Pubdate: Fri, 25 Nov 2011
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2011 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute and the 
author of the forthcoming "The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence 
and the Danger to America."


Nearly five years ago, Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, declared 
war on the country's powerful and vicious drug cartels. His strategy 
of using the military against them initially enjoyed widespread 
domestic popularity, as well as Washington's strong support, but it 
has failed to yield results. Some 42,000 people have perished in the 
resulting violence, and the cartels seem more powerful than ever.

The Mexican people are increasingly disenchanted with the drug war,
and influential political figures are urging a different approach.
Some say the government should negotiate a truce with the cartels.
Others, most notably Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, are bolder,
advocating drug legalization to deprive the criminal enterprises of
their vast black-market profits.

Unquestionably, the current prohibitionist strategy is not working,
and it has produced horrific unintended consequences. Mexico's carnage
has reached the point where even respected analysts worry that the
country could become a failed state. And leaders in the United States
and Central America fear Mexico's chaos is posing a serious threat to
its neighbors.

The first concern is the less immediate one. There are powerful
barriers to Mexico's failure as a state, including a stable political
system with three significant parties, a sizable legal business
community with a major stake in preventing chaos, and the extremely
influential Catholic Church. Those institutions are not about to cede
the country to the drug cartels.

Still, there is plenty to worry about. The government's writ is shaky
and eroding in several important regions. That is especially true of
the area along the U.S. border, through which the most valuable drug
trafficking routes pass. Cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez have
become full-blown war zones, as has the entire state of Tamaulipas,
directly south of Brownsville, Texas.

Even previously peaceful areas have been convulsed by battles among
the cartels and between them and the government. Mexico's leading
industrial center, Monterrey, once hailed as perhaps the most peaceful
city in Latin America, is now a major front in the drug war. The
principal tourist meccas are no longer untouched, either. Acapulco has
experienced several wild gun battles in broad daylight, and the cartel
presence is so pronounced that residents sarcastically refer to the
city as Narcopulco.

There are as yet only limited instances of Mexico's violence seeping
into the United States, but its spread southward, into Central
America, is already a reality. The cartels have become entrenched in
most of the region's countries, and they control vast swaths of its
territory. Guatemala had to declare a state of siege along its Mexican
border, and the leaders of Honduras and El Salvador warn that their
countries are also in grave danger. Central America, off Washington's
security radar since the end of the Cold War, is on the verge of
making a dramatic reappearance.

The United States, as the principal market for illegal drugs, faces a
crucial choice as the turbulence mounts in Mexico and Central America.
Illegal drugs constitute a $300 billion-a-year global industry, and
the Mexican cartels account for $30 billion to $65 billion of that.
Those vast revenues enable the cartels to bribe, intimidate, or kill
their opponents almost at will.

Prohibition is simply driving commerce underground, creating enormous
black-market profits that attract the most ruthless criminal elements.
Whether Washington stays or abandons its prohibitionist course will
certainly influence countries around the world.

Legalizing drugs is a controversial idea, and even its supporters
concede that it's not a panacea. But Vicente Fox puts it well:
"Radical prohibition strategies have never worked." People should
consider legalization, Fox argues, "as a strategy to strike at and
break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge
profits in their trade, which feeds corruption and increases their
areas of power."

It is time for a reasoned debate about alternative strategies to deal
with the growing turmoil south of the border. The current approach has
failed, and the fire of drug-related violence is threatening to
consume our neighbor's home and endanger our own.
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.