The annual “Three Amigos” conference between America, Mexico, and Canada has shined the spotlight on intercontinental trade, and President Obama will likely keep it there. He’s safer debating free trade than Mexico’s drug war, which shows no signs of abating. The road to recovery is inward and unlikely to be walked by Obama.
He can’t be blamed though, individual blame is nonexistent. The Mexican drug war is collective havoc, a chain reaction touched off in the Andes, fueled through Central America, and detonated in America. Addiction, greed, desperation, aggression - these are the real enemies of America and Mexico in their nebulous war against the drug cartels. But how to combat them?
Military operations certainly haven’t been as successful as Mexican President Felipe Calderón had hoped. Initially committing 6,500 troops to combat drug-related violence, Calderón has ballooned deployments to over 45,000. He recently ordered another 5,000 to Ciudad Juárez, one of the most dangerous cities on earth, right across the US border. The continuing rise of drug violence suggests more troops are being readied.
During its military operations Mexico killed dozens of high-ranking cartel leaders, but eager replacements are available in a war involving at least eight cartels with international connections, several with military wings. Those put in jail find a whole new market to exploit. Monitoring a 2,000 mile border with manned and unmanned vehicles produces daily seizures, but no lasting results. Cartels hire or extort immigrants to farm marijuana in America’s National Parks, exemplary of the risks they're willing to take.
Mexican authorities admit cartels are adapting and reorganizing to the new enforcement methods.
The failure of physical means to end the drug war bodes ill for the Mérida Initiative, a $1.6 billion security agreement between America and Mexico to prevent drug trafficking. Of the $400 million allocated for 2008, $300 million has been delivered while $100 was held back because of Congressional concerns over Mexican torture allegations. These concerns have delayed appropriating the money for 2009 and 2010, but what good is a few hundred million?
The Obama administration signaled that it wants to keep the money flowing. National Security Adviser James Jones, accompanying Obama to Mexico, said, “I think the Calderón government has, in fact, performed very courageously in the face of these cartels, and I think we have to do everything we can to be a helpful neighbor and partner.”
Too bad the full $1.6 billion is dwarfed by an estimated $30 billion drug cartels annually bank. Without an equivalent infusion of cash, the cartels won’t be outspent or outgunned. Mexico's GDP suffers an estimated 1% due to the drug war, roughly $15 billion, further shrinking the Mérida Initiative. Linking drug enforcement to human rights is similarly erroneous. Now isn’t the time to teach moral lessons when the root cause of the Mexican drug war is an “insatiable American demand for drugs,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once remarked.
President Obama can't escape the fact that America is the world's largest market for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. America is the personal Wal-mart for Mexican cartels, the distribution end of a complex, intercontinental supply chain. But attacking physical mechanisms - growers, financial networks, traffickers, kingpins - leaves demand untouched. Fundamentally the Mexican drug war is a retail war, not an insurgency or terrorism. Chasing drug runners is futile.
President Obama, if he is to truly help President Calderón on the drug front, must pursue an inward solution to the problem. America needs to personally reform in order to “be a helpful neighbor,” and limiting consumption is the only remedy. Naturally the debate turns to decriminalization, legalization, regulation, and taxation of illegal drugs as the means to control demand and allocate resources from crime to public health.
Yet these options aren't the answer even if Obama considered them. Only marijuana would be legalized and store prices must stay below the street to discourage an aggressive underground trade. While America could make billions from taxation, the pie has room for both store and street dealers in regards to marijuana. And legalization can't be applied to meth, heroin, or cocaine, the main exports of cartels into America.
Mexico isn't being defeated by drug cartels, but by the American people. Obama could implore the million teenagers who sell drugs, the tens of millions who find drugs easy to buy, and the adults who join them to halt their recreational activities, but he’ll be met with the same indifference that greeted past presidents. Drugs are part of the American lifestyle.
President Obama, the unwitting manager of the world's drug emporium, is of no use to President Calderó unless he can close the store.