Drug policies in the United States focus primarily on interdiction laws, like the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements that sweep thousands of nonviolent, low-level offenders into already crowded jails and prisons throughout the nation. More than half of those in federal prison are behind bars for drug offenses. This prohibition-based approach feeds a large black market for controlled substances like cocaine, heroin and marijuana.Hence the WOLA reports apt subtitle, Unintended Conse-quences of the War on Drugs. Overreliance on imprisonment rather than treatment contributes to the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the worldanother unintended consequence.
Producing Illegal Drugs
Not only is Mexico the major transit route for up to 90 percent of drugs in their northbound journey from Central and Latin America, but it is also a substantial producer of illegal drugs. According to the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs 2007 report, International Narcotics Control Strategy, Mexico stands out as the main foreign source of the marijuana consumed in the United States and is one of the main suppliers of heroin and methamphetamines.
The Power of Organized Crime
Drug cartels preside over the violence. So powerful have they become that some of their leaders, even when in prison, can continue their operations from the inside. A drug kingpin can order the murder of rival cartel members on the street, along with others perceived as standing in the way of their lucrative enterprises. Those killed have included officials, judges and journalists whose writings offended the cartels. As a terror tactic, beheadings have become a favored form of execution. In Michoacán, the home state of Mexicos new president, Felipe Calderón, at least 15 people have been beheaded since January 2006, with the severed heads often left in public places as grisly warnings.
Corruption among Mexican enforcement officials and the military enables drug violence. The pay for many local police officers, for instance, is so low that accepting bribes in return for turning a blind eye to drug transactions, or even facilitating them, is not unusual. The WOLA report states that municipal police in the border town of Nuevo Laredo earn only $600 a month on average.
Corruption is not limited to the Mexican side of the border. U.S. Army members and Border Patrol agents have been found guilty of accepting bribes. Last year a Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty in a federal district court in Houston, Tex., to accepting payment from drug dealers in return for allowing a vehicle carrying cocaine to enter the Uniter States.
Lax gun laws in the United States also play a role. The WOLA report observes that some 80 percent of gun purchases in the United States are made legally at gun shops or gun shows. But gun shows allow unlimited purchases not only of handguns, but of automatic weapons, sometimes without so much as a background check. Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America at WOLA, said in an interview that weapons are especially easy to obtain in border states like Arizona and Texas. From there the guns are smuggled into Mexico. Ironically, whereas Mexicos own gun control policies are strict, the United States lax statutes make it easy for smugglers to circumvent them. Meyer noted that little has changed in the overall drug-and-violence situation since the report was first issued early last year.
Selling Drugs, Guns and Humans
Increasingly drug trafficking involves more than weapons and drugs. A dark tie-in with the current immigration debate has also come into play. As anti-immigrant laws have become stricter, undocumented persons attempting to enter the United States rely more and more on criminals, including drug dealers, to help them cross the border. Organized crime and the drug cartels have become increasingly linked with human trafficking in the border region, Meyer said, because they control many of the drug routes into the United States, and can make agreements with human traffickers on the routes to be used for immigrants. The result is a deadly triad of drugs, arms and human beings. Given the profits to be made, this situation presents a tough challenge to both governments.
Another commentator on the connection between the drug trade and U.S. immigration policies, Marc Mauer, who is executive director of the nonprofit Sentencing Project, described what he termed a vicious cycle that spurs the cartels lucrative trafficking. The cycle is created by the lack of economic opportunity on both sides of the border. In Mexico especially, it can be next to impossible for people with limited education to make a living wage for themselves and their families. U.S. policy should move toward sustainable economic development in both countries, Mauer said, in order to reduce the interactiveness of drug smuggling and selling and also to have reasonable labor standards in the two countries.
From the U.S. side, these challenges might be more effectively met if the administration committed itself to the comprehensive immigration reform that President Bush himself once promoted to reduce the number of people who use smugglers to bring them across the border. The same commitment is needed for gun control.
The overriding issue, though, remains the need to reduce the demand for hard drugs in the United States. Mauer said research has shown that the federally sponsored Drug Abuse Resistance Education program has not been effective in reducing teen drug use. The U.S. General Accountability Office has reached a similar conclusion. Nevertheless, DARE has become virtually institutionalized through its connection with police departments and their relationships with school systems. The WOLA report notes that certain school-based programs have demonstrated their value, but only about one-third of school districts are teaching proven, research-based curricula, and fewer still are implementing these curricula with fidelity.
A better step toward ending drug addiction would be to provide greater access to residential substance abuse programs. Currently, few programs are available for low-income addicts and others without insurance coverage. The WOLA study shows that because of barriers to treatment, cost and other difficulties, almost a quarter-million people seeking treatment in the period under review, 2003 and 2004, did not receive it. The problem lies primarily in our two-tiered system for effective residential treatment. Marc Mauer pointed out that while people with means have access to high-quality residential treatment programs like the Betty Ford Center, millions of lower income addicts do not. If they are lucky, he said, they might get into a drug court program that mandates treatment, but ironically, in order to enter such a program, the person has to be arrested first. Prevention and treatment have always received short shrift in the U.S. budget process, he added.
Corruption in Mexico
As for Mexico, widespread corruption and lack of justice are also responsible for the drug-related violence. A report released by Human Rights Watch at roughly the same time as the WOLA report describes some of the same issues of corruption. Lost in Transition: Bold Ambitions, Limited Results for Human Rights Under Fox focuses on the lack of accountability for past abuses in Mexico and the reform of the justice system needed to end them. While the report credits former President Vicente Fox for having taken some positive steps, human rights abuses continue, and the cartels continue to generate billions of dollars each year.
President Felipe Calderón has promised to crack down on them. Since assuming office in December 2006, he has launched at least nine joint military police operations in different states in Mexico considered hot spots for organized criime, Ms. Meyer said. She added that the Calderón administrations first government report states that since September 2007 overe 10,000 people have been detained for drug crimes, including leaders and operators of seven drug trafficking organizations. How successful this hard-line approach will be in reducing the drug violence remains to be seen. Much will depend on actions by the United States in addressing the demand for drugs here, our loose drug control laws, and a broken immigration system tht virtually invites undocumented persons to take life-threatening risks with human smugglers.