Dienstag, 6. November 2012

Would the legalization of drugs end the violence in Mexico?

By Virginia Kirst
 
With over 60,000 dead in Mexico since the beginning of Felipe Calderón´s presidency, the time has come to declare that the war on drugs has failed. This article assesses the debate about the legalization of narcotics in the Americas and alternative approaches to the problem shortly before a new president will take office in Mexico.
 
Saúl Reyes is a victim of the narcoviolencia – the violence linked to the drug trade – in Mexico. He lost six members of his family: Four siblings, a nephew and his sister-in-law. Reyes is one of the very few Mexicans that have been granted political asylum in the U.S.A. Now he is trying to make sure that nobody in the United States forgets the war that is ravaging in his country: The war on drugs.

A lost war against drugs

Reyes is one of the many victims of the drug related violence in Mexico. In 2012, the violence in the country seems to have stabilized for the first time since President Felipe Calderón declared war to the drug traffickers in his counter roughly five years ago. But stabilized at what numbers? Mexico saw about 22,000 annual murders in 2011, “only” 1,000 more than the previous year but twice as many as in 2007. In 2006, Calderón vowed to use all the powers of the state to take down the drug lords – since then over 60,000 people have died.
 
The roots of Calderón´s approach go back to 1969, when Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States launched a set of policies for dealing with illegal substances: The aim of the latter was to discourage the production, distribution and consumption of drugs by repressing and criminalizing producers, traffickers and consumers. Since then, drug war strategies in Latin America were clearly “made in the U.S.A.”, says Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). This applies to Mexico´s current approach as well.
 
Today, more than ever, the effects of these repressive policies are visible in Central America. And with thousands dead in Latin America and no sign of declining numbers of drug consumers (the United Nations actually estimate that the consumption of cocaine rose by 27% between 1998 and 2008), the war on drugs has to be declared lost. Today, besides Mexico, many other countries are trapped in the spiral of crime and violence.

Speaking the “L”-word

But something has changed: Little by little, Latin American leaders are starting a debate about the current drug policies. They speak of the need for change, for alternative approaches to the problem of drugs and the related violence. One of them, however, even goes a step further: Otto Pérez Molina, the newly elected president of Guatemala, openly argues for legal, highly regulated market for narcotics in order to change the situation in the Americas.
 
Just before the Americas summit in Cartagena in April 2012, Pérez advocated this idea in an article in The Observer: “When we analyse drug markets through realistic lenses (not ideological ones as is pretty much customary in most government circles these days), we realise that drug consumption is a public health issues that, awkwardly, has been transformed into a criminal justice problem.” In order to deal with this problem adequately, a step towards legalization has to be taken he writes.
Pérez Molina’s strong position for the legalization of drugs, emphasizing a more humane approach is surprising, considering his past as a Guatemalan military general during which he was accused of very serious human rights violations.
 
Also Youngers admits to being surprised when Pérez Molinas´ advocacy for this topic grew stronger and stronger. She supposes that he partially put it on the table because he was frustrated that the US-government had announced to cut the amount of counter-drug aid for his country in 2013. Furthermore, he received a very positive response from the international community for his approach to the issue. All of the sudden, he was not the ultra-conservative anymore, but progressive: His image improved. “Another part is that people say Pérez Molina is very scared that Guatemala could become another Mexico. He probably thinks twice about implementing the same strategies that Calderón adopted, seeing what the results of that have been” Youngers adds.

Calderón’s approach

But what about Calderón himself? He seems not to be able to see the disastrous results of his policy. Nevertheless, it is impossible for him to do a complete turnaround now, after having pushed his strategy throughout his term. What he can do, however, is looking at all the variables in the equation: Mexico does not bear the sole responsibility for the situation it is in now. Youngers reports that “Calderón and many others in the Mexican government find very frustrating that there is a free flow of arms into their country from the US and a free cash-flow that goes back and forth”, while the flow of illegal drugs shows its horrid effects almost exclusively in Mexico.
 
With no turnaround possible for Calderón, the hopes are high that his successor, to be elected on July 1st 2012, will stop the violence. And the candidates are exploiting these hopes to the fullest, promising their own, new approaches to the issues.
 
Experts however doubt that any of the candidates will make a substantial difference. Youngers predicts that Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate currently leading the polls, will not do anything very different to what Calderón did. Annette von Schönfeld, Latin America council of the German Heinrich Böll foundation, is also very clear in her expectations: “It does not matter which candidate wins – the violence will continue.”

A case for legal drugs

Regardless of these predictions, Froylán Enciso thinks that Mexico would benefit greatly from legal, regulated drug markets. Enciso is currently a PhD-student at Stony Brooks University in New York, writing his dissertation on contested drug-commodities markets in his home state of Sinaloa, Mexico.
“We have to learn how to live with drugs. We have to stop fighting against the symptoms and start looking at the true causes. Rationally, it would even be a good decision to introduce legal, regulated markets – it would be a good business for Mexico” Enciso believes. But he also knows that these dreams are farfetched considering the political reality in the international system.
Three years back, Mexico already took steps towards the decriminalization of drug consumers. In 2009 a law was passed that allows the ownership of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and LSD for self-consumption. Many critics say that the law did not really bring any change because the legalized quantities are by far too small. And because only possession was decriminalized, but not the production, trafficking or retail.
 
Others criticize the law for the opposite reason: For them, the decriminalization of consumers is already one step too far – not even to mention the legalization of drugs. They fear rising numbers of drug consumers and related crime. But there are facts to prove that is actually not the case. The Netherlands is populated by marijuana-addicts just because the drug is legal there. And the report of the Global Commission on drug policies from June 2011, advocates a new approach towards worldwide drug policies employing the example of Portugal to show that decriminalizing consumption does not increase the drug use and the problems associated with it: In July 2001, Portugal became the first European country to decriminalize the use and possession of all illicit drugs – not just marijuana as the Netherlands. A study about the effects concludes that “the removal of criminal penalties, combined with the use of alternative therapeutic responses to people struggling with drug dependence, has reduced the burden of drug law enforcement on the criminal justice system and the overall level of problematic drug use.”
 
Enciso´s ideas aim at a similar direction: To him, money is what matters; money could both be saved by removing criminal penalties, and earned from possible taxes on drugs. He suggests using it for health and development programs in affected regions of Mexico. Regions, for example, where the high unemployment rates make the cultivation of poppy seeds and marijuana seem like the only way out of misery.
 
“Such development programs would surely reduce the violence. Of course not immediately but in the long run for sure” Enciso affirms. Nevertheless, he remains realistic and adds that changes in the drug policy will not happen in the near future. The adamant opposition of the United States makes it particularly difficult for Mexico to even imagine legalization. Mexico is however not as dependent on the US in terms of aid as it used to be: American grants to Mexico for international narcotics control and law enforcement have continually gone down and reached a new low since 2008 at about 55,000,000 US-Dollar in 2012.

But drugs are not the only problem…

Von Schönfeld, like others, sees the legalization of drugs as only one step towards the end of the violence in Mexico. The criminal organizations that are responsible for the vicious circle of violence are also engaged in other criminal activities like money laundering, human trafficking and kidnappings. All of which involve just as much violence as drug business does. Von Schönfeld points out that the radical legalization of drugs would even incorporate the risk of an increase in other criminal activities in other fields in order to balance out the loss of income.
Furthermore, von Schönfeld adds, in Mexico, organized crime is present in all branches of the government. The democratic institutions in Mexico are not yet strong enough to deal with the infiltration of the government by organized criminality. In fact, about 70% of the regional governments in Mexico are estimated to be infiltrated by “narcos”.

Something has to change

The legalization of drugs would not eliminate all violence in Latin America at once but something has to change. At the Americas Summit in Cartagena in April, the debate about international drug control policies was on the agenda for the first time. And Barack Obama still attended the conference. In a closed-door meeting the issue was discussed with the results that the Organization of American States (OAS) was tasked with analyzing the results of present policies and the exploration of alternative approaches that could possibly be more effective. At the end of the summit, Obama did not forget to assure that he does not “mind a debate around issues like decriminalization” but personally does not think that the legalization of drugs is going to be the answer.
 
Even with Obama´s skeptical comments in the end, the summit in Cartagena still marks a milestone – for the first time ever the US war on drugs is being questioned seriously and openly even by administrative officials.

Real alternatives

Youngers suggests that more humane and more effective approaches that could be implemented in the near future should focus on the harm that drug policies themselves are causing right now. Firstly, consumption should be decriminalized and treated as a public health issue. New laws need to be passed that legalize the ownership of “reasonable” amounts of narcotics and do not give policemen and judges too much liberty to interpret the legislation in a way that convenes them in a particular situation.
 
Secondly, sentencing policies have to be changed. Currently jails across the region are filled with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, just like they are in the United States because their model was exported to Latin America. Youngers explains that “there are horrific problems within the prisons – for example a horribly inadequate infrastructure – and jails function as schools of crime”. The problem is that once somebody goes to a prison, even if they were only small drug offenders beforehand, after they come out, they are completely tied into criminal organizations or – in Central America – gangs, or maras. “This policy is completely counterproductive. There need to be alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, particularly women,” says Youngers.

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