AMLO, as Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador is universally known, faces a dilemma. The American-imposed drug war has plunged his country into violence and corruption. The situation is intolerable, yet any attempt to break the chain means a confrontation with the United States that could prove even worse.
It’s a deadlock that only a Mexican Robespierre could break—and AMLO, a mild-mannered center-leftist, is no L’Incorruptible. His country’s plight is so extreme, its future so bleak under current policies, that the only way out is to confront the drug war head on. Bold action is needed. AMLO has fought for years against the Mexican oligarchy, so he’s clearly got staying power. But despite his reported desire to “open up the debate” about legalization, it’s not clear he’s got what it takes to fight an even bigger battle over U.S.-imposed drug policies.
So what will he do: surrender to U.S. dictates, or strike out in a radical new direction? After decades of mounting bloodshed, there’s no middle ground.
This is not an impasse that Mexico created, but one that external forces have imposed. Americans have long gobbled up drugs that Mexican labor supplied. The pattern goes back to 1906 when Chinese immigrants uprooted by the San Francisco earthquake moved to Juarez, sister city of El Paso, and used their new location to market opium throughout the American Southwest.
Spillover was limited as long as dealers obeyed certain rules. “Drug dealers behaved discreetly,” historian George W. Grayson notes, “showed deference to public figures, spurned kidnapping, appeared with governors at their children’s weddings, and, although often allergic to politics, helped the hegemonic PRI [Mexico’s long-entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party] discredit its opponents by linking them to narco-trafficking.” Territory was so neatly divided that traffickers wishing to cross over into another’s turf had to pay a derecho de piso, or right of passage.
But then the United States declared war, and the system went haywire. Vowing to combat the “pestilence of narcotics,” Richard Nixon mobilized thousands of customs and border patrol agents in September 1969 to search cars and individuals making their way across the border. With traffic tied up for weeks, Mexico had no choice but to send troops into the marijuana and poppy fields to hack away with machetes. In 1976, it agreed to spray the defoliant paraquat in the “golden triangle” of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango and to send in thousands more troops as a show of force. Methods of persuasion included shocking alleged traffickers with electric prods, shoving their heads into filthy toilets, and forcing gasoline or soft drinks up their noses.
But the only effect was to displace production southwards to Guadalajara where traffickers sporting suitcases full of cash now paraded about with platoons of heavily armed guards. The murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Guadalajara in 1985 brought another crackdown. Dealers responded with still more violence and increasingly sophisticated smuggling techniques.
Each escalation was as pointless as it was destructive. But it was after 9/11 that U.S. policy really entered a twilight zone. In the fevered imagination of Washington’s neoconservatives, the drug cartels and al Qaeda were now a single malevolent force. “[I]t’s important for Americans to know that trafficking of drugs finances the world of terror, sustaining terrorists,” George W. Bush warned three months after the fall of the Twin Towers. Republican super-hawk John McCain declared in 2002 that “counter-narcotic and counter-insurgency operations” were two sides of the same coin, while General John Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, added a few years later that “the transnational terrorist, the narco terrorist, the Islamic radical fundraiser and recruiter, the illicit trafficker, the money launderer, the kidnapper and the gang member” all constituted a common threat to U.S. security.
The upshot came in 2008 when Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón signed the Mérida Initiative, a $1.6 billion offensive aimed at halting the flow of drugs and combating terrorism. The resulting wave of violence exceeded all expectations. Murders doubled, kidnappings nearly tripled, while even car thefts zoomed. The body count, British scholars Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda observed, rose so precipitously that:
In April 2011 alone, more than 300 dead bodies, presumably victims of the narcotraffickers, were found in Tamaulipas, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua. In San Fernando, Tamaulipas, almost 200 corpses were found in 40 narco-fosas (mass graves). In August 2010, in the same place, 72 Central American migrants were found executed. In Durango, 103 corpses were discovered in clandestine narco-fosas. Twelve executed bodies were found in Sinaloa and four in Sonora, in April 2011 alone….According to the confidential testimony of one sicario (assassin), by 2011 there could have been at least a hundred clandestine narco-fosas throughout the country, containing thousands of executed bodies yet to be discovered.
More bodies followed as did wave after wave of more corruption as dealers employed a combination of force and bribery to persuade officials to look the other way. An estimated half a million people now worked for what Mexican crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo described as “the largest human trafficking and kidnapping network on the planet,” a state within a state “based on abuse and corruption.”
Which brings us back to AMLO: what will he do about a nightmare that only gets worse? Modest reforms are meaningless. In 2015, for instance, Mexico tried decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, yet murders only accelerated. Moral exhortations are ineffectual. In a country scarred by desperate poverty, there is no shortage of people willing to risk everything for a small reward. Sending in the troops, on the other hand, will only make matters worse. All it will do is spark another round of mutually assured destruction leading to more repression and militarization. AMLO’s political fortunes will plummet as assuredly as his predecessors’.
That leaves legalization. This is Mexico’s nuclear option, a step long regarded as unthinkable since it means allowing everything from pot to heroin to be traded as freely as tequila and cigarettes. Yet given that the drug war is only capable of generating corruption and violence, it’s the only one that makes sense.
The policy is not cost-free. The number of Mexicans using illegal drugs is low, just 1.5 percent as of 2011, a fraction of the 9.4 percent who use them in the U.S. If drugs are legalized, then consumption will almost certainly go up just as U.S. alcohol consumption went up following repeal of Prohibition in 1933. This means wasted lives and lost resources—a tragedy, certainly, but not as bad as what will happen if the drug war continues unabated.
And there will also be benefits, lots of them. Gangs may not disappear overnight, but they will certainly subside. After all, what’s the point of employing small armies to push a product that’s as easily obtainable as any other commodity? Considering how much U.S. homicide rates plummeted after Prohibition, violence will likely fall equally, if not more. So will corruption, since there’s no point bribing officials to avert their eyes from an activity that is now legal.
The political consequences, however, are another story. Will Washington hold its tongue as legal Mexican cocaine and heroin begins making its way across the border? Hardly. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made this clear at a press briefing in mid-July when she said the Trump administration “would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere, and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.” It was a shot across the bow, a warning to AMLO that the administration will regard any attempt to end the drug war as itself a casus belli.
These are not empty words. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico and the U.S. have never been more closely tied. NAFTA has already made life unpleasant for Mexico by displacing thousands of farmers and swelling the ranks of the unemployed. But with an economy that’s some 17 times bigger, the U.S. could make matters much, much worse if it really wants to. If AMLO has any doubt, he should ask Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega about how U.S. pressure works. They’ll give him an earful.
So drug peace would likely lead to economic war. But AMLO will not be without recourse. Considering how heavily Beijing has invested in Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela in recent years, he could play the “China card” by trying to persuade it to invest in his country as well. He could reach out to other countries on the Pacific Rim, such as Japan and South Korea, to the European Union, and even to Russia, which would at least scare the pants off Putin-fearing Democrats.
Politically, AMLO’s position could conceivably be stronger. After all, it’s not only Mexico that’s unhappy with U.S. drug policy—much of Latin America is also up in arms. At 19.26 per hundred thousand in 2016, Mexico’s murder rate as a result of the drug trade is more than triple the U.S. rate of 5.35. But Guatemala’s rate is 40 percent higher than Mexico’s, Honduras’s is more than double, while El Salvador’s is quadruple. Weakened by years of civil war or, in the case of Honduras, a 2009 military coup, such countries have emerged as key transshipment points for cocaine making its way up from Colombia. The U.S. is no less responsible for the attendant horrors than if it had sent in F-16s to flatten their towns and villages.
The same goes for Colombia, where the homicide rate is 30 percent higher than in Mexico, and Brazil, where the murder rate is 50 percent higher, where drug-ridden favelas have turned into war zones, and where political instability is on the rise thanks to the 2016 overthrow of Dilma Rousseff and the imprisonment of leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on money-laundering charges.
Indeed, AMLO might even find that he has friends in the United States, where half a century of the drug war is contributing to an alarming pattern of social decay. U.S. teens are twice as likely to use illicit drugs as their European counterparts, heroin use is at a 20-year high as of 2016 according to UN statistics, and more than 350,000 Americans have died after overdosing on opioids since 1999.
Indeed, the opioid epidemic in particular a wake-up call that something serious is amiss. Some observers trace the problem to the mid-1980s, when the federal government replaced welfare payments with disability benefits that covered opioid prescriptions for pain relief. Some blame doctors and drug companies for understating the risk of addiction, while others say that health insurers are at fault for encouraging doctors to push pills in lieu of more expensive non-drug pain therapy.
But whatever the cause, the consequences are shocking. With just 4.4 percent of the world’s population, America now consumes 30 percent of the global opiate supply. In West Virginia alone, notes the journalist Andrew Sullivan, 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills were delivered between 2007 and 2012. In one town of just 2,900 people, more than 20 million opioid prescriptions were processed in a single decade, while nationwide per-capita consumption of oxycodone went up 25 times between 1995 and 2012. Yet when doctors began cutting back on prescriptions around 2010, patients responded by switching to heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A bad problem suddenly got much, much worse.
While drugs are not the only culprit, they are a key element in a growing crisis of health and morale. Thanks to addiction, suicide, alcoholism, and other “diseases of despair,” U.S. life expectancy has declined for two years in a row while middle-aged whites without a college degree are now dying at an earlier age than their parents did—something unprecedented for an advanced society in peacetime. Happiness, according to pollsters, has been declining since the 1970s, particularly among the poor, while obesity levels are among the worst on earth, according to the World Health Organization. As the economist Jeffrey D. Sachs puts it: “The U.S. is in the midst of a complex and worsening public-health crisis, involving epidemics of obesity, opioid addiction, and major depressive disorder that are all remarkable by global standards.”
Americans need sensible drug policies no less than they need sensible healthcare and nutrition, full employment, and an end to ceaseless wars in the Middle East. Since the broken-down political system in Washington is incapable of generating anything other than hot air about Russia, they need a helping hand—and maybe, just maybe, Mexico City will provide it.
AMLO has a world to win, but only if he acts quickly and resolutely. His job is to end the drug war, terminate a vicious cycle of violence and corruption, throw off U.S. dominance, and—to quote Woody Allen—still get home by six o’clock.
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique, and his articles about the Middle East, terrorism, Eastern Europe, and other topics appear regularly on such websites as Jacobin and Consortium News.