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March 2, 2009 -- Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

In The Heart Of A Drug War

A Former Canadian Police Officer Is Experiencing The Horrors Brought By Drug Prohibition In Mexico, And Trying To Change Things For The Better

By Connie Littlefield

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Walter McKay is an all-Canadian hero: currently fighting police corruption in Mexico, he is also a conscientious objector to the war on drugs.

Born and raised in British Columbia, after university, he joined the Vancouver Police Department. He was a founding member of the "Odd Squad," a group of officers who patrolled the Downtown Eastside, where he helped make the NFB film Through a Blue Lens.

He quit walking the beat in order to pursue his graduate studies in the ethics of law enforcement at Simon Fraser University and then later worked on his PhD at UBC in police training and reform. I met him later, when he was working with the Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles. Eventually, Walter and his wife decided to go to Mexico, her homeland, to raise their family.

Currently Walter is the project director for the Instituto para la Seguridad y la Democracia (INSYDE), a non-profit, non-governmental agency that works to strengthen and support the Mexican police.

To many, fighting police corruption in Mexico may seem like an uphill battle. Corruption in the public sector is rampant and well-known. The drug war has perhaps taken more of a toll on Mexico than on any other country.

This is because it is not only a drug production centre, it is also the main distribution point for the rest of Latin America. Every day there are news stories about tragedies and conflicts that are inherent to drug prohibition. In the city of Juarez, there were 1,600 prohibition-related deaths last year; 7,000 across Northern Mexico since 2007.

"Even more so than in Canada and the U.S., prohibition is a failed policy here in Mexico -- there is no question of that whatsoever. America's drug war is devastating to its neighbouring Latin American countries," McKay told me.

"In the 1990s, the citizens of Colombia were the ones who paid the high price in deaths, corruption and chaos that nearly produced a failed state. Now, it is Mexico, a much bigger country and closer to the U.S., that is being brought to its knees as a result of the drug trade. However, the consequences are far more deadly both to the people who live here and in terms of its threat to U.S. security. When the narco-traffickers have access to billions of dollars annually (estimates from $25 billion to $40 billion) and the most advanced weaponry money can buy, then the rhetoric does, and has, become a reality. Here in Mexico there is, in fact, a drug war."

Drug prohibition brings with it a ton of temptation. In Mexico, a police officer does not earn much money, so corruption is seen as a reasonable means of supplementing one's income.

For example, in Mexico City (one of the most expensive cities in the world) about $2,000 U.S. a month is required for a family to live a modest middle-class lifestyle. Most police officers make between $300 and $800 a month. Because the pay is so low, the quality of recruits is low. Often they are recruited from the poorest regions of the country such as Chiapas or Guerrero, and their mother tongue is not Spanish. Because the pay is minimal and there is little respect for the profession, education is not a priority so many police officers have less than a Grade 3 education. There is a large percentage who are functionally illiterate.

So why doesn't the government simply pay officers more if it wants to combat corruption?

It's a vicious circle. Since the police are poorly trained, lack education and are not respected, they are not seen as "worthy" of more money. Walter's aim is to break this cycle by introducing a national certification program based upon "best practices" developed from policing models in Canada, the U.S., and Britain, which will give Mexican police agencies a clear focus as to how to improve. They can then approach their governments for additional funding based on this improvement. It will be slow, but progress will be seen and expectations raised as the police become more professional.

Nearly half of the population of Mexico lives in poverty. The drug lords have the money and power to buy not only the police officers but their superiors, the city council, the politicians, judges and anyone else who may threaten their business. The Mexican government concedes that many of the municipalities and towns -- as well as some of the states -- are directly under the control of the drug traffickers.

Walter's job consists of writing training and auditing procedures for police, devising best practices for police management and managers, and instilling a commitment to community policing and oversight for Mexican police forces.

That would be a daunting task for anyone, but Walter's political allegiance to the principles of drug policy reform makes his position even more interesting.

As a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Walter believes that the war on drugs does more harm than the drugs themselves, that the question of drug use and abuse is a social issue rather than a criminal one. He is not afraid to voice this opinion:

"My views here are well known, and I give interviews from here to radio stations and newspapers in the U.S. and Canada about the situation here.

"Decriminalization and even legalization have been raised by the major political parties here, and is very much being considered as a resolution to the incredible power that the drug lords now brandish in Mexico."

But wouldn't an end to drug prohibition bring even more chaos?

Actually, the immediate effect of ending prohibition would be to deny the drug lords the billions of dollars that finance their violence. This violence includes shootings and torture of innocent men, women and children, kidnappings (one of the highest rates in the world), beheadings, bodies dissolved in vats of acid, bombings, armed assaults against homes, businesses, government agencies and police stations, and even hand grenades thrown indiscriminately into festive crowds.

It's hard to imagine that Mexico could be more chaotic than it already is.

In 2006, former Mexican president Vicente Fox attempted to make personal possession of small amounts of drugs a non-criminal offence: that's called decriminalization, not legalization. Even so, the U.S. put enormous pressure on Fox and his government to abandon those plans, which they did. Obviously, drug prohibition is not going to end overnight -- but current President Felipe Calderon seems to be trying to revive the idea of decriminalizing personal drug use. If nothing else, it would free up the police to go after bigger fish.

Walter McKay represents the finest and most recent incarnation of the Canadian peacekeeping tradition. His role could well change the course of history -- but it's not a job many would willingly undertake. Mexico today is a lot like America in the 1920s, during alcohol prohibition: gangsters rule the streets, and anybody in the way is expendable. Does he worry about his personal safety?

"If for some reason the drug lords felt threatened by my modest efforts (rather than those of the over 45,000 army troops and billions of dollars directed at them by the government), I would still proceed; although perhaps more cautiously. As Edmund Burke said, 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'."

Note: Connie Littlefield's films include Hofmann's Potion: The Early Years of LSD, and Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey.

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