Murders across Mexico more than doubled last year to more than 5,600. That's more than the total Americans lost so far in the Iraq war.
Most of those murders have been happening in border towns. More than 1,600 were killed in Juarez, Mexico's fourth-largest city, with a population of 1.7 million. The bloodbath of unspeakable brutality includes kidnappings and decapitated bodies left in public places as a grisly form of advertising.
"There have already been 20 murders in Juarez this year," Beto O'Rourke, a member of El Paso's City Council, told me in a telephone interview this week as President-elect Barack Obama met with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon Monday. "That doesn't include the kidnappings and extortions."
The situation is deteriorating so fast that "Mexico is on the edge of abyss," said retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a drug czar under President Bill Clinton. "It could become a narco-state in the coming decade," he wrote in a recent report, and the result could be a "surge of millions of refugees" crossing the U.S. border to escape.
Something drastic needed to be done, O'Rourke, a fourth-generation El Paso resident, decided. A proposed City Council resolution called for more federal action on both sides of the border to reduce the flow of guns and drugs.
But it wasn't strong enough. O'Rourke pushed things further by adding 12 words: "supporting an honest, open, national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." The council passed it unanimously.
Yet even a bid to talk about drug legalization was too much for Mayor John Cook. He vetoed the bill, at least partly out of concern that Washington might not take the measure seriously with the drug legalization line in it.
Nevertheless, the controversy brought what has been rare American media attention to Mexico's crisis by turning it into radio and cable TV talk fodder. That's a start.
Calderon faces mounting pressures on his two-year-old campaign against drug and gun smuggling. The campaign that actually touched off much of the fighting between the cartels. It has also exposed corruption that reached the highest levels of his government. Even a member of his security team has been arrested for allegedly feeding information to the cartels in exchange for money.
When you step back and take a broad look at Mexico's growing carnage, it's easy to see why El Paso's city leaders think legalization doesn't look so bad. Mexico's drug problem is not the drugs. It is the illegality of the drugs.
Legalization is not the perfect solution. But treating currently illegal drugs in the way we treat liquor and other legal addictive substances would provide regulation, tax revenue and funds for rehabilitation programs. Most satisfying, it would wipe a lot of smiles off the current drug lords' faces.
Note: Excerpted from a column by Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.
January 11, 2009 -- El Paso Times (TX)
Legalized Drugs Only Way To Halt Cartels
By Terry Nelson / Guest columnist
As a retired federal officer with over three decades of service, many of those years spent fighting America's "war on drugs," I was pleased to read that the El Paso City Council unanimously called for a long overdue discussion on the effectiveness of our nation's drug policies.
You might be surprised that a veteran anti-drug agent would be glad the council specifically said drug legalization should be included in this new national conversation.
But in my view, based on what I saw on both sides of the border over my career, ending drug prohibition is the only sure-fire way to end the cartel violence that is terrorizing El Paso's sister city of Ciudad Juárez and others across Mexico.
The cartel leaders who control illegal drug production and distribution never hesitate to kill each other, police or anyone who stands in the way of their rich profits.
And the alarming increase in illegal drug-market violence Mexico has seen over the last two years is because of -- and not despite -- President Felipe Calderon's ramped-up war against traffickers. As top bosses are busted, others violently struggle to take their place, and the cycle continues.
Only when we take away their profit margins by legalizing drugs will the cartels' financial incentive for murder disappear.
It perplexes me that Mayor John Cook and other observers dismiss outright the notion that we should even talk about ending prohibition, as if not discussing it has fostered great results for us so far.
Keeping drugs illegal has meant spending over a trillion tax dollars on enforcement, millions of people incarcerated in the U.S. and virtually no impact on drug use rates since the war began in 1970.
And, just since the beginning of 2007, it has meant death for the almost 7,000 people caught up in Mexico's drug trade violence. Some of them were cartel members, but many were police, soldiers or kidnapping victims.
We can no longer afford to avoid talking about whether or not the "war on drugs" is working.
An Associated Press story on the El Paso resolution says discussing drug legalization is a "tough sell to a newly minted Congress facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and two wars."
But those factors make it all the more important we begin this conversation, and urgently.
The fact is, ending prohibition will improve both our economy and national security. Just as we legalized alcohol 75 years ago to help dig our way out of the Depression and put gangsters like Al Capone out of business, legalizing drugs today will save money and hurt cartels' and terrorists' bottom lines.
Thankfully, more and more people are starting to realize this. Three out of four Americans now say the "war on drugs" is a failure, and they think legalization would be a better option than stopping drugs at the border or eradicating drugs in their countries of origin, according to a recent Zogby poll.
El Paso Councilman Beto O'Rourke should be applauded for paying attention and noticing that not only is prohibition a failure, but that voters are fed up with politicians' senselessly scared silence. This important conversation can only begin when champions like him speak first for the silent majority.
Federally, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., recently announced plans to create a blue-ribbon commission to evaluate America's criminal justice and drug policies that put so many of our citizens behind bars at such great expense.
Hopefully, more public officials in El Paso, Washington, D.C. and other American cities, as well as in Mexico and across the globe, will join this important discussion.
There's a lot to say.
Terry Nelson of Granbury, Texas is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com) and worked as a federal agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.