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June 1, 2008 -- Arizona Republic (AZ)

Column: Drug War In Mexico A Waste Of Lives, Cash

By Linda Valdez

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Those anxious folks who say we face grave dangers from Mexico are right. They are just wrong about the reason.

It's not illegal immigrants.

It's not the Spanish language.

It's not the reconquista.

The reason Mexico represents a danger to America is American drug use.

Because of U.S. drug laws, the American quest for chemically induced nirvana has created some very nasty criminal gangs in Mexico.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora says murders by drug syndicates increased 47 percent from January through May 23 over the same period last year. The numbers: 1,378 gangland killings this year.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and began going after the cartels, 4,152 people have died in drug-related violence, including 450 police, prosecutors and soldiers.

The killings continue. On Tuesday, seven federal police died in a shootout in Culiacan, headquarters for the Sinaloa drug cartel.

The cartels are not just reacting to Calderon's crackdown. They are battling for control of shipping routes to the U.S. market.

They have an astonishing amount of money with which to bribe officials and buy cover for their evil doings. They also have an arsenal of weapons acquired in the United States and smuggled into Mexico.

President Bush wants Congress to send lots of money to Mexico to beef up law enforcement, but past U.S. aid to Mexico hasn't made much of a dent in this dirty business.

Since 2000, the United States has provided $397 million to help Mexico fight drugs, according to a Government Accountability Office report dated August 2007. The GAO estimates that an average of 275 metric tons of cocaine has arrived in Mexico every year since 2000 for transshipment to the United States. Only about 36 metric tons per year is seized.

Nearly 19 metric tons of what the GAO calls "export quality" heroin is produced in Mexico each year, but less than 1 metric ton is seized. A whopping 9,400 metric tons of export-quality marijuana is produced in Mexico each year, with only about 2,700 metric tons seized each year.

"Mexican drug-trafficking organizations operate with relative impunity along the U.S. border and in other parts of Mexico and have expanded their illicit business to almost every region of the United States," the GAO reported.

There's your danger.

I give President Calderon plenty of attaboys for getting tough with the cartels, but the public backlash against the violence may hand the ultimate victory to the narco-boys.

A recent survey by the Mexican research group BGC found a disturbing lack of public confidence. Forty-seven percent of those polled said the government does not have control of what is going on in the country. Only 41 percent of respondents said the government does. This is the first time in Calderon's presidency that doubts exceed confidence.

If Calderon is forced by public opinion to retreat from his war against drug cartels, the cartels will run the country.

American drug users will have financed the victory.

The drug cartels can't lose as long as Americans like to get high, and American lawmakers pretend they can stop them.

For those over 21, the decision to fry one's brain ought to be a personal one. Few "illicit" drugs are as destructive to mind, body and interpersonal relationships as alcohol. We tried Prohibition to keep people from drinking. Drug prohibitions have been just as unsuccessful.

The disclaimer: I don't like or use recreational drugs. I have done my best to dissuade my teenage daughter from using them, and I believe I have been successful. But she tells me that a great many of her classmates (mostly the boys) regard "getting wasted" as the highest and best use of their time.

Legalizing drugs for those over 21 would probably not keep those boys from getting high. They apparently have no trouble getting booze.

But putting recreational drugs on a par with alcohol might take some of the thrill out of illegal drugs. It might also keep some of those juveniles from growing into adult inmates.

We call this the land of the free, but one of every 100 Americans is in jail or prison, according to research by Pew Center on the States. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, 20 percent of prisoners in state correctional facilities are serving time for drug offenses, including possession, manufacturing and trafficking.

That astonishing statistic is another reason to put drugs on the same basis as alcohol. We can regulate production, control quality, limit access to kids and tax the stuff, which might help fund the Baby Boomers' retirement years. We can treat drugs like another lethal and purely legal addictive substance: tobacco.

And we can help Mexico triumph over the cartels that currently serve America's illegal cravings.

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