Pubdate: Mon, 25 Feb 2008
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Page: A14
Copyright: 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Mary Anastasia O'Grady

The Americas


Perhaps it is a sign of a maturing electorate that Barack Obama's 
past drug use has not become a disqualifying factor in his bid for 
the presidency. It may signify that Americans are beginning to view 
the intake of mind-altering substances as a private decision.

For those who embrace the notion of personal responsibility, such a 
change in public attitudes might be considered progress. But in 
Mexico, what suggests an increase in tolerance of illegal drug use in 
the U.S. has a tragic flipside: the gut-wrenching violence that 
arises when demand meets prohibition. This country is paying dearly 
for that contradiction. Under prohibition, only criminals can serve 
the market for illegal narcotics. And they have a lot of incentive to 
do so since prohibition pushes prices up. These market dynamics have 
given rise to transnational crime networks -- modern, savvy 
businesses run by ruthless killers bent on preserving their income. 
Anyone who tries to get in the way risks becoming a statistic. Last 
year in Mexico there were 2,713 homicides attributable to organized 
crime, up from 2,120 in 2006 -- according to the intelligence arm of 
the country's attorney general.

It's a pretty grim picture. Yet there is at least one man in Mexico 
who believes that it doesn't have to be this way. His name is Eduardo 
Medina Mora, and 14 months ago he chose to accept what some would 
regard as mission impossible: taking on the job of attorney general 
with the express goal of restoring order to a nation turned upside 
down by organized crime. I interviewed him last year, just 100 days 
into his new job, and I met with him again two weeks ago to take a 
reading on progress. He reports that the Mexican state is reasserting 
itself, though he also warns that the battle is far from won.

Mr. Medina Mora suffers no illusions about his office's capacity to 
shut off the supply of drugs to the U.S., or for that matter in 
Mexico, where drug use is on the increase. That's a welcome relief: 
After decades of a war on drugs claiming thousands of innocent lives, 
poisoning institutions in developing countries, and raising the 
incentive for pushing narcotics on children -- all the while 
delivering not a modicum of success -- the argument for attacking 
supply to end demand is by now tedious. Instead, Mr. Medina Mora is a 
realist. "The objective," he says, "cannot be destroying 
narcotrafficking or drug-related crime, because demand is inelastic." 
"It is very important not to lose perspective on the goal," he tells 
me. "Trying to get rid of consumption and trafficking is impossible, 
as a bold objective."

This in no way implies surrender on his part. What's important, he 
says, is that the goal be clearly understood. Instead of focusing on 
supply, he is concentrating on the suppliers, and specifically their 
ability to run business empires. It's about removing "the enormous 
economic and fire power" of the cartels which threaten the Mexican 
democracy, and "recovering the territory [controlled by organized 
crime] for the people and the state." This view is not unlike that of 
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, who has led the fight to end the 
tyranny of organized crime in some parts of his country. In Mexico, 
Mr. Medina Mora continues, "there are areas where organized crime 
disputes the state's exclusive use of force and its power to collect 
taxes. They are not only shipping drugs but they are involved in 
extortion, prostitution rings, smuggling goods and people, stealing 
Pemex [the state-owned oil company] products, and forcing legal 
businesses to pay protection taxes."

The attorney general's strategy has been to hit these businesses 
where it hurts most: in their pocketbooks. By studying the way the 
narcotics market works, his office has used "operational mapping and 
mapping of their supply and distribution routes" to "put obstacles in 
the way and block traditional flows." This approach involves tighter 
controls on air traffic, better technology and smarter inspection 
systems for shipments from South America. Mr. Medina Mora says the 
plan is working, and rattles off a string of captures and seizures, 
including some 10 drug-trafficking planes -- even one DC-9 -- large 
enough to carry up to five metric tons of cocaine. Last year he 
reeled in a 23.5 metric-ton shipment of cocaine coming by sea from 
the Colombian port of Buenaventura, and broke up a Mexico City 
operation that allegedly supplied "meth" producers annually with over 
100 metric tons of the precursor pseudoephedrine.

The attorney general is rightly proud of this record, and says that 
lower availability has meant sharp increases in the street price of 
both cocaine and "meth" in 38 cities in the U.S. -- according to U.S. 
officials. Still, the seizure scorecard does nothing to prove 
progress in the battle against drug use, any more than body counts 
reveal who is winning a war. And as prices rise so do cartel 
incentives, particularly when demand is notoriously resistant to change.

But going by Mr. Medina Mora's measure of success -- which is damage 
to organized crime such that it ceases to dominate Mexican territory 
and society -- there may be progress. Unfortunately, he says, proof 
of that could come in the form of more violence in the short run. 
"When this kind of criminal network begins to collapse, the criminals 
go back to more primitive methods of crime -- kidnapping, car theft 
and extortion. They fragment and lose control; cells start operating 
on their own and fighting with each other. Turf becomes very important."

As if to prove his point, two days after we talked a bomb exploded in 
the trendy neighborhood of Zona Rosa here. A government investigation 
is ongoing, but there is reason to believe that the device was meant 
as payback to law enforcement for the arrest two days earlier of 
seven members of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

Mr. Medina Mora believes more could be done with greater 
international cooperation against money laundering, and with a U.S. 
effort to stem the flow of high-powered weapons into Mexico. Another 
way, which he is too polite to mention, would be for U.S. authorities 
to acknowledge that under present policies they are losing their drug war. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake