Barha.m, formerly a dean at UTB/TSC, retired from the University of Missouri in 2006.