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Are We Losing the War on Drugs?


ISSUE:  Fall 2009

Until recently, the Mexican drug cartels maintained a neat market division. The Tijuana Cartel dominated smuggling routes into Southern California; the Sinaloa Cartel controlled routes into Tucson and Phoenix, the Juárez Cartel ran into El Paso and New Mexico, and the Gulf Cartel trafficked up the coast and into Atlanta. Then, on the eve of 2007, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón, in a well-intentioned move, announced that his government would no longer tolerate this open illegal activity. He would initiate a war on drugs to match or exceed anything ever attempted in the United States. The crackdown, however, had the unintended effect of destabilizing the well-run cartel machinery. Turf wars erupted, and the death toll soared.

In the city of Juárez, in particular, warring factions of the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels have engaged in an increasingly bloody and savage three-way struggle—with each other and against the Mexican military deployed in the city to subdue both sides. More than 1,600 people were murdered in Juárez in 2008; as of this writing, nearly 1,500 more have been murdered this year, putting the city on a trajectory to exceed 2,100 murders for 2009. At the end of August, Juárez eclipsed Caracas, Venezuela, to become the murder capital of the world. To address this runaway threat on our nation’s doorstep, this issue of VQR gathers the narratives of three lives entangled in the drug world of Juárez—a victim of the violence, a gangster boss in one of the city’s slums, and a photojournalist whose job it is to document the carnage.

Collectively, these stories portray a city in a tailspin, but they also hint at the role of the United States in this crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her trip to Mexico City last spring, admitted that blame for our neighbor-nation’s escalating drug war rests largely on America’s “insatiable demand for illegal drugs.” To illustrate this point, we have also collected the stories of a mule (responsible for bringing drugs across the border) and a street-level dealer. Through them, we see what the American appetite for drugs has wrought—a finely tooled underworld operation with countless lives ruined.

If this seems hard to believe at a moment when statistics indicate that hard drug use among American teenagers is less than half what it was twenty-five years ago, that may be because the cartels are not thriving on the sale of hard drugs. Their lifeblood—what US Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Brittany Brown has described as their “cash cow”—is marijuana. Yes, thousands of deaths in Mexico are chiefly the result of traffic in high-potency pot smuggled across the border with ruthless resolve. But when marijuana legalization came up as one of the most requested questions during a presidential town hall meeting early in Obama’s presidency, he laughed it off. “I don’t know what that says about the online audience,” Obama joked. The crowd laughed along, but it was an odd dismissal from a president who admitted on the campaign trail that, as a young man, he not only experimented with marijuana but “inhaled frequently—that was the point.”

Perhaps, compared to a faltering economy, an unprecedented mortgage crisis, healthcare woes, and a global environment teetering on the brink, a few college kids doing bong hits seems like small potatoes. Still, Obama must realize that young people smoking marijuana today are not just breaking the law but funding deadly Mexican cartels whose rampant violence threatens to spill over our border—and it is closely linked to many of the other problems facing this administration. All evidence indicates that illegal drug use climbs during trying economic times (especially among the under- or unemployed); such periods also boost recidivism and lure people with clean records into first-time criminal enterprise. And more and more Americans are self-medicating in lieu of insurance-covered pharmaceuticals administered by a doctor. (In most cities, a vial of crack remains cheaper than even a modest co-pay.) Last but not least, Mexico’s own economic crisis is underpinned by its agricultural base succumbing to widespread drought caused by global climate change. Places in central Mexico long considered closed-off to the drug cartels because of their traditional lifestyles, now, under the threat of losing their homes, are opening their doors to traffickers.

We have attempted to explore this complex web in the latter parts of this issue, by dispatching our writers to the heart of the foreclosure crisis in Florida, the desertified mountains of the Yucatán, and the economically devastated cities of Troy, New York, and Gulfport, Mississippi. In these last cases, we enlisted teams of poets, photographers, and radio producers to interview people living on the economic edge and to document their lives. In the case of Natasha Trethewey, in Gulfport, the story took an unexpected turn toward the personal—reporting, in poems, on how her own brother’s frustration after Hurricane Katrina destroyed by the economy of the Gulf Coast led him into the world of drugs and eventually landed him in prison. (These pieces, as part of the In Verse project co-funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also have turned into radio stories for Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.)

Reading the stories of so many lives derailed by drugs and hobbled by poverty, one can’t help but ask: are we winning the war on drugs? It’s been exactly forty years since Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “a serious national threat” and coined the phrase “War on Drugs.” With Juárez now the murder capital of the world, the Mexican army outgunned by the cartels, and narcotics more available than ever on the streets of the United States, it would be hard to claim that we’re winning this war. Perhaps, in such financially strapped times, it is time to seek out a more effective solution.

With so much at stake, perhaps it’s even time to consider legalizing and taxing marijuana. Such a move would undercut the “cash cow” that supports the Mexican drug cartels, would create a tax base to fight harder drugs, and would allow drug enforcement agents to focus their interdiction efforts. It would be the boldest move yet from an Obama administration that has already shown a willingness to risk choppy political waters—but then, to quote the president, that’s the point.

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