Commentary

Drug Violence in Mexico

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register on March 18, 2005.
Mexico is a major source of heroin for the U.S. market as well as the principal hub for cocaine coming in from South America. For years many people both inside and outside Mexico have worried that the country might descend into the maelstrom of corruption and violence that has long plagued the chief drug-source country in the western hemisphere: Colombia. There are growing signs that the “Colombianization” of Mexico is now becoming a reality.

In just the past few months, there have been several alarming developments. Rival drug gangs in numerous cities — especially cities along the border with the United States — are waging ferocious turf battles. Several of those armed conflicts, including one centered on the popular resort city of Cancun, have involved present or former police officers.

That is just one indication of mounting corruption within Mexico’s political and law-enforcement systems. Just recently, evidence came to light that some of the country’s biggest drug kingpins were still running their organizations even while they were inmates in supposedly high-security prisons. The power of the drug organizations is generating fear throughout the country. There is even concern that ruthless drug gangs may have targeted President Vicente Fox for assassination, and security around the president has had to be tightened.

All of this is familiar to those who studied the impact of the drug trade on Colombia over the past two decades. Another Colombian pattern also is beginning to emerge in Mexico–the branching out of the drug gangs into kidnapping and other lucrative sources of revenue. That aspect has made Colombia the kidnapping capital of the world in recent years. Now, the same phenomenon is becoming noticeable in Mexico. Indeed, several American citizens traveling in Mexico have been victimized. That danger reached such an alarming level that the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert in January — much to the annoyance of the Mexican government.

It would be a tragedy if the corruption and violence that has plagued Colombia also engulfs Mexico. Such a development would automatically be of grave concern to the United States. Colombia is reasonably far away; Mexico is our next door neighbor and a significant economic partner in the North America Free Trade Area. Chaos in that country would inevitably impact Americans — especially those living in the southwestern states.

It should not come as a surprise, though, if Mexico is on the path to becoming the next Colombia. The trade in illegal drugs is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, with the United States as the principal retail market, and Mexico is a key player. The illegality of the trade produces a huge profit potential that attracts the most ruthless and violence-prone individuals and organizations. It is a truism that as long as drugs are outlawed, only outlaws will traffic in drugs.

When the United States and other countries consider whether to persist in a strategy of drug prohibition, they need to consider all of the potential societal costs. Drug abuse is certainly a major public health problem, and its societal costs are considerable. But as we have seen in Colombia and other drug-source countries, banning the drug trade creates economic distortions and a huge opportunity for some of the most unsavory elements to gain tenacious footholds. Drug prohibition leads inevitably to an orgy of corruption and violence. Those are very real societal costs as well, and that reality is now becoming all too evident in our neighbor to the south. The Bush administration needs to pay closer attention to the burgeoning crisis next door.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 6 books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (Palgrave/Macmillan).